Sam writes:

Suppressors (“silencers”) have become a big topic here. And recently at that. But why? While I understand that argument can be made that suppressors shouldn’t be prohibited, or highly regulated accessories, why the sudden and recent flurry of pro-gun activist interest in making suppressors available free of any restrictions? Why is the hearing protection mantra only a “thing” in the last year or so?

Silencers haven’t really been a “thing” in the United States since before the National Firearms Act passed in 1934. For nearly a century these items have been popular in Europe and elsewhere but here in the United States we mainly resigned ourselves to the situation and soldiered on. I’m not sure there’s a generally accepted “big bang” like event for the silencer boom, but let’s take a look at the circumstances that brought us to this point and I think you can see the reason why we are where we are.

When silencers were first introduced in 1902 they were very basic devices. They worked just fine and were available for all of the popular calibers of the day, but the manufacturing capabilities and materials available at the time reduced the reliability of the devices. Nevertheless silencers gained a loyal fan base, including President Theodore Roosevelt who had a Maxim silencer on his hunting rifle.

Silencers were finally starting to catch on in the 1930’s when the National Firearms Act was enacted. While the new law technically didn’t make silencers and other items illegal (which would raise all sorts of 2nd Amendment issues) it did add a $200 tax to every transfer.

Adjusting for inflation, a $200 tax in 1934 is the equivalent of a $3,658.06 tax in 2017. That was steep enough to ensure that only the super wealthy could afford silencers and other regulated items, keeping them out of the hands of gangsters and other “undesirables.”

For decades the concept of a firearm silencer was simply too expensive to be a commercial success. Civilian ownership of silencers was practically nonexistent in the United States but flourished overseas. Sometime around the mid 1960’s the increased threat of terrorism led to the creation of SWAT teams, who rapidly adopted suppressed firearms like the MP5SD for use in the close quarters situations they expected to encounter. SWAT Teams became cool. The stuff they used became cool. And by the transitive property of coolness suppressed weapons became cool. There was finally some semblance of demand.

By 1965 the once prohibitive cost of the transfer tax on a silencer had dropped to the modern equivalent of $1,547. Still expensive, but that barrier was now half as high as it once was. Small companies started popping up to produce silencers for the civilian market in addition to competing for government contracts, focusing predominantly on the machine gun market (with typically higher net worth customers who could pay the transfer fee). SIONICS is a perfect example of one of these companies — created to service a need for a silencer for the M16 platform, they were bought by Military Armament Corp who used their technology on the MAC-10 and MAC-11 sub machine guns.

The market still wasn’t quite large enough to support them and MAC filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Manufacturers continued to service the needs of military contracts, including some new companies like Knight’s Armament (founded in 1982), but civilian sales were still few and far between. Thanks to the military’s need for high quality silencers the technology behind the devices continued to improve, increasing the reliability and sophistication of the devices.

The first truly successful silencer manufacturer was Advanced Armament Corp, founded in 1994 by Kevin Brittingham. That $200 tax, once the modern equivalent of over $3,500, was now only about $332 in adjusted 2017 dollars. While it still presenting a significant barrier to entry, that hurdle was low enough that the average firearms owner could actually afford to buy a can — so long as it could be considered an “investment.”

Thanks to the advances in silencer technology over the years the devices were now reliable and robust enough to last the lifetime of the rifle and then some. While AAC made some good “direct thread” silencers that screwed directly onto a threaded barrel, the real breakthrough came with their design and marketing of a “fast attach” system for their 762-SD.

Instead of needing a different silencer for each firearm, the fast attach system meant that gun owners could buy one single silencer and put it on as many firearms as they wanted. This development, combined with the edgy and “cool” marketing campaigns targeted specifically at the younger gun owners, finally saw silencers start to gain acceptance in mainstream gun culture.

Companies like SilencerCo and Gemtech followed in AAC’s footsteps, designing fast attach and multi-caliber silencers to appeal to first time buyers who didn’t want to sink a ton of cash into something that could only be used on one firearm. With increased competition and better machines the cost of a silencer continued to decline, in some cases meaning the tax was more expensive than the silencer itself. The American civilian market finally took root.

That right there was the tipping point. The benefits of silencers have always been present — more comfortable shooting environment, hearing protection, so on and so forth — but the costs associated with getting a silencer have always outweighed the benefits. Thanks to inflation, improvements in engineering, and some good old fashioned marketing spin, silencers finally gained traction in the American civilian market. From that point silencers have been becoming more popular, and it seems that every time a new silencer owner shows off their new toy to their friends that generates even more new silencer owners.

