Around 1902, mechanical engineer and inventor Hiram Percy Maxim confronted a difficult problem: How could you make firing a rifle a quiet act? For those who like to hunt, the retort of the bullet leaving the muzzle is not only hard on the eardrums, but it startles the game. And for soldiers, firing a bullet instantly reveals one's position to anyone nearby with ears.
To understand how Maxim solved it, we must first understand what creates the sound. As a bullet casing is struck by the firearm's hammer and fires from the barrel, there are two sources of noise: The combustion of the gunpowder, and the subsequent sonic boom of the bullet (events that are sequential but occur so fast that they sound simultaneous to us). Maxim figured out he could silence both by creating a sleeve through which the bullet must travel. Inside the sleeve are chambers that trap both the trail of gas spewing out from behind the bullet and the soundwaves from the sonic boom.
Maxim's silencer, also called a suppressor, worked, and one fringe benefit of the gas-trapping chambers was that they also contained the muzzle flash. Again, for reasons of not revealing one's position, it's a militarily-useful feature.
Destin Sandlin, the man behind the SmarterEveryDay YouTube channel, found a very cool way to illustrate how suppressors/silencers work. Sandlin linked up with engineer Steve Dean, the former owner of a CNC machining company whose new venture, Soteria, improves the design of silencers.
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Dean created a variety of his designs that he sleeved with sacrificial and transparent acrylic plastic, so that you can see, using high-speed video recording, what's happening inside the suppressor as the bullet travels through it: