Every industry its its own language. From acronyms pronounced like words to phrases you’d never hear anywhere else, they’ve all got a form of communication that only those who are “in-the-know” will know. The gun world is no different. You have probably encountered one, two, or even all three of these terms: muzzle brake, compensator and flash hider. This piece will teach you about the three terms and their different purposes.
In the simplest of explanations, a muzzle brake reduces felt recoil, but there’s more to it. Energy from the ignition of your cartridge has to go somewhere. That means that just as energy from the escaping gas is propelling your projectile forward, it is also propelling your firearm rearward, creating recoil.
In order to reduce recoil, the escaping gas must be redirected, which is what a muzzle brake does. In some cases, the gas is redirected through vents that are perpendicular to the barrel at 90-degree angles. In simpler terms, the gas comes out the top or bottom instead of the muzzle. This redirection provides less gas and energy pushed back onto the shooter. Other vents are designed to send some of the gas back at a 45-degree angle to the shooter, which pulls the gun forward.
Muzzle brakes can have either, or both, kinds of vents. The goal is to send the gas in any direction other than backward. This comes especially in handy when you’re shooting a large-caliber rifle. The bigger the caliber, the more the energy. That extra energy translates into more recoil, which makes those large calibers less fun to shoot—unless you’ve got a good muzzle brake.
Brakes do have a couple of downsides to them. They do nothing for sound. In fact, because the gases are in some cases directed back at the shooter, they can actually increase the volume.
The other downside is safety-related. A muzzle brake is not trying to disrupt the flow of gas in any way. It is only trying to re-route it to reduce recoil. As a result, the gas is still moving at an incredibly high rate of speed when it leaves the brake, making it dangerous for other shooters to be next to when fired. Bystanders will need to stand clear. Even with smaller calibers, the concept is the same. Hot gases can burn, regardless of caliber.
As the name implies, a compensator is making up for something, but what? All of that energy has to go somewhere when the powder charge is ignited. That rapidly expanding and accelerating gas tends to cause the muzzle to rise when escaping the barrel. This is not good because it pulls your firearm off target, which slows down follow-up shots.
Holes and/or vents in a compensator point in certain directions to counteract this. A compensator can be easily visibly distinguished from a muzzle brake or a flash hider by looking at where the holes or vents are not located: on the bottom.
Holes on the bottom would cause the gas to push the barrel up, which is the exact opposite of what we want. Instead, with holes on the sides, and especially on the top, the gas pushes down on the barrel, helping to keep the shooter on target.
Escaping gases are not causing the firearm to rise up a lot, but that’s not the point. Any amount of rise equals more time spent re-acquiring the target before another successful shot can be made. Even though it may only translate into a second or two, that can make a big difference in the long run. Ask any competitive shooter who missed the first-place time by a fraction of a second!
Compensators help keep you on target, but that is of little benefit in a low- or no-light situation. Because the gases are directed out the top of the barrel, it sends a large flash of light right into the shooter’s field of vision. If that occurs while the shooter’s pupils are dilated due to lack of light, then the shooter will be rendered night blind for a brief period, making follow-up shots extremely difficult. It doesn’t matter how quickly you’re theoretically able to re-acquire the target if you can’t see it to begin with!
Flash hiders do exactly what their name says. They hide the flash, but there’s more to it. First off, what is flash? It is the visible result of hot gases created by ignition of gunpowder in your cartridge. Those gases drive the projectile out of the barrel and follow suit right behind it.
There’s no way to get rid of the flash completely, but it can be hidden well enough to help keep the shooter’s position concealed. Another benefit is that it helps preserve the shooter’s vision in low- and no-light scenarios. If a shooter’s eyes are exposed to the full intensity of the escaping gas, the pupils will respond by contracting to reduce the amount of light let in. Unfortunately, this change is not undone in an instant. Instead, it puts the shooter at a vulnerable disadvantage while their eyes are readjusting.
The flash hider introduces cooler, ambient air to the considerably hotter expended gas. The air is introduced through a variety of slots, holes, etc., in the flash hider. This allows the cooler air to impact the hot gas from a variety of different directions. Doing so disrupts the path of the gas and makes it dissipate faster, thereby hiding the flash.
Even though a flash hider can do a great job of disrupting the hot gases, it does have limitations. For example, they only work for the naked eye by reducing visibility on the visible spectrum of light. Muzzle flash viewed through the infrared spectrum will always be present because it is picking up an entirely different kind of light that cannot be deterred by redirection.
This relates to another drawback. Flash hiders also only work in low- or no-light situations. A flash hider provides no visible disruption of flash in regular daylight.
If you skipped ahead hoping to avoid reading more than 1,000 words to learn the difference between the three muzzle devices, here’s a brief overview:
Redirects gas to the rear or to the side to reduce felt recoil. Gas directed on an angle to the rear helps pull the gun forward instead of letting it be pushed backward. Brakes tend to increase noise because gases are directed to the side at 90-degree angles and the rear at 45-degree angles, which also makes it dangerous to stand next to one when firing because it puts you in the direct path of the gas.
The escaping gas from a fired projectile tends to push the muzzle up. A compensator counteracts the rise by redirecting gas down or to the sides. This device will never have holes on the bottom, because it would be counterproductive to direct gas in a direction that would assist muzzle rise. Not recommended for use in low or no light scenarios because the flash is right in the shooter’s field of vision.
Visually disrupts the flash of hot gas by introducing the surrounding cooler air at all different angles. This causes the gas to dissipate more quickly and in a variety of directions, which help conceal the location of a shooter in low or no light situations. The device offers no advantage under infrared light or in broad daylight.