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. Ah yes… I actually had to do a target shooting test to get a gun license recently. Turns out I’m precise and accurate, but dang, shooting is really not something someone just gets an instant feel for. I mean all I had to do was hit an A4 page (not even in the center target), but the thing people don’t realize is that (I assume) unless you handle weapons often, just picking up a firearm with the intention to shoot causes adrenaline to shoot through your body, which makes your hand shake. And the longer a muzzle is, the bigger a problem you’ll have of keeping aim.

    So yeah, the whole time I was shooting, my thoughts were more: inhale, exhale, squeeze slowly until discharge occurs.

    Oh yeah. That’s the other thing. People think pulling a trigger is just one quick jerk. That’s actually a pretty sure way to miss.

  2. I knew most of these things. Have to admit – I always thought the AR in AR-15 meant assault rifle. Oops.

    Here are a few to add:

    1 – Bullets will fire in space. This is commonly gotten wrong in fiction. (Firefly missed it, for example, when they put a conventional firearm into a space suit to fire it in a vacuum.) But both gunpowder and primers have their own oxidizers, so they don’t need additional oxygen to fire. If they did, they wouldn’t work anyway, because the high pressure inside a gun would prevent any oxygen to get inside and the explosion would fizzle out.

    2 – Rifling causes bullets to rotate, stabilizing them and making them more precise. (I thought this one was common knowledge, but Kill Bill got it wrong when it showed a super-slow-motion shot of a bullet coming out of a pistol. The rifling is visible but the bullet is clearly traveling straight.)

    3 – You can’t trace a bullet back to a particular gun unless you have the gun that fired it. They match the fired round to the gun by firing more rounds through the gun and comparing them. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier messed this one up when they described his gun as “…no rifling. Completely untraceable.” That’s not how tracing works anyway. Never mind the fact that his gun was shockingly precise for having no rifling. Or that this bizarre fact made the shooter far MORE identifiable than generic gun and ammo would have.)

    • If you want to see a good slow-mo representation of a rifled bullet being fired, the second Resident Evil movie has one. 🙂

      While your point on rifling/ballistics is good, there’s another way to do it – match the imprint of the firing pin on the primer and/or the abrasions of the gun’s chamber on the casing. For that, you need the fired casing AND the gun, but not the bullet.

      Some states have messed with regulations requiring that all new guns sold have a test round fired and the cartridge placed in a forensics repository for this purpose – if you do that, you wouldn’t need the gun, or the bullet, only the test round and the fired casing.

      Whether you go with bullet forensics or casing forensics, it MUST BE NOTED that firearms are mechanical devices subject to wear and tear. The rifling wears. The firing pin wears. Barrels and firing pins are replaceable parts. After a number of firings, the firearm will wear enough that there will no longer be a good match. If you try to solve a cold case by comparing forensics on a weapon that has seen regular use since the incident you’re investigating, there is a good chance the forensics will NOT match. If the shooter is knowledgeable about firearms, they may take positive action to ensure that the weapon no longer matches any potential evidence. (Changing firing pins is trivial in most weapons: removing and replacing a barrel is slightly more difficult but no challenge for a reasonably competent person. Or you could just go shoot a Hellacious number of rounds.)

        • Free Idea, since I don’t write mysteries: A conniving pro or amateur gunsmith could easily make a weapon that HADN’T been the murder weapon INTO the murder weapon, forensically speaking, by swapping parts judiciously. Similarly, a conniving forensics tech could do the same, or in reverse, and even if another tech cross-checked them, if they didn’t see the parts swapped, the forensics tests would come back a perfect match even if conducted by an innocent observer.

    • As a firearm examiner, I can say that your 3rd point is incorrect. A firearm is not necessary to compair fired components to each other (two bullets or two cartride cases), it would just be reported as coming from the same unknown firearm. Also, only having a single bullet can give a wealth of information up to a list of possible make/models of firearms, giving a great investigative lead to law enforcement. Same is true with some cartridge cases.

      • My apologies, I read your comment as “a particular firearm” as meaning a single source, not a single firearm in question. Yes, to say it came from “firearm A” that firearm would need to be examined and tests produced to compare. A firearm would not be needed to say all these bullets came from the same gun (whichever one that may be). Sorry for the mis-read.

