Oddly enough, a lot of shoppers spend an inordinate amount of time on things that don’t make much of a difference in most circumstances. One great example of this is muzzle devices.
Seriously, people need to stop overthinking muzzle devices.
90% of folks are best served with a flash hider. The A2 “Birdcage” variety is the most common, and one of the best performing. But the simple $13 bird cage just isn’t sexy enough for most enthusiasts out there, so they look for something more expensive and fancy.
I’m guilty of this as well, to be honest.
If you happen to live in a state that bans flash hiders for being evil, then it’s completely understandable to go another direction. If you have some special use case where a different device might give you an edge, like competition, then read on.
But, seriously, if you plan on putting this on a unsuppressed defensive rifle, then stop right there and keep your birdcage.
Brakes vs Compensators
When it comes to a muzzle device, you’re choosing between flash hiders, muzzle brakes, and muzzle compensators. I’m skipping over flash hiders, for now, to focus on the latter two.
Most people use the terms compensator and brake interchangeably, but they’re really not the same thing.
In fact, companies even mix up phrases. For instance, Precision Armament’s AFAB (which stands for Advanced Flash Arresting Brake) is actually designed to be a compensator. On the other hand, their well-performing M4-72 Severe Duty Compensator is actually a brake.
That is unless you add in the word “recoil,” making it a Recoil Compensator, as found on tanks, cannons, and other large weapons.
I guess I can understand the confusion. So what’s the deal?
Strictly speaking, muzzle brakes vent expanding gasses in a way that reduces felt recoil to the shooters. This has the advantage of reducing shooter fatigue, especially with larger calibers.
Muzzle brakes usually have by large venting ports, often pointing slightly to the sides and rear. This pattern directs expanding gasses back towards the shooter and “pushes” the rifle forward as it fires. This design counters the momentum from a projectile exiting the barrel.
The price of this recoil reduction is monstrous muzzle blast and concussion. The report from a braked rifle is usually far louder than a rifle with no muzzle device at all.
One instructor at a tactical class I attended called them “loudeners.” Generally speaking, if you show up to any training course with one of these things on your rifle, then your classmates are going to be pissed at you.
On the other hand, muzzle compensators do something a little different.
Instead if strictly reducing felt recoil, they vent gasses in a pattern that keeps the muzzle stable in space. This is otherwise known as reducing “muzzle jump.” Compensators help with faster follow up shots or provide a better chance to spot shots.
These are also associated with increased noise and concussion, but usually less than dedicated brakes since the gasses more evenly vent around the device.
There are a lot of reviews out there comparing muzzle devices. In my view, one of the failings in these articles is that they usually only measure a single aspect, such as rearward recoil force.
In these tests, the pure muzzle brakes like the M4-72 perform the best. The compensators perform somewhere in the middle of the pack and flash hiders perform the worst.
A proper comparison would look at both the rearward recoil forces as well as muzzle deflection.
Vuurwapenblog did a pretty good job in this regard, though his selection was rather limited compared to something like the TTAG’s brake shootout, which only looked at rearward recoil. That’s no fault of his own, these kinds of projects take time and funding beyond what us normal people normally have.
The AR-15, and particularly the .223, doesn’t have heavy recoil. Because of that, there is a market for hybrid devices that try to do a little of everything.
The idea is to reduce recoil, hold the muzzle stable, and reduce flash. In general, as is usually the case, these hybrid compensators are outperformed by devices designed to do only one of those things well.
Sometimes, though, I can’t help but wonder if some of these devices are just meant to look cool.
Real World Uses
In the real world, there’s really only two reasons to use some of these things.
First, a lot of suppressor companies use brakes and comps as attachment devices for their suppressors. They are using the steel of the muzzle device as a kind of sacrificial first baffle in the suppressor’s function. The idea is to extend the life of the suppressor by reducing blast erosion. Muzzle devices, after all, are relatively cheap and easy to replace compared to the internals of a suppressor.
Secondly, brakes and comps have their uses for very fast-paced shooting competitions. At very high levels, competitors use any possible edge they can find to shoot faster and more accurately. These devices help with that.
But I caution you, here. We’re talking world-class shooters competing against one another. The average shooter should really work on their fundamentals of recoil management first. You can do a lot with just your body mechanics before needing to jump up to some external device.
I get it, I’m spending a lot of time picking at the nuances between two muzzle devices that do nearly the same thing. But as a lawyer once told me, words have meanings and precision of language is important.
My simple advice is that most people are better off with a flash hider. The A2 birdcage does a fine job, but there are other good ones on the market. Of course, state laws are a factor on that one.
Brakes and Comps have their purposes, but they are almost entirely designed around either competition settings or suppressed fire. Many training schools outright ban them from use, especially indoors.