It seems that ownership and use of firearm noise suppressors, also referred to as “silencers” or “cans”, are increasingly popular in the United States. Manufacturers have responded to the increased interest and demand with new, innovative products. For those considering acquiring suppressors, I thought it might be useful if I shared my recent experiences. While there are many legal hurdles to suppressor ownership, they can be addressed fairly easily at a reasonable cost and effort. Since I am not a lawyer, I can only provide a layman’s perspective. Therefore I suggest that you research the applicable legal requirements of the federal, state, and local laws and seek legal advice from a cognizant attorney in your state as required. There are lawyers that specialize in firearms issues in most states.
Why Purchase a Suppressor For a Firearm?
Although I initially thought that a suppressor would allow me to be able to fire a firearm nearly silently, I have learned that all suppressors significantly reduce noise, but extreme quietness is possible only in certain circumstances. I have found that with the reduction in noise and blast that suppressors provide, I can enjoy all forms of shooting much more. In states that allow hunting with suppressors, the hunter is able to listen for game and exercise situational awareness with less concern about hearing damage when firing. Should a firearm need to be used inside the home or in close quarters to protect loved ones, a suppressor will reduce hearing damage to those inside the home. In the end, my interest in suppressors is to preserve my precious hearing while shooting. While traditional hearing protection (plugs and/or muffs) provide some protection from gunfire noise, it is more effective to reduce the noise level. You may wish to continue to use hearing protection, even when shooting with the suppressor.
Applications for Suppressors
In my experience, there are two basic applications for suppressors:
1) The first approach is to add a suppressor to a full-powered weapon. Perhaps you practice, hunt, train, or compete with an M4, AK, SCAR, or centerfire bolt action in common calibers, such as 5.56×45, 7.62×39, 7.62×51, 300 WIN MAG, 338 Lapua, or even 50 BMG. To maximize performance, the ammunition used results in supersonic (greater than speed of sound) projectile flight. For these weapon/ammunition combinations, use of a suppressor significantly reduces muzzle blast, but the supersonic crack and any action noise will remain unchanged. These systems may or may not be “hearing safe” without hearing protection. Although far from “silent”, the suppressor will provide benefits in terms of reduced noise and recoil, which supports improved accuracy and reduced hearing damage.
2) The second approach is to create a noise-minimized weapon system, which will require compromises. This approach requires subsonic (below speed of sound) projectile flight be achieved to avoid the noisy sonic crack, either through special (low velocity) ammunition or the use of a short barrel length that minimizes projectile velocity. Examples of this approach include a suppressor-equipped Smith & Wesson MP 15-22 with a 16-inch barrel firing subsonic 22 LR ammunition, a suppressor-equipped 300 BLK bolt action rifle firing subsonic ammunition, or a 45 ACP pistol (usually already subsonic) with a suppressor. Action cycling noise and noise coming from the action can be eliminated with a locked breech (bolt or lever action) weapon. While suppressors are typically of the thread-on or quick detach (QD) style, a suppressor integrated with the weapon barrel can be impressively quiet. Many of these combinations are more quiet than popular pellet rifles, and they are hearing safe.
Who Can Purchase and Use?
Who can purchase and use suppressors? Civilian ownership of suppressors is not outlawed by federal law, but it is regulated by the federal government under the National Firearms Act (NFA). A one-time tax of $200 applies to the purchase of each suppressor. At the time the NFA was enacted in 1934, the $200 tax was onerous, equivalent to about $3500 in 2015 dollars. Since the tax has not been inflation adjusted, the $200 tax is a much smaller barrier to suppressor ownership than any time before. Unfortunately, nine states (you can probably guess which ones) do not allow private ownership of suppressors. Besides complying with state law, the purchaser and user of suppressors needs to meet residence and age requirements, be legally able to own a firearm (non-felon), and pass a BATFE background check. Per BATFE regulations, physical possession of the suppressor is limited to the person to whom it was transferred. However, possession and use can be expanded to close family and friends when a trust is used to purchase the suppressor. (There is more on this later.)
How To Buy a Suppressor
How do I buy a suppressor? Suppressors must be purchased from an NFA dealer in your state. You may purchase the suppressor from their inventory or ask that they acquire a specific model for you. Some Internet sellers, with greater inventory and potentially lower prices, have programs to conveniently sell their inventory through local dealers. The NFA dealer will submit the necessary BATFE paperwork for you, and then you must wait for the forms to be processed and returned before you can take possession of the suppressor. The wait can typically take four to six months.
Why Use a Trust?
