Firearms and the Importance of Research

Tom loaded another clip into his six shooter and waited for his partner Peter’s signal. Gunshots rang off the car’s body, deflecting the bullets away. Tom could only hope none of the ricochets would hit Peter as he got into position. Tom wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, he’d never been in a gun fight before. What if he screwed up? What if he froze? What if someone got hurt, or killed, because of him?

There was no time to fret though, as Tom heard the full auto repetition of Peter’s M-16 from the other end of the parking garage. Without taking a moment to think, Tom leaped into action. He pulled back the slide on his gun and came around the corner ready to fire at anything that moved. As he stepped out though, he saw Peter had already cleaned up. The bank robbers lay in a pool of blood, motionless.

“You okay Pete?” Tom holstered his gun.

Peter was still looking down the sights, slowly moving forward. Tom squirmed. Should he pull his gun back out? He glanced to the fallen gunmen. Surely they were dead. They had to be. He could count the wounds on two hands for each downed man. Pete was a sharpshooter, or so they said back at the squad house. Never a wasted round. It was like magic.

Finally Peter lowered his gun, letting it hang by its sling. “Yeah. Yeah I’m alright. Just a little shook up. You ever shoot anyone rookie?”

Tom shook his head. He’d thought about it a lot. He dreaded it actually.

“I’d tell you to prepare yourself for it, but the truth is nothing can prepare you for it. It takes something out of you each and every time. Just hope you never have to do it kid.” The grizzled vet turned away from the pile of men in disgust.

Before Tom could get in a word the familiar whistle of a silenced bullet whizzed right by his left ear. Tom fell to the ground instinctively, pulling out his gun and locking the hammer back in one fluid motion. He’d practised his draw for weeks, and now he was thankful.

From the ground Tom saw one final shooter hiding behind a car. He closed one eye and aimed with his strong hand while bracing himself with the other, to keep himself as still as possible for the shot. His heart was thundering in his chest he worried the sound would give him away, but then he remembered the man had already taken a shot at him. He knew where Tom was.

Tom pulled the trigger and the smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils. It was almost soothing, but then Tom had always liked shooting. He had been a fair target shooter before joining the force, even won a competition once. He struck his target in the ankle and already had his next shot lined up by the time the cylinder cycled the next round. He fired off another half dozen shots before he realized the man had to be dead by now, but his finger kept moving until the gun clicked impotently with each trigger pull. He was empty.

Tom got up, nearly falling over doing so, and clumsily opened the cylinder and ejected the casings. Once he was loaded again he swung the cylinder shut just like in the movies, even though he knew it was bad for the mechanism. Hell, he’d just shot a man a dozen times, who cared about the mechanism? He was more concerned with keeping the bile down, a task that was taking more of his attention than he had hoped it would after his first shooting.

“It takes a lot out of you.” Tom nodded. “I see what you mean.” Tom’s voice come out as little more than a croak. It was only then that Tom noticed Peter was down. He must have been shot. Panic took Tom over as he rushed to his partner’s side. He couldn’t see any visible damage, just the holes torn in his shirt. How was he shot with no damage? No blood? It didn’t make sense.

Peter’s eyes opened, surprising Tom so much he almost fell back. “That’s gonna leave a bruise.” Peter groaned.

“What? How?” Tom stumbled over his tongue to get the question out.

Peter grinned, undoing the buttons on his shirt.

“Bullet proof vest.” Tom laughed. “I should have known.”

—–

Okay, so I’ve exaggerated the problem somewhat, but the point stands. The way guns are portrayed in the media is quite often inaccurate, if not just plain wrong. The above passage (created as an example) illustrates quite a few of the recurring issues regarding gun usage in all types of media (TV, film, book, etc.). Put together like this it’s quite comical, a competent author won’t make so many mistakes so quickly. Instead they might only use one or two of the mentioned errors, or something not listed. The problem is even a single error, if grievous enough, can turn off an astute reader.

While literary invention can make for good fiction if your reader isn’t familiar with firearms, it destroys everything you’re trying to create when they are. We’ve all been there, in the middle of a tense moment in a book when suddenly our minds catch an error. ‘Wait, that wouldn’t happen like that,’ or worse, ‘that’s wrong.’ Our mind tells us these things and then its over. The moment is lost, the tension slips away, and the reader is left feeling cheated. They were cheated out of a scene, pulled from it when its author may have invested hours building it up, and usually over something an author could have googled in five seconds to figure out.

