Above Photo: The Maxim Model 1909 silencer fitted to what is apparently a handmade, one-of-a-kind single shot pistol was used on a regular basis for killing cattle at a slaughterhouse in Texas from 1909 to 2000.
By Al Paulson
While the oldest working pistol silencer probably dates back to a French design from about the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and the first silencer patent dates from 1899, Hiram Percy Maxim’s Model 1909 silencer was the first commercially successful silencer in the world. I recently stumbled across a Maxim Model 1909 silencer fitted to an apparently hand made, one-of-a-kind single shot pistol that had been in continuous use for killing cattle at a slaughterhouse in Texas since 1909. The Maxim was still going strong, having survived a 91-year torture test. I have never run across a silencer that has been in continuous service for anywhere nearly as long as this particular specimen. This Model 1909 served as a working tool, not as a collectable historical artifact, from 1909 until 2000. Clearly, Hiram Percy Maxim could build a robust silencer. Furthermore, the level of performance, even after nearly a century of steady use, will be surprising.
The dawn of the 20th century brought a new phenomenon to modern life: noise pollution. While referring to noise as “pollution” would not happen for generations to come, the reality was that the amount of noise assaulting the senses was growing exponentially throughout the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, adding very real stress to urban life in the Golden Age. Street cars, gas engines, motor cycles, motor cars, motor boats, recorded music, steam exhausts, assembly lines, and Diesel engines added to the gentler, more traditional sounds of trains and horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Some New England mills were so noisy that they tormented people ten miles away. The country swelled with a great wave of immigration, and the population pushed outward from urban centers, where they tended to find the ubiquitous American pastime of shooting a disquieting and intrusive form of noise pollution.
Maxim firmly believed that noise could wreak havoc on the human nervous system, a belief that has been confirmed by a nearly century of subsequent medical research. Maxim declared a personal war on noise. In 1906, he designed a firearms silencer for a .30-30 rifle based upon the principle of creating a whirlpool of gases inside the silencer, like water going down the drain of a bathtub, leaving a neat little clear hole through which a bullet could travel unimpeded. This led to the development of the Model 1908 silencer, which was patented in 1909.
The Model 1908 looked something like a conch shell stuck on the end of the Winchester lever-action rifle. It was a less than stellar performer. Undaunted, Maxim’s experiments revealed that simply creating turbulence inside the suppressor to slow the gases and delay their release from the silencer worked very well.
This revelation eventually led to the development of the Maxim Model 1909 silencer, which was patented in 1910. A prolific writer, Maxim continued his war against noise by adding a second front: a campaign to win hearts and minds with a series of articles discussing his view that noise was one of the principal problems of the day. He also began an advertising blitz (to borrow a phrase from the next generation) extolling the virtues of the Maxim Silencer in the mainstream magazines of the day, including the likes of New Yorker Magazine, Scribner’s, Popular Mechanics, McClure’s, Redbook, Yachting Magazine, and the National Sportsman.
The Maxim Model 1909 was replaced a year later by the improved and more compact Model 1910. Most historians have referred to the Model 1910 as the finest of Maxim variants. Nevertheless, after having shot a variety of Maxim Model 1909 silencers on a variety of .22 pistols and rifles, I have developed a particular respect for the Model 1909. It may be a bit bulky, but it does perform.
The Maxim Model 1909 silencer is an eccentric design fabricated from soft, malleable steel baffles and tubing, with a machined rear end piece that serves as the mount and rear end cap. The Model 1909 variant evaluated in this study measures 4.88 inches overall, while the tube length is 4.55 inches. The tube diameter is 1.35 inches and it is press fit into the machined rear end cap, where a rivet on the left side of the rear end cap secures the tube in place. Two pressed grooves around the circumference of the tube toward the rear of the suppressor secure thick blast baffles, while one 3.77 inch longitudinal groove running along the bottom of the tube aligns the asymmetrical baffles. The exit hole in the front baffle, which serves as a press fit end cap secured by rolling the suppressor tube inward at the front end, measures 0.31 inch. The mount in the rear end cap features 1/2×20 TPI interrupted female threads for screwing onto a threaded barrel. The suppressor weighs 6.8 ounces. Once blued, the finish is well worn. The top of the machined rear end cap is stamped “22 CALIBRE” and the rear face of the rear end cap is stamped:
MAXIM SILENT FIREARMS CO.
PATENT MARCH 30, 1909
The patent date stamped on the silencer is a bit misleading. The date actually refers to U.S. Patent 916,885 for the Model 1908 silencer. The patent application for the Model 1909 silencer was submitted on October 8, 1908 but U.S. Patent 958,931 was not granted until May 24, 1910. The suppressor was registered as required after the National Firearms Act was passed in 1934 and carries an “IRS” prefixed serial number.
The hand-made single-shot pistol is a side-break design featuring a pull-cock striker. The overall length of the pistol is 9.25 inches, and maximum height is 4.65 inches. Barrel length is 6.97 inches. The receiver is 0.73 inch thick, the walnut grips are 1.16 inches thick, and the pistol weighs 24.0 ounces without the Maxim silencer. The barrel is threaded 1/2×20 TPI to accept the Maxim suppressor. Design of the pistol is robust and thoughtful, and the trigger nothing short of awesome. Trigger pull is a remarkably crisp 4.3 pounds, breaking like the proverbial “glass rod” (a wonderfully descriptive but horribly hackneyed expression I’m using here with great circumspection, for only the second time in my life, since no other turn of phrase really fits).
Contrary to conventional wisdom that the Model 1910 was a better silencer than the Model 1909, I discovered during informal shooting of this handmade single-shot pistol that the Model 1909 seemed noticeably quieter than my memory of the Model 1910. The Model 1909 seemed to provide both lower sound signatures and a softer sound with less of a hard, uncorking component. To test this hypothesis, I arranged to test fire the Model 1909 on a vintage Colt Woodsman (production began on March 29, 1915) fitted at the factory with a sleeve adapter to accept a Maxim silencer on the pistol’s 6.5 inch barrel. I compared the performance of the Model 1909 suppressor with a Maxim Model 1910 on the same afternoon using Remington high velocity (HV), standard velocity target (SVT) and subsonic ammunition at a temperature of 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Table 1 compares the sound signatures measured 1 meter to the left of the muzzle or silencer, expressed as decibels (dB). Table 2 provides the net sound reductions.
To look the relevant data at from a historical perspective, in terms of what Hiram Maxim experienced himself during the Golden Age before the outbreak of the Great War, one should consider only the data for standard velocity ammunition. The first high velocity .22 rimfire cartridge was not introduced until 1930 (by Remington, as it turns out), and .22 subsonic ammunition did not appear until relatively recently. The data show that the Maxim Model 1909 significantly outperforms the Model 1910 with both period-equivalent and modern ammunition, beating the Model 1910 by 8-10 decibels. That’s a whopping big difference when you consider that the decibel scale is logarithmic rather than linear.
Furthermore, the data—including the high velocity and subsonic numbers—also show that the Model 1909 performs very well by modern standards, delivering 30-33 dB net sound reductions, depending upon ammunition. Finally, this Maxim Model 1909 silencer survived a 91-year torture test of regular work in a slaughterhouse. The silencer kept animals waiting their turn from becoming alarmed and unmanageable, making the process more humane. The silencer also protected generation upon generation of workers from hearing loss.
While the Maxim’s blued finish is a distant memory, the can remains robust after countless thousands of rounds and nearly a century of use. Considering its excellent structural condition today, I see no reason why this Maxim Model 1909 cannot deliver another 91 years of service. If we assume (30 cattle killed/day) (5 days/week) (52 weeks/year) (91 years) = 709,800 rounds fired through this old veteran thus far.
Underrated and largely overlooked by historians, it turns out that the Model 1909 silencer represents one of the most remarkable achievements of a remarkably influential and insightful man. Hiram Percy Maxim’s Model 1909 silencer must be considered one of the greatest suppressor designs of all time.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N11 (August 2002)|