Shooting a suppressed weapon is not a silent event. Often called “silencers” since their invention around the turn of the 20th Century, these devices are more accurately termed “suppressors,” or as referenced in various regulations, “mufflers” or “sound moderators.” None completely silence a weapon’s sound, as auto-loading or automatic weapons produce considerable mechanical noise during their operating cycle. Even with a single-shot or repeating weapon and leading-edge suppressor designs, there is invariably some residual atmospheric disturbance at the muzzle, and with any supersonic projectile, there is a ballistic “crack” as it travels through the air.
Within the many variables in weapons, loads and even atmospheric conditions, not all suppressors are created equal. The basic concept of a suppressor that provides an expansion chamber for muzzle gas to lose its pressure and to cool before entering the atmosphere has not changed much in the last 100 years. The true advances in modern suppressor technology have been in specific design configurations that more effectively trap muzzle gasses, and more importantly, in materials technology that enables the fabrication of advanced designs from components that will provide years of service at the high operating temperatures produced by modern automatic weapons.
No longer is this very useful accessory just a steel tube with internal baffles. Always innovators, SureFire has taken “the can” back to the drawing board and melded cutting-edge design, advanced metallurgy, and precision manufacturing technique with feedback from the field to create a surgical battle instrument that takes the blast out of the shot.
There are many reasons to use a sound suppressor. The most obvious is that it significantly lowers a weapon’s sound signature and can reduce felt recoil by as much as 40 percent, helping to stabilize high-volume weapons like machine guns. Tactically, a suppressor can prevent enemy detection on a battlefield by confusing the source of a shot. “They’re several uses for a suppressor in combat,” says Jamie Wiedeman, retired U.S. Army Special Forces trooper and director of military sales for SureFire. “The main thing that’s going to increase the soldier’s survivability is that a suppressor hides an operator’s position, allows them to maintain a cover/concealed position, making it harder for the enemy to locate.”
At night, the suppressor reduces the flash signature to almost nothing. That’s an important attribute on the battlefield. It’s easy to identify a soldier’s position with visible flash, thus easy for an enemy to return effective fire. It’s a strategy even taught to American troops during combat training when engaged in low-light operations. At night, muzzle flash is a much easier source for the brain to recall than the sound that echoes and bounces off objects.
In daylight operations, the use of a suppressor reduces a dust signature from shooting in low positions. High-volume weapons often need breaks to let dust and debris settle after a long burst, however the SureFire design funnels the pressures from the muzzle downrange, eliminating the dust and debris signature, even in powder-like sand.
Sound suppressors are also safety devices that help protect the hearing of operators and those around them. In a stack, S.W.A.T. operators are safer than they would be with an exposed muzzle device. With more than 378,000 VA claims, hearing loss is the largest medical disability claimed by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, yet just 5 percent of LE reports officers that use hearing protection in executing their duties. The bottom line is that an operator can suffer permanent hearing lost with as little as one round, if standing adjacent to a weapon being fired.
Preservation of hearing both in the field and on the streets means that operators can better communicate. This proves especially important in situations involving machine guns where the small-unit leader needs to orchestrate a fluid strategy during battle. If weapons are suppressed, it’s easier for that unit leader to communicate new orders.
Top Secret Construction
SureFire’s proprietary and patented designs are highly sought after by other suppressor manufacturers, in a field where some manufacturers would use other’s designs as their own R&D department. One leading-edge aspect that would make SureFire’s designs worth pirating is their proprietary internal construction. If the suppressor were to be unknowingly bent or knocked out of alignment, the SureFire models are designed to funnel the bullet through the front, preventing a deflected bullet from exiting out the side of the tube.
With an investment of more than a million dollars and several years of redesign, the DoD restricts their export, and SureFire only permits staff that’s involved in the suppressor program behind doors where a team continues research and development of future applications. In a recent visit to their ISO 9000 facility, SureFire restricted TW’s tour and wouldn’t let us see what goes into how the internal components are constructed.
Each suppressor is manufactured in a one-piece-flow production line. This means that a machine operator is focused on that one suppressor during its entire construction. CNC (computer numerically controlled) machined to exacting tolerances, SureFire’s suppressors are able to withstand extreme temperatures, thousands of rounds, and combat-like conditions without any degradation of performance.
Service life is attributed to high-temperature exotic alloys that are stronger at 1,000-degrees, than common steel is when cold. The alloy formula enables an extremely lightweight package where all components are welded as sub-assemblies, eliminating parts that can shoot loose. SureFire suppressors resist extreme heat and gas/particle erosion due to a secret special alloy construction, typically outlasting the weapon’s barrel. “These suppressors will last three barrel lives,” says Barry Dueck, Director of SureFire’s Suppressor Division. “You can store it in saltwater for two years, pull it out and it will not shoot differently,” he adds.
Depending on brand, there are many methods of attaching a sound-dampening device. There are suppressors that screw on a threaded muzzle and some that twist and lock to an adapter. In the SureFire system, the rear of the suppressor interfaces with one of SureFire’s muzzle adapters. Each adapter is CNC-machined and checked for perfect alignment and attachment repeatability. Due to these adapters, SureFire suppressors are easily employed in seconds without tools, even while wearing heavy gloves.