  3. “Point-blank range” is almost universally used in movies and on TV to mean “very close”—which is wrong.

    When a rifle scope is calibrated at, say, 100 yards, in ideal conditions, the bullet will leave the barrel, arc up (because the gun is pointed up; gravity accelerates it earthward the moment it leaves the barrel) to rise above the line of sight, then arc down again (gravity, still) to again cross that line of sight, in this case at 100 yards. For our hypothetical cartridge, that first upward crossing occurs at 25 yards. Before 25 yards, the bullet’s trajectory is below line of sight; between 25 and 100 yards, it is above it; and it crosses line of sight on the downward part of the arc at exactly 100 yards.

    This means that if you want to hit something at 50 yards, you need to aim (*point* the gun) lower than line of sight—that is, you put your scope crosshairs some distance below the bull’s eye. If you want to hit something at 150 yards, you aim some distance above the bull’s eye. Ballistics tables for a given cartridge will tell you how much.

    And if you want to hit something at 25 or 100 yards, you point your crosshairs directly at the bull’s eyes. You do not adjust up or down. Hence, 25 and 100 yards in this example are “point blank range”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      • When I was qualifying on the M16 in the Air Force, it happened more than once that I fired three rounds and my weapon jammed. Except it hadn’t jammed. I had fired all 10 rounds. Every time. Buffaloes me to this day how I could depress the trigger 10 times and think it was 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thanks in advance for help and advice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  12. I wouldn’t respond but since this site is for people looking for accurate information I have to respectfully call bull*$-^ on Flo. Sorry Flo. I see that you’re smart, and analytical, and learn fast, but as a real military vet can spot a pretender in uniform….I suspect you’ve done research and gone to a range to watch. A .32 round from the early 1900’s is not that loud. A modern .32 round is still not going to hurt your ears. Even a modern hand canon like a .454 Casull won’t make your ears ring for an hour, doubtful for even 10 minutes. (It will cause a little hearing loss.). An early .32 round regardless of handgun size still had only minimal recoil (kick). Modern .32 rounds still have very little recoil. Most people don’t flinch when pulling the trigger because of the sound. They do it with large caliber rounds because of the anticipated recoil. It is illegal in every case I know of, in every state, to fire a gun within 100 feet of a road (or building without the owner’s permission), and where in the world are you shooting at squirrels that the reason you make sure you’re not standing near a car or a building when you fire is to protect your ears? Humidity and air temperature are in no way going to cause ANY noticeable difference in noise level. (Do you think it even makes any difference at conversational noise level? No way it can at gunshot noise level.) I’ve seen people stand near the muzzle of a shotgun when the trigger was pulled. Not one ever went to his or her knees. (Every time though, either the nut who pulled the trigger and/or the person standing near the muzzle was/were never allowed back to the range. ) Flo’s writing mistakes are exactly the kinds of mistakes that good writers are trying to avoid. Getting on the site and talking out of one’s hat is dishonest and detrimental

    • I probably shouldn’t respond, because it’s going to come off as defensive, but sure, I’ll lay out my ‘credentials.’ I’ve been shooting since I was 8, hunting since I was 9. Because “here, point this at that tree and pull the trigger” is not a well structured education, I do try to double check my assumptions with external links and facts other people have put together.

      Sound and pain are subjective. I don’t think I’d be dropped by the sound of shotgun blast now, but at the time it was completely unexpected and I had never heard anything so loud. I was kicking up a bird in front of our dogs and didn’t expect anyone to shoot until the pheasant was well clear of me. Pain dropped me, fear for my life had me standing up and shouting at my hunting companion for being a moron. That was the last time I hunted with that unsafe asshole. He had a bad case of wanting to be first and have the biggest body count at the end of the day, and as a middle aged man who’d been hunting that way his whole life, had no interest in listening to me explain why that shot was too dangerous to take.

      “where in the world are you shooting at squirrels that the reason you make sure you’re not standing near a car or a building when you fire is to protect your ears?”

      My front yard, usually, from around the side of the garage (past the parked cars) to get the fat ones who sit in our bird feeders and stuff their faces. I’ve since moved on to a .22 air rifle that I can stick out the kitchen window without making the house smell. My first lesson on not shooting with my elbow steadied on a wall instead of a tree was on my grandpa’s farm, snugged up to the back of a brick chicken coop. After more than a year of shooting that rifle out in the open, that was a painful, unpleasant surprise. I forget if it was a raccoon or a fox I was shooting at, now, but I remember the much louder than normal shot. Welcome to the rural Midwest. If it’s on my property (or my family’s property) and not specific species of game like deer, I’m legal for shooting nuisance animals year-round.

