May 31 2011

7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do

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.

29 responses so far

29 Responses to “7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do”

  1. Contra Gloveon 31 May 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Regarding #1, I should incorporate this more into my gun-battle scenes. Seeing guns fired on TV has given me a mistaken idea of how noisy they actually are.

  2. Mynaon 31 May 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Oma, I agree with this SO much. I haven’t fired guns much, but I have shot before, and all of the above is true (especially about them being loud >.>;;)… I have no idea why people don’t realize things like this. Also worth noting: Everyone trying the gangster shot? Nooo. It looks good but no one can aim like that and might well break the persons wrist, and no, I’m not talking about the victim’s… :/

  3. steton 31 May 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Ooh, I like this. Hunting rifles always sound oddly quiet to me, almost like toys–but they’re in the woods, God knows how far away.

    What about subsonic rounds? Are they actually quiet?

  4. B. Macon 31 May 2011 at 3:48 pm

    “Everyone trying the gangster shot?” If you hold the gun sideways, then the recoil is going to jerk your hand to the side rather than up. It’s harder to control horizontal recoil than vertical. I hadn’t heard about the risk of breaking a wrist, though.

  5. Mynaon 31 May 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’ve heard about it a few times, although it’s not common, but it can happen because it snaps your wrist weird, different than normal shots…

  6. Crystalon 31 May 2011 at 4:32 pm

    This is useful. I was getting concerned, because the policemen in my story are going to have to use guns, and I was not too sure exactly how to portray one realistically.

  7. ekimmakon 31 May 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I already knew a lot of this stuff, although 4, 5, and 7 are new.

  8. B. Macon 31 May 2011 at 8:25 pm

    I really like Mike’s take on this.

    Some other misconceptions that I think crop up a lot…

    –Bulletproof vests do not actually render you immune to death. (In reality, they aren’t very useful against rifles and are almost completely useless against knives).

    (I’ll give the Ironman suit the benefit of the doubt on this, because it’s sci-fi and because part of the premise is Tony Stark can do things with a box of scraps that even his best competitors can’t, but there’d be no way to insulate the user inside from enough of the force being applied to the suit when it crashes into the ground or gets thrown into a wall or something.

    –Firing two guns simultaneously (a la Akimbo) is woefully inaccurate. Nobody with a clue does it in real life. I blame Hong Kong action movies and video games for this one.

    –In Hollywood depictions, pretty much every hit by a sniper goes directly into the center of the reticle. At really long distances, a sniper would adjust for the distance the bullet would fall over the ~3 seconds it’s in the air. So you’ll actually aim the slightly above where you want the bullet to go. (Also, make sure you adjust for the wind).

    –I feel like Hollywood characters are really bad about looking for cover. Take cover or get yourself shot.

    –Most walls inside of a house (at least in the United States–some places in Europe do real walls inside rather than just plaster) and car doors cannot stop bullets. Upturned tables… are you kidding me?

  9. Contra Gloveon 01 Jun 2011 at 6:28 am

    I feel like Hollywood characters are really bad about looking for cover. Take cover or get yourself shot.

    Also, concealment does not equal cover.

  10. Michaelon 01 Jun 2011 at 10:45 am

    Thanks guys for all the feedback, and for the opportunity to post here! It was a lot of fun writing this article for sure.

    To B. Mac’s point about snipers’ reticles always being perfectly “on” the eventual shot placement… I think the movie “Shooter” is one of the most realistic movies when it comes to firearm handling. A bit of Hollywood magic, of course, but it treats things like parallax and reticle placement fairly well. Oh and it’s just a fun movie 🙂

  11. B. Macon 01 Jun 2011 at 1:04 pm

    If you’re into realistic handling of firearms and a surprisingly compelling story and characterization, I HIGHLY recommend Point of Impact, the novel that was turned into Shooter. It is probably my favorite action novel so far. I have not seen the movie, though.

  12. […] 7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do […]

  13. Irene Vernardison 02 Jun 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Very interesting post 🙂

    Quote: “Guns usually can’t unlock doors.” He he, loved this 🙂

    “Horizontal recoil” > it can dislocate shoulders, depending on the gun, position and physical strength 🙂

    I didn’t know about some of the details posted above. I’m bookmarking this for future reference.

    Thank you for the post and info 😀

  14. ekimmakon 02 Jun 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Wait a minute, guns can unlock doors too. It says so right here!

    See? It’s… oh, right. Realistic guns. Never mind.

  15. ekimmakon 02 Jun 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Mispelled too

  16. Phoenixon 02 Jun 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I usually consider seeking cover one of those optional things when watching Hollywood fare. Sure, the bullets are dangerous, but most people aren’t actually as accurate at shooting as Hollywood would have us believe, especially as distance increases. In our world, most handgun shootings occur at conversational distance.

    Remember: when watching TV and movies, you’ll see and hear only what they want you to see and hear. This means that gunshots are whatever volume they want, targets will be hit or missed according to the needs of the script and sometimes ridiculous things are going to be presented.

