Suppressors are, upon occasion, in the news. Under the Harris/Biden/Whoever Administration—Gropin’ Joe Biden, Temporary President—attempts to ban them, and much else, continue apace. I last wrote on this subject in May of 2021, and because so many know only what they’ve seen–-and sort of heard–-in the movies about suppressors, I thought it useful to produce this updated primer.
Suppressors, commonly 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, lever action, 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 for each suppressor. In 1934, this amounted to a substantial 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 has boomed–probably as a result of concerns over Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, D/S/Cs in general, and their gun banning intentions–and circa 2017, at least 1.3 million were in private hands. That number has surely increased since.
Most manufacturers have multiple models of handguns and rifles with muzzles threaded for suppressors. I wrote about the Ruger PC 9mm carbine in June of 2018. It too has a suppressor-ready muzzle. Note the thread protector. Many aftermarket manufacturers provide suppressor-ready barrels and a variety of adaptors. Many suppressor dealers and manufacturers have put together processes for filing and expediting federal paperwork. You pay for the suppressor and federal tax, and they do the rest, including delivering the suppressor to your door when all federal paperwork has been approved.
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 past 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].
One should not expect any BATF official to hold similarly liberty-affirming views circa 2022. Biden’s newest nominee to head that agency has a long history of anti-liberty/gun activism.
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–-eight months or more-–federal vetting and paperwork. However, those bills stalled, and there is evidence Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan purposely held them up, ostensibly because “the time wasn’t right.” The presidency, the House and the Senate were in Republican hands, as were most of the state governorships and state legislatures. Given that, when would the time have been right to better secure a fundamental, unalienable right? But McConnell and Ryan, though they could have passed the bills, let them die, and with the current congressional impasse, legislatively strengthening American’s fundamental rights remains an impossibility. The Supreme Court, however, may incrementally strengthen the right with a decision to be handed down in June. Even should Republicans regain the congressional majority in 2022, whichever D/S/C occupies the White House will surely veto any attempt to make suppressor ownership less difficult and more widespread. Even with veto-proof majorities it’s unlikely Republicans would act.
The most important advantage of suppressors is preventing permanent hearing damage. Consider this, from the NRA-ILA, via The Truth About Guns:
In response to reports that the Virginia Beach shooter used a firearm suppressor in carrying out his terrible crime, David Chipman, Senior Policy Advisor for the Giffords gun control group, claimed that a suppressed pistol is especially dangerous because the noise associated with the firearm is difficult to distinguish from a nail gun. As per usual for claims Chipman and his employer make about firearm suppressors, this is false.
In an article appearing in the Virginian-Pilot, [failed BATF nominee David] Chipman claims, “The gun does not sound gun-like. It takes the edge out of the tone . . . This is how I would describe it: It makes a gun sort of sound like a nail gun.”
But, a suppressed .45 caliber pistol, like the one that is reported to have been used in Virginia Beach, is many times louder than a nail gun:
*A suppressed .45 caliber pistol produces about 130-135 dBA.
*A nail gun produces about 100 dBA.
*Decibels (dBA) are a logarithmic scale, so sound levels increase in a non-linear fashion. A 3 dBA increase doubles the sound pressure level. (Although most people perceive a 6 to 10 dBA increase as double the noise level.)
The 30-35 dBA difference between a nail gun and a suppressed pistol will be perceived as at least eight times louder to the human ear.
Suppressor Facts: 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—or outdoors–-for home protection. 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, lengthy 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 control the gas produced when a cartridge is fired. 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. Reducing the velocity of bullets to subsonic levels also helps to reduce the perceived sound of firing.
Gas control 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 quickly 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, because it is hard to machine, is 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, and most manufacturers make loads–-but these slow bullets hamper accuracy, reduce effective range, and have 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 SD’s, because it is merely a shroud and anchor for the 16.1” barrel, a 16” barrel being the minimum required by federal law. 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. This remains the most common attachment method, 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 different recoil impulse.
Again, suppressors can reduce the report of a gunshot as much as 40 decibels. However, even that 20-40 dB reduction does no more than reduce the perceived sound pressure level of a gunshot to that of a jackhammer.
An example of a very quiet suppressed gun was the Welrod of WWII. Notice the barrel–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 (very close range and no probability of having to make a quick second shot). 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 a field expedient suppressor, though its effectiveness lasts only a single shot, and sometimes, not even that as the expanding gasses tend to tear the thin plastic bottles apart.
Trying to suppress 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, particularly at extreme distances, allowing follow up shots.
This photo illustrates an aftermarket suppressor on an AR-15 pattern rifle. Many military special forces units employ suppressors, add on and integral. A good suppressor can improve an operator’s chances and save their hearing and eyesight. In addition, a Special Forces or SWAT team can better tell where their people are in a structure if all are using suppressed weapons. Unsuppressed shots mean bad guys.
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 a .22 rifle, or a handgun, to the range only once or twice a year may have little interest in suppressors, but more involved shooters are far more likely to buy them. Though hunting has little to do with the Second Amendment, a significant suppressor market is hunters, who cannot afford to wear hearing protection, particularly when hunting dangerous game.
Suppressors are currently relatively expensive, but easier availability would likely decrease prices as manufacturers increase production to meet demand and increase market share as more manufacturers enter the marketplace. Circa May, 2022, ammunition is becoming more readily available and a little less expensive, but runaway inflation could easily reverse this trend. Americans worry about their liberties under a D/S/C president, a functionally D/S/C Congress, and far too many governors that have, through Covid regulations, demonstrated how very much they love power and how little respect they have for individual rights. People that have never before owned a gun, including Democrats in record numbers, continue to become gun owners, and new records are constantly being set. This too is contributing to shortages, which inevitably spread to firearms and all manner of accessories, including suppressors.
With a Federal Government increasingly weaponized against Normal Americans, it would be remarkable if the BATF became more efficient in processing NFA paperwork. It currently takes many months for any NFA application to be approved. Expect that to lengthen considerably. Never have D/S/Cs been so strident and explicit about their intention to disarm the law abiding, and never have they been so bold in aiding criminals in every way possible.
Like most anti-liberty/gun types, Joe Biden knows nothing about firearms and their accessories other than that he wants to deprive the law-abiding of their use. 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 anti-liberty/gun cracktivists is not hampering criminals, who do not obey any laws, but disarming the law-abiding.
Isn’t it interesting that safety Nazis and their allies supposedly so concerned with health and welfare issues, are violently opposed to suppressors, which 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, virtue signaling, and showing the little people who’s boss.
As I previously noted, there is virtually no chance for removing suppressors from NFA restrictions until at least 2024, but it never hurts to remind Republican legislators of the issue. Removing just this one bit of federal control over Second Amendment rights is certainly another step in the right direction toward liberty.
Anti-liberty/gun cracktivists often mislabel their intentions and activities as “gun safety.” “We’re only interested in public health,” they intone. That’s why they want to keep Americans permanently in masks and locked down. That’s also why they want to deprive them of any and all arms.