How to Buy a Suppressor: What You Need to Know

How to Buy a Suppressor: What You Need to Know

Firearm suppressors have become much more common over the past few years in the general shooting community. Lately, more hunters are using suppressors to help prevent hearing damage and avoid disturbing wildlife and hikers. More recreational shooters are going through the process of getting approved for purchasing a suppressor to make things more pleasant at the range, or to be considerate of their neighbors who may not appreciate the loud sounds of gunshots. And more long-range rifle shooters or tactical rifle users are buying suppressors both to quieten the potentially harmful blast of powerful rifles and to reduce recoil for more effective impact spotting and follow-up shots.

Man holding handgun with suppressor attached

There was a time when a suppressor was a fairly uncommon item to see at the shooting range or at deer camp, but those times are changing for the better. There are still some hoops you need to jump through in order to buy (or make) a suppressor in the USA, though, and we’re going to go over all of the steps and options in this guide.

By the way, these days suppressor is usually considered the preferred term, but silencer is also technically correct. Hiram Percy Maxim was considered the inventor of the first commercially successful firearm suppressor, and his invention was called the Maxim Silencer. Most people today prefer the term suppressor because silencer creates an unrealistic expectation of performance, such as the muted pew pew sounds depicted in movies. Anyone who has used these firearm accessories knows they don’t really make the gun truly silent. However, they can be very effective at reducing or suppressing the loud crack of a gunshot, particularly when using subsonic ammunition that doesn’t break the sound barrier. Quality suppressors can greatly reduce potential hearing damage when used properly and are particularly welcome on high-powered rifles which otherwise can be unbearable even when you’re wearing good hearing protection.

Video: Silencer vs Suppressor - What's the Difference?

Please note: We are not attorneys nor NFA Class III dealers. This article is for informational purposes only. We have made a reasonable attempt to provide accurate information as of the time of this writing, but neither the author nor Liberty Safe assumes any liability for the use or misuse of this information.

Understanding Gun Suppressor Laws

Before the National Firearms Act of 1934, any law-abiding US citizen could buy any type of firearm or silencer he/she wished, without restriction or registration. Due to public concerns about the organized crime gangs that gained notoriety in the 1920s-30s, Congress passed the NFA. (Interesting bit of trivia: the original drafts of the NFA would have banned all handguns outright!) This law has been tweaked and clarified a bit over the past 90 years, but essentially it’s the same as it was when Al Capone was locked up in Alcatraz.

Federal Regulations

The original National Firearms Act imposed a tax on the making and transfer of firearms defined by the Act, as well as a special (occupational) tax on persons and entities engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing, and dealing in NFA firearms. The law also required the registration of all NFA firearms with the Secretary of the Treasury. To date, this is the only federal firearms registration system, and it applies only to specific types of firearms and other items specified in the NFA. Firearms subject to the 1934 Act include:

  • Shotguns and rifles having barrels less than a specified length (18” for shotguns, 16” for rifles); Today, these firearms are known as SBRs (short-barreled rifles) or SBSs (short-barreled shotguns)
  • Machine guns (including all types of fully automatic or burst-capable firearms)
  • Certain firearms described as Any Other Weapons
  • Destructive devices (like rockets, grenades, mines, artillery pieces)
  • Firearm mufflers and silencers (suppressors)

It’s clear that while Congress enacted the NFA as an exercise of its authority to tax citizens via the Bureau of the Treasury, the NFA had an obvious underlying purpose, which was to curtail and ostensibly prohibit transactions relating to NFA firearms and items. At the time, Congress justified the NFA because it felt that NFA firearms posed a significant crime-related threat to society because of their highly publicized use in famous gangland shootings of the time, like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

As such, the specified $200 tax stamp required for the construction or transfer (sale) of most NFA firearms was quite severe and was deemed adequate to carry out Congress’ purpose to discourage or eliminate sales of these items. To put it in perspective, $200 in 1934 is the equivalent of over $4,600 in today’s Monopoly money. Remember, this $200 tax was applied to each qualifying item, and every time the item is transferred, that tax must be paid again by the new transferee. Luckily, the $200 tax has not changed since 1934. Adding a $200 tax stamp on top of the cost of a $400 suppressor or a $1,000 AR-15 today is annoying, but today, it’s not quite the deal-killer it once was intended to be.

