Revolvers, silencers and The Rockford Files

Last night the conversation got steered twards Seventies detective shows (doesn’t it always seem to?)like Colombo and Quincy and Rockford Files. Along with all the other 70’s detective show cliches (tight flared slacks, black turtleneck sweaters for villians, Ford mustangs, Lincoln Town Cars for the heavies, etc.) there were a lot of revolvers with silencers.

Granted, they worked great on T.V. (they all had that signiture “Thwip!” sound) but in the real word how well could a silencer really work on a revolver? Isn’t the idea to muffle the gas released? So, what about the gap between the revolving cylander thing and the barrel?

My last question (does the executioner get that second chance?) showed me that theres plenty of folks in this group that know an awful lot about guns (so I don’t wanna’ make any enemies, thanks).

Adam “Inky” “I think it’s time for Mr. Rockford to have an ‘accident’…” Greene

I’m not an expert on firearms by any means but I believe the whole point is to not have any of the propulsive gases escape other than down the barrel, behind the bullet. The seal between the cylinder and the barrel must be pretty good in order for a revolver to work at all. Any apparent openings must be in parts of the cylinder that aren’t actually in use while firing.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

There is no way to effectively silence a standard revolver. If the barrel-cylinder gap is tight enough to block gas from leaking, the cylinder won’t advance.

The exceptions are the old model 1895 Nagant gas seal revolver, which was standard Russian issue right up to 1950 or so. More recently, Knight’s Manufacturing company devised a revolver similar in principle, which is called the Revolver-Rifle or the Revolver-Pistol, depending on the version. These weapons cam the cylinder forward before the hammer strikes, which seals the gap and allows a suppressor to be effective.

In the case of the Nagant, the point was not silence, but rather, velocity. Gas loss through the barrel cylinder gap loses a little velocity too, but apparently not enough for anyone to copy Nagant. In the case of the Knight, the idea is stealth for special operations. A bad guy used a suppressed Knight to kill the Smoking Man on the X-Files, and it generated a huge debate. Only the truly illuminated (i.e. people who read neat “assault weapons” books like myself) knew that the X-Files was on solid ground.

Speaking of movies, there is a gunsmith in The Godfather who leaves a revolver really loud so Michael will cow everyone he doesn’t kill in that Italian restaurant. I think the way he did that was by adjusting the cylinder so it sat further from the barrel, allowing more gas to escape. So I suppose a good gunsmith could minimize gas likewize. The consensus is, it wouldn’t be enough to effectively suppress the weapon.

Not only do I claim to not be an expert on firearms but I actually prove it by making a WAG that turns out to be totally wrong!!

Will wonders never cease?

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

The acoustic wave that is associated with the sound of a gunshot propagates at the open end of the barrel. An acoustic chamber (silencer) does much to diminish the subsequent propagation of this signal in the airspace (medium). One of the more effective applications of a silencer (only useful if your target is within a few feet, as it adversely affects accuracy) is to fire at your subject through the mouth of a 2 liter soda pop bottle.

Happy hunting!

How about a potato? No kidding, using a potato as a silencer was popular lore when I was a kid. Does it work? I think it was in a movie.

Work like you don’t need the money…
Love like you’ve never been hurt…
Dance like nobody’s watching! …(Paraphrased)

Use a potato as a silencer?

" Yeah sargent, it’s the same M.O: shot point blank with a large calaber weapon, telltale hint of spud residue, looks like the work of the Idaho Assasin! Witness reports describe a short, rotund man in a bowler hat with removeable ears, nose, and moustache. Clearly a master of disguise!"

While we’re at it, why the pillow? I’ve seen it often in movies, sometimes pressed against the person being shot, sometimes against the gun. That doesn’t seem very consistent.

Only humans commit inhuman acts.

I think the pillow idea is to reduce the amount of powder burns around the wound so the investigators won’t know the subject was shot point-blank. I dunno if that works either. Wouldn’t they detect the pinfeather residue and know they had another “you go beddy-bye” murder on their hands?

      • A couple of points I know to be true:
  • The reason they sound the way they do on TV is that (tyically) the whole sound engineering process isn’t set up to accurately capture the very-low-frequency discharge noise, because your TV speakers most likely couldn’t reproduce it accurately. And the director wants it to sound quiet anyway, so they don’t worry about it.
  • In Hollywood, silencers work far better than in reality - usually they are way too small to be as effective as implied.
  • Pillows will mute gun noise somewhat, as will many fruits and vegetables (once), 2-liter soda bottles (a few shots, depending on caliber), and various other common items. Simply pressing the gun barrel firmly against the victim works too (I have read). Almost anything over the end of a barrel will decrease apparent sound levels somewhat, but silencers that produce maximum effect all look much the same.
  • If you wondered what the inside of a silencer looks like, there’s a manufacturer named Reflex Suppressors that turns up on Netscape Search. There’s a picture on their site.
  • In the US, making or posessing any unregistered silencer is big trouble - usual sentence is 18 months for first time offenders, with no other charges. Ouch! - MC

Of course, I realize what I just said is ridiculous.

