Project envisioned widespread uses for quieter handguns
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In November 2016, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Love, the commander of the 2nd Marine Division, announced plans to see what would happen if everyone in an infantry battalion got a sound suppressor for their assigned weapon.
When someone fires a gun with one of these devices — more commonly known as a silencer — attached, there is noticeably less muzzle flash and noise. “Silencing” all the Marines in a unit could give them a decided edge over their opponents.
“What we’ve found so far is it revolutionizes the way we fight,” Love said in an interview with Military.com. “They shoot better, because they can focus more, and they get more discipline with their fire.”
What Love didn’t say — and might not have known — is that the Pentagon has been interested in this idea for a long time. Three decades earlier, the U.S. Air Force started a similar program to cook up quieter handguns for widespread use across the U.S. military.
In May 1985, U.S. Air Force began some usual tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Technicians had gotten a pair of silenced pistols to put through a series of trials.
The Air Force wasn’t — and still isn’t — particularly well known for developing new firearms. But in 1984, the Pentagon gave the flying branch the task of cooking up a new handgun silencer and special ammunition to go with it.
“In the past, silencers have been used on a very limited scale, general for special operations,” the Air Force Armament Laboratory explained in an April 1986 report. “Present plans call for significantly increased utilization.”
Sound suppressors offer a number of advantages for all sorts of troops. They reduce noise and limit potentially blinding flashes of light, especially in the dark. As a result, a silencer can help hide a shooter’s position or just make it easier for them to see and hear through the din of battle.
The quiet pistol project was just one part of a larger project to come up with a host of new, common weapons for American troops. The Joint Service Small Arms Program ultimately had people working on everything from rifles and machine guns to combat shotgun concepts right out of a Hollywood action movie.
One of the biggest things to come out of this wide-ranging program was a new 9-millimeter handgun. The U.S. Army led the competition for this new weapon, which they dubbed the XM-9.
This would be the one pistol for everyone across all the services. So, it fell to the Air Force to find a silencer to go along with it. U.S. government intelligence and law enforcement agents were interested in the idea of going to a single handgun, too.
With help from gun-makers Smith and Wesson and Beretta — both competing for the XM-9 deal — the Air Force technicians built two different prototypes. The GFU-17 fit specially made Smith and Wesson Model 459s, while the GFU-18 attached to modified Beretta Model 92s.
The 1985 tests pitted these new combinations against older guns and silencers, according to a report the Air Force published the following year. War Is Boring obtained a copy of this report via the Freedom of Information Act.
The Knight’s Armament Company and Qual-A-Tec sent two more prototypes for consideration. Knight’s had made the first Hushpuppy’s during the Vietnam War.
A shooter would screw the commercial types, like the older Hushpuppies, onto the end of a pistol’s barrel. Guns need a special threaded barrel for this arrangement to work.
However, troops would attach the Air Force’s GFUs straight onto the gun’s frame. In theory, this meant the U.S. military’s new, standard handgun wouldn’t need any special modifications to accept the silencer. In reality, engineers changed the host guns significantly.
Every suppressor, except for Qual-A-Tec’s offering, achieved the desired effect by sending the bullet through a series of “wipes.” These flexible rubber or plastic discs sealed up behind the projectile, containing the propellant gasses inside the silencer’s main body.
Unfortunately, since these barriers would deform over time, armorers would have to replace the suppressors internals regularly. Qual-A-Tec’s design had permanent baffles inside the “can” that could withstand the shock and would need less routine maintenance.
During the experiments, engineers fired different subsonic ammunition for the experiments. When a gun shoots a bullet moving slower than the speed of sound, there isn’t any “crack” as it flies out of the barrel and breaks the sound barrier.
A small batch of 100 rounds came from the Navy along with the Hushpuppies. Israel Military Industries — at the time Israel’s state-run arsenal — sent along lots of two other 9-millimeter types. The two versions differed only in the type of gunpowder inside.
At Eglin, the Air Force engineers also brought out four submachine guns — a silenced Heckler and Koch MP5, an Israeli Uzi, a Beretta Model 12S and a Canadian C-1 — just to see how well the ammunition worked in general. As another part of the Pentagon’s small arms research, commandos and military police across the services, along with other government agencies, were looking at replacing or improving their existing submachine guns.
The tests were not particularly awe inspiring. The test guns failed repeatedly with both groups of Israeli ammunition.
Shooters got off an average of just 35 shots with one of the variants before a failure of some sort, test report complained. The other type did only marginally better, with a mean of 76 rounds before a stoppage. The control ammunition, Belgian-made 9-millimeter cartridges, had a rate of one failure every 4,000 shots.
The weapons and sound suppressors weren’t the issue. The Israeli-made cartridge cases kept splitting — a potentially serious danger to the shooter — or their primers wouldn’t set off the gunpowder.
When the pistols did work, the combination of the special Beretta — which the Air Force named the GUU-7 — and the GFU-18 was the most accurate overall. A Beretta with Knight’s improved Hushpuppy was the least precise.
At a distance of 10 meters, the various pistols generated peak of sound anywhere from approximately 106 to 130 decibels, depending on the ammunition. Shooters could cut the noise even more if they used special devices to lock the pistol’s slide in place during firing, eliminating the sound of the gun cycling.
Despite the Air Force itself using term “silencer” in the reports, this was still loud. Normal, face-to-face human conversation is around 60 decibels. A nearby powered lawnmower might make a racket of around 90 decibels.
However, the suppressors did reduced the sound significantly, at least compared a normal gunshot, which can range anywhere from 140 to nearly 200 decibels depending on the type of weapon.
With the highest peak under 123 decibels,the tests found the other Air Force’s modified Smith and Wesson — the GUU-6 — and the GFU-17 was the quietest of all the test weapons with the slide locked. The old Navy Mk 22s were the most silent of any gun firing in normal, semi-automatic mode, spiking at just under 124 decibels. Every gun was around five decibels quieter with the subsonic bullets.
After the tests, the technicians offered little in the way of recommendations, except to say that they wanted better sound-measuring gear for future experiments. The utility of the trials was immediately open to debate.
In 1983, the Army chose the Beretta 92 to become the M-9. Developing a silencer for any other pistol — like the Smith and Wesson 459 — quickly became a waste of time and energy.
And despite the Pentagon buying thousands of new M-9s, American commandos weren’t necessarily thrilled with the choice. After its creation in 1987, U.S. Special Operations Command rushed to buy its very own handgun and silencer combination.
Colt submitted a derivative of its decades-old M-1911 with a suppressor similar to the Air Force’s clip-on types. Heckler and Koch and Knight’s teamed up to offer a competing gun with a traditional, screw-on design.
Heckler and Koch won the contract. Colt’s pistol, along with the Air Force’s prototypes, slipped into obscurity.
But, in the Marine Corps, at least as of 2016, the dream of wide-spread silencers lives on.