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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!