Spy Truth & Fiction–Are Silencers Silent?

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Movies and books would convince us that any firearm can be silenced down to a tiny pfftzing sound when fired. Not so!


From top: IMI Uzi with Companion Shooting Supplies (Vector Arms) Model 2000, 9mm. RRA AR-15 with Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) Omni, .223. HK USP Tactical with AAC Evolution-45. Beretta 92FS with AAC Evolution-9. SIG Mosquito with AAC Pilot, .22. image by Cortland, public domain, wikimedia commons

From top:
IMI Uzi with Companion Shooting Supplies (Vector Arms) Model 2000, 9mm.
RRA AR-15 with Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) Omni, .223.
HK USP Tactical with AAC Evolution-45.
Beretta 92FS with AAC Evolution-9.
SIG Mosquito with AAC Pilot, .22.
image by Cortland, public domain, wikimedia commons


For simplicity’s sake, we will use the terms “suppressor” and “silencer” interchangeably.

The purpose of most silencers is not to achieve complete silence, but to reduce the noise of a shot enough to prevent potential witnesses from recognizing that they heard a gunshot. 

In most cases, the shooter doesn’t care if someone hears the shot as long as they don’t recognize it as a shot and then dial up 911, scream for help, or return fire. People will normally ignore noises that they hear but don’t associate with gunshots or other dangers. Because of this human tendency, the level of “silencing” needed depends on the situation. If the shooter intends to walk into a steel mill and shoot someone, he doesn’t need much. On the other hand, if the shooter wants to shoot someone in a library without being noticed, he had better have a high degree of silencing.

The .380 semi-automatic pistol is a very popular weapon to use with a suppressor. (See Spy Truth & Fiction—Automatics, Semi-Automatics, and Revolvers.) The cartridge provides enough energy for close up assassination, but it is relatively easy and inexpensive to effectively silence a weapon that uses the .380 ammunition. James Bond’s Walther PPK is the most famous example of one of these weapons.

Something fiction rarely addresses is the fact that, with each shot, an unlocked semi-automatic slide cycles and ejects a brass shell.

It is impossible to silence the noise of an unlocked semi-automatic slide. It is also impossible to silence the sound of falling brass unless the weapon is equipped with a brass catcher. However, in the movies, a shooter frequently fires two or three shots in close succession from a “silenced” weapon without any noise being made by the cycling slide or the falling brass. Such scenes are complete and utter fiction.

The .380 semi-automatic is available in “straight blowback” design weapons. (Larger auto-loading pistols use “delayed blowback” designs.) A straight blowback design pistol can be modified to manually lock the slide in a closed position so that the weapon can fire without causing the cartridges to jam. The locked slide prevents the noise of the slide operation along with the noise that escapes the ejection port when the pistol cycles. When a “locked” pistol is used with a suppressor attached to its mussel, the combination allows for the highest level of “suppression,” hence the least noise.

Unlike the movies, to fire successive shots in real life, a shooter must manually unlock the slide, cycle out the cartridge, and then relock the slide before taking a second shot. Locking and unlocking is accomplished with a small lever that would resemble the safety lever on a slide. With a bit of practice it can be operated quickly without much effort.

The Makarov .380 is the most powerful mass produced auto-loading pistol that can be effectively silenced with ease and at low cost.

It is basically a knockoff of James Bond’s Walther .380 on steroids. With a bullet slightly wider and heavier than that of the standard .380, the Makarov has the maximum energy of any sub-sonic cartridge that the Soviet firearms specialists could put into a straight blowback semi-automatic design. The term “sub sonic” is important when discussing silencers or suppressors because a bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound makes a loud noise. Sub-sonic cartridges are, therefore, more practical for silenced firearms.

