Debunking Silencer Myths And How To Get A Silencer

A SilencerCo Specwar 762 suppressor.

You’re totally about that Second Amendment Radical life now. You got the gun, you’re getting some training in, you’re feeding it quality ammo, and taking good care of it. And spreading the gospel even. You’re probably perusing the interwebs, and you’ll see all manner of tac’d out dudes and dudettes and some of their guns will have a funny-looking pipe hanging off the front. Yes, their guns are equipped with silencers…

And it’s perfectly legal. As of right now, an individual can legally own, and yes, manufacture (more on that later) a silencer for their gun. We’ll go over the process, which, yes, is time-consuming, but is easy nonetheless.

Suppressor Versus Silencer

First, we should probably clear up a little nomenclature. In gun circles, you’ll see the term “suppressor“ pop up almost universally with regards to a device designed to muffle the report of a gunshot. It’s technically correct, as that funny metal tube only dampens/suppresses the sound, it doesn’t completely cancel it out. As a matter of fact, in a lot of non-English langages, such as Swedish, the term “ljuddämpare”, which literally translates to “sound damper”, is usually the preferred term.

However, the legal term is “silencer” as noted in the definitions of the ATF Form 4, which is the paperwork one has to fill out to legally acquire a suppressor in the United States. We’ll go over the process in a bit, of course. The term “suppressor” doesn’t appear anywhere in firearms law in he US.

As much as it irks us gun people, the term “suppressor” is at this point just a technically-correct marketing term. I encourage it’s use of course, but until the day suppressors are de-regulated, they are unfortunately called “silencers” by law.

And that is where the misconceptions come from, in part. If we are to know more about this, it’s worth knowing the history of silencers/suppressors.

Protip - if you want to sound “hip”, just say “can”. You could say “moderator” too, but that’s a Brit affectation and liable to confuse some people.

Brownells

A Little History On Suppressors

Invented in 1902 by Hiram Percy Maxim, the son of Hiram Stevens Maxim, inventor of the first successful recoil-operated machine gun, the silencer was developed so Hiram Percy could engage in the family tradition without disturbing his neighbors. The Maxim Silencer was sold out of the back of sporting-goods magazines for a few dollars. No fuss, no muss. Coincidentally he also used his experience to develop the automotive muffler since he found the noise of an internal combustion engine to be “revolting”. The irony of course is that a muffler is often required by law on your car, whereas the law actively goes out of it’s way to discourage putting a muffler on your gun.

Anyways, the device proved popular in shooting circles. Teddy Roosevelt, the only good Roosevelt really, was a huge fan and had several. The military, of course, was interested and Maxim arranged many demonstrations of his gadget, though it didn’t really become part of the inventory until World War II.

Suppressors were relatively unregulated until the 1934 National Firearms Act. At the time, the Democratic Party (and many Republicans it seems), were chomping at the bit to garner votes, and one thing that did come up was gun control. Sure, the pesky Second Amendment was in the way, and federal gun control didn’t exist at that point. There were local regulations on firearms, such as the racially-motivated policies in the South and New York City, but there were no federal gun control laws. A spate of notorious gangland incidents as a result of the federal government enacting alcohol prohibition (when you ban something that’s been legal, all you do is cause crime, people…) led to cries from influential busybodies for the government to “do something”. With the executive branch firmly in Democratic hands, the courts stacked accordingly, and the legislature stuffed with gun-control fanatics of both parties, the 1934 National Firearms Act was drafted, revised a little so it wasn’t so obvious as to what the real intent was (getting the ball rolling on far-reaching gun bans), and enacted to much fanfare. Most gun owners weren’t bothered, since “gun control” wasn’t a thing really, and the guns affected weren’t commonly possessed by the people. You could still get all manner of rifles, pistols, and shotguns over the counter, but machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and for some odd reason, suppressors, were now regulated items, subject to a $200 tax and registration with the federal government.

$200 was a lot back then, equivalent to nearly $4000 today. Considering a suppressor cost $20 or so, it was an onerous tax, and froze out legal suppressor ownership for most people. Evidence as to why suppressors were put on the NFA is hard to find, but most suggest it was to curtail poaching, which was mostly practiced by starving families during the Depression, and not true criminals. Nonetheless, suppressors were regulated, and unfortunately the regulation is still with us today.