Let me start by saying no one is going to expect you be able to explain the ins and outs of everything you write, but the suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing. You can stretch the truth to varying lengths given what genre you’re writing, but when you do something inaccurately, like loading a revolver with a clip, you’ve blown it to anyone who understands what you’re talking about. Depending on how grievous your mistake, how central the error plays in the overall plot, and how forgiving your reader, you may have lost them after all those hard earned pages spent building tension and getting them hooked.

The above example was created to showcase a number of commonly used myths and errors in the portrayal of firearms. How many of them can you spot? I’ll highlight a few of the biggest ones.

Terminology:

Again, remembering that the reader knows a human wrote the book and can’t know absolutely everything about every topic their novel covers. There is a bit of room to play with. If you fudge something most won’t know about, then the odds are that the majority of readers will likely give you a pass. For example, if you refer to a clip and a magazine interchangeably, most readers will probably let it slide. There will still be the gun “snob” who (correctly) points out they are different things. If you really want to impress them dig a bit further and draw the distinction. Even the best example will have the occasional slip up, everyone makes mistakes. Do your due diligence, but don’t fret too much amount small stuff.

Function:

It’s the basic functions, however, that most people will catch. In the example scene Tom loaded a revolver two different ways, and that’s something people are more likely to catch. You did, didn’t you? In that case the continuity is perhaps worse than the factual error, but all the same loading a revolver with a clip/magazine is something a good number of readers are pretty likely to notice. At least, anybody with a passing knowledge of firearms. Likewise, racking the slide on a revolver is a no no. Revolvers don’t have slides. When you reference a specific firearm, make sure it actually has a manual safety before you have your protag engage it. There are a number of firearms that have no manual safety. ‘The Walking Dead’ is pretty bad at this one. People are told to safety weapons without a safety, scopes are often installed backwards, and in some scenes characters fire their weapons (on full auto) into hordes of zombies without even using iron sights. Just firing blind.

Use of fully automatic weapons:

Full auto is used more or less for one purpose: suppression fire. There’s no way Peter is going to walk calmly forward firing full auto and land six rounds into each man without wasting one. Never mind that he only has thirty rounds in his magazine, and that will be spent in about four seconds. The practicality of aiming a gun on full auto pretty much guarantees this cannot happen. Anyone familiar with recoil will know why this is. This is a common error with action TV and film. A surprisingly good example for it is the animated TV show ‘Archer,’ where characters will actually yell suppressing fire/cover fire.

Keeping track of your rounds, suppressors, and the term bullet proof:

There are few other errors in the passage, Tom fires rounds he doesn’t have from the revolver, suppressors don’t actually silence guns (they quiet them, but far from silent), and of course, the perils of calling anything “bullet proof.” This in itself is an error, as nothing will ever call itself bullet proof. Why? Liability, pure and simple. If it’s called bullet proof someone will inevitably test this, find a way around it, hurt themselves (or someone else), and the manufacturer will be sued for millions. Vests are considered bullet resistant and rated for specific firearms (and sometimes other things, like knives). Virtually every action/spy flick is guilty of this one.

Guns are loud:

If a gun is fired next to someone’s ear, it’s going to hurt (this actually happened in a book I’m currently reading, and yes, it took me out of the moment). When a gun is fired in an enclosed space it’s going to hurt everyone in that space. Ears will ring, and permanent hearing damage is possible. A great example of this done right in mainstream was in ‘The Walking Dead’ when Rick shoots his pistol at a zombie inside of a tank. For a moment the viewer hears nothing but a ringing, and the scene becomes choppy and hard to follow. Rick is disoriented, and they portrayed it very well. I’m sure we can all think of a time it wasn’t done properly. Another common variation on this is people talking at normal volume during a gun fight. Nope. Sorry. They won’t be talking at normal volume over all that gunfire. At least not if they want to hear each other.

Okay, good to know. I didn’t write a gun scene though:

This isn’t solely intended to help you to improve your gun scene. I also consider this a call to do some careful research when you’re writing about any topic you’re not familiar with. No, watching Hollywood movies, or even other novels in your genre isn’t research (at least not technical research). The reason I used guns is because it’s commonly misused and it’s a topic in which I have knowledge to share.

The bottom line is the more carefully you research your novel the more authentic it will come off to the reader, the easier it will be to maintain the tension/suspense (because you’re not losing it with simple factual errors), and the more you’ll know about the topics you’re writing about. This will open up your options a writer. The more you know about a thing the more you can do it with it. Something you come across might give you a great idea how to execute that plot twist, or go the other way with it and make it a character moment by having *them* make the simple mistakes.

After all, better them than you. Good luck and happy writing!

—C R Alexander

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