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*

CH-CHAK.

Ahem.

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?

* * *

The Kick-Ass Writer: Out Now

The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? What the hell do I do?

The best way to answer these questions is to ditch your uncertainty and transform yourself into a Kick-Ass Writer. This new book from award-winning author Chuck Wendig combines the best of his eye-opening writing instruction — previously available in e-book form only — with all-new insights into writing and publishing. It’s an explosive broadside of gritty advice that will destroy your fears, clear the path, and help you find your voice, your story, and your audience.

Amazon

B&N

Indiebound

Writer’s Digest

234 comments

  • Great post! The shotgun “cartridge” thing really is locality/meaning dependent, but hey, lots of things are. 🙂

    My favorite was your point on the “dropped guns do not discharge”. I HATE it when I see this mistake in books or movies. It shows that whoever wrote the script had no idea how a firearm really works.

    Thanks for writing it!

    • Dropped guns do not discharge, but hammering on something with the butt of a gun very well might do the trick. It depends on the design of the weapon. If it has a hammer-block safety or a recessed firing pin, it almost certainly won’t. But if it doesn’t, it could.

      When I was taking hunter’s safety courses, the instructor took out a very nice Browning shotgun, and asked us if it was a well-made gun. It was and most of us country boys knew it. Then he showed us the safety was on, and banged the gun’s butt as hard as he could against the concrete floor. It went off. (He had loaded it with a squib, so it basically sounded like a really loud cap gun.)

      When in doubt, use the Evil Overlord approach to guns and blades: “Guns are ranged weapons: swords are not. Any of my minions who attempt to use a gun as a club or throw a sword will be summarily executed.”

      By the same token, hitting somebody with a lightly-built firearm will almost certainly damage it to the point of unusability. An M-4 (aka M-16, AR-15, etc) is good for one, maybe two hard strikes against a human(ish) opponent. Then it will fall to bits.

  • Read websites written by NRA psycho gun nuts. It’s an education, and I don’t mean in politics. They really know their stuff and bring up topics that can affect a situation in a story. Also, go to a gun show. It’s a wealth of information and dude, they’ll talk your ear off when they find out you’re a writer. Sometimes there’s even pie there.

    Different guns of the same model shoot differently. Think driving your neighbor’s Prius. There are just little ticks that are different.

    Guns are heavy. I can shoot about 8 rounds from my HK USP before my arms are shaking and need a break.

    All the six foot tall plus guys I know (everyone, actually) shoot with both hands for accuracy, and certainly would if they were in a situation where the shot really counts.

    There’s a thing called policing your brass that can make for a nice obstacle for your character.

  • Very interesting and useful information! One thing that I would add, which isn’t so much a technical as a practical perspective is accuracy and precision in high stress situations with a lot of distractions. It’s one thing to be able to properly sight and shoot when you’re standing at a ranger opposite a paper guy… try that out of a speeding car in a tunnel and we get into action movie territory fast in terms of probability to make the shot. So… circumstance should also always be a consideration when writing about guns.

    • To expand on this topic, physical stresses will greatly affect accuracy and precision, even in well trained shooters. This post is a little long winded, and I apologize for that.

      I spent several years as a soldier in a line infantry unit. We went to the range constantly. Conservatively, I would estimate the number of rounds fired for each soldier to be well into five figures. At one point, as a test, our company commander elected to push us all physically. We started our morning with a physical fitness test. One portion of the test was a timed two mile run. When we crossed the finish line, we were instructed to run for another two miles. Once the run was completed, we had 45 minutes to report back to the company headquarters for a 12 mile road march carrying a 35 pound rucksack and in full combat gear. The road march had a goal time of three hours, with a maximum allowed time of four hours. Once we got to the range, we drew ammo and shot a qualification course. Approximately two thirds of our infantry company failed to qualify on the first try. The minimum standard for qualification was to hit 23 targets out of 40, or barely over 50%. Of those that did qualify, only two achieved over 75% accuracy, and only one of those two qualified as expert, which is 90%. That man went on to wear a green beret later in his career.

      Keep in mind, this was a group of about 125 professionally trained infantrymen. These men, myself included, spent countless hours honing the fine art of the rifleman. When not on the range, we often conducted training on proper breathing, trigger techniques, and more. Even with all of our training, physical exertion took a massive toll on our accuracy and precision. This was all without the threat of our targets shooting back as well.