The plain fact is that most writers are pretty ignorant about most things. I’ve just been reading a 40’s detective novel which involves a .38 Police Positive revolver which, declining to emulate the behavior of all other sorts of revolver, instead ejects the spent shell upon firing. Uh-huh.

Not to mention what passes for science on “Star Trek”…

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Don’t forget projectile velocity-bullets generally are faster than sound; part of what you hear is actually a sonic boom. My father has an old Colt .32 pocket automatic (that was his dad’s). One time I was shooting it with low powered shells, and it was quite quiet indeed. The problem with suppression through reduced velocity, however, is loss of power–those little buggers had trouble making it through the back side of a pop can!
–Alan Q

      • Subsonic velocity is not a problem - every sporting goods store I have looked around in carried at least one brand for every major caliber. For centerfire rifles, you load your own. - MC
      • Nuts - I meant to say, ". . for every major pistol caliber. - MC had a bit on silencers:

An interesting site, Zuma. For some years, I have encountered people who believe revolvers are ‘impossible’ or ‘not the best sort of pistol’ for use with silencers, because everyone thinks of that gap between the cylinder and the inner end of the barrel. Let me suggest this:

The next time a documentary comes on about the space program, watch for a scene where a rocket (typically a Saturn 5) takes off (just listen for The Planets: Mars). Here’s what you’ll see. First, ignition. A gout of smoke and maybe even some flame, escaping from the bottom of the engine and squeezing up between the rocket and the gantry deck, rapidly spreading out. Then, the rocket begins to lift off. As it does, the exhaust plume gets closer to the gantry deck. Watch, and you’ll see how the smoke gets sucked back down below the deck.

Something similar (although obviously not on such a scale or as clearly visible) happens as the bullet leaves the cylinder and fully enters the barrel – there’s still gas pressure behind it, but it’s actually falling off somewhat from the maximum pressure it achieved as the powder ignited and just before the bullet began to move and broke free of the cannelure of the shell (where the casing is crimped slightly). As the bullet moves down the barrel, it’s still accelerating, even as it overcomes the inertia of the air in the barrel in front of it, because although the gas pressure is actually starting to drop, the bullet continues to absorb gas momentum until fully exiting the barrel end. So, even as gas seeks to escape from the gap, there’s also a slight counter-force which tends to minimize any sound. My main problem is with the residue blown all over the hands. If you wear disposable gloves of the proper type, then put them in a can of gasoline carried in your trunk, any residue will be dissolved and any internal fingerprints useless. Then you just toss them away. So, while I would personally certainly prefer an automatic, a revolver can still be adequately silenced if desired.

The most common type of cheap, disposable device is made from an in-line lawnmower muffler. These have a single, simple baffle plate across their middle. A half-inch hole, centered, drilled in this plate on a simple drill press (or even by placing it in a vice and drilling freehand), will produce a serviceable prototype.

Where most people go wrong is in attaching the homemade device. What you mainly need is a gun with enough barrel extending beyond the lower frame (such as in a revolver or, e.g., a P-38 automatic) to securely mount the device. Since most people have neither the skill nor the equipment to tap the barrel end, and it may be handy to have a registered weapon with an obviously untapped (i.e., presumably unsilenceable) barrel to show, the easiest way is to tightly wrap duct tape around the barrel until it fits snugly inside the muffler’s opening. Using a high-speed cutting disk, you can cut four neat slits, evenly spaced, in the muffler’s end-tube. Then you just add a simple hose-clamp to help tighten the tube around the duct-tape, carefully checking that the bullet path is precisely centered down the muffler body. Voila. Then, of course, it’s always a good idea afterwards to run a few boxes of ammo through the gun (if you want to keep it), in order to change the ballistic markings.

Someday being such a student of crime novels is going to get me in trouble . . .

In my personal experience, a .22 long rifle cartridge fired through a twenty ounce plastic coke bottle filled with steel wool (with a channel down the center of the bottle) is just about as quiet as a similar rifle firing subsonic rat shot. The silencer is only good for two or three shots before it starts getting progressively louder. Accuracy is nonexistent.

Hey, JWK, don’t even start on Star Trek, or we may have to take this to the pit.