Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns

[NOTE: The below post is not meant to be an endorsement for or a prohibition against guns in the real world in which we all live. It is a discussion of firearms in fiction. Keep comments civil… or I’ll boot you out the airlock into the silent void.]

Guns, man. Guns.

*flexes biceps*

*biceps which turn into shotguns that blow encroaching ninjas to treacly gobbets*



If you’re a writer in a genre space — particularly crime, urban fantasy, some modes of sci-fi — you are likely to write about some character using some gun at some point.

And when you write about the use of a gun in your story, you’re going to get something wrong. When you do, you will get a wordy email by some reader correcting you about this, because if there’s one thing nobody can abide you getting wrong in your writing, then by gosh and by golly, it’s motherfucking guns. Like how in that scene in The Wheel Of Game of Ringdragons when Tyrion the Imp uses the Heckler & Koch MP7 to shoot the horse out from under Raistlin and Frodo, the author, Sergei R. R. Tolkeen, gets the cartridge wrong. What an asshole, am I right?

You can get lots of things wrong, but you get guns wrong?

You’ll get emails.

As such, you should endeavor to get this stuff right. If only to spare yourself the time.

I’ve gotten them wrong from time to time, despite growing up around guns (my father owned and operated a gun store — we were hunters, we had a shooting range at the house, I got my first gun at age 12, etc.etc., plus he was a gunsmith, as well) and despite owning them.

Thus, seems a good time to offer up some tips on how to write guns well, and some common mistakes authors make when using the shooty-shooty bang-bangs in the stories they write. And yes, I’m probably going to get something in this very post wrong, and I fully expect you to correct me on it, YOU SELF-CONGRATULATORY BASTARDS.

Also — keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive.

You should go to the comments and add your own Things Writers Get Wrong About Guns.

• Let’s just get this out of the way now — if you want to write about guns, go fire one. Go to the range. Pick up a gun. Use it. This is your first and best line of defense when writing about a character and her firearm. Also, when you’re writing about murder, YOU SHOULD MURDER SOMEONE. Wait, no, don’t do that. I certainly never have! Ha ha ha! *kicks corpse under desk*

• Specificity breeds error. If you’re not highly knowledgeable about guns, then you might be best drifting away from specificity rather than toward it. The more particular you try to be about including details (“Dave held the Smith & Weston .45 revolver aloft and after jamming the clip into the cylinder he thumbed off the safety…”) the more you’re likely to get wrong. There’s value in just saying, y’know, he pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. You don’t have to get masturbatory with details. Admittedly, some genres like that kind of masturbation, but it’s a detail you can tweak later.

• Also masturbatory: All that egregious action-jacking. Characters don’t always need to do some fancy “jack the action” shit every time they’re handling a gun. Some guns need that. Some do not. Doing that will nearly always eject the shell that’s in the chamber, which is only a thing you want if it’s an empty casing and the gun does not automatically eject empty casings for you. Because many guns — like, say, pistols — are very efficient that way.

• No, the air did not stink of cordite. This is so common, it hurts me. Besides it being sorta dumb — I mean, it’s so needlessly specific, it’s like saying someone ate a banana and “tasted the potassium” — it’s also wildly inaccurate. Cordite hasn’t been in use pretty much since the middle of last century. Modern gunpowder is, like cordite, a smokeless propellant. (It’s also not very powdery; my father reloaded his own ammo and I was struck that gunpowder is more like little beads, like something a robot might eat atop its ice cream sundae. *crunch crunch crunch*)

• Revolvers don’t generally have external safeties. They do have safety mechanisms — hard-to-pull triggers, hammer blocks, etc. — but not many with traditional external safeties. (A rare few have what’s called a “grip safety,” particularly on hammerless revolvers, which despite their name aren’t actually hammerless, but merely conceal the hammer inside the gun. Blah blah blah. SO MANY THINGS TO GET WRONG.)

• Nope, Glocks don’t really have the standard manual safeties, either. More on a Glock’s safe action system here. Oh, and yes, a Glock will set off metal detectors. They’re not Hasbro toys.

• This is a magazine. This is a clip. Note the difference.

• This is a cylinder.

• This is Tommy, and he’s thuglife.

