Shhhhhhhhh: Selecting and Purchasing Silencers

Silencers – or suppressors as they are more accurately named – are a fairly hot topic within the firearms community.  If the massive increases in wait times for ATF approvals are any sign, many more people are buying suppressors these days. I’ve just been through the process of purchasing three different suppressors and figured that my experience might help someone else as they consider their options. First though, let’s get a couple of things out of the way . . .

Suppressors are considered Class III devices by the ATF and, as such, require the exact same approval procedures as Short Barrel Rifles/Shotguns and Machine Guns. On top of this, while there are no Federal laws restricting ownership of a suppressor by anyone who could otherwise purchase a firearm, a small number of states do have restrictions, so it’s best to check first whether they are permitted in your locality. An easy way to do this is to go to the Suppressors Are Legal website and check your state out. Assuming you can own one, the next step is to figure out what you want.

A number of companies offer suppressors including Advanced Armament, Yankee Hill, Gemtech, Wilson Combat, and Thunder Beast Arms among others. The hard part is figuring out whose suppressors you want to buy. Finding comparative ratings of different brands of suppressors is a tricky proposition. There are a number of sites on the Internet that offer ratings and advice, but the basic problem is that it’s difficult to do true apples to apples comparisons between the various suppressors even when they are tested by the same people.

Things such as temperature and humidity have an impact on suppressor performance as does the kind of weapon used for the test. That means the suppressor that was the quietest on the reviewer’s Walther .22 might not be the quietest for my .22 SIG SAUER. Unless I can find a review from someone who used the brand and model of the suppressor I want to buy on the brand and model of my gun, I’m really not going to have a completely accurate picture.

While some sites even go so far as to use sound level meters to measure the actual decibel level of the suppressed they test, these ratings are only useful if the reviewer has compared a number of different suppressors in the same test run using the same equipment. Since two different testers might set up the microphones differently, you really can’t compare dB measurements from different sites.

The reality is that choosing the “best” suppressor is something of a crapshoot. On the plus side, if you stick to the major names and do a little research in various forums looking for people’s actual hands-on experience, you should be able to get a decent suppressor no matter which one you buy.

The first question you need to answer, even before getting into the choices of models and manufacturers, is what calibers of suppressor(s) to purchase. In a perfect world, you’d order a suppressor for every gun you own. But when you consider the fact that good suppressors run anywhere from $400 up to $1,500+, it quickly becomes apparent that unless you’re a trust fund baby or Internet millionaire, you’re going to have to be somewhat more selective. It’s also worth remembering that on top of the purchase price, there’s that $200 transfer tax stamp for each suppressor you buy.

The good news is that suppressors can usually span multiple calibers within certain limitations. Generally speaking, a suppressor for one caliber can usually be used on smaller calibers although there will be a bit of hit in terms of reduced sound suppression. For example, a .30 suppressor can be used on a .223 rifle, but it won’t be quite as quiet as a suppressor that’s designed for the .223.

Secondly, a suppressor designed for a pistol caliber such as 9mm or .45 can’t usually be used on a rifle due to the much higher pressures generated by rifle cartridges (one exception here being the .22 long rifle suppressor which can be used interchangeably on .22 pistols and rifles).

I own a fairly varied collection of guns with rifles in the .22, .223, 300 Blackout, .308. and .300 Winchester Magnum calibers along with several pistols that include .22, .357 Sig, .40, and .45. My goal was to purchase as few suppressors as possible while maximizing my weapons coverage. To accomplish this, I ordered a .22 Silencerco Sparrow, a .45 AAC TiRANT, and a Thunderbeast 30P-1. My Sparrow will handle my .22 Sig pistol along with my Ruger 10/22 and Sig Sauer 522. The TiRANT will work with my H&K USP Tactical and by purchasing an additional piston, should be able to work on my 9mm Sig P229. I don’t currently plan to suppress my .357 Sig or .4, so I can safely skip those. And if I decide to do it down the road, the TiRANT should be able to handle those as well.

One thing to note is that you’ll need a threaded barrel to mount a suppressor, so unless your gun came with one, plan to add that cost to the overall price tag. One advantage of the AAC TiRANT is that I can disassemble it for cleaning. Not all suppressors can be disassembled by users and, with the exception of .22 suppressors, arguably, most don’t need to be, but it’s nice to have the option. Rifle suppressors rarely, if ever can be disassembled by users because of the safety issues related to the pressures rifle cartridges generate.

I chose the Thunderbeast 30P-1 because I want a suppressor for my .300 Winchester Magnum rifle and the 30P-1 is rated for magnum loads. I’ll also be able to use it on my SIG SAUER 716, my AAC 300 Blackout upper, and with the purchase of an adapter, my SIG 516. I had originally considered going with AAC’s 300-TM, but it still hasn’t been released by AAC. And given the fact that I’ll be waiting six to seven months for my tax stamp, I didn’t want to wait any longer.  I’ll of course be posting reviews on all of these suppressors when I get them, but don’t hold your breath – it’s going to be awhile.

One minor nit that you need to be aware of is making sure that the thread pitch of the suppressor matches the thread pitch on your barrel. While some suppressors are limited to a single thread pitch, another advantage of the TiRANT is that AAC offers different pistons that allow the TiRANT to adapt to different barrel thread pitches. I’ll need one piston for my H&K, one for my Sig P220, and another for my P229. One piston comes with the suppressor and additional pistons run about $75. Since the piston is not the serial numbered part, I can order additional pistons directly from AAC.

