By Harold Moskowitz
The first commercially successful firearm suppressor was devised by Hiram P. Maxim in 1902. He was the son of Hiram S. Maxim, inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun. The Maxim Silent Firearms Company began production in Hartford, Connecticut in 1908. He received U.S. Patent 916,885 for a “Silent Firearm” in 1909. It sold in hardware stores for around five dollars. The Sears and Roebuck mail order catalogue advertised it as a “moderator which will allow a person to protect the chicken coup without disturbing the neighbors.” Theodore Roosevelt had one on his Winchester 1894 carbine at his Sagamore Hill home on Long Island.
Maxim silencers were made for rifle calibers from .22 to .45. They could be ordered custom for large caliber Winchesters and Remington Autoloaders. Even shotloaded cartridges worked with his silencers. Company advertising claimed that the silencer “absolutely prevents report noise and reduces recoil over two-thirds.”
Despite his claims of total silence, Maxim took pains to inform potential customers that although his device stopped “all of the noise of the report,” it would not control the “noise made out in the air beyond the gun by a high velocity bullet in flight.” To provide a totally silent shot, he offered for sale modified ammunition with velocity less than 1,100 feet/second. The cartridge used a heavy bullet for maintaining strike energy at the reduced velocity. Modified ammunition was supplied for all center-fire rifle calibers at the same price as regular ammunition.
The silencer checked the muzzle blast of a firearm by forcing the gasses to whirl around inside the device. In the process the gasses were slowed down by curved vanes and allowed to leave the gun barrel gradually instead of instantly. It could be attached to a threaded rifle barrel or to a threaded thimble which could be pressed onto the gun barrel. His design placed the silencer’s chambers below the barrel so that the iron sights could be used. The bullet’s path was unimpeded by the device.
There were no governmental restrictions upon possession or use. “Gentlemen” were encouraged to use them as a consideration of other shooters. Target practice could be done without bothering the neighbors. All of the benefits of silencer use were dealt a serious blow by the National Firearms Act of 1934. Congress had been under pressure to deal with Prohibition Era violence resulting from mobster assassinations of rivals and bank robberies. The law criminalized short-barreled rifles and shotguns. Fully automatic weapons such as the Thompson submachine gun became tightly restricted weapons. Silencers, like the fully automatic weapons, could be owned after complying with bureaucratic procedures and payment of a $200 tax. It has been suggested that the silencer tax in part was to prevent poor, rural families from being able to kill deer for food off-season without being detected. According to Emily Rupert u s , w r i t i n g f o r t h e “NRABLOG’ (Oct. 5, 2016) the $200 tax in 1934 was the equivalent of $3,583.71 in today’s purchasing power.
The term “suppressor” was introduced in the 1980’s. It is more accurate than the term “silencer” since except as portrayed in Hollywood movies, a gunshot cannot truly be made silent. As with infringement of the Second Amendment, denial of access to hearing protection is a civil rights issue and should be pursued as such in any litigation or proposed bills. While hearing protection can be used at a gun range, neither hunters nor hunting dogs have hearing protection in the field. The “Dangerous Decibles Program” at the University of Northern Colorado has determined that noises exceeding 85 dB can cause permanent hearing damage over time. The program’s results indicate that a gunshot report can be between 140 and 190 dB, which would cause immediate damage.
Many European nations with very strong gun restrictions allow ownership of suppressors. Great Britain requires them by law on all hunting rifles. If forty-two U.S. states and many strict gun control European nations see suppressors as a positive health safety item, then why can’t our elected leaders entrusted with the duty to protect the health and well being of the people see the issue in the same way?
On the national level, New York Representatives Chris Collins, Claudia Tenney and Lee Zeldin, along with 158 other Republicans and three Democrats, co-sponsored the Hearing Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 367). It was introduced by Representative Jeff Duncan (S.C. 3). Eventually, it was inserted into the Sportsmen’s Heritage Recreational Enhancement Act (H.R. 3668). The measure would have amended the federal criminal code to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate firearm silencers as well as ending the $200 national tax. It was discharged successfully from several committees. Unfortunately, due to political considerations, it never made it to a full House vote where you could have seen how your elected representatives stood on the issue.