While a pistol with a manual slide lock does not allow for the quickest successive shots, it can be very quiet and thus ideal for some situations. If, for example, the shooter intended to assassinate an individual who was walking home on his usual route after work, she could easily get a close up headshot on a side street. The noise would be low enough that someone walking twenty yards ahead of the victim would not notice it. Another example is if the shooter could gain access to the target when the target was alone in his hotel room, home, or office. In such circumstances, a trained shooter could easily take the time to deliver a second “insurance” shot on a high value target without a hotel maid in the hallway or people in the next room hearing anything.

.380s without manual slide locks installed are also popular to use with modern liquid filled suppressors.

Such arrangements make more noise than a locked Makarov or locked .380 but still far less noise than a .22 short cartridge fired from a .22 rifle. If the shooter were alone with the target inside a closed hotel room, office, home etc., the noise level would still be acceptable. A pedestrian twenty yards away on a quiet street might recognize the sound as a gunshot, but a pedestrian standing or walking around the corner of a city block would not notice the sound of this type of suppressed weapon.

With precision machining and greater expense, larger handguns can be suppressed, but not to the same degree as the .380 or the .380 Makarov.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular handguns in movies was the attractive Colt Python .357 magnum revolver. We often saw scenes with “silenced” Pythons being fired with more than a mild pfftz sound being generated. The revolver mechanics somehow made no noise at all. Magically, the gas that escaped from between the cylinder and the barrel made no noise, either. That only happens in movies. Suppressors can be used on revolvers, but with much less effect than can be achieved with an auto-loading pistol with a locked slide.

Currently the most popular suppressed handguns in the movies are the 9mm autoloader and the .45 ACP autoloader. With modern suppressors, they can be partially silenced. When a shooter doesn’t want to wake up people in a neighboring apartment or alert police on the next block, those weapons are effective, but unlike in the movies, a guard standing 10 yards away is definitely going to notice the sound of the pistol—not to mention the sound of the falling body. Nonetheless, if a shooter ever had to fire an unsuppressed 9mm or similar pistol from inside of a car, his first thought would be, “Ouch, my ears really hurt.” His second thought would be, “I wish I had a suppressor on this thing.”

Another popular “silenced” weapon is Hollywood is the high power sniper rifle.

We love seeing “silenced” 30-06 rifles in movies. We wish we had one that works like they do. In real life, a suppressor can partially reduce the noise made by a high-powered rifle, but as long as that rifle is firing a supersonic bullet, it’s not going to be anything like “quiet.” Less noisy? Yes. Unnoticed downrange? Not likely. The only advantage in suppressing a high power rifle that fires supersonic bullets is that the shots would alert people over a smaller radius than if a suppressor were not used.

But there’s good news for Hollywood and for snipers.

In recent years, high power cartridges have been developed to fire heavier bullets at subsonic velocities. One example would be the .300 Whisper. These cartridges lack the flatter trajectories of supersonic bullets, but they also lack the loud sonic “crack” generated by supersonic bullets.

So the next time you hear a massive Dirty Harry revolver or an auto-loading pistol silenced down to a pfftz on the screen? The next time you see a shooter take successive shots with a silenced weapon without manually cycling the slide? Label it fiction.

Thank you to Julie Glover for this week’s question about silencers. What are your Spy Truth & Fiction questions?

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The Making of a Spook

Holmes is still away so what better time to talk about him, right? Actually he’ll be speaking for himself in this interview with Ellie Ann. My thanks to Ellie Ann, who managed to pry things out of Holmes that I never knew before.

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up: A Spook

By Ellie Ann

I hear a lot of students have a hard time deciding on a major. I hear a lot of grown ups hate their jobs. So here it is: a series of interviews about What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. This is here to help people decide what occupation they want to occupy. Or, it’s here to help people resurrect their dreams of being a trapeze artist or Olympic speed walker.

First occupation in the spotlight: An Intelligence Operative

(This is a rare photo of Holmes. At least, I think it is Holmes. Can never be sure with spooks.)

(Piper’s note: This really is Holmes.)

He could be called many things: spy, intelligence agent, sleeper, plant, scout, undercover agent, heart throb . . . but today I’m just going to call him Holmes. Which might or might not be his real name.

