As gun suppressors are covered by the nearly-ancient 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA), there’s a lot of mystery surrounding them. When I haul suppressors out to my local range, I continue to be amazed by the number of people who still don’t know that they are legal to own in most states.
To me, using suppressors isn’t just fun, it’s polite and safe. Yes, the shooting experience without the normal muzzle blast is highly addictive on its own. When you consider the positive side effects of hearing protection and reduction of environmental noise, use of a suppressor becomes a no-brainer.
Let’s get busy and spread the word. As suppressor use becomes more mainstream, the odds of that silly NFA regulation being repealed improve. Better yet, as more people buy them, prices will fall.
But first, lets examine four common misconceptions about suppressors.
1. It’s called a suppressor, not a silencer!
Note that I’ve only used the term “suppressor” so far in this article (save for the title – Ed). That’s on purpose to make a point. Technically, these products should really be called silencers. Not because they silence gun shots, but because that was the original name.
Way back in 1902, a guy named Hiram Percy Maxim invented this device and called it the Maxim Silencer. His invention didn’t completely silence a gunshot, but he still called it a silencer. I suppose that was his prerogative as the inventor. If the name Maxim sounds familiar to you, it should. Percy Hiram Maxim was the son of Hiram Stevens Maxim. Hiram Stevens was the guy that invented the first recoil-operated machine gun—you know, that clunky looking one with the big iron wheels.
So technically speaking, one is more correct using the word silencer. However, the industry latched onto the term “suppressor” for many years. Maybe because the term was more descriptive and probably more politically correct. In the past couple of years, you may have noticed more use of the term “silencer” by companies in the business. From here on out, I’ll use the terms silencer and suppressor interchangeably as both are correct.
2. It’s safe to shoot without ear protection when you’ve got a suppressor on your gun!
Well, sort of. Danger related to sound exposure is a tricky thing.
First, the way sound is measured is complicated. Most commonly, sound is measured by the decibel level, named after Alexander Graham Bell. The hard part is that decibels work on a logarithmic scale. This means that 20 dB is not twice as loud as 10 dB—it’s actually about 10 times as loud. But we won’t get involved in all that. Just realize that a few decibels can make a huge difference in perceived noise.
Second, you have to worry about duration of exposure to loud noise. One momentary “exposure” to a 140-dB sound can permanently damage your hearing. But so can repeated exposure to sound levels less than that. In fact, OSHA limits average sound exposure over an eight-hour shift to 85 dB—not a whole lot more than the noise of a vacuum cleaner.
Now back to guns. The venerable 1911, firing a 230-grain .45 ACP cartridge, will generate about 162 dB of sound. One shot near unprotected ears will cause permanent hearing loss. Each additional exposure will add cumulative hearing loss. The problem is, you won’t know you’ve damaged your hearing until it’s too late, and nothing can be done to repair the damage. Always wear hearing protection, folks!
Putting a suppressor on that 1911 will reduce the sound to somewhere around 133 dB. That’s below the OSHA maximum exposure level for an “impulse noise.” But you don’t want to expose your ears to a continuous barrage of 133-dB noise, either.
The bottom line is that silencers are great, and a massive improvement to hearing safety. Just be smart and use hearing protection anyway when firing suppressed. A shot or two here and there probably won’t hurt you, but you don’t want to spend hours at a shooting range surrounded by noise in the 130-dB range.
3. Oversized silencers are loud!
Right now, silencers are expensive. They’re not cheap to buy, and every purchase requires a $200 payment to Uncle Sam. As a result, it’s tempting to buy a larger-caliber silencer. If the hole in the end is large, say .45 caliber, then you can shoot .40 S&W, 9x19mm, .380 ACP, and even .22 LR through that suppressor. That sounds pretty good as you can buy one suppressor for all of your pistol calibers. But, since the hole is oversized in those cases, it won’t be as quiet as a model optimized for a specific caliber.
The question is, how much suppressing efficiency do you really lose? As it turns out, not much. The exact numbers vary with suppressor manufacturer, model, and caliber, but as a rule of thumb, you can count on losing a couple of decibels of suppression.
As a specific example, I have a SilencerCo Octane 45. Shooting a 147-grain 9x19mm round through that oversized suppressor will generate about 130 dB. Shooting the same round through the SilencerCo Octane 9 model creates about 127 dB. But sound is not that simple, remember? The 45 suppressor is physically larger and yields a different tone, so the real “volume” difference is not so noticeable.
Unless you’ve got a lot of bucks to invest in a suppressor collection, think about ordering the larger-caliber model to give yourself options.
4. Silencers are not legal for regular folks to own!
Thanks, Al Capone, you ruined it for all of us. Back in 1934, the feds decided that silencers were a bad thing, and now we all have to fork out lots of money and ask for permission to get one.
Even still, ownership and use of suppressors is legal in 39 states. For the latest status, you can check with the American Suppressor Association. You have to be 21 to buy a silencer from a retail dealer, and, of course, be otherwise eligible to purchase a firearm.
Getting one is not as hard as it may sound, and your dealer will know the process and help you navigate the paperwork. In short, you have to pay for your suppressor, then file an application with the BATFE. Send in your application plus $200, then wait for a few months. They’ll send back a copy of your application with a really nice and colorful stamp on it. It better be nice, as that stamp cost you 200 bucks. Now, you can pick up your suppressor, after passing the traditional NICS check of course. Yes, that’s right, after the ATF looks at your application for a couple of months, you still have to do the NICS background check. Because government.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll walk through the step-by-step process of how to legally buy and use a silencer.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Images by Tom McHale