Silent but Violent: The History of Suppressors

April 14, 2021Matt Fratus
history of suppressors, Navy SEAL suppressor coffee or die

A Navy SEAL sniper with a suppressor on his weapon. Photo courtesy of sealswcc.com (https://www.sealswcc.com/images/photo-gallery/seal/large/navy-seal-photo-013.jpg).

In the early 1900s, Hiram Percy Maxim was a New York-born inventor with a passion for pioneering automobiles. He patented a gas-powered bicycle and helped design an early automobile, built in Hartford, Connecticut. But he heard his real calling in making cars harder to hear, developing silencing devices for motor vehicle exhaust systems. 

Maxim had family ties in the firearms industry; his father, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, invented a portable, fully automatic machine gun, called the Maxim Gun. And his uncle, Hudson Maxim, invented the first smokeless gunpowder. In 1902, Maxim took similar technology he once used in car mufflers and produced the first commercially available firearms suppressor. He founded Maxim Silencer and patented the proprietary tubular device in 1909. The Maxim Silencer attached to a barrel of a firearm to reduce noise and muzzle flash.

Maxim Silencer coffee or die
Maxim Silencer was the first commercially available suppressor, and Theodore Roosevelt was an early supporter. Photo courtesy of the NRA.

The term “silencer” was never accurate; Maxim’s device didn’t eliminate sound. But it was a clever marketing device. The Maxim Silencer was advertised first in sporting goods catalogs for sportsmen. It was made for automatic rifles, single-shot rifles, carbines, single-shot target pistols, and even large-caliber Winchester and Remington rifles.

A prominent supporter of the Maxim Silencer was Theodore Roosevelt, who had one attached to his Winchester 1894 carbine. “Father favored the silencer for early morning hunting expeditions to eliminate varmints around Sagamore Hill,” his son Archie said. “He felt it best not to wake the neighbors.”

The National Firearms Act of 1934 restricted and regulated suppressors on firearms and halted their development for the next 40 years, a move that bit into organized crime violence. But the US military and other countries began experimenting with suppressors of their own.

Welrod pistol coffee or die
The Welrod MKII suppressed pistol in .32 ACP. The magazine acted as the Welrod’s pistol grip. When separated from its magazine, the Welrod could be carried covertly, easily confused for a bicycle pump. The Welrod was a favorite of the British SAS. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

William De Lisle, an English engineer who worked for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, grabbed the attention of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) for his De Lisle Commando Carbine. The shoulder-fired rifle was modified to chamber .45 cartridges from a Colt 1911A1 pistol magazine. Its effective range was around 200 meters (219 yards), and the bullets were subsonic, which effectively erased the sonic “crack” of higher-velocity bullets. Although the SOE sporadically employed the De Lisle Commando Carbine during World War II, it only became prominent during the Malayan Emergency. Another suppressed weapon of the war was the Welrod, a bolt-action single-shot pistol designed for covert work.  

One of the wildest moment in the history of suppressors occurred in 1944 when William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient and the director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), visited the White House to brief President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a new innovation. Donovan was excited to show off a new .22-caliber High Standard suppressed pistol the OSS Research & Development branch had developed. But a meeting ran long, leaving Donovan waiting in the Oval Office. With time on his hands, Donovan found a sandbag, fired 10 rounds from his suppressed pistol into it, then presented the bullet-ridden sandbag to the president when he emerged from his meeting. No one had heard the shots. Roosevelt kept the weapon as a souvenir, which is on display at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. The weapon saw real action during the Cold War, carried by Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over Russia.

During the Vietnam War, the Swimmer Weapons System program developed a suppressed pistol for the Underwater Demolition Teams and Navy SEALs. They used a modified 9 mm Smith & Wesson M39 pistol with a detachable suppressor called the Mk 22, but it became famous among frogmen as the “Hush Puppy.” The name says it all: It was used against sentry dogs and other animals to avoid detection. The Military Assistance Command Vietnam — Studies and Observations Group, commonly known as MACV-SOG, packed Uzis with detachable suppressors in kits for nighttime parachute infiltrations.

A favorite among MACV-SOG commandos was the .45 suppressed M3A1 “Grease Gun.” Several members, veterans of elite Ranger, OSS, and 1st Special Service Force units in World War II, preferred to carry weapons they were familiar with. Others who worked with long-range rifles used the Sionics Silent Sniper, an M1 carbine converted to 9 mm. 

Read Next: The Last Surviving Woman To Have Served as a World War II British Spy Turns 100

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Dear Jack: I'm Retiring From The Military — Help!

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran Jack Mandaville helps a career service member figure out life after retirement.

March 31, 2023Jack Mandaville
navy chaplains suicide prevention
US Navy Deploys More Chaplains For Suicide Prevention

Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of n...

March 31, 2023Associated Press
ukraine lessons learned
Opinion & Essay
Nolan Peterson: Lessons From Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

After living in and reporting from Ukraine the last nine years, conflict journalist Nolan Peterson h...

March 30, 2023Nolan Peterson
black hawk crash kentucky
9 Killed In Army Black Hawk Helicopter Crash In Kentucky

Nondice Thurman, a spokesperson for Fort Campbell, said Thursday morning that the deaths happened the previous night in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission.

March 30, 2023Associated Press
richard stayskal act military medical malpractice
DOD Denies Most Stayskal Act Malpractice Claims

Master Sgt. Richard Stayskal was diagnosed with lung cancer long after military doctors missed a tum...

March 29, 2023Maggie BenZvi
ukrainian wounded soldiers
‘On Tour In Hell’: Wounded Ukrainian Soldiers Evacuated

With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medica...

March 27, 2023Associated Press
US oil mission
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved