█ CARYN E. NEUMANN
A silencer is an effort to suppress sound by means of an attachment to a firearm. Generally, a six- to twenty-inch steel, titanium, or aluminum alloy barrel addition designed to work with a particular weapon, silencers have also been constructed from other materials such as plastic soft drink bottles. Nicknamed "whispering death," these devices give a shooter the ability to strike a target with less risk of being noticed. Contrary to popular image, silencers do not completely muffle the sound of a gun, but instead lessen muzzle flash, reduce muzzle noise, and decrease recoil by delaying the escape of gases from the barrel of the firearm. Generally illegal for individuals to own in most parts of the world, silencers have enjoyed enormous popularity with espionage and security forces.
The idea of a silencer is an old one, with gunsmiths experimenting with various designs to silence weapons since the nineteenth century. The first man to successfully develop and market a silencer was Hiram P. Maxim, the son of the similarly named inventor of the machine gun. In 1908, Maxim developed a silencer that delayed the release of gases, but he did not market the weapon until making a few improvements. The Maxim Model 1909, released in the year of its name, became the first efficient silencer to be marketed, but the Maxim Model 1910 became the most widely distributed silencer in the United States by capitalizing on an off-center design that allowed it to be used with
a weapon's original sights. Although the military value of silencers quickly became apparent to many observers, Maxim only had the goal of eliminating noise pollution. Many of the first buyers of silencers employed them for target shooting in basements and backyards so the sound of firing would not disturb others. Silencers also found a market in pest control. Many silencers are still sold for use in eliminating rats, not so much to surprise the rodents, but to avoid the public relations problems associated with shots fired in heavily occupied areas.
Despite global marketing by Maxim, no nation's military force made widespread use of silencers until World War II. The Maxim Model 1912 was the first mass-marketed silencer designed specifically for military purposes. Created for use with the popular Springfield rifle, the report of the weapon was reduced, but the sonic boom of the bullet could not be diminished. The passage of the bullet sounded like someone tearing a sheet until the projectile passed a solid object, like a tree, which resulted in the emission of a large crack. The 1912 model was not sold to any government in great numbers, perhaps because of the notorious conservativeness of military planners in this era, but it did find a few buyers. The U.S. Army purchased a few of the weapons to be used by sharpshooters for the quiet, long-range killing of sentries so that surprise attacks could be mounted. The silencers were apparently used in Mexico in the campaign against Pancho Villa, but, because the Army failed to halt Villa, the effectiveness of the silencers is somewhat in doubt. In World War I, Maxim manufactured silencers in calibers ranging from .22 through those large enough for machine guns. An experimental model silenced a four-inch artillery piece. Snipers continued to be the major users of silencers, though, and these men used only rifles. The Germans experimented with a silencer-equipped Luger pistol, but the gun suffered mechanical failure as well as too high a noise rate. In the years after the war, public interest in silencers waned, and Maxim halted production in 1925.
In the years between the World Wars, silencers failed to find a substantial market among any of the world's military forces. The U.S. military conducted a number of trials with silencers, but ultimately decided that the weapons were unfit for combat use. Despite the silenced discharge, the substantial noise created by the movement of gun parts enabled observers to easily locate the bulky weapons. While unsuitable for normal military usage, silencers appealed to intelligence agencies and these organizations continued to experiment with the weapons. The United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), newly formed to help fight World War II, modified the Thompson submachine gun with a silencer built by the Chrysler Corporation. The gun proved too noisy to be suitable for a silencer as well as very susceptible to jamming under field conditions. The OSS preferred to equip its agents with a silenced version of the M3 submachine gun in addition to a .30 caliber M1 carbine. The Central Intelligence Agency, successor to the OSS, used a silenced High Standard HD military pistol. Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2 reconnaissance plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, carried the silenced HD when he was captured. Around the world, the Welrod became a weapon of first choice. One of the few silencers designed specifically for silent and secret operations, the British-built gun was produced in .32 ACP, 9mm, and .45 ACP calibers.
When firing a standard weapon, some sort of ear protection must be utilized or temporary loss of hearing will result. Plugs and earmuffs reduce noise level, but also make it much more difficult to hear movement. Silencers make it much easier to locate and fire upon multiple targets, and this factor explains the expanding popularity of the weapons. After World War II, silencers were increasingly used in combat conditions. A silencer confuses the person being fired upon, improves the shooter's accuracy by suppressing disconcerting flash, noise, and recoil and, lastly, gives the shooter a feeling of confidence that he will not be discovered. The M3A1, an improved M3, became popular in various global hotspots like Greece, Africa, Palestine, and South America because the cheap and easy-to-build weapon usually could be relied upon to work. In the 1950s Allied forces, as well as British commandos, used the British-made Sten MKIIS in the Korean War. In the Vietnam era, the U.S. created a military version of a Ruger 10–22 semi-automatic Carbine that saw heavy use. In more recent years, military snipers have used a great variety of rifle makes in combat, though the AK-47 remains especially popular.
The development of a supremely effective silencer has been complicated by many factors. The noise made by the discharge of a firearm has three components: 1) the sounds made by the movement of the parts of the gun; 2) the crack of a bullet passing through the atmosphere at a rate above the speed of sound; and 3) the release of high pressure gases breaking out of the barrel. Silencers only address the last concern, although the use of a heavy subsonic bullet rather than a high velocity bullet greatly adds to sound suppression. High velocity bullets make a noise of their own when traveling through the air outside of the silencer, and the substitution of a slower bullet will slow the passage of the projectile through the air, thereby reducing ballistic noise. Silencers that fire regular supersonic ammunition are only a little quieter than those without suppressors. Subsonic ammunition has less power than regular ammunition, making it effective only at shorter ranges of up to 600 feet (200 meters). Silencers can be attached to most firearms, but they work best as components of purpose built or modified guns.
Silencers are now made for almost every firearm, from fully automatic submachine guns to big bore bolt-action rifles, and the popularity of these weapons is likely to grow. Silencers make it easier to identify the enemy, easier to shoot the enemy, and harder to be detected by the enemy. Particularly suited for guerrilla warfare as well as secret operations and law enforcement, sound suppressors have become standard issue equipment for intelligence agents and security forces.
█ FURTHER READING:
Truby, J. David. Silencers, Snipers and Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1972.
White, Mark. On the Control of Silencers, Interpol: The International Criminal Police Organization. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002.