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 As suppressor use becomes more mainstream, the odds of that silly NFA regulation being repealed improve.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.

A polite shooting bench.
A polite shooting bench.

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

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16 thoughts on “4 Things That Most People Get Wrong about Silencers

  1. Excellent article and so very true. Suppressors have significantly increased the enjoyment of shooting for this older guy. The advice about using oversize cans is also very accurate. I like my various 17 caliber rifles. They shoot through the 223 caliber can excellently and have allowed me to hit multiple varmints because they react to the sound but do not panic as they did with out the can. I mention that the suppressor is a 223 because one built for a 22 rimfire is not suitable for 223 rifles because of the lack of volume for expansion.. One other important item that was not mentioned, a good quality, properly attaches suppressor has reduced the size of my groups with every accurate rifle I use them on. 17HMR, 17 Mach IV (Fireball), 223, and 308. My rifles use the muzzlebrake attachment design that gives two locating surfaces to assure consistent and repeatable alignment with the bore. Mine are OpsInc and have been great. The Surefires are similar but a lot more expensive and a very similar design.

    One of my 1911’s wears the SilencerCo Osprey 45 shown in the picture above. It makes shooting that great gun a lot more fun, especially when using indoor ranges. Their can sits low and allows the use of conventional sights. If you use a laser grip as I do you will have to cant the can, not the pistol, a little to clear the beam, but not much.
    Last comment, The Feds are jerks and can and will bust anyone using the can that is not the registered owner as with any class 2 firearm. The use of a trust for registration is the best way to legally allow your family to use your suppressor – as advised by my attorney.

    1. I’ve also noticed that in most cases, my groups tighten up. It’s hard to make a general statement that adding a silencer will always improve accuracy, but so far, in my testing, that seems to be the case. Assuming your particular suppressor mounts the same way every time, you’ll see a change in point of impact, but again, in my experience, nothing really dramatic.

  2. If you are looking to purchase a suppressor, I would advise finding a knowledgable attorney who handles a lot of gun trusts to set up a trust for you. It can be really quickly done, I met with a lawyer yesterday morning and had it in hand before noon (I just wish my trip to the department of driver services yesterday was that easy.) I It really isn’t that expensive (it cost me less than an ATF stamp will). The questions a competent trust attorney can answer for you can be a big help. Someone could probably do it himself, but as an attorney I know my own areas of expertise and my limits. I know I’m no expert on the NFA, the ATF, Class 3 Transfers and Gun Trusts. So while i could probably draft a trust and could probably with enough work get it done right, I hired someone who does know what he is doing to draft it for me. I haven’t purchased anything, but if and when I do it will be a lot easier to handle the transaction and I have a lot fewer worries because my attorney sees the whole process carried out from start to finish on a regular basis.

  3. With Alabama joining the states that allow the use of suppressors while hunting it would seem to me that someone would sponsor a bill to have suppressors removed from the 1934 NFA list!

  4. Maybe I overlooked something, but there is one big thing I haven’t seen mentioned in the article or the comments… the Law Enforcement signature on the ATF form. I just had this issue pop up last week regarding a family heirloom. I’m hearing that in many areas it has become very difficult or impossible to find an authorized individual willing to sign. I’ve read that after the Executive Order the corporation and trust work-arounds were closed so a signature would still be needed. Has the ATF done away with the signature requirement or doesn’t a silencer require one like a full auto or SBR does? I welcome any education on the subject since I’m in a jam and don’t want to have to move in order to take possession of the heirloom gun in question.

  5. Maybe in future articles about suppresslincers, the author could include a little bit about holding the silencers in a trust. I’ve heard it can speed up the application process. You have to pay an attorney to establish the trust for the first one, but after that, it should be relatively simple.

  6. Actually, you don’t need to do a NICS check when you pick up your suppressor. On the 4473, there is a box that gets marked by the dealer that states that no background check is needed because the item is a NFA item. The ATF does the background check when you send them your form that the pretty little stamp gets attached to. And very soon, I’ll be a stamp collector too!

  7. In #4, you say ” Thanks Al Capone, you ruined it for us…”. Actually it was thanks to starving Americans during the Great Depression using suppressed firearms to poach game animals to feed their families. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked that silencers/suppressors be added to the NFA as a result.

  8. can I get information to obtain the proper forms to fill out .I have tried a few links from other sites, the link always comes up as blank page…thanks.

  9. Its called a Silencer. You can call it a suppressor if it makes you feel good but the inventor of the device named it a silencer, the government and regulating body refers to them as silencer in all of the official paperwork etc. If I take a silencer and weld the ends shut its still a silencer according to the ATF,. It doesnt matter what it does in practice. It could be an empty tube threased on the end that did nothing and it would still be a silencer.Items in gerneral do not get their name from what they do.. Once Hiram Maxim named it a silencer and sold them through his Maxims Silenced Firearms Company that became the end of the discussion about what they were called. Suppressor is a term that a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine came up with in the 1970’s to market the devices to police agencies and the military who wouldnt be caught dead purchasing a “silencer” for official duties. Don’t be a stooge for a hack SOF writer.

    Proud owner of 7 silencers and not one of them makes my guns silent..

  10. Hearing loss can affect relationships, education, productivity, and most importantly, emotional well being. For the estimated 30 million people in the U.S. who have a hearing loss, selecting the most suitable hearing solution can be a critical factor in achieving a balanced life.

    Most adults acquire hearing loss gradually over time. Thus, many people with a significant hearing loss avoid getting help because they do not realize they have a problem.

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