TLDR: No, a towel does not make for a good DIY silencer/suppressor.
Quick note from Ben: Crime writer James Pierson wrote in recently with a question about gun smoke in a scene he’s working on. The questions he sends via the contact form are always interesting, so I’ll turn his latest into a proper post again. Also, check out the crime fiction book review site Pierson runs over here.
In a classic scene from The Godfather: Part Two depicted in the video above, Robert De Niro’s character wraps a revolver in a towel before popping Don Fanucci in a hallway. The idea is that the towel acts as a DIY silencer for De Niro’s handgun. (Pro tip: Use “suppressor” instead of “silencer” in a story if you want to look extra smart, although readers probably won’t know what a “suppressor” is unless you tell them.) Additionally, the towel starts on fire.
How well would this scene hold up in reality?
Would a Towel Work as a DIY Silencer/Suppressor?
It’s tempting to start answering this question by figuring out what kind of revolver De Niro’s character is using, but that actually has nothing to do with it (for now). The answer is no, wrapping a gun in a towel would not do much to reduce the noise from a shot. Hollywood, as I write in The Writer’s Guide to Weapons, is a great way to learn what guns don’t do.
To understand why, check out this post about using pillows as silencers. Here’s the video from that post to save you some time:
The reason the pillow doesn’t work is the same reason a towel wouldn’t, either. Explosive gases created by a gunshot are what causes all that noise. If you can trap that gas, you can trap the noise (insert flatulence joke here). Pillows are porous, so it’s easy for that gas to find a way through the material. Towels are the same way.
There’s a reason silencers/suppressors are made out of metal and screw into the barrel of a gun for a tight fit. It takes something strong and sturdy to capture those gases. They might silence snoring or suppress your wet dog after a bath, but pillows and towels just aren’t up to the job.
However, that Godfather scene isn’t total bunk.
Lighting the Towel on Fire?
As for whether De Niro’s revolver would light the towel on fire as depicted in the scene, there is a nugget of truth there. That’s because revolvers have what’s called a “cylinder gap.” It’s the space between the cylinder (the round thing in a revolver that holds all the ammunition) and the barrel. Here’s what I mean:
When a revolver is fired, some of that explosive gas escapes through that cylinder gap. That’s why it’s a big time boo-boo to wrap a hand around the cylinder when firing. It’s an easy way to lose a finger. Mythbusters actually did an episode on this if you’re curious.
Considering the towel was wrapped against this gap, it’s feasible the explosive heat from De Niro’s gunshot could’ve singed the towel. I doubt it would’ve caught fire as depicted in the scene, though. That would have to be one flimsy, tinder-dry towel. And if that’s the case, it wouldn’t make for a very good silencer/suppressor anyway (by Hollywood standards).
An argument could be made that the fire started from the barrel side of things instead of the gap. Sure, that’s possible I suppose, but we’re still talking about singe levels, not a full on burn.
Someone could prove me wrong with a demonstration in the real world, but I’m not requesting anyone try that out. I’ll bet you enjoy your current finger count.
Oil Filters: A Better DIY Silencer/Suppressor
None of this means there aren’t ways for characters to MacGyver up a homemade silencer/suppressor. In fact, with the right paperwork here in the States, you can make one legally out of a standard vehicle oil filter. No, that’s not a typo:
It’s not as easy as sticking a barrel inside a filter, though. There’s a commercially manufactured adapter that makes the connection. That’s the part that requires all the paperwork. It’s federally regulated the same way as a traditional silencer/suppressor. Therefore, a character quickly rigging up an oil filter for a gun in a pinch is committing a crime. There’s just no way the federal government can turn around paperwork in 14 seconds. How that fits into your fictional characters’ profiles is up to you.
I’ll cover other types of homemade silencers/suppressors in another post. Just remember that any technique or device that muffles a gunshot a la a silencer – from towels to turnips – is subject to federal regulation.
Don’t Try This at Home
I’ll sound lame saying this again and again, but it’s important: I’m only here to give you information for use in writing fiction. Don’t try this stuff at home. Playing around with homemade silencers/suppressors might get you hurt or in trouble with the law depending on where you live. Don’t mess around with silencers/suppressors unless you are 100 percent positive what you’re doing is legal. Check out my disclaimer.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: