The first viable firearm suppressors appeared just after the turn of the 20th century with a series of patents being granted on various designs between 1909 and 1920. In 1895 Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram S. Maxim – inventor of the machine gun, established his own engineering company. Initially this company focused on the burgeoning automobile market. But in 1906, Maxim began developing a series of designs to moderate sound. Initially, he experimented with valves, vents and bypass devices, however, he eventually finalised his basic idea based on baffles and developed a series of practical suppressors; which were sold through the Maxim Silent Firearms Company (later renamed the Maxim Silencer Company.) He filed his first patent on 26th June, 1908, which was granted in March the following year (US 916,885).
During the 1910s Maxim sold a successful range of silencers, as they were then largely known, on the commercial market. I have written more about these here. Today’s focus is on Maxim’s attempt to capture the military market for silencers. As early as 1907 Maxim was looking at ways to suppress the Army’s new Springfield M1903. In June 1908, he drew up a design for a rifle with a shortened barrel with a silencer added, connecting with the forend.
Silencers Pique the Army’s Interest
The US military first took interest in silencers in 1908. The 1909 annual report of the Chief of Ordnance notes that:
“The reports of tests so far received recommend that the silencer be not adopted for use in the service in its present form. On damp, cloudy days the slow escape of gas from the silencer might assist an enemy in locating the position of a firing line; it is also difficult to handle the silencer when it becomes heated, and additional manipulation is required when it becomes necessary to fix the bayonet.”
The following year the Annual Report from Chief of Ordnance describes the Model 1910 silencer, which overcame “most of the defects found in the original”, the report then describes the Model 1910’s mounting method:
“The rear of the silencer is extended to fit over the end of the barrel and takes the place of the front sight fixed stud. The silencer is prevented from turning by means of a spline on the barre, and is held from moving longitudinally by means of a pin. The front sight movable stud is mounted on the silencer.
Intriguingly, the report confirms that “five hundred of the silencers are now being procured with a view to the issue of one or more to each organisation for instruction of recruits in target practice, and for issue to the militia, on requisition.”
In 1910, Springfield Armory tested Maxim silencers fitted to both a M1903 and an older .45-70 trapdoor Springfield. Colonel S.E. Blunt, the Armory’s commanding officer, reported in January 1909 that the Maxim silencer reduced report at the muzzle and felt recoil by around a third with no loss of accuracy. The initial tests put 400 rounds through one silencer before it failed, noting that the silencer could “withstand any rapid fire to which they could be exposed in service under ordinary conditions.”
The US School of Musketry also tested the Maxim silencer. Twenty four soldiers were issued silenced M1903s for the test. The School of Musketry’s testing found that the report at the muzzle and the recoil felt by the rifleman was reduced when compared to a normal, unsuppressed, M1903. The School of Musketry’s report noted that:
“It greatly facilitated instruction of recruits in rifle firing. It materially lessened the fatigue of the soldier in prolonged firing, such as would occur in modern battle, which is a distinct military advantage.
The muffling of the sound of discharge and the great reduction in the total volume of sound which permits the voice to be heard at the firing point about the sound of a number of rifles in action, greatly facilitate the control of the firing line.”
They also reported that “the silencer annuls the flash” a quality that they felt was a “positive military advantage in view of the extent to which night operations may be employed in future wars.”
They also felt that the silencers would help “conceal positions of sentinels and to deceive the enemy as to the position of the firing line” especially at night. As the silencer was used with standard ammunition it could do nothing to reduce the crack the round made as it travelled down range, without subsonic ammunition the silencers were only able to moderate the report of the rifle firing.
Maxim did his best to develop a robust silencer that would meet the military’s needs. He incorporated a mounting point for a bayonet on the military variant of the Model 1910. The model 1910 silencer for the Springfield M1903, however, required the removal of the rifle’s front sight. This attachment method was felt to be the Model 1910’s weakest point and something Maxim himself actively looked to address.
The Maxim Silencer Company subsequently developed the Model 1912 and subsequently the further improved Model 15, which Maxim christened the ‘Government Silencer’. Encouraged by this early military interest Maxim envisioned a military silencer being useful in roles such as sniping, guard harassment and marksmanship training. He believed that the increasing number of American men joining the military from cities who lacked experience in shooting were struggling to master the .30-06 M1903 because of its loud report and stout recoil. Maxim felt that using a silencer would prevent recruits being intimidated by their rifle and help them to learn the fundamentals of marksmanship faster. This was an issue that was subsequently resolved by the use of .22 calibre training rifles.
