Editor’s note: The rules of buying a suppressor have changed. Go here for an update.
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.
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.
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 39 states. 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.
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.
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 will then need to obtain a signature on your application forms from the local chief law enforcement official. Mail all of this to BATFE.
• 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.
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 though 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.
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 paymen.
• 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.