  • Yep, it be true. One wrong word can ruin and entire book for some people. Some of the people I shoot with are cops. Even though we all know better, we sometimes refer to magazines as clips. I made the horrible mistake in an early novel of using that wrong terminology. That mistake resulted in my only 1 star review. It is the one I remember most and is a lesson learned. However, it still boggles my mind how that one word ruined the story like it was a ten year old’s essay on proper shooting techniques in their favorite shoot ’em up video game.
    But I did learn my lesson, even though I just read the same thing in two very well known thriller writer’s books.

  • Bore refers to diameter much like Caliber. Gauge has to do with the number of balls of lead of that size it takes to equal a pound.

    Another often missed item is silencer have next to no effect on revolvers, as the sound would come out of the gap between the cylinder and barrel.

  • This is great.

    The only time I’ve ever shot a gun of any kind was when I was in 6th grade and taking a mini-class on the white-tailed deer. (Don’t ask. Experimental school stuff in the 60’s.) The last day of class, they took us all out to an outside range and had us fire rifles. I whined and complained…my family is Jewish and very anti-gun…then I got a bull’s eye and suddenly liked it a lot better :-). But OW, my shoulder. The recoil was really something.

    As far as the noise goes, I can vouch for that, though. I live in rural upstate NY, and the property next to me (separated by trees and about half an acre) is owned by guys who come up to hunt periodically. They spend a lot of time just firing at their target range out back, and it sounds like I’m in a war zone. One gun (no idea what kind) is so loud, it literally shakes my house. Of course, it is an old house…

    • I’ve been present for the discharging of a .50 caliber rifle. Everytime the gun went off the whole awning overhead would shake snow loose. Standing fifteen feet away it felt like something hit me in the chest. It’s the only time I’ve experienced sound with that level of concussive force. Powerful stuff.

      Oddly enough though, the noise (while loud, booming, powerful, and much like I imagine the voice of god could be like) caused much less of a headache than someone firing their AR-15 nearby. Something about those .225 (I think that’s right?) rifle rounds just makes this super loud “crack” noise that hurts the brain.

      • Anthony, AR-15’s most often shoot the 223 Remington or 5.56X45mm NATO, which are nearly the same dimensionally, both using a 0.224 diameter bullet, with the 5.56 using more pressure (and likely noise) to propel the bullet faster. The crack is likely to be as much about the speed of the bullet as the blast of the gunpowder, obviously barring excess gunpowder. The .50BMG is a scaled up .30-06 cartridge, it’s massive for a “small arms” cartridge. Other 50 caliber guns like blackpowder rifles are not the same, though they may have the same diameter bullet.

      • I used to do cowboy shooting, which uses weapons which were available prior to 1899 (or modern replicas of such weapons.) Most cowboy shooters shoot rifles which fire pistol ammunition so they don’t have to have two kinds of cartridges. (Mine shoots .45 Long Colt.) Pistol ammunition, even though it tends to be higher caliber than most rifles, is much less powerful.

        After one match, I got out a Model 30 (the civilian model of the famous Model 1906 Springfield military rifle, standard infantry issue in WWI) which my father had given me and I wanted to try out. It is calibered in .30-06 Springfield, which is technically only 2/3 the size of my .45 Long Colt, but has a HELL of a lot more powder in the cartridge. The match was over but the range was still active, so I went down, loaded up, and fired off a round.

        All shooting – all activity – stopped dead.

        Several people came running up because they thought someone’s gun had exploded. It was that much louder. As a certain South Park character might say, “That gun speaks with AUTHORITAH.”

  • This is a great post, and excellent advice. For those interested in seeing exhaustive gun detail worked into fiction, I highly recommend Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter International”. He was a professional gun writer before he wrote novels. It’s the only book I’ve ever seen which both fully embraces the details (and culture and inter-sub-culture rivalries) and doesn’t make a single mistake. It’s a fun book on it’s own, but as a study in gun writing it’s genius.

