Give Now  »

Noon Edition

Gun Silencers

You've seen them in spy movies. The evil assassin is about to kill the helpless victim, but he's worried that someone mighthear the shot. What's an evil assassin to do? In Hollywood, theanswer is simple: He deftly attaches a silencer to his gun, fires a soundless shot, then escapes into the night. Do silencers really work this way?

Actually, real silencers are likely to be bulkier and noisier than the ones in a Hollywood stockroom. Many areactually larger than the guns they are designed to work with, and no silencer can remove ALL sound of a shot.

Most of a gunshot's noise comes from hot gasses bursting out of the gun behind the bullet. The more suddenly these gassesemerge, the sharper and louder the sound will be. A silencer works by slowing and cooling this burst of gas, trapping it in aspiral of steel wool and forcing it to exit the gun more gradually. As they emerge, these slower moving gasses make lesssound than the concentrated burst of a normal gunshot.

You can feel the difference yourself by making the sounds"Bam!" and "Phoof!" The sharp burst of air following the "B" sound of "Bam!" will make a sharper, more percussive noise than the more gradual escape of "Phoof!" It's the same difference asletting the air out of a balloon slowly instead of popping it. Both gun silencers and car mufflers work the same way--they were invented by the same person, Hiram Maxim, in the early twentieth century. Maxim didn't care much about gun-toting assassins or spy movie screenwriters. He was ecologicallyminded. What was his main, ecological concern? Noise pollution!

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science