Dec 07 2008

Common Gun-Related Errors for Authors

This article lists a few tricky points related to writing about guns. I think its list is pretty good…

  1. Revolvers generally can’t be silenced.
  2. When an automatic is out of bullets, it will be plainly visible to the user and anyone looking closely. (The firing mechanism locks back).
  3. A sniper far from his target has to adjust for gravity, wind direction and velocity, pressure, etc., rather than putting his target’s head in the scope and calling it a day. Also, head-shots at long distance are highly unreliable.
  4. Don’t use the word “cordite.” It’s badly dated.
  5. If characters want to go gangsta and hold their guns sideways, that’s fine but it’s not a natural posture. Your hand can adjust for vertical recoil more easily than horizontal recoil. (Also, twisting the wrist to hold the gun out sideways is not comfortable).
  6. Looking at a gunshot victim, it’s difficult to determine the calibre of the bullets used to shoot him.

I’ll add a few tips for aspiring Tom Clancys.

1) Except for wild cover-fire, only amateurs try to shoot two guns at the same time. The recoil would be atrocious. This is a horrible mistake that suggests that the author’s knowledge has come from video games and Akimbo movies. Holding two pistols and exhausting one before using the other is acceptable, though.

2) Generally, authors overestimate the effectiveness of silencers. High powered rifles, particularly sniper rifles, are just too loud to silence.

3) Most guns are not limited to six bullets. Semiautomatic pistols are the most popular type of gun, and they typically hold 8-10 bullets. However, high-capacity magazines can carry up to 30.

4) Counting the enemy’s bullets is stupid. When someone is firing at you, it would be suicidal to risk your life betting on your ability to guess how large his magazine is, how many rounds it held when he started firing, how many bullets he has fired at you, whether he has a loaded sidearm, etc.

5) Full-auto is not very professional. It forces the user to reload far too quickly and is wildly inaccurate. Also, under many circumstances a wild spray of bullets could endanger bystanders and friendlies.

6) Getting shot will not move a person’s body much. It’s not realistic for gunshots to send someone sprawling backwards.  Bullets are too small to have much momentum. As a rule of thumb, the force of impact for the victim will be very similar to the recoil for the shooter.  Definitely not enough to send someone shooting through a pane of glass.

7) Guns are really expensive in most developed countries. A handgun will set you back at least several hundred dollars in the United States.

8) It’s hard to fire accurately when you’re moving a lot. If your character is chasing after someone, in a moving car, climbing, running, or dodging fire, etc., he is probably going to miss a lot.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Common Gun-Related Errors for Authors”

  1. t3knomanseron 08 Dec 2008 at 5:43 am

    There is one Soviet-era revolver that can be muffled. It has an air-tight seal between the chamber and the barrel, a unique feature.

    Silencers are really mufflers, and in many other countries, that’s what they are called. In no case will they give you the James Bond whisper quiet kill. In general, they will reduce the volume to something akin to a balloon popping, or a book being dropped from height.

  2. t3knomanseron 08 Dec 2008 at 8:25 am

    A few other things, now that I’m not rushing out the door to work (I’m at work dicking around).

    Dual-wielding pistols is ridiculous, but looks cool. For a superhero story, I think the level of suspension of disbelief would allow such a thing. It is absolutely not practical. Heck, even just holding a pistol with a full magazine with one hand is a chore. They’re not heavy, but holding five pounds with your arm fully extended? I don’t care how strong you are, after a few minutes, your hand will shake if you do that for long enough.

    When thinking about silencers, you have to understand what they do. A silencer is a tube with baffles in it. The idea is to slow down the expansion of gas from the propellant so that you don’t get a super-loud boom. An un-muffled firearm is literally deafening. It’s impractical to completely dampen that noise- so the best you’ll get is a politely non-deafening boom.

    But that’s not the only source of noise from a firearm. Most rounds you’re going to fire are supersonic. This means you’ll get a sonic boom- a small one, sure, but you’ll get one. There’s not a lot that you can do about that. The ever popular Glock 9mm has a muzzle velocity of around 1,200f/s depending on what exact load you’re using. Unless you’ve specifically chosen rounds that are subsonic (thus sacrificing a great deal of their stopping power), you aren’t going to get terribly quiet.

    A bullet, as you said, doesn’t carry any momentum. You can track down videos of people taking pistol rounds to their body armor (for testing and educational purposes)- they don’t budge. But, keep in mind the fact that when a bullet strikes you, your body freaks out. Someone injured by a bullet my go flying, but only because their body is trying to figure out what the hell happened and spasms.