    • Unless it’s a rifled shotgun. Yes, that’s a common thing. Rifled shotguns are common for shooting deer and folks usually use “sabot slugs”, which are quite accurate through a rifled barrel. More accurate than a “rifled slug” through a cylinder bore…..look it up. Many folks have both a smooth barrel and rifle barrel and swap them out depending on need. Model specific of course. And I’m that jerk the article author warns about getting bent over firearm details 😉

  • Two best things you said here:

    If you’re writing about a gun, go out and fire one. Seriously, take a class. Everyone has a lot of preconceived notions, and many of them just aren’t true. The experience of firing a gun (fire a few) is not only great stress relief but it is also educational. There are little things too, like how hard it can be to get those last few rounds into the magazine when your thumb is already sore from the last few magazines you fired, that you’ll just never pick up on – or be told about – but are there to learn.

    Zombie Bullets are the most idiotic idea ever. I’ve asked the local gun/sports shop around here to stop carrying them, and after a lengthy conversation with some of the people behind the counter they agreed. Guns are not toys. If a gun is capable of shooting real bullets it is NEVER a toy. Anything that tries to argue that line is bad and wrong.

  • “dropped guns do not discharge” — in my Evil Day Job for the last nineteen years, I read and edit legal opinions for publication. Things being what they are, the majority of these opinions are criminal cases. And you would be AMAZED at the number of criminal defendants who expect a court to believe that “your Honor, I dropped the gun and it went off”.

    • In all fairness, (not saying this was the case in anything you edited) an older (early 1900s or older) single action revolver with a round in the cylinder under the hammer could go off when dropped. IF it’s dropped from high enough, and IF it lands on the hammer, and IF it’s at just the right angle. The odds are so remote that if you were ever to do it, I would suggest getting a powerball ticket 🙂

  • Also, if you need a ‘silent’ weapon, you can get subsonic ammunition – it doesn’t break the sound barrier, there’s no earth-rattling CRACK, and the fact that they use less propellant means that sometimes they jam the gun rather than expelling properly.

  • A more knowledgeable friend of mine just straightened out my description of and use of a revolver in “Don Fernando’s Family.” He also noted that double action revolvers, even without a trigger lock, do not require leaving an empty cylinder for safety.

  • A lot of useful advice in this post and comments. As an Australian, it can be hard to get the kind of hands-on experience that would lend verisimilitude to one’s writing. May I, then, query one thing that hasn’t yet been mentioned? When firing a .22 rifle, does the barrel get hot?

    (Please say it does. Please please please. Don’t make me into a lying-pants ignorant fail-writer.)

    • Take this from someone who used to fire a .22 a lot, but waaay back when, so I might be wrong.

      The barrel gets “hot” after any round in any gun. The degree to which that affects anything is going to depend on the heat generated by the round and the thermal mass of the barrel. Most barrels on most modern 22 rifles are a thick enough material, and 22 is so small, that you would have to unload a buttload of rounds through it before the barrel would get warm, but it is possible.

      I think the relevant question is, how hot does it need to be for your story? If we’re talking “she grabbed the barrel and was surprised by how hot it was so dropped it”, that’s totally feasible (especially if it’s an older gun). If it’s hot enough to ignite paper sitting on top of the barrel, no (but muzzle flash might do that, so all is not lost).

      Hope that is helpful!

    • Yes, a .22 will get the barrel hot. Not necessarily as fast as a bigger calibre, but I’ve burned my dumb fingers on hot .22 barrels enough to state that yes, when you use a metal pipe as containment for an explosion, that pipe will get hot.

    • Actually, Oz, I have found my local gun club to be very helpful. Buy the lads (or girls) a coffee afterwards and talk to them. One guy who used to carry a concealed weapon for his work ( I didn’t ask!) gave me personal details I couldn’t have got any other way.

    • To amplify, if I empty the 10-round magazine in my .22LR semi-automatic rifle as fast as I can pull the trigger (which is Hellaciously fun) after the first time, the barrel is notably warmer than the ambient temperature. If I do three magazines as fast as I can go, it will be too hot to touch.

  • Most cops have their weapons already chambered so that they don’t have to do it if they need to fire quickly. Also, Glaser safety slugs are really cool, since they are designed to be stopped by a body or sheet rock, also fragging and causing maximum damage. http://www.corbon.com/safety-slug/general/glaser-safety-slug. Also, a large bore rifle can kick up in the air just as much as a handgun. I’ve fired a .444 Marlin, leaning over the top of a pickup truck, and it kicks a good two or three feet up after firing. Same with the .454 Casull, which is a hand cannon, and when I shot that, the kick took it all the way up over my head. Cops carry their guns at eye level and both push and pull at the same time on the grip. They look where they aim, and vice versa.

