Suppressors: What You Need to Know

In our recent story on the 2010 Steel Safari in New Mexico we included photos of tactical rifles fitted with suppressors (sound moderators). Whenever we show photos of suppressor-equipped rifles, some readers ask: “Why did you show silencers in that article — aren’t they illegal?”


J. Holdsworth ranges a target at the 2010 Steel Safari. Holdsworth finished 3rd overall in the main match.

In fact, sound moderators, also known as “suppressors”, “silencers”, or “cans”, are legal to own in most of the fifty U.S. States. You have to pay a special tax, fill out some official paperwork, and submit fingerprints. And the suppressor must be transferred through a Class III SOT Federal Firearms License-holder (FFL). In this article, tactical shooter Zak Smith explains the basic regulations concerning suppressors. Zak, whose company Thunder Beast Arms Corp., makes a line of advanced sound moderators, also explains the many benefits of modern suppressors.

What You Need to Know about Suppressors
by Zak Smith
Despite common perceptions, silencers are not illegal in the United States. That is, unless you live in CA, DE, HI, MA, MI, MN, MO*, NJ, NY, RI, or VT. If you live in one of those states you’re out of luck. Sorry! Try to elect better politicians.

For the rest of us in the Free United States, sound suppressors — also called silencers — can be owned legally by private citizens provided a little extra paperwork is filled out and approved by the ATF. Silencers (and other NFA items) are transferred to individuals on an ATF Form 4, which requires a $200 stamp tax, a chief law enforcement sign-off, and a set of fingerprints to be submitted to the ATF. In some cases a “corporate” transfer can be done that bypasses the requirements for fingerprints and the local chief law-enforcement sign-off. It usually takes between 3 and 6 months for a Form 4 to be approved by the ATF. At that point you can take possession of your shiny new suppressor. The suppressor itself is the NFA item; you can place it on any firearm (that is otherwise legal to own in your jurisdiction).

Silencers, along with other National Firearms Act (NFA) items, must be transferred only by Class 3 SOT (Special Occupation Tax) license holders, which is an additional license on top of a regular FFL. To buy a suppressor, you can choose one your local Class 3 dealer has in stock, or you can have him order it for you from the manufacturer. A manufacturer-to-dealer transfer is done on an ATF Form 3, and typically takes 10 days to 3 weeks.

“But I don’t plan to be a sniper so why would I want a silencer anyway?” If you hear a shooter say that, you can bet your beer money that they haven’t shot a modern suppressor. Modern suppressors allow the use of full-power ammunition, do not reduce the muzzle velocity, do not contact the bullet during flight, and often aid accuracy. On high-power rifles, a suppressor acts like a muzzle brake and reduces recoil, and of course, the “ka-BOOM” report of the shot is reduced 25-30 dB, yielding a sound not unlike high-pressure gas escaping from an air hose being disconnected.

I have been shooting high-power, bolt-action rifles at long range in competition since 2004. The same year, I had the opportunity to try a modern suppressor on a long-range rifle and there was no going back. Since 2005, my long-range shooting is done almost exclusively suppressed — the only exceptions being F-class (which prohibits their use) and for comparative testing with brakes or bare muzzles.

If you take an accurate bolt-action rifle in .260 Remington or .308 Winchester and fit a suppressor, the recoil will be noticeably reduced and the report will be more similar to a .22 WMR. Most premium .30 caliber suppressors will reduce the report by 25-30 dB — a very substantial sound attenuation. While I do recommend wearing ear protection when using suppressors because hearing damage is subtle but cumulative, the entire experience is more pleasant with a suppressed rifle.

Modern Suppressors Are Superior to Older Designs — And May IMPROVE Your Accuracy
Historically, suppressors had rubber baffles that slowed down the bullets and ruined accuracy. Modern suppressors don’t have any of these drawbacks. While you’ll find competing viewpoints as to whether a suppressor-equipped rifle is more inherently accurate than a rifle with a bare muzzle (or muzzle brake), in practice many shooters shoot better with a suppressed rifle due to psychological and physiological factors — call it “shootability”. With less noise, less barrel hop, and less felt recoil — thanks to the suppressor — many shooters can achieve greater accuracy, shot after shot.

In the last few years, the use of suppressors by competitors has gone from an oddity to being commonplace. At recent matches such as the 2010 Steel Safari, as many as half of the top ten competitors used suppressors.

Suppressors from Thunder Beast Arms Corp.
Several years ago two fellow long-range shooters and I had the opportunity to start a suppressor manufacturing company. We all shared a passion for long-range shooting, had a history of competition, and were convinced that shooting suppressed was the way to go. Thunder Beast Arms Corp., based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was formed to produce the best suppressors for practical long-range rifle shooting. Our “cans”, as they are sometimes called informally, are designed for accuracy, durability, and light weight, while maintaining best-in-class sound suppression levels. Many of our suppressors are made from Titanium for ultra-light weight and superior corrosion resistance.

Although I am proud of our products, there are many good brands of suppressors on the market right now. A suppressor buyer can dial in the performance, application, and amount he wants to pay very precisely — there will almost certainly be a suppressor on the market that meets his requirements. If you have a chance, see if you can get a suppressor demo lined up — I guarantee you’ll be impressed.

*In Missouri, suppressors may be legally acquired, but only by the military, by law enforcement personnel (acting officially), and by certain Federal Firearms License Holders (including C&R). See: http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/C500-599/5710000020.HTM .

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