Since they were relatively rare, most didn’t know much about them beyond what they saw in the media. Unfortunately Hiram Percy Maxim died in 1936, and coupled with the NFA, the market for suppressors was effectively killed off for the regular citizen. The Maxim Company even stopped manufacturing firearm suppressors, sticking to mufflers for industrial machinery. They’re actually still around today doing just that.

Suppressors were effectively restricted to only government use, and knowledge of them by the general population diminished even further. The only time the public heard about them was when the occasional “shady” character was caught with one, or in a negative depiction via the media. Suppressors were seen as “sneaky”. Hollywood perpetuated one of many myths, which unfortunately linger with us today.

Myths And Misconceptions About Suppressors

To the unschooled person, when they think of a firearm suppressor, they invariably think about something they saw in a video game or a Hollywood production. For the most part, the depictions are far from the truth.

Myth: Suppressors Completely Silence a Firearm

The commom depiction of a firearm suppressor is usually with some sneaky bad guy, or a hero looking to be “stealthy”. He creeps up on the target, and with a mere “pfft”, dispatches the completely oblivious subject to the great beyond. The noise is no worse than a kid’s air rifle at most.

That’s false. Even if you’re not familiar with firearms, one merely just has to think about what’s going on when a gun fires. There’s an explosion contained within the barrel and chamber of the gun, and the force (and noise) has to go somewhere. A suppressor captures the expanding gases and noise with a clever system of baffles and chambers. However, the projectile has to leave the gun somehow and there’s a hole for that on the front of the suppressor. In addition to the bullet flying out, there’s some hot gases and sound escaping. Your average gunshot out of a rifle clocks in at over 160 dB. A good suppressor will knock about 30 dB off of that value. Still very loud, and undeniably sounding like a gunshot. For reference, a loud concert or nightclub is at 120 dB. Your suppressed gunshot is around 130 dB.

Also, unless you are using subsonic ammunition, which is to say the projectile never breaks the sound barrier (and thus has shorter range and less energy overall), the projectile will make a “crack” as it goes supersonic. You can actually hear this in practice when firing a gun with a suppressor on it. You’ll hear that “snap” as the bullet leaves the gun, but then a “boom” downrange as the bullet breaks the sound barrier. Someone’s going to know there’s a gun being fired.

Now, truth be told, under experimental conditions, one can suppress a gunshot down to under 100 dB, but this is with .22LR ammunition, and the velocity is so low that the actual utility of the weapon is next to nothing. Which is usually why such experiments are for the sheer challenge, and not to develop a useful “Hollywood Quiet” gun.

Let’s compare fiction to reality.

Hollywood.

Reality.

In my video, you can actually hear the sonic boom (that kind of “whoosh” noise) as the projectile goes downrange. The range I was at, the distance was right around where the bullet goes supersonic, so that’s why some of the shots didn’t go “whoosh”. And yes, my video is ancient at this point, but it is still a decent example.

That’s the biggest myth, of course. One perpetuated unfortunately by Hollywood and the media in general - but we can correct that.

Myth: Suppressors Are Illegal

OK, truth be told, as of this writing, 8 states prohibit citizen ownership of suppressors. It’s the states you’d expect, of course, where gun ownership is viewed dimly at best. California, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Massachusetts all completely prohibit the citizen ownership of cans.

However, for the remaining 42 states in the Union, cans are good to go within the bounds of federal law. If you can legally acquire a gun in those 42 states, you can get a suppressor for it. There’s no “magic” to the background check by the way, the delays are purely bureaucratic.

Unfortunately it’s those two myths that really obscure the facts surrounding suppressor use and ownership.

Myth: You Sign Your Privacy Rights Away With A Suppressor, Or Other NFA Item

False, for the most part. The NFA is technically a tax, so anything related to it is confidential and is only something between you and the federal government. The police cannot just show up and access your property because you have a suppressor. They need a warrant. Even the ATF would require a warrant. However, an ATF agent can request to see your Form as proof of legal ownership.

But in general, no - the cops can’t kick down your door sans warrant just becaus you have a suppressor.

Facts About Suppressors - And Benefits!

Ironically in the rest of the world, where the guns themselves are severely regulated, suppressors ownership, if allowed, is usually no more difficult than acquiring a gun in those jurisdictions. It’s considered good neighborly behavior, especially if you’re a hunter or competitive shooter. Remember, Europe is generally more built-up than us, and shooting grounds are sometimes rather close to where people live and work. They might view guns suspiciously, but they figure if you’re gonna have one, throwing a can on it is A-OK. We have to encourage that, and it’s easiest by getting everyone clued in about the benefits of suppressors.