  • You can still use the dramatic empty click on a semi automatic pistol. Just means the round misfired. It is very rare however. A shotgun loaded with ‘Dragon’s Breath’ rounds can shoot fire but its very bad for the barrel. A dropped German MP-38 smg can discharge. (Though only important if it’s a period piece)

  • When making the statement that “dropped guns do not discharge.”, please add the qualifiers: Mechanically sound modern guns do not discharge when dropped. I have a gun that will discharge if you give it a good shake, I’m certain it would fire if dropped with the same sort of physics involved. It’s pretty old, and is subject to a lot of wear, and did not originally come with any sort of safety. It uses small caliber rim fire ammunition in a size so odd it has to be hand made now. The mechanism that holds the trigger back has so much wear that its now miss shaped and can release the firing hammer if the weapon is jarred hard enough. I’m not kidding when I say hitting the ground is more than hard enough. I don’t consider the weapon safe to use, but it does illustrate that it is possible. The idea did come from somewhere, right?

    There are three different types of barrel end accessories you can put on the end of threaded barrels.

    The first is a muzzle break. When you shoot a gun the muzzle wants to rise up in the air, which means you can loose your sight window. A muzzle break redirects gasses to help dampen muzzle rise to reduce the amount of time it takes to get back on target for the next shot. Mostly an accessory for high powered rifles but it can be used on smaller rifles to help make the weapon easier to handle. The added length of barrel can sometimes also aid in improving accuracy and precision. They often do change the sound of the gun being fired, but they are not really designed to suppress sound.

    Second is a Flash Suppressor. When the spend gasses exit the barrel any unspent powder can flash ignite when it hits air. The Flash Suppressor allows this to happen inside of container instead of at the end of the gun where it could be used to sight in on your position or present a safety hazard on some compact weapon designs. It’s probably the most common accessory to use, it is often incorporated into muzzle breaks to make combo devices.

    Sound suppressors. I have personally witnessed a gun so quiet you can actually hear the mechanical components moving and bumping stops. It’s basically a muffler for a gun. They can, but often are not, that effective. The longer barrel can, again, increase accuracy to a point. Some qualities of a sound suppressor can be incorporated into a Break or Flash suppressor, usually while sacrificing performance.

    I give the post a one star rating for missing these points. 😀

      • .22 Short, .22 Long , .22 Extra Long, .22 Long Rifle, .30 rimfire, .32 rimfire, .38 rimfire .41 Short, .44 Henry Flat – for some examples. Most of the larger calibers are civil-war-era developments.

        • Ahhh right, Civil War, that weird point in American firearms history where we were caught in the awkward period between industrial manufacture and standardization… Thanks.

  • Funny, I was _just yesterday_ thinking about what kind of watchlist I must be on for the several open tabs I had into an increasingly sketchy exploration on the ballistic effects on a particular gun (one of which, hilariously, was a tripod page done by a supposed coroner named “Edward Nygma”). All to get the detail right of how far blood would fly in the middle of a fight scene and whether it would temporarily blind someone at the right angle.

    And then I said to my friend “Don’t mess with writers. It’s our job to know how to hide bodies.”

  • Oh one technical comment about “Silencers”: Chuck is absolutely right about them not actually working as well as they do in the movies, but in a lot of cases the difference is in the ammo used. Some of the noise of a gun firing (but not most) is the sound of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. This is why you will sometimes see rounds (usually .22) labeled as “subsonic”. I have seen a pistol with a silencer fire both standard 22LR and 22 Subsonic rounds, and the difference is that between *CRACK* and *twhppt*.

  • I have fired a gun recently and was actually encouraged by the man standing next to me (not a professional instructor) to not use ear protection. I didn’t and nothing happened to my ears. I didn’t hear an Eeeee in my ear for hours. I was perfectly fine even though I fired both a pistol and a rifle.
    I’m GUESSING the reason for that is because we were outdoors and in a sandpit of sorts. Anyone care to explain this to me? 🙂

    • What were you shooting? .22 rounds aren’t that loud, but a M44 Mosin carbine will deafen you quite handily for some time. (I know this from painful experience). Personally, I would find this “helpful” person and kick them in the shins for giving you such harmful advice. Your rounds may not cause your ears to ring, but someone else’s gun might. It has also been my experience that that lowered sound level helps me concentrate a little better.

      • I agree. Not only that, but even if it doesn’t make your ears ring, it can still cause permanent damage to your hearing over time.