• The bullet is the projectile. The casing is the brass beneath it, in which you find the powder. Beneath that is the primer (which is what the firing pin strikes to set the whole party off). The entire thing is the cartridge (sometimes referred to as a ’round’). The caliber is the measurement of the bullet’s diameter. A caliber of .22 is 0.22 inches in diameter. Might also be measured in millimeters, as in 9mm. I’m surprised men don’t measure their wangs this way.

• Shotguns do not use bullets, and the ammo isn’t called ‘cartridges.’ They are called ‘shotgun shells.’ If if contains pellets, it might be referred to as a shotshell. If it contains a slug, probably not. In a shotshell, buckshot is larger pellet size, birdshot is smaller pellet size. Shotgun shells are measured not in caliber but rather, gauge (or bore), indicating a somewhat archaic measure of weight, not diameter. Then there’s the .410 (four-ten) bore. I don’t know why they do it that way. I’m going to blame wizards. Gun-wizards.

• Pistols let you know when your shit is empty. Last round fired — the action snaps back as if to say, “Hi, look at me, I’m no longer firing mushrooming lead at those aliens over there.” So, you can never have that scene where the hero or villain points the gun, pulls the trigger, and it goes click. I know, this robs you of such precious drama. Work around it.

• Guns do not have an eternal supply of rounds. They run out! True story.

• A ‘firearm’ is not a man whose arms are on fire, nor do they shoot fire.

• But that would be pretty sweet.

• Automatic weapon: one trigger pull = lotta rounds. Semi-auto: one trigger pull = one round. But, with a semi-auto, you can pull that trigger very quickly to fling many bullets quickly.

• Most revolvers are double-action, meaning you can pull back the hammer and have a very sensitive, light-touch trigger pull. Or you can leave the hammer uncocked (like a eunuch), and have a harder, more stubborn pull of the trigger. Revolvers that can only fire with the hammer drawn back are called “single-action.” Also, the archaic name for revolver is “wheel-gun.” Which is pretty nifty. Shotguns are sometimes called “scatterguns,” which I don’t think is as nifty, but whatever.

• I’ll let Myke Cole tell you about trigger discipline.

• Holy fuckpucker, firearms are fucking loud. A gun going off nearby will cause a user without ear protection to hear eeeeEEEEEEeeeee for an hour, maybe a day, maybe more. The sound is worse on the shooty bang bang side of the gun than it is for the user behind the weapon.

• Silencers — aka, suppressors — are basically bullshit, at least in terms of what most fiction thinks. They do not turn the sound of your BIG BANG-BANG into something resembling a mouse fart. It carves off about 20-30 decibels off somewhere between 150-200 decibels. The goal isn’t stealth so much as it is ear protection. They’re frequently illegal in the US.

• In an AR-15, AR does not stand for assault rifle, but rather, ArmaLite rifle. An assault rifle is a specific kind of combat rifle meant for service — like, say, an M-16 or AK-47. An assault weapon is a legal term with lots of floating definitions (some meaningful, many not). (Note: I have no interest in discussing the politics of firearms below, as it has little bearing on the discussion. OKAY THANK YOU. *jetpacks away, whoosh*)

• Precision means how tight your grouping when firing at a target — meaning, all hits are scored close together. Accuracy indicates how close those hits were to the intended target. They are not interchangeable. So, if you fired ten rounds at Robo-Hitler, and all ten rounds missed but were in a nice little grouping on that barn wall — hey, precision! If your hits were scattered all over the place and one of them clocked Robo-Hitler in his little cybernetic Hitlerstache, that’s accurate, but not precise. And, ten rounds in the center of Robo-Hitler’s chest is both accurate and precise.

• Many firearms must be “sighted in” for precision and accuracy.

• Nobody turns their guns sideways to fire except dumbshits who like not hitting targets. The sights on top of a gun are there for a reason, as it turns out. IT’S ALMOST LIKE THEY WERE PUT THERE ON PURPOSE. Note: that’s not to say your fiction does not contain dumbshits who do this — it’s just noting that doing this is totally ineffective.

