Muzzle Devices 101

When it comes to muzzle devices, there’s a ton of misinformation and mixed-up terminology out there. Today, we’re setting the record straight regarding these oft-understood and critically important components.

Here’s the short version:

  • Flash hiders hide the flash to prevent you from being blinded and prevent your view from being obstructed.
  • Compensators direct gas in a very specific direction to counteract muzzle rise.
  • Muzzle brakes direct gas forward to counteract recoil.

Now let’s get into the details.

Flash Hiders

Perhaps the most misunderstood muzzle device is the flash hider. Despite what movies and video games would have you believe, flash hiders don’t hide the flash from the enemy.

The flash hider’s main function is to hide the flash from YOU. 

Allow me to explain. When you fire a carbine-length rifle, deflagration of the powder inside the barrel creates gasses that ignite upon exiting the muzzle and being exposed to oxygen (those gasses can’t ignite inside the barrel because there IS no oxygen). This creates a very bright ball of fire. 

While muzzle flash has been a part of long-gun appeal in movies and comic books for generations, it’s actually a bad thing when you’re the one shooting—especially if you’re wearing night vision goggles.

 

From the movie Scarface. Muzzle flash looks cool, but it’s not so practical.

 

So how do they work? The answer is surprisingly complicated—even more so than compensators and muzzle brakes—so we’ll keep it short. Flash hiders work by minimizing oxygen flow to the muzzle and disrupting the supersonic shockwave that ignites the residual gasses.  

The most popular flash hider is, of course, the classic A2 birdcage, which is still the standard muzzle device of the U.S. Military after decades of service. Other examples include the popular Vortex and SureFire SOCOM flash hiders.

 

The A2 flash hider at work. Isn’t that better?

 

Pros: If you’re hunting at night with night vision optics, a flash hider is an absolute must. Flash hiders also mitigate some of the concussive force, so the folks in the lanes next to you at the range will be much happier.

Cons: Flash hiders typically do nothing to control recoil. 

____________________________________________________________________________

Compensators

Compensators have one very specific mission: to counteract muzzle rise.

When you fire a rifle, the pressure that pushes the projectile forward also pushes the bolt face rearward, creating recoil.

In a perfect world, a rifle’s center of mass would be directly in line with the bore axis—which would send recoil perfectly backwards. But it’s not a perfect world. The average rifle’s bore axis is above the center of mass, while your contact points with the rifle are below the center of mass. This combination results in the tendency of the muzzle to rise when multiple shots are fired in quick succession.

This may seem like an arcane physics lesson, but it’s an important part of understanding the forces at play. Plus, you can impress your buddies when you explain it to ‘em. 

There are a number of ways to counteract muzzle rise. You could lower the rate of fire. You could use less powerful rounds. You could add weight to the muzzle. 

But the easiest way is to use a compensator.

So how do they work? It’s actually fairly simple. A compensator typically vents excess gas straight upwards, which causes a reciprocal force downward—which helps keep you on-target.

 

Notice the sharp angle of the muzzle device. This allows gas to escape UP, which pushes the muzzle DOWN.

 

The classic example of a compensator is the AKM’s slant compensator. The AK has a relatively high bore axis and uses a relatively powerful cartridge, so the tendency for the muzzle to rise is much greater than that of the AR-15. So while the AR requires only a flash hider, the AK basically demands a slant brake. It would be extraordinarily difficult to control in full-auto without one.

Pros: Compensators control muzzle-climb significantly, allowing you to stay on-target for faster follow-up shots.

Cons: Compensators direct muzzle flash right into your line of sight, which can interfere with follow-up shots. They’re also loud as heck. 

____________________________________________________________________________

Muzzle Brakes

In its purest definition, the muzzle brake’s sole job is to mitigate felt recoil. 

For larger calibers like the .50 BMG, recoil mitigation is of critical importance—both for accuracy AND for shooter safety. 

So how do they work? True muzzle brakes redirect propellent gasses forward into a material wall in front of the muzzle. This wall creates a surface that the gas can push forwards, countering the rearward impulse. 

