Suppressors are very much in the news these day, most recently because of Hillary Clinton’s supremely uninformed assertion that if the Las Vegas mass murderer had used a suppressor, no one would have heard his gunshots, and more would have been killed. That was too much even for some in the legacy media, and several “fact checkers” actually told the truth about firearms for a change.
Because so many know so little about suppressors, I thought it useful to produce a brief primer.
Suppressors, usually incorrectly called “silencers,” were invented in 1902 by MIT graduate, Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim of machinegun fame. Maxim’s design was patented in 1909, and suppressors quickly became very popular. Even Theodore Roosevelt used one on his favorite Winchester Model 1894 rifle. But in 1934, the National Firearms act was passed, imposing licensing and registration requirements on suppressor ownership, including a $200 dollar, non-transferrable tax. In 1934, this amounted to a huge portion of the average American’s annual income, and stalled suppressor sales and development for nearly half a century. However, in recent years, interest in suppressors boomed–probably as a result of concerns over Barack Obama and his gun banning intentions–and at present, around 1.3 million are in private hands.
Suppressors are seldom used in crimes. According to the BATF, only about .003% of all suppressors have allegedly been used in the commission of a crime. According to BATF Assistant Deputy Director Ronald Turk:
Consistent with this low number of prosecution referrals, silencers are very rarely used in criminal shooting. Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety necessitating [National Firearms Act] classification, and should be considered for reclassification under the [Gun Control Act].
In mid-January, 2017, companion bills were introduced in the US House and Senate to declassify suppressors, removing the $200 dollar tax and onerous and time consuming–around eight months–federal vetting and paperwork. However, those bills are stalled, and there is evidence that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are purposefully holding them up, ostensibly because “the time isn’t right.” Let’s review: the presidency, the House and the Senate are in Republican hands, as are most of the state governorships and state legislatures. Given that, when would the time be right to better secure a fundamental, unalienable right?
Suppressors are relatively simple devices with no moving parts. With some exceptions, they are round tubes of various diameters and lengths, hence the common term “can.” There is no such thing as a “silencer.” Suppressors can reduce the noise level of a gunshot, and somewhat alter its character, but only to levels that do not cause cumulative hearing damage. A suppressed shot is still identifiable as a gunshot. The sound effects employed on TV and in the movies are just that: sound effects. They don’t represent the reality of suppressors, and are employed for dramatic effect.
But who would want a suppressor? Hunters, target shooters, anyone– like police officers and the military–that might have to shoot indoors, which would include any law-abiding citizen that might have to use their handgun indoors for home protection. In short, they are a very useful, hearing saving accessory. The only reason they are not more widely distributed among the population is because of the onerous and relatively expensive federal registration/taxation requirements. As even the BATF notes, they are rarely used in crimes, probably because they significantly increase the size of any firearm, as the photo of a 10mm Glock 20 illustrates. The suppressor doubles the length of the handgun.
How Do Suppressors Work? Suppressors are all about gas control. The noise of shooting comes from the supersonic crack of the bullet, and the propellant gases escaping the muzzle at supersonic velocity, disturbing the air at the muzzle. This is also the source of muzzle flash. Dampening the report is therefore a matter of controlling–trapping and dissipating–as much of the gas as possible, and reducing the velocity of bullets to subsonic levels
This is accomplished by means of baffles, as illustrated by the Maxim patent application and the cut away suppressor attached to the Glock 20, a number of individual chambers that bleed off the gasses. However, rapid fire rapidly heats any suppressor. Note the thick, round plastic hand guard on the HK MP5SD. Not only is such rapid heating hard on shooters, it’s also hard on suppressors. To deal with these issues, suppressors are commonly made of aluminum, steel, or even titanium (which is, obviously, much more expensive).
Unfortunately, there is no free lunch in physics. It’s not at all difficult to produce subsonic bullets–handloaders can easily accomplish it–but such slow bullets hamper accuracy, reduce effective range, and have greatly reduced penetrating power. This is why military and police agencies have, since 1974, favored the HK MP5SD in 9mm, the free world’s premier integrally suppressed submachine gun. While such weapons are obviously best employed at short range, being able to fire short bursts rather than single shots tends to help make up for the potentially weak penetration of the ammunition. But even the MP5SD, an excellent but dated suppressor design has a unique and easily identifiable sound signature, which is identifiable as gunfire.
Military Factory.com explains the function of the MP5SD’s suppressor:
The principle feature of the MPSD series is its large aluminum suppressor assembly added to the front of the weapon which is coupled to base supersonic 9mm cartridges. Within this assembly is a shortened barrel that has been perforated with some 30 openings to allow for the controlled escaping of gasses as the weapon cycles through its action. The suppressor therefore shrouds the perforated barrel assembly and is designed with a two-stage, two-chamber process. The initial chamber (the one closest to the receiver) surrounds the barrel in an expected fashion and it is this chamber that initially collects the escaping propellant gasses, controlling the effects of the escaping bullet by reducing its pressure and retarding its acceleration. The second chamber (ahead of the muzzle [the muzzle–the end of the short barrel–is inside the suppressor tube, it is not the end of the suppressor can]) then takes these gasses and nullifies their effects even further by increasing gas volume and reducing its temperature while allowing a slow escape. The end result is that the subsonic bullet exits the muzzle at a lowered, now-subsonic, velocity and thusly its audible signature is reduced. Due to the fact that the MP5SD does not make use of subsonic ammunition coupled with its suppressor, it is not a truly “silent” weapon in the accepted sense. A lightweight bolt assembly does figure into the device, however, and helps to lower the audible signature of the internal action.
