How Silent is Your Silencer?
One of the most common questions for those looking to purchase a suppressor is “how quiet is it”. Problem being, there is no “real” answer to that question, only speculation, some assumptions, and a whole ton load of marketing. Internet and social media experts do little else than argue this point. Too often their experience does not include using them, just playing mathematician and scientist on the web. I refer to them as “spreadsheet warriors” and the “suppressor geek squad”. Entertaining at times, generally annoying, and almost always useless to someone deciding to buy a suppressor. Sad fact is even though some of their numbers may be “accurate” they seldom have any relationship to what you will actually hear. My perspective is the exact opposite so Internet scientists beware. It comes from using and testing dozens of suppressors for three decades. Rimfire to 50BMG, rifles to shotgun I have used or tested them in most configurations, and still do. There has been some “lab” time, but most is from use as a police sniper, SWAT entry, patrol, competition, hunting, writing, and just plain fun.
Everything is the same, just different!
The few true experts on firearms suppression all agree on one point, how “loud” a suppressor sounds is dependent on numerous factors and conditions involving the suppressor (diameter, length, material used, internal construction), firearm, ammunition, physical and atmospheric conditions. It also changes based on who is listening, their age, hearing loss, and position relevant to the firearm. The same suppressor on the same rifle will sound “louder” under different conditions when used by different shooters. It’s why lab testing is so useless no matter what the spreadsheet warriors tell you. Some manufacturers provide real numbers, others all but invent them with no way to really tell. Many are based on lab conditions, great if you ever use yours in a lab. Those seeking military contracts may use incredibly expensive meters, most do not given the cost. Even then the “conditions” are based on military criteria, better for sure, but not always relevant to the average consumer. So, it’s important to start out understanding that the only way to “know” how loud a suppressor will be to you, is for you to use it, on your firearm, under your specific conditions recognizing that if the conditions change so does how it sounds.
Measured sound levels are just that, the amount of sound emitted, or more accurately measured by the instrument used. They do not measure tone or frequency, and that is incredibly critical. Everyone hears different frequencies at varying levels. It depends on age, and how much damage your hearing as incurred over the years. Suppressors will measure the same sound level and have completely different tonal qualities. If your hearing loss is in the upper register those suppressors with higher pitch or tone will not be as loud and may seem very quiet, not because there is less sound, just less you can hear. It’s why two people using the same suppressor can have polar opposite opinions as to how loud they are. Those with lower tones may be quieter to some. How the suppressor is made, what it’s made of, how long it is, and other factors all determine how loud a suppressor may be to the shooter. Titanium tends to be higher pitched than stainless steel, but even that depends on the baffle construction. Unfortunately the way to know for sure is to shoot it, and that is problematic given their regulation. Still, if at all possible try before you buy.
Where are you and what are you using?
This matters a great deal on both a macro and micro scale. Atmospheric density matters as it changes how sound travels. How a suppressor sounds at 6000 feet in 10% humidity will be different than sea level at 95% humidity. Open spaces will not seem as loud with nothing to deflect sound. Nothing is “quiet” at in indoor range, sadly where most buyers are forced to “test” their possible purchase. Enclosed spaces will also seem louder, just the laws of physics rearing their ugly head. Longer suppressors will be quieter as a rule as will those designed for the caliber. Shooting a 30 caliber suppressor on your 22 caliber rifle will produce more sound, you may not always be able to tell the difference, but it is louder. Short suppressors will be louder especially on big rifles. Rifles with short barrels will be louder if for no other reason they are closer to your head. Bolt rifles are generally quieter then semi-automatics given no ejection port. On a semi (AR) the more back pressure the louder it may be at your ear, since that ejection port is right at your nose. How “fast” the ammunition is will play a part, even what powder was used and the bullet construction. Move a suppressor from a 24” bolt gun to an 11.5” AR and it will sound louder, even if the “numbers” are close. Why, it’s closer to your head, there is more back pressure, and much of the sound is coming from the ejection port. That is why it is critical to understand what you will be using, how where will it be used when looking at how “quiet” a suppressor will be.
Here are some numbers to remember that can be used for comparison. Just never forget that all those other things will matter when the suppressor is actually used. How “loud” the suppressor may be is only one factor. Sound in America is generally measured in decibels (dB). Measurement is not linear, so the difference between 120 and 130 dB is huge to your ear, a small change in measured sound may seem significant to the listener. In most cases a suppressor emitting 135dB will seem noticeably louder than one making 130dB.
For years the industry deemed 140dB “hearing safe”, well it’s not, never has been. OSHA considers that the “pain threshold”, not hearing safe. Anything close to that or over may hurt, and unless you are deaf to the tone it will make your ears ring. To be clear it is a ton quieter and safer than an open muzzle, generally in the 165dB range, but it is anything but hearing safe, whether it sounds loud or not its causing cumulative damage to your hearing. Hunting where one round is the norm, maybe two is a sweet spot for these, just do not practice without hearing protection. You are still doing damage, just not near as much as you would with a bare muzzle or even worse, a muzzle brake.
The closer you get to 135dB (or less) the better, for most shooters there will be no pain making it comfortable to use and less distracting in a fight. Many high quality suppressors advertise near this number and it tends to be usable on most firearms. Anything under that is better, some rimfire setups will get down into or under the 120dB range and that is actually quiet, the hammer striking the firing pin may be close to that.
Suppressors are great, I will not field a rifle without one. Every rifle owned that may be used in real life is suppressed without regard to caliber. Pistol caliber carbines and lever actions may not be, but if it is a rifle round it is suppressed. Outside excess gas or reliability issues a suppressor enhances every level of shooting pleasure and effectiveness almost without exception. A few competitors prefer a brake, but even that is changing given the damage it is inflicting on the shooter. Just be aware that how “quiet” they may be is not a simple factor, nor is it the only reason to use one. In three decades shooting and teaching with them its seldom someone does not shoot better suppressed. Now, if we could just make it so they were easier to purchase, but that is a whole other story.