In browsing through gun catalogs as we all do, I’m sure you’ve noticed that more and more gun manufacturers are offering models that are “suppressor-ready” (threaded and capped muzzles), so perhaps a discussion of them here would be timely.
The term “suppressor” was coined as a euphemism for “silencer,” because apparently the latter had sinister connotations in the minds of many. Besides, a silencer doesn’t make a firearm silent, far from it, but it does reduce the noise level. Suppress, therefore, is a more accurate and politically correct term. Whatever term you prefer, they appeared on the scene right at the turn of the 20th century and could be bought here in hardware stores for about $3.50. Then in 1934, in reaction to the lawlessness of Prohibition, the National Firearms Act was passed, making suppressor ownership both difficult and, with a 200-dollar fee, expensive. Indeed, in 1934 $200 was equivalent to $3,500 today!
Anyway, just what are the benefits of a suppressed rifle…or for that matter, a handgun or shotgun? Well, there are actually more than one might think. First and foremost of course is that of reducing noise levels to where shooters don’t have to wear hearing protection (though it is still recommended). According to OSHA, continued/sustained noise levels above 140db will cause permanent hearing damage, and a .22 LR pistol can crank out as much as 160db! Most, but not all, suppressors reduce noise levels to below that 140 figure. Imagine being able to shoot without the discomfort of wearing earplugs or muffs!
Unfortunately for me, however, suppressors have become accessible far too late. If there’s a legal benchmark for determining deafness, I can’t be far from it. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to not be able to participate in conversation unless someone is sitting either directly across or next to me in social situations where there’s background noise, music or conversation going on. To be polite I often laugh or nod in the affirmative when I actually hadn’t heard a word of what was said. You can imagine how that can sometimes result in terribly embarrassing situations — like laughing when someone tells you their spouse just passed away!
My deafness is not the result of ignorance, for I’ve always worn plugs/muffs when shooting. It’s just that I’ve been subjected to so many gunshots while hunting, which is the one situation where you don’t want your hearing impaired — at least I don’t. That, and the fact that I’ve been testing and writing about guns all my life. At shooting ranges you’re always going to be subjected to those unexpected shots when for whatever reason you didn’t have your “ears” on.
Noise suppression is only part of the picture. A suppressor is also a muzzle brake, and as such can reduce recoil by as much as 50 percent with some guns (it depends on the action type and the specific cartridge). With your typical bolt-action centerfire hunting rifle, recoil reduction averages around 25-30 percent, which is substantial. When you combine the two benefits — recoil and noise reduction — you can’t help but be a better shooter because the tendency to flinch is reduced. Flinching in anticipation of noise and recoil is what prevents many hunters from taking full advantage of the accuracy their rifles are capable of.
Yet another function of a suppressor is that of reducing or eliminating muzzle flash. Though not important in the hunting context, it has obvious benefits in military and law enforcement. What is of value in the hunting context is that a reduction in muzzle blast makes it more difficult for animals to determine from which direction the danger is coming, and which direction to flee. In other words, it can delay the animal’s reaction to bolt, thus keeping them stationary for a few extra seconds should a follow-up shot be needed.
In the home defense context suppressors offer a decided advantage. Most folks don’t realize that firing a pistol, shotgun or rifle indoors is so deafening that the first shot can be disorienting. And if fired in darkness — which is often the case — the muzzle flash is blinding. Under those circumstances your situational awareness is none too good, so less noise, recoil and muzzle flash can give you an advantage over an intruder.
When combined with sub-sonic loads, suppressors become even more effective. Any load that’s formulated to exit less than 1,140 fps (the speed of sound at sea level), does not produce the sharp crack or sonic signature that supersonic loads do. The result is a further lowering of the muzzle report by another 10-12db for an average of
around 125db, along with a dramatic reduction in recoil. But then so too is there a dramatic reduction in delivered energy, accompanied by rainbow-like trajectories. However, a cartridge like the .300 Whisper/AAC Blackout in a suppressed rifle still shoots flat enough and has more than enough energy to be lethal on small to medium game at short to moderate ranges. Suppressed AR-platform rifles, for example, are highly popular for feral hog hunting. Then too, a suppressed rifle shooting sub-sonic ammunition makes it more difficult to not only determine from which direction the sound is emanating, but also to identify it as actually being a gunshot. Obviously, these are huge advantages in tactical applications.
As for how they work, the basic principle is simple enough. A hollow tube is threaded onto the muzzle of the barrel through which the bullet (or shot string) passes. When the expanding gasses enter the chamber they are both cooled and decelerated by internal baffles or chambers, so that when the gasses exit, it is at a lower velocity and with less noise. There is no right way to build a suppressor, as they all differ in design detail. SilencerCo, the largest manufacturer of suppressors, offers dozens of different models for rifle, pistol and shotgun, and no two are exactly alike. What they all share, however, is that they are deceptively simple on the outside, but quite complex inside.
As of this writing 41 states now allow civilian use of suppressors, and 39 allow them for hunting. There are BATF forms that must be filled out, along with a background check and a licensing fee of $200, so acquiring one can be a slight PITA. There are also trusts through which suppressors can be acquired, but it’s too complicated to go into any of that stuff here. So too are local and state regs pertaining to hunting. To learn more about both, go to www.silencerco.com and the www.americansuppressorassociation.com websites.
In closing, are there any disadvantages suppressors might pose? The only ones I can think of, other than the cost and paperwork, is that they’re ugly, and they change the balance and handling characteristics of the rifle. They also lengthen the barrel to where, unless you want to sacrifice a lot of velocity by going to an 18” or 20” barrel, the gun becomes unwieldy. And while there is no appreciable loss in velocity with a suppressed vs. unsuppressed rifle, there’s almost certain to be a change in point of impact if you switch back and forth. –Jon R. Sundra