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The Real Scoop on Sound Suppression

Hollywood has done a terrific job at placing suppressors in a negative context.


Thanks to Hollywood, gun mufflers, sound suppressors or “silencers”—one and the same—are viewed in a negative context by many non-shooters. But the truth is that noise suppressors are used daily—as they have been for more than a century—to enhance safety, ease instruction and improve accuracy for shooters of all demographics.

How Do They Work?
The first thing you need to understand is that when a cartridge is fired, there is no gunpowder “explosion” in the way that some may think. Smokeless gunpowder does not explode, it just burns very fast. The primer ignites when struck by the firing pin, and the powder is ignited by the primer. As it burns, it forms a very high-pressure gas, forcing the bullet down and out the barrel followed by all the residual hot gas. The loud “boom” you hear is the expulsion of gasses happening all at once, with little or no restriction.

To put the function of a sound suppressor it in its simplest terms, the suppressor works by slowing, redirecting and cooling the hot gasses created when the cartridge is fired. We can get into all kinds of scientific terminology, but that is the general function. If we relate it to something we are all familiar with, it will be easier to understand. Think of a balloon. If you release the gas very fast by use of a pin, it will make a “boom.” If you untie the knot and let go, the high-pressure gas inside will bleed out a little slower through the sputtering neck, making much less noise. If you hold the end when untied and slowly let the air out by using pressure of your fingers to control the flow, it will make very little noise, if any. A modern suppressor would fit roughly between the last two examples.

If you were to look at an X-ray of a silencer, depending on when it was made and who made it, you would likely see a few common features. There would be an expansion chamber close to the muzzle, a series of baffles that redirect the escaping gasses and end caps holding everything together. That is where the similarities end. Early sound suppressors used “wipes” that were constructed of a soft material that projectiles would pass through, closing up quickly behind them. Another effective type of suppressor was (and still is in some cases) an artificial environmental suppressor, or “wet can.” This suppressor typically uses no wipes, but performs best when a cooling liquid is introduced to the suppressor before firing. As the gasses cool they lose “energy” and are quieter than hot gasses.

Many modern suppressors use a baffle stack after the expansion chamber and before the end cap where the projectile exits. Current baffle shapes, types, materials and construction methods are sometimes closely guarded company secrets but two common styles encountered are “K” baffles and “M” baffles, named after the letter they most resemble if they were cross cut and viewed from the side.

To get an idea of how well a quality suppressor works, you can compare it to an automobile muffler. If you hear a dragster or stock car running on open headers with no muffler of any kind it will be very loud. It may damage your long-term hearing. That is the case with many unsuppressed firearms. If you listen to an automobile with a proper exhaust system, it will not be “silent” but will certainly not hurt your ears. That is a reasonable general comparison.

Another factor in firearm noise is that many projectiles travel at speeds above the speed of sound. The speed of sound is about 1,115 fps (at 32 degrees F at sea level). Elevation and temperature will affect that number. Anything breaking the speed of sound will produce an audible “crack,” and it is unrelated to the expulsion of gasses when related to shooting. Because of this sonic crack, it is unlikely a gunshot could go undetected, even with the best suppressor on the market. Subsonic ammunition can be used to alleviate some of the residual noise, but it is tough to meet the expectations created by the movie industry.

Positive Suppressor Use
Sound suppressors have some very beneficial uses, starting with training new and nervous shooters. The noise of firing a gun by those new to the sport is often associated with pain and recoil. The noise actually has little to do with either but perception can be powerful, especially when trying something for the first time. For that reason I have found great success in using suppressed firearms in training new shooters. Their enhanced comfort level allows them to concentrate on the fundamentals instead of developing bad habits, like a flinch they will fight to get rid of later.

Another benefit is avoiding scaring or bothering adjoining property owners. To many of us, the sound of gunfire from recreational shooting is as American as apple pie. Others, who may not have grown up in a rural paradise, find it bothersome and nerve-racking—maybe even to the point of unnecessarily involving law enforcement. Using sound suppressors allows you to go about your training, plinking, competing, hunting, etc., without broadcasting your activities over a wide area for miles around.

Using a suppressor is just being polite. If you are going to build a race track on your land because you are an off-road enthusiast and want to practice much more often than most people, you will seldom bother those in the surrounding area due to the muffler on your vehicles. If you have a shooting range on your property and desire to shoot whenever you can, a sound suppressor can allow you to shoot as much as you like and keep good relations with the neighbors. In some of the few European countries where firearm ownership is allowed it is considered rude to not have a “muffler” on a firearm, and they are sold unrestricted and over the counter. When Americans tell them suppressors are treated like “spy gear” in the United States and most people don’t use them they often ask if we drive our automobiles with no mufflers either, bothering everyone we encounter.


There is also the benefit of enhanced accuracy. Through the last few decades of being involved in testing and evaluation I have found that a quality suppressor attached to your firearm can have positive benefits in decreasing group sizes. As with any muzzle device it changes barrel harmonics and, more often than not, makes group sizes smaller.

As someone who has been responsible for overseeing many large, live-fire events I can say with certainty that a hot firing line full of suppressed firearms is a safer environment. When you can communicate without yelling through someone’s hearing protection and over the loud sound signature it is much easier to call a “Cease Fire” if an unsafe condition or concern may come into play. When you are all able to communicate using a normal voice and have no ear plugs on, communication potential is far easier.

