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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248 responses to “Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns”

  1. Ten thousand apologies, but some of the rude letters you receive about getting gun details wrong may be from my husband. The only thing that winds him up worse is cars making the wrong noise in movies.

  2. Guns can fire when submerged underwater. I got this one wrong and heard about it for quite a while — including an amused email from my father. And including a YouTube video of a gun being fired while submerged underwater.

          • Pretty much any type of firearm that uses sealed cartridges will work underwater. The guns that will have a problem with water are old black powder type weapons. Think American Civil War era or older.

            To become a problem, water has to get to the powder. Black powder guns have an open hole at the breech (the end of the barrel closest to the shooter) which allows water to soak the powder. Wet powder will not ignite, thus causing the failure. As the vast majority of modern ammunition is completely sealed, the powder is protected, which is why they will fire underwater.

          • Flintlocks and matchlocks, mostly. Even a percussion cap blackpowder rifle or pistol, with a properly seated ball and patch and a percussion cap primer that was put on while the parts were all dry, *should* still fire in the rain. There is a German saying that roughly translates to “All is for nought if an angel pisses in your flash pan”, referring to a time when powder wasn’t standard and the wrong humidity could cause a lack of ignition. And it wasn’t always obvious when your weapon had been rendered useless by damp powder in the flashpan (the little bit of powder the spark from the flint or the fuse from the matchlock was meant to ignite, that would then set off the powder in the barrel.)

          • Addressed below regarding non-cartridge ammo. For cased cartridge ammo, If the weapon is underwater long enough, enough water may seep in to wet the propellant or render the primer inert, but it would take a while absent manufacturing defects. It’s about as likely that the weapon would corrode or otherwise experience a mechanical problem causing a firing malfunction as that the ammunition would be damaged. (Retrieving a weapon that has been underwater for several minutes and using it is a minor plot point in the wham-bang Geena Davis thriller “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”)

            What would be interesting to me is to what extent caseless cartridge ammunition is vulnerable to moisture spoilage. The answer is probably “not much,” but I don’t know.

            Yes, caseless cartridges are a thing – still largely experimental in human-portable weapons, but they basically mix the propellant with plastic or something and cast a solid one-piece unit out of it. They are usually electrically fired by a power source in the firearm. They’re lighter than cased ammo and don’t require brass nor dealing with it after firing. It’s a pretty logical idea although implementation has been slow.

      • Couldn’t get a new comment started for some reason, so I am replying here. Only point I would mention is the specificity of pistols and revolvers. They are not interchangeable. Pistols are semi-auto.

        • So, technically, are revolvers. However, absent a few historical curiosities, there are no fully automatic revolvers, whereas fully automatic pistols are uncommon but by no means unheard of.

          A person familiar with handguns who is not an utter pedant will usually refer to any self-loading pistol as an “auto,” even though the odds are high that it is actually semi-automatic. A bit of gun-slang for you.

          Similarly, the vast majority of revolvers are single or double action (hammerless/concealed hammer versions being the only important exception.) However, while most pistols are single or double action, “Double Action Only” or DAO pistols are likewise not uncommon. (They tend to be the cheaper sort.)

          This response, by the way, is an example of the kind of thing our noble host means. 😉

    • The reliability of firearms doing this underwater – more specfically, whether they will do any damage if a hit is scored – is much more questionable than whether the gun will actually go off, as you’ve found out. 🙂

      It’s a minor plot point in John Ringo’s new zombie universe that one of the characters kills a shark which is about to eat him by shooting it while they are both several feet underwater. Ringo is one of the aforementioned gun nuts: if he says it would work, it would work, and if the character is concerned that it won’t – which he is – there is a legitimate concern that it won’t.

  3. I’d love to go shootin’ firearms (at targets or inanimate objects only, obviously!) but I live across the pond in dear ol’ Blighty, so alas, I cannot. That said, my Dad was very proficient with shooty-bang-bang devices, so I actually know a good deal of the myths about guns from him and know how they feel in the hands, at least.

    Just not how they feel spewing hot leaden death at my enemies, which I can only assume to be a good thing.

    • Unless and until you have an enemy you need to spew hot leaden death at, it is in fact a good thing. 🙂

      You may be able to go to a shooting-club near you and at least shoot a shotgun, if you’d like to try it for yourself. They are strictly controlled but AFAIK still continue to operate in the UK.

  4. The ‘cartridge’/’shells’ distinction for shotguns might be a US usage thing. Certainly my 1975 copy of ‘Shotguns & Cartridges for Game and Clays’ refers to them as ‘cartridges’ throughout.

  5. Solid list!

    I married a gunsmith with a very nice gun collection, which means that I have access to a built-in encyclopedia of guns at any time. He’s also the first to critique when I write something dumb about a gun.

    I would add to the list: take a good hard look at the gun you are writing about. If you can’t see it in person, there are a ton of neat, illustrated gun encyclopedias out there with full color photos and detailed schematics. Get an idea of what it looks like so you can write intelligently about it.

  6. Nice one, Chuck. And as the former editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly I applaud you. Comprehensive, entertaining and useful. Correct on the “whiff of cordite” thing, however, one does indeed smell propellant when firing high-powered firearms and you’re likely to go home from the range with the smell still on your clothes. Real chick magnet stuff.

  7. The UK doesn’t have many gun ranges these days. There’s an outright ban on handguns, and very strict parameters about owning shotguns and hunting rifles. So getting actual hands-on experience over here is gonna be difficult.

    This is one of the few times I appreciate being older than the gun law and also having a husband that was in the Air Corps. Though “I’ve shot a gun” sounds more impressive in the UK than in the US.

  8. Author J. Daniel Sawyer published a wonderful volume titled, Throwing Lead, for authors to use as a resource on this subject. It also happens to be a fun read.

  9. According to MythBusters, diving underwater is excellent protection from goons shooting at you, since their bullets will fairly disintegrate within inches of the surface (they submerged their test dummy in a couple feet of water and fired all manner of guns at it, from pistols up to a .50 cal sniper rifle; nothing at all hit the dummy, and most of the bullets turned to tiny little bullet-esque fragments. Low velocity bullets like musket balls, however, proved a threat). So these scenes in movies (Italian Job, for instance) where goon-bullets zip through the water . . . yeah, total bollocks.

