Note: While I work to verify my recoil data, I have decided to release the first part of this comparison, which covers muzzle flash.
One of the most popular accessories for today's AR15 owner is a muzzle device. Want less muzzle flash? There's a device for that. Want less recoil? There's a device for that, too. Want less muzzle flash AND less recoil? Some devices even claim to perform multiple functions.
I have been closely studying how various muzzle devices perform for years, and this summer, with the assistance of Advanced Armament Company, B.E. Meyers, and Silencerco, was able to test a significant number of devices currently on the market in unique and highly educational ways. I did not manage to test all of the devices on the market, or even all of the most popular ones. I did include a good sample of different types of devices. It is my hope that after reviewing this article, the reader will be able to look at any muzzle device and be able to make an educated guess regarding its characteristics in a number of areas. As you will see, some perform quite similarly to one another.
Muzzle Flash Comparisons
If you would like to see how each device performed, scroll down to the graphs below. However, I feel that a preface is warranted here.
Many manufacturers claim that their device reduces muzzle flash, and this may be true - compared to the bare muzzle. However, a bare muzzle will emit a huge amount of fiery awesomeness with most types of .223 or 5.56 ammunition. Every device tested reduced muzzle flash compared to the bare muzzle. The consumer might assume the manufacturer meant reduced muzzle flash compared to some other standard - perhaps the A2 muzzle device - which would eventually lead to disappointment.
What is your personal definition of too much muzzle flash? If your shooting only requires that you not be blinded by a huge fireball every time you pull the trigger, then nearly any device will do in this regard. However, if you want to not have bad guys see your exact position every time you shoot at them in the dark, then serious consideration must be given to which muzzle device is on the end of your rifle.
I personally feel that for combat, flash suppression is more important than sound suppression. I can hear and identify suppressed subsonic fire in my direction at over 80 yards, but if I do not have a visual reference point, I cannot effectively return fire. If someone with a very loud firearm that emits no flash is shooting at me, I am really no better informed than I would be if he had a sound suppressor. I just know that someone is shooting at me.
However, many sound suppressors, contrary to popular belief, do not do a very good job of reducing flash. So, armed with the knowledge that someone is shooting at me or my friends (from the sound) and exactly where he is shooting at me from (thanks to the flash), I would be able to shoot back with relatively high effectiveness. Of course, I would already be behind the curve, but I would have more information than the guy shooting at me would probably like. Were I the shooter instead of the shootee, this would be quite vexing.
With all of this in mind, this comparison uses multiple methods to evaluate muzzle flash: long-exposure photography close to the muzzle, long-exposure photography from downrange, high speed video, and high speed video using night vision equipment. Each device will be discussed individually, followed by a summary at the end of the section. Objective methods were used to analyze the results whenever possible. Winchester Q3131 was used for the still photographs and Federal M855 was used for the videos. All shots were with (unless otherwise noted) a 16" AR15 in 5.56mm.
Images and videos are in slideshow format - look for arrows to the left and right of each slideshow photo to cycle through the images AND videos for that muzzle device.
This discussion must start with the baseline of "no muzzle device."
The bare muzzle, as stated above, allows a large (and in this case, somewhat uninspired) fireball to form in front of the muzzle. It's by far the largest in terms of area, although with this particular evaluation method it didn't result in the highest peak brightness. Camera settings for all shots from this angle (unless otherwise specified) were f2.8, ISO 400, 1 second shutter speed. Absolutely no modifications were made to these photos, other than to resize them.
From 80 yards downrange, it was very clear where shots were coming from - note that in this and all downrange photos, you are seeing the aggregate muzzle flash of five shots. The photos of the muzzle from the side are a single shot, but are representative of the average muzzle flash exhibited by each device in near-total darkness.
Unfortunately, we lost the high speed video file which showed the bare muzzle.
The ubiquitous A2 muzzle device is sold for $5-7. It is in use on nearly all US Military M16/M4 rifles, and a significant number of civilian AR15s as well.
Compared to the bare muzzle, the A2 offered a significant reduction in muzzle flash.
From downrange, the A2 was barely visible - I was able to spot it only because I knew exactly where the shooter was standing. If I were searching for the shooter, I would have a more difficult time - especially if he were shooting directly at me.
While photos are useful and illustrative of the overall flash allowed by each device, they show all of the light which occurred in a one second period in a single frame, which is not exactly how the human eye sees muzzle flash. The duration of muzzle flash from an AR15 with a muzzle device is approximately 1 millisecond, which is why many standard (30fps/60fps) camera videos are a poor choice for showing an entire event - a flash could be missed entirely by the camera.
High speed video, shot on Silencerco's Phantom v12.1 at 7000fps and slowed down 10x, shows a closeup of the muzzle flash in slow motion. The duration of the visible flash is approximately 5/7000sec. It appears similar to the long exposure photography, although we can see each part as it occurs.
A still frame from high speed video, shot with a B.E. Meyers OWL night vision lens adapter, allows us to see much more flash than with the naked eye.
The Blackout is a 3 prong muzzle device described by the manufacturer as "the world's most effective flash hider. The proprietary features eliminate muzzle flash, even on CQB-length barrels. The BLACKOUT® is inherently stronger and more impact resistant than four prong designs, while not being subject to the rapid erosion of closed-ended units." It retails for approximately $59.
Using the same f2.8/ISO 400/1 sec camera settings, very little visible flash was observed.
Because it was so difficult to discern the best flash hiders from one another, additional shots were taken from the side with an ISO of 1600 and no other changes. This increases the camera's sensitivity to light, but makes the images not directly comparable to the ISO 400 shots. Only attempt to compare these shots with other ISO 1600 shots, which will be identified as such below each photo.
From downrange, I did not observe any flash. The camera captured one "spark," but I didn't see it until I looked at the image.
In the Phantom high speed video, only 2/7000sec of relatively small flash is seen.
Using the OWL, a small amount of flash was visible in the IR spectrum.
The BattleComp, according to the manufacturer, "offers muzzle control like some of the best brakes on the market, with none of their liabilities" and gives "...excellent control WITHOUT the excessive concussion and crushing blast produced by most compensators on the market -- with flash comparable to an A2." It retails for $155.
Flash from the BattleComp was rather attractive, with tendrils of flame arcing out from the device in several directions. The muzzle flash was also immediately obvious and bright. The position of the muzzle was easily identifiable from downrange. Phantom high speed video showed significant flash which was visible for 1 millisecond, or 7/7000sec. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The B.E. Meyers 249F is a 4 prong muzzle device which, according to the manufacturer, "virtually eliminate(s) muzzle flash." It was originally designed for and sold to military and government customers, but recently became available on the civil market for $149.
From the side, almost no flash was visible at ISO 400. At ISO 1600, some flash was visible, but it was still remarkably low. From downrange, no flash was visible. Keep in mind that all downrange shots show the light from 5 rounds being fired. Using the Phantom high speed camera, a very small amount of flash was visible for 3/7000sec. The B.E. Meyers OWL showed more flash on average in the IR spectrum with the 249F than the AAC Blackout.
The Black Weapons Armory X Comp is made by Proto Tactical, and is described by BWA as "produc(ing) a light straight back recoil instead of producing muzzle rise...Most compensators and flash hiders cause the muzzle to rise up and lengthen the time required for the shooter to get back on target...The X design incorporated into the tip of the compensator and interior chamber design helps reduce the flash, which produces a much smaller signature that is normally produced by muzzle brakes."
It's designed to control the movement of the muzzle and retails for $120.
Flash from the X Comp was clearly visible and rather bright. From downrange, the position of the muzzle was immediately obvious. Phantom high speed video showed a relatively large muzzle flash which was visible for 6/7000sec. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Primary Weapons Systems FSC556 is a hybrid device which, according to PWS, "provides superior compensation characteristics combined with enough flash suppression to keep the flash out of your optics and line of sight." It retails for $100.
Flash from the FSC556 was greater than that of the A2 and clearly visible. From downrange, the shooter's position could be identified with relative ease. High speed video showed a moderate amount of flash which lasted 5/7000sec. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The PWS Triad is a three prong muzzle device which retails for $70. PWS say it "features a revolutionary design bringing true flash suppression together with reduced muzzle flip by redirecting gases exiting the muzzle without the overpressure created by muzzle brakes and recoil compensators."
Flash was visible from the Triad, and although it was not very bright, it did cover an area of decent size. From downrange, it was slightly easier to identify the position of the Triad than the A2. High speed video showed a sizable amount of flash which was visible for 5/7000sec. The video also showed the Triad rotating as the rifle was fired due to its design (devices were not torqued for this test). No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
Proto Tactical's Z-Comp is a compensator with a unique angled forward end, which Proto claims "delivers significantly reduced recoil and decreases muzzle climb to help you get back on target quickly" without commenting on muzzle flash. It retails for $129.
