There’s No Such Thing as a Silencer

By John Gilstrap

Sometimes, I think I think too much.

Our job as authors is to create fictional worlds that resonate with our readers, and in the process tell stories that keep them turning pages. That means making sure that “the narrative spell” is never broken. If you throw in a twelve-dollar word in the middle of a paragraph, or if your subjects and verbs find themselves suddenly at odds, that spell is broken, and the reader realizes that he’s hungry and he puts the book down. I hate making it easy to put my books down. In fact, if we all do our jobs well, we bear responsibility for sleeplessness and ruptured bladders.

Okay, that last part is actually an unpleasant image.

Here’s my dilemma: Everybody who’s watched more than a dozen movies in their lives knows that a silencer can be fitted to any gun, and when it fires, it goes phut and no one in the next room can hear a thing. That’s the comfortable reality that will keep them turning pages.

But the comfortable reality is wrong. There’s not even such a thing as a “silencer.” There are suppressors, however, and they’re considerably larger than the ones that movie guys use. When you shoot one, that tiny phut is in reality a significant crack which will easily draw attention from the neighbors. It’s way better than the unsuppressed bang, but it ain’t no phut.

And that scene where the assassin makes the 700-yard shot with his “silenced” sniper rifle? Absolutely not.

Thing is, I want there to be a silencer. I want it to be on a pistol that is easily pulled from a shoulder holster, and I want to be able phut, phut my way through a shoot-out. It’s a crutch that would make my life as a writer easier, even though I know it violates the laws of physics.

Is it worth incurring the wrath of my buddy John Miller—or worse yet, the wrath of the people whose respect I gained in writing Six Minutes to Freedom—for the sake of a plot point that 98.999% of the reading public would accept as reasonable? Or is it better to shock that majority out of their spell by startling them with something new? I mean honestly, is it worth calling into question all the good done by the likes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin simply for the sake of accuracy?

Even though we write fiction, where does our obligation to research end? Is it just about what we can get away with, or is there a loftier responsibility to our readers?

Am I really just thinking too much?

12 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as a Silencer

  1. I say let the illusion live. Perhaps it spurs on invention. I mean when Jules Verne wrote 20k Leagues there was no such thing as a submarine.

    On the other hand, perhaps by making the action slightly unrealistic we keep bad guys busy looking for the non-existent technology and unable to do real dastardly deeds.

    On the other other hand, doesn’t Illya Kuryakin look a heckuva lot like Vladimir Putin? Same guy? I did once hear a tabloid story from Hungary that climed Putin was a Vampire. The Undead Soviet.

    Do silver bullets work in a silenced gun?

  2. Phuuu”crack”uuut.

    JG, you are correct. A suppressed gun with subsonic rounds makes a lot less noise, but troublesome noise leaks out of crackes and crannies and opening bolts etc… God, accuracy in writing is a bitch. I don’t go sleepless when I spot inaccuracy in reading material. If I did I’d never sleep.

  3. I’m in the process of reading a book that vexes me on the topic of realism, or at least or verisimilitude. I’m not someone who reads hoping to find some little way the author tripped up; as you said, I’m hoping to lose myself in the fictional dream.

    On the other hand, when they go out of their way to bring attention to something that just isn’t so, that’s jarring, and can spoil my attitude (and forgiveness) for the resr of the book. This book’s example is the description of how a child killer got off because his lawyer convinced the grand jury the confession had been coerced. Since defense attorneys don’t get to argue cases in front of a grand jury, this threw me. There were any number of ways for the author to properly describe this injustice; I think he was just lazy.

    To me, the secret is in how much attention you draw to it, and how plausible you make it. Someone is always going to find fault. Maybe there can be a way for the sould to be suppressed enough to serve the purpose, due to distance, or other sounds. or something. Just give reader a fighting chance to believe you.

  4. The nice thing with writing fiction is that a good writer can make even the most unrealistic and implausible thing seem like it COULD happen.

    Did you know that Illya Kuryakin is now Ducky the ME on NCIS?

  5. “Is it just about what we can get away with . . .”