    And, the episode where the MB team tries to replicate the Casino Royale (Daniel Craig version) propane-tank-meets-9mm explosion is just priceless . . .

    • I think my favorite one was where they tried to replicate the bullet-grabbing magnetic watch. But yes, if you have a question about fictional gun use, it’s worthwhile to see if the MythBusters have had a go at it.

      Part of the protection, however, is surface tension. Shooting the gun *from* underwater is a little different from shooting *into* water. It’s still not great, but shooting somebody when the bullet never leaves the water is more likely to do SOME damage than shooting into water.

  10. I learned a lot of what I needed to know about guns in fiction from being in Inception fandom. There was a guide that I relied on rather heavily, written by someone who did have experience with guns. I loved the commentary throughout, too. Yes, I became friends with the writer of the guide. They were an invaluable resource. 🙂 The guide starts here:

    • kinda like dusty smoke, kinda like boiled eggs. I tell my wife it smells like testosterone, but she always comments that testosterone makes a different boiled egg smell, and usually I only let her smell it at night while I sleep.

      • This is an excellent and evocative description. Note also that “smokeless” propellant is like “stainless” steel – it smokes *less,* it doesn’t not smoke at all. Heavy shooting produces a Hellacious amount of noise and so much smoke you soon won’t be able to see absent a strong draft to clear it.

        Black-powder guns, including black-powder cartridge guns (they are quite common in historical recreation shooting) smell sulfury and burnt, and produce WAY more smoke and often visible flame at the muzzle. They tend to be somewhat quieter, although they’re still very loud.

        (Black powder is much less efficient at combustion, unburned powder is often ejected from the muzzle and ignites from secondary effects when it gets more oxygen in the atmosphere outside the barrel. Shooting them at twilight looks like a very noisy, very inefficient flamethrower.)

  11. When I first went to the range, I was surprised at how hard it was to load rounds into the magazine (.40 S&W in my case). They fit in tightly and take a fair amount of thumb strength to push against the spring inside. Most regular-looking shooters used a plastic device to do it for them. I would never want to reload a magazine in the middle of a conflict.

    • Excellent point. Also, SMART SHOOTERS CARRY MULTIPLE MAGAZINES. That is the whole point of magazines. I asked a friend of mine who was a deputy sheriff/SWAT responder how often he’d ever seen a perp carry a spare magazine.

      He thought for a minute and said, “Never. I’ve seen ’em shoot dry, but they never carry spare ammo or magazines.”

      This isn’t strictly true – there have been some heavily armed criminals who gave as good or better than they got in firefights – but statistically, cops and experts have loaded magazines. Thugs have at best a fully loaded (and usually not, they’re too lazy to push past the full magazine spring or reload after a celebratory round or two) weapon.

  12. Good clear info. In England and Ireland, though, shotgun shells can be called shotgun cartridges. Military bullets tend to pass through without expanding much, so you can actually survive being shot, while hunting rounds will kill you even if you’re got in the the belly – a slow painful death, though. they expand (like hollowpoints as described) to do great damage, making a hole so wide it will hit one or other of your vitals. I too have a gunsmith father and have shot and hunted etc, but if I had to write about handguns in a story I’d have to ask my dad to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake – he’s the typical guy who watches a movie and just counts bullets and calls bullshit. He did once nod appreciatively when a hero, I think it was Alec Baldwin, pushed at the slide of a gun (pistol) pointed at him and jammed it. Apparently that’ll work, if you don’t get your hand shot first. And glocks are not nice and smooth to shoot, either, which you’d imagine they would be.
    now, back to that second draft…

    • Some of that’s the difference between the performance of jacketed and unjacketed rounds.
      And, yeah on the Glock: it’s not a Cadillac, it’s a forklift. Its virtue is simplicity (and thus reliability, ease of maintenance, accuracy) and it’s an effective tool but it’s not especially “nice” to handle.
      Automatics usually have an internal safety that prevents discharge unless the slide is forward, to ensure the round is seated before discharge; it’s possible to prevent it from firing by pushing the slide back if you have the nerve (and the right grip on the weapon). There’s a similar trick for revolvers that involves using the flesh between your thumb and forefinger to block the hammer’s fall. Again, better to avoid being there than try to get your hand in the right place at the exact moment you need to pull this off – but in a thriller about a badass you can make crazy things happen.

      • For an example of the latter, Danny Glover’s character does it early in the film Lethal Weapon. And, exactly as it would in real life, the firing pin makes a hole in the web of his thumb but the hammer is fortunately slowed enough that the weapon doesn’t fire.

        For an example of the former, John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows has on multiple occasions reached out and hit a takedown release on a weapon being pointed at him, which renders it inoperable and often causes it to start falling apart. This is right on the edge of possible, but it could theoretically be done.

  13. Bullets have weight, and a full magazine is noticeably different from an empty one. This holds true when the magazine is in the weapon, especially when you’re talking about bigger magazines – I remember the difference between the 20 and 30-round mags versus an unloaded weapon from my Army days. It’s also very noticeable in the high-capacity semi-auto handguns I’ve fired; less so in the revolvers I’ve fired, though those were .22 target pistols. This means that even a moderately experienced gun user is likely to know if he’s low on ammo, or perhaps out – although the adrenaline dump and sensory overload of combat may push that down the awareness ladder.

    For that matter, a lot of handguns are relatively heavy for their size, and it can be hard for even an experienced shooter to hold one steady at arm’s length for an extended period.

    Full automatic fire generates a lot of recoil which makes controlling where the bullets go a challenge (unless you’re talking about something like the coaxial machine gun of tank or some other firmly fixed mount). This is why soldiers are trained to fire short bursts from small arms, and bursts of 6-10 rounds from machine guns.

    • Liam Neeson’s character castigates a bad guy he’s pulled this trick on for not realizing that his gun was too light to be loaded in Taken.

      Speaking of weight, another issue – guns are heavy, and they are unwieldy. They’re really easy to drop in a firefight or close combat situation, especially handguns. See the FBI firefight I posted about below – two of the agents lost their guns during a car accident, and it took them some time to recover them. You cannot jump around like a spider and expect to even hold on to a heavy pistol, much less fire it with any accuracy whatsoever.

