Flash, brake or bust? How to choose a muzzle device

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The PWS Triad 556 not only looks bad-ass, but also significantly reduces muzzle flash. (Photo: Jim Grant)

If you’re one of the countless gun owners in America hoping to build your own AR-15 rifle, you likely have every detail from Back Up Iron Sights to bolt-carrier finish already decided in your mind. Maybe you’re trying to get into the AR game as inexpensively as possible, patiently buying every part for your rifle months apart, whenever they go on sale. You may have even used Brownell’s AR-15 Builder application to select every minute detail down to what duracoat colors you want every tiny piece of your dream gun. However, there’s one part that, while obviously a key component to building a perfect rifle, is often glossed over by even high-end builders: the muzzle device.

Some flash suppressors are more complex than others; BCM's flash hider looks deceptivly like a standard A2 birdcage, but contains complex inner cuts that make it more effective. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Some flash suppressors are more complex than others; BCM’s flash hider looks deceptively like a standard A2 birdcage, but contains complex inner cuts that make it more effective. (Photo: Jim Grant)

The what? The muzzle device, a catch-all term that describes anything that attaches to the business end of a weapon’s barrel. These range from sound suppressors to loudeners and golf-ball launchers and can drastically change the way your rifle handles and operates. They can range anywhere from $15 mystery-maker brakes bought off eBay from Chinese distributors to $1,500 sound suppressors from Knight’s Armament. With so many options ranging greatly in price, where does one begin?

First, you’ll need to understand what each of these devices do, to correctly choose the right one.

Flash hiders, or flash suppressors as they’re sometimes called, reduce the visible muzzle blast of a rifle by either cooling or dissipating the hot gas over a larger area. Some politicians believe the device hides the shooter from his or her enemies, but in reality the purpose of this device is to prevent the shooter from losing his night vision in low-light shooting scenarios.

Certain muzzle brakes, like this one found on AK-74 rifles, are so unique they become iconic of the weapon they are introduced on. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Certain muzzle brakes, like this one found on AK-74 rifles, are so unique they become iconic of the weapon they adorn. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Muzzle brakes, on the other hand, reduce felt recoil by diverting the hot escaping gases of the barrel in a direction that counters said recoil. Sound simple enough, but there are hundreds of different ways to accomplish this from the Soviet AK-74 style brake to SilencerCo’s MAAD brake. All accomplish recoil mitigation to some extent, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. With fully-tunable brakes, I’ve had friends who’ve re-direct the blast so significantly that the muzzle kicks downward when firing.

Sound suppressors are pretty straight-forward in their purpose, but most people have no idea how they work. They reduce the audible muzzle blast by allowing the superheated gases propelling a bullet to expand more slowly through ports inside the sound suppressor. These gases are normally under infinitely more pressure than the outside atmosphere, so when they reach the muzzle of a firearm’s barrel, they expand like a champagne bubbles on steroids. Instead slightly loud cork-popping noise, we hear the ear-shattering blast of a firearm. A sound suppressor reduces this noise by allowing the pressure inside the gun to reach a lower, less-pressurised level prior to exiting the weapon.

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The SilencerCo Osprey 9 is easily identified by its hexagonal, off-center design. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Now that you’re familiar with the purpose and function of each type of muzzle device, we can continue. If you think of guns as what they really are, tools. It becomes a much easier task. Instead of concentrating solely on the perfect tool, think of the job you’ll be performing, then imagine the perfect tool for that scenario.

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Some muzzle brakes are fairly complex, consisting of multiple, interlocking parts like this SilencerCo MAAD brake. (Photo: Jim Grant)

For example, imagine you’re building the perfect rifle for long-range varminting. You most likely chose a heavy, extra-long bull-barreled rifle with a high-magnification rifle scope. Picture yourself lying prone with your rifle resting on its bipod, or cradled in a sandbag. If the most difficult opponent, in this case a very distant prairie dog, were to pop out of its burrough, what is the most important characteristic of your rifle to ensure a successful hunt?

Is it how rapidly you can fire rounds down range? It’s certainly important, but probably not the most important aspect, which eliminates the muzzle brake. Is it important that your position remain concealed? If not, that rules out a sound suppressors. We can also pass on flash-hiders, since varminting by necessity requires the shooter to hunt exclusively during the day. Which leaves us with a fourth, unspoken option: nothing.

Other compensators are beyond simplistic, like this slant-cut AKM/AK-47 muzzle brake (Photo: Jim Grant)

Other compensators are beyond simplistic, like this slant-cut AKM/AK-47 muzzle brake (Photo: Jim Grant)

Though, not exactly. When I say nothing, I mean the barrel is absent any sort of muzzle device. This in itself, is a choice. You might think that affords the shooter no advantages, but you’d be wrong. In physics, just as in life, there is no free lunch. The cost of having a muzzle device of any sort on a weapon system is that it effects the expanding gases and thus the projectile they propel. On a high-quality rifle it makes little to no difference if the weapon has a flash-hider or not, but muzzle brakes tend to cause barrel movement, altering its harmonics.

The difference in inconsequential for the vast majority of shooters, but a varminter looking to thread a .223 round through a prairie dog’s eye, wants to squeeze every last drop of accuracy from his rifle as possible.

So which want should you chose? Again, it depends on your situation. If you’re looking to use your carbine as a home defense weapon, a muzzle brake will make the weapon much louder and increase the muzzle flash that will likely blind the shooter. A sound suppressor is a great choice, but it adds length and weight to the weapon, making it difficult to maneuver indoors, unless mounted on a short barreled rifle. A flash hider will make the weapon less likely to night-blind the shooter, but the weapon will still be incredibly loud indoors, and most folks don’t think to grab their ear plugs when someone kicks their door down at three in the morning.

Both flash suppressors are compensators have their uses, picking the correct one for your situation is the difficult part. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Both flash suppressors and compensators have their uses, picking the correct one for your situation is the difficult part. (Photo: Jim Grant)

Each device has its pros and cons, understanding these will lead shooters to choosing the most appropriate muzzle device for them, instead of leaving the old A2 bird cage on the end of their trusty carbine. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s not always the best decision.