He’s a good man. He’s noble. He’s smart. Behind his mask, he’s the real deal. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m pleased to give you my interview of Holmes:

What did you want to be when you grew up?

First I wanted to be a knight with King Arthur. I had a really cool lance that I lugged around with my plastic shield. My mom refused to allow me to take them into stores or on subways. I eventually accepted my inability to rearrange the time continuum and shifted my ambitions toward being a fireman. I always had a fascination with travel and foreign cultures, and that certainly influenced my life.

Is your life constant car chases in Aston Martins, high stakes poker games, high-tech gadgets, jumping out of exploding helicopters, perfect hair, kidnapping dictator’s girlfriends, and fending off hordes of rich and well-dressed (albeit slinky) beautiful women? In other words, is James Bond FOR REAL? 

I am a conservative driver. I have never driven an Aston Martin. I admit to driving the wrong way on a busy one-way section of a main street in Madrid, and down a set of steps to a side street one time, but it was a Sunday so the traffic wasn’t as bad as at other times, and the circumstances merited it. Except for in training areas, I have only willfully ignored traffic laws three times.

Poker? I hate casinos and gambling in general. I have, on very rare occasions, had a reason to walk through a casino. I would have preferred to be in a library or a quiet section of forest.

Perfect Hair? I have pretty manageable thick hair. I spent several years having to keep my hair much longer than I would have preferred. That long, thick hair was a pain, but the “look” has to match the mission at hand. The well-tailored Tuxedo look only works in limited circumstances. The Tuxedo or well-tailored suit won’t work in a back alley in Caracas or the Atlas Mountains in Africa. The longhaired hippy look won’t work in a five star hotel lobby near an OPEC meeting. You have to look the “part,” but there are all sorts of “parts.”

Helicopters? I have survived one helicopter crash and have witnessed two others. I don’t desire extra helicopter rides. To me, they are a tool. I tolerate them without complaint when needed, but not for fun.

Kidnapping dictators’ girlfriends? Never done that. Did you have one in mind?

Fending off rich women? Are you mad? Why would I do that? Unfortunately, I’ve never had to. My rather tolerant wife gave me permission to not fend them off if they ever showed up, as long as they were going to share the riches.

James Bond is almost for real as one of many identities available to agents in the field, but the “Bond” type is very rare. Joe Tourist, Susie Business, Doctor Bob, and Pastor Bill are a few of the more common types of cover. Someone in a Bond role would be less willing to depend on luck and chance than the screen version that we all enjoy watching. I prefer the screen version. He’s more fun to watch.

What movies or books accurately portray the life of a spook?

There are many good books about espionage. A few that come to mind are Spy CatcherThe Falcon and the SnowmanThe Main EnemyThe Puzzle Palace, and By Way of Deception. There have been many tradecraft books published that describe the tools and mechanics of espionage, but I haven’t read the “open source” books on tradecraft so I have no idea which ones are realistic. Just remember that the world of espionage is a very big world, and that one person’s experience may be vastly different from that of another person. So there is no one “right” way for someone in espionage to proceed.

Generally speaking, what qualities/personalities do spook’s possess?

The qualities possessed by a cryptanalyst working in the NSA might be quite different from the qualities possessed by an analyst on the Cuban Desk at the CIA. The qualities that might make a covert action participant ideal for a trip to Somalia might be the same qualities that would leave him uncomfortable working patiently on a long-term operation in Europe. It’s a big world. There’s room for lots of types of folks.

The Director of the CIA, the NSA, or the DHS might have a different view on this, but I look for intelligence, reliability, loyalty, and commitment. I don’t look for big, fragile egos. Heavy drinkers and drug users are an instant “no.” Skills can be honed, new skills can be learned, but I need to see commitment to the mission at hand to begin to trust someone. I can teach you to shoot better, I can teach you to use a radio safely or run a dead drop. Gravity can easily teach you to parachute. I can’t teach you to be committed. That has to come from inside of you.

