It is a classic movie trope, an assassin walks up to someone and uses a “silencer” to muffle the sound of a firearm, and when fired, little more than a “pop” to be heard. While the term “silencer” is often used by the uniformed, these devices don’t actually silence a firearm.
More accurately known as “suppressors,” it is a device simply meant to reduce the loudness—the decibels—from what is potentially dangerous to your hearing to one that is far safer. In some tests, suppressors can lower the decibels from 160, which after repeated exposure can cause permanent hearing loss, to around 120 decibels. That is still multiple times louder than the average volume of individuals speaking.
How Does It Work?
As noted, a suppressor doesn’t actually silence. Rather it dampens the gas that exits the barrel after each shot. In the movies “silencers” appear to be little more than a long tube that attaches to the end of the barrel, but that’s likely because that is all it is—a movie prop. Moreover, blanks used in movies are already typically far quieter than real bullets, but for scenes involving silencers the blanks are simply less powerful and thus quieter still.
In real life, a suppressor is far more complex, and it includes rings or baffles that are designed to slow down the gases. As the gas is slowed and dispersed, it is also cooled and thus creates a quieter sound. But don’t confuse quieter with quiet—as stated above the decibels are still loud enough that extended exposure to the sound could be damaging to one’s hearing.
One film, The American starring George Clooney, actually shows the process of making a suppressor and notes that it doesn’t completely silence a weapon—however, it being a movie it was still considerably quieter than a real world counterpart.
There are other notable benefits to the use of suppressors. The extra weight can reduce the muzzle lift, which can aid in recoil. It can also reduce the muzzle flash considerably.
The Legality of Suppressors
Another common myth is that “silencers” are illegal—and again this is where movies are to blame. Suppressors are actually legal in many states, but are considered a National Firearms Act (NFA) item. Therefore they, like automatic weapons and short barreled rifles/shotguns, require an extensive background check as well as a transfer fee that is paid to obtain the item.
The process to buy a suppressor is handled via a gun deal through the ATF’s NFA office in Martinsburg, West Virginia and usually takes around nine months or longer.
A common question is asked then, “Why would anyone need such an item,” and the answer is to make shooting more comfortable for the reasons stated above. Criminals, including those movie-inspired freelance assassins, wouldn’t actually jump through the legal hurdles to buy an item, but sport shooters do because it enables them to use their firearms without the fear that every pull of the trigger could be doing permanent damage to their hearing.
In 2017, The Washington Post laid out an excellent background on how a suppressor works and the process to buy one, and surprisingly even offered the three main reasons for wanting a suppressor: “reduction of noise pollution, hearing protection, and safety training.”
The issue has even been brought up by lawmakers as the “Hearing Protection Act” in recent years, but unfortunately here is where the myths of silencers have done the most damage. Opponents of the act have thus far successfully argued that by removing the complex background check process would be a threat to public safety. Criminals would use these items in crimes, police could be ambushed and mass shootings would become more deadly because no one would hear the carnage.
None of that is true of course, but the myth of silencers has largely outweighed and even “silenced” the facts.
As a result, it has remained a bipartisan issue, and even liberal lawmakers who know the truth likely understand that the fear mongering is so great that opposition is what will make their constituents happy.
Until Republicans take control of both the House and Senate and the White House again, it is unlikely that suppressors will be made more widely available. The good news at least is that it is still possible to own one—provided you don’t live in states such as New York, New Jersey, California or a handful of other states—although it will take that extended background check.
Silence is said to be golden, and while true silence and firearms are a myth, there are options to reduce the noise. It just takes time, and the right address, to own such a device.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.