Choosing the Best Compensator or Brake to Make an AR-15 Shoot Flat

One of the primary pieces of equipment that will help tone-down the recoil of your rifle is a muzzle device.  To be certain, they are only one piece of the puzzle (the other pieces being the weight and springs involved in the bolt and buffer system, the amount of gas forcing that system in motion, the overall weight of the rifle, and the shooter’s form), but the muzzle device is probably the first thing a shooter should look at to make their rifle shoot “flat.”

Let’s take a very basic look at what a muzzle device actually accomplishes:  When a bullet leaves the muzzle there are still hot, expanding gases behind that bullet that become a jet of air, and the muzzle device changes the path/direction of this high pressure gas.  When these gases get acted upon, they will exert a force upon that which has altered their path. In other words: If the gases hit a “wall” and get forced in a different direction, they will push back on that “wall.”  It’s a Newton’s Third Law thing. This push-back may force the muzzle device to the front, downward, or really any direction. Since that muzzle device is attached to the end of the rifle, this will influence the rifle’s behavior.  For many shooters, the goal is to put multiple shots on target as quickly as possible, so seeing the point of aim move as little as possible between shots is the goal. Hence the desire for that magic formula that will keep us aligned with our target.

We most often see two methods for re-directing this gas:  Sideways/rearward, and upward. Generally, brakes are a sideways/rearward device (to push the muzzle forward), whereas compensators do more to direct gas upward (muzzle down).  Here is where people (and test methods) diverge… Some subscribe to the philosophy that directing gas in a fashion to push the rifle forward, thereby reducing rearward movement of the rifle (which results in felt recoil), will be the best method.  This is because what really causes the muzzle to rise, is that the rifle “wants” to move straight back opposite the bullet’s path (Newton strikes again), but when the rifle encounters the shooter it pushes on them into a lean, and the rifle “rolls” up their shoulder, which tilts the rifle up.  So the less force exerted on the shooter, the less muzzle rise. The other concept is that recoil will never go away; so some, if not all, of that gas should be used to push the muzzle down. Does it matter if the shooter is pushed rearward if their firearm remains in-line with the target? Many muzzle devices utilize a combination of the two.

A device has a finite amount of gas to work with, and the manufacturer has to decide how to harness that gas.  This amount of gas will vary depending on the ammunition, barrel length, etc, but within one setup it will remain the same.  The more gas that is directed in one direction, the less gas the device has to send in another direction. One can almost look at the devices offered and get an idea for the general recoil characteristics it will have.  There are levels of fluid dynamic engineering that may make one brake/comp work better than another with a similar design, but generally speaking I feel the shooter is trading one direction of compensation for the other when ports are added or upsized in a particular direction.

I have run a wide variety of muzzle devices on my rifle in the attempt to find the perfect device, and I can tell you one thing for certain:  Each device feels different, and different shooters may like one device more than the others. It seemed to me that directing the gas sideways/rearward made it easier for me to shoot a long string of shots, as I was not being pushed rearward as much and needing to “reset” my stance.  A fellow shooter that I know (who also shoots 3-gun for Rainier Arms) prefers a device with some upwards-facing ports to keep his sights closer to target, and he is willing to deal with a little more rearward-push through form. If one has the funds, I highly recommend trying a brake and comparing it to something with more compensation.  If that is not how the shooter wants to spend their money, I would suggest looking at it like this: Do you think your form/style will be more conducive to countering rearward recoil or muzzle rise? If the answer is rearward, then get a comp/brake combination. If one feels they can handle a little rise to have less rearward push, then a true brake (no upwards ports) may be the ticket.

One other thing the shooter may want to consider is noise level.  Whichever direction the gases are being directed, there is generally an increase in volume.  If the rifle will be run under a roof/cover, the upward-facing ports will direct sound into that roof which bounces back down to the shooter.  If there are fellow shooters to the side, the brakes may make that an uncomfortable experience for them. Linear compensators help this immensely, but do very little, if anything, to counter the recoil of the rifle as the gases are still being directed forward.  A better solution may be to get something along the lines of the Fortis Control Shield, which allows certain Fortis and Rainier Arms brakes and compensators to direct the gas to reduce recoil and/or muzzle rise, but creates a barrier that will attenuate the level of noise.  I have found these to decrease the effectiveness slightly over the bare muzzle device and it may not be as quiet as a linear compensator, but they are a solid middle-ground.

There are many great options out there, all of which work much better than a bare muzzle or the old A2 birdcage.  Whichever a shooter may choose, I cannot stress enough the gains that will be had by tuning the rest of the system, and putting a little money into ammunition and practice to really maximize the effectiveness of a wonderful platform.

About the author:

Nathan is a competitive shooter on the Rainier Arms Shooting Team, with a focus on 3-gun/multigun competitions. He has been an avid shooter for almost 20 years, with competition being the focus since 2013. Outside of shooting he works in residential construction, and is a devoted husband and father of 3 boys he hopes will share his love of firearms and the outdoors.