Silence Is Golden Again

When the Big Guys who run this country decided not to win the Vietnam war and settled into the murderously slow process of diplomatically giving away American lives and prestige, part of this loser effect was the cessation of firearm silencer (suppressor) research and development. For nearly ten years, official or serious work in that area of ordnance was moribund.

All this changed in 1980 with the coming of the Reaganistas' born-again militancy in Washington. It was open season on the doves of social and people programs whose budgets were slaughtered. The hawks roosted high in power, and the trickle-down theory of defense funding became a flood of research and development dollars. Concepts, plans, and new ideas were sought for all sorts of weapons and weapon systems. Silencers and silenced weapons were swept along with this militant new tide.

Accompanying this storm is a new cast of silencer designers and personalities. This current generation of designers realizes that maximum efficiency and effectiveness is a match between weapon, ammunition, and moderating unit. This takes into account all the variables which create that total gunfire sound they wish to suppress or moderate.

The sound of a firearm includes several components:

• the muzzle blast as the hot propellant gases suddenly expand into the atmosphere at the end of the barrel;

• the sound of the bullet traveling downrange away from the firearm;

• the mechanical sound of the firearm's action.

This last is particularly loud with self-loading firearms and is the least noticeable with manual actions. If the bullet travels over the. speed of sound, 1 100 fps at sea level, there will be a sonic crack. The only was that this can be eliminated is to redesign the barrel as part of the silencer and slow the bullet down to subsonic speeds by porting the barrel. This is not practical with many weapons. particularly with .223 and .30 caliber rifles, because much of the impact power of the bullet is related to its velocity. With some weapons, particularly .22 rimfire and 9mm parabellum using proper suppressor/barrel design or custom loadings, the bullet can be slowed enough to maintain subsonic velocity.

However, the main effect of a silencer is to reduce the muzzle blast, which is the most significant portion of the noise. Muzzle blast is caused by high pressure gases suddenly escaping into the atmosphere as the bullet leaves the end of the barrel. If the pressure can be reduced in either the barrel or a chamber attached to the end of the barrel, there will be less sound generated because gases do not escape suddenly, but are caught and cooled in the chamber. This is basically what a silencer docs.

There is a fundamental law of physics which says (Pressure x Volume)/Temperature = A Constant for a given number of gas molecules. In a silencer the pressure is reduced both by increasing the volume for the gases and reducing the gas temperature, i.e., cooling. How well a given silencer works on a given weapon depends on how efficiently these goals are accomplished.

Designers and testers of silencers rate the units in terms of this efficiency in reducing noise levels, among other factors. The sound levels are measured with various instruments, such as a microphone attached to either a voltmeter or an oscilloscope. Both measure the voltage produced by the microphone, and this voltage is proportional to how loud the sound is. Since the voltage is relatively meaningless-it can vary with the efficiency of the microphone-it is compared to a standard and the result is expressed as a ratio.

The next point is that the response of the human car is not linear. If it were, a sound would seem twice as loud if it generated twice the voltage in the microphone. Instead, the human ear has what is known as a logarithmic response, so that a sound that seems twice as loud as another will produce about four times as much voltage on the microphone.

For this reason, sound measurements are compared to a standard, and the ratio given is a logarithmic ratio. The unit used is the Bel, or more conveniently, the deeiBel, which is abbreviated as dB. For example, a 3 dB decrease in sound level is one half the original sound pressure level, a 10 dB decrease is 1/10 the original, a 20 dB decrease is 1/100 the original, and a 26 dB decrease is 1/400 of the original sound pressure level. To put this in terms of hearing, quiet conversation is about 56 dB, a handclap about 65 dB, a jackhammer about 120 dB, firing a .22 pistol about 120 dB, and an M16 about 145 dB. Anything over 90 to 100 dB can be rough on the hearing, while levels over 110 dB can be painful.

Sound levels also diminish as the observer goes further from the sound source. That is why a jet engine is hardly noticed a few miles away, but may have a sound level of several hundred dB if it is nearby. The same is true for a firearm. Since the sound level drops according to the inverse square law-meaning the sound decreases with the square of the distance from the source, if the sound of a firearm can be reduced significantly, then it cannot be perceived from as great a distance.

Obviously, sound level measurements will vary with how far the test microphone is placed from the firearm. The standard distance of five meters (16.4 ft.) was developed by the Frankfort Arsenal, and unless otherwise specified, most testers use this standard in measuring suppressors. Although the absolute sound levels vary with distance, the ratio or degree of suppression will be constant regardless of the distance. This is why it is more meaningful to talk about the degree or amount of noise suppression than the absolute sound level of the silencer-equipped weapon.

