An update on airgun silencers

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

• Are they or aren’t they — legal?
• Some dealers don’t know or don’t care
• Mistakes can be made
• Intent is usually the key
• Your safety net
• Buzzwords that confuse
• Are they removable?
• Pyramyd Air promotion: Win a Red Ryder for Christmas!

Today’s report was specifically requested by Ruth Kass, a member of Pyramyd Air’s sales team. She recently talked to a customer who was very concerned about buying an airgun that might get him in trouble with the law because of a silencer issue. He read my article on airgun silencers, which put doubts in his mind about what’s legal and what isn’t. That article is still valid, but I thought I would leaven it today with some common sense.

There are many more airgun models with silencers today than there were in 2006, when I wrote that article. And let’s get something straight — just because some airgunners call them sound modifiers doesn’t change what they are. If they mute the discharge of the gun they are silencers as far as the law is concerned.

We’ll pretend this person was interested in a Benjamin Marauder, but it could just as easily been one of any number of silenced air rifles being sold today. Even the AirForce Talon SS now has optional Sound-Loc baffles that could come under scrutiny.

Are they or aren’t they — legal?
Here is the answer. All airguns sold by Pyramyd Air are legal throughout the United States, unless they are specifically prohibited by state and local laws. In other words, no U.S. federal laws prohibit the airguns sold by Pyramyd Air in the United States. I have to say it that way because our Canadian neighbors have different federal laws about airguns that are more restrictive. My remarks are intended for residents of the 50 United States.

That said, several states and some municipalities have enacted airgun laws that are more restrictive than federal law. Since these laws change with the changing political landscape, I cannot possibly write a report for any of them. They are in constant motion. It’s up to the buyer to find out what is permitted and what is restricted in their state and city. And don’t ask your local police department. The best place to check is with the office of the attorney general of your state, and again with your local prosecutor’s office. The police enforce the law, but they don’t necessarily keep current on each and every minute aspect of it.

The airguns sold by Pyramyd Air that have silencers on them are legal, according to U.S. law. Why do I say it that way? Let’s find out.

Some dealers don’t know or don’t care
Airgun dealers come and go all the time. The largest dealers that have been around the longest are more likely to sell only airguns that are legal, since violating federal law could endanger their entire business. That’s no guarantee that they can’t make a mistake and let something illegal slip by (I will address this in a moment); but if they have a business to protect, you can bank on them paying attention to remaining on the right side of the law.

It’s the small dealers that rise up and then vanish without a trace that you have to be wary of. These are the people who either don’t care about the law, or they disagree with the law and are willing to let you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending yourself to prove their point. Most of them are simply oblivious to the law and to how it applies to the goods they sell. I talk to several of them each year and get their opinions on the law — which they are only too willing to give, by the way. In the Army, we had a name for people with legal interpretations like this, but I can’t mention it here since this is a G-rated blog.

The most dangerous class of small dealers are the ones who sell just silencers. They will sell you a silencer, fully intending for you to install it on an airgun, which 99.99 percent of people do, I’m sure. But it’s that 0.01 percent of the population who cannot do the right thing to save their lives that get the rest of us into trouble. Because, when they mount an “airgun” silencer on the front of their Ruger 10/22 and reduce the sound of the shot by even a little, they are clearly breaking the law. It doesn’t matter that the silencer only works for one shot before breaking apart — that one shot is a clear violation of the federal law that says all firearm silencers have to be registered and must have serial numbers.

Mistakes can be made
Earlier, I said anyone can make a mistake and let something slip past them. Allow me to illustrate. I once traded a firearm rifle to a gun store for an Apache carbine. The Apache was a .45 ACP semiautomatic that used M3 grease gun magazines and fired from a open bolt. Right after we did the deal the BATF (they had one less letter in those days) ruled that the Apache was a submachine gun because they felt it was too easy to convert to full auto. So, the gun dealer contacted me (that’s why they keep records of every sale) to get the Apache back. We undid the deal, so to speak. And the gun dealer lost the Apache that was seized by the feds.

For a short time, I possessed an illegal submachine gun in the eyes of the feds; but because I did not do so intentionally, there was no problem. That is what I meant when I said mistakes can be made.

Intent is usually the key
Before I say what I am about to say next, you need to know that I am not a lawyer, and my opinion does not constitute a legal opinion. It’s just the opinion of a writer who has no legal training.

Intent is what often drives federal agencies to prosecute. Here’s what I mean. If you’re one of 27,000 people who own a Benjamin Marauder and have used it as designed, and then sometime in the future the BATF&E decides that the Benjamin Marauder should not be sold without a valid Form 4 (a silencer license), they are not likely to hunt you down and prosecute you. Even if you bought one used from a private party, the same logic prevails. As long as you follow the new interpretation of the law when it is made public you should be in the clear.

On the other hand, if you purchase and use a “BangAway” sound modifier that screws or clamps onto the barrels of numerous airguns, and you get it from The Zombie Reserve — Your underground supplier for the Apocalypse — I think you are not on such firm ground. Tomorrow, The Zombie Reserve may be out of business; but if you still have their silencer, you may be in trouble.