    I would say yes. We’re in the entertainment business, and just like those guns on TV that never need reloading, our audience is conditioned to accept a silencer on an automatic that produces a “phut”. If they want reality, they can watch a documentary or read non-fiction.

  6. Of course the dimensions of the false detail are also a concern. In my first podcast series I went into considerable detail with the description of a Harrier taking off from the deck of the Marine’s USS Belleau Wood Amphibious Assault Ship. Harriers can take off vertically w/o a runway, or to save fuel be catapulted like a regular jet. My Harrier was being catapulted. The problem was that, after a four page detailed description of how the catapult system on board the Woodie works, a Marine who had been on the ship pointed out that the Woodie has no catapult, and no possible way to have one installed as it is a small, light-weight, fast attack ship. After him, a dozen more Marines and Sailors familiar with the ship chimed in on the same topic. Not one mentioned the “silenced” 50 caliber sniper rifle though.

    By the way, did you guys know that Illya Kuryakin’s real name is Dave McCallum, and he’s British. I think it’s just a cover though…he’s really Putin. And Hugh Laurie is the reincarnation of Caligula…that or Jim from Taxi.

  7. I think there’s a certain amount of forgiveness. I’m personally annoyed by glaring inconsistencies, like FBI agents flying will nilly in private jets, or police firing at an unarmed man in a crowded subway. But if I need to make a minor change for a story to work, I always do. So in Boneyard, though it took place in a real setting, I inserted a quarry where no quarry exists (and received no letters of complaint, at least not yet). And in my next book, I played it a little fast and loose with Phoenix geography. So I believe in trying to err on the side of accuracy, but allowing yourself some leeway in that. Most readers will understand, especially if it strengthens the tension in the storyline. As an FBI friend of mine once said, “If you actually wrote about what we did all day, the book would only be useful as a sleep aid.”

  8. And one show I can never watch: CSI. Too ludicrous for me to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that ME’s are working without hairnets and that crime scene techs are actually investigating and solving crimes. It’s just silly.

  9. I love making stuff up, but I like to write it in a way that the TV shows and movies don’t. My character doesn’t have to carry silencers (she does carry a zebra-striped TASER in MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER, a consumer weapon that is actually being marketed to women). But if I were to have her need a silencer, I might try to invent one that was a little bit different. Maybe it could make some kind of a masking noise, rather than a phut phut. Who knows? Point is not to copy TV or the movies. I think that’s what really tees off the experts. They see it done “TV wrong” all the time.

  10. Basil, I loved Illya, David McCallum, who is now Duckie on NCIS. The accent and that blond hair were all that was required for a 12 y.o. girl to fall in love.

    As for realism in books, particularly crime novels, it’s a thread that comes up on the crimescenewriters group at least once every six months. The focus of the group is fact finding from law enforcement, forensics, investigation and intelligence about how the real world works. And what we discover is often miles away from what we read or see in fiction. Time frames for test results are a biggie, sometimes waiting months if not years for DNA results. And what PIs can do legally is far from what the typical cop show PI does every week, or even the cops.

    I think it comes down to style, genre and reader desires. If I want to escape, James Bond is terrific, almost sci-fi. But if I want closer to real, I’ll pick up a Tom Clancy because I realise he researches for facts and writes in a realism style.

    Horses for courses as they say.

    PS: Love your posts, John. Am catching up on the blog through a new rss reader, so sorry this is such a late comment.

  11. A well designed silencer of a .308 rifle with supersonic ammo has a pressure of only 8 bar, that is 3 x the pressure of a car tyre. Now how much noise can you make with 8bar bleeding from a silencer?

    Furthermore, on a car, the silencer is called a silencer, despite the car producing other noises as well.

    And, the first silencers made were called “silencers” so why some try and be clever (without any experience on the use of silencers) should have the right to change the name.
    As far as accuracy goes, silencers on HV rifles usually make the rifle more accurate due to the weight of the silencer slowing down sinousodial oscillations of the muzzle. We shot 7cm grouping at 600m with silencer attached.

    see here:

    I suppose you belong to the authors who “switch the safety of on a revolver”


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