My post concerning the first impression of the AFAB got me thinking about this subject. Most people use the terms interchangeably, but they’re really not. In fact, companies even mix up the phrases. For instance, Precision Armament’s AFAB (which stands for Advanced Flash Arresting Brake) is actually designed to be a compensator, and their very well performing M4-72 Severe Duty Compensator is actually a brake. That is, unless you add in the word recoil, making it a Recoil Compensator, as found on tanks, cannons, and other large weapons.
So what’s the deal?
Strictly speaking, muzzle brakes are designed to vent expanding gasses in a way that reduces felt recoil to the shooters. This has the advantage of reducing shooter fatigue, especially with larger calibers.
Muzzle brakes are characterized by large venting ports, often pointing slightly to the rear. This pattern directs expanding gasses back towards the shooter and “pushes” the rifle forward to counter the momentum from a projectile exiting the barrel. This usuall comes at the price of monstrous muzzle blast and concussion. The report from a braked rifle is usually far louder than a rifle with no muzzle device at all.
On the other hand, muzzle compensators are not designed to reduce that rearward motion. Instead they attempt to vent gasses in a pattern that keeps the muzzle stable. Otherwise known as reducing “muzzle jump.” This helps with faster follow up shots or providing a better chance to spot shots. These are also associated with increased noise and concussion, but usually less than dedicated brakes.
There are a lot of reviews out there comparing muzzle devices. In my view, one of the failings in these articles is that they usually only measure one aspect, such as rearward recoil force. In these tests, the pure muzzle brakes (like the M4-72) perform the best, and the compensators will perform somewhere in the middle of the pack. Flash hiders and bare muzzles perform the worst, as expected. A proper comparison would look at both the rearward recoil forces as well as muzzle deflection.
Vuurwapenblog did a pretty good job in this regard, though his selection was rather limited compared to something like the TTAG’s brake shootout (which only looked at rearward recoil). That’s no fault of his own, these kinds of projects take time and funding beyond what us normal people normally have.
Thus far I have not mentioned flash hiders. I believe most people are familiar enough with them already. They vent gasses in a pattern that reduces pressure, and temperature, to reduce the flash signature of unburned powder. They are not really designed to do anything about recoil.
The AR-15, and the .225/5.56 cartridge in particular, is not known for heavy recoil. Because of that, there is a market for hybrid devices that try to do a little of everything. Ports are drilled in various shapes, sizes, and patterns. The idea is to reduce recoil, hold the muzzle stable, and reduce flash. In general, as is usually the case, they will be outperformed by devices designed to do only one of those things well. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but wonder if some of these devices are just meant to look cool.
There you have it! Muzzle brakes mean less felt recoil at the expense of much more noise and blast. Muzzle compensators mean a more stable point of aim during recoil, at the expense of slightly more noise. Flash hiders mean less flash in the dark with little to no increase in noise and little help with recoil.