Hundreds of pairs of eyes glassing with a clarity and definition rivaling the finest German optics kept vigilant watch over the herd of wily free-range aoudad sheep. My hunting partner, Wayne van Zwoll, and I had spotted the challenging quarry from a mile or more away and attempted a stalk, keeping the wind in our face and the sun at our back. But the slight “clink” from a loose volcanic rock stepped on by a seemingly innocent footstep or perhaps those incredible binocular-like eyes catching our distant movement betrayed our intentions, sending brown streams of sheep pouring down into the canyons and braiding up into distant cliffs with a deftness and speed that would have a mere human tumbling to his or her fate. Throughout the day, the scenario repeated itself with Groundhog Day regularity until we grudgingly accepted the reality of on-coming darkness and put “our” sheep safely to bed in a prickly pear flat at the top of a weathered West Texas mesa.
The following morning, an uncharacteristic fog enveloping the mesa allowed us to sneak undetected to within easy range of the animals where Wayne settled into a solid prone shooting position and waited for the fog to lift. When it did, the heavy silence was broken by the airy chuff of his suppressed .308 followed by the staccato cracks of the bullet’s supersonic sound wave bouncing off of the cactus and yuccas. The meaty “whop!” of bullet hitting beast and an immediate follow-up shot later, his ram was down and the hunt over, but my interest in hunting with suppressed rifles had just begun.
The devices are called silencers, suppressors, mufflers or moderators depending on where you are in the world and, in many places, their use for hunting is quite common. “[T]hey are not only legal in the UK, but it is more normal to use a suppressed rifle than non-suppressed one for deer hunting, or stalking, as we call it,” says SCI International Director and Diana Award winner Abigail Day. “We tend to refer to them as suppressors or sound moderators, rather than silencers, as they are not silent–the noise is reduced to a crack similar to that of a .22. I shoot a moderated .308 as my main deer rifle,” continued Day. But the normalcy of suppressors in the UK does not translate to all of Europe. As SCI Regional Representative for Europe, Norbert Ullmann says, “[T]hey’re completely forbidden in Germany, and if they catch you with one, as a hunter, you’ll loose your hunting license for life.”
It’s that moderation or muffling of the report that has been both praised and vilified–praised because when considered as a health or safety device, a quality suppressor lowers the report of a rifle to levels that won’t damage your hearing; vilified because of the erroneous belief that they totally silence a rifle making it possible to get away with taking a clandestine or otherwise nefarious shot.
When Hiram P. Maxim patented the first commercially successful suppressor in 1908, no one gave any thought to protecting his or her hearing when shooting. The very idea was as foreign to shooting as seatbelts were to another relatively newfangled invention of the time—the automobile. Instead, according to J. David Truby, author of Modern Firearm Silencers, Maxim’s motivation for inventing the device was benevolent–he simply wanted to enjoy shooting without annoying his neighbors. That motivation still applies where human populations are high around hunting areas. “[T]here is not much wilderness in the UK–deer stalking is usually conducted in forests or on farmland in relatively close proximity to the public walking their dogs, running, etc.,” adds Day.
There are two primary sources of the “bang” you hear when a shot goes off. The first is from the large volume of propellant gas escaping under pressure from the muzzle of the gun—like popping a champagne cork–while the other is the sonic boom of the bullet, if that bullet is traveling at supersonic speed. While there’s nothing Maxim could do about the sonic boom (except shoot subsonic ammunition), he reasoned that if he could arrest the gas so that it escaped from the muzzle at a more moderate rate, he could pursue his passion for shooting without significantly bothering anyone.
Maxim’s first attempts revolved around “whirling” the gases before they escaped and the device he came up with looks a lot like a snail shell on the end of the muzzle. The device he ultimately patented, and that looks more like a modern-day tubular suppressor, whirled the gases radially and through a series of baffles contained within the suppressor body. More than 100 years later, the essence of that design endures and is essentially how the SilencerCo suppressors work that Wayne and I were using on that aoudad hunt, though Maxim’s gas whirling turns out to be unnecessary and is not part of the modern design.
We were specifically using Harvester model suppressors that are designed for hunting. They work on chamberings up to .300 magnum and reduce the report by 21 to 34 decibels (dB) depending on such things as the actual chambering and barrel length. I’ve seen gunshot sound measured as loud as 174 dB, so the Harvesters were probably lowering the sound of our rifles to around 140 dB, which is about as loud as a rock concert and where sustained noise exposure (like a rock concert) causes permanent damage but instantaneous exposure (like a gunshot) does not.
Because a suppressor lowers the gunshot to a level that doesn’t instantaneously damage hearing, it makes perfect sense to use them for hunting. Earplugs or muffs will protect us on the range, but we need our hearing when hunting not only to hear game approaching, but also for such things as helping us better know where hunting partners or dogs are and, when hunting dangerous game, if things just got dangerous. We also should not have to sacrifice our hearing for the sake of hunting when there’s a perfectly usable accessory that can muffle the shot.
An added benefit to using suppressors is that they significantly reduce recoil, which helped Wayne immediately get back on target for his follow-up shot. Two variables in the recoil formula are the mass and the velocity of the powder charge, so reducing the velocity of the powder charge (in its gaseous form) reduces actual recoil. At the same time, many suppressors effectively lengthen the barrel, which causes a slight increase in bullet velocity.
Unfortunately for Maxim, the American civilian market for suppressors didn’t exactly catch fire though there were hunters in the field using them. British historian Stephen Critlow reported that even President Theodore Roosevelt used a suppressed .30-cal. rifle on safari when shooting near camp so as not to disturb other people in camp.
Today, there is growing interest in hunting with suppressors, which makes sense as we become more conscious of safety and the real benefits of muffling a gun. Facebook comments from SCI Members around the world bear this out. Gareth Davies comments, “Suppressors are legal here in South Africa, and many farms now insist on it. You can go to the range on any sight-in day before hunting season starts and about 90% of the guns have suppressors… .Why is it required to muffle an engine, but not a firearm?” Terry Taylor posts, “I had a chance to hunt roe deer in Scotland last year. Took a nice buck using a suppressed CZ in .243 Win. A quite civilized way to hunt,” and Kay-Werner Jacobsen tells us, “Just been legalized in Denmark. I have three now [and] love them, both on the range and on the hunt.” “Legal in Sweden,” notes Henrik Randers.
There are also those who are opposed to hunting with suppressors, and as Earl Ridolphi notes, “We would do well to work to remove the stigma and the restrictions on using a suppressor when shooting–target or hunting.” Regardless of individual likes or dislikes for hunting with suppressors, the facts are that they’re legal in many places, make hunting safer and their popularity is growing. Twenty years ago if you had asked me if we’d ever see AR-15-type rifles in the field I would have laughed, but today they’re quite common in many hunting camps. As it is with ARs, suppressors promise to be more of a factor in the hunting fields in future years.– Scott Mayer