Subsonic considerations, Part 2 -continued from Part 1, here

Subsonic loads, while less noisy than supersonic ammunition, are not silent. Maximum noise reduction requires a suppressor and even suppressors cannot eliminate all the noise, although well-engineered examples used with loads with light powder charges, such as some .22 LR and some centerfire pistol loads fired from long barrels come very close.  Any discussion of using subsonic ammunition would not be comprehensive without discussing suppressors, although this issue is complicated.

Some folks have told me that they are not concerned with obeying the law, as during a SHTF scenario the laws on [name your issue!] will not be enforced as there will be nobody to enforce them. Perhaps, and then again, maybe not. On the one hand, you will certainly be placed on a list for future ‘special attention’ should you purchase such an item with the requisite tax stamps and approvals. Given the present legislation wending through the US Congress, that is a non-trivial concern. On the other hand, anyone who has ever bought a firearm from a dealer or anything shooting related on-line is on some sort of list, and one must consider the consequences at present of being caught with an illegal suppressor.

As noted in Part 1 of this article, we are in the beginning stages of the breakdown of these presently united States. Part of what we see today and a symptom of this collapse is the selective enforcement of the law, where laws are used to discriminate against those the present authorities abominate. As just one recent example, look at the treatment of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people, killing two in self defense, to avoid being beaten to death by an enraged Communist mob. Another is the ongoing hysteria revolving around the January 6th Patriot rally in DC. There are other examples, far too many to enumerate here, but my point is that assuming that when one needs a suppressor that one will not then have to be concerned about the law is a mistake. Even as our cities burn, the authorities in those cities are busy prosecuting the defenders, not the arsonists.  It is hard to predict at what point enforcement of firearms laws will become moot, if ever, but clearly we are not at that point now, at least if you love Liberty.

If an Antifa or BLM terrorist were to be caught with an unlicensed suppressor in a jurisdiction ruled by the Left, I would expect the matter to be quietly brushed off by both the legal authorities and the media, similar to the dismissal of arson, attempted murder of police officers, and rioting charges in places such as Portland Oregon.  On the other hand, should a member of the Liberty Movement be caught simply possessing an untaxed suppressor, even absent any other offense, I would expect such a person to be jailed without bail, prosecuted for every offense the DA can fabricate, his house, bank account, and property confiscated, his livelihood ruined, and his real and supposed offenses broadcast endlessly from every media outlet there is. In so-called conservative locales or the jurisdiction of conservative Federal judges, enforcement of these laws is likely to be severe, constitutional objections to these rules and laws notwithstanding. One cannot expect equality under the Law anymore, but there is still lawfare, and with Leftist control of law enforcement, which these days includes the Federal Government, the Left uses lawfare against its opponents. Ruthlessly.

The other point to consider is that like most activities, my understanding from those with experience in shooting suppressed is there is a learning curve for suppressor use. The presence of the suppressor at the muzzle changes the vibration characteristics of the barrel, and the suppressor also changes the pressure curve at the gas port. One cannot simply attach a suppressor to a rifle, especially to a self loading rifle, and expect problem-free results.  While I have never owned one, I have friends who’ve paid the tax and have legal suppressors, and I know from listening to them and watching them sort things out at the range that, like most things, running even a well engineered factory made suppressor effectively takes experience and practice.

Where can you do this if you were to decide to DIY? While some folks may possess or have friendly access to sufficiently private property to do the requisite testing on private land with less likelihood of being exposed to unfriendly eyes, in the Age of Drones and surveillance satellites, what was private 10 years ago may not be now. A small drone 400′ up is hard to see or hear.  Further, any time someone else knows something about you that could land you in prison for 10 years with ruinous fines, your PerSec is threatened.  You will never know when the friend you trust has been ‘rolled’ until you get arrested.  “Three can keep a secret when two are dead.”  Most people do not have private land, or access to sufficiently remote public land to use and test ‘free market’ equipment, and must use public ranges, which require copies of your paperwork. The consequences of being caught with a “free market” suppressor are severe and I do not advise it.  Your mileage may vary; you, O gentle reader, will have to reflect on your situation and decide for yourselves.

There are no good options; suppressor use of any sort comes with risks and issues. My personal decision has been to take the third path, avoid the entire business and try to minimize my noise signature without use of a suppressor. This includes not only low-noise ammunition, but also improving accuracy, so that follow-up shots are not needed. (“If you shoot twice, they know right where you are!”)