• Most untrained users are neither accurate nor precise with firearms. Particularly if they’ve never held one or used one before. So, that scene where the utterly untrained user picks up a pistol and puts a blooming rose right between the eyes of the assailant 50 yards away — that’s lottery-winner lucky. Now, a shotgun using shotshells — well, you get a spray pattern with those pellets, so that offers a much better chance. (Which is why for an untrained user a shotgun is a smart home defense weapon. Also, a bullet could go through drywall and strike an unintended target — a less likely effect with a shotgun.)

• Bullets are not magically sparky-explodey. They’re not matches. They don’t set fire to things.

• Ragdoll physics are super-hilarious in video games, but someone struck by a bullet does not go launching backward ten feet into a car door. The recoil is largely against the user of the gun, not the recipient of the hot lead injection.

• Actually, an untrained user of a gun might find that recoil particularly difficult to manage at first — a scope might give them a black eye, a pistol might jump out of their hands or (if held too close to the face) might bop their nose. I mean, the reason the butt of a rifle or shotgun is padded is because OW I HAVE A BRUISE NOW.

• Dropped guns do not discharge.

• Hollow-point bullets are meant for damage (“stopping power”) more than penetration — the bullet, upon hitting the tender flesh of the alien, blooms like a metal flower due to that dimple of space in the bullet. It expands, makes a bigger projectile. Which does more internal injury — but doesn’t necessarily penetrate all the way to the other side of the XENOFORM. In theory, this makes the bullets safer (er, “safer”) as they do not pass through and strike other innocent targets. For the alien that just got shot, it is obviously not as, erm, caring. (Hollow point bullets are not really armor-piercing, by the by.) One company does make “Zombie Max” bullets, which is completely fucking ludicrous tying a pop culture phenomenon of fake supernatural entities to actual cartridges, thus enticing children and other goonheads to think HAW HAW HAW ZOMBIE BULLETS WHOA COOL. Zombies are not real, and firearms are not toys.

• Laser guns are rad. PYOO PYOO.

Your turn.

What else?

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  • Long guns ( like rifles and shotguns) can be really…long. Especially shotguns that are meant for hunting birds – pheasants, ducks, quail, etc – often have barrels up to 28″. That is, the distance from the firing chamber where the shell goes (usually over the trigger) to the end of the gun is over two feet. A gun with a full stock (like it still goes against your shoulder) is usually over 4′ long, often closer to 50″. Using a gun like that inside a building or in cluttered areas is really awkward – banging into stuff and catching the barrel on things. It’s really hard to walk through a house with a long gun against your shoulder and ready to fire. This is why 18″ barrel shotguns, often with shortened “Pistol grip” stocks are used as home defense guns.

    Hunting rifles and some shotguns designed primarily for slug use are shorter, but they are still cumbersome in tight quarters.

    A good rule of thumb – the longer the barrel, the longer the distance the weapon is accurate. This goes for pistols as well – some large caliber revolvers can be had with 7″-9″ barrels and can be used for deer hunting in heavy cover.

  • I’ve been a police officer (United States) for almost fifteen years. Carrying a pistol on one’s hip for twelve hours can be tiring. Even my Glock 19 can get heavy. Writers don’t address that aspect very often. You have to change the way you walk through doorways or get in and out of a car as well. Believe it or not a holstered pistol catches on things. Also you’re constantly aware of where your pistol is in relation to people standing next to you. Often folks tend to get very close to me and I’m all too aware of how easy it would be for somebody to try and grab my pistol. Yes I have a security level holster to make it difficult for somebody to snatch, but nothing is perfect. Many an officer has been killed or injured by their own handgun after a bad-guy has gotten hold of it and turned it against the officer.

    Finally the typical officer involved shooting is often very fast and often takes place within 21 feet or 7 yards. On average if there is just one officer involved he or she fires an average of 3.5 bullets. Note the average in that sentence. Accuracy is around 25%. The military doesn’t do much better so the cop haters can take a breather. I’ve never shot anybody, but I’ve drawn my pistol more than once. A few times it happened so fast I was surprised to see that I had my pistol out and was pointing it at somebody. You have to experience it to understand what I’m talking about. I’ve also had the experience of trying to arrest a suspect and suddenly realize that his hand is grasping at my holstered pistol.

    Here is an interesting article on officer involved shootings. Some of the info might surprise you.

