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Testing & Evaluation: August 1998

By Al Paulson

Problem Solving With Low Signature Weapons: Part II

Hiding the Shooter

Using a suppressor to hide the location of the shooter is most commonly used by military snipers employing conventional (i.e., supersonic) ammunition. The suppressor thus enables the sniper to shoot more times (i.e., engage more targets) than might otherwise be prudent. Using a suppressor also dramatically reduces the risk from effective counter-sniper fire and improves the odds of a successful withdrawal from the enemy contact if circumstances warrant. Protection from counter-fire can also be an advantage in some law-enforcement scenarios, as well.

The suppressor hides the location of the shooter for three reasons.

(1) At typical engagement distances, most suppressors will lower the muzzle signature to less than the action noise of a self-loading rifle and less than the bullet flight noise. Thus, an individual who is downrange will attempt to locate the source of the sound not from the muzzle blast, but rather from the bullet flight noise. It is not uncommon for an individual downrange to turn his attention 45-180 degrees away from the shooter under such circumstances. I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself, both from the shooter’s position, and from an observer’s position as bullets fired from a silenced rifle passed close to my body while standing in the open. Both are dramatic experiences.

Generating this level of confusion by the use of a suppressor only works when the observer is within an arc of about 150 degrees in front of the shooter. Suppressors are less effective when observers are to either side of the shooter. Observers behind the shooter can locate the source of a suppressed shot from the direction of the sound as readily as if the shooter was using an unsuppressed rifle, as long as he or she can hear the ballistic crack. (Of course, if the observer can hear the muzzle blast or action noise from behind the shooter, then locating the source of the shot is easy.)

Using a suppressor with supersonic ammunition confuses downrange observers because the brain interprets the location of the sound to be perpendicular to the shock wave generated by the bullet. The amount of confusion is actually determined by three variables: bullet speed, distance between the observer and the shooter, and distance between the observer and the bullet flight path. Equations can be used to precisely calculate the amount of anticipated observer bias (the angle between the real and apparent location of the shooter) at a given temperature.

Another reason some individuals down range are confused as to the source of a suppressed gunshot is that the sound of the bullet strike draws their attention in the absence of a perceived muzzle signature. If bullet impact is behind them, for example, individuals between the shooter and the point of bullet impact may well turn their back to the shooter.

Furthermore, the advanced operator can position himself so that natural reflective surfaces (such as buildings, telephone poles, boulders and vehicles) will reflect the ballistic crack of a supersonic projectile away from the shooter, further enhancing the natural subterfuge generated by the wake produced by a supersonic bullet fired from a suppressed rifle. This skill takes some effort to develop, but it will become as natural as playing billiards, given enough practice.

Ironically, when using subsonic ammunition, an observer near the bullet flight path can frequently follow the “swishing” flight noise of the bullet back to the source of the shot. If a target is missed, he or she may have a pretty good idea where to shoot back, depending on such factors as environmental conditions and observer alertness.

(2) Using a suppressor also dramatically reduces the amount of energy available to disturb grass, leaves, twigs, and dust. This mitigates one of the greatest risks to the survival of a military sniper.

(3) While flash hiders can be quite effective at eliminating flash, which can be the most dramatic giveaway of a shooter’s position, they do nothing to tame recoil. And recoil compensators do not eliminate flash. All suppressors provide a substantial reduction of recoil, and properly designed suppressors dampen muzzle flash more effectively than flash hiders.

Thus a suppressor, combined with good field craft, can maximize the effectiveness and survivability of a sniper. One aspect of good field craft is rarely discussed, yet could easily negate the advantages of using a suppressor, relates to the ejection of brass.

The ejection of a spent cartridge case can catch sunlight and blaze for an instant like a camera flash. In Vietnam, U.S. snipers found that the flash of expended brass was one of the best tools for locating enemy shooters. This phenomenon is the main reason why most military snipers prefer manually operated, rather than semiautomatic, rifles. Admittedly, at least in theory, manually operated rifles should also be capable of better accuracy and reliability. When ejecting a case from a bolt-action rifle, the military operator should operate the bolt slowly and quietly until he can palm the empty case. Never leaving behind the spent cases (or food wrappers or other artifacts) has become a common operational theme among military snipers, so that the enemy cannot readily detect where the sniper’s hide was located. This makes tracking the sniper and anticipating future hide locations much more difficult. Getting back to the stealthy ejection of a spent case, it is desirable if circumstances permit to actually move the rifle under the operator’s body to help muffle the sound and to shield any possible glint from the brass case.

Law-enforcement snipers do not require the severe brass-management strategies now en vogue with military snipers. The simple expedient of draping a camouflaged cloth, frequently called a sniper veil, over the telescopic sight and back over the action and head. These cloths are generally large enough to fold on the ground to catch expended brass and shield any glint from escaping. The veil also helps shade the sniper from hot sun or shield the face and hands from cold wind. Fishing weights may be sewn into the corners of the cloth to keep it from fluttering on windy days.

While suppressor technology has matured dramatically in recent years, one aspect of stealthy shooting remains virtually ignored: the bright reflective finish of the brass cartridge case. Surely a manufacturer could develop a practical coating process that would give the case a non-reflective black finish. That would greatly facilitate the speed of follow-up shots and might also make semiautomatic rifles more practical for military sniping. Non-reflective black cases would certainly complement the use of a suppressor.

