How to Buy a Suppressor

Buying a suppressor is now legal in 42 states, but the rules for getting one are about to change. Here’s an important update that explains how you can get a silencer of your own.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives announced significant changes to the process for buying silencers. The new rules will apply beginning on July 13, 2016. If you’re buying as an individual, the new process is a little smoother. If you’ve set up a trust or corporation for your suppressor purchases, you’ll have to jump through a few more hoops under the new rules. This article, which was originally posted in April 2015 under the title “The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet,” has been updated to reflect those changes.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
The ultimate first-time shooter experience: a .22LR pistol with a suppressor.author photo

It’s unfortunate but true: The sound from a single gunshot can permanently damage your hearing. Permanent hearing loss results from each and every exposure to a dangerous sound level—and it might not be evident for years. So it’s obvious that you should always use hearing protection when shooting. And if it’s possible, consider installing silencers on your guns. While a silencer (also referred to as a suppressor) won’t completely negate the need for hearing protection, they do reduce sound levels significantly. It’s also a considerate way to shoot.

A suppressor works much like a muffler on your car. When you fire a gun, a large volume of hot, high-pressure gas exits the muzzle along with the bullet, which a lot of noise. The silencer contains those gasses for a bit and allows them to expand and cool more gradually by circulating them around internal baffles in the suppressor before they exit the muzzle. Slightly mellowed-out gas makes a lot less noise when exiting.

The Hollywood myth is that silencers muffle a gunshot to whisper level, but that simply is not true. To understand the relative volumes of un-silenced versus silenced guns, we have to understand sound and how it’s measured.

Sound level is measured in decibels, which use something called a logarithmic scale. Decibels are not linear in nature. Twenty decibels is not twice as loud as 10, it’s actually about 10 times as loud. Even a three-decibel increase represents a doubling of sound. The chart shown here lists approximate decibel levels of everyday noises.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
These Winchester Ammunition Train & Defend cartridges are subsonic—they travel less than the speed of sound and so don’t emit a sonic boom--which makes a Glock 26 topped with a SilencerCo Octane 45 a very quiet combination.author photo

A .45 ACP pistol shot generates about 162 decibels, depending on the specific ammo and gun, and is well over the threshold for permanent hearing loss. Adding a suppressor reduces that sound output to about 133 decibels, below that threshold. While that’s a big improvement, it’s always a good idea to use hearing protection with a suppressor anyway if you’re shooting a lot, because sound level risk is cumulative. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration limits an eight-hour-shift exposure to an average of just 85 decibels.

Silencers also improve shooting enjoyment for you, and make it much more tolerable for anyone within hearing range. They also provide added benefits of less felt recoil and can help prevent people from flinching. Whenever I take new shooters to the range I always start them with a suppressed .22 LR, and their smiles are proof that the silencers make it enjoyable.

Approximate Sound Levels Decibels
Suppressed Gun Shot in a Movie 0
Whispering 30
Normal Conversation 60
Alarm Clock 80
Jackhammer at 50 Feet 95
Lawnmower 107
A Rock Concert 115
.22LR Pistol (Suppressed) 117
1911 Pistol in .45 ACP (Suppressed) 130
Threshold of Pain 130
Level that Results in Hearing Loss 140
.22LR Pistol 153
1911 Pistol in .45 ACP 162
12-Gauge Shotgun 165
Saturn V Rocket Liftoff 195

An increasing number of manufacturers make them for .22LR rifles and pistols as well as for shotguns, MSR-type rifles, and other types of firearms. A quality suppressor can cost from $300 to more than $2,000. A suppressor from SilencerCo for a rifle chambered in 5.56mm will cost from about $400 to more than $800.

How to Get a Suppressor

As of this writing, silencers are legal in 42 states (they are not legal in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). If you’re a resident, you can legally obtain silencers from a dealer if you’re 21 or older. To buy one via transfer, or as part of a trust (more on that later), you must be 18 or older. You have to be legally eligible to purchase a firearm. You have to pass a federal background check. Basically, if you're a permanent resident of the U.S. and have not spent time in jail, you’re probably okay.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
These are the guts of the SilencerCo Octane 45. The baffles create chambers where gasses slow and cool before exiting.author photo

As a “restricted item” per the National Firearms Act, silencers are regulated and you need permission from Uncle Sam—to be specific, a permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE). You submit an application along with $200, and if all is well with your application, after a couple of months you receive your permit to own and use a suppressor. Keep a copy of it with you at all times when using your silencer.