There’s a post script on this success story, one which may explain why you’d call silencers a “fad.” Sales of silencers have dried up in recent months. Sources within the silencer industry, from manufacturers to distributors and even retailers, have been telling me that the market has completely crashed since Donald Trump’s election. Production had ramped up to meet the probable demand of a Hillary Clinton administration, but now those machines are sitting idle and the cache of pre-election produced silencers is like a lead weight on the market. Some companies are even starting to default on their payments.

The reason? The Hearing Protection Act. Shooters are confident that Congress will enact changes which will remove the $200 transfer tax, make the process of buying a silencer simpler, and enable the manufacture of dirt cheap silencers. While that legislation still hasn’t left the committee hearing phase, shooters are willing to wait and see its fate before sinking another $200 tax into the Federal coffers.

Once we know for sure the fate of the Hearing Protection Act I’m confident the market will pick up again. If the act doesn’t pass we’ll see levels return to near normal, but if it passes the flood gates will open and shooting a gun without a can may quickly become unfashionable. Either way, thanks to inflation and engineering improvements the silencer is here to stay.

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30 Responses to Ask Foghorn: What’s With the Silencer “Fad”?

  1. If the hearing protection act is passed . . . alot could change. Alot will change.

    The price on suppressors will be forced to come down as the bottle neck of paperwork and gov permission drives the cost way up and . . . 3D printing and garage tech will drive the market down further. There will always be someone willing to spend top dollar on a factory made can. However, if you can buy a threaded adapter for a couple of dollars (or print one) and then (legally) attach it to an oil filter that only costs a few dollars more – well then disposable suppressors will be a thing. No cleaning, no maintenance, no rubber wipes to replace just get a new can.

    . . . and integrally suppressed firearms will explode in popularity 🙂

  2. Nice article. Thanks.

    Given that most existing guns are not “suppressor-ready”, new barrels must be purchased. Given that most future guns will not be “suppressor-ready”, second barrels will be necessary. Did your contacts in the industry address the difficulties of sustaining a business that requires so much additional expense to use their products?

    Is there a tactical issue with using suppressed and un-suppressed versions of the dame self-defense gun? Different targeting, recoil, increased noise when used in self-defense?

    • you dont have to buy new barrels, except in rare cases. you just have the barrel threaded. very easy.

      usually sub-sonic rounds fall faster than super sonic. but if your using super sonic with a suppressor i doubt you would see any drop in a home setting. then again, the same could be said for subs in the house as well.
      well, no there wouldn’t be MORE noise if its suppressed, thats the whole idea.

      • If the gun on hand was not purchased with a threaded barrel, and a second, threaded, barrel was not purchased at the time, how does one obtain a threaded barrel? I understand that threaded barrels can be purchased as the original configuration, but how many millions of guns will need to be sent off for threading, or require a second barrel? And would any of that further depress the market?

        • Once the legal hurdles are out of the way, every machine shop in town would likely start offering barrel threading services. It’s really not that much work.

          It takes more time to tear down an AR to get the virgin barrel off to the machinist, than it takes the machinist to thread the barrel and give it back to you.

        • Sam, are you aware that one can cut threads into a barrel, at any time after time of purchase? It is fairly straightforward process that any competent machinist or gunsmith has the skills to do. For pistol designs which often do not have much/any barrel length extending past the slide, a new longer barrel would be needed, but a pistol barrel is usually not a hugely expensive item. For the vast majority of long guns, having a barrel threaded after purchase is not a big expense/difficulty. Further more, long guns coming from the factory with threaded barrel is not nearly as rare an event these days as you seem to think/depict.

        • Um, my AR has a flash suppressor/muzzle brake already threaded onto the end of the barrel. Wrench it off, screw on the suppressor or thread adaptor, and Bob’s your uncle. Even a good machinist will take longer to thread a barrel than it takes to remove a flash suppressor. Or to remove an AR upper.

        • Figured the ARs with brakes would not need work. I looked at hand gun replacement barrels for pocket pistols and 1911s. $120 – $250 is not cheap. Might be that folks into guns enough to want a suppressor would spend whatever it takes to get suppressor capability.

        • Yeah, good point – pistols are a problem. I think that shortly – at least for pistols with a short pic rail on the frame ahead of the trigger guard – a clamp-on attachment that fits the mouth of the suppressor to the barrel muzzle would be a serviceable way to attach. Out of luck for a 1911 without a rail, though.

          1911’s and their like are also a problem in that the barrel is not stationary during the firing cycle. Suppressors for threaded barrels for those guns have to be built so that the barrel can reciprocate and not be restricted from moving backward by the mass of the suppressor, or the gun won’t cycle and reload.