  14. I knew practically every thing mentioned in this post already, but – I did learn something new: that was accuracy versus precision.

    The four rules of gun safety would have been good to include, from the first comment on Myke’s article. He talks about lack of discipline, but he himself doesn’t say what good discipline IS.

    1. It’s always loaded.
    2. Don’t point it at someone you don’t want to die.
    3. Be mindful of what’s behind and around the target.
    4. Keep your fucking finger off the fucking trigger until you’re absolutely certain you want that target dead. If you saw Shoot Em Up, he’s right about your finger being the number 1 safety.

    • I knew all of these, and *still* nearly shot myself in the foot once (I let the hand holding the gun fall to my side, thought I had my finger on the trigger guard, but it was actually on the trigger). Best policy – keep your finger ENTIRELY AWAY from the trigger until you’re certain you’re going to shoot.

    • The Four Rules are simple to remember and short enough to go through quickly, and they are a great guide to safe gunhandling. To quote them as originally set forth by Col. Cooper, who most readers of this blog would have hated with a fiery passion but who remains the pre-eminent handgun instructor of the twentieth century:

      1) All guns are always loaded.

      This doesn’t mean “treat them like they’re loaded.” It means, “The gun is loaded unless you personally have ensured that it was not loaded and it has not left your sight since you did it.” When I show somebody one of my guns, I will, if at all possible, do something to render it physically unable to fire (remove the bolt, remove the magazine, open the cylinder.) And I always, always, ALWAYS check the chamber when I pick it up and when I put it down.

      There is a scene in Methuselah’s Children where Lazaraus Long’s grandfather is teaching him to shoot and palms a cartridge before handing the rifle off, then puts it back and returns it. When Lazarus doesn’t check the chamber, he gets a swat for his pains and the grandfather shows him that the weapon is now loaded. It’s really, really easy to accidentally cycle a round and suddenly an unloaded gun is loaded even if you didn’t mean to.

      2) Do not allow the muzzle of a gun to cover something you are not prepared to destroy.

      In the military allowing your weapon to point at a fellow soldier is called “sweeping” and it’s punished very harshly. (This rule is why I can’t go to gun shops or gun shows for very long, as it’s the most frequently violated. I get very, VERY agitated when somebody sweeps me with a gun or lets the muzzle wander.) If the gun is not pointing at something which is vulnerable to gunfire, even if it goes off, it probably won’t hurt anything. If it is, you are now at the mercy of the Universe if it goes off – and the Universe isn’t particularly merciful.

      Tangent: The range of firearms for any sort of accuracy/precision is MUCH LOWER, in most cases, than their absolute range or the range at which they can do damage. I have a rifle which, if properly sighted, I could probably hit a man-sized target with reliably at four hundred yards or so. I’d never take a shot at somebody with it who was two thousand yards away, but if I did and it hit him, it could still kill him. If you want a real-life example of this, Google “Billy Dixon Adobe Walls.”

      I hasten to add, by the way, that I have never shot at a human being, at any distance, and I fervently hope and pray that I never have to do so.

      2) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.

      Period effing DOT. The trigger is for firing. If you’re not ready to fire, your finger and Mr. Trigger have no business to conduct.

      4) Be sure of your backstop.

      If you don’t hit your target… what will you hit? If you don’t know, or you aren’t willing to risk hitting it, do not fire. Period.

      Persons interested in this topic might also like to read about a related subject called the “Color Code,” which has to do with the level of possibility that a person will have to use lethal force.

      The USMC also refers to Condition Black, which Cooper did not mention, but is very instructive as the possibilities of reaction to a firefight. It’s referenced in the linked article.

  15. Maybe I just destroyed my hearing enough before I ever fired, but I’ve had times where I spent all day at a range without ear protection and didn’t get ringing in my ears. Thought it sounded quite mild, actually.

    Now, firing in an enclosed space, that’s an entirely different story.

    One thing that bothers me the most in fiction is disabling shots. I hate disabling shots. Do you know what someone shot in the leg does? They get pissed off and fire back at you. They’re not shooting with their toes, after all. As long as they have half an eye and one working hand, they can keep trying to kill you. You can’t shoot someone into a state of not-shooting-back unless you shoot them dead. (Which you really should be doing anyway; if you’re willing to fire at someone it should be because you’re willing to kill them, since you can’t guarantee they won’t die anyway.)

    • I agree with your conclusion (“there’s no such thing as disabling shots”) but I question your reasoning. Last time I went googling for safe places to shoot someone, the consensus seemed to be that there are major arteries throughout the body.

      Hit the left shoulder? Major artery. Hit the upper leg? Femoral artery. The butt? Same deal. Maybe shooting the far extremities would slow someone down without killing them, but those are especially hard to hit. And once the bullet enters the body, there’s no predicting how it’s going to bounce around.

      I don’t have any practical experience here, but it looks like any shot that hits the body has good potential for hitting a major artery, causing the recipient to bleed out in a minute or two. Maybe there is some combination of bullet and body region where this isn’t true, but overall the rule “don’t point a gun at something you don’t intend to kill” holds sway. Bullets iz srs biz.

    • Whitley – “As long as they have half an eye and one working hand,” I’d have to add “and real motivation.” Because some people just can’t handle pain.

  16. Even in a setting with entirely fictional weaponry and technology… Even when the laws of the setting aren’t conclusively written anywhere and it’s down to authorial interpretation…

    …you’ll still get emails. “A neural shredder works like this” someone will say with ruthless insistence, even when they’re wrong or there’s very little source material to go by, beyond guesses.

    I bookmarked this post for relevancy to the lives of several of my 40K author pals.

  17. I went to a seminar on this topic a few years ago that hit on many things. The biggest thing I took away from that talk was the distance involved in most gunfights:

    It’s about ten feet.

    That means you aren’t going to have a bunch of guys with pistols in a parking lot shooting from opposite sides and hitting what they’re shooting at. Pistols don’t have that level of accuracy (using the definition mentioned above).

    At short range, about ten feet, pistols are solid. Past that, they weaken, but not all at once.

    • Most gunfights involving handguns occur within knife-fighting range.
      (Imagine someone asking for your wallet from fifty feet, and one explanation appears.)

    • And most bullets fired inside those ten feet do not hit their targets.

