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Suppressors (colloquially and originally 'silencers') have drawbacks, and for whatever benefit they provide they typically aren't considered worth arming most soldiers with after a quick cost/benefit analysis.

However, somebody makes a breakthrough with the design.

Our new suppressor technology:

  • Is extremely dependable, durable
  • Is extremely lightweight and small
  • Is mechanically simple
  • Is extremely cheap/easy to mass produce
  • Can work with most any small arms fire
  • Has little to no effect on projectile ballistics
  • Does not account for supersonic projectiles (thus subsonic projectiles are prefered), but can still technically be used with them
  • Reduces audible sounds for most subsonic ammo roughly to 40-50 db

How much would this affect warfare both modern day, and during World War II? How much would it increase suppressor use? Would tactics change around this technology?

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NOTE: These are theories. I am not a firearms expert. I am bad at tactics. However I am good at imagining and extrapolating, and that's exactly what's happening here - guessing.

Edit: 4hrs after original post.

Tactics

The first thing I think of is that distraction grenades suddenly become a lot cheaper because you wouldn't have to make them as loud. Silly, right?

A certain thing is that tactics would change. The question is how much.

First of all, firefights would be much quieter. Every soldier now has the silence, if not the range, of a sniper now. 400-800 meter battles are common, as all the army has to do now is add a sight to the rifle to make it (more) lethal at range. Urban Street warfare probably won't change too much. Foot soldier adoption may be prevalent at first, but I think that it'll eventually become necessary for all soldiers to have one to even be effective in the battlefield.

Common rifles used by the US military are the M16A4 and the M4A1. There is a rumor around that the M4A1 could soon achieve groupings of 5" at 600m. This would allow near-silent warfare at 400m, and the only indication that someone is shooting at you comes from the sound of the bullets flying by and hitting stuff - and possible your mates dying.

I can see the creation of an entirely new kind of warfare that I do not feel confident predicting. Or maybe it becomes an extension of modern/guerilla warfare.

Another thing I can see happening is that this improvement is too radical, and if the company making it is based entirely in one country (say the US or China or (WWII)Germany) then there might be an export ban and information ban with high treason as consequence. However, I could also see that if there was an active war on, the suppressors would be looted from dead enemies for a reward and then reproduced by the enemy anyway. If there wasn't a war on, then they would trickle out through the black-market.

But wait! There's more!

Science

The ability to suppress sound like that with something so simple requires a radical shift in the understanding of how sound works and more importantly - how to model its creation, propagation, and perception.

Sound artists today live in the stone ages. They are basically at the equivalent of drawing cartoons on a sheet of paper before scanning them into a computer to touch them up. And that's rather bad when we consider that the graphics in video games are 100% computationally generated ON THE FLY.

The problem with sound is that it is light, but everything is a mirror. And humans can be as accurate at telling where something is with sound as light (while Joe Normal is not). So getting it right is kind of important. Mix that with the fact that humans hear a much greater range of sounds than they can see wavelengths, and it's a doozy to model.

This is important because for a consistent reduction in dB downrange to 50, the knowledge of how the sound exits the gun has to be perfect. And that's going to change from gun to gun. So basically what you have is a dynamic suppressor.

There are a few ways I can think of to do this off the top of my head. Nanobots (the easy way out) or a nano material that changes its reflectivity of sound waves based on x (x being something like electric potential or deformation or pressure). The second idea would probably need either sensors inside the gun or sensors on the gun - something to predict how the sound is going to cascade through the suppressor this particular time.

How the suppressor would work is it would cascade the sound waves in such a way that the waves that exit the end of the suppressor collide in near-perfect interference. That's hard because all of the different frequencies need to be matched with each other and phase-shifted by half a period. You need to take half the wave and delay it by how fast it's going times how long the wavelength is. If you do this purely geometrically (which is how silencers today work), then you don't have to worry about how fast the sound is traveling. But, like the shot of a sniper, the more precise you want to be, the more variables you need to take into account.

Advances are being made in how we generate sounds. Auto-tune is an old example of this. But that's hard because there's a lot of different materials with a lot of different properties that all make different sounds based on how they are making contact.

So the fact that this "ideal suppressor" exists means that not only are movies and interfaces going to be so much better than before, but we actually have a system for finding out how surfaces reflect/refract sound in a way that can be used to make better friction approximations. And magnetic friction approximations. And model brain activity. Model the atmospheric situation of the planet(s) better. So much cool stuff.

So yeah. If this was a thing in WWII, then my prediction would be that there would be some drastic changes to how humans live. Or if they live.