Suppressors Protect Your Hearing

Hearing loss is a big problem in the firearms scene amongst both professional, competitive, and recreational users. The old joke is the “NRA Handshake” - two guys meet at a gun show and go “What?” to each other for an hour.

Yes, earmuffs and earplugs are a thing, and do definitely knock down the perceived report of a gunshot, but they are not perfect, and they certainly only go so far. Your average set of ear protectors only knock off 20-25 dB from a gunshot - still above the hearing safe threshold recommended by OSHA. And both are prone to misuse. Earplugs fall out, and sometimes if you shoulder a rifle, you can nudge earmuffs off your head a tiny bit, and potentially-damaging sound leaks in. No fun.

A surefire defense, of course, is a suppressor. The suppressor screws securely onto the end of your firearm, and it stays there. You can also double-up with earplugs and a suppressor, which will protect your ears even further.

As a matter of fact, NIOSH the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (yes the same body that defines what an N95 mask is!) actually recommends suppressor use.

In professional circles, where suppressor purchasing is just a matter of intra-governmental paperwork, more and more agencies are equipping their agents with suppressors for everyday use, not just specialist occupations.

If legal, you should do so too.

Suppressors Increase Accuracy

New gun owners typically flinch when firing their weapons. It’s understandable, there’s a controlled explosion mere inches from your hands, and it’s probably startling. With time, you can overcome it, of course.

With a suppressor on your gun, this part of of the learning curve is flattened. You can concentrate more on trigger control and recoil management, and less on worrying about that awfully-lound explosion. Also, having the weight of the suppressor at the end of your gun does decrease muzzle rise a bit - contributing even more to accuracy. Suppressors are a big deal in the long-range shooting scene, and for good reason - you’ll be that much more accurate.

Suppressors Increase Your Effectiveness In A Defensive Situation

I sincerely hope this never, ever, has to come up for anyone, but having a suppressed gun is a huge benefit in a defensive situation. If something goes bump in the night, you have scant time to react, much less throw on ear protection and address the threat. You’ll grab your gun, and go address the threat. And if you have to shoot, especially indoors, the shots will be deafening. You’ll not know which way is up, and be disoriented from the blast. If your first shots didn’t incapacitate the target, your advantage is diminished since you’re dealing with a head full of “fuzz” on top of everything else.

Having a suppressed firearm increases your effectiveness in a defensive situation, which hopefully will never come up. But if it does, having a quieter gun is a huge benefit.

Suppressed Shooting Is Neighborly

Not all of us are lucky enough to live in the sticks, where we can shoot whatever we want to our hearts’ content. Some of us live near built-up areas, and the outdoor facilities are subject to noise complaints, and even indoor facilities have a hard time with the neighbors. And a lot of places don’t have laws in place to protect shooting facilities from the Karen mobs, so we’re often having to deal with their attacks on top of everything else. Encouraging suppressor use will provide an avenue for us to show increased courtesy and goodwill to the communities we live and shoot in. If our guns are quiet, they have one less “attack vector” on us.

OK, so you probably get it now - the dangers of suppressors are way overblown, and it’s probably a good thing to get one or more if you possibly can. So, how do you do it? Unfortunately, there’s a process, though it’s not exceedingly difficult.

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How To Legally Purchase A Suppressor

In states where suppressor possession is only restricted by the bounds of federal law, the process itself to purchase is easy. The delay comes from the bureaucratic backlog at the ATF’s NFA Branch. The steps are pretty concise though.

Step 1: Decide What Suppressor You Want

Due to expense and the artificial barriers to citizen ownership of suppressors in this country, it makes sense to get a suppressor that you can use on the widest variety of firearms. For example, if you have a 9mm pistol and a .45 ACP pistol, purchase a can rated for .45 ACP - that way you can move it to your 9mm if needed. In a well-designed pistol can, it will suppress .45 ACP and anything below that with comparable performance.

Same goes for rifles - if you have .30 caliber-class rifles such as something in 300 BLK, as well as ARs in 5.56mm, get a .30 caliber suppressor such as a Silencerco Saker 7.62, which will suit you just fine for all those calibers.

