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.