They must be poachers! They must be criminals! That’s what the general public think when they see a perfectly legitimate hunter posing with a silenced rifle. Typically, only bad people use silencers in the movies, and the impression is strengthened by photos published in the public domain of rhino poachers with silencers on their rifles. But is it really that bad? Do silencers have a place in the hunting field? Peter Ruddle answers the most common questions about hunting with a sound moderated rifle.
What is a “silencer”?
To begin with, the word “silencer”, even though used by the majority of the public, is incorrect. Professional hunters generally refer to this piece of equipment as a suppressor. Without getting too technical, the difference is that suppressor, or sound moderator, does not silence the rifle completely, and only reduces the intensity of sound. Firearms with a discharge that is almost inaudible a few steps away do exist, but they are available only to the military, use special ammunition, and are totally unsuitable for hunting. As far as regular big-game rifles go, nothing can completely silence them; even a bullet breaking the sound barrier makes a noise.
Is it legal to use to use a suppressor?
In some countries suppressors are illegal but surprise, surprise – they are legal in 40 out of 50 states in the USA for hunting, even though a U.S. citizen must pay a special tax for the purchase of a suppressor. Suppressors are also legal for hunting in South Africa, where they may be bought off the shelf without any additional taxes or licenses. And in Great Britain, the Metropolitan Police actually encourages hunters to use sound moderators, and British gunmakers offer custom rifles that are designed with a suppressor in mind.
Why use a suppressor?
I think suppressors should be legalised everywhere, for the three following reasons:
- It is a health issue, and in the case of Professional Hunters it is an occupational health and safety issue. Suppressors reduce the damage to human hearing caused by conventional gun shots when hearing protection is not used. The majority of hunters to this day use hearing protection on the range but it is usually impractical in the field. Suppressors will save a lot of money in medical expenses.
- Using suppressors will reduce conflict between hunters and non-hunters and neighbours who are disturbed every time they hear a rifle shot. This is, in fact, the reason why the police in the UK encourage the use of suppressors; they are tired of getting false alarms every time someone goes hunting.
- Last, but in my opinion the most important reason, is that suppressed rifles minimise the stress on the wildlife populations. Every hunter is aware of how animals react to a gunshot. In most cases where a herd animal is shot, the rest will bolt for the hills. This might disturb their normal feeding and predator avoidance patterns. Although disturbance from hunting, with or without suppressors, is minimal in comparison to what the animals experience in safari parks and photo safari outfits, if we can further reduce it, we should.
How does hunting with a suppressed rifle differ from hunting with a regular rifle?
Many landowners in South Africa will not let you hunt on their property unless you are using a suppressor. Being a closed (fenced) system many of these properties need to be more delicately managed compared to the wide open spaces of a concession. Even on these concession certain species will move away from an area where disturbed by regular gun fire or become turbo charged at any sign or sound of human activity.
My modus operandi when hunting with a conventional rifle was always to take my shot and wait for a good few minutes in my camouflaged hunting position after my shot. Once things had returned to normal, only then would I reveal myself and walk towards the dead animal. The approach behind this concept was also to minimise the human fear factor of the game still within sight in an effort to lessen the association between humans and danger on the rest of the animals.
Does a suppressor give a hunter an unfair advantage?
Unlike in the movies, using a suppressor does not mean you will be able to shoot all the animals in the herd. The animals still take fright and instantly become more alert but nothing like the evasive behavioural instincts that kick in after a conventional gun shot. This can be likened to your reaction to distant thunder and your reaction to a nearby lightning strike with the simultaneous thunder bang. Using a suppressor won’t give you more or better harvest opportunities. It is only easier on the nerves of the animals, including those you don’t hunt.
Hunt, not harass
We have the technology, so why not use it? Yes, a suppressor is a bit clumsy and throws the balance of your rifle off but its use significantly reduces the reaction of the other animals in the area to take flight and overall makes for a better hunting experience. Clients travel a long way and spend a lot of money to go hunting. Nobody expects an easy hunt but arriving at a hunting destination where the game is exceptionally wild will most likely require a judgment call on your ethics for a successful hunt. Badly managed hunting practises will just exacerbate the situation and leave the outfitter to deal with an unhappy and disappointed client.