Those Blasted Brakes
September 23, 2010
Competition and tactical shooters like muzzle brakes because they effectively reduce muzzle rise and shot-to-shot recovery times.
I hate muzzle brakes. They're loud, they're obnoxious, and they look ridiculous hanging off the end of a rifle. But muzzle brakes are increasingly popular among custom rifle shooters, as evidenced by the increase in the number of hunters showing up in my camps with them over the last few years. More encounters with muzzle brakes and the hunters who love them have caused me to take another look at those controversial recoil-reduction devices.
We all know that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, if you launch a 180-grain bullet out of your favorite .30-caliber magnum at 3,200 fps, you can bet your baby's college money that Old Betsy is going to come back at you in a hurry. Hopefully, your scope has enough eye relief to keep you two from becoming a little too well-acquainted.
Muzzle brakes reduce felt recoil by redirecting gas through holes cut in the top or sides of the brake instead of the front, where they would drive the rifle into your shoulder. The typical muzzle brake is a cylindrical tube with a series of holes drilled around it through which those gases pass, though some designs have slots or large ports on the sides or top only. Such designs include the JP brake, which has large slots on each side; the brake on the triangular-barreled Remington VTR, which has three slots atop the barrel; and Mag-na-porting, which consists of a series of holes drilled near the muzzle at one o'clock and at 11 o'clock.
Every muzzle brake I've ever tried reduced recoil significantly. Simple, slotted brakes like the one on Remington's VTR typically reduce recoil by roughly 15 to 20 percent. Traditional muzzle brakes, such as Weatherby's Accubrake, KDF's Slimline Brake, and the Vais brake, reduce recoil by as much as 50 percent or more. In relative terms, they make a .300 Winchester Magnum feel about like a .243 and a .375 H&H feel like a .30-06. Of course, that increased recoil reduction means those brakes are louder than the simpler, less effective designs like the VTR brake or Mag-na-porting.
The simple, slotted brake on Remington's VTR doesn't reduce recoil a great deal, but it works well enough to allow you to call your shot at 100 yards. Of course, it isn't as loud as more effective designs, but that's a trade-off Greg can live with.
Nothing is free, and the recoil reduction benefits you get from a muzzle brake are not without some cost. Financially, a brake will set you back $200 to $300, installed. But the real cost, and the reason I, and so many outfitters, hate them, is their increased muzzle blast.
A muzzle brake increases the sound of the shot by 10 decibels or more. That's a tremendous amount. Depending on the angle of the ports, they also redirect the majority of muzzle blast back to the shooter or to the side. The result can make your ears--and the ears of those around you--feel like they're bleeding. It can leave them ringing for days. If you shoot a brake a great deal in the field, you will dramatically hasten hearing loss and the coming of the lovely, constant ringing in the ears that is tinnitus.
I believe that for some shooters the tremendous muzzle blast that accompanies the discharge of a brake-equipped magnum rifle is more likely to cause a flinch than the punch to the shoulder an unbraked gun delivers. In fact, I've seen some pretty seasoned shooters flinch violently in anticipation of the shock wave they know is coming. I've seen those same shooters shoot similar rifles without brakes just fine.
This oversized brake on the author's custom .338 Lapua by Jet Suppressors is loud and ugly, but it definitely tames the mighty Lapua magnum.
The blast of brake-equipped guns can be disorienting. It can also leave you and your hunting party near deaf for some time after the shot, and that's a potentially disastrous occurrence when hunting dangerous game in the thick stuff.
Those redirected gases can also create a vision-inhibiting dust storm. That happened to me once in Zimbabwe. I had slithered to within 45 or 50 yards of an old dugga boy in a dry river bed. I slid up behind a sand bank, raised my client's .416 Weatherby, and drove a 400-grain TSX through the bull's near shoulder. Fortunately, it dropped in its tracks. The resulting dust storm blinded me for about three seconds, more than long enough for the buffalo to run me over several times had I shot it poorly.
Another knock on muzzle brake-equipped rifles is that they are hard on scopes. Riflescopes aren't built to withstand the sudden halt of the rifle's rearward movement brakes are designed to cause. Consequently, the scope on your brake-equipped rifle may very well fail if you shoot the rifle much at all.
My final entry into the negative side of the balance sheet is purely aesthetic. I think muzzle brakes are downright ugly.
The most obvious benefit of adding a muzzle brake is a dramatic decrease in felt recoil. If the game you're after requires a rifle you don't feel comfortable with, the large decrease in recoil a brake offers can help you gain the comfort level you need in order to be successful. As a guide, I'd much rather see you make a good shot with a brake-equipped rifle than suffer through the aftermath of a missed or wounded-and-lost animal because you were scared of your gun.
Brakes can be reserved for training and replaced with a thread protector for hunting. In fact, that is exactly what I do with the two braked hunting rifles I added to my collection last year. My Jarrett .416 and .30-378 Weatherby kick like beasts from the bench, so I practice with the brake on to minimize recoil. In the field, I use the thread protector and save my hearing because I never feel the recoil when I'm at point-blank range on a buffalo or staring across a canyon at a once-in-a-lifetime ram.
The author uses the brake when he shoots his .30-378 Weatherby from the bench and replaces it with the supplied thread protector in the field. Point of impact changes a bit without the brake, but he accounts for that by firing a shot or two at the range without the brake to get it on target.
Magnum-toting hunters aren't the only ones who can benefit from muzzle brakes. Despite the pipsqueak cartridges they employ, many varmint hunters swear by muzzle brakes because they allow them to see their bullets impact. Competi-tion shooters like them because they allow a faster shot-to-shot recovery time.
To Brake Or Not To Brake
If you'd asked me a few years ago what I thought of muzzle brakes, I wouldn't have had to think for a second before opening up with a tirade against them. But we're all different. If the muzzle blast of a braked gun doesn't bother you and the recoil of an unbraked rifle is too much to stand, don't give it a second thought. Buy the brake. After all, it's your hunt. Your guide can plug his ears when you shoot, but he can't cure your flinch or change the course of an errant shot.