There are also health reasons to use a suppressor. How many old shooters do you know who use the words “WHAT?” or “HUH?” several times during a conversation? This isn’t a coincidence; it is a result of long-term hearing loss. In most industries, safety monitoring organizations mandate the use of hearing protection in noisy environments such as construction sites, mills, assembly lines and automotive garages. Sound suppressors not only bring sound below the threshold of pain, they bring it below the threshold of damage. Even though most people wear hearing protection at the range, most do not while hunting and will suffer hearing damage at some point in their lives.

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19 Responses to The Real Scoop on Sound Suppression

Gary wrote:
December 20, 2012

I really hate California :( Quit Complaining

Daniel Boone wrote:
November 16, 2012

Of course I live far far outside my city limits. I've spent many a early morning getting rid of fruit rats and gophers on my estate. My sound suppressed 22 cal. firearms are more quiet than my hunting air rifles.

Mack Missiletoe wrote:
October 15, 2012

I think the tax stamp price should be adjusted to $25.00 that way we all are happy. When I think of having to pay $200 plus the cost of the suppressor I am often turned off. I was planning on getting a suppressor for my .308 but ...I had to sell it :( I don't think it would have been 'quiet' but I know it would have been more pleasant to shoot--not just for me but also my neighbors. Funny thing, the gun shop is selling my rifle for more $$$ now than I originally paid for it! What a fail on my part... haha Good day!

Paul Atlanta wrote:
October 10, 2012

Also, I would love to have one but not at the expense of govt. fee or having my name and address in a database. We all recall what happened to the database of gun owners in Germany in 1933-34

Paul in Atlanta wrote:
October 10, 2012

Excellent article, Jeff, but I have a better reason why your suppressed groups are tighter then unsuppressed on P76: it's called "barrel mass and length." Muzzle flip is the result of torque applied by the equal and opposite force down the barrel.. which translates into twisting moment because the barrel axis is not the same as the axis of hold. The more mass in the barrel,the further it is from the pivot point close to the top of the wrist, the less "flip". Even my 3.5 inch barrel Kahr P9 covert 3.5 inch barrel and one ounce more of weight shoots tighter groups than 3 inch barreled PM9. The moment arm of an 8 inch suppressor way out there is controlling your barrel nicely. Not vibrations in the barrel.

Dabe wrote:
October 06, 2012

Wisco is correct, there are actually two other ways to buy a silencer. 1. Living Trust, 2. Corporation. Either way there is no Law Enforcement approval needed. In addition, any "trustee" in the trust or "officer" of the Corporation can use/posses the silencer. The way this article describes, only the person on the Tax Stamp can technically use/posses the silencer.

Sage wrote:
September 28, 2012

This is a good article. I have formed a facebook group to support the idea of completely deregulating firearm suppressors. It likely won't happen soon, but it would be nice to get more people talking about it. Feel free to join the group if you are interested.

Al wrote:
September 27, 2012

If you have a CCW license, do you need to pay the $200 background check fee?

Wisco wrote:
September 26, 2012

If you set up an NFA Trust (around $300) a person cam avoid any notification of local law enforcement, as well as avoiding the FBI fingerprint requirement for individuals. The current wait is approximately 6 months - due to the Obama Administration's intentional delay tactics. Buy them now; if Obama is re-elected, he WILL go after items like these

BigKid wrote:
September 26, 2012

In Europe, you have a hard time getting a firearm, but not a suppressor. In the USA it is just the opposite. The high cost and hoops to get a suppressor in the USA is just another form of Gun Control. Just Not Necessary.

MD Willington wrote:
September 25, 2012

The Following States Allow Private Ownership Of Suppressors: AL, AR, AK, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD,MI, MS, MT, ND, NE, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI, WV, And WY. They require a tax stamp and background check that takes quite some time at present.

roadie wrote:
September 25, 2012

I was reading they are legal for hunting in Texas, but you have to go through BATFE to get them.

Gary wrote:
September 24, 2012

Great primer on suppressors but there was no mention of the other methods of purchasing that does not require fingerprints or sign off by chief Leo ( a lot of whom refuse to) I do specific trusts for this purpose here in Florida

ArmsVault.com wrote:
September 21, 2012

You mean to tell me that Hollywood has been spreading untruths about guns?!?!

Vince wrote:
September 21, 2012

As gadget said, semantics do make a difference. The acronym AR DOES NOT stand for Assault Rifle. When Armalite came out with their plastic and aluminum rifle they named it as the Armalite Rifle. That's where the term AR came from.

Rich Holland wrote:
September 21, 2012

Can average civilians own one, and if so which states allow them? I would like to add one to my 300 win mag for night hog hunting, I live in Louisiana.

Gadget wrote:
September 20, 2012

In Britain, they are required on guided hunts. It's a workplace safety issue in consideration of the guide. Makes sense. And please, no firearms enthusiast should _ever_ call them a "silencer." As we've said, they don't "silence" anything. It's just a movie word, or a gun-grabber's word - precisely the reason that we shouldn't use it! And yes, semantics DO make a difference. There's no such thing as a modern "assault rifle" either, remember? They're suppressors, period. If we could get in front of the grabbers and get to folks before they're scared by our lying opposition, we'd be much better off.

Czechnology wrote:
September 19, 2012

Unfortunately, in many european countries sound supressors are also treated as "spy gear": Austria - not allowed Czech Republic - not allowed Slovakia - not allowed Germany - special permit required Switzerland - not allowed

brent salladay wrote:
September 18, 2012

my tac 65 suppreso on a p22 walther is amazinly quiet more so than a co2 pistol no joke