Would a Pillow Silencer Actually Work?

Investigating a strange movie trope.

Flickr.com/ Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are a Hollywood villain and you decide to shoot someone in the head through a pillow. Well, you wouldn’t be the first. We’ve seen your type before in 2004’s Layer Cake and Willem Dafoe movies generally, and even the darker episode of Monk. But would that feathered assassination actually be stealthy or are you just mashing up real-world violence and pillow fight to no particular end?

In movies, Tempur-Pedic killings yield dramatic, yet quiet results. The gun is muffled and the assailant goes back to whatever leather-jacketed evil he’s pursuing. Things are more complicated in reality. “If you use a revolver you will have a lot of noise coming out of the slip around cylinder and barrel of the revolver,” says Per Rasmussen, an acoustics expert at the microphone manufacturer G.R.A.S. in Denmark. “If it is not a revolver, most of the noise is coming out of the end of the barrel.”

Rasmussen knows a thing or two about gun noises, having quantified the sounds of recreational firearms. But he’s never tried to shoot anything through a pillow. “I am only an expert in pillows in that I use them every night,” he says reassuringly. Still, he says using a poof as a silencer for a non-revolver makes sense.

“The pillow will certainly reduce the noise.”

That said, it won’t eliminate noise altogether. “If you look at just the noise from the trigger mechanism, it’s in the range of 100 decibels,” he says. “Maybe the pillow will reduce your peak level from 150 decibels to 120 decibels?”

For reference, a fighter jet sounds off at 150 dB on takeoff; 120 dB is a thunderclap.

Because the sound of a gunshot comes from gases rapidly expanding out of the barrel, if a pillow could seal the muzzle — containing and cooling the gases — there would, presumably, be lower sound levels. What about down feather versus a synthetic fiber? It might make a very slight difference, in Rasmussen’s opinion, but likely below the threshold of human hearing.

What happens when you take matters into your own hands? “We did a YouTube video with a pillow and a 9mm,” professional sports shooter Jerry Miculek told Inverse. “Worked better than expected.” The bullet passed through a polyester pillow, fusing some of the synthetic fibers along the way, and exploded the soda bottle on the other side:

A similar YouTube experiment with a 9 mm handgun and a decibel meter found reductions from a baseline of 160 dB to about 140 dB. But perhaps the most disappointing result is the lack of down feather explosion:

It’s certainly no silencer or suppressor. Though the near-inaudible James Bond thwipp! is pure fiction, there are some very quiet guns. “Silencers work, but they are long and give a gradual decrease to the pressure wave,” Rasmussen says. “The whole structure is optimized for this sole purpose.”

Pillows remain optimized naps, not dirt naps.

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