    I hate watching guys in westerns get shot and then not only fall from a second floor, but throw themselves through or over a sturdy wooden safety rail. Like getting shot wasn’t bad enough? And that must’ve been one lucky shot, considering the tech of the time. When someone is shot dead, the body collapses. That’s it. It just drops like a marionette with cut strings.

    If you ever want to suffer through some utterly ridiculous gunshot physics, watch “The Quick and the Dead” starring Sharon Stone. If you can sit through it more than once, you’ve a higher tolerance than I.

  17. B. Macon 03 Jun 2011 at 12:23 am

    “but most people aren’t actually as accurate at shooting as Hollywood would have us believe, especially as distance increases. In our world, most handgun shootings occur at conversational distance.” In civilian contexts, I agree with this. (I think military engagements are more frequently in the 20-150 feet range but don’t quote me on that). Agreed. If you are taking shots without cover from less than 20 feet away, you will get riddled with bullets.

    Take note, my protagonists: Being the good guys will not protect from you from a gruesome and entirely avoidable death. (Indeed, if anything, I would recommend NOT being the protagonist in a series named The Taxman Must Die).

  18. Quarktimeon 03 Jun 2011 at 3:05 am

    Good article.

    Subsonic rounds only cut the sonic boom made by the bullet as it travels. The powder crack is still just as loud.

    Contrary to Hollywood, it it’s insanely difficult to stop someone with a single shot, no matter the caliber. What generally stops or kills is bloodloss or central nervous system disruption. A “one shot stop” is incredibly rare.

    Ammo is heavy. So is any decent gun of significant caliber. Every gram of mass you remove from the gun to bake it easier to carry translates to a gram of perceived recoil in your hand, because it was that much easier to move the gun. Bigger caliber means more damage, but more weight, bulkier magazines, and fewer you can reasonably carry.

    If you want to write about gun use, go to a range and take a basic pistol course. Some have events where you can take it cheap or free, and can rent the weapon for the class. Expect to pay for ammo, it’s expensive!

    Me? Cartoonist and firearms instructor.

  19. CCOlsonon 20 Sep 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Actually, shotguns loaded with 00 buckshot can get a “one-shot stop”, though realistically it’s more like you fire one shot and the target receives 9 simultaneous small caliber shots. This somehow overwhelms the body and often shuts the person off immediately.

    High-velocity rifles (so, most hunting and battle rifles) are also much more likely to get one-shot kills than pistols. Even if they don’t kill you instantly, the high-velocity round creates a large amount of hydrostatic shock as it goes through, potentially damaging systems throughout the body.

    For anyone wanting to do realistic combat, look up the book “On Combat” by Dave Grossman. It’s a very interesting read and he goes through all the sensory distortions experienced by people in survival situations, as well as treating on the ability of the human body to take severe punishment and keep functioning while the adrenaline is flowing.

  20. ShyVioletson 12 Nov 2011 at 8:41 pm

    I have three different characters that cary fire arms in my novel and i have a couple questions I hope someone can answer.

    1) Does anyone know what the standard issue firearm is for a police investigator?

    2) As far a guns go, which ones are relatively quite?

    3) If you were a spy with a license to kill what gun would you use?

    My working knowledge of guns only really pertains to what I’ve seen on Mythbusters and what I know from my hunter friends and relatives.

    If all else fails I’ll take my questions to google but it can be really hard to find accurate and reliable information :/ oh well such is life 🙂

  21. B. McKenzieon 13 Nov 2011 at 2:02 am

    1) In the United States, ~65% of police departments issue Glocks (notably the Glock 19). It’s a 9mm pistol that is light/concealable, reliable/tough and accurate. However, officers may purchase their own guns “off the badge” and use those instead. For example, some officers might opt for heavier pistols like the Beretta 9mm because they think that heavier guns are easier to control.

    2) Guns with longer barrels tend to be relatively quieter. According to one marksman, a .22lr rifle or pistol might generate something like 70-75 decibels of sound, which is slightly louder than everyday conversation. However, since you’re dealing with a spy (e.g. someone with a major interest in stealth and expert technical assistance), it’d probably be believable to say they designed something quieter in-house if you wanted to.

    3) “If you were a spy with a license to kill what gun would you use?” I think it depends on the mission. For example, if the CIA deploys a team into Pakistan to execute an Al Qaeda leader, I imagine their primary weapons would be rifles. If the CIA is infiltrating the Kremlin, my uninformed intuition is that the agent wouldn’t bother bringing a gun because it increases the risk of detection and because trying to shoot someone in the Kremlin is suicidal. (If you absolutely need to kill someone in a very secure installation, I’m guessing poison is more plausible). In most other cases, I’m guessing it’d probably be a pistol or some other sort of highly concealable gun*.

    *One minor caveat here: these super-cute guns, like guns embedded in lighters, are only effective at extremely close range. Pistols are only somewhat better at longer ranges–their ideal range is usually up to 50 meters/164 feet.

    Another caveat: I am not personally experienced in this area and found most of this information on Google.

