By Dan Shea
In the last issue of Small Arms Review, "Doc" Dater gave us a running history on his life, designs and a view into the modern history of firearm suppressors. In this, Part II of The Interview, "Doc" Dater Dishes on past designs and what it takes to really design a suppressor for real-world use. - Dan
SAR: In the '50s, when you had to transport firearms, how did you do it?
Dater: First off, unless you had a Federal Firearms License, and I did eventually get one of these "dollar licenses" so I could send stuff through the US mail, if you were shipping things, you had to ship it Railway Express. That was the only common carrier at the time. This was long before FedEx and UPS and outfits like that. You had either the Post Office or Railway Express, and Railway Express was expensive. When you were traveling by air, the people at the ticket counter would say, "Do not check your firearms. They'll probably be stolen by the baggage handlers. Carry them on board." For a long time, they never bothered to check the chambers to make sure they were empty or unloaded or anything like that. There really were not any hijackings of airplanes going on. In many respects, it was a kinder, gentler time. I'd be going hunting with my stepfather. We carried our shotguns, put them in the cases and put them in the overhead rack, sometimes under the seat if there wasn't room in the overhead racks for them. These, of course, were not big airplanes. The DC-4 was the big airplane in those days. Eventually, towards the later '50s, they started to check to make sure that the chamber was empty. Didn't matter if there was ammunition in the case with it, but they wanted an empty chamber. One time, I was driving back from southern Louisiana, I got about as far as Dallas, and the vehicle clutch was slipping too much because of oil on it from a blown piston (which I had replaced). I had to leave the car there. I had my Thompson submachine gun with me. I got a ticket on Braniff Airways to fly back from Dallas to Wichita, and carried my Thompson on-board. The clerk asked to see the chamber, to make sure it was empty. So I pulled the receiver out and showed him the chamber. He said, "What kind of gun is that?" "Well, that's a hunting rifle," I say. He says, "Oh, it's kind of short, isn't it?" I said, "Yeah, it is, it's good for brush country." He said, "Oh, okay," and I carried the Thompson on-board. On the DC-3, nobody cared.
SAR: Gene Stoner talked about carrying an AR-10 on a plane in that same time period, and he sat next to Vice President Richard Nixon. [laughter] But carrying a firearm on a plane was not a threat.
Dater: No, it wasn't considered that at all. Many people carried concealed firearms onto planes as well.
SAR: In 1961 or '62, you were working on an FAL conversion.
Dater: Actually it was either late '62 or the beginning of '63. I know I was living in New Orleans, at med school at the time, and a friend of mine told me of the new FAL rifle, semi-auto in .308 caliber, and he said it was a great thing. The word was out that it was real easy to convert to full auto, which everyone of course, found to be a delightful quality. I went down to the local sporting goods store and looked at the thing. It cost $175, and I went home and thought about it real long and hard, and decided, "You know, .308 is a new caliber for me, I don't load it, I don't have any ammunition for it, and I'm not sure where I can shoot it around here."
Down at the hobby store, there was a little lathe, it was a model maker or jeweler's lathe, actually, and it had about six inches between centers, and I think a total of a three-inch swing with about one and a half inch swing over the cross-feed. I got to thinking how much I like to make things, and probably I'd get more enjoyment out of the lathe. I'd learned to basically run a lathe and weld and this sort of thing in summers, working at the Coleman Lamp and Stove Company in Wichita, Kansas, in the model shop. There we hand-built the prototypes for new products. I had become a halfway decent machinist at that point. With this little tiny model maker's lathe, I found it's truly amazing what you can make on it. I made my first pistol suppressor for the Ruger pistol on it. I made a suppressor for my AR-7 with a mount system that had a little screw and clamp that went over the front sight, and locked the suppressor on. I also made a suppressor for a Sten MKII. That was relatively crude technology. Everything was made out of brass, because it was fairly easy to machine. It wasn't until many years later that I learned how to thread on that particular lathe, because it was not designed for threading. They had a thread-chasing attachment that I subsequently got. Everything had to be held on with set screws. The suppressor for the Sten went on the barrel, and there was no modification to the gun itself. It was kind of a two-point mount on the barrel, and snugged up a little bit under the normal handguard. It was kind of long and made out of brass tubing. Brass was not only easy to work with, it's also easy to solder with a little propane torch, and the tubing was available in hardware stores.
