How Brandon Maddox and Silencer Central changed the way
Americans buy Silencers.
Story by Frank Jardim
Photos by Silencer Central
Since 1934, when the National Firearms Act required registry of silencers, about 2 million of them have been manufactured and sold. Of that 2 million, around 700,000 were sold last year. That’s a tsunami of sales driven by a seismic shift in consumer demand that seems likely to keep growing for the foreseeable future. Clearly, there’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on in the world of firearm sound suppression. At the risk of carrying this silencer/geological/rock-n-roll analogy too far, I would argue that the subject of this month’s cover story is the Elvis of the silencer industry’s movers and shakers. Brandon Maddox is the CEO and founder of Silencer Central (silencercentral.com), formerly known as Dakota Silencers.
I FIGURED OUT HOW TO MAKE BUYING A SILENCER EASY … AND THAT’S WHY WE TOOK 10 PERCENT OF THE MARKET.
Maddox was a licensed pharmacist with an MBA from Duke University working in marketing for Big Pharma in the West when he bought his first silencer on a whim in 2005, hoping it would make his varmint hunting more enjoyable. It was a time-consuming chore figuring out how to fill out all the forms correctly, getting fingerprinted, seeking permission from his chief local law enforcement officer, and getting photographed to complete his packet for mailing into apparent oblivion, only to have his ATF approval letter appear in his local dealer’s mailbox without fanfare eight months later. Finally authorized by Uncle Sam, he made the drive back to the gun shop to fill out a few more government forms and pick up his well-aged “new” purchase. On the drive home, he wondered if it would be worth it, or just end up being no more than a very expensive replacement for ear plugs.
It was sooo worth it. The improvement in his hunting experience provided by the silencer sold him on their merits on the spot. Instead of the prairie dogs scattering after the report of his first shot, they just stood around like there wasn’t a predator in sight. With the silencer, Maddox found he was doing more shooting and less moving and calling and waiting for the varmints to show up. It was obvious to him that if silencers weren’t such a pain in the ass to get, a lot more people would have them. A lot more people have silencers now because Brandon Maddox made the entire process as easy as it could possibly be. It took years and precipitated a long overdue re-examination of how the federal regulatory process governing silencers operated. The final result of all his hard work is that you can now buy a silencer from your kitchen table in 10 minutes, using your cell phone, and have it delivered directly to your front door upon ATF approval of your paperwork.
In Silencer Central, Maddox created a one-stop shop for everything silencer-related with a focus on customer satisfaction and absolute integrity. Silencers are all they sell. Always a phone call away, their expertise is deep and freely shared to help the customer make the best silencer selection for their particular needs and ensure it functions properly on their guns. Say your barrel needs threading. Send it to them and they’ll do it perfectly for $100. Say you want to own your suppressor through a National Firearms Act, or NFA, trust so you can share it legally with others you name to the trust. They will prepare your application as a trust at no additional cost. Say you’re short of cash. They’ll hold the silencer for you and get the paperwork submitted to ATF for 25 percent down and let you pay by installments with no interest. They sell their own Banish line of lifetime-warranty titanium silencers, in addition to stocking models from AAC, Yankee Hill Machine, Barrett, Gemtech, Dead Air, SilencerCo, Elite Iron, Coastal and Ruger for calibers from .22 LR to .50 BMG and 12-gauge shotgun. They even have a best price guarantee through Norton Purchase Protection. Mr. Maddox visited with me by phone from Silencer Central headquarters in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
American Shooting Journal Over the last few years, I’ve watched in mute amazement as silencers went from James-Bond-secret-agent-commando stuff to backyard-plinking-at-sodacans-with-the-kids stuff. How much of that was you?
Brandon Maddox I did my part. Silencer Central is the single largest silencer retailer in the country. In round numbers, our sales last year accounted for 70,000 of the 700,000 silencers sold. The single biggest obstacle that prevents people from purchasing a silencer is the confusing ordeal of the multi-faceted NFA paperwork process. That’s no secret. Everybody who makes or sells silencers knows it. It’s been a brake on the growth of the silencer industry for generations. I figured out how to make buying a silencer easy for the customer and that’s why we took 10 percent of the market last year.
Basically, we prepare and submit all the paperwork for the customer and then monitor its progress, alert them when it’s approved, and then ship the silencer directly to their home. We take away all of the running around, dread, uncertainty and anxiety that comes with filing a Form 4 application yourself. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but it is to the customer. We provide more services for less cost than anybody else. You could say we handle all the heavy lifting of the application process for between $6 to $16. We add $6 to the cost of the ATF $200 tax stamp to cover the 3 percent the credit card company charges us to process it; and some customers also want us to mail them our $10 home fingerprinting kit. Other than that, the customer will never see a charge for handling their application paperwork. It’s rolled into the pricing of our silencers and it’s minimal thanks to the efficiency of our electronic information management and economies of scale.