EDIT 2: Thanks to ohwilleke for pointing this out.

There is a third way to achieve an ideal suppressor - speakers. Most people would say that putting a half-pound of speaker on the front of a rifle is nonsense for an infantryman. But if the speaker was powered by piezoelectric crystals and wired with simple sensors (more piezoelectric crystals) and a waveform inverter (ridges become troughs and vice versa) then with the right geometry of speaker, excellent cancellation becomes viable. The cool thing is that the mechanical component of the suppressor already has a lot of the requirements for this kind of thing.

  • High Pressures
  • High Surface Area
  • 1-Dimensional Cancellation (we don't want people down-range to hear us)
  • Low Load Times

And the active suppressor is taking energy harvested from the passive suppressor so that the passive suppression works better. The reason this would work on broadband sound is that the cancellation is in concert with the noise, so the speaker doesn't care what frequency it is. Geometrically, what's happening is that the speaker is listening to a bunch of $sin^2$ waves all permuted and phase shifted. So all you do is take the loudest sound in a shot and make that 1. Then you subtract the loudness of the current sound, and have the speaker emit the rest.

It's actually a lot more complicated than that (which is why ideal suppressors don't exist yet), but I think that's enough to get the gist of it.

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    $\begingroup$ 400-800 meter battles are common Have you ever shot a weapon at 500 yards? A man-sized target is smaller than the front sight post at that range. Even with a nice scope a 500 yard shot is pretty impressive, especially if you are receiving return fire. No one is wasting ammo on a fire fight at that range. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 20 '16 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion I'm assuming that the rifles and scopes will allow the shooter to shoot semi-accurately and semi-automatically at that range. It only takes one bullet to take someone out of a fight. Of course, like I said, I have no experience with shooting long-range or in a fight. So if I'm that wrong, can you give me a more reasonable range? I'm assuming with the silencer, most battles will be like large-scale fast-paced sniper duels, because being invisible is easy, and being invisible is being protected. $\endgroup$ – TheZouave Oct 20 '16 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ Civilian grade anti-noise systems are already commercial, off the shelf (COTS) technologies. A military suppressor anti-noise system to supplement a conventional suppressor would need more power and precision, but could also be far less versatile than COTS systems because it can be tailored to only one specific kind of sound rather than all possible sounds. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 20 '16 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke ...? The OP asked about an ideal suppressor. I... I don't understand your comment. Can you clarify? $\endgroup$ – TheZouave Oct 20 '16 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @TheZouave There are two ways to suppress noise from a gun - one is a passive mechanical system like a silencer on a pistol. Another one would be an active anti-noise system which sends out a noise wave perfectly out of synch from the noise from the gun that remains after the passive mechanical suppressor does its work also eliminating or reducing the remaining gun noise. The technology for active anti-noise suppression technologies exist today so cheap ideal suppressors are possible. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 20 '16 at 18:33
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This is plausible near future technology.

First, I agree that technology like this is not so unthinkable. A lot can be achieved with improvements on traditional suppressor designs using cheap materials (and if you are really pressed for cash, two liter soda bottles with some water in them are big and bulky but significantly reduce noise levels), and this can be supplemented with an anti-noise system.

Anti-noise projects sound waves perfectly out of synch with the sound waves you want to cancel. It does so using technology you'd find in any karaoke system but more specialized. This once would have been expensive, but as electronic parts get cheaper and cheaper, the price could come way down and the anti-noise system only has to improve the mechanical suppressor, not do the entire job on its own.

This would help low budget, ill trained snipers ambushing soldiers from more sophisticated armies.

The biggest beneficiaries of benefits from suppressors would be insurgents in asymmetric conflicts like Afghanistan today. In those conflicts, surprise ambushes by snipers are a key tool of the insurgent. But, affluent and technologically advanced countries have responded by developing systems that automatically identify and locate the source of any military weapon being fired and can be set to either notify troops on the ground in the vicinity or to automatically return fire if the weapon is a type that couldn't come from a friendly.

This tool, together with superior training and sights that allow soldiers from affluent countries to have superior accuracy at long ranges to ill trained insurgents, has made being a sniper for the insurgents in such conflicts a very dangerous job.

But, an improved and inexpensive suppressor technology would make sniper ambushes in these conflicts, by insurgents against soldiers from well equipped and trained affluent countries, far more effective and far more survivable for the sniper.