  • I love this post… and yes people often get their guns wrong.

    Creepy as this is, I have tried to keep my gun right in my books of Fry Nelson: Bounty Hunter… but it’s difficult seeing I’ve never fired a weapon; nobody here in Australia will let me near a gun range. It’s just not done here. I must first have a gun license and then have it for a good reason – like for example, I must be an Olympic or Commonwealth Champion or a farmer out west. Nobody in the city is permitted to have gun permits – our government has cracked down hard on us in the past 20 years… so it’s difficult to go and just shoot one.

    So, doing my research is difficult…

    I do count how long it takes for characters to run out of rounds in movies and television shows… and on Supernatural, they get it spot on every time! I’m so amazed they really have done their homework…but in the movies, they always seem to run out either 2 over or 2 less than what’s expected when they say the clip was full… then, they have a really cool, magic shotgun which never seems to run out of bullets! Now, that’s always fun! 😀

  • I would add that if you’re going to write a sniper, study snipers. It’s a whole different way of shooting.
    You can’t just have your hero dialed in on his target and bangity bang he’s dead.
    Snipers will study the target, watch the target, not take the shot unless they know they’ll make it. They won’t move for days, sometimes.
    (SWAT snipers are different as well. Main point? Do your homework!)

    • True! Not only that, but looking through the scope is never some ‘clean perfect circle’ where your target nonchalantly wanders into the middle. The scope image wobbles and the blackness creeps in at the edges — it’s tricky stuff.

  • Brass (casings) is hot when it is ejected and sometimes ejects back on you and burns the shit out of the cleavage it falls into while you’re shooting at things.

    not that I know that for sure.

    *looks at her sweet cleavage burn scar*

    • I had a cowboy-shooting friend who had delicately machined the ejection port of his rifle so that the spent casings would fly up in the air and land in the brim of his hat. Out of ten rounds at least seven would usually be in his hat.

      He said it was to save him having to police so much brass (pick it up so it could be reused) but I think he was just showing off. He was a world-class machinist.

      They did not scorch the hat, so there’s your temperature range – hot enough to burn a person but not hot enough to set a hat on fire.

  • If this has been covered, apologies. Unless things have changed in recent years, most military personnel aren’t likely to refer to a firearm as a “gun.” Doing so won trainees in boot the privilege of marching back and forth in front of the rest of their fellow trainees while chanting some variation “This is my weapon. This is my gun. One is for shooting. One is for fun.” So when a Drill Sergeant asked some trainee who was obviously cleaning their weapon what they were doing, and the trainee said something like “cleaning my gun, Drill Sergeant!” wacky Drill Sergeant Fun ensued. If the Drill Sergeant was feeling particularly malevolent, the perpetrator did their little chant while their fellow trainees did pushups and plotted revenge.

    • 😉 I’ve heard about this from my many ex-military friends, so I am VERY careful to use the correct terms in my writing! It’s a simple fix and doesn’t take away from the story, where it might do so if I used the wrong one. However, out in the mundane world, I grew up in a non-military environment. Back then (’60s and ’70s) I was taught that “gun” meant “handgun”. Otherwise, you called it a rifle or a shotgun. Automatic weapons just weren’t a thing then.

      It also may be a regional thing, with different terms being used in different areas of the country (the US). And of course, terminology changes with the times!

  • “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.”

    Last round’s a dud and the primer only dimples, it doesn’t ignite. Ta-da!

  • Hey, Chuck – great article! Lots of good info I will keep in mind and refer back to when I write something about shooty-bangs. Which I probably will, someday.

    One thing I’d like to address is the ‘turning the gun sideways’ thing. Yes, I agree that anyone who does that is a dumbshit, as far as actually shooting the darn thing. But the real point of that is the threat, not the shooting. See, it’s a psychological thing that’s ingrained into our, well, psyches, from way back in the monkey times.

    I had this discussion with a now ex-boyfriend (ex status unrelated to the discussion) during and after viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “From Dusk Til Dawn.” Way cool movie – more on that later. But at one point, George Clooney does that move, the sideways gun thing, and the ex-boyfriend (former military, so experienced) went off right there in the theater about how stupid that was, he’d probably break his wrist, yadda yadda. I shut him up because I didn’t want to get thrown out of the theater. I wanted to see the rest of the movie. (George Clooney as a bad guy? Hell, yeah, I wanted to see that!) Afterward, though, I explained the psychology of it to the Ex.

