Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Nick Leghorn for TTAG
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I hear the terminology for those things at the end of a rifle misused and mangled frequently. As in a lot. And it’s not just newbies who are guilty of mis-identifying their muzzle devices. Plenty of “gun guys” don’t really know the difference.

So to help with alleviate the problem and  clear up some confusion, here’s the difference between the most commonly used muzzle devices in use today . . .

Flash Hider

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Nick Leghorn for TTAG

When you buy an AR-15, or any modern rifle with a threaded barrel, the default muzzle device is typically a flash hider. It’s the standard-issue muzzle device for the M16 and M-4 rifles in the U.S. military, and since the current service rifle is the model for a lot of civilian firearms, it’s what the gun companies tend to use by default as well.

The idea behind a flash hider (or flash suppressor) is pretty simple to understand. When a gun fires ammo — especially a carbine like the AR-15 — most of the powder is burned inside the barrel and used to propel the bullet downrange. However, most popular AR-pattern rifles are sold with 16-inch barrel lengths. Since the 5.56 NATO cartridge was designed to completely burn its powder in a 20-inch barrel, that leaves four missing inches worth of unburnt powder being left over after the projectile is long gone.

That unburnt powder combusts as soon as it clears the end of the barrel, which results in a large fireball that is very visible, especially on the battlefield. Even for civilian shooters, that flash signature has a tendency to obscure the sights, ruin low light or night vision, and make follow-up shots difficult.

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Nick Leghorn for TTAG

A flash hider works by efficiently mixing the air and the unburnt powder at the end of the muzzle in such a way that there is little or no flash. To understand exactly how it does that requires a mixture of fluid dynamics and chemistry, a background that I lack. But you can see that it works by comparing a gun with a flash hider with one that only has a bare muzzle.

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Courtesy Surefire

There are different kinds of flash hiders, and the most efficient are those with three prongs. Whether manufactured by Knights Armament, Strike Industries, Surefire, Vortex or AAC, they all make that visible flash disappear pretty efficiently.

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Courtesy Surefire

The standard A2 birdcage flash hider that’s used on most AR-15 rifles is also pretty efficient, but the real reason why it’s used is that it’s a combination flash hider and compensator.

Want flash suppression data on different devices? Check out Jeremy’s first flash hider roundup here, and the second one here.


Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Nick Leghorn for TTAG

A compensator or “comp” is a muzzle device designed to counter the vertical rise of the barrel when the gun is fired. The body mechanics involved in firing a gun means that there’s a good bit of “muzzle flip” when the gun goes bang, an effect where the recoil of the gun is translated into the muzzle climbing vertically.

In order to counter that muzzle rise effect, a compensator vents some of the gasses that escape from the barrel vertically. As we remember from physics, every action has an equal but opposite reaction. So the vertically vented gasses have the effect of forcing the muzzle back down, keeping it on target.

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Courtesy Brownells

The A2 birdcage flash hider on an M16 or AR-15 rifle has cuts on the top of the device that vent the gas and look like, well, a bird cage. The bottom of the device is solid. Not only does this keep the muzzle blast from kicking up much dust, it also provides a surface against which the gasses can push to force the muzzle down.

Compensators and flash hiders are great, but they don’t do a thing to mitigate the felt recoil of the firearm. Something hard-hitting like a .50 BMG rifle has a ton of recoil that, if not properly mitigated, can do some serious damage to your body. That’s where the muzzle brake comes into play.

Muzzle Brake

A muzzle brake (not a muzzle break) is designed to take some of the kick out of the gun when it discharges. As the bullet leaves the muzzle, the expanding gasses that follow quickly start escaping along the path of least resistance (concussion) — which usually means slightly to the side and around the bullet.

With a muzzle brake, those gasses first hit a solid metal wall before being vented out the sides. Once again the wonders of physics take over, and the force pushing forward on that metal wall moves the gun forward and counteracts some of the rearward force of the gun.

Difference Between a Flash Hider, a Compensator and a Muzzle Brake
Nick Leghorn for TTAG

While a brake can vent those gasses in any direction, most brakes vent the gasses straight to either side of the barrel and not vertically into the line of sight of the shooter. It also creates a pressure wave that moves horizontally along the firing line, often annoying those to either side of the shooter.

Another increasingly popular (though highly regulated) form of muzzle brake is the silencer. The baffles in a can that slow the gasses and turn that loud “BANG” into a more squishy “pffffft” sound also act as a massive muzzle brake, greatly reducing the recoil of the gun.

That’s one of the reasons that a Neilsen device is required on a handgun silencer. It’s spring or piston that allows the barrel to recoil enough to kick the slide back and cycle the semi-automatic action as the silencer itself is being moved forward by the gasses.

Looking for data on which brakes brake the best? Check out Jeremy’s muzzle brake tests. First 5.56 test here, second here, third here. And the .308 test here.

Combination Devices

Naturally, the ideal muzzle device combines one or more of the features of the devices above. That’s why combination devices, like the A2 flash hider or Precision Armament AFAB, are extremely popular. The most common muzzle device for competition shooters is the compensating muzzle brake, which reduces vertical muzzle climb and felt recoil without also caring about the visibility of the firearm. As a result, some fantastic muzzle flashes can be seen in the chambers of the device as the gun goes off.

Courtesy Silencer Shop

The ideal muzzle device, by any account, is a silencer (AKA a suppressor). It reduces all of the above and does it extremely efficiently. But silencers are relatively expensive, require the payment of a $200 tax stamp and a months-long wait. That’s something lots of gun owners aren’t willing to do.