      An expert pistol handler can hit targets out to fifty yards without much trouble WITH a good firearm and a few seconds to aim. Take away any of those three things and pistols are basically really loud knives.

      To amplify on Mr. Mobrien’s comment, there is apocryphal story about someone who challenged Elmer Keith, possibly the finest handgun shot of the twentieth century, on his assertion that he could hit a target at 100 yards with his revolver.

      Keith dropped $500 on the ground (which was a LOT of money at the time,) and said, “I’ll pace off a hundred yards. You start ten yards from the money. If you can pick it up before I shoot you, it’s yours.”

      The challenger allegedly declined the offer.

  18. The point about going out there and firing weapons is well and good although it is more difficult for some than others. Gun laws being what they are in the UK its tough to fire anything other than a shotgun on a pheasant shoot (or similar) for the ordinary citizen. That said, when I did get on a US range at Bouchercon a few years ago I learned what I got wrong re firearms in my first book but was also kinda impressed I got a few things right (ie the bastarding noise – – seriously, they’re loud – – how characters in movies can keep firing next to each other’s ears with no consequences, I don’t know!).

    I did, however, it should probably be noted, do some book-reading research before book one in terms of looking stuff up so I got a few things right from that.

  19. Entertaining (as always) presentation of some points that so often annoy the hell out of me in books and movies.

    You were also prescient, and, since it doesn’t look like anyone else has been “that guy” yet, I’ll draw fire myself:

    You got single-action backwards. Single action firearms must always be cocked before firing. Some (like the good old M1911) end up cocked part of loading a round in the chamber.

    • Thanks for the fix! I am aware of the difference, but wrote that very poorly (that sentence was a later edit and I should’ve re-read the whole section before adding it, but didn’t — oops).

  20. Thank you for this, Chuck! Living in the UK, it’s much more difficult to get one’s hands on a gun for research purposes, and I’m pretty sure that my google search history will once land me in a world of trouble.

    If you ever have the time, a master class on explosives would also be deeply appreciated.
    (…See, Nox, it’s statements like this that can get you into aforementioned trouble.)

    P.S. Never before have I been happier about the fact that my protagonist sticks to Fallout-style plasma guns. They’re almost as rad as laser.

  21. Thank you for this. 🙂 I HATE seeing stuff wrong in books. And THANK YOU for the warning to go vague. I tell people that all the time. If in doubt, generalize. About cars, too.

    In the US, many gun ranges will allow people to rent guns from them, so you can go in and try various weapons for the price of range fees and ammunition. I don’t know what people outside the US can do, perhaps go talk to law enforcement or military and tell them you’re a writer looking to do research and see if they’ll give you a tour or a chance to fire a weapon. If nothing else, you can find people who have experience with them, and they might read your work and correct your errors for you.

    As far as reloading and powder goes, the powder we use to reload shotgun shells for skeet and trap is more little flakes than it is pebbles. I’m not sure if that’s standard for all shotgun powder, or just what we use for our particular application. (Which has actually been damn hard to find lately because apparently, from what the gun shops have told us, two different plants had explosions and are rebuilding. *shrugs*) The shot pellets that we use are round. There’s also a replaceable primer that has to be pressed out and replaced. Powder goes in, then a wad, then the shot, then the shell goes through a two-part crimping process. (Have never reloaded cartridge ammo, so can’t speak to how that works.)

    I know that newer guns are supposed to be “drop proof,” however, with older guns, if loaded and especially if cocked, there IS a possibility they can go off if dropped, depending on the weapon. (But many newer guns are actually built to try to prevent this problem, but they will warn you it’s not foolproof.) I even have a dear friend who lost a loved one, because he dropped a small-gauge revolver and it went off. So yes, it can happen, but it’s not like it happens all the time.

    I’d like to remind people that a revolver is NOT the same as a semi-automatic handgun, and that the two terms are NOT interchangeable. I hate seeing someone refer to a revolver, and then it’s a 9mm that he dumps the magazine out of in the next paragraph. Um, nooooo, not the same thing. (Yes, I saw that once. In a NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING BOOK. I guess editors in NY don’t know squat about guns, either.)

    Here’s a helpful hint I’d like to toss out: in a futuristic post-apocalyptic series I’m writing, I do have a couple of specialty guns I used–made up totally. That way I don’t have to worry about getting something wrong. So if your fiction is in any way speculative, make it up to a certain extent. Then all you have to worry about are the physics of what the gun does to someone, not it’s actual mechanics.

    The next statement I’m making isn’t meant as politics, it’s meant as a character hint for those writers who write one-dimensional “gun nut” characters. I was raised around guns. I never treated guns as toys, because they were not toys. I never would have dreamed of touching my dad’s guns (and they were kept in an unlocked, glass case, back in the 70’s). If I wanted to go shoot, my dad took me out in the backyard and we shot. (We could do that back then, it was a rural area with no neighbors.) As a gun owner, a concealed carry license holder, and a skeet and trap shooter, I’d like to add a little more perspective, too, for those who don’t know anything about guns. The average gun owner is not some redneck, racists, “cold dead hand” asshole. I am NOT a member of the NRA, and I’m NOT a proponent of open carry. I’m a mom, a wife. I’m also a middle-aged woman with fibromyalgia and arthritis, among other health issues. I am a raging liberal who self-identifies as a Pagan for my religious beliefs. I voted for Obama TWICE. I am pro GLBTQ marriage equality. I joke that as a liberal Pagan gun owner I can generally piss off 100% of the people in any room. Why do I carry? (Well, I do live in Florida, but that’s a totally different topic… LOL) I am NOT a George Zimmerman. I always believe that trying to quickly leave a situation before escalation is always the best first option if it’s available. However, I can’t run anymore, and I certainly can’t hold my own against greater opposing strength or numbers. I have PTSD, and since I got my concealed carry license, I rarely have anxiety issues when I go out.

    And I don’t always carry a firearm. Our state’s carry license also allows for things like collapsible batons, stun guns, and some forms of knives, etc. (Not all states do that, so check local laws, yadda yadda.) Some states have reciprocal agreements with other states to honor their concealed carry licenses, some don’t, some do with certain restrictions (like in a state that only allows concealed firearms, I might not be able to carry a baton concealed). So I can have something on me that makes me feel safe that’s a non-lethal defense weapon.