    Think of it this way. When some obnoxious person is arguing with you and starts jabbing his finger at you, he’s trying to make a point. The hand is vertical. It’s emphatic, it’s aggressive, but even if he’s jabbing it into your chest it’s only aggressive. It’s annoying, but it’s not a threat. It may be a precursor, though.
    But the second he turns his hand so that his palm is level to the ground, that’s a threat. That is a move of extreme aggression. The next move is likely to be a punch or a grab, or in the case of a gun, a gunshot. (Though the gun is likely to come back to vertical first.)

    Watch fighters in the ring. They may jab, jab, jab, light punches with a vertical fist. But for a power shot that hand will start to turn over. Same with martial artists, though they’re less likely to go for the light punches. They mean business right from the start.

    Apes and monkeys do it. They will slap with vertical hands, but when the fur is about to fly that hand comes in canted or level for a grab to pull the enemy in to biting range.

    Okay, ‘nuff said on that.

    About “From Dusk Til Dawn”? Love the movie, but for me there’s a strangeness about it. Okay, yes, I know it’s Tarentino, so strangeness is a given. Bear with me.

    See, the way I see it, it’s actually two movies stuck together. The first half is a really tense psychological thriller. Tarentino, as Richie Gecko, repeatedly fantasizes or hallucinates an entirely different version of the scene than the others around him. Cool concept. Fascinating. Chilling. The second half comes in when they reach the vampire bar in Mexico. I call that half “Tom Savini and His Friends Have Fun With Makeup and Special Effects.” Loads of fun, but an entirely different feel.

    An entirely different movie.

    Love it, but I really, really want to see the second half of that first movie…

    Anyway, my two cents.

  • What has to e understood is it isn’t about the gun. It’s about the decision to pull the trigger. You can’t ever take that decision back. A no-do-over. Not many people have ever been in that situation. Even in combat.

    • I have to agree wholeheartedly with that. I grew up hunting, target shooting, etc.
      My dad taught me not to pull a gun unless I was prepared to kill someone. That’s a huge mental undertaking for the average person
      I’m alone, with the baby, I hear a noise that has my dog growling, I go to the gun safe and grab my pistol. I stand by the window trying to see out…and realize that I can’t literally kill someone. I’m not capable. If I were directly threatened I’m sure I could, but I know myself. There are some hefty mental repercussions involved.

      • “If I were directly threatened” – Laurie, you might hesitate about that. Your mind would be frantically scrambling to find some other alternative, some other choice. But I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if there was a threat to your baby you would not hesitate. And you would be absolutely right to pull that trigger. It’s different when you have someone to protect.

        And yes, there are definitely some hefty mental repercussions involved. If you ever have to pull the trigger you may very well second-guess yourself for the rest of your life. But I’ll say it again: it’s different when you have someone to protect.

  • Hi Chuck, just to let you know you’re my new favourite Penmonkey, you publish a lot of great stuff, and I agree with everything you said in this post. It’s for this exact reason that I confine myself to the more esoteric side of Sci-Fi shootin’ irons. For instance, this is the draft description of the ‘Tangler’ gun from my next novel. I am awaiting abuse from physicists the world over upon its publication.

    “We call it The Tangler, but of course, you must feel free to name it as you wish, once you have bought it.” The next noise that came from the translator was probably meant to be a laugh, but it sounded more like a full suit of dress armour falling down a flight of stairs.
    “And what does this Tangler of yours do exactly?”
    “Once fired, it fills a magnetic bottle with synthetic Gravitons and fires it at the target, when the package hits…”
    “It weighs down the target,” interrupted a Guard sergeant, “Makes them so heavy that they can’t move, it’s a crowd control weapon?”
    The Torkan turned to the sergeant and paused, every one of his tentacles stopped moving momentarily as he regarded him from under his darkened hood. “I can see why you would think that sir, but no. Gravitons are elementary, and up until quite recently, theoretical particles that can be used to impart spin on anything that they come into contact with. May I demonstrate?”
    “Of course,” replied Mal, indicating the partly destroyed hulks on the training ground, “Fire away.”
    The Torkan spread his tentacles around the control system and the gun traversed across all of the possible targets, finally coming to rest pointing at an orbital landing pod. “You will notice that I have chosen the most heavily armoured vehicle here, not only is it protected against weapons fire, but it is also shielded against the heat of atmospheric re-entry.” He pressed a large, flashing red button and stood back. The weapon started to emit a low hum, which rapidly rose in pitch and volume until a glowing ball of green energy was spat from the barrel and meandered, unhurriedly right towards the pod. There was no noise of impact, but the bright glow spread like oil over the surface until it was completely covered. In the next instant it was as if a giant hand had reached down and screwed up the pod like a scrap of paper. The members of the Pewter Guard stood, mouths open, transfixed.