          If you look at a 1911 firing in slo-mo, you’ll see that the bullet leaves the barrel before the slide begins its backward travel – so a suppressor just seated against the barrel mouth (the muzzle) with a reasonably tight seal should contain all the gas until the barrel and slide move backwards in recoil. Not perfect, but . . .

          I have a replacement grip set for my 1911 that extends forward of the trigger guard, and provides a fluted grip, Beretta-like front edge for the trigger guard, and a short pic rail under the recoil spring housing. I mount a laser on the pic rail, but it could be used to anchor a static suppressor in front of the barrel.

      • You don’t have to buy new *rifle* barrels, usually.

        *Pistol* barrels generally sit roughly flush with the end of the slide, so yiu need a new barrel extending far enough out to thread. There’s an additional $100-$200 expense for the barrel, plus an extra however much for gunsmith fitting the new barrel, depending on the pistol and barrel maker in question.

    • “Is there a tactical issue with using suppressed and un-suppressed versions of the dame self-defense gun? Different targeting, recoil, increased noise when used in self-defense?”

      Short answer: Yes.

      With few exceptions such as the GemTech Pill Bottle or Aurora, silencers are pretty big. Expect them to double the OAL of a pistol and to add 7″ or so to a rifle (this varies from model to model). Consider the host of issues that go with that.

      Yes, a silencer shifts the POI of your weapon. My Osprey drops the bullet about 2″ straight down from the POA while my TBAC 5.56mm can moves the POI up and to the left about 3″ at 100 yards BUT it also tightened the pattern of my 1 MOA barrel down to half that size. You’ll have to adjust your scope/sights with a rifle and get used to the new POI with a pistol and/or adjust your optics if you’re using them. Generally speaking you’ll get a POI shift but an increase in accuracy along with a slight increase in bullet velocity.

      A silencer will also reduce recoil on both rifles and pistols as well as give you a very significant reduction in muzzle flip with a pistol because you’re putting a bunch of weight out there on the end of the barrel.

      In terms of self defense a silencer has pretty limited uses because it’s just a pain to carry around on the gun. Those uses are generally for a home invasion type situation. If you let off an unsuppressed pistol in a dark hallway because someone has broken in at night the flash will blind you (provided you’re not using a quality light) and the the boom will screw with your hearing in both the short and the long term. Suppressing the weapon greatly reduces both problems but gives you another one which is that the pistol will have a much higher tendency to throw bits of junk back at your face (eyepro bro) and you don’t want that stuff in your eyes.

      For semi-auto rifles you can also run into gas issues. If you’re not using an adjustable gas block and the manufacturer played too close to over/under gassing the rifle you can have problems cycling the gun when you slap on a can. (For the purposes of this paragraph, if you built the rifle then you’re the manufacturer.)

      In the end a silencer is a great HD tool and a cool toy. It’s really not useful for much more unless you’re a door kicker where communication with your team can be seriously hampered by unsuppressed fire.

  3. damn, sounds like we could be shooting ourselves in the foot with our frugalness. sounds like alot of suppressor companies may go out of business before the HPA gets passed which would limit the supply and notch prices back up.

  4. oil filters are huge, dude. you can do far better, especially on a 22. Given the fact that there’s gonna be a civil War in the US within 10 years, it behooves everyone to have at least a silenced .22lr handgun. and a silenced autorifle, soft armor, and some sort of night vision accessary

  5. I would also suggest that ATF 41F had much to do with the decrease in silencer sales. I purchased three in the first half of last year not wanting to deal with the hassle of the new rules. I personally know of a couple others who did as well. I’m now not in the market for a new one. I think it would be safe to assume that many people followed this same strategy.

  6. I would add the rise of the Tactical market (and marketing), huge success of the AR, the sundown of the Clinton awban, movies with soldiers, spies, and operators using cans, video games, and the whole FFL transfer/internet purchase option, gun trusts, 3gun and tactical training, and silencershop have done a lot to help.

    Much like a machine gun or SBR, I don’t think the practical side of silencers was explored until recently. More a cool thing to have just because. I think the internet changed a lot both how guns are marketed and acquired, as now we will see some reviews of the latest AR or sub gun sporting a can, or a some YouTube person blasting away with one. Before I don’t think the average gun owner knew that silencers were even legal, and it was a secret dark art to legally acquire one. And not like your local gun store or Walmart had one anyway.

    Now you can read and watch about them online and if your local FFL doesn’t have one you are interested in you can order one online for transfer pretty easily.