Maxim was not the only designer working in the field and Robert A. Moore, his most competent competitor, also submitted a design for military testing. The Moore Silencer Company secured a number of patents protecting designs for both civilian and military rifles (US 956,717 & US 1,021,742). Moore’s designs used large gas expansion chambers which sat beneath the rifle’s muzzle as well as a series of vortex chambers ahead of the muzzle. The muzzle gases were supposed to be deflected by concave surfaces down into the silencer which had a number of partitioned chambers. The sides of Moore’s first silencer were ported with vents to allow cool air to rush into the casing theoretically cooling the gases, but this was abandoned by his second 1911 design (seen below).
US Ordnance tests with Moore silencers began in 1910. When the two silencers were compared the US Army found that there was little difference between the two rival designs with regards to the reduction of sound, recoil and flash. Colonel S.E. Blunt later reported:
“the opinion that there is but little difference between the Moore and Maxim silencers as regards, reduction of sound, recoil and flash; that the method of attachment of the Moore silencer to the service rifle is superior to the attachment provided with the Maxim silencer, model 15; that while the Moore silencer gives higher velocity and does not deflect shot group as much as the Maxim silencer; yet the endurance of the Moore silencer indicate that it has not yet been sufficiently perfected to withstand rapid fire and is therefore inferior to the Maxim silencer.”
The Springfield Armory’s report in July 1912, found that the Moore silencer was more accurate and had a better attachment system. The Maxim silencer, however, was more durable and could withstand more prolonged rapid fire. Moore’s silencer attached by latches behind the front sight post and at the bayonet lug and required no tools to fit. It could mount a standard M1905 bayonet while Maxim’s design required a specially adapted proprietary bayonet. While the Maxim required some minor modifications to the front sight to enable it to be mounted to the M1903. The US Army subsequently purchasing 100 Moore silencers for a full trial (this was confirmed by the 1911/12 Annual Report of the Chief of Ordnance) – these were still in inventory in 1918, but no evidence of their use in service has been found.
With field trials planned, there appears to have been discussion of equipping two rifles per company with silencers for use by sharpshooters in conjunction with two star-gauge (accurate barrelled) rifles and the M1908 or M1913 Musket Sights. This was not the large-scale contract that Maxim had hoped for believing silencers might become standard issue, however, the funding was not available and the idea behind the silencer’s use was not fully embraced by the military.
Between 1912 and 1915 Maxim improved his silencer offering the military Model 14 and Model 15. The US Army appears to have only purchased the Model 15 for testing, although secondary sources suggest the purchase and testing of some Model 1912 silencer. In his February 1913 patent (US 1,054,434), filed in April 1910, protecting his new attachment system Maxim explains how it worked:
“The improved coupling comprises a sleeve adapted to fit upon the barrel, a split grip-v sping ring to encircle the barrel and a nut or internally threaded sleeve adapted to engage the threaded portion of the coupling sleeve and at the same time to clamp the gripping ring tightly about the barrel.”
This patent appears to protect the later Model 15 or ‘Government Model’ silencer’s attachment method which required no removal of parts from the rifle. While the Model 14 could mount a standard M1905 sword bayonet with no modification to the bayonet the Model 15 did not have an attachment point for a bayonet.
In August 1915, the commanding officer of Rock Island Arsenal requested permission to transfer “20 rifles fitted with maxim silencers, 20 bayonets for same turned in from field” to Springfield Armory. This tantalising primary document fragment confirms that further testing occurred during 1915.
In terms of primary source information about testing and deployment of silencers by the Army before the First World War there isn’t a great deal available. Secondary sources, including William Brophy and David Truby, note that the US military’s first deployment of silencers came in 1916, when General John Pershing’s Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa included a squad of snipers apparently armed with silenced M1903s, however, little is known about their use in the field.
In addition to the military’s continued testing, the Maxim silencers had gained some public notoriety and President Woodrow Wilson was familiar enough with them to raise concerns about public ownership of the devices on the eve of America’s entry into the war. On the 30th March 1917, just three days before the US entered the war, President Wilson had his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, write to the Department of Justice requesting that they look into the threat German Fifth Columnists might pose if they used Maxim Silencers to attack key infrastructure. His letter stated that the sale of Maxim Silencers “should be prohibited and all outstanding weapons collected by the police.” The President was concerned that sentries guarding isolated posts such as bridges and munitions factories might become targets of opportunity for assassins with silenced weapons. His memorandum said “great damage could be done before main guard… discovered sentry’s death.” On the 3rd of April, the Department of Justice in turn wrote to the Secretary of War and asked for his comment on the issue.
Brigadier General William Crozier, Chief of US Army Ordnance, was consulted by the Adjutant General. Crozier responded on the 7th April, saying that the use of a Maxim Silencer by ‘unauthorised persons’ was not considered sufficiently important to require special action by the War Department. He continued saying it should be noted that: “a silencer reduces the intensity of the report at discharge, but does not entirely eliminate it.” Despite the War Department’s lack of concern about silencers the Maxim silencer has the distinction of being mentioned in the US declaration of war on Germany. Presidential Proclamation #1364, published on 6th April, 1917, stated:
“An alien enemy shall not have in his possession, at any time or place, any firearm, weapon or implement of war, or component part thereof, ammunition, maxim or other silence, bomb or explosive material used in the manufacture of explosives.”