What do you love about your job?

I have enjoyed some of the travel. I have enjoyed knowing interesting people and developing life long friendships with people that are so different from my neighbors. What I like most of all is that I have been able to contribute in my small way to things that are very important to me.

What don’t you love about your job?

That’s a tougher question to handle. I don’t like failure. I don’t like it that things don’t always go well or that the intelligence establishments of the USA and its allies (vast and shockingly expensive that they are) cannot always anticipate or predict the future. The lost opportunities prior to 9-11 gnaw at me if I let them. I can’t let them. Crying about yesterday makes us useless today. But for all of us, in any walk of life, we have to “be here now” in order to contribute to the well being of our loved ones and ourselves. In a better world, there would be no spies, no guns, no nuclear weapons, and no hungry or abused children, but I was born in this world and in my imperfect human way, I have responded as best I can.

Say I want to be a spook when I grow up, what are some things I could do in jr high/high school that will prepare me for the job?

Foreign language studies should be started at the earliest possible age. By learning a language prior to age twelve, you will be able to speak it without a foreign accent. Learning a language late is still useful for certain jobs in the vast intelligence community.

-Pay attention in science class, and learn to use computers for more than video games. An interest in human geography and history helps, but those things can be acquired later. There will be a demand for Arabic speakers, Farsi speakers, Chinese speakers and (fluent) Spanish speakers for a long time to come.

-Avoid drugs and alcohol. Unlike Congress, the intelligence community requires sober employees. Self-discipline and self-restraint are valued.

-Be a respectable member of your community. In college, major in what you have a real interest in and likely will do best in. A good psychology major is a more attractive prospective employee than a poor mechanical engineering major.

-For most types of intelligence work (not all) we’ll be talking to your neighbors. If one crank neighbor says nasty things about you, we won’t automatically believe them. If several neighbors tell us that they don’t trust you, we won’t trust you either.

You’d be surprised at how detailed and enthusiastic neighbors can be when describing youngsters to us. People remember that time you helped them when they were sick. They remember that you helped the senior citizen shovel the snow in his driveway. When your neighborhood trusts you, they often become your best PR campaign. If your neighbors trusted you enough to go into their house and water their plants for them when they were on vacation, that’s important to us. You don’t need to be an “exciting” kid or a “cool” kid. You need to be a good kid. We’ll provide the excitement.

And finally, the question I’ve been dying to ask: What really happened in Area 51?!

Area 51? Hey, look. She and I were both young, and I was single at the time so . . . just kidding.

I have never been to Area 51. It’s outside my area of expertise. Area 51 is for work on high tech stuff like fast planes and missiles and things that are best not tested over the skies or under the streets of downtown Los Angeles or New York. I have heard no evidence of anything paranormal or intergalactic occurring at Area 51.

The greatest promoters of UFO stories have been the world’s leading Air Forces. It was always better to have the public believing in intergalactic UFO’s rather than asking questions about real experiments with real equipment. Can you imagine how many “UFO sightings” stealth planes and cruise missiles have generated?

First, I just want to say: Thank You Holmes for being born in this world and for responding to the threat of evil men with bravery and responsibility. I’m sure you have hundreds of cool stories. I hope one day they’ll make a movie about you. P.S. Who do you want to play you in the movie about your life?

Second, if you want more of Holmes (who wouldn’t?) then check out his fantastic articles about world politics, famous spooks, current affairs, and interesting history. Just look on the sidebar.

Would you want to be a spook?

Ellie Ann

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Ellie Ann continues this excellent career series with interviews of Archeologist Arielle Danielson, Writer Jason Arnopp (Dr. Who: The Gemini Contagion), Scientist Jordan Smith, Zookeeper Callene Rapp, Fashion Photographer Cody Bess, Stay-at-Home Mother Lisa Lang, and Deadliest Warrior Host Dr. Dorian. My deepest appreciation to Ellie Ann for loaning us her blog for the day.