Anyone who's ever shot an AR or M4 with a suppressor knows how much better the experience is. Hence the saying, "Once you go suppressed, you never go back."
Previously the exclusive domain of special operations troops, the Marine Corps is experimenting with outfitting an entire infantry battalion with suppressors to fire with their M16 and M4 rifles — and even with their light, medium and heavy machine guns, like the M2 .50cal.
"What we've found so far is it revolutionizes the way we fight," a top Marine Corps official told Military.com recently. "It used to be a squad would be dispersed out over maybe 100 yards, so the squad leader couldn't really communicate with the members at the far end because of all the noise of the weapons. Now they can actually just communicate, and be able to command and control and effectively direct those fires."
Industry and military experts agree, saying suppressors deliver tremendous advantages to troops in battle. But there's a reason why the technology has been primarily in the kit bag of special operations troops and highly trained snipers — they're not always "grunt proof" and can sometimes cause more problems than they solve if used improperly, experts say.
So first, let's look at three reasons why firearm sound suppressors awesome. Then we'll show you three reasons why they're a potential bigtime problem.
1. Signature mitigation
One of the main benefits to suppressor use by infantry troops, military experts say, is that the suppressor helps eliminate the flash of the powder burn from a fired round from emerging from the end of the barrel. Sound suppressors are like a vehicle muffler and use a series of baffles to progressively disperse the gas and flash from a shot.
When a trooper fires his rifle equipped with a suppressor — which can add another 4-6 inches to the end of the barrel (more on that in our "disadvantages list") — that's a lot of extra room for the flash to dissipate, making it hard for a bad guy to see a Marine's position in the dark.
"This reduces or eliminates attention drawn to the shooter, making him virtually invisible," said one Marine infantry expert. "We like to fight at night because it helps us reduce the enemy's ability to see us or identify us as quickly — add a suppressor and it will help increase tempo."
2. Recoil reduction
One of the things that a lot of shooters don't realize is that a suppressor drastically reduces a firearm's felt recoil, one industry expert said. Trapping the gasses within the suppressor negates the need for muzzle breaks or other devices to help keep the barrel level shot after shot.
As anyone who's had to fire a shot in anger would know, accuracy is the key to survival, and suppressors help a lot in this area.
"Suppressors reduce firing recoil significantly ... reducing the speed and quantity of the gas expelled and reducing the total momentum of the matter leaving the barrel, transferring to the gun as recoil," the Marine infantry expert told WATM. "Suppressors also increase the speed of the bullet to the target, and this will cause an increase in accuracy and the shooter's ability to track the target longer — and if needed calmly fire another carefully aimed shot."
3. Sound suppression
Of course, as the name implies, suppressors are primarily designed to reduce the report of a firearm. They are not "silencers" like the Hollywood image would imply. A suppressor typically reduces the sound of a rifle from 160 dB to 135 dB — just enough to make it hearing safe, but by no means deadly quiet.
But that sound reduction is enough to provide a major advantage in fighting indoors and helping small unit leaders communicate better on the battlefield. Particularly when used with a machine gun, the suppressor can expand the area a unit can communicate and operate, industry and military experts say.
"Especially in [close quarters battle] suppressors are particularly useful in enclosed spaces where the sound, flash and pressure effects of a weapon being fired are amplified," the infantry expert said. "Such effects may disorient the shooter, affecting situational awareness, concentration and accuracy. This could also reduce the noise in the battlefield thus aiding leaders in maintaining command and control."
And the affect on a trooper's hearing isn't anything to shake a stick at either, industry experts say.
"The VA spends about $10 million per year on helping veterans who're suffering from hearing loss," the silencer industry source said. "That's a big concern for service members who're being exposed to gunfire throughout their career."
While it's clear most agree suppressors deliver major advantages to the war fighter, it's not all ninja moves and .5 MOA shots every time.
Look, it's physics folks. That gas and flash from a shot has to go somewhere.
Trapped in the suppressor, the hot gas and flash of a magazine dump, for example, can heat the accessory up to as much as 500 degrees. That's enough to melt handguards and deliver severe burns if a trooper absentmindedly handles one.
That means if grunts are using suppressors as a matter of course, they have to add yet another element to look out for when they're manipulating their weapons.
2. Length and Weight
Adding a "can" to the end of a rifle adds extra weight and length to the firearm. That changes how the trooper operates, particularly in close quarters battle scenarios.
The whole point of equipping infantry Marines with 14.5-inch barreled M4s is the make them more maneuverable. Adding another 6 inches to their rifle puts them right back in M16 A4 land, the Marine infantry expert said.
The added weight to the end of the barrel also affects accuracy and manipulation, industry sources say. A suppressor can make a rifle "front heavy," changing the way a shooter has to mount the rifle and balance it for an accurate shot.
Great care has to be taken in mounting a suppressor to a rifle, the industry expert told us. Marines are probably using suppressors that attach to the rifle using a quick-attach mount so that a trooper can take the suppressor off quickly if needed (the other type of attachment is to just thread it directly to the barrel).
If this attachment isn't done right and the suppressor is just a tiny bit off from the line of the barrel, it can result in the fired bullet impacting the baffles inside the suppressor, causing it to rupture. This is known as a "baffle strike," and while it doesn't usually cause severe injury, it can take a gun out of a fight, the industry source said.
Additionally, on direct (gas) impingement guns like the M4 (but not like the piston-driven M27), the suppressor can force a lot of gas back into the rifle breach.
"A suppressor scenario is going to result in a much filthier gun," the industry source said. "That could cause more malfunctions if it's not cleaned immediately."
Modern suppressors are awesome and make shooting a firearm more controllable, accurate and safe. Most believe outfitting service members with this technology increases their effectiveness on the battlefield. But its important to remember they do come with some drawbacks that take training and practice to avoid.