I’ve been unable to find any mention of silencers being used by ‘alien enemies’. Maxim’s military silencers, however, reportedly shipped around the world with orders from Mexico, South America, China, Japan, Britain, France, Belgium, Russia and Germany. One pre-war Maxim advert boasted that the design had been approved by the German military. During the First World War both the British and Germans reportedly deployed snipers equipped with Maxim silencers in small numbers. In February 1916, the Greek government wrote to the US War Department enquiring about obtaining the Army’s test results for what they called ‘Maxime Silencers’. The Ordnance Office provided the requested report in March but it is unknown if it was forwarded on.
Did the US Army Use the Maxim Silencer During WWI?
The extent of the use of silencers by the US Army during World War One is unknown but recently uncovered Ordnance Office documents show that silencers did reach France but the desire for them was mixed.
Both William Tantum and Clark Campbell suggest that an order for 9,100 silencers was placed. This is said to have been part of a plan to deploy silencers with rifles with accurate star-gauged barrels fitted with M1913 Warner & Swasey Musket Sights for sniper use. Alex MacKenzie, Curator of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, notes that reports from the Armory show that 1,041 “U.S. Rifles, Cal. .30, Model of 1903, Fitted for Tel. Musket Sight” were assembled but with no mention of the rifles being mounted with a Model 1910 or a Model 15 silencer. He also notes that Springfield Armory produced 3,100 “Knife Bayonets, Model of 1905, for Use with Maxim Silencer” during the fiscal year of 1918. The production of these bayonets would suggest the use of the Model 1910, as the Model 15 could not fix a bayonet.
The documents recently found by researcher Andrew Stolinski, of Archival Research Group, suggest that Maxim silencers did indeed reach American Expeditionary Force (AEF) stores in France.
In June 1918, the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms at the GHQ of the AEF suggested the supplying of “Maxim silencers for use with Springfield rifles”, this suggestion, however was rejected by General Pershing himself, replying that “Maxim Silencers not desired in Europe. Recommend that they be left out of equipment tables.” It seems that the Chief Inspector of Machine Guns and Small Arms may have made the suggestion at the behest of Major T.J. Hayes, Division Ordnance Officer for the US 5th Division, who wrote to the Chief Inspector again on August 17th to make the case for silencer use saying:
“I wish to make the recommendation that 15 of these be issued to each infantry regiment, to be used by the Scout platoons of each battalion. Their use would tend to increase the efficency [sic] of these Scout platoons and allow them to perform their work with less chance of detection… I urgently recommend that they be issued and given a thorough trial. I am convinced that some sort of flash arrester [sic] or Silencer is needed for dangerous night patrolling. The Shotguns [likely Winchester Model 1897s] have given most excellent results but the silencers should be provided in addition.”
On the 27th August, Lt.Colonel H.K. Hathaway, an Ordnance officer with the supply division, circulated a memorandum stating that Maxim silencers “are no longer an article of issue” but that “there are in stock at Intermediate Ordnance Depot No 2[in Gievres], 200 of these Silencers and from 100 to 150 Springfield Rifles fitted with these silencers.” While at “Advance Ordnance Depot No 1 [in Is-Sur-Tille], there are 20 Springfield rifles so fitted.” This confirms that silencers both individually (likely Model 15s) and mounted to rifles (probably earlier Model 1910s) were sent to France for use by the AEF. It seems, however, that very few of them left the Ordnance stores.
On the 30th August, a Major Herbert O’Leary, of the Ordnance Department, wrote to the Supply Division on behalf of the AEF’s Chief Ordnance Officer, to inform that “if Maxim Silencers are fitted to rifles, it precludes the use of bayonets as an essential weapon for raid purposes. It is the opinion of this Division that Silencers should not be issued.”
On the 7th September the matter appears to have been settled by a letter from Brigadier C.B. Wheeler, the Chief Ordnance Officer, to the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms in response to his suggestion in June. Wheeler quotes General Pershing’s earlier rejection and states that “it is not considered desirable to issue them”. From these documents it appears to suggest that the silencers saw little to no use in France with the AEF, despite the enthusiasm for them among some more junior Ordnance officers like Major Hayes.
The 1918 Ordnance Storage Catalogue, Vol. V, listed the ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, M1910 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, Model 15 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, and the ‘SILENCERS, Moore, for U.S. rifles, M1903’. Although no numbers are given.