  22. ShyVioletson 13 Nov 2011 at 8:50 am

    Thank you so much 🙂

    I struggle when it comes to using google mainly because my computer seems to be on its last legs and is really odd about accessing the internet. It also likes to quite the internet while I’m in the middle of working :/ The last time I was doing a research paper the whole computer freaked out an shut down and I lost a lot of work. Hopeful all my computer centric woes will be over soon 🙂

    In other news there is lots of stuff I know a ton about so I can skip the research. For example when it comes to quick fixes for cars I know how to do all sorts of things.

  23. CCOlsonon 14 Nov 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I know a stupid amount about guns, though even what I know is tiny compared to some of the people I’ve met.
    For spy guns, there are two important technical terms for you.

    First term: Supressor.
    This is the technical term for a silencer, a device that screws onto the end of a gun barrel in order to “supress” the sound of the gunshots. A supressor won’t actually make a gun sound like nothing, but it will drop the sound level considerably. You can get the exact decibel amount online. Most of the guns used by special forces are standard military with supressors screwed onto the end if they need to be quieter. I said quieter, not quiet. If you really want to kill someone quietly you use something other than a gun, like maybe a knife, a bow and arrow, a garrotte or a dart with poison.

    Second term: Subsonic ammo
    This is the term for the type of ammunition special forces use with a suppressed firearm when they really need to be quiet. This is because many guns actually make two loud noises. The first is obviously the bang of the powder. The second loud noise is the crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. A supressor can only supress the initial bang from the gun powder. In order to then avoid the ongoing sonic boom made by the travelling bullet, the shooter has to use ammo that never breaks the sound barrier, hence “subsonic ammo”. Ammunition like this is slower than standard and thus does less damage and doesn’t go as far. Fair tradeoff if you don’t wan’t to let everyone in the enemy base know exactly where you are.

    If you’re looking for a powerful, yet quiet, weapon go with a suppressed .45 caliber pistol. Yes it’s a large caliber round, but the standard .45 ACP bullet is already a subsonic round with a notorious amount of stopping power. Glock actually makes a subcompact .45 pistol that holds about 6 shots. As long as the person isn’t wearing body armor it will probably kill them in one or two shots.

  24. ShyVioletson 15 Nov 2011 at 6:58 am

    Wow thank CCOlson :D. Thats is super super helpful. I have two spy characters. One is a retired russian spy who teaches at a school for young superheroes and keeps a riffle under his desk a sword in his cane and a .22 caliber pistol on his person at all times.(he wants to be prepared in case of supervillain attacks)

    “If you’re looking for a powerful, yet quiet, weapon go with a suppressed .45 caliber pistol. Yes it’s a large caliber round, but the standard .45 ACP bullet is already a subsonic round with a notorious amount of stopping power. Glock actually makes a subcompact .45 pistol that holds about 6 shots. As long as the person isn’t wearing body armor it will probably kill them in one or two shots.” Sound perfect for my second spy character who is still active in the field. He’s very good at what his does and almost never misses a shot. If he’s shooting at you you’re most likely going to die. On a side note he is a very pleasant man who enjoys cooking, golf, and long walks with his teenage daughter.

  25. CCOlsonon 15 Nov 2011 at 8:58 am

    The .22 is a funny little bullet. Despite the small size it has a surpising amount of killing power. If your character carries one as a defense pistol and knows what he’s doing with it he’ll most likely shoot for the eyes. This is because a .22 round carries enough power to get into the human skull if you hit in the right spot. But not enough power to get back out. Because of this it tends to rattle around inside until it euns out of power. Yes. That’s entirely as bad for the person as it sounds. The mafia has been known to use .22s for this reason. One quiet shot to the eye or back of the head, victim falls over dead with minimal mess.

    Getting shot in the body is less likely to kill, as the bullet is making a pretty tiny hole and thus is less likely to cripple something critical, or, at least, something that is critical while the adrenaline is still flowing.

    Argh. I have too much of this stored in my head.

  26. ShyVioletson 15 Nov 2011 at 6:12 pm

    The .22 toting ex-spy turned teacher definitely knows what he’s doing. He may be retired but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. In fact some might say it makes him even more dangerous and as long as you have all that wonderful information stored in your head shed I’d be more than happy for it to be passed on to those like me who have minimal knowledge of guns. (but I’m an expert if you ever need to know anything about art or pottery)

  27. CCOlsonon 15 Nov 2011 at 7:28 pm

    I also know lots about pottery, but I might ask about art. 😉

  28. ShyVioletson 15 Nov 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I love making pottery because its so hands on. Each thing you make is like your child because it takes so ling to bring in to being and perfect. I’m a semi expert on 2D art techniques as well. Im good with charcoal but best with pencil and I paint proficiently. I also can evaluate art like a pro 😀

  29. Anonymouson 12 Feb 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Mythbusters actually has several very good episodes on gun myths (including the whole ‘shooting off the locks’ thing – apparently all you’re likely to do is make some serious shrapnel and injure yourself – quick shooting, and shooting someone under water, among others). They also showed the only realistic way to use an automatic weapon for any length of time: fixed mount with an enormous box of ammo next to you (they were trying to cut down a tree with a gun…). Anyone using an automatic is probably going to be in a bunker of sorts (or up in a helicopter, or just on a ridge with a good deal of cover).

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