You can then purchase your suppressor online, or at a local dealer which stocks the can you want. An online purchase will require a “Form 3” transfer, which nowadays is inconsequential due to it being automated. A Form 3 just tells the ATF that a licensed dealer is transferring a suppressor (or other NFA-controlled item) to another dealer. So, if you purchase your suppressor at Brownell’s, and have it shipped to your local gun shop, a Form 3 is filled out to notify the ATF that the can is on the move. It’s subject to approval of course, but as long as both FFLs are in good standing, this shouldn’t be on your radar. Approval for Form 3 is quick these days since it’s electronic.

That being said, you yourself will have to bring some paperwork with you though.

Step 2: Get Your Paperwork And NFA Tax Payment Ready

Due to the restrictions imposed by the National Firearms Act, suppressors are a strictly regulated item here in the US. There’s two major routes to suppressor purchasing in the US, the “individual route” and the “trust route”. We’ll go over them both, with the pros and cons, of course.

Step 2A: The Individual Route

Once you decide what can to purchase, and decide to purchase as an individual, aka you, the regular gun owner, you’ll have to square yourself away for the paperwork. You’ll need to bring to the FFL that has your suppressor:

  • Two passport-style photos 2 inches by 2 inches square.

  • A form of payment for the $200 ATF transfer tax. The Form 4 has a space nowadays to put down your credit card info. Or you can do a money order, which is as good as cash. Checks work as well but that can accrue a delay as the ATF waits for the check to clear to begin their processing.

  • 2 completed FD-258 FBI fingerprint cards. You can “roll your own” or get them done at the local police precinct if you wish.

At the dealer after your purchase your suppressor, you’ll have to fill out 3 copies of the ATF Form 4. One goes to the ATF, one comes back to you when the purchase is approved, and the third goes to the designated chief law enforcement officer (CLEO) of your jurisdiction. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the local chief of police has to receive a copy of your Form 4, and as a matter of fact, he shouldn’t. The rules governing the disposition of the CLEO notification vary from state to state, and it’s hard to say what the local chief will do with the notification. He could just trash it, or start his own unofficial (and potentially illegal) gun registry. Remember, the Form 4 is technically a tax document and it’s acutually questionable if anyone outside the ATF actually has the privilege to view it. But the rules stand for now, so CLEO notification is required.

An acceptable-to-the-ATF notification can go to the chief law enforcement officer of the state. That could be the head of the state police, or the state attorney general. The state-level brass is generally too busy to make a note as to what the paperwork is really about, so the receipt is noted, and that’s pretty much where it ends. Have the mailing address of this official handy so you’re not looking it up at the gun shop.

Your dealer will help you fill out and get your Form 4 “packet” ready.

Then, you wait…

After the wait is over, the dealer receives the approved Form 4 with tax stamp in the mail, and he’ll give you a call to let you know it’s arrived and you can come and pick up your suppressor. You’ll have to fill out a 4473 since a “firearm” is leaving their inventory and going into your possession, but a NICS inquiry isn’t performed since that was done at the ATF.

The specific advantage to an individual purchase is that the paperwork is generaally processed quicker. The ATF makes sure the paperwork is accurate, they have the FBI run the NICS inquiry, and what’s done is done. The paperwork check part is the “analog” process, and the NFA branch is overwhelmed, hence the delay. Check nfatracker.com for current wait times.

The disadvantage is that you and only you can “control” the suppressor. With a normal firearm in most states, anyone who isn’t a prohibited person can borrow you gun. No fuss, no muss. With a suppressor, you have to be physically present and in control of the item. You can let your friend try the can, but you have to be with him. It also makes the disposition of the suppressor much more difficult if you should pass away. Storage of the suppressor becomes an issue too if you live with someone. By the book, the suppressor would need to be locked up when not in your direct control, and any other person in the household would not be able to access it unless you were present.

Step 2B: The Trust Route

Originally, gun trusts were developed to get around the CLEO part of the NFA purchase process. Prior to the ATF 41F ruling in July of 2016, a CLEO actually had to approve individual purchases of NFA items. Most didn’t, either out of ignorance, or outright hostility to firearms owners. Thus, the gun trust was developed - since by the interpretation of the law, the NFA item was being transferred from one entity to another, where entity could be a person, a legal trust, or a corporation. A CLEO had no sway on a trust or a corporation since neither can “sign” for anything, as it were. It wasn’t a loophole per se since the background check was performed on the trustee as he or she picked up the item, but it did get the government worked up, since other trustees weren’t subject to a NICS inquiry, just the one picking up the item. In a rare instance of actual compromise, the Obama administration signed off on ATF Rule 41F, which did away with the CLEO approval and turned it into a universal “notification”. However, it added a burden to the trust route, since everyone involved in the trust had to be subject to the same process as an individual purchaser. So, each trustee needs to have photos, fingerprint cards, and have filled out a “Responsible Person Questionnaire”, aka the Form 23, twice. A trust purchase can easily turn into a family outing to the gun shop.

