What You Should Know About Suppressors

The use of suppressors on hunting rifles is growing by leaps and bounds, and it’s time to educate your customers.

What You Should Know About Suppressors

The author with his elk dropped with a suppressed rifle. (Photo: Bob Robb)

On a South African plains game hunt back in 2006, professional hunter Andrew Renton and I carefully stalked to within 150 yards of a large herd of blesbok. We topped a small rise on our bellies and, using my daypack as a rifle rest for Andrew’s 7mm Rem. Mag., I put the crosshairs on the front shoulder of the largest ram, and squeezed the trigger. He went down in a heap — and the herd kept on feeding as if nothing had happened.

This was my first experience hunting with a modern suppressed rifle. The sound of the shot was so soft the remaining blesbok either didn’t hear it at all, or were not concerned if they did. And while I’m sure I also heard it, all I can remember is the rifle’s recoil.

That game is spooked much less by the muffled sound of a suppressed rifle is just one reason their use is growing by leaps and bounds in America these days.

As you get older, you realize you can’t turn back the hands of time, but one of the things I wish I had done differently in my early years is take better care of my hearing. Today I’m pretty deaf, the result of too much noise exposure without hearing protection. Guns going off, things blowing up, classic rock & roll, street cars with big motors and no mufflers, and much more have taken their toll.

Today people don’t have the excuse we had, which was simply, we didn’t know better. You do. That’s why shooters and hunters should consider using a suppressor on their firearms, if it’s legal to do so. 

Suppressors Aren’t Silencers

Suppressors, also known as silencers, have been called the hearing protection of the 21st century sportsman. They were invented in 1903 by Hiram Percy Maxim, who also invented the automobile muffler. Despite common misconceptions, suppressors are not silent — they are simply mufflers for firearms, which function by trapping the expanding gasses at the muzzle and allowing them to slowly cool. More specifically, a suppressor uses a series of baffles that slows the release of these gases, which are what produces the loud noise when a firearm is triggered. How much the noise is lessened is a function of several things, including the size and type of suppressor, the cartridge and barrel length of the firearm, and more.

Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus are two of the most common afflictions for recreational shooters and hunters. Suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by an average of 20 to 35 dB, which is roughly the same as earplugs or earmuffs. By decreasing the overall sound signature, suppressors help to preserve the hearing of shooters and hunters around the world.

For example, a typical gunshot from a firearm, whether coming from a 9mm round from a popular handgun, a 5.56mm round from your favorite AR-15, or a .30-06 from your favorite deer rifle, will produce about 160 dB of noise. By comparison, a jackhammer is about 110 dB and an ambulance siren is about 120 dB. With a suppressor attached, a gunshot will typically be reduced to about 120 dB. That’s certainly not “silent,” but it is an improvement, and one reason why even on the shooting range when shooting suppressed firearms additional ear protection is recommended.

According to Dr. William W. Clark, director of the Washington University School of Medicine’s Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences, “The most serious threat to hearing comes from recreational hunting or target shooting.” This is in large part due to the fact that many hunters choose not to use traditional hearing protection devices like earplugs and earmuffs because they want to be able to hear their surroundings. Multiple studies have found that a high percentage of hunters never wear earplugs or earmuffs, and nearly half of all target shooters don’t consistently wear traditional hearing protection. Thus, it should come as no surprise that for every five years of hunting, hunters become 7 percent more likely to experience high frequency hearing loss.

In a 2011 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated, “The only potentially effective noise control method to reduce students’ or instructors’ noise exposure from gunfire is through the use of noise suppressors that can be attached to the end of the gun barrel.”

In a similar study from 2014 on noise exposure at shooting ranges, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended, “if feasible and legally permissible, attach noise suppressors to firearms to reduce peak sound pressure levels.” And in March 2017, the National Hearing Conservation Association’s Task Force on Prevention of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss from Firearm Noise stated that “using firearms equipped with suppressors” is one of “several strategies [that] can be employed to reduce the risk of acquiring NIHL and associated tinnitus from firearm noise exposure.”

Sales Regulations

In the United States suppressors are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and fall under the National Firearms Act of 1934. NFA items can be registered to an individual, a living trust or a corporation. People must be at least 21 years of age to purchase a suppressor from a dealer, be at least 18 years of age to purchase a suppressor from an individual on a Form 4 to Form 4 transfer (contingent on state laws), or be at least 18 years of age to possess a suppressor as a beneficiary of a trust or as a member of a corporation (contingent on state laws).

One must also be a resident of the United States and be legally eligible to purchase a firearm, pass a BATFE background check with a typical process time of eight to 10 months, pay a one-time $200 Transfer Tax, and reside in one of the 42 states that currently allows civilian ownership of suppressors.

Why the $200 tax? Ever see the old TV show or the movie, The Untouchables, where during the 1920s and 30s the Feds were constantly battling evil gangsters like Al Capone? On June 26, 1934, the federal government — often outgunned by the gangsters — passed the NFA, which “provided for the taxation of manufacturers, importers and dealers in certain firearms and machine guns, taxed the sale or other disposal of such weapons, and restricted importation and regulate interstate transportation thereof.” Part of the Act was placing a $200 “Sin Tax” on silencers (about $3,600 in today’s dollars) that would effectively ban their purchase by the majority of Americans. That $200 tax still stands today. 

