The bull screamed at what I thought was 300 yards below our location. We had just crossed through a small saddle in the ridge and were standing atop a slight draw in the mountainside that we knew held the herd. I could see cows here, there, and seemingly everywhere — but I couldn't get a visual of the bull that was commanding this herd.
I dropped my binos after glassing in the direction I last heard him and caught a glimpse of antler tops side-hilling below me. I dropped to a knee, steadied my rifle on my shooting sticks, found the mature six-point bull in my scope, and slowly squeezed the trigger while holding the center of my reticle just behind his shoulder.
The bull went down a few moments later. Some of the cows in the area lifted their heads from feeding, but soon went back to grazing on the plant life that was now green in this once-scorched burn.
It was the first time I had shot an animal with a suppressed rifle, and also the first time that I was able to observe the reaction of other animals that were in the vicinity of the suppressed blast.
After that hunt, on several other hunts since then, as well as hundreds of suppressed rounds fired in practice, here is what I have learned about using a suppressor for hunting.
In addition to this article, check out this podcast if you want to learn more about the process of selecting and purchasing a suppressor for hunting...
Alright, buckle up. This may be a long read, but purchasing a suppressor for hunting is something you should research and understand thoroughly before you make a purchase. Hopefully, some of what I have learned through my experience can help you...
Repeatability is Everything
For the hunter, it is of critical importance to have a suppressor that can maintain absolute accuracy and precise repeatability when it is installed on your rifle, then removed, then reinstalled, and then removed, and, well, you get the idea.
The reasons for removing and reinstalling a suppressor are numerous. I use the same suppressor on multiple rifles, so sometimes I am removing the suppressor to install it on another rifle. Sometimes I am removing and re-installing my suppressor so that my rifle can fit in a case while traveling (including flying) for hunts.
You don't want to go through all of the hard work to dial-in your perfect hunting load and zero your scope, then have to remove your suppressor, reinstall it later, and then discover that your point-of-impact has shifted.
My Thunderbeast Ultra suppressor with the CB Brake mount has been 100% repeatable with unbelievable precision. I can move the suppressor from one rifle to the next and have the same point of impact each time I shoot with the suppressor installed. I can, and have, removed the suppressor from my rifle, flown across the country, reinstalled the suppressor and maintained a perfect zero. Just for testing's sake, I have removed the suppressor between each shot at long-distance targets and maintained groups well below MOA.
Keep in mind when I am talking about repeatability, I am not saying that your rifle will (or needs to) shoot the same with the suppressor on and with the suppressor off. It is normal to have a point-of-impact shift when shooting the same rifle and ammunition with a suppressor and without a suppressor. The question becomes, is the point-of-impact shift repeatable? If, for example, I shoot 1" high and right with a suppressor on, compared to my point-of-impact without the suppressor, I can zero my rifle with the suppressor on so that my point-of-impact is equal to my point-of-aim. As long as the precision and repeatability of my suppressor are constant, my zero is dead-on every time I shoot with my suppressor, even if I have taken the suppressor off between shots.
Before I started shooting with and hunting with a suppressor, I had no idea how important this level of repeatability was. Now, from my experience, I'd rate it as one of the most critical aspects of suppressor selection.
Suppressors aren't "silencers" as Hollywood would have you believe. A suppressed rifle will still make plenty of noise. But with the massive "CRACK!" eliminated from a suppressed rifle, the reaction of animals to the sound of suppressed and non-suppressed rifles that I have witnessed has been radically different.
I am used to shooting and watching animals run for their lives, not go back to feeding. But on numerous occasions of making or witnessing suppressed shots in the field, I have seen the animals that weren't impacted by the shot either stand still in confusion or simply pause and then go back to whatever it is they were doing before the shot.
The real value to the animal's reaction to suppressed gunfire is that it greatly increases the opportunity for follow-up shots. Whether you miss and need to send another round, or you are in a situation where two hunters are each trying to fill a tag, the opportunity created by shooting suppressed is something of real value to the hunter.
Barrels & Balance
Adding a suppressor to the end of your rifle will change the overall length of the rifle, as well as the point at which your rifle balances. This is a factor that should be considered with selecting both a suppressor as well as selecting or upgrading a rifle that will be used with a suppressor.
Suppressors are commonly between 5-9" in length, and can vary in weight quite a bit as well. The larger and heavier suppressors often have features and capabilities that a hunter doesn't need — including a "full auto rating" and added locking retention systems. Depending on your needs and preference, I would look for a hunting suppressor in the 5-9" length range that weighs 7-12oz. My Thunderbeast Ultra is a 7" suppressor that weighs around 8oz.
When it comes to the barrel length of the rifle, shorter is better. I hunted with my 7" suppressor on the end of my 24" Tikka barrel, which makes for a pretty long overall package. This setup isn't too bad in open country, but it certainly isn't a rifle that I'd like to pack around in very thick or brushy country. My 6.5 Creedmoor features a 20" barrel, and my 7 SAUM (the gray and orange rifle seen in some photos) has a 22" barrel. Those differences in inches can make a world of difference, depending on where you're hunting.
Another quick note while we're talking about barrels and suppressors. Carbon fiber barrels have become quite popular on hunting rifles due to their lighter weight (for an equivalent length and profile of steel barrel). Additionally, carbon fiber barrels do have a big benefit for suppressed rifles due to their rigidity and larger overall diameter so support adequate threading for the suppressor or suppressor mounting device. If you're looking to build or upgrade a relatively lightweight hunting rifle to be used with a suppressor, I would strongly suggest a carbon fiber barrel.
More Speed, Less Recoil
I knew that a suppressor would make my rifle much quieter. What I didn't know is how a suppressor would change the feel of the recoil impulse, and if it would or would not change my velocity in any meaningful way.
In terms of increased velocity when shooting suppressed, results will vary. In the end, I have not noticed enough of a change in velocity to make any meaningful difference for the effective range of the rifle due to the minimal speed increase you may have when shooting suppressed.
When it comes to recoil, there are many factors to consider. The cartridge being shot, the overall weight of the rifle, the design and fit of the stock, the position you're shooting from, etc. Aside from those variables, I will say that recoil is certainly reduced and is particularly "different" when shooting suppressed.
A suppressor reduces sound by trapping and slowing the release of gasses that would otherwise exit the barrel. This trapping and delayed release of gasses prolong the recoil impulse — making it feel more like a push than an instantaneous, hard-hitting, blow. With less recoil in general and less of an instantaneous snap and muzzle rise, shooting suppressed can help you "stay in the scope" during recoil, which is helpful for spotting impacts and staying on target for follow-up shots that may be required.
Versatility Is Critical
Suppressors are built to be compatible with certain calibers or bore diameters. You can use a suppressor with a larger bore diameter on a weapon with a smaller bore diameter, but you obviously cannot go the other way. I use my 30-caliber suppressor on smaller 7mm and 6.5mm rifle platforms, but I could not use a 6.5mm suppressor on a 7mm or 30-cal rifle.
Since purchasing a suppressor is an investment of time and money, be sure you "future proof" your suppressor by keeping versatility in mind. Just because you're shooting a 6.5 Creedmoor or 6.5 PRC now, are you sure you won't own a 7mm or 30-caliber rifle in the future?
You can either choose a suppressor that is adaptable for multiple calibers and features interchangeable "end caps" that are caliber specific, or you can choose a suppressor that is big enough for the larger caliber you intend to shoot (30-caliber for me), and also use that suppressor on smaller calibers.
All else being equal, a caliber-specific suppressor is more efficient at suppressing sound than a suppressor that is "overbore" for the caliber you are shooting, but the real-world difference is either quite minimal or not even perceivable. I am very happy with the performance of my 30-cal suppressor when shooting smaller caliber rifles.
Cover It Up
Before owning and shooting with a suppressor, I thought suppressor covers were just something that guys used to be tacti-cool. What I found, though, is that suppressor covers are functional and useful in certain instances.
Suppressors heat up with every shot fired. If you're shooting at the range, or out banging steel for fun, your suppressor will heat up and create a mirage that you see in your field of view when looking through your scope. Suppressor covers help reduce this mirage and make a big difference in allowing you to keep a clear picture of your target.
I love my Rauch Precision suppressor cover for when I'm shooting at the range and want to avoid mirrage during longer strings of fire. For hunting, though, I have not found a benefit or need to use a suppressor cover. If I am firing enough shots to create mirrage while hunting, I have bigger problems to worry about.
While hunting, treat your suppressor just as you would treat the muzzle of your rifle and ensure that you do not let moisture or debris enter the suppressor. I cover the bore of my suppressor with electrical tape while hunting. It does a great job and creating a weatherproof seal and does not affect accuracy in any way.
One of the final things I have learned about shooting and hunting with a suppressor is that, yes, it is great to be able to shoot without hearing protection.
I can't tell you how many animals I have shot with an unsuppressed rifle when not wearing any hearing protection. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, when I am running on adrenaline, I don't hear or feel the effects of that. But there's no doubt that my hearing is taking a hit when shooting unsuppressed without hearing protection. Even when I pack hearing protection into the field on a hunt, I have rarely remembered to or had the opportunity to use it.
Being able to shoot suppressed on a hunt and not have to worry about wearing ear protection or hearing damage is great.
On the days when I have the range to myself and am not near other shooters, I do all of my shooting with a suppressor and no additional hearing protection. Having tried all kinds of in-ear and over-the-ear hearing protection devices, nothing compares to the comfort and freedom of shooting suppressed, being able to maintain a perfect cheek weld on the rifle, and speaking normally with your buddy that's with you.
Some would ask if a suppressor truly makes a center-fire rifle "hearing safe". I won't attempt to answer that question scientifically or say what you should do. You can do your research and make your own decisions. I will say that I am comfortable shooting dozens of suppressed rounds in open areas (no walls, barriers, or other features to bounce sound back) with my center-fire rifles.
Get Yours Yesterday
So with all of the talk of the benefits of shooting suppressed for hunting, let me throw out something else I have learned about getting a suppressor. It is easy. Really easy. Yes, it requires more money and more time than we'd all like. But in terms of being intimidated or overwhelmed by the logistics of the process needed to legally purchase, own, and possess a suppressor — it is easy. Don't be intimidated. Just get started.
I won't explain the entire process here. The best way to get started is by finding and contacting a "Class 3" firearms dealer in your area, or by utilizing online resources that include AmericanSuppressorAssociation.com, SilencerShop.com, or SilencerCentral.com.
Mark Huelsing is the host of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast and works at Exo Mtn Gear — though he's never been able to figure out his job title. Connect with Mark by sending him an email (mark at exomtngear.com) or connecting on Instagram, @MarkTheFark.