Gear, Parts and Accessories

Muzzle Brakes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Muzzle brake on an AR-15 rifle with a Streamlight attached

When shooting a firearm, one gets to experience Newton’s Third Law of Motion. It states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In the firearms community, we refer to that motion as recoil, to some degree. Every shooter is made aware of recoil, no matter what type of firearm they are using.

Why use muzzle brakes?

Many people are very sensitive to recoil and their shooting suffers tremendously because of it. Machismo aside, the more powerful the firearm, the greater the recoil, and the more uncomfortable the firearm is to shoot. I have fired everything from .22 CB caps to .470 Nitro Express cartridges, and I am here to tell you, the big bruisers can be painful to shoot for extended strings.

Ported barrel on a P12 .45 ACP 1911 handgun
A ported barrel on a P12 .45.

That is especially true when sighting them in or working up a handload off the bench where all human error must be eliminated. Another aspect of recoil is the tendency for the muzzle to rotate up. That rotation is a direct result of the design of the grip, stock, and human anatomy. It is especially noticeable with handguns because the gun is not supported on the shoulder and the wrist. If not locked, it will rotate up.

Depending on the type of handgun you are shooting, that rotation can be controlled somewhat with the correct shooting technique — depending on the type and size of the handgun, and the grip and strength of the shooter. This exaggerated effect is called muzzle climb or muzzle rise, although more recently some have coined the phrase “muzzle flip” which I personally don’t care for because “flip” connotes a lack of control.

Let’s first examine how this occurs. When a firearm is discharged, there are many forces that act upon it. The most significant are the gases generated by the burning propellant, which propel the bullet down and out the barrel. As previously stated, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Meaning that energy also pushes back on the firearm into the shooter.

It must be noted that the weight of the projectile also has an effect on the recoil energy generated. An example would be a shooter firing a 180-grain bullet out of a .30-06 would feel more recoil than if he fired 150-grain bullet out of the same rifle. E=mc2.

Lots of tinkerers have tried to tame these effects over the years and have come up with some pretty ingenious solutions, including shock absorbers that go in the stock. I never cared for those because they threw the balance of a rifle off and did not control the rising of the muzzle. As for handguns, some grips are purposely designed to allow the muzzle to rotate up as the wrist allows that rotation. Conversely, combat handguns are designed to be fired with a locked wrist, so the recoil is controlled, and the gun remains on target for fast follow-up shots.

ported barrel on a Freedom Arms .454 Casull
A ported barrel on a Freedom Arms .454.

I tried porting and compensators early on and found that they did in fact keep the muzzle down. However, the flash was redirected up and was very distracting — especially in low light situations.

What one must understand is that everything you cut into or hang on the end of a barrel is equal in the sense that it is redirecting the gases to counter something. Ports, mostly found on handguns, direct most of those escaping gases upward, thereby pushing the muzzle down. However, they don’t do much about the recoil to the rear.

Ports are designed to counteract the torque on the pistol that is forcing your wrist to rotate up, while your wrist is in turn trying to push the muzzle down and point at the target. Porting basically, involves drilling or cutting precise openings near the end of the barrel, which allows some of the gases behind the bullet to escape.

ported barrel S&W K-Comp revolver
A ported barrel S&W K-Comp.

Primarily designed for the gases to vent upwards as the bullet is exiting the barrel, thereby pushing the barrel down. Ports do that well, but again, they are less effective at addressing the forces moving rearward. There are many approaches to ports on handguns, and yes, I have tried several of them as shown by the photos.

Types of Brakes

As you can also see in the accompanying photos, compensators and muzzle brakes are different than ports in what and how they accomplish what they do. Muzzle brakes can be machined integrally, near the muzzle of the barrel, but most often consist of a barrel extension. The brakes usually contain several openings cut along their sides, top, and bottom.

These openings allow the gases to escape at various angles to the muzzle, which not only helps reduce the muzzle climb, but also counteracts and reduces the movement to the rear, i.e., the recoil of the weapon. As for ports, compensators, or brakes on firearms, there was a time when I felt like I had spent lots of time and money with nothing really effective to show for it.

Two hunter behind a Cretaceous Pachyrhinosaurus
Herb and I with a nice Cretaceous Pachyrhinosaurus taken on our trip together.

