May 31 2011
How many times has a Hollywood protagonist screwed a silencer onto his pistol, cocked the hammer a few times, and delivered a perfectly silent shot or ten into the bad guy, causing him to fall backward and knock over a storage unit full of lead weights? There is so much wrong with that premise, and yet we see it all the time. It’s given many people a poor perspective on firearms, how they really work, and their capabilities. I’m here to help dispel these myths and improve the realism in your writing!
1. Guns are loud!
Crazy loud. Without any ear protection, a gun battle is louder than a rock concert. The cartoonish image of somebody’s ears bleeding after a loud sound is almost accurate if a gun battle were to erupt inside a building. Decibel levels of a gunshot can be 140dB, which is more than four times as loud as a common rock concert (115dB). (See this breakdown for more info.) It is worth adding, though, that when adrenaline (and even morphine) levels are running high during a fight-for-your-life scenario, strange things have happened where (in addition to expected things like tunnel vision) gunshots feel much, much softer, so it’s conceivable for a conversation to take place right after a gun shot. However, this is incredibly unlikely.
2. “Silencers” aren’t.
They’re also more formally (and accurately) referred to as suppressors. Technically speaking, they suppress the concussive shock waves that are released from the barrel in front of the exiting bullet. Suppressors tend to greatly reduce the “boom” associated with gunfire, but the sounds of the actual explosion of gunpowder and all the metal moving parts on the gun are not really decreased at all. Either way, it’ll be very loud. For example, most suppressors on the market will bring a .22lr round from 160 dB (loud enough to rupture an eardrum) to about 120 db (a rock concert or jet engine).
3. Gunfire rarely knocks somebody over by itself.
A shotgun blast from close range may knock back a lightweight person slightly, I suppose. But conservation of momentum teaches us that the force hitting the victim is no more than the force of the recoil of the shooter, and that’s generally not enough to knock a person over. Especially with a handgun. Getting shot isn’t fun, though (see below), and the victim may lose their balance and fall down (though not very likely backward!) or trip and fall off a ledge if they double over in pain or otherwise react physically to being shot. Just understand that it wasn’t directly from the force of the bullet.
4. Automatic fire wastes ammo.
It may be neat to watch an M16 (or even more amusingly an AK-47) run through a whole magazine of ammo, but realistically, fully automatic fire runs through ammo in a hurry. An M16 can theoretically fire at 750 rounds per minute (ignoring accuracy and magazine changes), or 12.5 rounds per second. Even with a typical 30 or 40 round magazine, those would be empty in about 3 seconds. Obviously you can attach a 100-round drum, but even at that you’re still talking about 8 seconds to empty it. The point is that in fully automatic fire you will run dry super quickly and have little to no accuracy. It’s fun to play with on a shooting range, but hardly ever practical.
5. “Spray and Pray” rarely actually works.
Also called a “death blossom,” sending automatic fire randomly into a crowd of enemy combatants has a very low success rate and wastes ammo very quickly (see #4 above). Even if you happen to hit a few of them, those hits may very likely be in non-lethal parts of the body, and so they may remain a threat. It is a much better idea to take quick but separate, more accurate shots. On the other hand, feel free to have an enemy shooting like this, it’s a good way to make them look crazy and not actually inflict much damage on their victims.
6. Guns usually can’t unlock doors.
Sometimes guns are shown being as used as a proximity card by just firing one perfect shot at a lock (or control panel) and unlocking a high-security door. That’s not very realistic. Access panels are a lot more likely to fail to function whatsoever if shot (with no change in the door’s locked status). Any physical lock, if shot, would become so corrupted with mangled metal that it may never open again! It is worth mentioning though that there are some breeching rounds that can be used to shoot out door jambs or hinges. Those are pretty cool!
7. Getting shot really hurts.
I fortunately cannot speak from firsthand experience, but I can tell you anecdotally that getting shot can cause a range of reactions. The most common is shock, which usually starts quickly. The blood loss (and even just the shock of it) can cause loss of consciousness. If the round enters the chest cavity, it can bounce around, doing lots of damage in an instant. If it’s a hollow-point (or other) round, it can carve a huge path out of the victim’s body, causing damage to multiple organs and draining a lot of blood. If the victim is lucky, it’ll be a FMJ (full metal jacket) round, and a small and fast caliber, such as a .22 or even 9mm. Those may go fairly cleanly through the person (commonly called a through-and-through), which usually does the least damage (unless of course it is through-and-through the heart or something). So make sure your shooting victims observe the pain. (Unless they are coked out of their mind or have a superpower or something).
I will add that obviously most comic books aren’t revered for their realism. However, (especially with graphic novels) it helps if there are pieces of your work that are based in reality. Personally I appreciate it when real weapons are written about realistically. If you want to create your own weapons in your story, though, have at it!
Michael blogs at Art Room Melody, having been a bit of an artist his whole life. Having owned guns for many years, Michael has taken several firearms and self-defense classes and enjoys reading and writing about guns and their proper use as well as of course getting out to the range as frequently as possible. In his spare time he’s just a bit of a geek in general.