NOTE: Many military issue MP5 SDs are altered for use exclusively with subsonic 9mm ammunition, which tends to employ heavier bullets in an attempt to gain something lost to the reduced velocity of the bullet.
HK, working with Walther, has produced the MP5 SD6, a .22 LR semiautomatic twin of the MP5 SD. Compare the two photographs. The .22 version, while looking nearly identical to the 9mm version, does not have a functional suppressor. The “suppressor” can is actually quite a bit longer than the MP5 SDs, because it is merely a shroud and anchor for the 16.1” barrel. The .22LR gun feels and handles almost exactly like the genuine MP5 SD, examples of which are almost impossible to find at any price. My article on the MP5 SD6 is available here.
Suppressors also affect accuracy, commonly changing the point of impact of any firearm. For guns designed to take removable suppressors this can be problematic, and careful choice of ammunition is a necessity. Most suppressor users fire standard velocity ammunition. Most suppressors attach via a barrel threaded at the muzzle, though a number of manufacturers have introduced a variety of means of locking them solidly to barrels, theoretically preventing impact point shift, and making them consistently accurate regardless of how often the silencer is attached/removed.
Generally, the larger the suppressor, the more effective the suppression, so suppressors may obscure the sights of some guns, even laser sights. In addition, guns designed exclusively for the use of subsonic ammunition usually require alterations to the recoil springs to deal with the weaker recoil impulse.
How Quiet Are Suppressors? Guns and Ammo explains:
Plus or minus, gunshots run 160 to 180 decibels. A good suppressor will trim 20 to 40 dBs off that signature and often make gunshots ‘ear safe’ according to government standards. The bigger the suppressor, generally speaking, the better it will be at quieting guns.
Even that 20-40 dB reduction does no more than reduce the level of a gunshot to that of a jackhammer.
An example of a very quiet suppressed gun was the Welrod of WWII.
Notice the barre–outlined in red–is only about 4” long, but the suppressor greatly lengthens the gun. This is true of all suppressed guns. The MP5 SD’s barrel is quite short; the suppressor, much longer.
The Welrod, chambered primarily in 9mm or .32 ACP, achieved its relative quiet because of its large suppressor, and because it was a single shot, bolt action gun. There was no action cycling, no flying brass, etc. when it fired. It was slow to reload, so was best employed wisely under near ideal circumstances. The suppressor design was also rudimentary. The baffles broke down quickly, and unlike modern designs, its suppressed effect was entirely lost after 15-20 rounds. Semi or full automatic gun designs are louder. Even a 2 liter soda bottle can be employed to make an expedient suppressor, though its effectiveness lasts only a single shot, and sometimes, not even that as the gasses tend to tear the thin plastic bottles apart.
Suppressing rifles magnifies the problems associated with suppressors. Their cartridges produce far greater velocity, propelled by a substantially greater volume of propellant. This requires much larger, longer suppressors, as illustrated by the .50 BMG Barrett rifle with its Barrett QDL suppressor/muzzle brake.
The .50 BMG cartridge, designed for the .50 caliber Browning machinegun family, is not at all a quiet or subtle cartridge, but a good suppressor can tone down the violence of the report. At the very long ranges for which the Barrett is employed in the sniper role, an effective suppressor might keep terrorists from ever hearing the shot that killed one of them, allowing follow up shots.
Our military uses a variety of suppressors for the AR-15 family. A primary advantage of such suppressors–apart from helping to preserve the hearing of our troops–is reducing muzzle flash, and making it somewhat harder for enemies to pinpoint the location of fire, an obviously good thing for snipers and spotters.
This photo illustrates an integral suppressor on an excellent Israeli Tavor 5.56mm rifle, though this example appears to be chambered for 9mm. Some Tavors have short barrels for close quarter battle–common in Israel–so adding a suppressor does not greatly increase the length. Notice the unusual shape of the Rat Worx ZRX suppressor. Indoors, the muzzle flash and report of a .223/5.56mm round is truly impressive. A good suppressor can improve an operator’s chances and save their hearing and eyesight.
Recently, shotgun suppressors have been developed. Notice the size and length of this suppressor. Because of the very nature of shotgun ammunition, the sound reduction can’t approach that of a good rifle or pistol suppressor–much more gas will inevitably escape–but notice the shooter is not wearing ear protection. Such suppressors do work, but no one would mistake the report of a shotgun so equipped as anything other than gunfire.
Shooters that take the .22 rifle, or a handgun, to the range only once or twice a year may have relatively little interest in suppressors, but more involved shooters would be far more likely to buy them. Suppressors are current relatively expensive, but easier availability would surely decrease prices as manufacturers increase production to meet demand and increase market share as more manufacturers enter the marketplace.
Though hunting has little to do with the Second Amendment, a significant market would be for hunters, who cannot afford to wear hearing protection, particularly when hunting dangerous game.
Like most anti-liberty types, Hillary Clinton knows nothing about firearms and their accessories other than that she wants to ban them all. There is no reason why suppressors should be any more difficult to buy or possess than firearms. It would be easy to write laws that would enhance sentences for the criminal misuse of suppressors, which should address any potential, logical, objections. Of course, the goal of gun banners is not hampering criminals, who do not obey any laws, but the law-abiding.
Isn’t it interesting that the safety Nazis and their allies supposedly so concerned with health and welfare issues, are violently opposed to suppressors, which will prevent hearing loss, and greatly reduce the noise of shooting ranges? Of course, such people believe they’ll one day ban and seize all guns and accessories from the law abiding, so they have no reason to oppose them now, other than out of a false sense of moral superiority and spite.
It’s time, gentle readers, to let the members of the Stupid Party know precisely how you feel about this issue. Removing just this one bit of federal control over our Second Amendment rights is certainly another step in the right direction toward liberty.