That’s how Silencer Central can deliver unprecedented service and still beat the competition on product pricing. In fact, we guarantee it. Setting all this up was immensely more difficult to accomplish than I could have ever imagined. I ended up creating a completely new model for selling silencers.
ASJ The thing that jumped out at me from your advertising was “silencer shipped directly to your door” and “fingerprint yourself at home.” BM Those are two of the five key aspects of the Silencer Central’s service model. Upon ATF approval, we do ship to the customer’s front door. I was the first to do that and ATF tells me they get 200 calls a week from people wanting to know how we can legally send an NFA weapon to someone’s front door. Parts of the process required 42 variances, one for each of our FFL locations in the 42 states where silencers are legal to own. Home delivery saves the customer one car trip, but Silencer Central saves them a lot more time and trouble on the front end of the process. We allow customers to take their own fingerprints. The law requires a trained person to take the fingerprints, so we created a free online training video for this purpose. Fingerprinting isn’t rocket science, so the video is less than three minutes long. They can buy a kit from us for $10 and we’ll send them the ink, several sets of cards in case they mess up, and written instructions.
Our customers can take their application photos digitally and email them to us. We also take on the responsibility of informing the customer’s top local law enforcement official as required by law. That’s four distinct chores they would otherwise have to get in the car to accomplish. If you are really organized, you might get fingerprinted, photographed, and drop off a copy of your application to local law enforcement to file in one outing, but it’s still going to cost you time and gas. The farther away the police station, passport photo place and gun shop where you bought the silencer are from your house, the costlier it gets to do these chores yourself. Plus you have to pay for the fingerprinting, usually at least $20, and up to $15 for passport photos. I’ve been a licensed pharmacist since 1996 and I can tell you it’s no bargain getting your passport photos at the pharmacy.
ASJ That’s four things; is the fifth one the free gun trust thing?
BM Yes. I saved that for last because it’s not something everyone knows about and it’s a big deal to get a trust set up for free. It’s all about ownership and use. A silencer, or any other NFA weapon, can be held by an individual, or a legal entity such as a trust. Everyone understands individual ownership. It’s your silencer. You can use it, but you can’t let someone else use it unless you are standing next to them. You can’t loan it to your son to take on his first solo deer hunt. If you owned your silencer through a trust, you could share it with any of the qualified co-trustees you name in the documentation. You can add or remove trustees at your discretion. We’ll update it for you at no cost. In case you are wondering, your trustees can’t throw you out of your own trust either. Once you create an NFA trust, you can also assign ownership of other NFA weapons to it. You still have to pay the $200 ATF transfer tax for each serial-numbered NFA weapon, of course. In addition to shared use, a trust allows for simplified transfer of your NFA firearms to your beneficiaries after your death.
To set up an NFA trust on your own, you really need a lawyer knowledgeable in NFA regulations. It’s usually at least a 20-page document, and commonly costs $250. That’s one reason NFA trusts weren’t so common in the past. They are a great option and these days 99.9 percent of our customers are opting to utilize a trust for acquiring their NFA firearms. We have more experience helping customers transfer their silencer into a NFA Gun Trust than any other silencer dealer in the industry.
ASJ In 2005, you started manufacturing and marketing your own Varminter line of silencers, in addition to selling just about every other brand. Why did you jump into the manufacturing side of the business?
BM There’s several reasons for that. First, every retailer knows you can’t sell from an empty cart. As consumer demand for silencers steadily increased due to the hunting and recreational shooting buyer, we were also scaling up our online retail operation from a local to a nationwide business. I was finding that the manufacturers we bought from often had trouble keeping our shelves stocked. Getting into manufacturing was a big jump, but it was clear we couldn’t plan for growth without more control over the product supply. I am a marketing and business management man who is passionately into silencers, and like a lot of people with a background in medicines, I understand scientific methodology and research. If I haven’t tested and evaluated every silencer made in the last decade, I’ve come pretty close to it. I even cut many apart to see how they were made. Add to that years of listening to what customers were looking for in a silencer and I was confident I could come up with the ideal specifications for hunting and sporting applications. This is where the second big reason for making our own line figures in. I could see nobody was offering reasonably priced, lifetime-quality hunting and recreational silencers.
