Given the rifle accessory market today consumers can do pretty much anything they need or want to their rifle. Some accessories are functional, many cosmetic, none has a greater effect on a rifles usability than the muzzle device. How it works makes a huge difference, but with hundreds to choose from what do they accomplish and which one is best, flash hider, compensator, muzzle brake or flame thrower?
Military rifles have been using flash hiders for decades but the AR made them main stream. As barrels grew shorter the unburned powder created a rather impressive fireball that could be seen for miles by an enemy. Early versions used open prongs that were later closed into what is the “bird cage” of today. Standard on most AR’s it was designed for a 20” barrel. They work okay on the 14.5 inch barrels depending on ammunition and are about worthless on anything shorter. It prompted numerous designs and improvements using various numbers of prongs open or closed. Thick, thin, twisted, simple, complicated, some look like modern art. Many are more marketing than application. All of them suppress flash, the better ones eliminate it on 14.5 inch or longer barrels given the correct ammunition. They do nothing to mitigate recoil, muzzle blast, or barrel movement. Deafening in confined spaces, the shorter the barrel the worse it gets. Muzzle blast ranges from distracting to punishing. If all you want is less flash on a longer barrel these are the ticket, but don’t expect them to do anything else or even that on a shorter barrel.
Compensators and Brakes
Muzzle compensators direct or redirect barrel movement, mostly downward. Early versions were designed specifically to deal with muzzle rise on fully automatic weapons, hence the term “compensator”. Vents direct muzzle blast up pushing the barrel down compensating for muzzle rise. Later versions vented gas other directions but a pure compensator generally deals with muzzle rise. You still see them on hunting rifles and occasionally target rifles. Gas is vented mostly upwards with some to the side preventing debris, dust, and dirt from covering the shooter or even obscuring the shooters vision. Depending on the design the blast can be intensive with minimal recoil mitigation and generally little flash mitigation.
Muzzle brakes are designed to mitigate recoil. They range from big slots to complicated machining based on high tech computer models. They direct blast to the sides and rear to act as a “brake” stopping the rearward movement of the rifle lessening felt recoil. Most avoid blast towards the ground. A must on high recoiling calibers like 338 Lapua Magnum and 50 BMG or similar they are amazingly effective at mitigating recoil. On the smaller calibers they also deal with barrel movement. If that is all you are looking for they are fantastic. On the other hand the muzzle blast is punishing, depending on caliber and proximity it can be both deafening and debilitating. Many ranges and training academies ban them from use. Shoot in the snow or soft dirt and they spread debris all over you and anyone near you. The shooter experiences the least blast effect depending on the design but is not immune from the effects. Most are geared towards magnum rifles or competitive shooting, but they are popular all around. Too often they are used with zero consideration as to what can be serious effects over time. It is only in the last few years we are starting to see how damaging they can be. Military studies have confirmed brain damage and long term hearing damage with repeated use with or without hearing protections with any brake and even the A2 flashider. Used alone in open spaces or in competitions with doubled up hearing protection they do their job well. Just understand that most hearing protection mitigates hearing loss but may do nothing for the overpressure effects on the brain. Muzzle brakes are great at what they do but what they do is not always great depending on the application.
Flame Throwers and Blast Diverters
As barrels get shorter, especially with the 5.56mm cartridge the muzzle blast becomes overwhelming. I have seen SWAT guys stopped in their tracks when a 10.5 inch carbine with a brake is touched off next to them even with hearing protection. Not only is the blast debilitating the unburned powder can cause injury and hearing loss to anyone nearby. It prompted the development of devices (mostly brakes) that divert the blast forward, away from the shooter or anyone next to them. Most are stand-alone devices, others go over muzzle brakes designed to accept suppressors. They generally send a monstrous ball of fire and debris out the front, hence the flame thrower tag. While most brakes do this, forward designs send the blast, flame and debris forward instead of into you or your partners eyes, ears and face. With short barrels (10.5’ or less) I prefer them over any standard brake or even flashiders and at times suppressors. Yes, even suppressors, if your rifle won’t run with one or you are choking you to death from excess gas it can do more harm than good in a fight. Properly designed versions keep you and anyone next to you in the fight, just so long as flash mitigation is not required they can work well.
Hybrids are some combination of flash hider, muzzle brake and or compensator. Most lean towards one effect or another (recoil, flash, muzzle blast) with varying effectiveness for the rest. They may have great recoil mitigation and less blast at the shooter, or some flash mitigation. Many work as a brake, compensator or flash hider and will accept a specific suppressor, most major suppressor manufacturers have both a brake and flash hider that do this. With increased demand and a much stronger recognition of the detrimental effects of standard devices these continue to get smaller, lighter, and better.
What should I use?
Flash hiders make for a more pleasant shooting experience than bare muzzles in most cases. Anything 14.5 inches or longer benefits the most depending on ammunition. Flash is as much (or more) about the powder, atmospheric conditions and how fast you pull the trigger so those things factor in even with long barrels. Short barrels, 11 inches or shorter benefit little unless the ammunition is designed specifically to mitigate or eliminate flash. These are well suited to patrol rifles with longer barrels, precision rifles or DMR’s. You get zero recoil mitigation and they are still loud if nearby, but they are the most cost effective choice and will work for 95% of shooters out there. Given a 14.5” barrel, low flash powders and the correct atmospherics they can all but eliminate flash.
Muzzle brakes are typically limited to competition or high recoiling rifles and never used in close proximity to anyone without hearing protection. If you need your barrel to stay put with reduced recoil they are the perfect choice. They remain the first choice for many Precision Rifle competitors where seeing your impacts at long range is critical. It’s also why they are prolific in 3-gun competitions where speed and repeatable accuracy is a game changer. Competitors shoot alone, no one close (other than the range officers) and hearing protection is mandatory making them an excellent choice. Even so, as time has gone on even experienced competitors are moving away from brakes and towards suppressors or new hybrids to minimize the punishment.
Heavy magnum calibers really need them, but should not be used next to anyone without hearing protection. If you hunt with one I strongly suggest modern hearing enhancement / protection, even for that one shot. While it is true that hearing loss is often caused by repeated use, if its loud and sharp enough it can result in permanent damage after just one shot. With the state of the art hearing protection fitting inside your ears there is just no reason to endure that damage beyond habit or pride.
Forward facing designs or blast diverters remain the best option for short barrels right now, including the latest crop of brace equipped pistols. Most short barrels (especially in 5.56mm) do not handle suppressors well. The suppressor industry is getting better, and zero or low back pressure designs can be excellent, but most remain problematic on short AR’s. They can result in stoppages, add length and they tend to direct a ton of gas into your face. For many that risk outweighs the flash issue.
Blast is intense with any open device that close to your face, or anyone else but these eliminate blast at the shooter and a partner for the most part sending it and the noise forward making them well suited for entry teams, confined spaces, or for personal protection. Light any carbine off inside a car that is unsuppressed and it is loud, but these will still push most debris forward and remain my choice when suppression is not feasible.
Hearing damage is cumulative and none of these are “hearing safe” even with protection. Most protection drops them below OSHA’s pain threshold (140 dB) not safe levels (under 100dB). Just because there’s no pain doesn’t mean no damage. Unless your life depends on it don’t suffer the pain or cause the damage. This cumulative and or immediate damage to hearing, even concussive effect is why the military is trying to move to suppressors, the damage is real.
Muzzle devices are not just bobbles on the end of your rifle, they are critical to its operation and your ability to use them. Do some research and pick one that fits your needs, not just the latest greatest, most expensive, or coolest looking. Yours and anyone else around’s hearing will greatly appreciate it.