With this particular issue having been thoroughly flogged,  flensed and minced,  we’ll move on.

The next thing to consider is the effect of subsonic ammunition on sight requirements. As a young man, I engaged in NRA High Power competition, with indifferent results, but I was able to use military peep sights to hit military style practice targets at distances out to 1000 yards. (For those who have never shot NRA High Power, think big black round dots on pale tan backgrounds. The practicality of known distance High Power competition related to real world combat conditions is often debated.  High Power competition does instill familiarity with position shooting from standing, kneeling, sitting and prone, the four classic field positions used as foundations for most improvised positions.  It also teaches the use of the sling, a definite aid to hitting your target.)

I still have peep sights installed on my defense rifle as good peeps are the best iron sight system available, but these days optical sights are strongly preferred as the primary sighting system, since the target and the sights are all in focus at the same time. I can still hit silhouettes out to 600 yards with irons and special glasses, but my group size is larger than I like , and seeing the target in the first place continues to get more difficult as I continue to age. Target glasses that allow crisp clear sight pictures make the target area an indistinguishable blur; that big black dot can be referenced with some precision, but anything less distinct than black on tan will not be seen. My old eyes do not have the focal range they used to have, nor can I change focus as quickly as I used to do.  At the range, this is an annoyance.  In the field, inability to see game may mean going hungry.  In combat, failure to see the enemy first can mean death.

Even with good eyesight, good optical sights make target acquisition faster and improve precision. With supersonic rifle ammunition, a hit anywhere in the heart-lung area of most mammals is sufficient, and a peep sight or a decent scope without easy elevation or windage adjustment suffices for all reasonable hunting ranges. Not so with subsonic ammunition; the requirements are different.

Subsonic ammunition has lower power, so precise shot placement becomes more important.  By definition, subsonic ammunition does not deliver hydrostatic shock upon impact;  terminal effects are a function of the passage of the bullet through the structure and tissue it strikes.   Torso hits may eventually prove fatal, from infection if nothing else, but if a rapid stop is desired, one must be able to hit the CNS or central circulatory system. If you are out hunting with lower noise ammo after TSHTHTF, and you want to anchor your deer with one shot, a precise hit will be essential.  For close range with subsonic ammunition a red dot may be adequate, but at anything more than 100 yards, with the increased drop and windage and the need to provide accurate distance measurements, a good scope is essential.

So what are the requirements for optical sights used with subsonic systems?  Such a scope should be durable, accurate, precise, and have a good reticle (more shortly) but does not necessarily require high magnification, especially given that ranges will likely be close(r). A lot of folks seem hyped on high magnification scopes, but I prefer a more modest magnification level, for several reasons:

  • Higher magnification scopes of equal quality are often more expensive.
  • At high magnification, wobble becomes more evident, and encourages ‘snatching’ the trigger. From the bench, or using bags in the field, one can mitigate some of the wobble, but I see no reason to make more trouble for myself, and I’d rather not carry any extras in the field.
  • Higher magnification reduces the field of view. At a target match, one is unlikely to have to worry about somebody shooting back, but in some of the situations one may encounter when using subsonics, having an improved awareness of the area around your intended target may be a life-saver. Your target may have a rifle armed buddy nearby; better to see him before you reveal your presence.
  • The higher the magnification, the less effective your optics will be in low light conditions. Given that many of the recent riot/arson events occur at night it makes sense to get all the lowlight capability one can. If you divide the objective width of the lens of your intended optic (in mm) by the magnification, you get an idea of the low light capability of the scope. You want that number to be at least 5; 7 is better. You also want fully coated optically matched lenses to maximize light transmission through the scope.

Right now I run a relatively modest 3.5 to 10 powered variable on my training/subsonic stick, which has a relatively wide field of view at low power which is useful at close range, and the scope can be dialed up to 10x which is adequate for distances out to 200 yards or so on 4” to 6” wide targets using subsonic ammunition. Much larger magnification ranges (~5x magnification range) are currently available, 1.5-8x, 2-10x, 3-15x or 4-20x but they are much more expensive than the more modest scopes with a ~3x range. If one is going to try to match optics across rifles, this added cost is further compounded.