    My pre 41f forms are just starting to approve now almost a year out, but with the sales and rebates I am planning to put a few more in the pipeline.

    I would like to see aow, SBR, sbs, dd, and mg deregulated along with silencers. It shouldn’t be a crime to make or own or carry any of it. Only if you use it to commit a crime.

  7. There can be no doubt that if HPA passes, the suppressor industry will change dramatically. The only reason suppressor prices are as high in the USA as they are is that the barrier to entry of a $200 tax stamp limits sales to those with relatively high net worth compared to the average shooter.

    A good suppressor can be had in Europe for $75, and the number of guns in Europe is paltry compared with the US. With an open US market, I’d be surprised if good, serviceable, well-made suppressors did not appear for $49.95 within a year or two. It’s just a tube with baffles! There are 1.3 million suppressors in the US market at present; there are about 300 million guns.

    At ten percent penetration, that’s 30 million new units. Volume economies and a new market will easily move prices downward dramatically. That will at least pinch some of the suppliers of the up-market units, which likely means consolidation in that market unless they eat their own children by moving to lower-cost business models.

    Just because current barrel attachments are threaded does not mean that it’s the only way to attach a suppressor. Sleeves, Pic rail mounts, compression fittings, and all the other things that the creative genius of the US entrepreneur has in his hip pocket of tricks are just around the corner as long as the cost, time, and inconvenience of machining exceeds those attachment methods, which it does.

    HPA will be a turning point if it passes.

  8. NOT a fad, shooting suppressed is great. If you don’t believe me, shoot some sub-sonic ammo thru your firearm now. It may not “cycle” a semi-auto, but you can still fire the properly produced sub-sonic ammo.

    Aguila Ammo makes a powderless .22 that propels the projectile at lethal power within 30′ but very quiet, very low recoil, great for starting out a gun-shy shooter.

  9. It’s not the tax that is driving sales down, it’s the fact that the wait time is almost a year. I spent 1600 last June and July and have nothing to show for it, and wonder if I ever will. I won’t buy another unless the wait goes down.

  10. If and when the HPA passes, every quality silencer in the United States will be sold almost immediately… Similar to the difficulty in finding ’22’s, reloading components and anything semi-auto in the days after Sandy Hook and the babbling of the then president and the failed attempt to pass four or five restrictive firearms laws. You will have a difficult time buying different muzzle adapters, flash hiders and brakes all designed to quick mount your silencer. You will not be able to find different thread pitch pistons or replacement end caps…. What? You don’t think so? Just look at the flood of people that tried to beat last July’s “end of the easy suppressor trusts”. You couldn’t find adapters or user replaceable parts from anyone for the rest of the year unless you stumbled onto something at Gun Broker or one of the NFA forums. The NFA branch is still processing the last 25-30,000 silencer and possibly SBR applications… that’s why it’s taking 10 or more month for regular people to get their approvals…. My advice as a suppressor owner and dealer… buy now and get all the adapters and pistons you will need. With any luck the “get your $200 tax back provision” will still be in the law.

  11. I’d bet money that the average gun owner shoots almost exclusive at public ranges. Tell me how the average gun owner is supposed to enjoy the benefits of a suppressor at a public range.

    • “Tell me how the average gun owner is supposed to enjoy the benefits of a suppressor at a public range.”
      Here’s how the average gun owner will benefit — when the guy to the right of him and to the left of him start using suppressors on their 16″ M-4gery rifles instead of using obnoxiously loud muzzle brakes!
      I live in NJ, a state that has a total ban on sound suppressors, but I still benefit from suppressors when I shoot at my public range because it’s in Pennsylvania, where cans are legal! The guy next to me at the range was shooting a .308 with a can on, and when he shot subsonic ammo it was quieter than a .22. Meanwhile, another New Jersey resident was shooting .223 out of his 16″ barrel M4gery with no muzzle device at all, and it was louder than a cannon and produced a beach-ball-sized fireball. My own AR-15 has a 20″ barrel (as God and Samuel Colt intended) with a linear compensator as the muzzle device (permanently pinned to be NJ-legal), which directs most of the sound and blast FORWARD, away from the shooter, as a courtesy to my shooting neighbors (not as good as a silencer, but it’s legal in all 50 states, even though NJ makes us permanently attach it).

      • I belong to the oldest gun club in the USA – the Newport Rifle Club, in Rhode Island. The club moved its range some years ago to a farm property, with the acquiescence of the farmer, who still lives on a part of the property. Despite the fact that we have baffles on either side of the outdoor range, the farmer has recently begun complaining about noise. Could be he’s getting cranky; could be we are using more large caliber rifles; could be global warming. Who knows? We are looking at impulse noise mitigation techniques to accommodate him – our good neighbor policy, but it looks like it might be expensive.