Other aspects of warfare might not change all that much. The sound of the bullet hitting targets is more than sufficient to let soldiers being attacked know that a gunfight is in progress even if it isn't that helpful in identifying where the shots came from. In an non-stealthy day battle that is not an ambush, however, you already know where the shots are going to be coming from, so a suppressor adds weight without providing much of an advantage. So, this technology might not have particularly wide benefit in contexts other than the ambush-sniper one.

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Suppressor technology is actually moving in the direction you are speaking of, and is becoming more and more common. The primary issue with suppressors right now is current designs tend to make the rifle muzzle heavy, and current weapons actually are already getting quite unbalanced with all the hardware being attached to the fore end, like flashlights, laser sights and so on. Sticking a "can" on the end of your rifle might be the last straw.

enter image description here

Supressed M-4

Surpassed weapons have two advantages: it is much more difficult to pick up the source of incoming fire, and the shooter suffers less distraction when firing, especially in enclosed spaces such as inside a building during urban ops. Suppressors also reduce or eliminate muzzle flash as well.

Ideally, the weapon should be designed from the ground up to be suppressed, much like the WWII era De Lisle carbine. In this weapon, the barrel is drilled with holes along the length and the gasses are allowed to expand into a suppressor shroud surrounding the barrel. As you can imagine, this causes a serious drop in performance, and the De Lisle carbine is utilized by special forces as a silent sentry removal tool.

enter image description here

De Lisle carabine

So the real answer is an "ideal" suppressed weapon is good for CQB situations, provide additional problems for people trying to identify your fire position, but comes at a cost in weapon performance, either in additional size/weight or overall degradation in performance.

Edit as suggested by kingledion:

The short answer is it doesn't really change much. Suppressors have been getting more and more use since the 1990's, and we haven't really observed any sorts of fundamental changes like rifled firearms and artillery forcing infantry to change from closed order tactics to open order tactics.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a nice overview on suppressor technology (I can't vouch for its accuracy, though), but I don't see how it really answers the question on how tactics would change if it was more widely used or how it would more generally affect warfare. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 20 '16 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ The short answer is it doesn't really change much. Suppressors have been getting more and more use since the 1990's, and we haven't really observed any sorts of fundamental changes like rifled firearms and artillery forcing infantry to change from closed order tactics to open order tactics. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 20 '16 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides That comment should be your answer. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 20 '16 at 20:35
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Your premises are obsolete.

Modern silencers are already mechanically simple, durable, lightweight, and have no adverse effect on projectile ballistics. Just ask the 2nd Marines, who recently deployed with suppressors on every individual service weapon:

They've used suppressed M4s and M27 infantry automatic rifles in Arctic cold-weather training environments and most recently at a joint live-fire attack event in Romania. During that event, three platoons from Bravo Company operated alongside one from the battalion's Weapons Company that didn't have suppressed rifles. The difference was marked, said Capt. Mark Edgar, commanding officer of Bravo Company.

"It took us back to remembering what it was like not to be suppressed, when you see people trying to communicate," Edgar said. "For guys in charge of other Marines, being able to talk is a big way that we fight. The suppressed weapons have helped that a lot."

For Staff Sgt. Troy Hauck, a platoon sergeant with Bravo Company's Weapons Platoon, not having to worry about ear protection when firing his rifle is a nice bonus. But a potentially bigger boon is the element of surprise that comes with a suppressed weapon.

"Just doing some of the training attacks that we've done on this deployment has been good," he said. "I'm on one side of the hill and [part of the company is] on the other side of the hill, and I can't hear them firing their weapons. It's pretty nice, real stealthy."

There are a few practical hassles that come with using the Marine Corps-issued SureFire suppressors.

They get very hot when used, and can burn skin and clothing if not handled with care. They must be cleaned properly in order to stay effective. They add a pound or so of weight to the rifle, and the current model occasionally comes loose from the rifle muzzle, said Staff Sgt. Nelson Acevedo, platoon sergeant for Bravo's 3rd Platoon.

Nonetheless, he said, the advantages of using the suppressors are clear. While the individual suppressors might add weight to the rifles, their use allows team leaders to stop carrying radios and extra radio batteries, making them ultimately lighter.

"Normally, going into a deliberate attack or something like that, we would want to have it be feasible and optimal to have team leaders equipped with radios, just because normally from the firing, it's going to negate the ability to laterally communicate by your mouth," he said. "With the suppressors now, there's no need for that, because they can communicate."

Acevedo also said he has noticed that getting rid of the radios has allowed the Marines to focus on the action in front of them, helping them to avoid "tunnel vision."

Note that this is with supersonic loads. Subsonic loads are a niche that probably won't be relevant to a conventional battlefield, because the effective range on subsonics will always be limited to a few hundred yards.

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