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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