Flash at the muzzle was comparable to other devices of this type - that is to say, bright. Flash from downrange was very easy to spot. On high speed video, it lasted just under one millisecond. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
Proto Tactical's Z-Tac is a compensator with short flash suppressing tines on the front of the device. It retails for $129.
The Z-Tac was rather flashy at the muzzle. From downrange, it was easy to spot, and flash lasted just under one millisecond on high speed video. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Rainier XTC is a hybrid device "designed to reduce felt recoil & muzzle rise with a relatively low muzzle flash. A true multi-functional muzzle device designed to do it all while looking great at an affordable price." It retails for $57.
The area of flash as viewed from the side was relatively small, but very bright. From 80 yards downrange, the muzzle flash was spectacular and easily seen. If you are ever stranded on a hostile planet and need to signal for help from a passing spaceship, use the XTC. High speed video shows rolling fireballs escaping out each side of the XTC, with a total flash duration of approximately 6/7000 of a second. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Silencerco Specwar Brake is a three port muzzle device intended to reduce recoil and provide a mounting location for the Specwar silencer. Its brother is the Saker Brake, which offers identical performance, but is intended to mount the Saker silencer. Both devices retail for $80.
As you might expect, this device had a lot of flash. I think this was my favorite muzzle device in terms of flash. Turn your head sideways, and it looks like a Christmas tree. From downrange, the Specwar brake was easy to spot, but it was not as bright as a few of the other devices, surprisingly. Unfortunately, we didn't get high speed video of the Specwar Brake. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Trifecta is a three prong flash hider designed to mount certain Silencerco suppressors while eliminating the ringing tone which other multi-prong devices are prone to emit when tapped on a hard surface or fired. It retails for $70.
The Trifecta allowed a small but somewhat visible amount of flash. At 1600 ISO, the flash was easily identifiable. A small but noticeable amount of flash was visible for approximately 5/7000sec on high speed video. Although performance in the IR spectrum varied from shot to shot more than the other devices, this is a representation of the average flash visible from the Trifecta with night vision.
The, uh, STD is a unique device which looks rather like an elongated thread protector and is intended to keep noise and muzzle flash from interfering with the shooter during hunting. It sells for $55.
From the side, the STD had a noticeable amount of flash. It wasn't terribly bright, but it was sizable. The position of the muzzle was easy enough to spot from downrange. On high speed video, the single fireball lasts just under 1 millisecond at 6/7000sec. No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Dynacomp is, according to Spike's, "designed to reduce recoil impulse and muzzle climb to provide faster follow up shots." No claims are made on the Spike's Tactical site regarding muzzle flash reduction. It retails for $90.
Muzzle flash from the Dynacomp is beautiful and awesome - and also bright. From downrange, the Dynacomp's flash was immediately obvious. It was somewhat less than the XTC, but still unmistakable. On high speed video, the Dynacomp's initial flash looked remarkably like the first microseconds of a nuclear explosion, lasting one millisecond, or 7/7000sec.
No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
VG6's Gamma 556 is claimed to be "a muzzle brake and compensator hybrid. It virtually eliminates recoil and minimizes muzzle movement. The unique combination of both braking and compensating features inspire shooter confidence and allows the shooter to make very fast follow up shots." No statements are made regarding flash suppression.
Muzzle flash from the Gamma 556 was, as expected, healthy. The position of the shooter was easily identifiable from downrange. The VG6's muzzle flash lasts 5/7000sec.
No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device, due to the excessive muzzle flash.
The Vltor VC-1 is a birdcage-looking muzzle device that acts as a flash hider and mount for the Gemtech HALO silencer. It retails for $57.
The VC-1 has muzzle flash roughly comparable to the A2. From downrange, it was a challenge to spot the VC-1 - again, about on par with the A2. On high speed video, the flash profile was also remarkably similar to that of the A2 and lasted 5/7000sec.
No night vision or ISO 1600 methods were used with this device.
The Phantom is advertised as a flash hider which "virtually eliminates flash and provides excellent performance with night vision." It retails for $34.
Although brighter than the Blackout and 249F, the Phantom provides rather excellent flash suppression for the price. At 1600 ISO, the flash was easily visible. From downrange, I could not identify the position of the muzzle, but flash was visible on camera (after 5 shots).