    My point of that is to remind people that when writing about gun owners, remember that just like any other populations, if you resort to the cardboard stereotype just because, you’re being a lazy writer. I know many women who carry, who are well-trained with their firearms, and who only feel safe when they carry. That’s more a statement about the mindset that many women have via the risk of violence against women than a statement of “because crazy Florida gun owner, that’s why.” Remember that the average gun owner is just that: average. So please don’t resort to some trope just because. Build your characters the way you’d build any other character and not a caricature. Yes, when I go to a gun show, I frequently feel like an alien in a strange land, because I’m only there for the guns or other weapons, not the rhetoric. And Sir’s the same way, so it’s not just me. LOL And we have moderate and liberal friends who are gun owners. Lots of gun owners are moderate, or liberal, with their politics, but we’re a silent faction because YARGH 2ND AMENDMENT COLD DEAD HANDS OPEN CARRY BECAUSE GUNS THAT’S WHY FEMA CAMPS RAWRRRRRRR!

    Um, yeah. Good luck with that. The rest of us are…well, NOT paranoid. So remember, cardboard characters SUCK.

    Going back to guns hurting the shooter, um, yeah. LOL It’s not uncommon for me to have bruises on my shoulder after three or four rounds of skeet. (Yes, I need a gel pad on my one shotgun, and I need a recoil reducer and gel pad on the other one, just not in the budget right now.) I have one .38 special revolver that I only shoot a couple of times a year at the range to practice with it, for home protection, because it kicks like a mofo and hurts the hell out of my hand. For target shooting, my older 9mm S&W, I can run a couple of hundreds of rounds through it and not even feel it.

    Another point: ammo is pricey and getting pricier. The less-common the firearm, usually, the pricier the ammo.

    The TV show Mythbusters has done a great job over the years of checking and debunking many firearm myths. If anyone hasn’t checked them out, I highly recommend it, because they also do a great job of explaining the science behind the whys in the process.

    If you’re writing anything to do with military weaponry, LOTS of great shows on the Military Channel, and Mail Call with R. Lee Ermey is great, too. LOVE his show.

    And yes, the whiff of cordite…UGH.

    Another note: after a trip to the range, people will usually wash their hands after exiting the range area. They don’t eat or drink on the range, because most of the ammo has lead in it (the ranges I go to locally have lots of signage reminding people of that). Ditto people who reload lead ammunition.

    When reloading shotgun shells with shot, those little pellets go EVERYWHERE. EVERYWHERE.


    They’re worse than free-range Cheerios in a car. And Goddess help you if you spill a shell before you get it crimped. (Our reloader machine is old and sometimes cranky.)

    Another point: in the US (terms differ in the UK and Europe) Trap is a center bunker house that has a machine which tosses clay birds out away from shooters, and skeet is two houses, a high and a low, that launch clay birds across the field in front of the shooters. International and Olympic clays don’t use the exact same shooting patterns and positions as US competition standards. (I shoot US, so I can’t speak to all the differences.) Sporting clays has a variety of stations that launch the birds from different positions, mimicking a hunting situation. There are other clay sports out there that use some variation of those.

    YouTube is your friend. Use it. LOTS of great videos out there, both instructional and amateur.

    A great romance writing blog I follow has a firearm expert who chimed in with a column about silencers:

    And I share your UGH about the “zombie ammo.” Cigarettes and liquor can’t market to kids, but sure, we’ll market our ammo to ya.

    Concealed carry: depending on the person carrying, and the firearm, holsters vary. What a law enforcement officer will wear on duty can differ greatly from the average civilian who carries. Guns aren’t fluffy bunnies. They rub, and chafe, and make you sweat, and poke, and prod, depending on the gun, the holster, the carry location, and the person carrying. Women who carry on them dress differently than women who carry say in a purse or external pouch (which is still “concealed”). They have to, so they don’t print.

    If you write a character who is supposed to be a gun expert and they treat guns casually, you will show how little you know about guns yourself. People who handle guns on a regular basis, who are familiar with them, always treat them as if they’re loaded and don’t just toss them on their police captain’s desk when their badge is yanked. (I HATE that trope on TV. Gimme yer badge, gimme yer piece. And someone just sets it on the desk without unloading it first. And the supervisor DOESN’T BUST THEM FOR IT.)

    One last funny. Hubby is NOT a gun person. Never even shot one. We’re sitting there watching the FX version of Fargo (don’t get me started on THAT ugh) and there was one scene where the guy swings around and you see a close-up of the end of a shotgun barrel.

    I said, “Oh, it’s got choke tubes.” Hubby looked at me and said, “Really, REALLY, THAT’S your takeaway from that scene?” LOL (He knows some of the terms from overhearing Sir and me talk guns. LOL)

  22. “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 . . .”

    I totally want to read that story. Is Tyrion the Imp a gun-wizard? I hope so. Plus, there should be guys with fire-arms. Just sayin’.

  23. I know nothing about guns. But I still get to make a correction!

    A eunuch is not cockless. He is ball-less (balless? Ballles?).

  24. Most likely, I’ll never write about guns. Unless I write a poem about one. But loved the post. I even tweeted it so my followers will think I’m all that and bad ass and everything. Thanks for a terrific read. Plus, now I can watch action flicks with my son and comment on gun battles and he’ll think I’m all that and bad ass and everything.

  25. The only thing I’d add is a small note on muzzle flashes. As a Visual Effects veteran, I can’t count the number of fake muzzle flashes I’ve had to add to fire fights. Almost every time you see a weapon fire in a television show or film, there is almost a 100% chance that the muzzle flash has been added by a compositor. Yes, inside, in a dark room or at night the muzzle flash can be very bright. But in full daylight, depending on the weapon, they are almost unnoticeable. They also happen very very fast. Visual Effects artists cheat and will extend the time they are visible to heighten the…er…impact…(yes, pun intended.)

  26. I have the great good fortune to have a writing partner who used to run the arms room at Ft. Lewis. That comes in handy. (Though once we were watching a Doctor Who episode where a bunch of army guys show up, and he started complaining that none of the firearms matched and some weren’t even military issue. I pointed out that that was probably the entirety of what was available in the BBC prop room. 😉

  27. Very interesting. I am just starting to research guns and I am the suburban housewife who has barely seem, let alone held or used, a gun. Just found out my hubby has a friend that must be similar to your father. He has a firing range in his house and his daughter is a kick ass expert. Shes twelve and beats grown men in competition. Love it! I have been invited to come and learn. Can’t wait! But he says people who turn the gun sideways are so ignorant they do it that way because that is the way it came out of the box. Thought that was funny.

