by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • What does a firearms silencer sound like?
  • What does a silencer do?
  • Making the gasses work against themselves
  • Silencers and the law
  • What you think doesn’t matter
  • The problem
  • Code talkers
  • So — are airgun silencers legal?
  • How quiet?
  • Times are a-changin’
  • Summary

I just heard from someone who went through the legal process of registering a firearm silencer. He waited 11 months for the entire process to go through, and he very recently picked up his $600 silencer.

But — it isn’t silent!

No, It wouldn’t be. Firearm silencers are not silent, nor do they sound like a small airgun, as Hollywood often portrays them. But before you rag on the filmmakers, consider this. You can watch a video of an atomic bomb detonating, where the “sound” is so “loud” that it’s actually a solid visible wave of supercompressed air that shatters buildings. Yet you can watch it in comfort. That’s because your speakers cannot reproduce real sounds that loud — I don’t care how much you spend on them! In the real world people flinch violently when a firearm is fired, unless they are prepared for it. On the big screen it’s no more annoying than a rooster crowing.

To make a firearm completely silent either takes a far more expensive device, or a novel approach — like shooting through a loaf of bread. And even that isn’t completely silent.

What does a firearms silencer sound like?

A run-of-the-mill $350-700 silencer does quiet the report of a firearm significantly. As long as subsonic ammunition is used, the sound of a .22 long rifle rimfire cartridge will go from an annoying crack (the annoying part is because of what it does to the cilia of your inner ears — it breaks them off!) to a pop that’s about like a medium-powered spring piston air rifle. A .300 Blackout (.223 Remington necked up to accept a heavy .30 caliber bullet that moves out at around 900 f.p.s.) can be just as quiet as the rimfire round, but the silencer that does it has to be larger, because there’s more gas to quiet.

What does a silencer do?

A silencer disrupts the flow of hot pressurized gas that is generated when the gunpowder burns. There are different designs of silencers that do different things to the gas flow, but the bottom line is the longer the flow is interrupted, giving the pressure time to drop, the quieter the discharge will be.

At this point I want you to watch the You Tube video that reader Chris U.S.A. linked to last week. In less than 10 minutes you will see how a firearm silencer works and understand a lot more about what it is doing and has to do to silence the shot.

Making the gasses work against themselves

One of the techniques of reducing the muzzle blast is making the gasses work against themselves inside the silencer “can.” The reason I want you to watch that film is because it shows dramatically what happens in all silencers — firearm and airgun. The gasses are made to swirl and rebound against themselves, allowing the pressure to drop. Lower pressure is the key to a quieter report.

Silencers and the law

In the United States there are federal laws that control the production and legal ownership of silencers. As far as manufacture goes, a silencer is considered to be a firearm and must be serial-numbered and handled within strict federal guidelines. Silencer ownership is not illegal, as some believe, but it is closely controlled. Not only is the federal government involved, through the offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but the police chief or sheriff within whose jurisdiction the silencer applicant resides has to sign off that it’s okay to make the sale. No signature, no sale. The applicant is photographed and fingerprinted as part of the application, so that data becomes available to law enforcement authorities. If you weren’t on the grid before, you will be!

What you think doesn’t matter

This is the area where people get in trouble. They imagine how things ought to be rather than investigating the law and seeing how it applies. I have told hundreds of airgunners over the years when they ask me whether the silencer they have made is legal, “I don’t know and I don’t want to find out from the witness stand.” The wise ones understand and the hardheads push on, living in their own world until someone informs them otherwise.

I received a letter from a prison inmate who was arrested, tried and convicted on a charge of making and selling an illegal silencer. He asked me to defend him in an appeal, but why would I do that? I had explained to him that what he had done was illegal, and, when his state’s prosecutor contacted me (at his request!), I told him the exact same thing. He was subsequently released when an appeal revealed a problem with the chain of custody of the evidence, but that was after he spent several years in prison.

Yes — it is illegal to make a firearm silencer unless you are licensed to do so. And if you do make one you must follow all the required steps for control.

The problem

Are airgun silencers illegal? Not per se, but they can become so if they will also function as a firearm silencer. Now, this is where the good old boys start to blue-sky the discussion to obfuscate things. They talk about how a 2-liter soda bottle can function as a silencer, or a loaf of fresh bread, or how parts can be cut off airguns and machined into silencers — so where is the line to be drawn?

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is if a device can be attached to a firearm and reduce the muzzle report by even one decibel for just one shot, it’s classified as a silencer. Those who have studied the law will recognize that intent is the underlying factor. The good old boys can postulate all they want, but when one of them steps over the line and builds something that will silence a firearm, he has just entered the world where things can happen. Will they happen? Not always. Can they happen? Yes — every time. Because intent has been established.

Code talkers

Okay, silencers are bad (no, they’re not — they are regulated). Let’s not call them silencers. Let’s call them moderators or suppressors, instead. That doesn’t sound so bad. No, wait — let’s call them lead dust collectors, so people will think they are actually there for health reasons. Yeah — BATFE will never figure that out!

I bet they laughed themselves silly when that one came out. Or better yet, we’ll call them decibel reduction devices and say they are for protecting shooter’s ears. Isn’t that what they really do? And let’s just use the initials, DRD, so nobody who isn’t on the inside will have a clue! Nyuk, nyuk!

So — are airgun silencers legal?

If they are attached to the airgun in such a way that they can’t come off and be used where they shouldn’t be used, then yes, BATFE has no problem with them. After all, BATFE has no authority over airguns — by law!

And, if the airgun is designed in such a way that the sound reduction is inherent, like it is in the TalonSS from AirForce Airguns, then no problem.

However…

If you can fill in the rest of the however statement, you understand. If you can’t, then I would tread very carefully.

“But what if I cut off the tubular frame of the Talon SS and make a Delrin adaptor to attach it to the barrel of my Ruger 10/22?” I would call that intent. How about you?

How quiet?

I talked about firearm silencers not being completely silent, but with airguns the story is different. They still are not completely silent, but they are a lot closer. I have seen a few where all you could hear was the operation of the rifle’s action. A slight “ping” and perhaps the impact of the pellet downrange. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to silence an airgun like you do a firearm.

Times are a-changin’

When I bought my silencer in 2005, they were still something that polite people didn’t talk about — even here in Texas. Today, however, Texas has a law making it legal to hunt with a silenced firearm. The times they are a-changin’!

silencer stamp
There is a stamp that costs $200.

silencer
And there is what $560 and a year’s wait gets you. Not very exciting, is it?

Thirty-nine states allow silencers, which leaves 11 that don’t. I would imagine you can pretty well name most of those. So, what happens if you are transferred to a state where your legal silencer isn’t allowed. You no-taka along — that’s what happens. “But what if I close off both ends and say it’s a pill bottle?” Then, be prepared to take your medicine!

Summary

I used to be very concerned about the airgun silencer issue, until I got grounded in the basic law. Now it doesn’t bother me so much. If you buy a silenced airgun today like the TX200 Mark III or the Sig ASP20, you have no problem. On the other hand, I don’t own any screw-on airgun silencers and nobody can convince me to buy one.

Although the times have changed and in some ways they have relaxed a bit, silencers are still subject to regulation and control in the U.S. Don’t be like the guy in California who thought it could never happen to him and got visited by the ATF when his British silencer was delivered. He became an instant believer who was only too happy to share his story, surrender his silencer and stay out of jail!