Suppressors can be purchased by Individuals, trusts, or corporations. If you purchase as an individual, you must obtain local Chief Law Enforcement Officer approval and submit fingerprints and photos. These requirements do not apply to a trust or a corporation. A trust is a created legal entity, created by using a local firearm-cognizant lawyer (typically costing $300-600), or by using online trust forms. Some silencer manufacturer websites provide references to trust attorneys and trust forms. Anyone listed as a trustee in the trust can be in possession of the suppressors held by the trust. A trust is recommended for those who are planning to purchase more than one suppressor, and it helps facilitate eventual transfer to heirs. Corporations have ongoing reporting and maintenance requirements, which a trust does not.
Choosing a Suppressor
The key characteristics to consider, when making a selection, are noise reduction, weight, size (length and diameter), and material; when looking for 22 LR suppressors, add clean-ability to the list of characteristic considerations. Manufacturers typically provide noise reduction specifications, but without standardized test equipment and conditions specifications between manufacturers cannot reliably be compared. Comparisons of suppressors within a specific manufacturer’s product line are likely to be reliable. Because the incremental weight of the suppressor is located at the muzzle end of the weapon, the suppressor makes the weapon feel muzzle heavy. Minimizing suppressor weight typically comes from using titanium rather than steel, and this increases the price. Smaller size suppressors are preferred, as long as noise reduction performance is not significantly compromised. Suppressors are ideally made of corrosion-resistant materials. All 22 LR suppressors should be easily disassembled for cleaning.
How Does the Suppressor Affect My Weapon?
Your weapon muzzle must accommodate the suppressor interface. For direct thread suppressors, the barrel thread must match the suppressor thread. For Quick Detach (QD) suppressors (that often use something similar to a course Acme thread), the matching QD muzzle device must be threaded onto the barrel. Multiple muzzle devices can be purchased so that the suppressor can be easily moved between weapons. Because the additional weight of the suppressor makes the weapon feel muzzle heavy and the suppressor adds length to the weapon, a short barrel length is preferred. A popular option is to use a Short Barrel (less than 16 inch) Rifle (SBR) as a suppressor host. Since SBRs are also regulated by the NFA, a similar process and tax stamp applies, but you can (where legal) purchase an SBR using your suppressor trust. Another consideration is that using a suppressor tends to increase the gas pressure that cycles your weapon, which over time could potentially wear or damage your weapon. Some weapons, such as the SCAR, have a reduced gas setting to support suppressor use. The amount of gas that comes out of the action during firing is increased when a suppressor is used, so close fitting eye protection is even more important. Lastly, a pistol with a mounted suppressor requires an appropriate holster to safely carry the assembled combination.
Suggestions for First/Only Suppressor and More
You should consider that a single suppressor can be installed on multiple firearms (not at the same time, of course), as long as the weapon caliber does not exceed the nominal suppressor caliber and the weapon has the necessary interface (thread or QD). Given the inherent differences in weapon, caliber, and suppressor characteristics, certain combinations just seem to make more sense and result in a higher level of satisfaction. I would suggest that a light weight 30 caliber QD suppressor has the most universal appeal, because with the appropriate interfacing muzzle device, it can be installed on a bolt action, M1A, AK47, M4, SCAR 16, SCAR 17, et cetera and support many calibers, such as .223, .243, .308, and 300 BLK. Some 30 caliber suppressors are even rated for higher pressure, higher velocity cartridges, such as 300 WIN MAG. The 30 caliber QD suppressor can be used with both super- and sub-sonic ammo. In my experience, owners are more pleased with lightweight suppressors, even with the associated higher prices (which is forgotten after awhile), so I would recommend that the 30 caliber QD suppressor be of lightweight titanium.
For a second suppressor, I’d suggest a direct thread 22 LR suppressor that is as small and light as possible. Unlike the centerfire suppressors, which are typically sealed assemblies, the 22 LR suppressor must support easy disassembly and cleaning to accommodate the very dirty 22 LR cartridge. While the 30 caliber or other sealed suppressor could be used on a 22 LR, it would result in a buildup of fowling within the suppressor that is not easily removed, so a dedicated 22 LR suppressor is recommended.
For a third suppressor, I’d recommend a 45 ACP pistol suppressor, which can also be used with smaller diameter calibers such as 40 S&W and 9 mm. For maximum noise reduction, subsonic ammunition should be used regardless of caliber.
In all cases, follow all applicable laws and regulations and manufacturer recommendations. Based on my personal experience, I have found that the hassles of acquiring suppressors were straightforward and not insurmountable, and the use of suppressors allows me to more safely and comfortably use and enjoy firearms. I believe there also could be tactical advantages in certain situations. I encourage anyone interested in the potential benefits of suppressors to pursue ownership, ideally via a trust.
(Full disclosure: the author owns firearms suppressors via a trust but has no financial interest in any business or organization that manufactures or sells suppressors.)