Since World War II, America’s elite forces have used quiet firearms for missions where it pays to be silent. Sound suppressors—commonly referred known as silencers—remain in service today. What many don’t know is that U.S. commandos once carried revolvers with special cartridges designed to muffle gunshots.
In the 1960s, the AAI Corporation developed the cartridges for the U.S. Army’s and Navy’s rifles, pistols and shotguns. The U.S. Army Special Forces and Rangers tested the unique ammunition in Vietnam.
While they offered many advantages, AAI’s products failed to win any widespread acceptance in the halls of the Pentagon. The rounds were expensive and ineffective at moderate ranges.
According to a 1968 Army report on silencers, “Throughout the history of firearms, gun noise has been of considerable concern to the military.” “To the enemy, gun noise reveals presence and, often, the location of the shooter, thus resulting in a counter attack.”
To better understand how a suppressor works. In most modern firearms, the sound of the gunshot comes primarily from bottled-up gases escaping as the bullet leaves the barrel—like uncorking a bottle of champagne. A sound suppressor helps muffle the bang by trapping these fumes.
But even with these devices, the gunshot is never entirely undetectable.
In the early 1960s, Army weapon designers looked at alternatives that would completely eliminate the sound of the propellant exploding. They came up with the so-called “piston cartridges”.
How this special cartridge works A normal cartridge contains a casing—which contains gunpowder—and a bullet wedged into an opening at the top. When the propellant detonates, the bullet explosively detaches from the casing, and goes flying through the barrel toward its target.
In a piston cartridge, the case is completely sealed. A plunger transfers the force of the explosion to the slug—like the cue ball striking another in a game of pool.
A gun shooting these types of rounds produces no muzzle flash or smoke, either.
By 1962, the Army had piston rounds available for .30-caliber rifles and .38-caliber revolvers. The ground combat branch’s Special Forces sections also planned to develop a new weapon to go along with the ammunition.
This special firearm was envisioned to provide “escape detection, terrorize the enemy, taking out enemy patrol, snipers, sabotage, reconnaissance and assassination,” according to a report from the Army’s Chief of Ordnance.
The weapon designers also felt this firearm could silently take out sensitive vehicles and gear like aircraft, missiles, radar dishes and electronics.
Above is the artists conception of this relatively crude hand cannon that looks equal parts revolver and submachine gun. The concept features a folding butt-stock and simple iron sights.
Commandos could use the special firearms to “eliminate sentries, guards, guard dogs, military and civilian personnel and collaborators,” the technical document suggests.
With all the speculation, in the end, this new revolver was used in the tunnels during the Vietnam war to hunt for the Viet Congs.
The Viet Cong dug elaborate subterranean networks to hide guerrilla fighters and supplies from American firepower.
Soldiers who volunteered to scour these amazingly complex tunnels couldn’t carry full-size M-16 rifles with them through the narrow entry points. M-1911 pistols were their only means of defense.
However, the tight passages amplified the sound of gunshots. These U.S. “tunnel rats” could quickly go deaf from firing their pistols at enemy fighters.
To try and save the soldiers’ ears, Army commanders scrounged up silenced .22-caliber handguns. The Limited War Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland also sent suppressed .38 caliber revolvers—but without any special piston rounds.
This gave the AAI Corporation a chance to to build a dedicated “tunnel weapon.”
As it turns out, the AAI’s gun was a modified .44-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. The weapon fired piston cartridges loaded with 15 steel pellets, making it a miniature shotgun. The Army quickly sent 10 of the unique revolvers and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition to South Vietnam for testing.
While intended for tunnel-scouting soldiers, the 23rd and 25th Infantry Divisions both handed the weapons over to their Ranger units. Special Forces soldiers reportedly got some of the guns, as well.
Units using it had successes as reported by the U.S. Army, “The tunnel weapon was found to be ideally suited for ambushes.” As originally expected, the elite troops used their silent guns on various occasions to ambush and kill enemy officers.