Another aspect of owning NFA firearms, apart from the federal taxation, approval, and registration process (more on that below), is that you need to complete a Federal form before transporting those firearms across state lines. However, this doesn’t apply to suppressors. The ATF (the common abbreviation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) requests that you notify them of any change of address within your state or when moving (with suppressors) to another legal state, but it’s not required by law. Again, if you move (or travel) across state lines with an NFA firearm, you need to complete ATF form 5320.20 notifying the ATF and receive ATF approval BEFORE you travel or move. This is one of the many nonsensical and annoying things about the NFA, but this is what we have to deal with until the laws are repealed (which is unlikely).

State Laws (where are suppressors not legal to own?)

Generally, states where standard firearms are legal to own are suppressor-friendly as well. However, there are eight states where possession of a suppressor by a normal law-abiding citizen is prohibited:

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island

If you live in one of these states (or in the District of Columbia), you’re out of luck. As far as whether your state allows suppressors to be used for hunting, most do, but you should definitely be aware of your local game laws and read up to make sure. As far as we can determine if ownership of suppressors is legal in your state, then it’s also legal to use them for hunting, with the exception of Connecticut, which specifically bans the use of suppressors for hunting. In some other states, suppressors are legal for hunting certain types of game but not others, so again, check with your local division of wildlife resources or equivalent.

Suppressor on an AR-15

Registration and Taxation

As we pointed out above, on a Federal level, NFA items are the only firearms and related items that are required by law to be entered into a national registry in the United States. While even countries as anti-gun as Great Britain will gladly allow the use of firearm suppressors (since they have obvious benefits to the shooter and reduce noise pollution in surrounding areas), in the USA, suppressors still have a bit of a stigma, which isn’t helped by their frequent depiction in Hollywood movies in unrealistic assassin roles.

As far as machine guns are concerned, the registry was closed as part of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, which means no more full-auto weapons may be added to the registry, and normal US citizens are unable to legally purchase any full-auto weapons made after the cutoff date in 1986 unless they obtain a Special Occupational Tax license to manufacture or sell this type of firearm (become a licensed Class III NFA weapons dealer or maker).

However, new SBSs, SBRs, AOWs, and suppressors can still be manufactured, purchased, transferred, and registered in 42 states as long as you are a non-prohibited person (not a felon) and follow the proper procedures, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

The tax stamp (and it is an actual stamp, which is pretty cool) for the transfer of NFA items is $200 per item, except a firearm classified in the NFA as any other weapon which is $5. Note that the $5 AOW tax is only for the transfer of an existing AOW to you via an ATF Form 4 (5320.4). If you want to create a new AOW (or a suppressor, SBR, SBS, or other NFA item), the tax stamp is $200, and you will use ATF Form 1 (5320.1).

Selecting the Right Suppressor

Today, more people are becoming interested in building their own suppressors, but the vast majority prefer purchasing a suppressor. There are multiple factors to consider, and this topic could be the subject of an entire series of articles. However, the key points that will influence your decision follow.

Firearm compatibility and suppressor versatility

Suppressors can be manufactured exclusively for use on low-powered rimfire guns like .22LR rifles and pistols. They can also be optimized for use on a handgun or pistol-caliber carbine (a rifle that shoots a common handgun cartridge rather than a rifle cartridge). Alternatively, suppressors can be constructed with the intent of using them exclusively on high-powered rifles or shotguns. The next level of suppressor hierarchy is a suppressor intended for use on full-auto rifles and/or extremely powerful rifles such as the .338 Lapua Magnum or .50 BMG.

Many suppressor manufacturers today are designing suppressors that can be used on multiple types and calibers of firearms to increase versatility and reduce consumer cost. For example, SilencerCo’s Hybrid 46 is a multi-platform, multi-caliber-rated suppressor designed for use with pistol calibers from 9mm to .45 Auto, rifle calibers from 5.56mm to .45-70 GOV, and many calibers in between—including .458 SOCOM.

Other makers, such as Yankee Hill Machine, offer .30 caliber, full-auto-rated rifle suppressors that can be used on everything from a .17 HMR up through .300 Remington Ultra Mag.

If you want the absolute most bang for your buck (pun intended), a multi-caliber-capable suppressor is a good way to go. You only have to go through the approval process and pay the $200 tax once, and you end up with a suppressor that is capable of good performance on multiple firearms.

However, in a design like this, there are always certain tradeoffs. A suppressor that has to be built strong enough for full-auto .30-caliber use will necessarily be far heavier and more durable (and more expensive) than it strictly has to be if you plan to use it primarily on your .22 pistol or rifle. Additionally, a 5.56 round fired through a .30, 9mm, or .45-caliber suppressor will usually be louder than a 5.56 round fired through a dedicated 5.56 suppressor because gasses and noise can escape around the bullet and out through the larger-diameter holes through the baffles and end cap of the suppressor.