SAR: Very different from the SG-9 that you eventually evolved into your submachine gun design for the Sten.
Dater: That's correct. But I chose that lathe over the FAL, even though I had designed a conversion for it. I also knew about the NFRTR now and the registration requirements by then, so, it would have been a making tax of another $200 on top of the FAL price. The lathe turned out to be a good choice and I had many years and many prototypes done on it.
SAR: Phil, after fifty years of being involved in suppressor design, could you share what it really takes to design and manufacture a suppressor today?
Dater: It takes a lot more than you might think. The first problem is simply controlling and making the parts. There are onerous regulations involved that make little sense unless you know the background. In the late 1970s or early '80s, there was the appearance on the scene of packages of suppressor parts being sold without restriction. There would be sellers at gun shows with one table having a suppressor tube that was threaded and not marked, and another table on the other side of the room would have a baggy of all the parts to put inside it, and each person would give you a Form 1 to register it when they sold it to you. They also sold these via mail order. There'd be adjoining ads in Shotgun News, and if you looked at the address, they were adjoining post office boxes in the same little town in, I think, South Carolina, or thereabouts. Basically, one person sold replacement internal parts, and the other person sold "random pieces" of tubing. One of the things about the MAC suppressor and the SWD after it, was that the part that carried the serial number was a plain piece of aluminum tubing, I believe it's around two and a quarter inches in diameter. It was held in compression by the core that carried the muzzle threads, and a junction piece that then had the front section of the suppressor attached to it. In that parts kit was also the one baffle that was in there, plus the spirals, plus the encapsulator and the wipe. The little pieces of pipe that were sold, most of those were about a sixteenth of an inch too long, so you had to do some machine work to it, which you could do on a belt sander quite easily. It didn't take a degree in rocket science to assemble those things, in probably about ten minutes. It's because of those parts, and some of the criminal uses that were made of the unregistered suppressors that our legitimate community ended up with the silencer parts restriction being thrown into the Hughes Amendment in the '86 ban on the new manufactured machine guns.
SAR: Giving us the incredibly complex, arcane and hard to figure out regulations about suppressor parts manufacture today.
Dater: Absolutely. It has become really kind of... an issue is, "Is this part a suppressor part or is this an adapter?" I talked to Jonathan Arthur Ciener at the SHOT show several years ago, and said, "You know, with your .22 kits, why don't you just sell some of the barrels that are about a half-inch too long? Either thread them, or let us thread them." Jonathan said, "Well, then it's a suppressor part." I said, "No, John, it's not a suppressor part. Put a muzzle break on there or a flash hider." That was a suppressor part in his opinion, so he wouldn't do that. That's his interpretation, and at Gemtech we've spent a lot of money with attorneys who theoretically understand all of this, and no two of them truly agree on it. Which makes one wonder...
SAR: In '86, when the ban was coming on, did you manufacture any machine guns?
Dater: I did two conversions during that immediate period building up to the law. They were relatively simplistic, one was converting my AR-15 SP1 into a machine gun and another was an M-2 carbine. Prior to that, I did some HK conversions for a friend of mine who was a Class III dealer. Those, of course, were all fully transferable weapons. They'd be marked as Automatic Weapons Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I gave some thought to converting my M1A rifle into an M-14, and I thought, "You know, I've shot an M-14, and to be honest, I don't like it." I like the M1A, but the M-14, it was uncontrollable in my personal opinion, so I didn't convert or register it. That was a foolish mistake on my part. It would've been worth a small fortune if I'd done it. Right around that time, there was a real scare that while Congress had honed in on machine guns, they'd kind of forgotten about suppressors and other NFA items. A lot of companies thought that Congress was going to come back and "correct" that issue. Many of them registered a whole pile of suppressor tubes, just took proper pieces of aluminum or steel tubing and filed a Form 2 and put markings on them. I did a number in .22 caliber, most of which I still have today, and I periodically just drag one out when I have a project for my own personal stuff, and use that tube and that number.
