One aspect often over-looked by new shooters looking to get the most out of their new rifle or carbine is what to top the muzzle with. Sure, most AR-15 carbines ship with mil-spec, ‘birdcage’ flash hiders, but these aren’t terribly effective and only represent one of the four major categories of muzzle devices on the market.
Flash Hider / Suppressor
Flash hiders, or flash suppressors are small pieces of threaded steel that screw on to the business end of a barrel and, just as their name implies, suppressor or hide the muzzle flash.
Magic. – OK, not magic, but Science.
To better understand how these little devices work, it’s important to first grasp what muzzle flash is. Muzzle flash is unburnt powder igniting outside of the barrel. Hence the shorter the barrel, the more raucous the blast – since less power is properly ignited within the barrel.
So how do you deal with such unbridled power bursting from the business end of your beloved blaster?
Expanding gases, like water, electricity and life-long politicians, always follow the path of least resistance. This is why flash hiders utilize prongs or cage-style ports in multiple directions. These gaps between the muzzle and the flash hider’s crown give ample opportunity for escaping gases to travel in multiple directions. By doing so, the explosive flash at the end of the barrel is dissipated or spread out enough to reduce its appearance to both the shooter and anyone or thing downrange.
In combat, these are used to mask a soldier’s location on the battlefield, but for the civilian shooter, these help prevent getting momentarily blinded by the bright blast. Flash hiders are ideal for short-barreled carbines or AR/AK pistols in high-velocity, small-diameter cartridges like 5.56mm or .223. This is because these types of rounds don’t produce much felt recoil, but their report can be blinding and deafening.
Compensators take a different approach to the escaping gases and unburnt powder escaping the barrel than flash hiders. Instead of suppressing or dissipating these powerful gases, comps instead divert them to assist in recoil management.
Much like how most semi and fully-automatic firearms function by harnessing the force of escaping gasses to cycle their action, compensators take a more rudimentary approach and simply divert them in the opposite direction of the barrel’s movement during the recoil impulse.
When firing a powerful rifle or shotgun, our bodies deal with the recoil by raising the muzzle end skywards. To counteract this movement, muzzle brakes divert the muzzle blast vertically to push the muzzle back down on target. – thus ‘compensating’ for the recoil.
The downside with these devices is the bright vertical muzzle flash/blast that results from redirecting the gas. It tends to temporarily blind shooters firing in low or no-light conditions. Thus making it a poor choice for home defense. Where it excels is on fully-automatic or fast-shooting guns that need to get back on target quickly.
Wait, muzzle brakes are different from compensators? Yes they are. Unlike compensators that counter recoil by pushing the rifle down against the muzzle rise. Brakes try to stop the recoil impulse altogether – sort of.
So, imagine the rapidly expanding, super-heated gases that propel projectiles down a barrel escaping directly behind it. On a rifle without any muzzle device, the gases push against the rear of the bullet until it clears the muzzle. At which point these gases flow out forward of the muzzle and produce rearward force and increase felt recoil.
Brakes instead have chambers that face outwards and when an escaping bullet aligns with these chambers, the violent hot gas is bled off to the sides in relatively equal portions, thus producing no extra recoil impulse. With two or three of these chambers on most brakes, the recoil impulse can be all but eliminated, and sometimes even replaced with what feels more like vibration than kick.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and you can’t get something for nothing. In this case, the byproduct of bleeding the excess blast horizontally is dramatically increased noise. In three-gun competitions where competitors are out in open areas with hearing protection on, this extra volume is inconsequential – at least to the shooter themselves.
Anyone behind or beside the blast gets rocked by the extra concussive forces. Hell, I’ve been in competitions where I had to fire from inside structures with a brake, and even with ear pro and muffs, a simple 5.56mm blast left my ears ringing for hours.
That said, these guys make terrible additions to home defense guns because of the traumatic hearing damage they will invariably cause. Choose the muzzle brake for competition where flinging lead quickly and accurately is a must.
Silencers / Sound Suppressors
Last is my favorite muzzle attachment for nearly every firearm I own – though it’s not without its drawbacks. Silencers or sound suppressors are legal and have been for decades, but only recently have begun to see widespread civilian ownership.
This is partially due to the perception that ownership is illegal or prohibitively difficult and expensive. Part of this misconception stems from the Hollywood silencer. Firstly, the PEW PEW noises you hear on TV shows and movies are just audio effects added in post-production by the sound editor. These technicians probably have never heard a silenced report in their life and just add something WHAT THEY THINK one should sound like from a stock library. The reality of suppressors is quite different; they are far from silent. While special subsonic rounds can be moderated by a suppressor to very quiet levels, they’re still perfectly audible and identifiable as gun shots for more than half the length of a football field.
Normal self-defense or military cartridges are vastly louder, and the addition of silencer only serves to make the explosion hearing-safe. So the shooter behind the rifle doesn’t blow out their ear drums after firing a magazine. But how do they work? Suppressors work by allowing the hot, rapidly-expanding gases to escape the muzzle slowly. Imagine a helium balloon. If you stick it with a pin, the balloon pops and creates a loud POP. If you untie the knot at the base and allow the air to escaping slowly, the noise is dramatically reduced as the gas is allowed to gradually bleed out.
The disadvantages of running a suppressor are two-fold. First, by allowing the hot gas to linger inside of the suppressor, much of its heat is transferred to the suppressor itself. Meaning the can heats up very quickly to dangerous levels, and produces mirage which can distort sight picture. Second, the cost of owning a suppressor is dramatically higher than the other devices listed. Not just because of the $200 tax stamp required to purchase one, but because the devices themselves are more complex and simply cost more to make.
While I’m very biased towards suppressors, compensators, brakes and flash hiders all have their place in my toolbox of muzzle devices. Picking the perfect one for a shooter’s rifle depends primarily on their needs and demands from their rifle. Once a shooter manages to narrow that down, they’re one step closer to building the perfect gun for themselves.