10/11/2010

Jeff HallZen and the Gunfighter
with Jeff Hall

The sweet sound of silence(ers)

Among their many benefits, devices designed to muffle the report of a firearm help preserve hearing, improve operational ability, and simply make the coppers safer

Back in the Wooly-Pully Commando-sweater days (read: the 1980s), a writer decided that silencers didn’t really silence guns — they just quieted them down. Consequently, the term suppressors became en vogue, so most folks call them suppressors today. Since the dictionary, the patent office, and my little buddies at the BATFE call them silencers, I will, too.

It is a fact that most silencers just limit the sound. It is possible to completely silence a firearm, with a combination of technology, sub-sonic ammunition, and size. Unfortunately, a totally effective silencer for a 1911 pistol would be as large as a car muffler, so perfection and practicality balance out with a device that is man-portable and reasonably effective.

Most readers understand the principle of silencing a firearm. The hot gas exiting the muzzle is slowed and cooled in a detachable chamber — as the cooled gas exits the chamber and mixes with ambient air, there’s less of a disturbance, so there’s less noise. Unfortunately for us, movies and TV make it appear that a silencer on a pistol sounds like a beer can opening — we all know that sound — but the reality is a lot different. I recently watched Magnum Force, where the rogue copper slips a five-inch silencer onto a four-inch Colt Python, which then makes the aforementioned beer-can noise.

I gotta get me one of those silencers!

Better writers than me have detailed the technical aspects of silencers, in dozens of articles, so I’m not going to review it. This will focus on the tactical, practical application of silencers for police, military, or private use. Some issues to consider are cost, effectiveness, sub-sonic ammunition, and application.

The silencers I evaluated for this article are from Advanced Armaments Corp. (AAC). AAC makes silencers that are, truly, state of the art. Maxim is credited with the first silencer — the principle hasn’t changed, but the research, the materials, and the quality of the product has really changed. The decibel reduction on AAC silencers is freely given, so the consumer can match apples to apples. AAC silencers are among the most rugged and effective in the world today.

Silencers make a firearm hearing safe. Like lots of guys of my seniority, I’ve been around lots of guns going off — everything from M16’s to .50 BMG’s — without ear protection. And yes, I have some hearing loss. A SWAT troop I know in Washington State just got hearing aids — in his mid-30s! They wanted to medically retire him, but he talked them out of it. This loss is primarily due to exposure to shooting when unable to wear hearing protection. He’s an exceptional SWAT dog and his retirement would be a loss to his team. The department and his teammates have a lot invested in him, and it would be a sin to lose that expertise.

This team uses the Colt Commando, an eleven-inch M4 variant. The Commando is an outstanding weapon — good ballistics, good range, and a very useable size. The only real disadvantage is the muzzle blast — cook one off inside a room and you hear nothing but bells for a couple of days. While long-term hearing loss is an issue, the more immediate problem is that all of the officers present will have trouble hearing for a short period. Shouts of “suspect,” “gun,” and the like could be missed in the confusion following the shot. S ince communications are usually the first thing to go in an operation, don’t compound the problem be deafening the operators. A quality silencer can eliminate the problem.

The position of team snipers can be given away when rifles are fired. Since the gas is cooled before it leaves the muzzle, muzzle flash is greatly reduced. Many police incidents occur in dim light, and a .308 can put out a pretty good fireball, so a silencer can make the team sniper harder to see. The silencer also keeps dust from flying each time the trigger is pressed.

It is also very difficult to register the position of the shooter, by sound, when he uses a silencer — if the opponent has a counter-sniper, this could get critical. We recently tested this in a wooded area by going downrange and to the side of the sniper. We could get a very general idea of his location, but the ballistic crack of the bullet was more noticeable that the muzzle blast. Again, if a follow-up shot is needed, this may be an advantage. We’ve all seen the video of the Albuquerque sniper Dave Rodriguez shooting the hostage-taker outside the bank — it was the third shot taken by the sniper, after the first two hit a wall. A smarter goblin would have realized where the first shot came from and taken evasive action, but this mutt proved that Darwin was right.

Stealth might be a serious consideration in some scenarios. We once executed a warrant at a junkyard where the suspect kept two big German Shepherds. We cut the chain link fence — two troopers with bite sleeves waited for the dogs to hit the sleeves, and then vigorously applied ball-peen hammers to said dogs. A couple of .22 rounds through the ear canals would have been more effective and more humane. Most of us would rather use the hammers on the dope dealer than the dogs that were just doing what dogs are supposed to do.

There really isn’t much true hostage-rescue work done by SWAT teams. These situations are usually resolved by negotiators, and most teams aren’t up to it. However, a stealth-to-contact hostage rescue would be an ideal place for quiet guns. Lights, people, or dogs could all be quietly eliminated prior to entry. If a stealth entry was accomplished, it might be possible to deal with a couple of bad guys before the rest knew what was happening. Since surprise, speed, and violence of action are key to winning such a situation, silencers may be able to provide an edge.