  28. Not a gun user and don’t plan on being one, but this is a solid and useful list for us writer geeks who are way too picky about details. Thanks! 🙂

    [Note: I *have* tried a few guns in the past, but it didn’t take. Come to find out, I have wonky focusing issues with my eyes that keep me from ever hitting targets accurately. Which is sad, because I really enjoyed archery as a kid. Ah well.]

    • One wonky issue that happens from time to time for shooters.
      It is possible to be right hand dominant for gun handling but left eye dominant for aiming. This makes for a rough time at the range when attempting a precision shot with a pistol or revolver over the iron sights or “irons”. The answer for my wife was to shoot with both eyes open. Both eyes open is a standard practice for room clearing. Few people need to make a smiley face with their shot placement.

      Unless you are Mel Gibson or Danny Glover. Ask your parents kids. I’m getting to old to explain this.

      • when I first looked through a scope I tried it with my left eye. took a while to train my right eye to take over – studying biology with a microscope helped, but the ideal thing there is actually to keep both open to prevent fatigue… I know a guy who lost an eye, though, who leans over to use his left eye (it’s the one he didn’t lose!) another guy who lost his right eye turned to shooting lefthanded…

      • Ugh, don’t I know it. I’m left hand/right eye dominant. I found it easier to non-dominant eye for archery because my off hand is so clumsy.

    • Just a thought, but have you tried shooting with a laser sight? It might help take your focus issue out of the equation. There are both red and green variants, and they are much smaller and more affordable now than in years past. There are even handgun grips with built in lasers for some models.

      • Haven’t tried, actually, as it’s been decades and I’m no longer interested in doing so, but that does bring up an interesting angle I hadn’t thought of, using laser sight–and specific colors at that.

        The focus issue–and one that has only been figured out with a decent optometrist and better glasses–is that my eyes tend to separately drift a bit (I know, weird, isn’t it?) so focusing on a specific target at a distance, at least without glasses, means a bigger margin for error.

        And to answer Swhale above, I figured out pretty early that I’m left-eye dominant but right handed, and that’s why I was able to enjoy archery as a kid, even if I didn’t do it all that often.

        Eyes are such weird things, man.

  29. Having survived a few harrowing experiences in my youth I have some observations that are seldom mentioned in literature.
    1. Any weapon you have run a thousand rounds through flawlessly on the training range will immediately fuck up in combat.
    2. Besides a reliable firearm, the most important thing to being to a gunfight is a pair of clean drawers. You’ll need them after the first shot buzzes by your ear.
    3. Count your rounds as you fire. It’a a little thing, but nothing is is worse than being out of ammo at the last second.
    4. Revolvers don’t jam. Most semi-autos will eventually, and usually at the least convenient time.
    5. Adrenaline is both your friend and your worst enemy. Everybody, and I mean everybody, gets the shakes either during or after a firefight.
    6 One well aimed shot will often be be more effective than a dozen shots fired without first acquiring a good sight picture.
    7. The best way to survive a gun fight is don’t get into one.

    • 3. Count your rounds as you fire. It’a a little thing, but nothing is is worse than being out of ammo at the last second.

      This, of course, made me think of that Dirty Harry scene. You know the one.

  30. Excellent post. I suppose one alternative would be to write in knives as a way around the nuances of firearms, but they’re just as if not more picky than guns. Here are 10 quickies on knives:

    1) Blood grooves – nothing to do with blood, these are for looks or balance

    2) Knife vs. gun does not always equal a win for the gun, especially at distances of 21 feet or less (Tueller Drill)

    3) The gigantic “Rambo”-type knives aren’t practical. The bigger the knife the harder it is to control and bulkier it is to wear. The original “Rambo” knife made for the “First Blood” movie was a custom by Jimmy Lile, who designed it specifically for the movies.

    4) “Switchblades” are old hat. It’s all about “assisted openers” now.

    5) That old, Italian stiletto style of switchblade is like a drill bit. It can take pressure on the tip, but not the sides. That’s why they bend during knife fights.

    6) I won’t be the first to volunteer to prove this point, but it’s really difficult to be throw a mundane kitchen knife (like a cleaver) with any degree of accuracy. Knife throwing is a rehearsed stunt.

    7) Bone is really tough to get through with a knife. Fiction sometimes portrays knife stabs to the chest like butchering a turkey breast.

    8) Missing blood – knife fights are brutal, and even the one who wins will probably get cut. Where does the blood go during a knife fight?

    9) Knives are not “more legal” for using in self-defense. They require a physical advantage, and tilt the disparity of force away from your legal favor. At best, a character would inflict a quick wound as a means to escape.

    10) Where’s the sheath? Unless you’re Michael Myers from the “Halloween” movies, your character is going to need a sheath for that fixed blade knife.

    Happy to do a follow up post for you on knives, Chuck, if you’re at all interested. I work in firearms/knives publishing full-time.

    Ben Sobieck
    Author, “Weapons for Writers: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction” (Writer’s Digest Books)

    • Ben, re the Rambo knife and its ilk: another thing we tend to forget is that, first, movies are for entertainment, not reality. But second, and more pertinent, props have to play to the audience. If Rambo had used a military or military-style knife that was appropriate to the character and the period, it would not have shown up well in the movie. Too small to “read”. Most of the viewing public might have said, “Oh, he has a knife.” No impact on the viewer. Whereas with the custom Jimmy Lile, the viewers said, “OH! He has a knife!”

      As writers, we have it much better than movie prop masters. We can describe the knife, we can show how the edge glitters, we can show how the character facing that knife reacts physically and emotionally.

      The book is ALWAYS better than the movie!