Shotgun suppressors are a fairly recent trend and are a whole other kettle of fish. If you want one, plan on using it exclusively for your shotgun.

So, you need to weigh your primary purpose for your suppressor. If you want the absolutely lightest and quietest .22LR suppressor, it will not be rated for anything above that caliber. If you want one suppressor that can do almost everything, it likely won’t be the absolute best at anything (other than versatility). You pays yer nickel, and you makes yer choice, as our grandpappy used to say.

Suppression performance

There are multiple ways people test the effectiveness of suppressors, and each method has its pros and cons. The one that makes the most sense to us is measuring the dB (decibel) level at the shooter’s ear, since that’s a more accurate representation of what you’ll actually be experiencing when you shoot your suppressed firearm. Each suppressor manufacturer will have its preferred testing method and will usually claim the best performance on the market. You need to take that with a grain of salt and consider reading or watching impartial suppressor reviews from a source you trust to clue you in on the features and benefits of any suppressor you are considering. A good suppressor dealer will also be able to inform you of all the pros and cons of each design they sell.

Size and weight

Speaking generally, the larger and longer the suppressor, the better the overall dB reduction will be (but this is not always the case). So, do your research. You don’t want to hang a 2-pound suppressor on the end of your tiny .22 pistol. It might look cool, but it would be pretty impractical and could actually cause malfunctions. Similarly, if you’re planning on doing a lot of high-volume, high-speed rifle shooting, a super-compact, and super-light can (a gun-people nickname for a suppressor) is probably going to wear out faster than a more solidly built one.

If you’re planning on using your suppressor on a hunting rifle where you’ll be hiking all over the mountains with your rig, going with a lighter suppressor can make a huge difference.

Cost

This factor can’t be overlooked, especially since you have to add in the mandatory $200 tax stamp for each suppressor you buy. As when purchasing a good gun safe, we generally recommend purchasing the highest-quality suppressor you can afford since you’re going through the extra trouble, expense, and paperwork required by US law to own one. However, the difference between a $300 suppressor and a $1,500 suppressor can be a huge factor in many people’s decision to own one at all. If you can’t afford a super-nice one, then get the one you can afford. Once you understand how much fun they are, you’ll probably find room in your budget for more in the future.

Suppressor purchasing process

There have been some changes and streamlining to the process of purchasing suppressors and other NFA items over the past 10-15 years or so. The most important (and beneficial) change has been the implementation and revamping of the ATF’s eForms electronic submission system. This allows you to submit your paperwork, fingerprints, payment, and photograph electronically and has sped up the approval process compared to the legacy hard-copy, mail-it-in method (which you can still choose to do if you wish).

Another innovation has been the NFA Kiosk system developed by Silencer Shop. This is a nationwide network of in-dealer kiosks where you can submit fingerprints, take necessary photos, and electronically submit the required NFA paperwork.

Find a licensed NFA (Class III) dealer

It’s important to distinguish between standard FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee) gun dealers and shops and Class III NFA dealers. A standard gun shop that sells mostly hunting rifles and shotguns may not possess the proper Federal licenses to sell suppressors or other NFA items. So, ask around your favorite shop or call a few dealers in your area. Usually, there are one or two that stand out and are well-regarded locally for NFA transactions.

Most Class III dealers will be happy to handle the transfer/transaction for you (for a reasonable fee) even if you’re not purchasing a suppressor from their inventory. But you might get a better deal if you buy from a trusted NFA dealer that has the item you are looking for in stock.

Decide between a firearm Trust, Corporation, or Individual application

One main option you need to decide on is whether you want to be individually named as the registered owner of your suppressor or whether you want it to be purchased legally under a Firearms Trust or a Corporation. There are advantages to each.

An Individual application is a little easier since you don’t have to get any lawyers involved in the creation of a Trust. It can also be less expensive (if you need to pay a lawyer or legal service firm to create your trust for you). The disadvantage of Individual approval is that you (and only you) are the person specifically named and approved to possess the item. You can’t loan the suppressor to a family member, for example, if you are not physically present with the item at all times. It can also be a little more complicated to name inheritors of your NFA items and settle your estate if you use Individual applications.