Although this attention to detailed field craft is highly relevant to the military operator, palming spent cases and some other aspects of military tactics vis-à-vis the employment of low-signature weapons are not really relevant to the law-enforcement officer. It should be emphasized that the mission of a military sniper is vastly different from a law-enforcement sharpshooter. A police marksman will attempt to get as close to the target as possible since placing a cold shot into a target’s CNS (central nervous system) is essential to instantaneously eliminate the subject’s ability to harm hostages or officers. Police shots will normally be less than 100 yards. A military sniper, on the other hand, will try to stay as far away from the target as possible to reduce the danger of effective counter-fire after he places a center-of-mass hit on a high-value target such as an officer, RTO operator, or personnel operating a crew-served weapon. Therefore, U.S. military snipers would prefer to take shots from a distance of 500-600 yards or more. Thus, bear in mind as this discussion continues that military and law-enforcement technologies do overlap—but missions, tactics and rules of engagement are commonly quite divergent.

The stealthiness of a suppressed gunshot has implications beyond strictly tactical considerations. Stealthiness also has what might be termed strategic implications; a properly employed low-signature weapon can prevent awkward to downright ugly problems with citizen sensibilities and headline-hungry news media.

Reducing Media-Relations and Public-Relations Problems

This area probably represents the single most useful—and the single most underutilized—application for silencer technology in the law-enforcement arena.

Outside of urban areas, common problems faced by law-enforcement officers include putting down an animal injured by traffic and responding to calls reporting a potentially rabid animal or a poisonous snake. One officer from southern Wisconsin recently had to deal with a crazed deer wreaking havoc inside a hardware store, another in Louisiana responded to a poisonous snake in a swimming pool, and an officer in Alaska had to dispatch a moose that tangled with a pickup truck. Using a duty sidearm or shotgun to put down an injured or potentially dangerous animal poses a potential public-relations nightmare if a small crowd has gathered or the animal is in a residential area. Most civilians are mightily upset by the noise of nearby gunfire, and their discomfort level is directly proportional to the intensity of the noise.

Perhaps the most useful tool for such problems is an integrally suppressed .22 rimfire pistol, although one should have previously consulted with a game biologist or veterinarian as to shot placement when dealing with anything larger than small game. This is particularly important when dealing with a potentially rabid animal, since its brain must be kept intact for analysis. Destroying the brain or allowing the animal to escape due to an improperly placed bullet would subject the victim of a bite wound to a grizzly series of anti-rabis shots.

Most silenced .22 pistols are built on the Ruger Mark II and feature a suppressor of the same diameter as the receiver. Thus most individuals will view this as a bull-barrel pistol even seen from an arm span or two. Furthermore, close observers who see such a firearm being used seem to conclude from the minimal noise generated by the pistol that some sort of low-power “humane” specialty ammunition was used. That’s especially useful if ultrasensitive environmentalists are encountered. Anyone inside a structure is unlikely to hear anything at all. I once fired a double tap from a suppressed Ruger pistol just outside of a frame structure three arm spans away from a woman washing dishes in her kitchen, and she didn’t hear a thing through the window that separated us.

A suppressed .22 pistol has several other interesting attributes. It can be kept unobtrusively in a small hardcase in the trunk of a squad until needed; a suppressed .22 rifle would tend to get in the way, present a higher profile when responding to a call, and might be more prone to damage in a squad’s trunk. The suppressed pistol can be carried in the case until ready to shoot. Simply evaluate the problem, make sure of a safe back stop, shoot as necessary, and dispose of the remains according to departmental policy. You should police up the fired cases as well. It’s amazing how discreet this process can be when the principal sound is the soft “thud, thud” of .22 caliber bullet impact.

Sometimes, however, a suppressed, bolt-action .22 rimfire rifle is the tool of choice. When employed with subsonic ammunition, this tool excels in two principal areas: (1) animal control in open areas such as airports and parks: and (2) the selective destruction of objects such as lights that create a problem for surveillance or entry teams. If one has the luxury of time, problem lights should be taken out a day or two prior to an operation—preferably while using a masking sound such as a loud motorcycle, garbage truck or helicopter flyby, as appropriate, to cover the tinkle of breaking glass and any possible ricochet. The use of masking sounds to hide a suppressed gunshot dates back at least as far as the Vietnam War. American suppressor designer Don Walsh, who spent considerable time in Indochina and now resides in Thailand, coined the term sonic camouflage for the practice.

Then there is the matter of media relations. The media seem to operate on the principal that “if it bleeds, it leads.” This problem is exacerbated by a general lack of understanding concerning the ethical and legal aspects of using lethal force. Furthermore, media personnel and lawyers also tend to have an appalling lack of understanding regarding firearms and ammunition. Using a .44 Magnum, for example, is likely to be perceived as excessive force. Yet, despite the fact that the .308 Winchester delivers three times more energy downrange, it seems much smaller to the eye and doesn’t have that nasty “M” word in its name. Thus it should come as no surprise that using a suppressed firearm reduces the perceived level of force by reducing the weapon’s noise.

Using a suppressed firearm also redirects media attention. If supersonic ammunition is used, the shot will appear to have originated near the point where the round struck. If subsonic ammunition is employed, the media may not even know when lethal force is used until other activity or a press briefing reveals that the situation has been resolved.

Beside providing a means to prevent PR problems, sound suppressors are useful for solving a variety of additional problems which will be examined in the conclusion to this discussion in the next issue of SAR. Specifically, we’ll explore the use of low-signature weapons to (1) enhance command and control; (2) preserve operator hearing, especially in confined spaces; (3) reduce the likelihood of detonation when operating in a potentially explosive atmosphere; (4) improve the quality and safety of live-fire training; (5) reduce muzzle blast and recoil; (6) safeguard human night vision and electronic night vision devices; (7) reduce the risk of so-called “friendly fire” accidents; (8) increase operational security, and (9) improve both practical accuracy and the speed of follow-up shots.


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