Simple Operation

Detachable suppressors are really easy to use, assuming a firearm has a barrel that has been threaded to accept one. “Direct thread” is one common method of suppressor attachment. This requires the muzzle of your firearm’s barrel to be threaded, which can be easily done by a gunsmith, although many new rifle models today come with a threaded barrel, the threads being covered by a screw-on end cap when a suppressor is not attached. The suppressor then simply screws onto the barrel. There are many thread types, but the most common are 1/2x28 for most .22 calibers, 9mm handguns and AR-15s, and 5/8x24 for rifles of .308 and similar size.

Another attachment method is quick attachment, in which a brand-specific adapter must be threaded to your firearm’s barrel, and a corresponding female adaptor threaded to the suppressor. Then the suppressor can be affixed to the firearm with a partial twist that takes less than a second. And, of course, today some firearms come with an integral suppressor, which means it is part of the rifle or handgun barrel.

A common concern is whether a suppressor will affect accuracy. The answer is “maybe.” Attaching anything to a rifle barrel can change its harmonics and, thus, its accuracy, both in terms of group size and point of impact. So you have to spend some range time to get it dialed in. In my admittedly limited experience with suppressors, accuracy has usually improved. And a suppressor helps reduce recoil, which always helps your shooting.

A few years ago I was invited to a long-range shooting class sponsored in part by Utah-based suppressor manufacturer SilencerCo. We rang gongs out to 900 meters on a regular basis using both bolt action and AR-style rifles with suppressors attached. The SilencerCo representatives told us accuracy and our ability to put the bullet where we wanted would be enhanced with suppressed rifles — and they were right.

People often ask, “Can I legally transport my suppressor to another state?” The answer is yes, if the state to which you are traveling is also a place where you can legally own one. Just remember that you should first do a quick online search to learn the laws regarding NFA items in the state you will be traveling to, and that there are some states where certain or all NFA items are not legal.

In The Field

On a November 2018 elk and mule deer hunt in the Madison River Valley of Montana just south of Bozeman, Jumping Horse Ranch manager and outfitter Jeff Klein and John Way, a long-time Montana hunting and fishing guide and current president of the Montana Outfitters Association, squired me around as I carried a Remington Gen 2 rifle chambered in .300 Win. Mag. with a Silent Legion SL-30 Direct Thread suppressor and loaded with Barnes VOR-TX ammunition featuring the 180-grain Barnes tipped TSX bullet.

This combination produced three-shot, 100-yard groups measuring right at 1/2 inch. Recoil was negligible, and when the time came, I made one-shot kills on both animals at moderate distances. The amazing thing, though, was the fact that just as was the case with the South African blesbok so many years ago, none of the adjacent animals showed any undue excitement at the sound of the shot.

One practical observation: Suppressors are long and relatively heavy. For example, SilencerCo’s Omega 300, designed for calibers from 5.77mm to .300 Win. Mag., is 7.09 inches long, 1.56 inches in diameter and weighs 14 ounces. The Silent Legion SL-30 I hunted with is 9.2 inches long, 1.5 inches in diameter and weighs 17.5 ounces. This can make an already long barrel even longer and more difficult to maneuver afield. The Remington Gen 2 I carried comes with a 24-inch barrel, and after my Montana hunt, I’m thinking a shorter barrel makes more sense when adding a suppressor. 

The Future

According to the American Suppressor Association, as of 2019 the use of suppressors is legal in 42 states — the exceptions are Hawaii, California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — and in the 42 states where suppressors are legal, they are allowed for hunting in all but two (Connecticut and Vermont).

Back in 2015, the first version of what is commonly known as the Hearing Protection Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Essentially, if passed, the law would have removed suppressors from the NFA, and made the requirements for getting a suppressor the same as those for buying long guns. Basically, buying a suppressor would just require a background check through the NCIS database to make sure you aren’t a criminal, and you’d be good to go. The stigma of the general public owning evil “silencers” remains from back in the days of Eliot Ness, so passing the HPA was not politically acceptable to most of our congressmen and senators.

In 2017, there was another push for the HPA, but it was inserted as part of the SHARE Act, which was a pro-2A bill that was aimed at reducing unnecessary burdens on hunters, fishermen and gun-owners. The SHARE Act, in addition to increasing federal funding for public shooting ranges and opening more federal lands to hunting, fishing and shooting, would have removed suppressors from the NFA, eliminated the $200 tax, and required the destruction of the registration records of current suppressor owners. But even with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the SHARE Act didn’t get anywhere, and so died again. In 2019, the HPA was reintroduced as its own bill, with basically the same goals as the 2015 and 2017 versions. As this was being written in summer 2019, its fate was uncertain.

If the HPA or a similar bill were to pass, it would be much simpler and quicker for the general public to purchase and use suppressors. Regardless, suppressor use for both recreational shooting and hunting is here to stay. According to data provided to Shooting Sports Retailer by the National Shooting Sports Federation, from 2010 to 2016 suppressor sales grew by a whopping 533.6 percent. 

Certainly, becoming licensed to be able sell suppressors and their accessories is not for every dealer. If you are interested, a good place to find some basic information about the process can be found on the NSSF website.

One thing is for certain, however: Suppressors are here to stay. I just wish I’d had them available when I was younger and still had all my hearing.


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