By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes
In both movies and books, we are inundated with magic sniper rifles that fire with a whisper, bodies that silently crumble to the ground, assassins who shoot successive shots from silenced pistols without a hiccup, and all other manner of . . . fictions.
In our last post, Firearms: Know Your Weapon! we looked at the various types of firearms espionage and crime characters might use and took a bit of the fiction out of fiction. Now let’s turn our attention to silencers and what cannot be silenced. For simplicity’s sake, we will use the terms “suppressor” and “silencer” interchangeably.
The purpose of silencers in the field is to keep anyone from recognizing the sound of a gunshot and screaming, calling 911, or returning fire.
In most cases, the shooter doesn’t care if someone hears the shot as long as they don’t recognize it as a shot. 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” our characters need with their firearms depends on their situations.
For example, if a character intends to walk into a functioning steel mill and shoot someone, they don’t need much in the way of silencing. On the other hand, if they want to shoot someone in a library without being noticed, they will want the best silencing available.
So how do we attain maximum silencing?
We’ve all seen characters with cylindrical silencers screwed onto the barrels of pistols which, in fiction, range in size from a Saturday night special to Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. Then they fire with a pftzzz so quiet that couldn't alert a perky guard dog. But a silencer on the barrel is only the first step. For maximum silencing, one must also consider the things that cannot be silenced.
Suppressors can be used on revolvers, but with much less effect than can be achieved with a semiautomatic pistol; therefore, a shooter would most usually use a semiautomatic handgun. (See Firearms: Know Your Weapon!) Semiautomatic pistols have a slide along the top.
This pictured .40 Smith & Wesson has the slide locked open. Note the round in the chamber. The slide comes back when a shot is fired. The spent brass is ejected, another round is fed in, and the slide comes forward, readying the pistol for the next shot. This motion of the slide can’t be silenced. So what is a shooter to do?
When it comes to dealing with slides, size matters, so let’s talk about size for a moment.
Ever wonder why Bond always uses the Walther PPK .380 in the field? It’s not just because it’s cute and German. It’s because the .380 semiautomatic provides enough energy for close-up assassination while still being capable of effective and inexpensive silencing.
In fact, the only more powerful mass-produced auto-loading weapon that can be efficiently and cheaply silenced is the Russian knockoff of the Walther PPK, the Makarov .380, which is like a regular .380 on steroids. With a bullet slightly wider and heavier than that of the standard .380, the Makarov has the maximum energy of any subsonic cartridge that the Soviet firearms specialists could put into a straight blowback semiautomatic design. We’ll get back to that “subsonic” part in a moment.
The other benefit of the .380 is that it has a straight blowback design, unlike larger handguns. With the straight blowback design, the pistol can be modified to manually lock the slide in a closed position so the weapon can fire without causing the rounds to jam. The locked slide prevents the noise of the slide operation along with the sound that escapes the ejection port when the pistol cycles.
The noise of the slide cannot be silenced except by locking it in place.
We know what you’re thinking. . . . But wait! If the slide is locked in place, how does anyone fire a second shot?
So glad you asked.
To fire successive shots in real life, a shooter of a silenced pistol must manually unlock the slide, cycle out the cartridge, and then relock the slide.
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 in approximately one second without much effort.
While a pistol with a manual slide lock does not allow for the quickest successive shots, it can be quite discreet, making it ideal for some situations. For example, if the shooter intends to assassinate an individual who is walking home on his usual route after work, the shooter could get a close-up head shot on a side street, and someone walking twenty yards ahead of the target would not notice it.
Another example is if the shooter catches the target alone in their hotel room, home, or office. In such circumstances, a trained assssin 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.
Writing Tip: One danger to silencing properly with a handgun is that the shooter will forget to lock the slide after cycling in the second round. The weapon will still be suppressed, but it will still make more noise than it would if the slide were locked. If you need a character to make a mistake while firing with a silencer, this is a logical one to make.
Note the emphasis on the word “subsonic” in the section above. That’s because the crack of a bullet breaking the sound barrier is impossible to silence. That is true no matter what firearm or suppression equipment is used. As a result, for the maximum silencing, it is important to use subsonic cartridges.
The sound of falling brass is also impossible to silence. Only shooters in movies don’t have to worry about that ping of flying brass hitting objects or the floor.
To prevent the brass from falling, shooters can carry specially designed brass catchers that they can attach to the pistols. However, the act of attaching them can slow down a shooter. Also, the catcher, itself, is one more piece of evidence that can be found on a shooter, and less evidence is always better.
A more down-and-dirty trick, so to speak, is to use a sock as a brass catcher. However, there are three problems with this method. First, it blows out the end of the sock, which could lead to the brass falling anyway. Second, the sock could catch in the slide and jam it. And third, the sock covered in gunpowder and residue is one more piece of evidence. So as a general rule, most professionals risk the sound of falling brass.
We know what you’re thinking . . . Isn’t the brass evidence?
Not so much as one might think. That’s because an intelligent professional uses “clean brass.” Clean brass is brass that would not be identified to the country of origin, and it would have no fingerprints, so the shooter doesn’t have to worry about leaving it behind.
The third thing that cannot be silenced is the sound of a falling body. Dead bodies drop, and they aren’t always conveniently located in an open space with a thick carpet. They can smash into furniture and knock things over. They can break glass and thump into floors and walls. If in a bathroom and the body falls against a cast-iron tub, it makes a loud, heavy ringing sound.
Catching a body to prevent the noise of the fall poses the equally risky problem of the shooter being covered in blood. Bloody people tend to have trouble blending in when walking out of a building or down a street. It’s just an inconvenient truth that bodies fall where they die.
Writing Tip: An assassin’s inconvenient truth is an author’s plotline. While you could have dead bodies collapse in neat little heaps on a shag rug, you could also use them to punch up your plot. Have fun with them. Let them break things, tip out of windows, fall onto hot stoves, or even create a domino effect that leads to widespread disaster on the set. You’re not likely to go too far with it.
Bottom Line: Three things cannot be silenced—the shells being ejected, the crack of the sound barrier, and the drop of a falling body. Which brings us to the fourth thing that cannot be silenced—the savvy reader who sends angry e-mails if an author gets this wrong.
Do your characters use silencers? What sort of problems do your shooters have with sounds?
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Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Learn more about the firearms of spycraft in their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials. Designed for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Kindle, Amazon, and Kobo.
Visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.
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