      I also have tinnitus, from situations like the shotgun blast and not wearing hearing protection in the field, so my ears ring unless I’ve got in ear plugs and then cover them with ear muffs, or if it’s our .22s. I’ve had my ears ring after a slammed door. I really hate indoor ranges, as the concussion through the concrete under my feet distracts me, even if I have enough ear protection on. It’s just a little tiny tap, but it is very off-putting. I much prefer shotguns, generally 5-stand or to go to the one place with enough land and money for sporting clays.

      “Humidity and air temperature are in no way going to cause ANY noticeable difference in noise level. ”
      You’re right, if they’re close. I think that was a stray thought/comment to if anyone would hear the shot from outside the building or a ways down the road. I know there are days when the weather effects if I can hear the highway a mile away, or if I can hear the dairy farmer at the top of the hill shooting at pigeons. But it was not a relevant thought to the topic at hand.

      I’m talking from my honest experience, imperfect as it is. A well designed gun, properly fitted to the person shooting, will absolutely impact perceived recoil. For rifles and shotguns that’s buttstock length (sometimes a buttpad) and balance. I almost quit shooting shotguns because of an improperly fitted 870, but find it an absolute joy to shoot my Browning.

      For handguns, wrist strength to handle kickback is rarely something men deal with on the same level as women, but most the women I shoot with prefer larger framed guns to help spread or absorb the recoil when it comes to handguns. Like I pointed out, if the woman has a manual labor job, such as cooking in a time before microwave ovens and hand mixers, it becomes much less of an issue. And yes, most women I know shoot with more confidence if we make sure they had proper ear protection when they start shooting, as the sound that makes them flinch as much as the kick (I include myself in this group.) I do not care if it is placebo effect to have ear protection on, I enjoy shooting more when it’s not so loud. I will take my 9mm Ruger or my dad’s .45 over my uncle’s stripped down ‘belly gun’ .32 for recoil and noise any day. I’m not sure if the .32 is truly louder, or if it just feels like it should be since it kicks more than the full size guns. Either way, I really dislike his tiny CCW.

      That’s my lived experience with decades of shooting and hunting, but good to know that if I write about guns in my books, someone will think I’m faking my firsthand experience.

  13. I find it interesting that people come to a site set up for getting accurate information and dispelling folklore make comments that are clearly incorrect, and posted by people spreading hearsay. I think as a rule perhaps unless a poster has actually experienced a situation, or states that she or he has not, then refraining from making the comment is the only way to stop falsities.
    1. Contrary to expert posters, a silencer on a revolver DOES reduce the noise, by about a third. Some noise is produced when material exits through the gap between the cylinder and the barrel, but the noise from the bullet breaking the sound barrier doesn’t occur until the bullet has had time to reach that velocity, which is not in the cylinder. (I suspect that such posters would be hard pressed to even name a single revolver threaded to accept a factory silencer)
    2. Forensics on a fired bullet will to my knowledge NOT tell you the make or model of the gun that fired it. Because of deformation it can only rarely indicate that a recovered bullet was fired from a certain firearm even when law enforcement actually have the gun and do a test firing.If anyone has any actual evidence to the contrary please let us know (a cop’s/judge’s,prosecutor’s statement is not evidence)
    3. As a physician, retired officer, and long time shooter, I can tell you that firing a derringer and breaking the shooter’s wrist does NOT at all seem plausible ( poster said it was “both wrists badly”)
    4. Smoke from smokeless powder is NOT going to block your vision even in an enclosed room (unless you fire in excess of probably 20,000 consecutive rounds.)
    5 Even some modern firearms CAN fire if dropped. Colt single action revolvers and their clones, as well as do not have a cross bar safety . Cobray’s hammer on their single shot and double barreled derringer-type firearms rests directly against the primer when off safety).
    6. This one is just from my 50 years of shooting, but I find it extremely , extremely difficult to believe that the scent of gunpowder is going to be noticeable on clothing to a human nose after a trip through the washer In fact if there are people who could tell you’ve fired a gun even just 30 minutes later, well, I’ve never met one.