    • May 2, 2015 at 8:37 AM // Reply

      I read an article once by, I think, Massad Ayoob, and it stated most officers involved in a shooting rarely remember how many rounds were expended and only become aware of reloading after picking up discarded magazines afterwards.

  • May 2, 2015 at 5:49 PM // Reply

    You gave solid information on all counts except one. Shotguns used for home defense don’t often have room to expand much out of the barrel before hitting an assailant inside a home. Aiming is still a requirement as expansion of the pellets will not really amount to much in 20 feet or less.

  • This is a great post and is exactly what I was looking for. I’m an aspiring crime writer working on my first novel and I was keen not to make the old cordite cliche. But as someone who knows little about guns can I ask you to expand on that point a little more, particularly in relation to modern day firearms.

    In my novel there’s a scene where there’s a big shootout indoors (a medium sized, poorly ventilated warehouse) with multiple shooters firing automatic weapons. How strong would the smell be with moder day propellants? What do they smell of if anything? And are the modern propellants completely smokeless?

    P.S. While I like your advice of going to a gun range, I live in London, England, and rightly or wrongly gun ownership is strictly controlled and getting access to a range is almost impossible.

    • The smell in a medium sized, poorly ventilated warehouse would be noticeable to those who are familiar with it, but would likely just be a bad smell to those who don’t know what’s been going on.

      Gun powder smells sharp and acrid, and depending on the load it can smell different. (reloads tend to smell more like sulfur like rotten eggs, and some brands seem to have a hint of ammonia smell) Most of the base for smokeless powder is nitrocellulose, so if you can find old film negatives, you might try burning one for an idea. I think it’s also what flash paper for fire tricks in magic is made out of, so that should be something you can source in the UK.

      “Smokeless” powder still has some smoke. Here’s a man having fun with a .50 black powder rifle (I’ve cut to the shooting, but he shows how to load it as well): He’s got a stiff breeze to clear that cloud of smoke. I believe this is the modern .50 plus he’s shooting multiple rounds. Still less smoke, and depending on the round and target loads versus hunting loads, the smoke will vary, but it won’t be enough to block your view (unless you’re shooting a ridiculous amount) the way a black powder firing line would create a “fog of war”.

      • January 3, 2016 at 7:10 PM // Reply

        As a photographer, I would note that nitrocellulose film is quite rare these days, as “safety film” was introduced in the 1930s and as nitrocellulose film decomposes. So burning “old film” may just leave you with a glob of polyester or acetate.

  • This article is old now and my comments may not be reasonable, relavent or timely.

    I’m one of those guys who’ll chastise a writer for getting gun terminology wrong. I read for pleasure. My mind sets a pace to the story and the story becomes a world to me. Throw in a misused gun word and my mind/story jars to a stop. Generally, when that happens I’ll wonder if I’m wrong or the author. So, I’ll go and Google to be sure. There’s no reason the author can’t Google first and get it correct. But, I suspect this is more a publisher or editor problem.

    Most things I’d expect a writer needed to know are covered in both the article and following comments. I’d add two small things. Gunpowder comes, predominantly, in one of three forms. Ball, stick, or flake. There are manufacturing reasons that if its pertinent to your story you can research.

    The mentioned story about a guy shooting a shark a few feet away is silly. Under water the way to kill a shark is with the muzzle of the gun touching the shark. The bullet does not kill the shark. Rather the expanding gas from the burning gunpowder following the bullet into the shark does. It pretty much turns internal organs to jelly. You may Google “bang stick” to read about this physical phenomenon. I think I’ve only seen Lee Child use it in a story.

    Have at it folks. Please….please…never use the word clip. In the very few rare instances when it would be correct, I can excuse your error. Assume it’s a magazine. It’ll make your story much more enjoyable to me.

    Oh, sorry to say that while a Lugar does have a safety, the real name is PO8. But, that’s so seldom used that saying Lugar is probably universal.

  • Like James above, I’m grateful to have found this post, even if I’m late to the party. Hopefully someone out there in internetland is still reading replies and will be able to answer my question.

    I’m writing a book of historical fiction, set in 1913 and based on true events. The real-life thing I’m writing about is the shooting death of a man by his wife. He was shot in the “left forehead” (real inquest description) at a range of 2-4 feet. The gun used is described as a .32 Smith & Wesson, and the shot is fired in the living room of a very small house.

    So here are my questions:
    1) How loud is the shot? What would someone in such a small space experience?
    2) What/how strong is the smell?
    3) What is the force of the shot when fired? I.e. what does taking the shot feel like in the hand of a relatively small woman?
    4) In the inquest transcripts I have, the gun is always referred to as a revolver. For the sake of variety, can I call it anything else?

    Thanks in advance for help and advice!

    • 1) Depends on where she is in the room and the contents of the room. Lot of furniture and carpet, with her standing toward the center, it will be loud, but not incapacitating. If she’s next to a wall, the bouncing sound might stun her a bit. I’ve been in front of the sonic muzzle blast from a shotgun before, it dropped me to my knees, and I make sure when I’m firing at squirrels that the muzzle of the shotgun is not where a hard surface like a wall or car is going to bounce sound back at me, or it seems much, much louder.

      As for other people hearing it, that will depend on the buildings, construction, and in some cases temperature and humidity that day. I think handguns are generally in the 150-155 decibel range, and rock concerts are around 150. Loud bass on a car would be up to 135 decibels. So, LOUD, but something that might be mistaken for a slamming door a couple houses down. Even less if she used a pillow or potato as a silencer. According to some websites, the decibel threshold for pain is 140, so it would hurt her ears.

      2) The smell is gunpowder. It’s an acrid, sulfuric smell, but it really isn’t a smell you get from much other material. 1913, she might (*might*) be shooting a round with cordite, which smells a bit different than smokeless powder, but describing it as sharp, strong, chemical, burnt, et cetera should get the point across. If you’re not in a gun restricted country, find a handgun range and go sniff for yourself. I can tell in the parking lot of most ranges that guns have been fired. Gun shot residue is tested for because it clings, so she’d smell a little like spent powder until her next shower.

      3) This is going to depend on the gun and the mechanics of the shooter’s grip. I have a .410 shotgun that kicks harder than my 20 gauge, (.410 is maybe half the diameter of a 20 gauge shell.) .32 pistols can be anything from big guns with big grips that buck a little in your hands to tiny little things stripped down for concealed carry where the full force of the shot is going to transfer to the shooter’s hands. If she’s holding it in both hands with her wrists in line and her elbows locked, it might hardly feel like she’s shot a thing. If she’s got it in one hand or is loosely gripping it in both hands with her elbows bend and her wrists braced wrong, it can feel like getting slammed in the hands with a baseball bat. There’s a lot of variables. And it’s subjective as hell. Many people think firing a gun hurts because their ears hurt from the sound, so they flinch and have poor mechanics and it gets worse. If she practiced and it went poorly, she’ll be anticipating a lot more pain and likely be bracing wrong. If she practiced and it went well, or is doing this in the heat of the moment, she might not notice anything. (Also in 1913, baking and kneading by hand, even a tiny woman is going to have wrist and forearm definition not found in most women in 2015.)

      As for bad ways to hold a gun, fingers past the cylinder of a revolver would be a good way to get serious burns:

      4) Revolver, gun, handgun, pistol, six-gun, wheel gun, piece, etc. Period appropriate slang might include bean shooter, gat, and hogleg (usually used to describe a large pistol.)

      Also, it’s November, use the forums. There’s a lot of good resources at the Reference Desk

    • This message board has been very helpful to me and no doubt Flo’s response will be helpful to you to. One thing I would recommend though is a visit to Benjamin Sobieck’s website, The Writer’s Guide to Weapons (see here: He’s published a book of the same name through Writer’s Digest. As well as a aspiring crime novelist, I’m also a book blogger and I’ve reviewed Ben’s book on my blog, here:

  • A small side note I didn’t see addressed–if you want your character to run out of bullets without realizing it, have them use a revolver. Revolvers don’t lock back or anything when they run out of ammunition, so you can have that “click–uh oh” moment with one if you find it important and necessary for this to occur with your character.

  • A couple of things, you mentioned the smell and that it’s not cordite. There is a faint smell and I was told it was ozone. Thoughts? Secondly, especially for women who shoot…spent shell casings are frelling HOT. I have a burn scar in my cleavage from range practice years ago. Just sayin. :)

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