SureFire adapters not only serve as mounting platforms for SureFire suppressors but also work as a stand-alone performance-enhancing device. SureFire offers three types:
Muzzle brakes that reduce recoil and associated muzzle rise, allowing for faster follow-up shots. Unfortunately, most muzzle brakes disperse gas back toward the shooter, disturbing follow through and the rate at which a follow-up shot can be taken. SureFire muzzle brakes utilize an Impulse Diffusion design that significantly reduces weapon recoil and muzzle rise, with minimal blowback.
Flash hiders that significantly reduce muzzle flash, minimizing degradation of a shooter’s night-adapted vision and helping to conceal his position. Having less effect on felt recoil than a muzzle brake, the SureFire stainless steel flash hiders are incredibly effective for their purpose of reducing muzzle flash.
Compensators that provide some of the advantages of a muzzle brake, with some of the advantages of a flash hider. Patterned after the bird-cage-style flash hider in use by the military, these compensators are constructed from stainless steel, with a similar appearance but enhanced function.
On a computer, SureFire suppressors brought audible sound reduction to 130 decibels, a figure that might be expected out of a SureFire suppressor, given the name. On recent visit to the SureFire Institute in southern California, I participated in a test with world champion shooter Mike Voigt (who used a SureFire muzzle brake in his 2006 USPSA Multi-Gun Nationals win) and Barry Dueck, Director of SureFire’s Suppressor Division. Dueck is a U.S. Marine who became the founding instructor at the SureFire Institute and says his proudest accomplishment is “providing our nation’s military with suppressors that give them a significant advantage over the enemy.”
To install the SureFire system, slide the suppressor over the muzzle adapter referencing the index, tighten the lock ring and it’s on. The simplicity of this system compares favorably to others where the operator installs a thread-mount suppressor, slides it over the muzzle, engages the threads on the barrel and starts twisting. The biggest problem with a threaded version is that threads can deform (part of the reason thread protectors are necessary) and tension is inexact each time it’s attached by hand. In the case of the Fast-Attach system, I witnessed repeatable performance with minimal impact shift in relation to the weapon’s point-of-aim, regardless of the number of attach/detach cycles (therefore, no re-zeroing is required). Dueck noted, “Any shift is consistent and repeatable, no matter how many times you put it on or take it off.”
On the range, we evaluated six suppressors to check for any accuracy improvements and POI repeatability, including one for a 7.62 NATO-chambered sniper rifle; the M4FA that’s optimized for an M4 with a 14-in. barrel; and the 556K212 that’s best suited for a 10-in. barrel. Each test began with an unsuppressed accuracy check of each model followed by a suppressed test on a bench at 100 yards.
With Mike Voigt behind the rifle for accuracy, the scored results were definitive. The 7.62 NATO rifle shot a group without a suppressor measuring just less than 1 inch from the outer diameter of the furthest shot holes. After attaching the suppressor and shooting three more groups, accuracy improved to .53-in. with a slight shift to the right. The LMT fired its first group measuring 1-in. from a 100-yard bench. Using the suppressor, Voigt produced a 5-shot group that averaged .89-in. with a .65-in. best, measured outer-to-outer.
The idea of a muzzle attachment increasing a weapon’s accuracy seems counter-intuitive. One might think that reduced sound means reduced pressure allowing a slower-flying bullet to yaw quicker. And how can you improve accuracy with something that might disrupt the straight path of the bore beyond the muzzle? The fact is, what goes into making the suppressor consistently match the path of the bore is just one of the many closely held secrets at SureFire. A lot of the consistency results from the precision of the adapters, which make for an exact fit each time the suppressor is reattached. As far as improved accuracy, 20 to 30 feet per second is gained in velocity, increasing the sustainable range that accuracy is achieved. This phenomenon is affectionately termed, “free-bore boost.”
After accuracy testing, I spent as much time and ammunition as I was allowed to try and induce a malfunction and verify the results for myself. My results were not quite as impressive at Voigt’s but they did follow the same order. One of the suppressors tested was heavily used and worn, with chipped GI paint sprayed on by a soldier who had used it on tour in Iraq. After hundreds of rounds fired at varying rates, I can report no failures of any kind, not even with the one that had been to the sandbox.
In my military experience, having to remember a weapon’s shift in impact when attaching a suppressor was a drawback to their use. Before a SureFire suppressor leaves for the field, it’s test fired to guarantee less than ½-inch of an impact shift at 100 yards. When you put on a SureFire suppressor for CQB operations, you don’t have to worry about taking anything in consideration. Just hold the target in the same spot and listen for the sound of suppression.
Adding just 13 oz. to an M4, SureFire suppressors do not encumber your weapon. These suppressors are very portable, even when attached, adding minimal length to a gun’s barrel, and comparing favorably to older systems that can weigh almost double that. Of all the suppressors now available, none may be as reliable, accurate or consistent as the SureFire Fast-Attach sound suppressor.
“We’ve designed our suppressors with the worst-case scenario in mind,” says Dueck. “These suppressors are designed for combat, and they’re designed not to fail when someone’s life is on the line. For more information, visit surefiresuppressors.com.
Shooting a suppressed weapon is not a silent event. Often called “silencers” since their invention…
by Lawrence Heiskell, M.D. / Mar 26, 2009