With the rampant cooking of meth, the muzzle flash of a carbine could be an issue. The flammable chemicals, like ether, create an atmosphere that could ignite when the fireball leaves the muzzle. The addition of a silencer could greatly reduce the possibility of ignition. Flammable vapors were a consideration when we looked at shooting inside a pipeline pump station in Alaska, and silencers were found to be a solution.

One issue to consider is sub-sonic ammunition. A bullet breaks the sound barrier at about 1,100 feet per second, so a round that travels less than that should be effective. The only widely used service round that meets this criterion is the .45 ACP, which is usually 850-900 fps. 9mm, .40 S&W, .223, and .308 are all super-sonic. One major manufacturer made a lot of subsonic .308 for the Special Operations community, but found that it went supersonic at higher elevations on warm days. I tested 20 rounds of Lapua 200 grain .308 ammunition, and found it to be very effective, but it won’t have much juice at longer ranges.

I recently found 5,000 rounds of Remington .22 LR sub-sonic. It functions very well in both weapons that use the AAC “Aviator” silencer. CCI also makes a good round, but I’ve had less success with the Aguila ammo.

A .22 is useful in the above-mentioned role of dog and light control. I once used a silenced Ruger 10-22 to shoot out the only streetlight in a remote Alaska village, allowing the entry team to approach the house. It’s a nice thing to have along. The AAC Aviator, attached to either a Ruger 10-22 or Browning Buckmark, is incredibly quiet. At 50 yards, the round hitting steel is louder than the report.

I had hoped that the .45 would be a little quieter than it is, but it’s still pretty effective. I used the AAC Evolution 45 attached to a Nighthawk Custom GRP Recon. This combination sounds about like a .22, but with less crack. I stood inside a building, talking in normal tones to a team member, and we couldn’t hear the shots 40 feet away. In a hostage rescue scenario, this could be an effective tool.

One small issue we had to resolve was the height of the sights. With the silencer attached, the top of the sights are flush with the top of the can. A call to Craig Ghoulson at Nighthawk, a little machine work by Paul Heinie, and I had tall sights that work like a charm.

The .223 is tough to quiet down. Many attempts have been made to quiet it, but the speed of the bullet gives it its killing power — reduce the speed and you’re stuck with diminished effectiveness. However, the M4 2000 AAC silencer made the M4 sound like a .22. The .223 muzzle blast was pretty well tamed with this setup. The silencer comes with a replacement flash suppressor, and attaches quickly with a ratchet, fast-attach system.

During testing, the M4 loosened a little and turned slightly. This caused a change in point-of-impact of 17.5 inches at 50 yards. Do what we failed to do and check your gear prior to using! A quick clockwise turn locked it back in place and returned it to zero.

The .308 was the most interesting. I used a Remington SPS Tactical, barrel threaded by Tornado Technologies (they also did the .22s). The AAC Cyclone silencer screws onto the threads, making a very firm attachment. The SPS Tactical is a shorter, lighter .308, and like most Remingtons I own, is sub-MOA accurate. We zeroed the rifle for 50 yards and found the combination to be impressive. Using 165 grain federal Tactical, I found the difference in point-of-impact without the silencer to be .5 inch. I’ve read reports of differences up to six inches at 100 yards, so zero the gun with the can on and leave it on. I figure this combination to be a special-purpose, 50 yard, urban rifle problem solver.

Private citizens who want to be low-profile when shooting might want to consider a silencer. It is an NFA device, like a machine gun, but registered silencers are legal in most free states. The process can be a little cumbersome, depending on the local sheriff, and the transfer fee is $200.00 — some worry that they will be on a future Obamination hit list if they have NFA devices. If the world ever gets really bad, a little survival poaching would be easier with a silencer. Balance the benefits and problems and determine if a silencer fits into your plans, but owning one may raise your profile.

One caution: find a company that threads barrels for a living. Any machinist can do it, but there are issues that should be addressed by an expert.

Mike Stannard, owner of Tornado Technologies says, “Find a company that does threading only. Considerations are correct alignment of the threads to the bore, correct threading specs for your particular silencer, legalities, and whether your rifle is suitable for threading. A specialist will have jigs to allow threading without removing the barrel from the receiver. A specialist will provide references, work with the silencer manufacturers, and will guarantee his work.”

The use of silencers won’t make officers into assassins, so tell the chief to not worry. What they will do is save hearing, improve operational ability, make the coppers safer, and be less noticeable to the public (I know several agencies that use silenced rifles for wildlife control, just to keep PETA out of the loop). The military is currently using them with great success, and private citizens who want to be discreet may find them useful. At about the department cost of a Glock, they’re well worth the investment.

About the author

Jeff Hall is a retired Alaska State trooper, former soldier, and NRA instructor, and is a life-long shooter and martial artist. He can be contacted via e-mail or on website www.hojutsu.com.

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