    “We are currently working on a man-portable version for infantry use, although there have been some teething troubles during testing. It should be ready for deployment within a few months.”
    “Teething troubles?”
    “Yes, there have been occasions where Graviton containment has been lost before the gunner has time to fire, and there has been some… premature tangling.”
    Mal paled and questioningly made the spinning motion again with his finger, which the Torkan copied, but with all of his right-hand tentacles simultaneously, in different directions.

  • I think Douglas Adam demonstarted how to write about guns in Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. “The designer of this gun was told to make it evil. Make it look like theres a right end and a wrong end. And if you happen to be looking at the wrong end, things are going badly for you”

    Accurate and avoiding the problem of having to descripe it.

  • Great post Sunbeam (Northern English term of affection, often used by what you guys would call, burly, old dudes) Not really a criticism but over this side of the Atlantic, we often refer to shotgun shells as cartridges, and English writers are probably among the worst for getting guns “wrong”, probably because getting access to the real thing, unless you are in the armed forces or police service (or a bad guy) is just about impossible. Our (GB) Olympic pistol shooters have to do their practice with air pistols, or abroad !

    Keep on keeping on!

  • Not the discussion you were encouraging, but men should ABSOLUTELY measure their wangs by diameter, not length. I’m OK with either metric or whatever we call the other one. At least when you’re describing it to a straight chick you’d like to impress. Trust me.

  • I’m occasionally hugely inspired by small items like bits of wording. A ready-made screenplay landed in my head based on three words I read in a novel once. This time around? “Gun-wizards”. Whoa…

  • Writing is my second love. Firearms come first. I’ve shot almost every firearm it;s possible to shoot, including most of the full autos. This means I catch all sorts of mistakes. Some are minor. Using iron sights with a rifle, you focus on the target, but using iron sights with a handgun, you focus on the front sight. Some are major, such as putting a suppressor (silencer) on a revolver. And while a very few revolvers now have safeties, most do not, but writers stick them on there, anyway. I suspect many think the cylinder release is a safety.

    As for snipers, that’s my specialty. If you don’t move for days, it’s because you don’t see your target for days, and this is never good. As often as not, you’re on a schedule. You either get a shot within a certain time frame, or you scrub and bug. Yes, you study your target. . .if you have to. Much of this is from the movies. Ideally, if the intel is correct, you get in, see the target quickly, and take the damned shot. Every minute you spend waiting and studying means more chance of being discovered.

    But I see mistake after mistake in fiction. I don’t complain about it, unless I know the writer, and he expects it, but I catch them.

    I would also say that if you seriously think NRA members are psychos, don’t write about guns at all because you’re not very bright, and you’ll never get it right.

    • Hi James, I didn’t mean every case was like that, I only meant that it’s not easy. These men are dedicated, and in a few romances I’ve read, it’s way too easy and obvious.

      Basically, yes. I agree with you lol

  • I really like this a lot. I read through this going “phew, I think I got everything right”. Then again, I think I’ve only had one gun discharge in my novel so far and it was an old-fashioned tiny gun that you could fit in the palm of your hand. Noisy, but effective.

  • Professionals (military and law enforcement) almost always refer to their firearms as “weapons.” They also follow these two rules: never point your weapon at anything (or anyone) you don’t intend to shoot, and never shoot at anything (or anyone) you don’t intend to kill. In fact, they will never try to “wing,” or wound, a target; no shooting guns from hands, etc. An exception to this is if a wounding shot is the only one you’ve got and you can’t wait for a better one.

    Constant slide-racking is a pet peeve of mine in film and TV.

    Another rule: a firearm is always loaded, even if you’re absolutely certain it’s not. A lot of people are shot accidentally by “unloaded guns.” And even if the safety’s on, waving a gun around carelessly is an accident waiting to happen (a la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction).

