Which is Best: Muzzle Brakes or Compensators?

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Last Updated on May 13, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

Which is Best Muzzle Brakes or Compensators

Muzzle brakes and compensators are two types of muzzle devices that help reduce how much a rifle moves when it recoils. Learn the differences to see which device is more appropriate for your particular firearm and shooting style.


Why This Matters

If you’re interested in shooting competitively, hunting, or firing powerful weapons, you may want to choose an appropriate muzzle device. These include everything from flash hiders to sound suppressors and allow you to change the weapon’s behavior to suit your needs at the time. The handling characteristics of a rifle or handgun can help or hinder your performance, so it’s worth investigating what the market has to offer.


Muzzle Brakes vs. Compensators

Shooters often use the terms “muzzle brake” and “compensator” interchangeably. Both muzzle brakes and compensators are devices you attach to a gun’s muzzle, usually by threading. Both use the escaping propellant gases to affect how the recoil influences the gun. However, there are important differences between the two, complicating the “muzzle brake vs. compensator” question.

Muzzle Brakes

Muzzle brakes are usually square, cylindrical, or rectangular devices consisting of integral or removable baffles and horizontal exhaust ports. The primary purpose of a muzzle brake is to reduce rearward recoil. When the bullet and powder gases leave the muzzle, this ejecta creates an equal and opposite reaction, which manifests in the form of recoil or “kick.” 

This rearward force can be uncomfortable or even potentially harmful, depending on the caliber of the weapon and other factors. 

When the bullet leaves the barrel and passes through the brake’s baffles, the gases, which follow the bullet impact each set of baffles, exerting pressure on the brake opposite to the direction of the recoil impulse.

The first set of baffles takes the brunt of the gas impact and is the most critical to recoil reduction. This is why some brake designs have baffles that taper in diameter from the rear to the front. 

Muzzle brakes are usually attached to powerful rifles. This is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing the recoil of a rifle. 

The alternatives include adding weight to the rifle, hydraulic and spring buffers, hard-rubber recoil pads, and wearing a padded shooting jacket to dampen the blow to your firing shoulder.

Compensator

Compensators aren’t designed to reduce recoil the same way that muzzle brakes are. Instead, the purpose of a compensator is to minimize muzzle rise, also called “muzzle climb” or “flip.” When you fire a gun, the recoil causes the weapon to move rearward. 

However, the parts of a gun you are in contact with — the fore-end, pistol grip, and butt — are typically below the bore’s centerline. This causes leverage when you fire, which forces the muzzle upward. 

In manual-action repeaters, the effect of recoil on the position of the barrel is less of a concern because the time it takes to operate the bolt manually provides enough time for the sights to resettle on the target. 

In semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons, when you fire multiple shots in rapid succession, this can cause the muzzle and sights to divert from the target, interfering with the accuracy.  

The more rapidly you fire a handgun or rifle, the more the muzzle begins to rise. Rather than having horizontal exhaust ports to vent gas laterally and to the rear, compensators are designed to exhaust gases vertically, which forces the muzzle downward

Controlling muzzle climb is essential to preserving accuracy during sustained rapid fire, whether semi-automatic or fully automatic. 

As a result, you tend to find compensators on competition handguns, machine pistols (e.g., Beretta 93R, Micro UZI), and assault rifles (e.g., AKM). In some assault rifles, the compensator may also be canted to oppose the tendency of the recoil impulse to divert the barrel to the left or right due to the particular cycling characteristics of the action. 

Barrel Porting

A concept related to the compensator is barrel porting. Rather than attaching a separate device to the end of the barrel, a gunsmith or company drills holes or mills slots in the barrel directly. 

As the gun fires, expanding gases escape through these ports, forcing the barrel downward and/or forward. If the barrel of a semi-automatic pistol is ported, the slide may also need corresponding ports. 

Disadvantages

Both muzzle brakes and compensators have their disadvantages. The first is the addition of weight and bulk to your firearm. In relatively light-caliber rifles, a muzzle brake may not significantly contribute to the weapon’s heft. However, in a .50-caliber rifle, the brake can add 2-3 lbs.

Handgun Compensators

In handguns, the inclusion of a compensator can interfere with your ability to find compatible holsters, as they may change both the overall length and the shape. 

Depending on the design, a compensator may add enough weight to the barrel to interfere with reliable recoil operation, necessitating different loads or springs.

Sound

Both compensators and muzzle brakes will intensify the firearm’s report. This includes barrel porting. While wearing hearing protection is essential when firing guns in general, you may want to consider wearing two layers or investing in a set of electronic earmuffs when firing guns with brakes or compensators.

Legality

In some states, threaded muzzles and muzzle devices are restricted. Barrel porting can act as a workaround. Alternatively, companies that manufacture counter-recoil/compensator systems that attach to the recoil spring guide rod rather than the barrel can circumvent these kinds of legislative barriers.

Muzzle Blast

Both types of devices increase the muzzle blast by redirecting powder gases vertically and/or horizontally. If you’re firing from the prone position, the muzzle blast generated by either device can disturb dirt and debris on the ground. Muzzle brakes are especially notorious for this. 

You should also take care not to place lightweight and delicate items near the muzzle. While this is generally sound advice, the blast from a rifle with a brake can be particularly powerful.


Which is Better?

In the muzzle brake vs. compensator debate, it isn’t easy to render a verdict of which is better. Compensators and muzzle brakes don’t serve strictly the same purposes. 

A compensator is primarily designed to control muzzle rise during automatic or rapid semi-automatic fire. However, a muzzle brake is designed to reduce the recoil velocity and energy of powerful rifles and shotguns. Many devices perform both functions.

You’ll need to determine what you need the device to do before deciding which is the most appropriate choice for your weapon.  


Last Thoughts

Whether you’re new to firearms or experienced, muzzle brakes and compensators can enhance your shooting experience, improving comfort and control. You should investigate them and experiment with both devices.