Your safety net
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF&E — the federal bureau that regulates silencers) is as aware of the current airgun situation and silencers as the most astute airgunner, and way ahead of the rest of us. They do this for a living, and have a vested interest in what’s going on. So, it comes as no surprise to them that the Benjamin Marauder has baffles inside the barrel shroud, and that those baffles make the gun quieter. They also know that the TX200 Mark III has had baffles inside its shroud for over a decade. They are comfortable with that, as you should be. That’s why I said earlier that people buying airguns from Pyramyd Air should not worry about running afoul of the law. Pyramyd Air only sells those guns they know are accepted by the BATF&E, and if that should ever change, Pyramyd Air would be at the forefront of notifying people of the change.

But if you buy from The Zombie Reserve website — you are what the aviation industry calls a test pilot. Or, in legal terms, a test case. As long as nobody ever arrests you, things are fine. When you’re arrested, though, you have a weak defense.

Buzzwords that confuse
Besides using the term “moderator” instead of “silencer,” airgun retailers commonly use other buzzwords to confuse and sometimes hide what they’re selling. Let’s talk about a few of these.

Bull barrel: A bull barrel (named for marksman Freeman R. Bull) is an extra-heavy barrel that steadies the gun and absorbs heat (in firearms) to keep things stable. Airguns do not have bull barrels today. A few target guns had them as late as the 1980s. When airguns have so-called bull barrels today, they’re just plastic shrouds over a thinner metal barrel. They have zero silencing effect.

Air stripper: Some people who are new to the shooting sports call “compensators” air strippers. They are defining the part by what it does because they don’t know its true name. The purpose of a compensator is to vent compressed air away from the base of the pellet at the muzzle.

Muzzlebrake: There’s no one definition for this term. Compensators are often called muzzlebrakes when they’re used on military firearms. Even battle tanks have them.  But airgun muzzlebrakes tend to be inert barrel extensions that are also larger in diameter than the barrel. On some guns, these brakes extend back so far that the barrel looks like a bull barrel. Muzzlebrakes are commonly used to gain leverage on breakbarrels. Unless they have active baffles inside, muzzlebrakes are not silencers. When muzzlebrakes appear on pneumatic and CO2 guns, they can have baffles and function as silencers. If they can be removed from the gun and attached to a firearm, they fit the BATF&E definition of a silencer.

Lead dust collector (LDC): This is a not-too-clever attempt to hide an illegal silencer. The BATF&E has been on to this for years. You can call them anything you want (even decibel-reduction devices). But if they can quiet a firearm for even one shot, they’d be classified as a silencer.

Are they removable?
So many airguns come with built-in silencers these days, the question becomes, “Can they be removed and installed on a firearm?” If they can and if they reduce the sound of that firearm for even one shot, they meet the definition of a silencer and must be registered. People discuss this to absurdity! Because anything CAN be done. The question is whether or not it can be done relatively easily so there’s a real danger.

This is why I’ve stressed so strongly that buying a silenced airgun from Pyramyd Air is your safety net. They know which manufacturers have produced approved airguns that are quiet. They also know the airguns that the BATF&E might question, and they won’t sell those.

Pyramyd Air promotion: Win a Red Ryder for Christmas!
Do you know someone who’d like a Daisy Red Ryder for Christmas? Pyramyd Air is giving away 25 Red Ryders this year. The model is the 75th Annniversary Red Ryder with the metal cocking lever and special engraving on the stock, so it’s extra-special. Check out their special web page for the rules and how you can win.

What is a bull barrel?

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

A couple weeks back, a reader asked what bull barrels are. I said I would answer him with a report, and today’s the day.

Okay — it’s history time. Remember when you were surprised to learn that the monkey wrench was actually invented by a man by the name of Charles Moncky? Turned out to be a huge 19th century urban legend, didn’t it? Well, the bull barrel was perhaps first popularized by Freeman R. Bull, a machinist and employee of the Springfield Armory in the late 1800s. Mr. Bull was a noted sharpshooter who excelled at offhand shooting, which made him one of the rock stars of the day. Springfield Armory used him often to test various prototype rifles because they knew he would give them the best possible evaluation.

In 1887 the armory made a special long-range Trapdoor just for Mr. Bull. It had a heavy octagonal barrel that was stiffer than the normal, round long-range rifle barrel they had been making. Getting 80 grains of black powder into the short 45-70 case was a real trick that required careful handloading and eventually led to the case being lengthened, but only for long-range target use. This was never a production military cartridge. But Bull’s rifle was a real shooter. He advocated using heavy barrels to cut down on muzzle movement when holding offhand.