This brings us to reticles. Here is the one I use for subsonics, the Burris G2B mildot:

This reticle is 10 mils from post to post, horizontally and vertically, is marked to 1/2 mil increments and has an uncluttered field of view, allowing undistracted observation of the area around the target.  For subsonic use, I zero at 50 yards and dial for elevations.  I can range using the hashmarks and the various subtensions  to within about 5% to 10% of the actual distance to target as long as I know the target dimensions.  At distances out to perhaps 200 yards with subsonics, or 600 or so yards with high velocity center fire rifle ammunition, this suffices. I have standardized on this reticle and use it on both my training and my centerfire stick. Not only does this simplify training, but in the unhappy event that my primary long range scope fails, I have a backup. 2 is 1 and 1 is none.

Most people use variable power scopes these days, but you must decide how your reticle will present itself as the magnification changes. I’ve run both first focal plane (FFP) and second focal plane (SFP); each has pluses and minuses. I am not going to get into this issue here, but if you are setting up a subsonic rifle, whether it be a .22 or another caliber, as noted, I suggest that with respect to focal plane that you use the same type as your other defensive rifle(s). Shooting for your life is a high stress endeavor; best to keep the mechanics thereof simple.

Having a significant amount of elevation compensation available in the optic is essential, as drops from these kinds of cartridges at distances past 100 yards add up quickly. For example, a 170 grain Keith cast .357 semi-wadcutter delivered at a subsonic 1085 fps and zeroed at 50 yards in my AO would drop about 7″ at 100 yards, arriving there at 1000fps, 377 FPE, and drifting 2 inches in a 10 mph wind.  That is a 2 mil comeup to hit the center of the target, and a tad over a half mil windage.  The same load drops about 49 inches at 200 yards and would have a velocity of about 936 fps, with over 330 foot-pounds of impact energy. To get a center hit on a no-wind day, at 200 yards, you would have to dial 6.7 mils of elevation, with about 1.1 mils of wind drift for 10mph wind.At 300 yards, that 170 grain cast bullet still has ~900 fps of velocity and arrives with 300 FPE, but has dropped 130 inches; you’ll have to dial a total of 12 mils of elevation.  My long range stick requires that kind of elevation adjustment only well past 1000 yards, but subsonic loads have different requirements.  Other cartridges with similar velocities and ballistic coefficients have similar drop characteristics, but similar is NOT the same;  you, O gentle reader, will have to do your homework and test your selected load to be sure.  PPPPPP.

To summarize sight requirements:

Any firearm intended for use with subsonic ammunition past perhaps 50 yards, certainly any arm being employed past 100 yards, should be equipped with a high quality precision optic with a duplex reticle with both windage and elevation gradations in either mils or MOA. This scope should have the same type of reticle (mils or MOA) with the same focal plane system and similar spacing of the hashmarks to the reticle you use on your long range centerfire rifle.  Elevation and windage should be readily and repeatably user adjustable in the field without tools with ample elevation adjustment.  The scope should be mounted on a rugged sloped base with oversized screws in heavy duty rings so as to take advantage of all the elevation available.

I will note that when shooting at distance, I usually dial for elevation and hold for wind, whether I am practicing with subsonics at 200 yards, or with centerfire at medium or long range.  My thinking is that wind drifts past 4 mils are rare, except in extreme conditions or at extreme ranges, and the wind usually will change more rapidly than the distance, although if moving targets are contemplated, knowing the incremental drop at the dialed range is very useful.  My dope sheets for subsonics show that data.

To summarize and conclude this 2-part article:

Having the ability to hit with subsonic rounds at distances out to perhaps 300 yards is useful in training for long range rifle shooting. Such skills have potential for practical application, too; subsonic .22LR provides more discretion, and cast bullet subsonic loads can provide more power. .22LR is a viable option as long as ammunition can be had, while cast bullet loads are another tool in the toolbox, at 1/10 to 1/20 the cost of full power rifle rounds, putting them within the price range of almost every American who can afford a firearm. While the likelihood of actually needing to hit with my long distance stick at 1000 yards in my AO is low, in my considered judgment, having trained for shooting at long distance makes shorter distance shots easier; if you train to hit with subsonic loads at 200 or 300 yards or even 100 yards, then you will find transitioning to long range centerfire rifle rounds to be much easier. Besides, as my friends who have ‘seen the elephant’ tell me, Murphy was an optimist; better to have the skill and not need it than need it and not have it. I hope that you, O gentle reader, find my reflections on subsonic ammunition and its employment and appurtenances of use to you. Remember, please, that reading is NOT doing, and time is not on your side.

With regard to all who seek the Light,


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