Sixteen years ago, the silencer manufacturers were primarily focused on the tactical and military markets. Most silencers were long, heavy, welded steel that couldn’t be opened for cleaning, making them problematic with dirty-burning powders or rimfire ammunition. They were made for battlefield durability, not practical hunting. Hunters don’t want bomb-proof construction if it means the silencer is heavy, long and can’t be cleaned. They don’t need a silencer overbuilt to handle prolonged full-auto fire. Aluminum silencers showed more promise for hunters, but they weren’t as durable. Titanium looked like the best material to combine strength and light weight. A titanium silencer that could be disassembled for cleaning would be a lifetime investment. It could be a generational investment, like your guns. The customer realizes that the tax stamp doesn’t cost any less for an average silencer than a first-class one and they are inclined toward quality. I knew our silencers needed to be titanium, but it is an expensive metal and very few manufacturers were working with it at the time.
ASJ That explains the “why.” Tell me about the “how.”
BM Initially I approached Liberty Suppressors in Trenton, Georgia, to make white-label silencers for us. It was their monolithic baffle silencer, but with our Varminter name on it. As our sales volume grew rapidly, we asked for modifications to their designs and the relationship stalled. They made it for me from 2005 to 2012. The Varminter 2.0 was the first silencer I had made to my specifications to appeal to hunters, long-range benchrest target shooters, and tactical target shooters. It combined a titanium tube and stacked stainless steel baffles, with removable endcaps so the user could take them all out for cleaning. It also used direct thread attachment because that allows more consistent accuracy than quick-detachable mounting systems. It was a multi-caliber silencer that was ear-safe in all calibers, making it very versatile and practical. It became extremely popular. This was the first silencer I codeveloped with the Mack Brothers, Dale and Allen, from West River Rifle Company in Sturgis, South Dakota.
As luck would have it, Mack Brothers approached me at a gun show and asked if I had any silencer projects planned that they could work on for me. These guys are legends in the gun industry. All they do is firearms, and they were already a major player behind the scenes for a well-known precision rifle maker. They were also really good at working with titanium. They brought their engineering and manufacturing expertise to the table and we co-developed the Varminter 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 and the present Banish line. All of these silencers can be completely disassembled for cleaning, were designed to suppress multi-calibers below the ear-safe threshold, and all but the Banish 30 Gold use direct-thread attachment for consistent accuracy. The Varminter 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 line silencers were great products, the quietest of their size at the time, and very popular. They were replaced by the lighter, all-titanium Varminter 4.0 line, which was renamed the Banish line in 2018. The 5.56- and .30-caliber Varminter 4.0 became the Banish .223 and Banish 30. The new Banish products are the Banish 22 for rimfire rifles and pistols, which is actually full-auto rated; the Banish 45 for handguns .45 caliber and under; and the Banish 30 Gold, which is our first silencer to feature a quick-detachable mount. Like the Banish 30, it suppresses all calibers .308 and below – actually everything .300 Remington Ultra Magnum and below– to ear-safe levels. In fact, the Banish line silencers are the quietest of their size on the market. When I imagined my dream sporting silencer years ago, it looked like the Banish series.
I STROVE TO BE FORTHRIGHT AND TRANSPARENT IN OUR DEALINGS WITH CUSTOMERS, AND THE ATF, AND IT PAID OFF.
ASJ Do the Mack Brothers make all your Banish silencers?
BM They used to, but even working three shifts they couldn’t handle the demand, so I had to expand our manufacturing base. I knew this was outside my skill set, so I hired a manufacturing engineering team to set up a supply chain we could plan around as we scaled up. As it stands, we have 15 shops making our parts and several others assembling them into finished silencers. There’s redundancy and room to grow in the organization. Covid has wrought havoc on businesses in so many ways, I couldn’t sleep at night if we didn’t have contingency plans. Someone in manufacturing told me our setup for making the Banish line reminded them of how the U.S. Government got M1 carbines in full production so quickly, and then kept them coming when they were needed most during World War II.
ASJ I can see that. A few prime contracts with several subcontractors making parts and all of it being watched over by government-quality inspectors.
BM Exactly. Our engineering team meets with them all on a regular schedule to stay coordinated. Those guys are on top of it.
ASJ You say that your Varminter and Banish silencers are the “original multi-caliber silencers.” To clarify, a multi-caliber silencer works with all the calibers that fit through the hole in the baffles?
BM Ours do because they are made strong enough to handle the high gas pressures generated by the biggest cartridges in that caliber. In theory, a silencer will quiet everything that can pass through it without hitting the baffles. However, how much it quiets the report with smaller-diameter bullets and how well it holds up to the gas pressure are a matter of design and material strength. People have blown up lesser silencers by exceeding their design capabilities. We build in a margin for safety on the Banish line. The titanium tubes are machined from solid bars so they can have thicker walls than standard tubing. The thicker wall increases strength, and improves both sound reduction and heat dissipation, as do stacked baffles. Since most sporting rifles are .30 caliber or less, and most handguns are .45 caliber or less, we have most of the market covered with the Banish line.
