SEALS & Silencers, in the Seventies

tridentWe’ve just heard the following story, and can’t vouch 100% for its truth, but it would explain something interesting: why, after using at least two suppressed weapons on a limited basis in Vietnam, and another thereafter, the SEAL teams did not pursue more general issue of suppressed weapons. (Two suppressed weapons they did use were the Mk 22 “Hush Puppy” variant of the Smith & Wesson M39, which added a threaded barrel, a suppressor, a raised sight axis (to clear the suppressor), and a slide lock; and a suppressed version of the S&W M76 submachine gun).

In the SEALS, there was a faction that was strong for suppressors as a force multiplier, and a faction that dismissed them as “spy [bleep]” and couldn’t see a practical use for them. So a test was arranged.

In the test, the SEALS, with the support of what was then the Naval Weapons Systems office at Crane, Indiana, tested a variety of US and foreign suppressed weapons in two like-real-life CQB environments: shipboard, on a ship destined for scrap, and ashore, in a Navy building that already was penciled in fora date with the wrecking ball.

Even with the quietest weapons, like the Hush Puppy with slide-lock engaged, there was no mistaking that a gunshot had been fired. The SEALS could hear the thud of rounds hitting walls, or the Spang! of them hitting ships’ decks or bulkheads. In addition, they could still hear  the report, however reduced it may have been.

The SEALS concluded that the state of technology did not support a more general issue of suppressors at the time, because anyone the SEALS engaged would still know he was being engaged (at least, until they killed him).

By 2016 standards, this error forty-whatever years ago is clearly based on a false concept of what a suppressor does for you in combat. In fact, the gadget’s benefits are great even when they fall far short of the Hollywood effect of making the entire report of the shot disappear. Suppressors reduce noise and light signature, preserve operator hearing, help identify friend from foe, and mask the source and direction of friendly fires. Those reasons certainly justify using such tools.

But it took a while for the operators to learn that. Today, a lot more SOF (US and global) are running with suppressors, even though there’s still no way to keep the enemy from knowing that you’re shooting at him. At least, until you kill him.

Correction

This post originally named the Hush Puppy as the Mk 23. Daniel Watters points out in the comments (correctly) that the proper nomenclature is Mk 22 Mod 0. The error has been corrected. -Ed.

21 thoughts on “SEALS & Silencers, in the Seventies

  1. Kirk

    The thing about silencers is this: Sometimes they are a good idea, and sometimes they are a positive detracfor from the mission. You want to inspire fear and suppress the enemy? Loud noises help. Same-same with the morale of your own troops; if they can’t hear the outgoing hate, they may decide that they are on the losing side.

    There are times and places for silencers. I would submit that there are also places and times where you would want a “loudener”.

    1. Seans

      I’m going to completely disagree with this. Suppressed weapons are loud. Rounds cracking over your head is load. And your own gun is going to be louder than them all. A suppressed MK48 is still loud when rounds are landing next to you. Suppressors are a vast benefit in most situations.

      1. Kirk

        And, your point would be… What, precisely?

        As you say, silencers are a vast benefit in “most situations”; that would imply then, as I said, that there are situations where they are not a “vast benefit”. Which makes your reply to my post pretty much a non-sequitur, no?

        Aside from the maintenance and performance issues that would make general issue and routine use of the silencer problematic, there’s the whole psychological issue surrounding this issue. Not every military person on the battlefield is a highly trained professional like the SEAL. For these individuals, the effect of hearing and seeing unsuppressed weapons can be critical, in terms of both friendly and enemy fires. I got to talk to a guy who was a Real Deal ™ SOG recon team member, back in the day. One of his anecdotes surrounded his choice of a suppressed Swedish “K” that he took on a few missions. The one time he had to fire the damn thing at a pursuing NVA element, he experienced a total “effect” failure, in that because the gun had a reduced signature; based on what he experienced, he was convinced that the NVA he was shooting at weren’t even aware they were taking fire, and did not respond normally, keeping up their pursuit. So, from his perspective, the suppressor was a definite detractor; he felt that had he been firing his usual weapon, the NVA team that was in pursuit would have responded as they normally did, and at least have gone to ground to return fire. His take? Suppressors have their places, and in that specific application, discouraging people in pursuit of you and your team through thick jungle, maybe that wasn’t a good place for them. Mileage, of course, may vary.

        Noise is a very under-rated thing in combat; dominance in a firefight can stem simply from the fact that your weapon is making more and scarier noises than the other guys stuff. Talk to the WWII veterans on the American side who experienced taking direct fire from an MG42 team, and ask them how the sound of that weapon affected them and their morale. Likewise, speak to the guys on the other side, who were running those guns; I’ll never forget talking to a German MG gunner, who described the pants-filling sight of a Soviet regiment standing up in front of his position, and how he was about to turn and run, but the sound of the other guns in his unit opening up on the Soviets swept over him like a sweet wind, and he joined in with his gun, instead of running. Consider the effect on that encounter, had those MG42 teams had suppressed weapons? Certainly, there would still have been effect, but the profundity of it would likely not have been anywhere near as deep.

        There’s a reason that everyone shifted from things like longbows and crossbows for firearms, back in the day–Even as late as the Revolutionary War, the bow could deliver more effective fire over longer ranges (assuming, of course, that there were enough trained/proficient bowmen available), at least in theory. What made the shift imperative was the morale factor you got with firearms–All that noise going out, for the friendly side? And, being on the receiving end? No wonder they went for firearms, over more lethal and effective options.

        I think there are times and places that suppressors are necessary and advantageous; the flip side to that is that there are times and places where they really shouldn’t be used, and that the choice should be made by the leader on the scene, based on what effect they want. And, in addition, the decision needs to be based on educated decision-making, meaning that some thought and training needs to go into the whole thing.

        It’s one thing to take suppressed weapons up against trained professionals, who will make coldly calculated decisions about what is going on in the firefight, based on things that aren’t affected by the noise of battle. Those guys will look around, assess that they’re taking more casualties than they’re causing, and decide to withdraw or break off their attack. Dealing with the un- or poorly-trained? Quite another set of considerations; those guys may assume that the lower noise level from our weapons means that they’re winning, and ignore the fact that we’re delivering effective fire on them, and they should be withdrawing. Further, when dealing with rioting crowds? You want the most noise you can make, because those mobs are more likely to respond to that signal than anything else. Use of suppressors in a Mogadishu-type scenario may be positively erroneous, and you might well wind up having to kill more of the mob than you would if they were faced with the full sound and flash effect of your weapons.

        I’m not arguing against suppressors; what I’m arguing is that there is quite a bit more nuance to the whole issue than many casually suggest or think.

        1. Haxo Angmark

          agree. I have an apparently noisier-than-average M1A. Everytime I take it to the rifle range – where everyone else is shooting .22 – my first couple rounds silence the place for several seconds as all the others are looking around and wondering, “what was THAT?”

    2. Tierlieb

      Footnote: Owen of Snakehound Machine produces a “loudener” and one time claimed SF had shown interest in it.

  2. Seans

    Operation Anaconda was the turning point for suppressed weapons for the Seals. A lot of AARs came out of that about the need for suppressed weapons even for the belt feds.

    1. Brian Jaynes

      Why was that? Ident of friendly
      Vs foe situation or would better voice communications helped in that instance?
      Thanks.

      1. Seans

        Cause as Hognose stated. Suppressed weapons aren’t so much for not letting people you know that you aren’t there(they definitely can be though). Its more its hide your signature, make it harder for the enemy to engage you. Especially one that doesn’t have night vision or electronic hearing protection. Also it does greatly effect command and control. Everybody at that level has a radio, but there is no need to clog the net at the fireteam level.

  3. LSWCHP

    I’ve always thought that if ever anybody needed silencers it was those tunnel rat dudes in Vietnam…Cu-chi, I think, and other places. Just thinking about the noise makes me shudder.

    Of course, the effect of firing a .38 or .45 in such a tiny enclosed space would have been nothing compared to the constant deafening clanging noise made by their giant steel balls as they walked around.

  4. TRX

    Starting around the turn of the century, various European police departments have been asking for suppressed firearms. Their rationale isn’t increased tacticool, it’s for “health and safety” issues from shooting noise.

    So far, I gather their equivalents of OSHA are supporting them, but nobody wants to pay for the new toys.

    1. Loren

      Never catch on here. LEO’s use hearing lose from range practice as a disability to get tax free pensions.

      1. Raoul Duke

        Actually,

        There are a number of US departments either issuing or authorizing suppressors for their long guns. Quiet pest control is a recognized usage, too.

    2. Tierlieb

      The OSHA equivalent was exactly what introduced suppressors in Germany. First, professional hunters and forrest rangers got them, then most hobby hunters, too.

      Police not so much. Which is sad – integrally suppressed guns work much better and would probably be viable with a big government order. They are not that hard to build after all.

  5. S

    The .45ACP De Lisle carbine: 85dB. 9mm Parabellum Welrod pistol: 73dB. Allegedly both much quieter than any other commonly used suppressed weapon…maybe there is something else equal or better out there, but whoever has them are keeping them quiet. I also read a furphy about some Special types using modified PCP airguns for urban night plinking in Iraq, and the IDF certainly uses 10/22’s to interact meaningfully with peaceful Arab yoots and their molotovs.

  6. S. Steve

    This argument was alive and well in the ’90’s in the teams. Many of the “new guys” (myself included) saw suppressors as a force multiplier as they mostly hid the flash and bang and thus made it much more difficult to determine the location of the shooter. (I can remember the “big deal” when we received our M-4 kits with the Knights Armaments quick disconnect suppressors – before that we were using the old Vietnam era screw on units about the size and weight of a glass coke bottle!) Our platoon wanted to utilize suppressors as our SOP specifically to hide our flash and bang as well as make it much easier to communicate amongst ourselves during a firefight. We were “overruled” by the training department and a specific masterchief in particular who was a Vietnam Vet and who swore up and down that we had to have loud noise along with our violence of action.

    //

    Fast forward to GWOT and suddenly suppressors are more than “OK”, everyone realizes the benefit. (Grumble, grumble.) The point is – as stated above – suppression is about reduction in the immediate area, not perfect stealth.

  7. emdfl

    FWIW, suppressors can in fact be very quiet. I have a Savage .22 rifle with an (older) integral suppressor. When using standard velocity ammunition, the only noise heard is the click of the firing pin striking the cartridge and the rip of the paper tearing 50 feet down range. I also have a 9mm AR upper also integrally suppressed that sounds like the pop-off valve of a small air compressor when fired full auto with 147gr subsonic ammo.
    A lot of the noise from modern cans is the result of trying to make the can as small as possible. The secret to a quiet suppressor for a particular round lies in having the largest practical-sized expansion chamber within the can and a careful selection of ammunition.

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