After the war the silencer’s remained in US Army inventory well into the 1920s. In March 1922, Rock Island Arsenal requested spare parts to repair some Model 1915 silencers from the Chief of Ordnance’s office only to be told that “there are no repair parts for the Maxim silencers available. It is not believed necessary to repair the Maxim Silencer as they are more or less obsolescent.”
Campbell states that after the war some of the rifles fitted with Model 1910 silencers were offered for sale through the Civilian Marksmanship programme in 1920. Archival research has found later enquiries from the head of the programme requesting silencers to mount on Krag rifles. In May 1923, the Director of Civilian Marksmanship wrote to the Rock Island Arsenal enquiring if the Model 1915 silencer would fit the M1892 Krag and if they were available for sale. Rock Island Arsenal’s commanding officer Colonel D.M. King replied advising that only a small number were available. As a result the Ordnance Office refused to sell a substantial number of the Model 1915’s for fear of depleting “the small stock” still remaining.
In his 2016 Small Arms Review article on the Maxim silencers Frank Iannamico suggests that a small number were given to National Guard units for training purposes. A 1916 Maxim sales brochure mentions that it was sold “to individual members of the National Guard” but makes no mention of larger sales. Hiram P. Maxim himself also appeared on the front cover of the February 1910 edition of the National Guard Magazine, demonstrating his device fitted to a M1903 (see photo above).
On March 23rd 1925, the rifles mounted with silencers listed as ‘Maxim Silencer & U.S. Rifles Cal .30 fitted for same’ were declared obsolete. While the First World War offered a brief boom in sales of silencers this did not last and Maxim’s company continued to diversify after the war. The Maxim Silencer Company manufactured not only firearm silencers but also sound moderating devices for everything from automobiles to naval engines; from plant machinery to building silencers which were fitted to heating and air conditioning systems. Similarly Moore, like Maxim, also later developed silencers for automobiles filling a patent for an Exhaust Muffler in 1930.
A Closer Look at the Maxim Silencer
The Model 1910 silencer is 7.3 inches (18.5cm) long which when fitted gave the M1903 an overall length of 50.5 inches (128cm). Despite the attachment of the silencer this was still around an inch shorter than the French Lebel Mle 1886.
To fit the Model 1910 silencer to the rifle a coupling piece was used. First the front sight was removed, then the coupling piece slipped onto the barrel and was secured against rotation by the barrel’s front sight spline (a rib on the top of the barrel which the front sight sat upon). A pin was then passed through the standard front sight stud hole to secure the silencer to the muzzle. The front sight, which had a dovetailed base, was then fitted to the top of the coupling piece.
The Model 1910 had 18 baffles inside a steel outer casing with a blued finish. Unlike earlier Maxim silencers that had a central channel, down which the bullet travelled, the Model 1910 had a channel off set to the top the silencer, so as not to interfere with sight picture. Maxim’s silencer has a female dovetail on its underside, into which a specially adapted proprietary M1905 bayonet with a male dovetail was fixed. This mounting system rendered about half the bayonet’s length useless as the silencer projected out above it. While not a serious issue, when compared to the Moore’s attachment method, it did hamper the bayonet somewhat.
The Model 1910 silencer was sealed an could not be easily cleaned, the Maxim Silent Firearms Co.’s literature advised running warm water through the silencer and letting it soak overnight before drying it on a hot surface to evaporate the water inside and oil it thoroughly. Not the most practical method of cleaning.
A Maxim Silent Firearms Company brochure dating from 1916 priced the Model 15 at $8.50. Seven years later, in 1923, the Ordnance Office noted that the Model 15 was valued at $5.34.
Specifications (taken from 1910 US Army Annual Report)
Weight: 11 ounces or 312g
Length: 5.9 inches or 15cm
Diameter: 1.3 inches or 3.3cm
Baffle Bore Diameter: .341 inches or 8.7mm
Special thanks to both the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing us to examine and film their rifle and to Andrew Stolinski for his archival research into the US Army’s use of the Maxim Silencer. Check out his website, Archival Research Group, here.
Presidential Proclamation #1364, 6th April, 1917, US National Archives, (source)
Various War and Ordnance Department files at The National Archives in Washington, DC (Archive 1) and The National Archives at College Park, Maryland (Archives II) courtesy of Andrew Stolinski at Archival Research Group
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1909, Vol.6 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1910, Vol.1 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1913, Vol.1 (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
Moore Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
The Springfield 1903 Rifles: The Illustrated, Documented Story of the Design, Development and Production of All the Models of Appendages and Accessories, W.S. Brophy (1987)
The ’03 Era: When Smokeless Powder Revolutionised US Riflery, C.S. Campbell (1994)
Silencers, Snipers & Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death, J.D. Truby (1972)
Firearm Silencers, N. Wilson (1983)
Hatcher’s Notebook, J.S. Hatcher (1947)
History of the Maxim Silencer Company, Small Arms Review, F. Iannamico (source)