    While the process of using a gun is pretty straightforward, actually being able to hit things with it is fairly difficult. Your arms are not stable shooting platforms, and even slight wobble will send your bullets way off of target.

    If you intend to write a story where gunplay features heavily, you need just enough knowledge to keep it believable, but not so much knowledge that you’re going to bog the story down in technical details. I highly recommend that you track down a local range or gun-club and spend a few hours lobbing lead down range. It’s an easy thing to arrange (in the US, anyway) and it’s a fun afternoon project. It’s also one of those things- everyone should know basic firearm safety and the basic ideas behind operating a firearm.

    On that note: people who spend a great deal of time around and using firearms tend to be more paranoid about using them safely, not less. Keep that in mind when thinking about how a character will use a firearm- the more experienced they are, the more concerned they will be about what’s beyond their target, about assuming every firearm they touch is loaded until they confirm it isn’t. They won’t trust safeties, and they certainly won’t put a pistol in their waistband (how more people don’t blow their junk off, I’ll never know).

  3. t3knomanseron 08 Dec 2008 at 11:23 am

    Of course- you need to know your story.

    Also, for a gritty, Tom Clancy-esque novel, knowing your vocabulary is essential. In most cases, it’s not a clip, it’s a magazine. If the rounds are contained and surrounded by it, it’s a magazine. If it’s just a little strip of metal that wraps around the primer area of the rounds, it’s a clip- clips are generally only used to load rounds into certain kinds of magazines.

  4. Jon 09 Mar 2009 at 4:51 am

    A bit late to the party but I’d like to note that firearms aren’t quite that expensive. All the time, that is. I’ve purchased a used revolver for as little as $300. It doesn’t look great but it’s well made. If well made isn’t a requirement, Lorcins and Hi-Points run less than $300 new. On the other hand, a good double rifle can set you back $30,000 or more. There’s quite a range of prices.

  5. B. Macon 09 Mar 2009 at 5:01 am

    See, this is one of the attractions of enlisting. You never have to worry about details like how much your gun costs. That’s what quartermasters are for. 🙂

  6. Anonymouson 15 Dec 2010 at 9:30 pm

    would like to point out that handguns like the FiveSeven have a double stacked magazine meaning they can hold 20 rounds without the bulkiness of other high capacity clips

  7. B. Macon 15 Dec 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Now I know! 🙂

  8. ekimmakon 16 Dec 2010 at 3:04 am

    You tell Magneto he can’t use two guns at once, he’ll shoot you in the head with 20.

    I understand that realistically a human can’t fire pistols two at a time. But when you have superhumans, you have some leeway as long as their powers give them it.

  9. B. Macon 16 Dec 2010 at 6:36 am

    One low-key sci-fi explanation I’ve used is implanted recoil suppressors in the wrist. I was looking for something that could turn the main character from a completely useless taxman into someone vaguely useful in combat without actually giving him superpowers. Personally, I think that any capabilities that can be bestowed rather easily should be pretty limited–otherwise, you’ll probably have so many people running around with incredible powers that the powers will feel less special.

    Alternately, a powersuit’s arms could be built to absorb the recoil.

    I sort of roll my eyes at the Punisher, who fires several weapons without any scientific assistance but with training and experience, but I think a lot of people can find it believable. Quoting from above: “Most superheroes don’t use guns, and when they do (like the Punisher) it tends to be in a highly fantastical fashion. And that’s fine, for its genre.”

  10. Bad-Peopleon 07 Mar 2012 at 12:20 am

    Let’s not forget about Stryker from Cyber Force, he shoots four guns at once. But truthfully, target shooters have proven that two handguns can be fired accurately simultaneously. It simply takes more time and practice than is practical for law enforcement and military. Still, I bet it took Bruce Wayne quite a while to perfect his baterange throw.

  11. B. McKenzieon 07 Mar 2012 at 5:23 am

    “It simply takes more time and practice than is practical for law enforcement and military.” You’d also need to be a phenomenal shot with both hands, BUT not have access to a rifle. I can’t envision any military or police situations* where two pistols fired simultaneously would be preferable to a rifle. I don’t think it’s just a training issue, or presumably special forces would go akimbo more often.

    *However, criminals/terrorists might benefit from the ease of concealment and may not have access to anything besides pistols.

  12. Bad-Peopleon 07 Mar 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Shorter weapons are often more useful anyway. Sub-machine guns and carbines are less ungainly than rifles can be, and over penetration is less of an issue. In certain close quarters situations handguns are more useful.

    I was just saying that it’s not out of the question for someone to be lethal accurate with two guns, this is the genre for it.

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