  14. 1) Length of the buttstock is not at all the significant factor effecting felt recoil. (If the gun is so big one can’t even reach the trigger then probably best not to try. Drop of the comb/shape of the stock, and most important for many is how the shooter holds the butt against the shoulder.
    2) Early .32 caliber ammunition had minimal recoil and noise.Modern .32 cal. ammo still is not very loud. I’ve never known one to be any where as loud as a .45. (A .223 /5.56 is however surprisingly loud.)
    3) Experienced responsible shooters under noncombat situations are not going to fire a weapon out the window from inside the house. We’re not going to do that even if we were to stick the muzzle outside the window. Maybe if we were starving and some animal were walking by… (The closest thing I’ve seen like this was a guy who stood in his doorway and shot a deer, but the gun was completely outside the house at least.) Putting the muzzle outside the window to keep the smell out of the house is just bad fiction.
    4) Experienced shooters do not scream and shout at other shooters. In my lifetime I have seen people miss-handle firearms including pointing or shooting when and where they should not. Never have I seen anyone respond by shouting. Experienced responsible shooters, when handling firearms or in the presence of someone who is, always remain calm. I’ve never heard anyone teach it overtly so maybe it’s just from being cognizant of all the rules of safety and risks of injury that enforces our restraint. Shouting doesn’t make the other guy calm down/safer. The normal response: usually a companion says, sometimes in a cajoling voice, something like “Hey dude, ya might kill somebody doin’ that.” If the safety-violater gets defensive, or repeats the violation, the usual response has been for the others to walk away from him.
    5.) I can’t imagine anyone of any age being “dropped” by the “pain” of the sound of a gunshot of any current caliber..Not from naval gunfire, nor from a howitzer. I’m not saying it could NEVER happen, but for realistic fiction concerning personal firearms, I’d avoid making the claim.
    6) Air temperature and humidity are written about when scientific info is included in testing ammunition. However, the slight breeze of 1/100 of a foot per second will have a much much greater influence on noise level.

    • I’m going to skip the rest, since we’re not going to agree.

      With regards to 3, I said I had moved to an AIR RIFLE, as in, no powder, and thus, no smell in the house when I shoot out the window. I continue to use that air rifle to shoot out the window at the squirrels, and crack open the back door and shoot rabbits in the garden, as we’ve culled the ones dumb enough to stick around when a human steps out of the house. For most people, shooting out the back door would be dangerous, but since our back yard is backed by our small field of grasses and native milkweed, that is backed by a large field the dairy farmer uses to grow silage, and then there’s a hill, and that’s about a half or three quarters of a mile away, I’m confident in my chances of not hitting anything by accident. I would not shoot a rifle- even an air rifle- in that direction if there were houses on our side of the hill, or if the farmer were to graze his cattle on this side of the hill.

      As to 4, I did in fact yell at the man. I didn’t handle it calmly when he took that shot. Glad you handle it better when people act the fool around you.

      I’m not your sort of people, apparently I’m not your sort of responsible, but I still own and use guns without harming anything I don’t intend to harm.

      Happy New Year, internet stranger, I hope you enjoy 2017. I’m amused that how I live my life is “bad fiction.” Thanks for the smile.

  15. Okay, so I get the gist of writing about using guns, but an average handgun, would it be hot after firing? I believe it would but I’m unsure and there aren’t any gun ranges near me (otherwise, I’d go test this asap)

    • Only under unusual circumstances. If you were to load 7.62×39 brass with black powder, hold the muzzle close to a smoke detector and manage to get off 10 rounds or so, yes. Even in the venerable AK, running a 3-round mag will be difficult because of how black powder leaves a lot of residue behind.