As faith would have it, back in the “Age of Dinosaurs” (See the proof in the accompanying photo) I was on a varmint hunt with friends and retired predator control officer Herb Brusman in Oregon when one day, we got rained out. Herb asked if I would mind taking a ride with him to pick up a rifle that he had made up in .338/378.

During the ride, I gave Herb some good-natured jabs about why he would want something that punishing to shoot. I told him that you could only kill something so dead. He replied he needed it for those really long shots on elk. We arrived at the shop of Wayne Davidson, and Herb was understandably excited about getting his rifle and shooting it.

I noticed a huge ugly thing attached to the end of the barrel and asked what in the world it was. Wayne replied that it was a combination muzzle brake and compensator of his own design, and he guaranteed it to work. Of course, in my smart-ass way, I exclaimed, Yeah Right! At which point, he took a handful of shells and challenged me to take it out back and shoot it with the statement, “Just place it on the palm of your hand, lightly against your shoulder, and press the trigger. I guarantee it will not move.”

No Thanks! How dumb do I look? Well, Herb was anxious to try it, so off we went. He loaded it up and touched it off, Now, I fully expected him to be knocked over, but I did not see any effect. He turned to me and said, “This is amazing you’ve got to try it.” I must admit, my curiosity was getting the better of me so I figured if he could, I could.

Now I had fired many express rifles and big boomers, so I assumed a stance and grip as if a .458 Lott was being mounted and pressed the trigger. To my amazement, other than it being loud, I felt almost nothing. I asked herb if I could try it one more time.

rifle with a Leupold rifle scope and two inset photos of muzzle brakes
Two other muzzle brakes that look cool — especially the barrel with the snake pattern fluting — unfortunately, neither design works as good as they look.

For the second shot, I followed Wayne’s instructions, placing it on the palm of my hand and lightly against my shoulder. In the back of my mind, I thought it was a trick with a light load in the first round to pay me back for my big mouth. To my amazement, again, the rifle did not move.

When we got back to Wayne’s shop, I was offered up some humble pie and asked if he could provide some of his muzzle brakes for my rifles. One of the included photos shows the first such brake Wayne provided for my .338 Win Mag beater rifle. Wayne’s brake combined all three of those solutions in one device but it sure is ugly and very loud — if you’re standing to the side. He also solved the problem of using one of those devices prone — no dirt gets kicked up.

My next African Safari was to Zambia with PH John Coleman. On that Safari, I was armed with the .338 Win Mag and a .375 H&H — both sporting Wayne’s muzzle brakes. One evening, during Sundowners, John commented on how he had never seen anyone call his shots as accurately as I had been doing.

Photo series showing a man flinching after a rifle shot
In this series of photos, you can see I just fired and there is no recoil occurring with my .375 H&H. Also apparent is the intensity of the redirected sound affecting John by his reaction.

I did not have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t calling my shots, I was seeing the bullets hit. He was also pretty vocal about not liking the muzzle blast he was being forced to endure, which was VERY loud as you can see by John’s reaction in the photos.

When I returned from Africa, I called to thank Wayne. He put me in contact with gun scribe Earl Etter who was doing an article on brakes for Gun Digest, if memory serves. He was also taken with Wayne’s work and stated that of all the compensators and brakes he had tested, Wayne’s was the only one that really worked.

Ed LaPorta with a trophy Luangwa Hippo
A good photo of the Davidson brake on my Beater .338 Win. Mag. Also included in the photo is your humble scribe… OK, not so humble with a nice Luangwa Hippo.

Final Thoughts

As long as I am talking about brakes, could someone please explain to me why the state of Komiefornia thinks brakes are less lethal than flash suppressors? Flash suppressors only suppress the muzzle flash. Brakes keep you on target enabling faster follow-up shots… Politicians… Go figure! That said, I discourage the use of brakes on tactical (AR) rifles, because of the disruptive muzzle blast that will affect anyone near you — even with the best hearing protection.

Have you had good luck with any particular muzzle brakes? What about porting? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (16)

  1. Where do I find these muzzle brakes of Wayne’s. I have a browning X bolt Hells Canyon speed in a 300 win mag I would like to put a awesome muzzle brake on. Thanks, Ray.

  2. The energy equation you used E= mc^2 is incorrect. You are referring to kinetic energy: KE = 1/2(mv^2). The muzzle velocity increases the recoil by the square of the velocity. Doubling the velocity increases KE BY a factor of 4.