 

 

Check out the comically enormous muzzle brake found on the PGM Hecate II, a French anti-materiel sniper rifle chambered in .50 BMG. Gas gets trapped at the front, pushing the rifle forwards. 

Pros: Muzzle brakes can eliminate up to 50% of recoil impulse. That’s huge. 

Cons: They make your gun noisy (noisier than using no muzzle device). And because they filter gas off to the side, they can make life miserable for the people in the lanes next to you at the range. Oh, and they’ve been known to bust optics.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Now you know the difference between flash hiders, compensators, and muzzle brakes.

Of course, there are a few things we didn’t cover, so let’s talk briefly about those. That is, if your brain isn’t fried from all the fun physics concepts we’ve touched upon so far.

Any conversation about muzzle devices will inevitably lead to silencers. The silencer’s main function is to reduce sound intensity when a firearm is discharged, which it accomplishes via a number of sound baffles that slow and cool the escaping gas. Some silencers are integral, but most are threaded onto the muzzle.

 

A number of silencers that have been cut in half. Notice the baffles of varying shapes and sizes.

 

Two nice secondary benefits are recoil reduction and flash suppression. The muzzle flash is hidden within the silencer, as is the gas that would ignite when exposed to oxygen. Recoil is reduced from the slowing of propellant gasses.

Silencers are great, but don’t go thinking that they reduce gunshot noise to a soft “psssh” like you’ve seen in movies and TV. As a general rule, silencers only suppress about 30 decibels of sound. The good news is that, depending on the round, 30 decibels of suppression can be enough to allow for safe shooting without hearing protection.

So that’s silencers in a nutshell.

The last muzzle device we’ll be looking at today is the linear compensator. Guns are noisy, and the concussion generated by the muzzle blast can make the shooters around you (at indoor or outdoor ranges) uncomfortable.

Unlike standard compensators that direct gas in such a way as to fight muzzle lift, linear compensators are designed to minimize perceived noise and concussion.

 

Most linear comps feature holes parallel to the muzzle that push gas downrange.

 

Linear comps collect escaping gas and redirect it downrange via holes parallel to the muzzle, making for a less-noisy shooting experience. They also mitigate the concussive force…so the shooters around you will be much happier.

So there you have it. I hope you learned something. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. I’d be more than happy to answer them for you.

Thanks for reading!

 

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.

9 Responses to “Muzzle Devices 101”

  1. Glenn A Gross

    You incorrectly called a suppressor a silencer. Shame on you. Otherwise not a bad description of flash hider, muzzle brakes and compensators. Glenn

    Reply
    • Chris

      Actually, the LEGAL term is silencer. The technical term is suppressor. No Shame.

      Reply
  2. Heber Norckauer

    The NFA requirements to ownership of silencers (suppressors) need to be included with their description. Otherwise, SG would sell them.

    Reply
  3. Larry Whitson

    Very good article, Muzzle Devises 101. Well written and easy to understand.

    Reply
  4. Glenn Berkner

    I just purchased the following item:
    Item No: 706822
    DoubleStar AR-15 Phantom Flash Suppressor, 5 Ports, Threaded 9/16×24
    What does this fit? I assumed it was a replacement for the standard “bird cage” flash hider on my Colt M4 carbine. It does not fit. Which item number should I have ordered?

    Reply
    • Ed

      Glenn Berkber,
      If your colt carbine is 223/5.56 caliber. your barrell is threaded for 1/2×28.

      Reply
  5. william l clay

    nice article

    Reply
  6. Bill

    Flash hiders do actually suppress the flash from an enemy….. from the side, not necessarily from the front. In my testing, the Smith Enterprises Vortex will actually suppress ALL of the flash from the side. The YHM Phantom models comes in second. The tests were performed using an SBR with a 11.5″ Bushmaster 1-7 barrel. Longer barrels are even easier to contain!

    Reply
  7. Colin Hathcock

    Very interesting! Illuminating info I needed to know! Thanks!

    Colin

    Reply