        I wondered if a muzzle device that redirected the muzzle blast sound would avoid the problem that we have here in Rhode Island – that our General Assembly is brain dead – or, to put it another way, suppressors are illegal under state law. I’m thinking of what is essentially a 1 inch tube, perhaps a foot long – no baffles, no end cap – just an open tube, sealed at the muzzle end, of course, the function of which would be to allow muzzle blast noise to be directed along the line of fire – essentially the opposite of a muzzle brake in effect. It wouldn’t necessarily attenuate the noise – it would just reduce the noise from the side of the weapon and direct it down range (the farmer’s house is off to the side of the range). It would function a lot like a directional antenna does for radio waves. Anyone ever tried such a thing?

        • Yes, George Steele, what you’re describing is a linear compensator (linear comp), like I also described, which directs the sound and blast forward. It also helps mitigate muzzle rise by directing recoil straight back instead of upwards.
          You don’t have to build your own linear comp, because several companies already make them! One of the more reasonably priced companies is Kaw Valley Precision (KVP), which makes linear compensators in many several calibers, lengths, and thread sizes, including ones sized for calibers .223/5.56, .308/7.62, and .45 ACP. You can buy them from Joe Bob Outfitters here: https://www.joeboboutfitters.com/KVP_Muzzle_Devices_s/170082.htm

          Another linear compensator that doubles as a flash suppressor is the “Covert Comp” by Black River Tactical (BRT), which claims to provide flash suppression almost as good as an A2 flash suppressor while also directing the sound and blast forward. You can buy those directly from BRT here: http://www.blackrivertactical.com/concrete5/covert-comp/

          A third linear compensator that’s cheap and available almost everywhere is the Troy Claymore, by Troy Industries. It has a more “tactical” look with sharp “teeth” on the end that are supposed to let you use it as an improvised breaching device. I don’t like the “tacticool” teeth (they catch on the inside of a gun case), but some people do, and it works the same as other linear compensators, directing the sound and blast forward.

          Then there are the more expensive linear comps, like the Noveske Flaming Pig, but why spend $150 when there are several better options for around $50? You can also buy (or make) a “fake can” or “mock suppressor” which does the same thing as a linear comp but is longer, thicker, and heavier, but the extra length and weight isn’t necessary, as a 2-inch linear comp is all you need (as they say, it’s not the size that counts!)

        • Thanks for the info! I’ll pass it on at the annual barbecue this weekend. I’m surprised that it’s only 2 inches long, however; I would think that to be effective at reducing lateral noise dispersion, it would need to be much longer, in order to provide a cavity large enough for the muzzle blast to drop in pressure and reduce the impulse noise. Very interesting and useful information – we’ll see what happens!

        • Apparently 2 inches long is enough to direct the noise and blast forward.
          A longer linear comp (or fake silencer) would probably act like a barrel extension, allowing the powder to burn more completely before exiting, lowering the pressure and reducing the noise somewhat. I think a six-inch long “fake silencer” (with no baffles) is still legal (even if it reduces the noise somewhat due to its length) because it doesn’t reduce the noise any more than a longer barrel of the same length would reduce the noise, otherwise it would be illegal as an unregistered “silencer”. I have a couple “fake silencers” but so far I’ve only used them on 22 pistols which are already pretty quiet, so I didn’t notice any effect other than “looking cool.”
          My friends agree that the 2-inch linear comps I put on my rifles (KVP linear comp, or BRT Covert Comp) really do help direct sound forward, compared to the guys around me shooting with no muzzle device — their rifles rattle my teeth!

          I’ve been wanting to compare the decibel level with linear comps and without them, but ordinary decibel meters like the one I own aren’t fast enough to measure the short sound of a gunshot accurately — you need a super-expensive decibel meter to measure gunshots accurately. TTAG has tested the loudness of various muzzle brakes in some of their reports.
          Good luck!

  12. Sooo…the NFA tax and registry kept silencers and machine guns out of the hands of gangsters, did it? Must’ve had a much more law abiding class of criminal back then…

  13. If you used a can at the public range 5+ years ago you would’ve been surrounded by everyone “oooohing” and “ahhhhing” at your booth. Even the range employees. Too bad 99% of everyone were guys. Anyway, if you did the same thing today, you’d be surprised how no one seems to care any more. Which is actually a good thing! The general shooting public are much more aware and educated on silencers.

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