Mr. Bull successfully shot his prototype rifle at great distance, but he was always standing in the long shadows cast by both the Remington Rolling Block and Sharps rifles that preceded the long-range Trapdoor by many years. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the government was engaged in a continual marketing campaign to prove that the 1873 Springfield single-shot had been a great choice for arming soldiers (despite the debacle at the Little Big Horn), not unlike what they’ve done with the M16. But, in the end, the bolt-action repeating Mauser in the hands of Spanish forces in Cuba put the nails in the coffin of the old Trapdoor. They soldiered on in the ranks of various National Guard units until the end of World War I, but their time as serious first-line military weapons was at an end by the middle 1890s.

So, was Freeman Bull the inventor of the bull barrel? Probably not. The barrel of his rifle was heavy, but it was octagonal, and bull barrels are uniformly round. The popular thinking is that bull barrels get their name from their oversized dimensions, as in “as stout as a bull.” If you go on various AR chat forums and websites, you’ll see discussions about what the differences are between bull barrels and heavy barrels, but that boils down to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Bull barrel and heavy barrel are 2 names for the same thing. What throws the AR shooters is that there is a specification for a heavy barrel for an AR-15/M16, and they mistakenly think it applies to all other firearms.

AR-15 bull barrel
This barrel is sold as an AR-15 bull barrel. It has flutes, but they’re not a requirement for a bull barrel. An AR heavy barrel would be much thinner than this.

There’s no exact specification for a bull barrel. In fact, the modifiers “bull” and “heavy” can be used interchangeably. If there’s a distinction when 2 barrels are being compared, the bull barrel would be even thicker than the heavy barrel, but that argument quickly becomes difficult to resolve.

Bull barrels in firearms
Being thick, a bull barrel can absorb a lot of heat energy during firing, and therefore it heats up slower than a thin or standard barrel. It also vibrates less because the sheer bulk of the barrel absorbs a lot of the smaller vibrations. The result of these two factors is improved accuracy, but only when the barrel is rifled carefully. When someone makes a bull barrel, they do take great care in rifling it, so it’s almost a given that bull barrels will be accurate. Their extra bulk just adds to the potential.

10-22 bull barrel with standard barrel
The Butler Creek barrel on the left is sold as a Ruger 10-22 bull barrel. It’s heavier than the standard 10-22 barrel on the right but could also be considered a heavy barrel.

I see some places on the internet where bull barrels are described as having flutes. Flutes are grooves on the outside of the barrel that lighten the weight without taking away any of the stiffness. But flutes are not a requirement of a bull barrel, as these websites imply. They’re just one additional feature that the finer bull barrels can have.

What does a bull barrel do?
Bull barrels do several things that help accuracy. First, all the extra metal does make them stiffer and less prone to vibrate. Every bullet comes out the muzzle with the barrel in the same place, more or less. That’s the artillery hold at work, so a bull barrel tends to give the same benefits and get similar accuracy improvement.

The second thing bull barrels do is maintain an even temperature during firing. Since metal expands when hot, maintaining an even temperature keeps the barrel from changing dimensions, which promotes consistency from shot to shot. Consistency means accuracy.

A third benefit of a bull barrel is associated with its weight. Being heavy, it tends to allow the rifle to recoil less, and that helps the shooter cope more effectively. This is especially important when talking about the larger calibers that kick a lot.

A final benefit is also associated with the bull barrel’s weight. It pushes the balance point of the rifle toward the muzzle. Many offhand shooters find this helps them hold their rifles still.

What about airguns?
Airguns can have very heavy barrels that might be called bull barrels. The vibration damping benefit will be the same as for firearms, but heat dissipation is not needed because airguns don’t heat up when fired. The recoil damping benefit is valid for spring guns, which is where the majority of airgun bull barrels are to be found. In fact, many target spring guns of the 1950s through the 1970s had optional heavy steel barrel jackets that could be slid over the regular barrel to give a bull barrel look and benefit.

Walther LGV Olympia barrel
Walther LGV Olympia target rifle has a heavy steel barrel jacket, held on by a special nut at the muzzle. This turns the LGV barrel into a bull barrel.

But plastic is no good! Some spring gun manufacturers are covering thin steel barrels with thick plastic sleeves and calling them bull barrels. They certainly look the part, but they lack the real benefits of genuine bull barrels. Oh, they probably do shoot better than they would if just the thin rifled steel tube were exposed because the plastic does attenuate the vibration patterns to some extent. But they’re not true bull barrels.

Gamo Bull Whisper barrel
Gamo’s Bone Collector Bull Whisper IGT rifle barrel is a bull barrel in name, alone. Plastic around a thin steel tube does not meet the requirements of a true bull barrel.

Bull barrel facts
1. There is no specification for a bull barrel.
2. Bull barrels are synonymous with heavy barrels (except in specific cases).
3. A bull barrel made of plastic is mostly for show.
4. Bull barrels tend to be more accurate, as long as they are well-made.
5. Bull barrels add weight to the gun that may help stabilize it for offhand shooting.
6. Bull barrels add weight to the rifle and may dampen recoil.

So, look for bull barrels if you like, but know what they are and what benefits they bring to airguns.