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A Brief Overview of Flash Suppressors, Muzzle Brakes, and Compensators

Posted by Alice Jones Webb on Jun 23rd 2020

A Brief Overview of Flash Suppressors, Muzzle Brakes, and Compensators

That thing on the end of your rifle barrel isn’t just there to improve your weapon’s cool factor. It actually serves a purpose. The terms flash suppressor, muzzle brake, and compensator are often used interchangeably. However, that’s just a common rookie mistake.

These devices all have similar appearances, but they serve very different purposes. We’re here to help clear up the confusion by taking a closer look at each of these useful components, what they do, and how they differ.

What is a Flash Suppressor?

A flash suppressor (also called a “flash hider”) is designed to guard the shooter from muzzle flash.

What is muzzle flash? I’m glad you asked.

When you pull the trigger on your firearm, you initiate a series of events that ultimately pushes a projectile through the barrel, out the muzzle, and toward your target. It isn’t magic that propels that bullet from your weapon. That projectile is thrust by scorching hot, rapidly expanding gases (like 3600 degrees hot). When these blistering hot gases escape the barrel and come in contact with the much cooler outside air, it creates a bright flash of light.

Flash suppressors work to minimize that burst of light by cooling and/or dispersing that hot gas. Muzzle flash increases as barrel length decreases, so a flash suppressor is particularly handy when used on a modern carbine.

A quality flash suppressor will help preserve the shooter’s natural night vision, a major benefit when hunting hogs, coyotes, or other nocturnal predators. It can also reduce that incandescent bloom that is visible from the muzzle when you’re using an NVD (night vision device).

There are two main types of flash suppressors - duckbill and birdcage. The duckbill design features a number of prongs that direct hot gases to the side as they exit the muzzle. Birdcage suppressors still have the same prongs, but also have a ring around the end to add some extra stability while preventing your device from snagging on vegetation, clothing, etc. US military forces currently use the A2 birdcage design.

What is a Muzzle Brake?

A muzzle brake is also designed to redirect hot, expanding gases. Sometimes called a “recoil compensator,” a muzzle brake’s primary purpose isn’t to reduce flash, but to minimize recoil. These devices put the brakes on recoil by diverting gases in a direction perpendicular to the barrel. When the gas is diverted through special side vents, it does not push backward and add to the weapon’s recoil. Sometimes the vents may be angled slightly rearward to help pull the gun forward as the gas escapes.

Muzzle brakes are particularly important when using larger caliber weapons where recoil can be particularly brutal.

Since muzzle brakes direct energy to the sides, they can create a loud pressure wave that is highly uncomfortable (or even dangerous) for bystanders or teammates. Ear protection is highly recommended for anyone in the area.

What is a Compensator?

Compensators are designed to counter muzzle flip by (you guessed it) diverting expanding gas as it exits the muzzle. Muzzle flip is the tendency of a firearm’s muzzle to rise when a projectile is fired. Recoil and rotational torque around the firearm’s center of mass causes the firearm to pitch upward. This can make it particularly difficult for shooters to make rapid and accurate follow-up shots.

A compensator counters muzzle rise by venting those hot, expanding gases upward through vents in the top of the device. As the gases expand through the vents, it pushes the muzzle downward, countering the natural muzzle rise.

There are very few pure compensators on the market. Most manufacturers morph the muzzle brake (vents in the side) with a compensator (vents on top) to simultaneously counter recoil and muzzle flip. However, a compensator will never have vents on the bottom, because that would drive the muzzle up and be completely counterproductive.

Compensators can have a major drawback when shooting in low light or no light conditions. As the gases are directed upward, so is the flash. In fact, that bright flash comes right up into the shooter’s field of vision. Just as it takes a few seconds to recover from a camera’s flash bulb, it also takes time to recover after firing a rifle equipped with a compensator.

Which Type of Muzzle Device Do I Need?

Before you decide on which muzzle device you need, you first need to analyze your shooting needs.

Will you be using your rifle for nighttime hunting or shooting? If preserving your own night vision is your biggest concern, a flash suppressor is the perfect tool for the job.

If accurate follow-up shots are your primary goal, then a compensator or muzzle brake is the better option.

A Note About Hybrid Devices

There are a ton of aftermarket muzzle devices that combine two or more of these designs to help enhance your accuracy and make shooting more enjoyable. While these hybrid devices offer a nice blend of features, they kind of end up being Jacks of all trades, but masters of none. In other words, they won’t be “the best” in any single category. If you want specialization, choose a specialized muzzle device. If you don’t mind compromise, a hybrid usually provides a nice balance for casual shooters.

Final Thoughts

If you decide to swap out a factory-installed muzzle device for an aftermarket upgrade, make sure it doesn’t shorten your weapon below legal requirements. Some rifles rely on their muzzle device to ensure their weapon meets legal OAL (Overall Length) parameters. Check your state’s laws before modifying your weapon with any aftermarket accessories. 

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