SAR: There were thousands of suppressors registered in that period.
Dater: Empty Suppressor tubes - perfectly legal and proper, many manufacturers did it. But the other shoe never dropped. Some companies just sold the registered tubes out as serialized empty tubes for a small amount of money, just to convert junk into money. Some have actually just piecemealed them, taken them and built them up themselves. Mine, the ones for a .22 long rifle, were originally designed for the Mark II pistol. I made some muzzle cans out of them and made a couple of .22 rifle cans out of them. These are just for my own personal usage. I haven't exploited it or tried to dump things. When you dump things on the market that are incomplete, you're accepting an awful lot of liability. Somebody else completes it, and they screw up and someone gets hurt, they go to whoever's name is on the outside of the product.
That's something people found out about on the machine gun receivers that they sold with their name on it. Other people were taking them and putting them together improperly. Just think of all the 1919A4 sideplates, Sten tubes, or M-60 receivers that somebody sold, and they hadn't built them up themselves, and next thing you know, Uncle Joe's Bicycle, Muffler and Sten Shop had done the finish work on it, and you had guns that were unreliable and unsafe, but they had the original Class 2's name on them. They're potentially unreliable and/or dangerous. All you need is for someone to have their ten-year-old kid out there shooting, have something come unglued, and their eye gets put out. Let alone the tragedy, you're going to get sued, there's no question about it, your name's on it. A good general rule of thumb is that YOU know what you're doing, and you're not going to put out an unsafe product with your name on it.
SAR: There are many examples of this in the market today. You can see ads that read something like "Original Maremont M60" and when you check it out it is a rewelded gun, but because it says "Maremont" on one of the parts they put it on the paper. In that same period, you were working on some American 180s...
Dater: That was the S&S guns (Sid McQueen). He decided to make an American version of the AM180, and I think he made 24 receivers total. They were anodized and the first ten had various colors. The anodize was generally decorative, it was not hard, with one exception. There were black guns and blue guns. He had one that was red, one green, one gold, and maybe one that was pink. One, grey, was hard anodized, and that was serial number 010, and I ended up buying it, and I still have it. It was kind of a dark gray because it was hard anodized. The subsequent ones were all decorative black anodize, and I engraved almost all of those. Those AM-180s are marked "S&S Arms, Albuquerque, New Mexico." I also engraved almost all of Sid's Sidewinder submachine guns, which were sandblasted and black oxide.
There was also somebody in Utah who was making AM-180s. I never saw any of them, but what I heard is that he wasn't actually making them, but imported a whole bunch of them. The Europeans do not mark the receiver. They're probably a little more technically accurate. They mark the part that receives the cartridge, which is the barrel, and they stamp the serial number on the barrel. When a barrel wears out, they just bring in a new barrel and transfer the number to the new barrel. So, a number of the American 180s did come in that just had numbers on the barrel. Some of those, not all, but some of them ended up getting American people's marks on them as being made in America, because the marks were put on the receiver.
SAR: So they were transferable instead of "Dealer Samples." Most people today don't realize it, but ATF's policy pre-1986 on "Dealer Samples" was that we generally could not keep them on ending our four digit SOT status. I think the readers of SAR would be interested in the birth of a suppressor, and what you have to do, to go through to make something that actually could be used by the US military or could be used by a military operations group reliably. Pick one of your Gemtech line and let's get back to that process.
Dater: In my opinion one of the most brilliant suppressor designers of the century was Doug Olson. I would put him even above Maxim. Doug was unique. When I met him, he was working for Lynn McWilliams at AWC Systems Technology in Arizona. AWC was the leader in the civilian market at that time and subsequently transferred most of its energy into the government market, where it successfully remains today. Doug told me once, "I don't want to look at other people's designs, I don't want to look at other people's product, because it's going to bias me." He also once wrote about the birth of a suppressor that it cost over $250,000 to do it right. I would agree that it is extremely expensive and time consuming to design a new one.
