Hiram Percy Maxim Was a Firearms-Suppressing Genius
The son of the machine gun’s inventor made his own mark on history
by MATTHEW MOSS
The younger Maxim developed the first viable firearm suppressors at the turn of the 20th century, securing a series of patents between 1909 and 1920. He sold his designs through the Maxim Silent Firearms Company, which would eventually become the Maxim Silencer Company.
Maxim began his work in 1906, experimenting with different designs theoretically capable of moderating sound. He tried valves, vents and bypass devices, and came to believe that the propellant gases leaving a firearm’s muzzle could be whirled to create a vortex, thereby slowing them sufficiently to prevent them making noise as they left the muzzle.
Maxim’s first experimental silencer, pictured at left, used an offset snailshell-shaped chamber and valve to trap and swirl the muzzle gases in an effort to slow their travel. Maxim’s results with this design were encouraging. He continued to develop the idea of swirling the gases and, in June 1908, filed his patent for an “improvement in Silent Firearms.”
Patented in March 1909, this design used a series of curved vanes or blades to create a series of miniature vortices that captured and slowed the muzzle gases.
Maxim did not produce the Model 1909 silencer in great numbers. Its main flaw — the vortices caused the suppressor to quickly heat up. The curved internal vanes also proved expensive to manufacture. Still, the Model 1909 could reduce a .22LR pistol’s report by up to 30 decibels.
In October and November 1908, Maxim filled two more patents to protect an improvement on his earlier design. This new design became the Model 1910, which still relied on Maxim’s gas-vortex theory but simplified the vane arrangement.
The Model 1910 also moved away from the centrally-aligned internal channel and instead used an offset, or eccentric, design. This had the added benefit of not obstructing the weapon’s sights. The majority of rifles of the day did not have threaded barrels, so Maxim developed a coupling device that the shooter placed over the muzzle.
One of the main drawbacks of the Model 1910 was that it was nearly impossible to disassemble for cleaning. Instead, Maxim recommended that the user run hot water through the silencer’s channel. A Maxim sales brochure stated that it would take 30 minutes to clean the silencer this way.
The Maxim Model 1910 proved commercially successful. Maxim’s company offered it in a number of calibers ranging from .22 up to .45. Still, the thinner Model 1910 was less effective than the earlier 1909 was and, when fitted to a .22LR pistol, it reduced the weapon’s report by only 25 decibels.
Maxim’s book Experiences with the Maxim Silencer compiled letters from sportsmen and hunters who had used his silencer. In the book’s foreword, Maxim explained that he had developed his system in order to “meet my personal desire to enjoy target practice without creating a disturbance. I have always loved to shoot, but I never thoroughly enjoyed it when I knew the noise was annoying other people.”
The Maxim Silencer Company sold the silencers via mail-order, shipping them in cardboard tubes. A .22-calibre silencer cost $5, while larger-caliber silencers cost $7. Maxim’s silencers were expensive when adjusted for inflation. Today these prices equate to approximately $120 and $165, respectively.
In 1912, with commercial growth slow, Maxim turned his attention to the military market. In 1909, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps had tested Maxim’s first silencer. Col. S.E. Blunt, commander of the Springfield Armory, reported that the silencer eliminated approximately 66 percent of a gun’s noise and 67 percent of its recoil.
Encouraged by this early military interest, Maxim began designing a silencer that could moderate the report of a Springfield M1903 rifle. He believed that the growing number of American men joining the military from cities — men who lacked experience with shooting — were struggling to master the .30–06 M1903 because of its loud report and recoil. Maxim felt that a silencer would prevent recruits being intimidated by their own rifles.
The Maxim Silencer Company developed the Model 1912 and subsequently the further-improved Model 15, which Maxim christened the “Government Silencer.” Maxim also developed a larger silencer suitable for suppressing a Benét–Mercié M1909 Machine Rifle.
The Army tested Maxim’s military silencers alongside those of Robert A. Moore in 1912. The Springfield Armory’s July 1912 report found that the Moore silencer was more accurate and had a better attachment system.
The Maxim silencer, however, was more durable and could withstand more prolonged rapid-fire. Army Ordnance recommended the purchase of 100 of both silencers for field trials, with two silencers being issued per company for use by sharpshooters.
This was not the large contract that Maxim had hoped for. The U.S. military deployed silencers in small numbers during the 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa and later when the American Expeditionary Force deployed to France in 1917.
While these silenced rifles could not prevent the supersonic crack that occurred downrange, they were able to mitigate muzzle flash and moderate the rifle’s report. As early as, 1917 the Army changed its mind and ordered another 9,100 Maxim suppressors. It’s unclear how many Maxim managed to deliver before the war ended.
After the war in 1920, the Army made the suppressed rifles available to the public through the Civilian Marksmanship Program. Others trickled down to the National Guard. The Army declared any leftover suppressed weapons obsolete in March 1925.
Maxim’s company had no choice but to diversify. After the war, the Maxim Silencer Company manufactured not only firearm-silencers, but also sound-moderating devices for everything from automobiles to naval engines, plant machinery and heating and air-conditioning systems.
Hiram Percy Maxim died in 1936. His company began to move away from firearms-silencers in 1925, instead concentrating on industrial and automotive sound moderators. Public interest in firearm suppressors was quashed by the 1934 National Firearms Act, which required a prohibitively expensive $200 tax stamp — approximately $3,500 today.
Although no longer family-owned, in 2016 the company continues to produce industrial sound-moderating devices.