  3. I put a muzzle brake on my Ruger American 7.62×39, cuz it looks cool and makes it long enough to reach the barrel slots in my gun safe. So it won’t fall over. Other than that, I don’t know.

  4. To each is their own! Some companies don’t test, just seem to build whatever looks cool. I’ve bought plenty on useless brakes and I’ve learned what’s effective on muzzle control. None of which are neighbor friendly, but I’m not asking for permission!

  5. This is another “he said”, “she said”. Some like em, some don’t. Being the “big” ol stud of 50yrs ago, I didn’t hardly know about them & since I was shooting everything up to .458 without them, never gave it a thought. 1979, got my first Weatherby .460- no break. No problem, just another .458. Squish up to the bench pushing into it, & pull the ol trigger! Well, 6 rounds later, black spots & stars in my eyes & a rattled skull, made me say – whoa, need a break on this thing.

    Some guns need a break, stud or not! I don’t use them on anything under .338. Have a couple .338s, 1 has one, the other doesn’t, same with .375s. Have 6 or so & 3 do, & 3 don’t. In the 45s, .458 doesn’t, 458 Lott (11# m/l) doesn’t, 450 Watts (8# m/l)does! Old age adds muzzle breaks, believe me.

    It depends on how they fit, weight, straight wall or over bores like the .378s, .460s etc.

    Muzzle flash in low light is something I’m used to, as had plenty of fire fights at night back when.

    Sound is quite loud, but the shooter is wearing hearing protection, so should every one else at the range. For hunting the ear plugs that let you hear yet blocks out the loud noises, are very nice.

    So, if you don’t need one, great, if you do (refer back the .460), get one!, they work!

  6. with the flash suppressor they think it makes you unable to be seen by ppl YOURE shooting at (theyre idiots remember).

    as for recoil sensitivity yeah guilty. That model 29 you handed me wellll 12 shots was enough.
    I hated the Garand. But have literally laughed at people who claim the L1 A1 recoils hard. different strokes for different folks i guess.

  7. Loud to the sides is an understatment but they are effective , hell I even thought about one on my 9130 or the M4o currently in the safe .Good read as always from the old fat guy .

  8. My Brother owns and shoots an Armalite AR-50 for which I Handload.
    That Monster has a Factory Muzzle Brake the size of a Cinder Block that reduces it’s recoil to that of a 12 Ga. Magnum.
    Without it I seriously doubt we would have remaining shoulders to speak of.
    Five years ago I bought a vintage Remington 700 in 30-06 and have plans to get a Muzzle Brake professionally mounted on it when the budget allows.

  9. I put a muzzle brake from SEI on my M1A and it helped with the recoil but the thing is louder then the flash hider that was on it

  10. I’ve never been a fan of muzzle brakes on rifles. The recoil reduction can indeed be substantial, but the intense noise is usually able to cause discomfort even when using hearing protection. As a shooter who remembers the days before ranges requiring eye and ear protection, I can assure you that everything you’ve read about the cumulative hearing loss with EACH and EVERY loud noise is a very real and unwelcome phenomena. My wife can hear hummingbirds chirping from inside our family room with the door open; I cannot. I have mild tinnitus. I have read that some guides refuse to allow hunters to these devices, for fear of the impact on the hearing of them and their trackers. I am fairly blessed to not be especially recoil-sensitive when wearing a PAST recoil shield, although there is very little I can do to make my .458 WinMag not want to kick me out from under my hat. It’s definitely not a great bench rest rifle, although when standing and shooting off sticks, it’s a little less punishing. It still makes my .375 H&H feel like a pussycat.

    The older I get, the more I appreciate shooting mild calibers like 7×57 and 6.5×55, very accurate, very effective at ranges most shooters are competent at, and are generally easy to reload for.

    Regardless of whether I’m shooting a big boomer or even a .243, I always use a PAST recoil shield on my shoulder. An old gunsmith convinced me to do this many years ago, citing cases of torn rotator cuffs to go with an accuracy-robbing flinch.

  11. I intensely dislike the increased muzzle blast with muzzle brakes,be it hand gun or rifle [or shotgun]. Better to have a heavier,longer barreled firearm or Hg tube in the buttstock or thicker recoil pad..
    With glaucoma and cataracts,I NEED a flash suppressor for my eyes to recover,by the way glaucoma can reduce your color vision-mine in the red and brown spectrums [….so much for red dot or laser systems]

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