On high speed video, we can see a small amount of flash for roughly 3/7000s. Unfortunately, we lost the high speed night vision video of the Phantom.
Muzzle Flash Summary
It's nice to look at photos and videos, but how do you quantify all of this information?
Photoshop was used for this. I resized the images and made them black and white, then used the Mosaic filter to create a blocky version of each image.
I then noted the relevant HSB data for each block, measured in relative terms, with 0 being pure black and 100 being pure white. For area, I noted the number of "blocks" for the up close images - the downrange shots all fell into one block.
Thus, we are able to compare muzzle flashes up close...
...as well as from downrange.
Due to the angles and distances involved, some of the devices performed better at distance than they did up close - and vice versa. However, the best flash hiders did well at all distances and angles.
The next portion of this article relates to sound, and it will be released soon.
In my opinion, the HK416 is not a good carbine. This is primarily due to its increased weight and recoil compared to the standard M4. The increased recoil, due to greater reciprocating mass and velocity, also increases the probability of damaged or loosened components. Furthermore, the already high cyclic rate of the 416 is increased further by the attachment of a silencer. As you can see in this video, the cyclic rate is simply too fast for even one of the strongest magazine springs on the market, the Lancer L5 AWM, to keep up with - resulting in a bolt-over-base malfunction (the rear of the case has not risen to the top of the magazine before the bolt face has returned to push a new round into the chamber). This is not an isolated incident, but a common occurrence with the multiple 416s I have witnessed exhibiting this problem.
If you are part of a unit or organization which must use the HK416, the best upgrade (short of replacing the entire weapon) would be to replace the receiver extension tube and buffer assembly with the Vltor A5 system (specifically the A5H4). Vltor tested the HK416 with the A5 and saw a reduction in cyclic rate from 1106 rounds per minute (stock, suppressed) to 973 rounds per minute (A5H4, suppressed).
If you cannot replace the receiver extension tube with the A5 system or get rid of the HK416s entirely, try using a Tactical Springs LLC/Springco "Red" action spring along with an H3 or heavier buffer.
I first examined the KRISS Vector submachinegun at IWA in 2011. I did not understand why it needed to exist. I spent an evening at a Cuban cigar lounge in Nuremberg with some executives and tech guys from the company explaining my opinion to them. There was a former Swiss police officer who worked on the Sphinx pistol program (the companies are related) in attendance; he nodded as I spoke with a barely perceptible smile on his face. Essentially, I didn't see why something as large and heavy as the Vector, even in short barrel format, needed to be in a pistol caliber. And if it was to be in a pistol caliber and marketed to US law enforcement, as the vice president of the company intended to do, then it should be in .40, not .45.
It took two years for me to get high speed video of the Vector, but I see nothing which changes my mind. I am not shown firing it on video, although I did shoot it numerous times. The two shooters in this video are physically strong, experienced in the use of firearms, and doing their best to keep the weapon on target.
The operating system is supposed to reduce muzzle climb through the reciprocating components moving down at an angle instead of back towards the shooter. It's also claimed that the system will reduce recoil.
What I felt and observed is that the weapon jumps up and down in an arcing motion as the shooter fires it. If a strong shooter using good technique fires the weapon, the muzzle will stay close to being on target - but this is hardly a property unique to the Vector. The motion of the firearm is rather violent and causes the upper and lower halves of the Vector to briefly separate from one another and the variable power optic to flex. With +P ammunition, this motion was so violent as to cause the magazine to fall out of the weapon numerous times.
The cumulation of all this movement is a rather sharp shock delivered to the shooter, requiring a very brief pause before the sights or optic can be reacquired and the weapon fired again. In the end, it does not matter if the weapon comes up at an angle or makes a tiny rainbow motion - there is still a small period of time during which the shooter will be unable to put a round on target, and I am not convinced that the KRISS Vector reduces this time period by any margin.
I've been working on this comparison of Wolf, Brown Bear, Tula, and Federal .223 ammunition since July. I think those who read my blog will find it interesting. It should bring forth some real data to a number of discussions relating to AR reliability, wear, and the differences between types of ammunition...
There seem to be some errors accessing the site right now, but it should be accessible to all soon.
I have utilized several motion picture devices and a personal computer to construct the greatest video you have ever seen*
*involving an iPhone and sandwiches.