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Silencers, the U.S. Army and the NFA: The Early History of Suppressors

By Matthew Moss, Patent Photos Provided By The U.S. PATENT OFFICE

With the popularity of firearms suppressors at an all-time high and the Hearing Protection Act hopefully gaining momentum in Congress, it is an appropriate time to ask: When did suppressors first emerge and why did they disappear? At the turn of the 20th century there was an explosion of silencer designs and by 1912 the U.S. Army had become interested in their military applications, but the Great Depression and the 1934 National Firearms Act saw sales decline.

The first viable firearm suppressors appeared at the turn of the 20th century with a series of patents between 1909 and 1920. In 1895, Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram Maxim—inventor of the machine gun—established an engineering company. Initially, Maxim’s company was focused on the burgeoning automobile market. It was not until 1905 that Maxim began developing a series of designs to moderate sound. To begin with, he experimented with valves, vents and bypass devices. He eventually finalized his basic idea and developed a series of practical suppressors; these were sold by the Maxim Silent Firearms Company, which later became the Maxim Silencer Company.

In later years, Maxim claimed that he came up with the idea after taking a bath. As he watched the water drain out of the bath he noted that it spiralled as it formed a whirlpool at the drain. He believed that the propellant gases leaving a firearm’s muzzle could also be whirled to create a vortex, thereby slowing them sufficiently to prevent them making a noise as they left the muzzle.

Maxim experimented with his idea and created his first silencer, which used an offset chamber and valve to trap and swirl the muzzle gases in an effort to slow their travel. Maxim’s results with this design were encouraging, but the design needed further refinement.

In June 1908, he filed his patent for an “improvement in Silent Firearms.” Granted in March 1909, this design used curved vanes or blades to create a series of miniature vortices to capture and slow...

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