  31. Guns are also heavier than you might imagine. I learned how to shoot last year, and while the gun was certainly larger than I would have preferred (it was my friend’s gun and he’s almost a foot taller than me, so yeah…he has much larger hands), it was MUCH heavier than I expected. Though I must say, my first two shots were bullseyes. And yes, I kept those targets as proof. 😀 Also, when writing about gunplay, I would make sure to research how to actually hold a gun (I’m not talking about the stupid sideways, above-my-head, point the gun down crap “gangstas” do). Without instruction, I would have hurt one of my fingers repeatedly, because I was using a slide-action gun. And casings are HOT when they leave a gun (one landed on my cleavage…)!

    • Guns are heavy because they have to be solid enough to hold onto and restrain the burning propellant, but we could make them a lot lighter if we wanted to. Mostly, we don’t want to, because if the gun is too light, the recoil gets way worse.

      I have a S&W J-frame revolver, which is the little gun you often see detectives wearing in ankle holsters in noir movies. 🙂 It’s only .38 Special (the damn thing is available in .357 Magnum which is INSANE) and it’s very, VERY hard to control. I am 6’1″, north of #200, and in reasonable shape.The thing bucks in my hands like a sea otter on meth. My wife can’t shoot it at all, at least not more than once, it hurts her.

      There is a scene in The Rift where an old lady shoots a double-barreled derringer her father had left her. In the process, she breaks both her wrists quite badly. This is totally plausible. Big cartridges, small gun, the recoil goes into the shooter’s arms.

  32. A nice list. I just wanted to add one thing; guns are hecka fun to fire. I’m not anything like a gun nut, and I’m certainly not trying to sell gun ownership to others. But if you haven’t tried firing a gun before, I recommend you do. The experience is rather intense. Just do it in a safe place with people who understand the dangers involved.

    • It absolutely is. And I’m not a hunter, either (unless you count clay pigeons LOL). In a survival situation, okay, but I don’t hunt. But it’s fun to hit those bulls-eyes. 🙂

  33. I read a lot of crime fiction and I estimate 75% of those authors make gun mistakes. The one I see most often is misplacing a decimal point in the caliber– “.9mm” instead of 9mm. That’s nine-tenths of a millimeter–about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. How threatening is that to anything bigger than a grasshopper? Or a “.12-gauge” shotgun. As gauge is determined, this would fire a projectile about the size of a softball. I suspect editors are responsible as much if not more than the writers. When called on it, some of these authors laugh and claim “but it’s only FICTION.” Yeah. Who cares? The only people who notice are gun nuts, law enforcement workers, current and ex-military personnel, hunters, and people who can do math.

    • Oh, man, I see that one ALL THE TIME, especially .9mm for whatever reason. And it does matter, because plots pivot on how guns (and knives) are portrayed in the story. How a gun/knife functions in a particular scene can change the entire outcome of the story.

  34. I noticed last night on Gotham, that Bullock and Gordon fired at the killer standing directly in front of each other on the opposite sides of the room. I was like wow, not smart lol

  35. One observation I often make when watching TV/films involving guns is this – when someone gets shot in the head, it’s often signified by red splatter on a surface behind them. But this implies the round went through the head, in which case shouldn’t there be an impact in the wall too? If a round stays in the body = no red splatter on exit, surely?

    One thing I learnt from reading Homicide by David Simon, is often the forensics on a spent .38 round are often useless as the bullet is so badly mauled. Yet in cop shows/films, they ALWAYS get data on it!

    • I’m a bit of a gun nut and I thoroughly enjoy the science behind forensics. To add a little info, the amount of data that can be obtained from a fired projectile is largely dependent on what kind of projectile it is, and what it was subjected to. .38’s are often loaded with a pure lead bullet, as opposed to a jacketed bullet. Lead bullets are cheap, easy to make at home, and soft. This last attribute is why they can be difficult to obtain ballistic information from. A small piece of hot soft lead that punches through a body then hits a parking lot or a brick wall is going to be significantly deformed.

      A jacketed bullet is a piece of lead that is wrapped in (typically, although there are more exotic rounds out there) copper. A copper jacketed projectile is considerably more sturdy, and will usually retain more of its shape. This even holds true for semi-jacketed hollow point or soft point ammunition. The base of the round will usually not expand. Even if the bullet looks like a deformed mushroom, the base of the round is the piece that looks like the stem of the mushroom, and that part is going to have your telltale ballistic information that forensic specialists often use to identify the make and model of firearm that fired that bullet.

  36. Great piece, Chuck.

    A shotgun’s gauge does measure the bore diameter, which is (of course) related to the weight. It’s half-ass related to the way wire sizes are measured too. I always found it odd that the lower the gauge, the bigger the bore or the wire, but it has to do with how many of the thing (shot or wire) fit within a particular standard unit.

    Also, I believe scattergun often refers to a sawed-off or short-barreled shotgun. But that might just be my many years of wasted youth playing RPGs talking.

    • The gauge, as I understand it, actually measures the balls (teehee):

      “Shotgun gauges are determined by the number of lead balls of a given diameter required to make one pound of that size ball. Thus 10 balls of 10 gauge diameter are required to make one pound of such balls, or 20 balls of 20 gauge diameter are required to make one pound, and so forth. This is the traditional, and very old, system. The actual (nominal) bore diameters of the various gauges are as follows: 10 gauge = .775 inch, 12 gauge = .729 inch, 16 gauge = .662 inch, 20 gauge = .615 inch, 28 gauge = .550 inch. The .410 is named for its nominal bore size, and is not a gauge at all.”

      And scattergun is a generic term for shotguns overall, but yeah, RPGs play up the “sawed-off” part.

      Actually, discussing “sawed-offs” is probably worth it, too, in terms of gun myths/info.

      — c.

      • Re: sawed-off or shortened shotguns (any shotgun with a barrel less than18 inches) , they’re probably better for establishing characters than anything all that practical. Reducing the barrel length doesn’t increase firepower, it only makes the shotgun more portable. It can also achieve a wider shot pattern over a shorter distance, which is probably only a nominal benefit considering it’s going to suck to get shot no matter what.

        When shortened shotguns are used in an official sense, like by law enforcement, it’s usually during crowd control. Shorter barrels are harder for someone else to grab.

        I think the main mistake in fiction is believing they’re more powerful than a shotgun with a more standard length. And the character getting hit by either wouldn’t blow through a window.

        • They are LESS powerful, because the powder doesn’t burn as long and generate as much pressure before the shot leaves the barrel. Though the difference isn’t that great at the effective range of a sawed-off shotgun.