  16. This article was extremely useful. I’m writing a story right now, and I have one scene where the main character has a handgun. That’s all I called it. She’s exploring a haunted castle, and there’s these subhuman monsters that lurk around. She’s using an axe for most of them, since she was told ‘you can’t kill a ghost with a gun’ but she brought her gun just in case.
    In this scene, she’s in a dark room deep in a tower, and the monster is ridiculously fast. She knows she’s not going to be able to brace herself or dodge, so she whips out the gun and just shoots. But like, it’s a scary situation, so she’s just shooting and screaming, and she can’t see anything. But the monster is right in front of her, like an arm’s length away.
    My questions:
    1. How does she know she’s out of ammo?
    2. Is Muzzle Flash right bright? (That’s kind of what kills the ghost, the bright flashes and concussive sound)
    3. Is there a handgun that uses steel bullets? Is that a thing?
    4. What smell is left behind? Like sulfur?
    I think that’s all for now. My grandfather used to own a gunstore, but he was killed when I was little, so I don’t know anything about guns. Any and all help is gratefully appreciated! My last story, I had a gun in one scene and I tried to write it on my own…I got a lot of angry emails!

    • Peyton,

      I’m not sure if you’ve found your answers yet or not, but I figured I’d give you some information anyway in case you’re still searching.

      1) How she knows she’s out of ammo depends entirely on the type of firearm she’s using. A modern semi-auto handgun will USUALLY lock the slide to the rear after the last round is fired, resulting in a “dead” feeling trigger. A very few modern semi-autos don’t do this by design and she may not know until she pulls the trigger again. A revolver will just start clicking, rather than firing, once the ammunition has been expended and the hammer/firing pin is hitting empty casings in the cylinder.
      2) The muzzle flash is bright yet extremely brief, but, despite years of shooting, it’s never been so bright it would completely kill my night vision and obscure everything around me.
      3) Technically there are a couple handguns which could effectively use steel projectiles. These include revolvers which are capable of shooting shotgun shells (like a S&W Governor) and would utilize steel shot, and black-powder type handguns which would be hand-loaded with a steel ball or smaller steel shot. I have heard a couple older military rifles used “soft” steel bullets, but that’s not my forte so I can’t speak on it definitively. Essentially a fired bullet expands slightly to seal against the barrel so that a) the rifling will impart a spin on it, making it more accurate and b) it will gain as much momentum and force possible, caused by the explosion of the powder in the cartridge behind it. Your heroine’s best bet would be to use a steel-core bullet (soft steel in the center surrounded by the lead bullet and possibly copper jacket), sometimes referred to as an “armor piercing” round. Or possibly, a little way out of the realm of reality but not plausibility, have an exposed steel point in the middle of a hollow point bullet (it would look like a sharp point in the middle of a cavity in the nose of the bullet). That would have to be a custom casting job as I’ve never seen one of those produced commercially but it is theoretically possible.
      4) The smell left behind would depend on what style handgun she uses (black powder vs modern smokeless powder, as noted elsewhere in the comments on this post), but I doubt she’d notice it anyway if she’s as frightened or startled as you make it sound, and she’s just blasting away.

      I hope those answers help!

  17. Great article! But I gotta be a self congratulatory bastard and point out an error… but not with guns. You have a typo. In the shotgun bullet (see what I did there?) you typed “If” twice, meaning “it” the second time.

    Sorry, I had to.

    But really, great article. Fun read. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Episode of Gunsmoke – bad guy files off trigger of SAA apparently to make it better for fanning the hammer. Wrong, wrong, wrong in so many ways. All he did was t render the firearm totally useless except as a club.

  19. This is so helpful! One question as I’m writing my book: if someone kills someone point-blank (handgun to the forehead) in a very dark room, would there be a flash of light, or would the proximity to the person’s head prevent that? Thanks!

  20. I’m way late to the party, but I wanted to add something about the sound of gunfire that wasn’t mentioned. Guns sound very differently when they are being shot at you than when you are shooting them. I’m referring to a military experience where the shots are coming from 100+ yds away. You hear much less of a “bang, bang” but instead due to the doppler effect as the bullet rips through the air, you’ll head the angriest bee of your life. Sort of a “pop, whirrrr” sound that is very high pitched. You rarely see it mentioned in movies, but there is a scene in Black Hawk Down that captures this. I imagine for most, the firefight is far more dramatic when it’s face to face, but if your character is being engaged from afar, they will hear a very different sound. And, as is mentioned here, it will drive those of us who have experience with it crazy if you get it wrong.

    By the way, I found this post while I was looking for ways to describe the smell of gunfire. I’ve fired quite a few guns in and out of the military so I know the smell when I smell it, but I haven’t the slightest clue how to describe it beyond “a metallic sulfur.” I don’t quite smell the boiled eggs, but get why some would. Any suggestions would be awesome.

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