Does anyone have information on the origin of the traditional Hollywood suppressed gunshot that sounds roughly like a punchy whistle, or "pteew!"?

Nobody who shoots modern suppressors has ever heard anything like it, with one notable and inexplicable exception that was caught by luck during a long amateur recording of silencer shots at a distance, and which sparked this thread on a silencer industry forum.

I have theorized that the traditional sound may have originated with older-style wipe-and-grease suppressors, but those aren't readily available for testing in the U.S.

(I have also theorized that some guns modified to shoot blanks may produce a sound like the classic whistle. I'm checking with some armorers on this conjecture to see if any have heard of that.)

Core question: Was the sound just made up out of thin air, or did it have a basis in something that would have been heard on set or with old-style suppressors?

Updated background: Modern suppressors are durable and employ metal baffles that can be run "dry." Earlier designs required "ablative media" like lithium grease to effectively absorb sound pressure. (A suppressor using a liquid medium is termed "wet.") A few generations ago the NFA tax made suppressors prohibitively expensive for civilians, and so they were only used by government agencies and outlaws. Durability was not a concern to entities who didn't have to pay $200 to make or transfer each silencer, and so instead of metal baffles formal suppressors used a generally more compact design consisting of a series of "wipes," which are elastomeric curtains through which the bullet passes, along with substantial amounts of grease. A wipe suppressor may only last for as few as a dozen shots before the wipes are too shreaded to effectively contain the grease and sound pressure, but they are very effective for those few shots. Because of the way the ATF regulates suppressors these days only a licensed manufacturer could afford to even toy with such designs, and because baffle technology has come so far I don't know of any that do.

My theory being: when Hollywood first featured suppressors they were almost certainly wipe-based. Few people today know what those sound like, but they do know that modern suppressors don't sound like the traditional Hollywood sound. But maybe somebody knows whether recordings of old suppressors were the source of that sound?

  • 1
    Can you clarify what "older-style wipe-and-grease suppressors" is? Thanks – user9385 Jul 2 '14 at 4:15
  • @user9385: Just added a bunch of background to original question. Let me know if more info would be helpful! – feetwet Jul 2 '14 at 15:47
  • I found this question, because I was wondering the same thing as the OP, but it seems like a difficult task to find a recording of the old type of suppressed guns (for reasons stated). By googling, you find stuff stating that the wipes method was "very effective" in reducing sound, which makes you think that they probably were indeed significantly more silent than modern suppressors, but exact data and recordings are simply missing as far as I can see, which is a shame. – user11349 Nov 19 '14 at 2:59

I was reading a similar topic on a silencer forum and apparently listening downrange from a silenced weapon can sometimes produce a very similar sound as is demonstrated in this video

Whether this is the original inspiration for the Hollywood silencer I don't know, but might make sense if they placed mics at a downrange position.

  • Yeah, that's the video that inspired that hypothesis and discussion -- in particular start listening at 12:56. – feetwet Jul 2 '14 at 19:58
  • Surreal sound, the amount of power compared to the sound is very sinister. To bad the source is that noisy, crickets or bad camera/mic? – Arnoud Traa Jul 2 '14 at 20:37
  • Ah yes - apologies @feetwet, just realised you linked the same forum discussion in your original post with that very video. – Squidlick Jul 3 '14 at 7:43
  • @ArnoudTraa: Yes, amateur camera. I believe for the target shots he placed the camera on or next to the impact mound, so you get the impact thump (or what little of it the mic is capable of). – feetwet Jul 3 '14 at 13:54
  • That’s not the sound of the shot, that’s the sound of the bullet whistling through the air toward the listener. Notice it is more audible further from the gun. The fact that the bullet is subsonic is also significant. The characteristic “peeeew” sound is the Doppler shift as the bullet passes the camera. The same thing happens much more slowly when a train passes a listener. – Rick F. Jan 6 at 6:26

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