April 15, 2022
By Joseph von Benedikt
When comparing radial and directional muzzle brakes, each one creates a somewhat different rifle response during recoil and, more importantly, a significantly different experience to the shooter.
While both types have been around for close to a century, radial brakes were the most common until rather recently. The reason is they’re much easier to install.
Let’s dive into the differences between the two types. We’ll start chronologically, with radial brakes.
Radial Muzzle Brakes
Simple but effective, radial muzzle brakes are round, usually the same or similar diameter as the barrel at the muzzle, and have several rows of round holes drilled all the way around the circumference of the brake.
These holes all vent burning propellant gases simultaneously as the bullet exits the muzzle. Super-heated gas jets out in all directions from the brake and can cause the primary complaint about radial brakes: if the shooter is lying on a dusty or sandy surface—or really anything with loose detritus—the gases venting out from the portion of the brake near the ground kick up an unholy cloud of dust. Sometimes it does so with enough force to settle around the face of the shooter and leave dust and particulates settling in the front of the scope and even in the action. It is not pleasant.
Another weakness of radial-type muzzle brakes is the lack of control that engineers can apply. About all the designer can do is vary the size and number of the holes and the slant at which they come through the brake. They can be large or small. There can be many or few. And they can vent perpendicular or slightly forward or rearward.
The effect of directional brakes is much more manipulatable, as we’ll discuss shortly.
On the plus side, because radial brakes are identical all the way around their exterior, they do not need to be “timed” to be oriented a certain way when tightened onto the muzzle. Cut the threads, spin the brake on, and snug it up. No matter what position all those radial vent holes end up in, it’s all the same. Done.
It’s worth noting before moving on to the more modern, more popular, and, candidly, more effective directional brakes that I’m a big fan of a modest radial brake. Super-aggressive directional brakes are all the rage on PRS-type rifles shooting mild cartridges, such as the 6mm BR and 6.5 Creedmoor, but put an extremely effective brake on a big hunting cartridge like the 28 Nosler or .300 PRC and the resulting blast seems to rend the atmosphere. Since those are primarily hunting cartridges, I personally prefer a tad more recoil and a lot less blast. Radial brakes, such as the tastefully engineered Quiet Slimbrake II by Lex Webernick at Rifle’s Inc., are perfect.
Directional Muzzle Brakes
Directional brakes are typically more complex than radial brakes. Side vents direct most of the exploding propellant gases to each side, rather than equally all the way around. Additionally, small auxiliary ports are often drilled or machined into the upper surface of the brake and are designed to control muzzle jump.
Engineering the side ports and any auxiliary ports can be a complex task. Side ports generally vent perpendicular to the shooter, although aggressive versions designed to reduce every last shred of recoil possible sometimes vent at a slight rearward angle. For the most part, these side ports perform the bulk of the recoil reduction. Typical directional brakes have two or three ports per side, usually of varying size. That said, single-port and four-port brakes are not unknown.
When a rifle recoils, unless the stock and the shooter’s shoulder are directly in line behind the center of the bore, the rifle leaps upward. Since most stocks position the bore above center, this “muzzle jump” is so commonplace it’s taken for granted. Taking jump a step further, this impulse usually has a slight twisting motion to the right. This is caused by the right-turning rifling twist in the barrel. (Although uncommon, left-turning rifling does exist and causes a rifle to twist left slightly as it recoils.)
The auxiliary ports in the top of the brake are designed to oppose muzzle jump. In some cases, such as on AR-15s or PRS rifles fitted with directional brakes with tunable ports (meaning they can be closed or opened with small screws or even simply drilled out), muzzle jump can be eliminated entirely. Companies like American Precision Arms (APA) have become notable for their extremely effective brakes. (A couple are the humorously named Fat Bastard and Little Bastard.)
Heavy-caliber hunting rifles, however, usually jump at least a bit, even when fitted with a very aggressive brake—even when upper ports are employed to minimize muzzle jump.
Some of the most innovative, cutting-edge directional brakes are now implementing angled side ports that vent gases to the side and slightly up, eliminating the need for top-side mini-ports.
The primary downside to directional brakes is that they must, obviously, be screwed on so that the side ports point to the sides.
There are three ways to accomplish this. A rawhide (but effective) method is to use very thin steel washers of varying thickness. By trial and error, the right washer or combination of washers is found and the brake torques up in the right orientation.
Better—and more expensive—is to have a talented custom gunsmith thread the muzzle and cut the shoulder on the barrel or brake back bit by tiny bit until the brake turns up and torques into place perfectly oriented. In my opinion, the superb-looking result is worth the cost.
Last, some of the more expensive—and complex—directional brakes now are indexable. They have rotating collars, some even click-adjustable via internal detents, so that shooters and rifle builders can tune the brake to torque up correctly oriented.
Because of the difficulty of orienting directional muzzle brakes, historically all the big riflemakers, such as Browning and Savage Arms and Ruger and Winchester and Remington Arms, always used radial brakes. They’re easy and cost-effective and simple to install correctly. However, today’s demanding shooter wants more, and savvy companies (Browning is one example) are now offering directional brakes (like the Recoil Hawg).
Certainly, directional brakes are trendy and are probably the way of the future. Are they actually the best? That depends on what you want out of a brake. Directional brakes are supremely effective and tunable, but they are excessively loud and usually expensive. Radial brakes are simpler, less effective, and sometimes kick up annoying clouds of dust, but they’re less expensive and not as loud.
Radial brakes are easy to install and so are more common. However, they kick up a big cloud of dust when shooting prone and are not tunable to compensate for muzzle jump. The modest Quiet Slimbrake II (at left) is one of the author’s favorite hunting brakes. It effectively takes the edge off without causing excessive blast.