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What Muzzle Brakes Are and Why They Are Used

Muzzle brakes sure look cool but why exactly do people use them? Let's find out.

What are those big bulging things we see on tank model kits or on larger real-life guns? They're called muzzle brakes, and while they're incredibly cool-looking, they actually serve a very important purpose.

It's easy to only associate them with larger guns like howitzers or battle tanks. However, muzzle brakes can also be used as an accessory on regular firearms. 

Here we'll take a quick look at them at what they are used for.

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What is a muzzle brake?

As Newton tells us in his third law, "for every action has an opposite and equal reaction," this is as true while you are sitting in a chair as it is when you are firing a gun.

As the firing pin in the gun compresses, the primer ignites the gunpowder. This results in an explosion, and the expanding gases from this explosion speed the projectile out of the barrel. The very same explosion causes an equal reaction in the opposite direction -- what we call recoil.

Muzzle brakes are one of many ways that gun manufacturers use to dampen this recoil, which is especially noticeable in larger field artillery. The idea is that the released gas that propels the bullet out of the barrel can also be used to reduce the kickback from the weapon.

muzzle brakes gun
Source: McMac70/Flickr

This can be achieved in various ways. You could simply cut holes or ports in the barrel itself to divert the gas upward or sideways. In the former case, this would push the muzzle down to help counteract the muzzle jump. Other designs divert the gases slightly backward and away from the end of the barrel. This helps push the barrel forward a bit to counteract the recoil. Simple and effective.

But that's not all.

Muzzle brakes are also pretty handy in reducing the amount of discharge smoke from the gun. This smoke prevents you from seeing your target after firing, or seeing the spot where the shell lands to help you correct your aim.

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This means they provide two crucial benefits in one device.

Muzzle brake versus compensators, what is the difference?

Compensators are devices that, much like muzzle brakes, reroute expelled gasses from the gun barrel in order to achieve less recoil and muzzle movement. The main difference between the two is that muzzle brakes are designed to vent gasses so that the rearward motion or recoil is reduced, while compensators are designed to vent gasses in a way that reduces the jump, or vertical movement of the muzzle.

The mitigation of recoil is only a secondary goal of a compensator which is specifically designed to help reduce muzzle movement when firing.

muzzle brakes compensator
Source: Robert Emperley/Flickr

Compensators tend to be the perfect choice for calibers that don't boast a lot of recoils, and by their very nature, they help the shooter keep track of their target more easily for multiple shoots on the same target. 

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Compensators tend to be pretty expensive devices, however, and tend to generate a lot of noise. 

Muzzle brake use on smaller firearms

Most brakes take the form of 1.86-inch (5-centimeter) tubes that screw onto the end of the muzzle. They can, of course, be integrated into the gun design. These are generally designed to divert the gas 90 degrees perpendicular to the barrel.

Most brakes are designed to the detached, but not always.

muzzle brakes cannon
Source: Kecko/Flickr

Muzzle brakes tend to reduce recoil by around 50%. This is a great help, particularly for people with shoulder injuries, or in preventing shoulder injuries.

Some rifles would likely be unshootable without one. There does also appear to be some evidence that muzzle brakes can improve accuracy, as well as making the shooting experience a little bit more comfortable, to say the least.

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Muzzle brakes are not without their problems, as you'd expect.

Firstly, muzzle brakes are not cheap. A good muzzle brake would set you back around $250 a piece. Secondly, they tend to be quite noisy.

As the muzzle blast is partially redirected more towards the shooter than away, you'll likely need ear defenders or risk damaging your hearing.

Thirdly, they add some length to the gun. This might seem a minor issue to some, but it can really bother veteran shooters.

muzzle brakes shooting
Source: mr.smashy/Flickr

Muzzle brakes can also break scopes. As most scopes are designed to withstand violent recoil actions with gradual deceleration, the relatively sudden stopping of a muzzle brake can damage them. As the deceleration is more violent, it can be akin to slamming the scope into a wall.

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Muzzle brake use on artillery and tank barrels

In older tanks, especially from WW2, muzzle brakes were pretty common. As previously mentioned, smoke management and counteracting recoil are pretty handy in battle.

Tank and artillery gunners need to track their targets and rapidly correct for missed shots in the heat of battle. For this reason, not being able to see through the gun discharge smoke is not ideal.  

Muzzle brakes provided a good solution to mitigate this and improve firing accuracy for gunners. Not only that, but the reduced "rocking" of the tank chassis and reduced muzzle drift would save precious seconds correcting the gunner's aim.

muzzle brakes tanks
Source: Andrey Korchagin/Flickr

The recoil on large caliber weapons will kick the gun back quite a lot too. This is fine in an open field, but when confined within the tank's turret this could prove disastrous for the crew.

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Although the tank designers would be well aware of what to expect from the recoil distance and design the turret accordingly, the addition of muzzle brakes would mean that existing designs could be only slightly altered to accommodate much larger guns.

Why are muzzle brakes needed?

Muzzle brakes, as we have seen are pretty neat devices. They improve visibility after firing and counteract recoil, so what's not to like? Shouldn't all guns have them fitted?

Interestingly, if you look at most modern battle tanks, like the Challenger 2 and the Abrams, you'll notice a distinct lack of muzzle brakes.

This is because muzzle brakes are not appropriate for the kinds of ammunition they use. Modern tanks will use a combination of discarding SABOT shells or folding fin shells.

muzzle brakes artillery
Source: The Carouselambra Kid/Flickr

The former has a sacrificial casing that separates from a smaller, hard, usually tungsten, tip. The idea is that this action reduces air resistance for better speed, accuracy, and range. The later deploys fins as soon as the shell leaves the barrel, again for better results.

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Muzzle brakes obviously interfere with these kinds of ammunition. The SABOT casing, for example, could collide with the brake and alter the shell's direction of travel slightly. The fins can also interfere with the fin deployment, not ideal.

For tanks, longer barrels are also an issue for rotating the barrel or generally turning the tank in confined spaces like forests or narrow streets. Also, the side blast from these guns is pretty powerful. This can be very dangerous for friendly units nearby, for obvious reasons. Not to mention it could completely obscure their visibility. 

Muzzle brakes are more than just those cool add-ons to guns you see in action movies. They can serve an extremely important purpose. It goes to show that even the smallest elements of engineering and gadgetry can have some of the biggest impacts -- even in battle. 

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