So, let’s assume you’ve selected the suppressor you want to purchase. The next trick is going to be to find someone who carries it. Suppressors are not like cell phones – often you can’t just walk into your local gun shop and pick out the exact model you like. If a gun shop deals in suppressors at all, most will stock a very limited selection and even fewer are likely to carry more than one or two different manufacturers’ product lines.

I’ve found that many of the gun stores in my area have an extremely limited selection on hand and instead order the product from their distributor once you have actually placed the order and paid for the suppressor.  This can add one to two months to the total wait time you have to endure before you get to take your suppressor home.

The ATF tracks suppressors very closely and, unlike regular guns, they need to know exactly where each suppressor is from the time of manufacture on. As soon as a company like AAC manufactures a suppressor, they are required to report it to the ATF and provide the identifying serial number.  From that time on, paperwork will need to accompany all movement of each suppressor.

AAC will file paperwork to transfer the suppressor to the distributor, the distributor will file paperwork to transfer it to the retail shop, and the retailer will help you file the paperwork to transfer it to you. As you might imagine, the ATF doesn’t move quickly on much of anything and transfer paperwork is no exception. All of these filings push out the date that you can expect to actually take possession of your suppressor.

When you’re ready to purchase a suppressor, you have a couple of options. First, if you’re really lucky, you might indeed find a local gun shop that stocks the exact suppressor that you are looking for. The advantage of this approach is that you can file the ATF Form 4 immediately and six to seven months later, that baby is yours. The downside is that many local gun shops are not going to offer any discounts off the retail prices. Their justification is that the extra profit pays for all the work they are going to do helping you fill out the Form 4 and defraying the carrying cost of keeping a number of suppressors in stock.

In a a worst case situation, your local gun shop will have to order the suppressor you want from their distributor. Assuming the distributor actually has the suppressor in stock, they’ll file paperwork to transfer it to the retailer before you can file your Form 4. As noted earlier, this can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to two months to get through the ATF. My first suppressor purchase, a .22 Suppressorco Sparrow took two months from the date I ordered it to make it to my local retailer. In this case, I really see no benefit to paying full price for the suppressor. After all, the retailer is not carrying the cost of the suppressors in his inventory, so why should be charge the same as a retailer who does have what you want in hand?

The alternative to the local gun shop approach is, unsurprisingly, the Internet. Some Internet retailers do offer discounts off of the list price which helps to make up for the extra time you are going to wait to get the suppressor transferred from the Internet retailer to your local FFL. And yes, just as with standard firearms, transfers of suppressors across state lines need to go through an FFL in your state.

There’s a small catch as not any FFL can do the transfer for you. To be able to deal in Class III devices, an FFL must have an additional SOT license which, as you’d expect, costs extra money. Since FFL/SOT holders have to pay more for their licenses, you should expect to pay more to transfer a Class III device. Fortunately, many Internet retailers have lists of FFL/SOT holders in most states and likely can help you locate one if you need it.

One note of caution: Transfer fees for Class III devices have a very wide range. In my state, I have seen fees run anywhere from $50 per item up to $150 per item depending on the FFL. It definitely pays to call around to find the best price. According to the folks over at Silencershop.com where I purchased two of my suppressors, the fee should be around $50, so keep that in mind. On the plus side, with the money I saved off of retail by purchasing my two suppressors from Silencershop, I completely covered the local FFL transfer fees and still came out $139 ahead.

As with making a purchase from a local shop that has to order the suppressor from his distributor, you are going to have that 1-2 month delay for the transfer paperwork to clear before the Internet retailer can send the suppressor to your local FFL.

With respect to filling out the Form 4, you have a couple of options. Arguably the cheapest way is to purchase the suppressors as an individual. The downside of this is that you must provide the ATF with a photograph and fingerprint card along with the signoff of your local county chief law enforcement officer (CLEO).

In many jurisdictions, this isn’t an issue. But in some places, obtaining the approval of the CLEO can be a major hassle if not outright impossible. The alternative is to purchase the suppressors using a firearms trust or corporation. Going this route means that you don’t need to submit fingerprints or photo and you do not need to obtain CLEO signoff, You will, however, have to pay an attorney to draw up your trust document. See my previous post for a discussion of gun trusts.

One other possible advantage of the gun trust route is that since the purchaser is an entity, not a real person, the ATF does not conduct the usual background check before approving the tax stamp. This, theoretically means that a Form 4 submitted in the name of a trust or corporation should take a bit less time in the approval process, but folks that I have talked to say that they have not seen much of a difference in wait times.

If you decide to go the trust or corporation route, it’s important that you have all of the paperwork done correctly so that there’s no question that the suppressor was purchased by the trust or corporation rather than by you personally. The sales receipt should list the trust or corporation as the purchaser rather than your name. You will also need to provide the ATF with a copy of your trust document or your corporate license with each Form 4 and in the case of a corporation, the ATF may check with your state licensing board to insure that your corporate paperwork and taxes are up to date. You should also avoid using a personal check to pay the tax stamp fee. A bank check or postal money order is a good approach.

All-in-all, the Feds have done an excellent job of making suppressor purchasing a major hassle. But if you persevere and wade through the red tape, you will eventually be the proud owner of a suppressor (or three). There is some discussion that, one day, Congress may amend the law and remove suppressors from the onerous Form 4 transfer requirements, but if you are currently considering purchasing one, you will probably get it faster pulling the trigger now. At the outside, it should take no more than 9 months to get the paperwork fully processed and anyone who has spent time watching Congress knows that it’s highly unlikely that any potential changes to the laws will happen sooner than that.