At the same time, AAI was offering similar ammunition to the Navy SEALs. The sailing branch purchased a stock of silent full-size, 12-gauge shells for their own experiments.
“The only sound heard when firing the silent shotgun shell was the click of the shotgun’s firing pin,” writes noted SEAL historian Kevin Dockery in Special Warfare Special Weapons. “Though the … shell was not completely silent, it made a weapon firing it very hard to hear and effectively unnoticeable.”
But the ammunition had serious restrictions. Silencers can slow bullets to varying degrees, piston cartridges launch their projectiles at even lower velocities.
How slow? AAI’s tunnel weapon—eventually renamed the Special Purpose Quiet Revolver—was useless at distances greater than 25 feet.
“There were several occasionsin which the tunnel weapon failed to incapacitate an enemy soldier after he was hit from 10 feet away,” Army evaluators reported.
“Another instances, the first round struck a large leather pocketbook, filled with papers, that was being carried across the officer’s chest,” the shooter reported. “The second round struck his stomach, knocked him over, but failed to kill him.”
The other problem with the rounds was that it was expensive to make.
“The high cost was not considered balanced by the usefulness of the round as other suppressed weapons were becoming available, and the project was shelved,” Dockery stated. The Navy didn’t buy any more rounds from AAI, either. In 1973, the Army followed suit and canned their revolver program. “No further development was planned,” progress reports from Aberdeen declare. “Several weapons and some ammunition will be available … if a special need arises.”
Today, American commandos regularly use more technologically advanced suppressed guns, but don’t have a pressing need for the complicated piston cartridges.
Photos from SmallArmsoftheWorld.com, Pinterest Sources: Joseph Trevithick , SEAL historian Kevin Dockery, War is Boring
About 50 years near Vietnam, a helicopter that wasn’t officially there fended off an attack on a post that didn’t officially exist, with the help of a single Kalash. It may have been the unofficial report of the shot down of an airplane with an AK-47…from a helicopter by the CIA.
“An Air Combat First” painting by Keith Woodcock in the CIA’s collecton remembers the occasion that an Air America helicopter fought off at attack on a remote radar site just over the North Vietnamese border with Laos. (Photo: CIA)
The story is during the Vietnam War, Lima Site 85 was a secret radar station on top of a mountain in northeastern Laos known as Phou Phath manned by U.S. Air Force personnel under civilian cover, guarded by Hmong commandos, and supplied by the CIA-run Air America cargo service.
This important site became a valuable target due to its vicinity of 150 miles or so from the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Once discovered on Jan 12, 1968, it became crucial for the North Vietnamese to take out it down. The NVA sent four An-2 Colt biplanes armed with improvised bombs set out to attack the facility.
That’s when an unarmed civilian-marked Air America Co. UH-1 Huey flown by Ted Moore, which was delivering supplies to the base at the time, gave chase to the Vietnamese attack craft and soon brought the lead plane under fire with some well-placed 7.62x39mm rounds courtesy of flight mechanic Glenn Woods’ personal carry gun. As the narration goes, “Woods pulled out his AK-47 rifle and began firing at the lumbering biplane,” says the agency, who went public with the incident in 2007. “The pursuit was relentless, continuing for more than 20 minutes until the second Colt (hit by ground fire) joined the first in an attempt to escape back into North Vietnam.”
In the end, the bullet-riddled biplane that was Woods’ target crashed.
As noted by the spy agency, “This daring action by Moore and Woods gained them—and Air America—the distinction of having shot down an enemy fixed-wing aircraft from a helicopter—a singular aerial victory in the entire history of the Vietnam War.”
Sadly, Site 85 was overrun in March 1968 in a more determined attack comprised of massive NVA ground troops and Woods lost his life the next year in Laos — but the CIA Museum still has the throttle that came from the downed AN-2’s wreckage in their collection.