Designing Suppressors for Military Use

By Doug Olson

The design of military hardware takes a completely different approach than designing something for the commercial suppressor market. As in all development projects, it is important to KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER. “Gun Nuts” tend to think the world is made up of like-minded people. We tend to admire the workmanship of a suppressor and will do anything the manufacturer suggests to wring out the last decibel. We like to take our marvels of engineering apart to clean them and to understand what makes them work. If you think the military user is anything like this, YOU ARE WRONG. Through years of contact with this unique breed of suppressor user, several truths have become evident.

IT’S A TOOL. As a developer who put his heart into this piece of hardware, it is easy for us to coddle and protect this new infant (suppressor). Like any tool, the military user views a suppressor as just another device that lets him get his job done. From his perspective, a suppressor is just more stuff that he has to carry along on his missions. This stuff gets heavy fast. The military user just wants a suppressor to work when he calls upon it to function. He doesn’t want to have to do ANYTHING to it—especially cleaning it. “No maintenance” is the rule, if he can get by with it. If absolutely required, he will maintain it, but he dislikes maintenance very much. If he has to clean it, then he must carry cleaning gear too. The only thing worse than cleaning it is feeding it spare parts. He will never have them when he needs them most (one of Murphy’s Laws). He also hates having to carry those parts as well.

MILITARY USERS ARE NOT “GUN NUTS”. Most of the spec-war operators are neither impressed by nor do they even particularly like guns or suppressors. They do not share our interest in the technological side of their tools. These people generally train, fight and—equally important—PLAY hard. Post-operation maintenance gets in the way of the latter. Don’t forget these people have all the best toys to work with. They make big bangs all the time. Most small arms don’t impress the average operator. Unlike the typical “Gun Nut”, the average military user is not made particularly happy by being issued a suppressor. It is simply more stuff he has to care for. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he is not using it, but 100% of the time he is responsible for it. The only way the effort is justified is if the mission is successful AND he comes home.

MILITARY OPERATORS WILL NOT ADJUST THEIR METHODS TO SUIT THIS NEW HARDWARE. The amount of effort that the designer put into developing this suppressor that is SO quiet makes NO difference to the user. The user runs his operations his way and this stuff that he has to tote to conduct this mission must fit the mission. It is easy to think that only a few suppressed shots will ever be required on any mission and therefore the suppressor needs only to be good for a few rounds. Don’t count on that. These operators train hard. He will practice a certain movement one hundred times in practice for every one time it is used for real. You can get a suppressor very hot training that way. Range time is limited for these operators and they have to make good use of it. They simply WON’T wait for the suppressor to cool or delay training for maintenance. Therefore, the suppressor is used much more during training than during an actual mission. Furthermore, professional operators do not take good care of their suppressors. Think of a suppressor stuck in a backpack with 100 pounds or more of other stuff that just got toted 20 miles. The operator will not be too careful about where he DROPS that pack. If the suppressor can’t take this kind of abuse, then the fault is with the developer, not the user.

THERE ARE THINGS THE OPERATOR CARRIES WHICH ARE MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN A SUPPRESSOR. It is easy for the developer to think that the suppressor is more important to the user than it really is. Things like water, food, shelter, parachute and dive gear may be much higher on an operator’s priority list. He must survive getting to and returning from the fight where the suppressor may or may not even become useful. Survival is JOB Number One.

With this insight into the user, what then become the real-world requirements for suppressors? Many of these requirements may contradict one another, but the suppressor designer MUST LIVE WITH THEM.

1. Make the suppressor as rugged a possible.
2. Keep loose parts count to a minimum.
3.Make it withstand lots of rounds.
4.Keep it light weight.
5.Don’t make it so it can come apart unless absolutely necessary.
6.Make spare parts unnecessary for the user.
7.No maintenance.
8.No cleaning.
9.No sight adjustments.
10.Make attachment/dismounting easy.
11.Minimize weapon modifications.

For the suppressors designs that I have been involved with, these requirements have lead to the following design features.

1.All stainless steel or high temperature alloy construction. The environments in which these people operate can be very hard on conventional steels and aluminum. Suppressors that get white hot when used hard require special alloys to prevent “melt down.”

2. Maximum utilization of welding to hold parts in place. If the suppressor can’t come apart, it won’t. Murphy follows these people on every mission and they hate things that come apart at the wrong time.

3. Quick release/mounting arrangements. Every action needs to be practiced and timed. Making the attachment quick and Murphy Proof is important.

4. Use only water in “wet environment” suppressors. Grease has become a popular medium for commercial suppressors. Ever wonder why the military doesn’t use it? It makes a mess, requires maintenance and requires the user to take something else along on his mission. There are negatives.

5. No slide locks or other special weapon modifications. If the gun has a lock, Murphy states that it will always be in the wrong position when operating the gun.

6.Design boosters that self-retain most of the component parts. One of the Qual-A-Tec suppressors had a lock-out feature that would effectively convert the weapon into a single shot (like a slide lock). The operators trained to “Double Tap” their targets and this system didn’t allow that. Therefore, it was never used.

As an example of a poorly militarized system lets take a look at the original Hush-Puppy from the users perspective.

1.The slide lock truly sucked. It required a wrench to take the gun apart to clean it. The slide lock was held on with an all-steel self-locking nut. After these weapons had been in service for a few years, the Navy brass made the decision that all weapons in the locker had to be stored with their firing pins removed. On the hush-puppy that meant taking this self-locking nut off every time the weapon was used. Therefore these nuts became worn and were no longer self-locking. When this nut was loose, the slide lock would not work properly. And when it was lost, the whole weapon could fall apart. This method of holding the slide lock on was, therefore, operationally unacceptable. Besides, it gave the operator a single shot auto-loader.

2.The ammunition was a special subsonic load. That made it hard for the operators to get and as a consequence no training was ever conducted. (Who is going to carry something they have not trained with?) Worst of all the subsonic ammo tended to stick in the chamber. Cases stuck tight enough that the extractor could not pull it out. (When I said single shot I meant it.)

3.The replaceable wipes needed replacing. Maintenance = Bad.

4.The chamber plug that was designed to keep water out of the barrel meant that the gun had to be carried without a round in the chamber. That could get a user killed.

5.The bullet had to be a full metal jacket type to work through the wipes. Remember the story from my last article of a SEAL who used one of these systems to take out a Guard Goose when in Vietnam. After shooting it twice he only succeeded in making it very loud and otherwise totally pissing it off. He ended up doing it in with a knife. Do you think he ever took that system on a mission again?

When you start evaluating suppressor designs from this viewpoint, they start to look different. Notice I haven’t said one word about how quiet this thing is. Within certain limits it doesn’t really matter. Whether it has 28 dB or 32dB drop makes no operational difference. It does have to be sailor-proof, however. What to the designer may seem like deliberate abuse of equipment is just every-day usage. When you look at a suppressor as a tool and think about how you have treated your tools, you soon learn to look at them differently.

One of the tests the Navy did on the Mk 23 Suppressor was to fire it 1,000 rounds without cleaning and without lubrication. It worked just fine. To the military user, that makes it “good shit.” These real users will probably fire that many rounds without cleaning, too. If the user happens to think about it, he may add a little water to the can but don’t expect him to do any more than that.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N5 (February 1998)
and was posted online on October 6, 2017


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