There are two ways to own a suppressor: as an individual or as part of a trust. Under the new ATF 41F rules, there are some changes to the process. We spoke with American Suppressor Association Executive Director Knox Williams about the regulation changes, and he filled us in on the new process that takes effect July 13, 2016.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
This is the inside of a SilencerCo Sparrow .22LR silencer.author photo

Individual Ownership

If purchasing the suppressor as an individual, you need to do the following:

  • Choose and pay for the suppressor at your Class 3 FFL dealer. The dealer will help you complete a form with the model and serial number of your suppressor.

  • You will need to attach a passport photograph, fingerprint card, and check or money order for $200 to your application forms.

  • You send notification to your local chief law enforcement officer. Under the old rules, you needed to get an official to approve and sign the paperwork. Now, there is no approval needed, just the notification. If you are legally eligible to buy the silencer, they are no longer in a position to prevent the purchase.

  • If the suppressor is not already in stock, it arrives at your dealer and is held until BATFE approval is complete.

  • BATFE will return to your dealer one of your Form 4 copies complete with a nifty green tax stamp affixed, which allows you to take possession of the silencer.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
Many suppressors have an optional flash hider or muzzle brake that offers easy attachment to many firearms.author photo

Trust Ownership

Trusts aren’t just for super-wealthy folks who live in compounds instead of houses. A trust is simply a legal entity of which a number of people are members, or trustees. The trustees are authorized to buy, sell, and use items owned by the trust—in this case, silencers.

There are distinct advantages to using a trust. First, you’re not the only one limited to legal use of the items. I set up a trust for my wife, my two adult children, and myself. Any of us can use suppressors owned by the trust. If I die suddenly, the trust remains and the others continue to have access to trust assets. Another benefit is that a trust does not have to go through the hassle of submitting fingerprints, photos, and a signature of the local law-enforcement authority. Trustees are known, named, and have to be legal, they just avoid the unnecessary red-tape runaround.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
A SilencerCo Osprey .45 cooling down.author photo

Setting up a trust is easy and a number of companies offer trust-making services online. I got mine through GunTrust.com and it couldn't have been easier. Recently, SilencerCo launched its own trust service called EasyTrust. For $129.99 you're good to go.

The purchasing steps for a trust are as follows:

  • Bring your trust paperwork to the dealer along with a check or money order from the trust made out to BATFE.

  • Choose the suppressor and pay for it from the trust itself. (It's a good idea to get a simple checking account in the name of the trust.)

  • The dealer will help you complete a BATF form with the model and serial number of your suppressor. The dealer submits your paperwork and payment.

  • Each trustee (responsible person listed in the trust paperwork) must submit a fingerprint card and passport photograph with the application. Even though one trustee is likely making the purchase, each individual must submit every element of the package. If the trust has made an approved purchase within the previous two years, and each of the current responsible individuals has fingerprints and photo on file, then no new prints and photos are necessary.

  • As with an individual purchase, notification must be made to the local chief law enforcement officer.

  • If it's not already in stock, the suppressor arrives at your dealer and is held until BATFE approval is complete.

  • BATFE will return to your dealer one of your forms complete with tax stamp affixed, and you take possession of the silencer.

The Silencer Surge: Be Very Quiet!
A very considerate shooting bench!author photo

In a nutshell, it's easier for individuals to purchase suppressors. In the past, many local law enforcement groups simply refused to sign off on applications, effectively banning suppressors within their jurisdiction. According to Williams, "On the whole, we view the new 41F rules as a victory. It removes the chokepoint of local law enforcement officials having to grant permission. It's going to be a lot easier for individuals to purchase. Of course, there's the downside of trusts having to submit photo and fingerprints.

Buying a silencer has always been somewhat of an adventure in paperwork, but now innovative companies are working to make the process easier. The folks at the nation’s largest silencer distributor have developed an automated system that makes buying a silencer through their network of local dealers easy. Silencer Shop will handle the entire process start to finish, virtually removing all the hassle from the process. Customers upload the application and trust paperwork, if applicable, to Silencer Shop so the company can handle the submission to ATF directly.

The company also plans to deliver 300 automated digital fingerprint kiosks to their dealer network. Buyers simply swing by their local store and submit a fingerprint scan, which is transmitted to Silencer Shop. Once complete, Silencer Shop can resubmit the same prints for any future purchases. They’ve also automated the process of submitting a passport photo via development of a smartphone app. Like the application and fingerprints, the photo is uploaded to Silencer Shop. The net result is that the entire process is automated, with most of the government-induced complexity shielded from the customer.