    Oh yeah–cartridges are heavy. So much so that if you hand an unloaded gun (which is a mythological beast; see above) to someone who’s familiar with them, they can probably tell it’s empty (I’m looking at you, John McLean). And if you point a (mythological) unloaded revolver at someone in decent lighting conditions, they’re likely to notice your chambers are empty.

    Regarding shotguns: bird shot fired at someone at any decent distance is just going hurt real bad and piss off your target,but it’s unlikely to kill (unless it’s a face shot).

    • You’re ok. 🙂 The Luger does have a safety. It is located on the left hand side of the pistol at the rear of the frame.

  • Cheers, Chuck. I learned a heap from this. Had no idea about the difference between bird and buckshot, and the thing about revolvers often not having/needing safeties. I should write a similar (but considerably less useful) post on compound bows in fiction…

  • From a non-shooter…several interesting notes. Reminded me of a David Balducci novel that I read several years ago that referred to a 7.62 cm handgun. Wut? I had to check what that meant in inches. About three inches. Maybe a handcannon? Because “cm” was used more than once I suspected the copy editor didn’t know much about the metric system. The book turned out to be so sloppy that I don’t think I’ve read a Balducci book since then.

  • “Dave held the Smith & Weston .45 revolver aloft and after jamming the clip into the cylinder he thumbed off the safety…”

    (here I go proving your point) There’s only one thing that is definitely wrong in that sentence–S&W revolvers don’t have safeties. If you had a S&W .45 (ACP) revolver, you’d definitely want to use a (moon) clip to hold and load and to keep the rounds from sliding forward in the cylinder’s chambers.

    • While your point is good, believe it or not, they make .45 ACP Autorim cartridges for revolvers chambered in .45 ACP. I own one, and it’s much easier to use the Autorim cartridges than mess with those moon clips. 🙂 It’s even a Smith and Wesson, great big scary black gun.

      It’s my five-foot-nothing wife’s favorite handgun to shoot, because it’s nice and heavy and the recoil is negligible. 🙂 She tried a LadySmith once, and she hated it.

  • I think I read through all of the comments. There are a lot of them. What I found missing from this article, which is the worst handled aspect of firearms in fiction, is body armor. I don’t know why Chuck didn’t mention armor. He may just not have wanted to open a whole additional can of worms with more esoterica that I won’t bother with.

    Standard bullet proof vests won’t stop a rifle round. A rifle round travels much faster than a pistol or shotgun round. This makes it much harder to stop.

    They have special armor to protect from rifle rounds. It is a synthetic vest with pouches for hard plates. In the Vietnam era, they used metal inserts. Modern armor uses ceramic inserts that are much lighter, but are ablative, which means they are destroyed when they’re hit. This is the armor soldiers use in war versus what police generally use.

    Interestingly, the DoD had a shortage of heavy body armor during the Gulf War II. Families were buying armor for their loved ones in Iraq. I suspect most people that read the articles didn’t understand fully, because they didn’t know the difference between armor for pistols versus rifles. Maybe they thought the military has magic bullets that hit harder. I don’t know.

  • (The gun Tommy Thug is holding is a toy, btw. I’m sure you knew that.)

    Another thing – to quote S.M. Stirling, “Guns are not magic wands. People don’t do whatever you want just because you are holding one, and shooting someone, even with a well-placed hit, will not cause them to fall over dead.” In “serious” combat courses, the tactic taught is to close with a gun and run from a blade. Somebody who knows what they are doing will try to grapple an opponent armed with a gun if they don’t have one themselves.

    A head-shot with a sufficiently powerful weapon will probably put somebody down more or less instantaneously, as will a shot that significantly reduces the flow of blood to the brain. Anything else, even a wound which is categorically unsurvivable, may allow them to continue to operate for seconds to hours.

    If you read a description of the famous FBI Miami Firefight of 1986, it reads like somebody’s bad men’s adventure fiction. The primary hostile took multiple grievous wounds throughout the fight- at least two of which were guaranteed lethal if he’d been in the doorway of a Level One Trauma Center – and still managed to wound or kill multiple FBI agents before expiring.

    Reading an account of the firefight is EXTREMELY educational if you want to write about such events. Here’s my personal preferred account, although Googling “Miami FBI firefight” will get you any number of links, including a Wiki entry and the FBI’s own pages.

    http://www.thegunzone.com/11april86.html

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds