Steam-powered street vehicles first appeared in noticeable numbers in England in the 1830s. They were eventually driven out of common use by legislation backed by their competitors and “self-propelled carriages” did not reappear until the late 1890s. At the time, gasoline and alcohol powered cars were not the obvious choice over the steam and electric competitors. While they had many advantages, they also suffered from a great disadvantage — the noise of un-muffled engines.
The requirement for cars to stop upon encountering horses was based in part on the noise emitted and the possibility of it spooking the animals. The first US patent for a muffler was filed in 1897, and the classic Maxim Silencer mufflers were invented in 1902. At the time, the process of obtaining a muffler for a firearm involved sending funds to the manufacturer and receiving a tube containing the muffler by mail. Most of the early mufflers were eccentric, with the bulk of the device hanging below the bore line to enable the use of stock sights.
Part of this history may be traced through the different terms used to describe sound suppressors. “Silencer” was an American brand name that became generic, much like “Xerox” and “Kleenex”. In the UK, they are called “sound moderators”, while car mufflers are sometimes called “silencers”. The reduction of engine noise was an obvious contributor to the eventual success of gas-powered modern cars, with almost no one seriously claiming any evil intent in reducing the noise pollution from vehicles. I doubt that many people would want to wear aviation-style headsets just to drive to the grocery store. If we had an anti-car lobby that was as vicious as the anti-gun lobby, we’d hear claims like “mufflers would allow hit and run drivers to sneak up on pedestrians”, much like they claim that mufflers on firearms are only for murder and poaching.
Gun mufflers differ from car mufflers in minor details. They are less efficient because of the requirement for a straight path being open for the bullet. Like car mufflers, sound suppressors on guns add weight and trap heat. To compensate, they reduce felt recoil and greatly diminish the muzzle flash. So a firearm with a muffler is significantly more pleasant to use than one without. For that reason, I try to use only quiet guns when introducing new shooters to the sport. That serves a secondary purpose of popularizing the concept with people new to gun rights. Just as familiarity with “horseless carriages” made them less scary and more accepted by the public, the same is true with firearms and sound suppressors. If you have the ability to popularize the concept among new shooters, please use every opportunity to do so.
Most people reading this will probably say: “I would if I could”. Some live in restrictive jurisdictions, others can’t afford the $200 tax and the inflated cost of the suppressor. We read phrases like “The silencers were incredibly good, expensively muffled so that, from a hundred feet away, the plane was inaudible in cruising flight” in reference to engines, but it’s been a long time since that was applied to cars in daily conversations. Car mufflers are commodities, not worthy of even a model name, while firearm mufflers are branded goods precisely because the barrier to possession is so steep. But the prices do not have to be so high. In countries where they are unregulated, sound suppressors are inexpensive. $30US gets you a basic .22 suppressor in New Zealand. Let’s work on making this a reality in the US as well.