ASJ A lot of readers are probably wondering what silencers cost nowadays.
BM The good news is they cost a lot less than they used to and the products are much improved. Our website is our up-to-date catalog. The most expensive unit on the shelf right now is the Barrett 50 BMG silencer for the military M107A1 anti-materiel rifle. It’s $2,978 plus a $206 tax stamp. The least expensive unit is the Solo It’s a nice, direct thread, user-serviceable .22 LR silencer made of aluminum that will cost you $345 plus the $206 tax stamp. Most silencers fall in between $500 and $1,000. Our Banish line is an exceptional value in terms of quality and performance for the price. We sell more of our own brand than any other. For example, our Banish 22 is $549. It’s $200 more than the Solo 22 but built to last a lifetime because it is all titanium. With proper care and cleaning, your great-great-grandchildren will be using it.
ASJ Beyond accidentally cross-threading or otherwise damaging the threads for attaching it to the barrel and keeping the endcaps on, what gets screwed up or worn out on a silencer?
BM If you put enough rounds through one and got it hot enough, often enough, the hot gases could erode the baffles just like they do a rifle bore. Generally, that takes many tens of thousands of rounds to do and normally affects the first blast baffle only. Outside of the military, most people would never shoot that much, that hard, for that long a period of time. The good news is user-serviceable silencers with multiple baffles allow you to rotate them, like you would rotate your car tires, to balance the wear. Titanium is more wear-resistant than steel, but if you ever did wear a baffle out, it could be easily replaced. The truth is that 99 percent of our warranty claims are baffle strikes. That means the bullet has actually hit one or more baffles and damaged them as it was passing through the silencer. The reason for this, 99 percent of the time, is that the barrel was improperly threaded or the customer failed to remove a crush washer or split lock washer that was behind their flash hider or muzzle brake.
We tell our customers to remove those washers before installing the silencer. Sometimes the muzzle threads were not properly cut at the factory and the customer isn’t aware of it. This can be checked with a long piece of drill rod a couple thousandths of an inch under your bore diameter. The rod needs to be perfectly straight with a sliding fit in the bore, with no wiggle room. If the rod touches the baffles, the bore of your silencer is not concentric with your rifle bore. We see this most with entry-level AR rifles and amateur gunsmiths. To improve customer satisfaction, we offer in-house muzzle threading for $100. If we do it for you, you know it will be right. Another thing that can cause baffle strikes is cross-threading or physically bending the end of the barrel or silencer itself. Bending is really hard to do with a titanium silencer like the Banish line, but not uncommon with aluminum silencers. A hard fall in the field could do it.
ASJ As of December 23, 2021, the ATF reinstated online filing of Form 4 applications for silencers. How is this going to affect the market?
BM If you think it’s big now, you haven’t seen anything yet. We were directly involved with the development and beta testing of the electronic filing system at the start. We had high hopes for it when it was first launched in 2014. Unfortunately, there were so many attempts to file Form 4 applications that the system crashed! With the new system finally online, the ATF will no longer need to hand-enter the information from applications into their computers. Initially, the only difference our customers will notice is that they will need to log into the ATF website to create a user account and get a unique pin number to identify themselves to the ATF throughout the application process. Naturally, we’ll walk customers through the ATF website on the phone if they need our help. On the back end, customers should see greatly reduced wait times for approvals. If the past is any indication of the future, the online applications will get processed faster right away. Then we’ll see a reduction in the time needed to process old-fashioned paper applications. As more and more applications are submitted digitally, it will surely reduce the volume of paper applications. It takes less time for the ATF staff to work through a small pile of paper applications than a big pile.
Reducing the ATF processing time was the one thing our customers wanted most, but it was something I had no direct control over. I could only influence the solution to this problem indirectly, mostly through lobbying Congress and advocating for increased funding for ATF to hire staff and reimplement the Form 4 e-filing system. After years of struggle, it seems like we’ve finally got over the last hurdle. Reducing the wait time is going to energize a lot of people to get their first silencer. Lots of people aren’t inclined to defray the enjoyment of their purchases for six months to a year and there are definitely some trust issues to address when someone else has your money and your silencer and all you’re left with is hopes for a good outcome. With my company South Dakota Silencer, then Dakota Silencer, and now Silencer Central, I strove to be forthright and transparent in our dealings with customers, and the ATF too, and it paid off. I earned their trust with years of work and it remains our most valuable company asset.