An NFA firearms trust is a legal entity that is allowed to own and possess your NFA items, and all members you name as Trustees (in the case you elect to name other Trustees) have the same legal right to possess and transport the item/s. This is very convenient for families or even groups of close friends who want to be able to share in the enjoyment of suppressors and NFA items. Obviously, you need to be very sure of the integrity of each member you name to the trust, but good legal teams will help you choose a trust that can be modified after the fact with the proper notification (in case you want to add or remove someone from the trust). This also eases the transfer of your NFA items after you’re gone. There are even dealers who offer free gun trust paperwork and processing if you purchase your suppressor from them.

A Corporate application is what it sounds like, where the suppressor or NFA item will be owned by your corporation and any Officers named by the Corporation. Due to the potential for additional legal/tax hassles, we usually don’t recommend this course of action, but it might be appropriate for you in your situation. Consult your attorney.

Submit the required documentation (including notification of your chief law enforcement officer)

During the NFA approval process, the ATF will require a robust FBI background check for each person (including every member named on your NFA Trust) every time you purchase a restricted item. You will need to submit FD 258 fingerprint cards (usually obtained at your local police department) or the electronic equivalent via a Kiosk. You will need to submit at least two passport-type photos (again, electronic submission will allow digital images to be submitted via the associated App or Kiosk).

The ATF is notoriously strict about filling out forms correctly, and they have no problem denying and returning applications due to errors. Be sure to double-check all information and only submit your application (whether by mail or via eForms/Kiosk) once it’s 100% correct.

Prior to 2016, people purchasing NFA items were also required to get the signature/approval of their local chief law enforcement officer (CLEO, often the Sheriff) for each and every NFA item they wished to purchase. Some CLEOs had mixed feelings about citizens owning such items, and it could sometimes be a little iffy. However, in 2016, the process and forms were updated, and ATF Rule 41F removed the CLEO sign-off requirement. So now, all that’s needed is for you to notify your CLEO. If you’re unclear about this requirement, Silencer Central has a good explanation.

Pay for your suppressor

One thing that potentially makes people a little uncomfortable when buying suppressors and other NFA items is you’ll need to pay for the item and then wait (several weeks up to several months) while the ATF reviews and approves your application. Don’t be worried that your dealer will lose your suppressor or forget about you. The ATF takes this stuff seriously, and so do NFA dealers. If you’re buying a suppressor from the dealer who is handling your paperwork, you can just point to the one you want, pay for it, and they’ll put it in their safe with your info attached while you wait for approval.

If you are ordering or buying a suppressor from a different dealer but your local shop is helping with the transaction, you’ll pay the dealer selling the suppressor you want, and they’ll ship it to your local shop, where it will be logged and wait in a secure location until you are approved to take possession.

Pay $200 transfer tax

Whether you mail in a paper application (along with a $200 check to the United States Treasury) or submit means of electronic payment with your eForms/electronic application, you’ll need to have it in order upfront before they approve your application and before you take possession of your suppressor. They won’t deposit your check or process payment until your form is approved.

If you want to build your own suppressor, you similarly submit your Form 1 along with your payment and wait until you receive notification of approval before you begin construction of your NFA item. Don’t mess around with this stuff… the ATF has no sense of humor.

Wait for approval

This is the hard part of buying NFA items like suppressors… the wait. This has historically been up to 300+ days, but like most things involving the government, times can vary. There are credible anecdotal reports of NFA wait times in excess of 670 days (though that is rare). Silencer Shop maintains a handy current eForms wait time chart and updates it every week. As of the time of publication of this article, their estimated times are

  • eForm 4 - TRUST: 1 - 162 days, median wait time of 130 days
  • eForm 4 - INDIVIDUAL: 1 - 154 days with a median wait time of 4 days
  • eForm 4 - CORPORATE: 131 days, median of 131 days (we’re guessing only one corporation has completed an eForms process via Silencer Shop recently)

Take possession of your suppressor

If you’ve done the submission process exactly right, the ATF will send a notification of your approval to your dealer, along with copies of your approval form and the Federal tax stamp. Your dealer will notify you that everything is good to do, and you can pick up your suppressor (or have it sent to you if you have purchased it through one of the online dealers specializing in the process mentioned above).

You should always keep a copy of your approval form with you whenever you are in possession of your NFA item. Don’t take the originals, but make good copies and store them with the suppressor in case anyone has questions about whether you’re legally allowed to possess them.

Store the originals, along with your new suppressor, somewhere secure and safe from fire and humidity damage, like a quality gun safe from Liberty.


*Made in the U.S.A. from U.S. and Global Parts.


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