This gives designers, testers, and users a common base for competitive claims as to efficiency in noise reduction. Other comparison factors include alignment, service and maintenance, accuracy effects, size/weight, sighting, dependability, price, practicality, and perhaps most importantly, field-ability, that is, how well it works in the field.

Until the gangster wars of the late 1920s, few people worried about who bought such exotic weapons as silencers or submachine guns. Most Americans regarded them as military hardware, and there was little public interest in these weapons. Then, folks like A1 Capone, Mad Dog Coll, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker, and others of their ilk littered Middle American main streets with the bullet-riddled bodies of their business associates. Silencers and submachine guns were suddenly viewed as dangerous gangster tools.

It was pioneering refutation of the logic, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Crusaders and do-gooders pressured the usual bunch of confused and wishy-washy politicians to outlaw the construction, ownership, possession, or use of such "evil" devices as silencers and machine guns. Illegal possession is a very serious felony under provisions of the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA), which was amended by the Gun Control Act of 1968 (C.CA).

The NFA imposes a tax and registration on the making or transfer of certain types of firearms and destructive devices. This is the major limiting factor on private ownership and use of silencers. Basically, this law requires that a $200 tax must be paid for the transfer or manufacture of a silencer, that any such transaction must have the approval of the feds, and that device must be registered. The penalty for conviction of any violation of, or failure to comply with, any provision of the NFA is a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both. Naturally. any silencer involved in such violation is subject to seizure and forfeiture.

Under the current law, the following prohibitions pertain to silencers:

• You may not receive or possess a silencer which is not registered to you in the Na tional Firearms Registration and Transfer Record;

• You may not receive or possess a silencer which is not identified by a serial number as required by the Act:

• You may not receive or possess a silencer which has been imported or brought into the United States in violation of section 5844;

• You may not receive or possess a silencer in violation of lawful state or local regulation or ordinance.

As noted in the last point, just because the feds will allow you to have a silencer doesn't mean your local authorities will go along. Restrictive state and territorial laws in twenty-one areas prohibit BATF from approving the sale and transfer of silencers to citizens of those areas. According to a 1982 listing issued by BATF, the prohibited areas include American Samoa, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii. Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana. New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It should be noted that in Montana and in the District of Columbia, Class 3 dealers may own silencers, but not private citizens. According to BATF, no dealer in any of the other prohibited areas may own or possess a silencer because of the local and state laws. According to most legal sources, anything you put on the end of a gun that "tends to reduce noise" is a silencer and is probably illegal unless you are licensed to own it.

A lot of folks write me and ask how to obtain, buy, or build illegal silencers, and how to obtain, buy, or build legal silencers. My reply is always the same. Forget about illegal silencers. The feds' track record is a superhighway toward busting and hurting the little guy like you because the prosecution's win ratio in these cases is very high. Instead. go directly to Shotgun News to check out the ads, find an honest, legitimate Class 3 dealer who specializes in legal transfer sales of NFA weapons to individuals, and let that dealer be your guide.

As of this writing, there are no other laws or regulations. Stick with real law, and don't believe barroom or local police rumors. But laws are only paper. The futility of prohibitive laws is that they are so easily and popularly ignored. Booze was prohibited, so is marijuana. So are all but stringently regulated and registered sales of silencers and fully automatic weapons. Most of these laws are ignored, twisted, or otherwise defeated. I have seen beautifully machined and carefully engineered silencers built equally well by licensed manufacturers, home workshop hobbyists, a former Mob gunsmith, a Special Forces ordnance NCO, and others. In summary, without the necessary government paperwork, permits, licenses, and taxes, the home building, assembling, possessing, or activating of a silencer is patently illegal.

It's quite another thing, though, if you've bought the federal licenses and you're building or buying in large amounts as a defense contractor or corporation. If the sympathy of the U.S. government is with the politics of your customer, you're in even further luck. Yes, folks, the hoary old double standard of the American justice system extends to silencer manufacture and sales. Here's how it works.

Domestically, the men who broker the sales of such exotic military weaponry as silencers refer to themselves as "technicians" or "consultants." Most of them are either headquartered in Washington

D.C. or have a contact base there. According to

E. Meade Feild, an investigator for the U.S. Customs Service, "We run into them (these semilegal brokers) all the time. They are fully aware of all the laws and the ramifications of these laws, including the political and official climates of government opinion. Some of these people are completely legal; some are completely illegal. Most fall into a gray area. All of them do a brisk business."