So, for a trust purchase, you’ll need:

  • One passport-style photo 2 inch by 2 inch for each person on the trust.

  • Two FD-258 fingerprint cards per trustee.

  • A copy of the trust to be sent off to the ATF in the “packet”. It has to be notarized, by the way.

  • A form of payment to cover the $200 tax stamp. Again, credit card or money order is best.

In this case, the CLEO receives a copy of the Form 4, and the Responsible Persons Form 23. Again, best to send it to the state level for convenience.

And then, you wait…and wait some more. On the happy day, the gun shop calls you, and you, or a trustee who filled out the Form 23, can go get the can.

The advantage to a trust is that it makes ownership of a suppressor or other NFA item a little more flexible. If you are married or live with someone, you can put them on the trust and they have equal control over your suppressor. So, if you’re not home, and the wife wants to take a suppressed gun out for some fun, she can do so. It also makes inheritance easier - a heir can be on the trust and all they need to do is fill out an ATF Form 5 in the event of your passing to legally acquire the suppressor. A trust makes storage easier, as well. You can keep the can in a gun safe that the trustees have access to, rather than in a separate one that only you have access to. One nice thing is that as long as the trust doesn’t change, you don’t have to send it in to the ATF for two years if you decide to purchase another NFA item in that time.

The disadvantage to the trust is the extra cost (it’s a legal document and a lawyer should draft it…), and complexity of setting it up, along with the aforementioned “family outings” each time an NFA item is acquired by the trust.

Travel With Your Suppressor

Yes, you can travel with your suppressor, as long as the states you are going to permit citizens to possess such items. Unlike other NFA items, you don’t even have to notify the ATF that you are traveling with it. Just make sure to bring a copy of your Form 4 with you, just to be safe. Technically it is a firearm, so it does have to be declared as such if you are flying commercial, by the way. Yes, the funny looking pipe has to fly in your checked luggage.

Support Suppressor/Silencer Deregulation

For too long now, suppressors/silencers have been demonized and treated unfairly, even within the gun community. It’s time we made some hard moves and got cans off of the “naughty list”. The benefits are too numerous, and there’s no specific danger to suppressor use.

Graduate-Level Stuff: You Can Legally Make Your Own Suppressor

Buying a suppressor is one thing, but if you are really looking for an adventure, you can legally manufacture one. You could buy a kit where all you are doing is drilling holes in the suppressor baffles and placing the finished components into a tube. You could individually machine each component piece by piece. You could 3D-print one, even.

However, you have to file the proper paperwork, and pay the $200 NFA tax, prior to making your DIY suppressor. There’s an investment up front, since you will need the kit components, the 3D printer, or the machine tooling. Plus you’ll need to know how it’s done, which means time invested in educating yourself.

It’s more expensive, but it’s quicker, and repeatable.

The process is similar to purchasing in that you have to have your individual/trust ducks in a row, but the actual ATF Form differs, in that it is the Form 1, which is the application to “make” a firearm. You’ll just have to describe what you are making (a silencer x inches long for y caliber, etc) and then send the “packet” on it’s way for approval. Fortunately, this can be done electronically, at least for the ATF part. The onus is on you to notify the CLEO, rather than the FFL sending things off on your behalf.

Again, this is graduate-level stuff, and requires a certain amount of knowledge of manufacturing and machining processes to pull off.

It bears repeating that you cannot begin to make your suppressor until the Form 1 is approved. To do so could place you in a very stressful legal situation.

Note: I Am Not An Attorney

I drafted this piece up since I get a lot of questions these days about suppressors. All the new gun owners I’ve talked to see the Youtube videos and so on, and want in on it. The statements on the actual NFA purchase process are based on my research using government and private sources such as:

silencershop.com
esilencers.com
atf.gov

Especially if you are going the trust route, consult with a 2A-friendly attorney. I recommend David Goldman, the Gun Trust Lawyer.

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