Every profession and industry has their own specific language. From acronyms that get pronounced like words to phrases you’d never heard anywhere else, they’ve all got a form of communication that only those who are “in-the-know” will know.
The firearms industry is no different.
Even if you’re brand new to the gun world and its specific terms, it’s highly likely you’ve encountered one, two, or even all three of these terms: muzzle brake, compensator, and flash hider (sometimes called a flash suppressor)—but it can be easy to get confused as to what is what, especially if you throw in the legal interpretation of these terms in various states, just for some extra confusion.
For the newcomers: this piece will teach you about the three terms, their corresponding muzzle devices, and their different purposes. For the experienced shooters: it’s OK to read this article. I won’t tell anyone you’re brushing up on your knowledge base.
In the simplest of explanations, a muzzle brake reduces felt recoil. There is, however, more to it than that.
Energy from the ignition of your cartridge has to go somewhere. (Remember that Newton fella and his laws?) That means just as energy from the escaping gas is propelling your projectile forward, it is also propelling your firearm rearward, creating what is known as 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 a series of vents that are perpendicular to the barrel at 90-degree angles. In simpler terms, it means the gas comes out the top, bottom, or sides of the brake instead of the muzzle end of the brake.
This redirection causes less gas (and energy) to be 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, further fighting recoil.
Muzzle brakes can have either of these kinds of vents, or both. Basically, 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 like a .50 BMG. The bigger the caliber, the more the energy. That extra energy translates into more recoil, which makes those large calibers less fun to shoot the more you do it, unless you’ve got a good muzzle brake.
Brakes do, however, have a couple downsides. First of all, they do nothing for sound. In fact, because the gases are in some cases directed back at the shooter, or in other directions that aren't forward, they often make a firearm noticeably louder.
The other downside is safety-related. A muzzle brake is not trying to disrupt the flow of the gas in any way. It is only trying to re-route it in an effective method to reduce the recoil. As a result, the gas is still moving at an incredibly high rate of speed when it leaves the brake, making it dangerous to be standing right next to when a shot is fired.
Even with smaller calibers, the concept of combustion is still the same. Hot gases can burn, regardless of caliber.
As the name implies, a compensator is making up for something, but what? Again, we go back to Newton. 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 it is escaping the barrel—we call this muzzle flip. This is not a good thing, because it pulls your firearm off target, which in turn slows down follow-up shots.
Holes and/or vents in the device point in certain directions to counteract muzzle rise. 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 expelled gas to push the barrel up, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish. Instead, with holes/vents most prominently on the top, the gas pushes down on the barrel, helping to keep the shooter on target and reduce muzzle flip.
The escaping gases are not causing the firearm to rise up a tremendous amount, but that’s not the point. Any amount of rise translates into more time spent re-acquiring the target before another successful shot can be made. Even though it may only translate into a fraction of a second of added time between shots, that can make a big difference in the long run. Just ask any competitive shooter who missed the first-place time by only one second.
Compensators may help keep you on target, but they can be something of a detriment in low-light shooting situations. Because the gases are directed out the top of the barrel, it also directs a large flash of light right into the shooter’s field of vision.
If that large flash occurs while the shooter’s pupils are dilated due to lack of light, then you'll be seeing spots for a couple of seconds as if you'd been staring at an old school flashbulb when someone took a photo. In that scenario, it doesn’t matter how fast 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 do. They help hide the flash of a gunshot, but as usual, there’s more to it than that.
First off, what precisely is the flash that accompanies a gunshot? Well, the flash is the visible result of the hot gases created by the ignition of the gunpowder in your cartridge. Those hot gases drive the projectile out of the barrel and follow right behind it, getting bright when they hit the cooler air.
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 of the flash hider is that it helps preserve the shooter’s vision in low and no light scenarios like I mentioned in the Compensators section.
The flash hider introduces cooler, ambient air to the considerably hotter expended gas before they leave the muzzle. The air is introduced through a variety of slots, holes, etc in the flash hider, which surrounds the muzzle. 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 the visibility of the flash on the visible spectrum of light. Muzzle flash viewed through the infrared spectrum will always be present no matter the muzzle device on the firearm, because devices like FLIR optics are 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—they don't make very much difference in regular daylight.
If you skipped ahead hoping to avoid reading more than 1,000 words to learn the difference between these three muzzle devices, here’s a brief overview.
Redirects gas to the front, top, or to the sides 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 make a firearm louder and create a danger zone to the sides of the brake where the hot gases escape.
The escaping gas from a fired projectile tends to push the muzzle up, creating "muzzle flip" or "muzzle rise." A compensator counteracts the muzzle rise by redirecting gas down or to the sides. This device will never have holes on the bottom, because it would be counterproductive to its purpose. Not recommended for use in low or no light scenarios because the flash is directed up into the shooter’s field of vision.
Visually disrupts the flash of hot gas by introducing the surrounding cooler air at all different angles, reducing the visible flash of a gunshot by dissipating the hot gases more quickly in a variety of directions. This helps conceal the location of a shooter in a low or no light situation and help protect a shooter's night vision. The device offers no advantages against infrared optics or goggles or in broad daylight.
If you want to find out how suppressors work, go here.