The Maxim Silencer: Suppressor History

His father invented the machine gun, and Hiram Percy Maxim gave the gun world the suppressor. Here's how the first can came to be.

A Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle with a Maxim Silencer attached.
A Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle with a Maxim Silencer attached.Cody Museum

If you say the name Hiram Percy Maxim to a room full of gun enthusiasts, they automatically think of him primarily as the inventor of the silencer. But if you change the audience, his legacy is vastly different.   Diversified Interests  Hiram Percy Maxim (1869-1936) was the son of inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim, who was best known for inventing the machine gun in the 1880s—and while Hiram Percy grew up surrounded by the ordnance industry, many of his inventions did not involve firearms. Instead he gravitated toward a budding modern technology, the automobile. One of his earliest creations was a gasoline powered engine. In 1899, Albert Pope’s Columbia Automobile Company adopted this idea, which became the basis for the Columbia Gasoline Carriage. It was built in Hartford, CT and was one of the first of its kind. 

"It occurred to me one day that there was no need for the noise. Why not do away with it and SHOOT QUIETLY.”

- —Hiram Maxim

Maxim filed many patents in his lifetime for various automobile designs. He would even apply the concept of his firearms silencer to the new mode of transportation and other industries.

Many of his patents were put into production through his company, originally named Maxim Silent Firearms Company and later the Maxim Silencer Company. After World War I, the company made sound reduction products for cars, naval engines, machinery, and even heating and cooling units, and by 1925, it was moving away from firearms entirely.

In addition to his company’s diversified product line, he shared a love of learning that sparked a range of different interests. His work with silencers aided in his passion for acoustics and sound; Maxim co-founded the American Radio Relay League and had a keen interest in radio communications. In addition to the airwaves, he had a knack for aviation,  and owned one of the first aircrafts in Hartford, CT.

"How did I invent the suppressor? It came to me in the shower" —not an actual quote from Maxim

At the turn of the 20th century, Hiram Percy Maxim began experimenting with devices to suppress sound. And while the above quote is not real, it might as well have been. In his own words:

“One morning after my bath I noticed in the bath tub the miniature whirlpool that forms over the drainhole when the plug is pulled and the water starts to run out. There was the familiar little hole down in the center of the whirl, and it started me thinking that here was an exactly similar case to my powder gas and bullet problem. Here was water in a bath tub, the drain plug pulled out and yet the water was able to run out, but SLOWLY because it was WHIRLING…In a flash, I saw the ‘hole’ for which I had been looking for nearly 2 years.”

An X-Ray view of a genuine Maxim Silencer.
An X-Ray view of a genuine Maxim Silencer.Ashley Hlebinsky

Maxim filed his initial suppressor patent in the summer 1908 (Patent Number 916885 March 30, 1909). Later that year, he filed two more patents. US Ordnance initially tested his silencer in 1909; it was found that it reduced sound by 66 percent and recoil by 67 percent.

Maxim then began developing a silencer to be attached to a Springfield 1903 rifle for testing. The Model 1910 and Model 1915 military silencers were then purchased by the U.S. Government.

Maxim thought that this suppressor could see widespread use, but the 1910 was only considered for snipers. The War Department issued the Model 1915 to the National Guard to aid in marksmanship training.

Recreational Use

The Silencer was added to the National Firearms Act in 1934, along with other firearm accessories, like buttstocks for handguns. As a consequence, Maxim's invention, and devices like it, became heavily regulated in the United States.

The silencer has since been erroneously immortalized in movies and television as a silent assassin's tool that turns gunshots into mere whispers, even though real world examples of its use in this way are quite rare.

While it did have a military application, the original intent of Maxim’s suppressor was to reduce noise, lessen recoil, and increase accuracy and enjoyment of target shooting. In his own words:

“The Maxim Silencer was developed to meet my personal desire to enjoy target practice without creating a disturbance. I have always loved to shoot, but I never thoroughly enjoyed it when I knew that the noise was annoying other people. It occurred to me one day that there was no need for the noise. Why not do away with it and SHOOT QUIETLY.”

And early advertising in the commercial market echoed that sentiment. As you can see below, the device was also marketed as an early muffler for automobiles, as the two devices work pretty much the same way.

Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #1Cody Museum
Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #2Cody Museum
Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #3Cody Museum
Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #4Cody Museum
Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #5Cody Museum
Maxim Silencer Ad
Maxim Silencer Ad #6Cody Museum

So, to gun enthusiasts, he invented the suppressor; to ham radio enthusiasts, he was a radio pioneer; to the automobile enthusiasts, he was an inventor on the forefront of the technology; and to cinephiles, he founded the Amateur Cinema League. Not content to improve any single area, Hiram Percy Maxim brought his inventive mind to bear on all his pursuits.