The one that sticks in my mind the most is our (Gemtech's) M-4 96D, which we developed in 1996. It was to compete on a request from Crane. We got the request, I believe it was on March 30th of '96, and they wanted an M16 suppressor, and they gave maximum sizes, maximum weights, minimum reduction. They wanted a quick detach system. Then they had idealized dimensions and performance, what the actual goal was. We didn't have anything anywhere near that in our offerings. We had played a little bit with some quick detach mounting systems. We received the proposal request on March 30th, and we had to deliver 10 working units for testing by May 10th, and we had to have done some of the testing ourselves, to make sure that it would stand up to what they were going to do. Basically, we dropped everything and did it. Greg Latka improved the mounting system to what we named the Bi-lock mount. We decided on three specific baffles of relatively conventional design, that in our experience would yield the right performance, and Greg sent over some baffles and some tubes. My job was to try and make them work. That was not an easy project. We evaluated and tried various spacings; we tried putting the baffles closer together and actually using more baffles. We found that the three with the spacing that we ended up using worked the best, but it wasn't giving us the kind of performance that we wanted. The actual sound reduction level was about 24 decibels.
Then, I started in calculating and saying, "Well, we'll put some jetting here, we'll put some jetting there." It turned out, when we were all through, we measured about 32 decibels reduction on it. Although two of the baffles looked like conventional M-style baffles, and one of them - the blast baffle - was a relatively flat baffle, we ended up with three baffles that were very different. The two M-baffles had different jetting. There were requirements that it had to drain water in a certain length of time and still be functional. We did our testing, and in our initial testing, we had some weaknesses that we found. We bulged the tube when shooting it with water in it. We strengthened a few items in there, strengthened some wall thickness, and changed a few materials. By the time we submitted, we had all of our ten units complete and ready to go by, I think it was the fifth of May, and we sent them off on the Brown Truck, and they arrived along with our proposal, all the paperwork, on the ninth of May, and the bid was all opened on the tenth. We competed very well. On the M4 96D suppressor, the Navy measured it at 32.7 decibels reduction. We were a little upstart company. There were only three companies who responded. One of them was Knights Armament, who was the one who ended up getting the contract, and there was us, and then Ops Incorporated, who had a good suppressor but did not have a quick detach mounting system at that time. That meant there were actually only two that ended up in the competition. Knight got the contract, and that was okay, we got one hell of a good "can" out of it. I have seen our baffle stack used by our competition, one of our competitors is using it with no changes that we can tell. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. We're still using that form of stack with engineering upgrades in some of our products today.
SAR: It's a very effective piece and it set a bar for others to aspire to. Like many of the designs in the Nineties, this was a keystone achievement.
Dater: An extremely effective suppressor. Well, that was almost 24 hours a day, constantly pushing to try and develop the technology, lots of testing, lots of trial and error. Not counting our time, we had approximately $25,000 in machining costs associated with it that Greg provided. Then there was, of course, my time, and then Jim Ryan's time. Jim Ryan and Mark Weiss, who were still in Washington State at that time, did all the paperwork, put together the bid package and the proposal, the pricing schedule, and this whole thing. It was a true education. If we had counted all of our time, paid ourselves reasonable salaries, and had a little more machinery on the floor, to maybe fine tune a little further, I would guess that it would've run at least $100,000. When you look at being awarded a true military contract, the inspection expenses and setting up the inspection systems and certifications is an extremely tedious, time-consuming and expensive process as well.
For people to look at the cost of what the military pays in the end for a suppressor is deceptive if you simply look at the cost of just making the can, because the military contract demands a tremendous amount of backup work, and checking and waiting to get paid, and acceptance trials. You have to supply a bunch of cans to them for them to use and destroy. And for a small company, that is not inexpensive, to send them product that, although, for testing, although you may get it back, you usually can't do anything with it except send it to the landfill. This is true for any product submission to the military.