The men in the field know the truth of this. Seizures of illegal silencers by the feds have increased by nearly 300 percent in the past two years. Curtis Bartlett, an ATF firearms specialist, is most familiar with the Bureau's enormous collection of confiscated weapons. He says, "I see hundreds and hundreds of illegal silencers that come through here for testing, identification, and evaluation. These include both commercially produced models and homemade units. But the numbers are going through the roof."

Ted Lewis, who used to carry both an FFL and an NFA Class 3 registration under another name, told me, "This entire gun control business is a huge monument to hypocrisy. The USSR and the USA run one-two as the world's largest gun dealers.

"The governments make the rules. They say who builds and who sells the guns. They say what and who is legal and who is not. Want to sell guns to Iran now? Hah! Yet at the time the Shah was deposed, his army had more British tanks than did the armies of the United Kingdom. His air force used America's most sophisticated fighters— the same models that were the latest with the U.S. Air Force at the time," he says with an ironic laugh.

"The biggest arms dealers in the world today aren't guys like Sam Cummings. The real death merchants are the various superpower governments," he says with a snort of bitterness. "You can build and sell suppressors, for example, to anyone with the money . . . and whose foreign policy carbons that of Uncle Sam, of course."

Michael Kokin, an arms broker who runs Sherwood International Import out of California, adds, "The mightiest arms smugglers are the various governments of the world. I'm sorry, it's a cruel world out there. It's the 'haves' versus the 'have nots.'"

In the event you doubt the existence of the weaving spiders of power, stroke your justified paranoia with the spectre of Bohemian Grove, that fantastic summer camp in Northern California, where the Power Control Group communes with nature and each other. For two and a half weeks each year, the very elite of our nation's powerful government and corporate leaders meet there to fine-tune their old boy network and agree on the annual decisions that effect the rest of us.

In 1980, for example, Edward Teller, the unrepentant father of the H-Bomb, told his colleagues at the Grove, "The Soviets mean to take over the Persian Gulf and all the Mideastcrn oil fields. If there is a small war, a conventional war, we will lose. Unless we have a new beginning soon, I don't know what will happen."

His audience that day included Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Justin Dart, William French Smith, William F. Buckley, George Bush, Admiral Thomas Hayward, Willard Butcher, William Casey, and others whose policies reflect the mirror of the Bohemian Grove philosophy, that is, America First at All Costs.

Putting it another way, Tris Coffin, a respected Washington journalist and commentator, has said, "There is a lot more profit in war than there is in peace. It makes a lot of cents to make war, so we do."

Politics and sentiment aside, Coffin is correct and so are the Bohemians-it does make money to make war. And, this simple fact, aided by the ram pant Red Menace mentality of the Reaganistas, is why the military weapon coffers are once again open to America's inventors, designers, salesmen, and others with hardware or software to sell.

There is a Big Dollar prize at the end of the fiscal rainbow, and it is still stretching from the White House to the Pentagon. The military hardware makers are tooled up to go to war so we won't have to go to war. One former silencer manufacturer from the Vietnam era told me, "This coming decade will be the most fruitful and lucrative one in the history of ordnance, let alone firearms silencers. We will see more innovative developments and breakthroughs in technology than ever before. I'm excited for the guys who will be working in it now."

Meeting, interviewing, and studying the new generation of silencer men is instructive. For one thing, government technocrats have gotten hold of official silencer design, terminology, and administration. To marketing-minded Hiram Maxim, a silencer was a silencer. The public knew what that meant, even if it wasn't technically accurate. It took the modern marketing genius of Mitch WerBell III and the military's jargon-wound engineers to come up with the term "sound suppressor" to refer more accurately to the function of the silencer. Today, according to my inside sources who attend the R & D briefings about silencer-cum-suppressor technology, the current reference is low signature weapons.

Curious about the term, I contacted an old acquaintance at Eglin AFB where specialized small arms arts are still tested and asked him if he had some information about a specific developmental low signature weapon which I mentioned by its operational codename. Here's exactly what he wrote me.

"There isn't much I can tell you, it's a classified project," he said. "Basically, it's a TOP SECRET with modified TOP SECRET. It's an TOP SECRET modified for a slip-in integral silencer, although the barrel is not ported in this version."