          Note that sawed-off shotguns are HIGHLY illegal in the US and have been for decades, as are sawed-off rifles. People have gone to prison for having a barrel a quarter-inch too short. If a character has a sawed-off, they are almost by definition a bad person.

          On the topic, note that while shotgun shot DOES scatter, it takes a while to do so after leaving the barrel. At the distance of, say, a large room, a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot will not spread enough to hit more than one person unless they’re standing next to each other. Shotguns are not single-shot machine guns.

  37. Right, but the balls have to fit the bore the same way a bullet has to have the same caliber as its gun. Anyhow, I’m getting pedantic about semantics. ONCE AGAIN SHOWING MY RPG ROOTS.

  38. Huh. This is definitely useful stuff, as I’m working on one novel that has the protag in a military school, where she has to learn to shoot. I do have one question, for anyone who knows:

    If said protag threw her gun to the ground and kicked it, could the gun happen to discharge? In case you need the gun type to be more specific, I just describe it in the novel as a rifle.

    I really appreciate any comments I get on this, as the scene sort of sets the tone for the beginning of the character’s relationship with one of her bunkmates.

    • Extremely doubtful. Unless it was already cocked, maybe? or the trigger caught on something, but that’s really, really not likely. Would depend on the firearm. Like my over-under skeet guns, they “cock” when you close the barrel. There isn’t an external hammer.

    • The answer to your question is almost 100% guaranteed to be a no. From my time in the army as an infantryman, as well as being a life long shooter, I have seen weapons subjected to all manner of abuse. I have personally seen them dropped, hit against trees and rocks, and much more. Never once have I observed a discharge as a result of abuse. As a caveat, I did once see what was called a runaway gun as a result of mechanical failure. That, however, was a belt fed machine gun, and the piece that was supposed to hold the bolt open when you released the trigger had broken. The result was that the machine gun kept firing until it was out of ammunition.

  39. I can relate to the complaints. My husband was a Combat Arms Instructor for 10 years and watching movies with him is… an experience. Though strangely enough he has no problem with video game physics.
    I don’t have anything to add, but I really enjoyed this post – Thank you!

  40. It was touched on in a couple of comments, but I would emphasize getting to understand a gun’s practical effective range.

    Sure, there are people out there who can hit a static target at 100 yards with a handgun, but our hero is not going to drop Zombie-Elvis with a snubby at a distance greater than 10 yards or so.

  41. On a slightly related note:

    Regular action sequences with hand-to-hand combat are kind of similar. I hate it when a character in a book does some sort of move that just isn’t possible in a fight. ESPECIALLY if the character is untrained in physical fighting and yet somehow manages to fend off someone both bigger and stronger. If the character does have training it’s believable, but otherwise… nope.

    It’s like the going to a gun range and firing an actual gun to get the idea; if you want your characters to engage in hand-to-hand combat, take a self-defence class (unless the character is specifically using martial arts, then take whatever martial arts class that the character is supposed to be using). A good self-defence class will teach you the basics of how to stop someone from attacking you, and you’ll then know how a human’s body actually moves when punching, blocking, etc.

    Plus, they’re just good fun 🙂 You get to hit and kick and flip and all sorts of things without worrying about sustaining a serious injury. I took a class where I (a 5’2” girl) was paired with a guy who was about 6’5” and could pick me up with one hand. Now I know what to do if someone as physically intimidating as that (or less so) tried to come after me. Now, when I have a character in the same sort of situation, I know how to have said character escape (or not) without making the scene unbelievable.

    • Good call, Will! Several of my characters end up in fights, whether martial arts, MMA, or knife fights. I took martial arts for several years, many years ago. Before I write the fights, I go over every single move as if I was the fighter. Though I’m much older now and can no longer do every move my fighter does, I am well aware of what those moves are, how they’re done, what the result will be if successful or not, and what their opponent’s moves will be. If I can’t “see” it, I don’t write it.

  42. I understand the need for accuracy. As someone who writes historical fiction, I also understand how difficult it can be to give readers what you think they need and want in terms of detail and what you think the story needs to succeed as a piece of fiction that contains non-fictional elements.

    But sometimes that are things get in the way of the imperatives that should drive storytelling. “Things” like ego. Or loneliness. Or even enthusiasm. I think it’s great that you have an obvious love for cars, but I don’t need to know that:

    “As the kidnapper sped out of the parking lot, undercover cop Steve casually slid behind the wheel of his 1968 390 GT Fastback Mustang. He wasn’t in a hurry since the 6.4L liter engine, which had bore of 4.05 inches could cover a quarter mile in about 13 seconds and easily overtake the Ram Promaster van.”

    This looks cheap. Gimmicky. Don’t shop talk in your fiction! It’s not cool and it looks kind of desperate, like you don’t have anyone else with whom to share your fetish-level love of cars. Don’t foist this crap on your readers.

    Same thing with guns. It’s good enough to say that “Steve re-holstered the .45” or “examined the shell casing,” but as a reader I don’t need to know that Steve is actually carrying an “AMC Amigo 1911 Semi-Auto 45 ACP” or that the shell casing he examined was most likely from an AK-47 standard 7.62 x 39 round.

    These sorts of details don’t really contribute much to the story, and in fact detract from it since all the acronyms and numbers interrupt the flow of the writing. Besides, for most readers who don’t, we should assume, have a high level of technical knowledge about cars or guns, the information simply falls by the wayside, and a little bit of your credibility as a writer falls away with it.

  43. This was (a) fantastic and (b) a huge ego boost as I knew most of these things (I guess there was some benefit to growing up in BFE South Dakota). However, the most important thing I got out of this was that a character in my WIP has suddenly and inexplicably developed a new superpower: Firearms. Think of the puns!

  44. OMG! I get this way I get every time I hear a horse nicker in a movie and the animal is running. Unless its a stallion in rut or got a hard on for another stallion invading his territory, horses don’t nicker for just old reason, especially when a human is on their backs kicking the crap out of them to run faster. How do I know? I was raised around horses. I trained and showed horses, and until one of the bastards tossed me into a wall and cracked my ribs, I too kicked the shit out of them to make them go faster. Face it, everybody has an opinion about something no one else but them really gives a shit about.

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