SAR: The M496D didn't go into the government contract, but it's been a very successful offering for Gem Tech.
Dater: Not only in the civilian market and the law enforcement market, but it has also been successful in the military market. The product has been seen basically all over the world in the hands of military users. There have been numerous military purchase orders on it, and it's been used in a lot of different combat situations. There are foreign military purchase orders also. It's been a very successful unit. Now, with Gemtech's newer G5 system addressing the issues of servicing the mounting system, we are evolving again. With all of this talk about the cost and effort that goes into designing and presenting a new suppressor to the market, I feel the need to comment here about suppressors used in real-world situations. The Internet Walter Mitty self-styled experts bicker about how one suppressor is so far superior to another because of a 1 dB difference in performance. Suppressors used by real "operatives" are rarely as quiet and/or compact as some of the modern US designs, but they are more than adequate to do the intended job: covert assassinations in crowded environments, confusing the enemy, allow the operative to do what he was sent to do, and then let him successfully get back to safety. The vast majority of government purchased suppressors are certainly not for that type of thing - they are to protect the hearing of the users, facilitate communication on the battlefield or mission, and to mask location of the operator. One dB does not really make a difference in that environment; there are so many other factors than strict sound reduction that frequently a slightly less effective suppressor can be a better choice due to size, robustness, ease of mounting, longevity or a variety of other factors. It's a mistake to think that one dB lower in an Internet claim matters on whether a suppressor is superior or not.
SAR: Gemtech has now been around for over 15 years and has a significant portion of the US market. The company is well known internationally, but is there some reason why the company has not captured the non-US market?
Dater: You touched on a really sore spot here. In order to export, we need the consent of not only BATF, but also of the Department of State. BATF will grant the export permit only after receipt of the State Department export license, which is where the problem lies. The issue is that there are no legislative provisions for approving the DSP-5 application for an export license. Rather, the decision process by the approving officials is arbitrary, capricious, and political in nature. The general policy is to deny a license to export a silencer. It is easier to get a license to export a fully armed F-16 with Sidewinder missiles or a ton of machine guns than it is to export a silencer. I have been told that the Department of State considers the only use for silencers is for assassination, which is contrary to US policy. While there may be some small end user community that operates like this, as I have stated, the tens of thousands of suppressors in military and LE use perform a much different service.
SAR: You have been seen around the world frequently in the last several decades, exploring the designs out there.
Dater: Yes, and that is something I really enjoy a lot. I like the people and the places and the history especially. In my travels, I've been extremely privileged to have had the opportunity for numerous extensive visits in England at the Ministry of Defense Pattern Room with the late Herbie Woodend. Richard Jones, now of the National Firearms Centre in Leeds has been a tremendous help, and when he was at the MOD Pattern room he was as well. One of the old MOD Pattern Room crew we referred to as "Q" just because he seemed to have all the interesting toys, sort of similar to what James Bond would've been given. People have talked about the machine gun collections and the cannon collections there, and they were just truly mind-boggling, but to me, the suppressor collections were incredible as well, and the opportunity to be able to disassemble, photograph in detail, and measure and study the designs from various parts of the world was fantastic. The collections there include items from the Communist bloc regions, items that were not available in the United States because of import restrictions on Communist-made products. The technology, some of which was old, some of which was crude, but as we found, some of which was quite effective, in spite of being old, crude, and fairly large. I would like to comment here that these have been fabulous opportunities. I think, had it not been for the generosity of Herb Woodend and Richard Jones at the MOD Pattern Room with their time and knowledge, I would not have learned nearly as much about non-US silencer design as I have. I'm very indebted to those men.
The chances we've had to do sound measurements on some of these historical items have been wonderful. I remember at Zastava in Serbia, being able to do a lot of sound measurements on the Soviet AK suppressors as well as many designs from the Balkans. I hope to continue this study and travel for many more years.
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