Despite all the classification, technology and jargon, when it comes down to working descriptions by the men who use them in the field, these handy accessories are still called silencers. That's what I will continue to call them in this book for the most part. Textually, I will interchange the terms suppressor, moderator, and silencer. So what! The man or woman whose job involves this technology probably calls them silencers anyway. The users care only that they perform well. Academics and lab testing don't impress them one whit. Users live by getting in, getting it done, and getting back out again as quickly and safely as possible.

Despite America's reputation as the world's basement tinkerer and technology genius, our ordnance record has not been outstanding during the past few decades. Tom Kelly, a Vietnam combat vet who was later a Department of Defense civilian employee, says, "Soldiers will throw a weapon away if they don't have faith in it. The individual soldier is the guy making the ultimate decisions on weapons systems, and he's going to throw it away if he can't count on it when the fighting goes down."

Many vets recall other vets trading or losing their M16 in favor of the AK47. One of my buddies preferred the old Ml Garand, another liked the M3 greasegun, another carried an Ithaca Model 37 riot gun rather than the Ml6.

Sheer magnitude has often rescued the American military machine from its own incompetence. The legendary David Hackworth, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was quoted in this story from Stuart Loory's book Defeated:

I remember a German lieutenant who'd been captured at Salerno. I was guarding him at a POW camp in 1946. He was a real tough-looking kraut and I was a young punk, a pimply-faced kid.

He could speak perfect English, and I was kidding him one time. I said, "Well, if you're so tough and if you're all supermen, how come you're here captured and I'm guarding you?

He said, "It's like this. I was on this hill as a battery commander with six 88 mm antitank guns and the Americans kept sending tanks down the road. We kept on knocking them out. Every time they sent a tank we knocked it out. Finally, we ran out of ammunition, while you Americans didn't run out of tanks."

Interestingly, silencers have never been a part of our ordnance establishment of failure. Like special mission units, exotica like silencers are regarded as a pariah by the military traditionalist who run things. There has never really been a mass-produced, issue silencer, even during the early days of the Maxim models. Silencers have always been an afterthought, a special-order, limited-supply item or the result of the time-honored wisdom of GI field expediency.

The truth is that much of what quiets gunshots in action is not some lab- or machine shop-generated bit of shiny technology. Indeed many of the units arc field modifications and expedients of various pieces of ordnance. For example, stories abound of individual and unit "gunsmiths" and self-appointed ordnance experts fashioning silencers from grenade launchers, flash hiders, and other materials. One of the more interesting reports comes from Devil's Guard, Robert Elford's fascinating book about Indochina. His narrator, a WWII SS officer who found fun, fame, and fortitude in the postwar Legion, reports:

I found the muffler-equipped machine guns which we used on so many occasions extremely effective, so long as no prolonged firing was necessary. With mufflers the barrels would quickly overheat. Another shortcoming was that mufflers blotted out the gunsights and tracers had to be used to zero in on the target. After several months of experimenting. Sergeant Krebitz discovered that fairly good silencers could be made from sections of hollow bamboo, padded with wet clay and wrapped in layers of cloth. The result was a clumsy contraption which nevertheless worked.

The soundless death coming from the <4nowhere" always shattered the guerrilla morale. The initial shock and the ensuing panic usually prevented the enemy from executing necessary defensive measures. By the time their leaders decided what to do, it was too late for them to do anything but flee or perish. So whenever given a chance we killed in silence.

Any person who has heard, seen, or felt gunfire in combat would know the hair-raising psychological effect of silenced weapons. Elford again quotes his narrator describing his unit's use of silenced weapons with devastating effectiveness in an ambush:

In such attacks the survivors would disperse and take covcr, not knowing where to turn, where to shoot. The sudden realization that the jungle was no longer their ally, that it harbored an invisible adversary who killed in silence, the thought that they might be sitting in the center of a deadly trap, demoralized the enemy. In my opinion all troops engaged in antiguerrilla warfare should be issued rifle silencers. It was the kind of opposition the Viet Minh dreaded: the unknown, the unseen, the unheard death.

Sun Tzu wrote the first real book of military theory circa 400 B.C. In his classic The Art of War he writes that of the ways to conquer an enemy, the most desirable is to destroy his mind. That could be a perfect call for the use of silenced weapons. Most modern military experts with combat experience will tell you that in battlefield tactics, maneuver requires strong emphasis on deception, unpredictability, and surprise. That trilogy creates a perfect scenario for the use of silenced weapons.

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