Personally, if I can’t have a silencer, I prefer a straight muzzle brake. Vertical climb is something I can handle with sufficient training, but any little bit of help I can get in the recoil department is always appreciated.

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  1. Flash hider, compensator and muzzle brake?!? It’s hard enough these days to keep track of what’s male, female and what’s non-binary cis-gendered hobgoblin. I don’t have the time to worry about weather it’s a compensator or a muzzle brake!

  2. Next, effort at getting people to understand the difference between a cartridge and a bullet. Then, clip vs magazine. Actually, most POTG are starting to come around on that one. I haven’t heard a mag called a clip on the range in a while.

    • Master class, the difference between a trigger, the face of said trigger, and an accessory called a “trigger shoe.”

      • A trigger initiates the firing sequence. The face of the trigger is where the pad of the index trigger finger rests. Usually grooved, or smooth. I prefer smooth, but have both. Trigger shoe. An aftermarket part attached to the face of the trigger and held in place by a couple of hex head screws. Usually grooved. Wider than the factory trigger. Haven’t seen one in decades.

        • Look up the Strike Industries Finger Bump.

          I singlehandedly bought them all out, but maybe they are back in stock by now.

        • I haven’t seen a trigger shoe since like 1980. I had a PPC S&W M10 with a Douglas 6″ barrel that had one on it. I didn’t like it much. The shoe, not the gun. Too wide for me. I like a somewhat narrow, smooth trigger.

        • I had a trigger shoe on a Python for decades, mostly because I used single action near exclusively. The S&W Model 19 (Combat Magnum) had a trigger as wide as my Python’s shoe, standard without a shoe. Eventually I removed it, probably still around somewhere.

  3. My flash hider has to double as a bottle opener. The muzzle brake does come in handy after I get drunk and blow up a tractor then fall in the ditch and shoot up my buddies for laughing at me, if they could have just silenced their laughter

      • Forgotten Weapons somewhere. May have even been a Jungle Carbine. Confidence booster from one end, not much effect from the other.

    • Hey, Tex. Florida has open boarders to the north and west for ground transportation. Lots of international airports. Then there’s the boat option. Just scoot on across the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston. You’re home and no longer trapped! Bon voyage!

      • It’s not physical barriers that trap me my friend…rather, the never ending parade of bikini clad college girls and the exorbitant amounts of money people will pay to remodel their beach houses.

    • There’s been some (anecdotal) evidence that the standard A2 is the best thing for a 7.5” AR. It’s crazy, but from my experience it does everything all around very well.

    • I’ve got an M1a with a flash suppressor. Some time after I acquired it I ran across another one and it had a weird suppressor. I found out later it was a muzzle brake and was Commiefornia compliant. So, I’m good, primarily because I’m 2,000 miles from there.

      • My M1A was a National Match model, only part *not* National Match was that CA compliant muzzle brake. I went through 600 rds of ammo trying to sight the damn thing in, with different ammo giving vastly different size groups (all too big, 3 to 4+”) and points of aim (varied 5 to 6″). Totally unsatisfactory. Finally switched to a National Match flash suppressor (I’m not *in* CA, after all), and all problems disappeared, group size under 1″ / 100 yds with all different ammo and points of aim barely moved by ammo type.

  4. Well, if assorted hordes of Hoplophobes are to be believed . . . . . . . .

    A flash hider makes the gun invisible, criminals like that!

    A silencer is like Stealth Tech we use on the F35 Assault Bomber, can’t hear the gun from a few feet way. ASSASSINS!!!

    A Muzzle Break is like what they put on bad dogs that bark too much and try to bite the mailman delivering my Amazon packages. Why bring that up? Trying to change the subject or something?

    • The main difference for all of these is the principle direction the gases are vented. Flash hiders are directed radially outward to mix the most air with the hot gasses, which are so hot that they will glow even without unburned powder. The flash hiders will also physically block gasses from moving into the line of sight. The cone and can styles let the gasses expand and cool some before they would enter the shooters line of sight. Compensators will vent as much gas as possible upward (and some forward) to to push the muzzle down. Advanced models have holes that act like little rocket nozzles to optimize the gas use, and some can even generate enough force to have a muzzle drop in loads that generate a lot of gas. Muzzle brakes have large ports to vent the gas laterally. Many, as described in the article, will let the gasses impact a plate-like structure perpendicular to the muzzle to help push the gun forward, which is most easily seem in tanker style. Others, like the Barrett .50 arrowhead, will direct sideways and beside the shooter so that it acts like a compensator pulling the gun forward, which can reduce felt recoil more than a silencer. Silencers lower the temperature, velocity, and pressure of the gasses going forward, so it doesn’t glow, push backwards, or “pop” as much. Hybrid choose to split the gas directions, so they don’t work as well as dedicated comps or brakes, but they may be better hiders.

  5. Then why is the standard AK device, which has no sideways slots for recoil, called a ‘slant brake’ designed to reduce ‘muzzle climb’, and I often hear other devices called ‘recoil compensators’?

  6. All make for a more effective personal self-defense tool, especially when surprised, or indoors … or exactly when peaceful non-hobbyists would use a gun.

    So, of course these devices are banned and regulated. Gotta make self-defense as hard and disruptive as possible, or criminalize people trying to do that; getting both with one policy is even better.

  7. “I hear the terminology for those things at the end of a rifle misuses and mangled frequently.”

    > MisUSED…

    “So to help with alleviate the problem and possibly clear up some confusion”

    > “to help alleviate this problem”


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