Friday, September 11, 2015

Know Your Guns

Guns, guns guns.  Even in fantasy writing, guns will come up whether its futuristic dystopian fantasy like the Ralph Bakshi film Wizards or more modern Urban Fantasy, you'll see guns.  If you want to be an effective, quality writer, you will very likely have to know how to write guns.

Despite being a fairly common tool, there are a lot of misconceptions and much confusion around guns. Ignorance in news reporting makes matters even worse.  Here are a few simple category definitions to help make things clear, because you don't want to refer to that revolver as an automatic:
  • Automatic Weapon: A gun which will discharge bullets continuously as long as the trigger is depressed.
  • Clip: a pre-loaded cartridge of bullets without a feeding spring used to load a magazine.
  • Double Action: a weapon that cocks automatically when the trigger is depressed. 
  • Magazine: a container of bullets with a spring to feed bullets into the weapon.
  • Revolver: a hand gun with a round, wheel-like magazine.
  • Semi-Automatic Weapon: A gun which will discharge a single bullet for each time the trigger is depressed.
  • Single Action: a weapon that must be cocked manually each time it is to be fired.
For more terms and meanings of guns, check out this writer's guide (pdf); it only has lots of useful information and illustrations, and I recommend keeping it handy on your writing device for details and reference.

We're going to need a bigger redhead
If you watch movies you'll see a tremendous number of misconceptions, mistakes, and outright nonsense on display that a good writer will try to avoid.  The Mythbusters have made several shows looking at these gun tropes, and showing how many of them are simply ridiculous.

For example, no hand held gun will penetrate deeper than 4 feet of water.  In fact, the bigger the bullet, the less deeply it penetrates the water, because of its size and the water resistance.  Smaller bullets tend to remain more intact, but larger ones usually shatter when they hit the water.  Forget the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where slow-moving bullets tunnel dozens of feet through water and kill.

And a bullet will not knock a target flying.  You can unbalance someone and knock them over easily, but they will not fly through the air.   Its simple physics: the bullet leaving that gun will hit no harder than it pushes back with recoil.  Now, some of that recoil can be compensated for by venting and using it to load the next round (in an automatic weapon), but it still kicks.  Except when it kicks it doesn't knock you flying, even with a big gun.  It can make you stumble back or surprise you and knock you down if its a big gun, you're little, and you weren't expecting it.  But in no way will that gun knock you flying backward.

And when that bullet hits it doesn't knock anyone flying either.  Even aside from the physics explained above, the bullet hits on a very small area.  That means it will penetrate, using the energy to push through the target, tunneling through it.  In other words, it doesn't stop at the target and transfer all of its energy into them suddenly.  So yeah, looks cool in movies, sounds impressive, but guns don't work that way.  Even a really big gun hitting armor plating will not knock the target flying.

Ammunition is limited.  This is a pretty simple fact that seems quite obvious, but is so often ignored for dramatic purposes or simply because the writer didn't care.  For example, a six-shooter has six shots.  I know that sounds silly but watch any western, even the really good ones like Open Range, and count how many times the hero fires without reloading.  Its sort of a game for me, to count the bullets that colt revolver holds in the film.  Usually its well over six before they run out.  If they ever actually run out.

Try to keep track in your writing, because needing to conserve ammunition and reload actually adds tension and dynamism to your story.  If Steely Eye'd Dan the sheriff of Rock Ridge can shoot forever with his pistol, he's got nothing to worry about but missing.  But if he has 5 shots (because those old single action guns could go off if jarred so some would keep an empty chamber under the hammer) before he's out, well that makes things a bit more interesting.  don't believe me?
(incidentally he only fired 5 shots, apparently he keeps one empty under the hammer, too)

See that revolver Clint is holding?  Notice when he has it pointed at the suspect on the ground and gives that speech.  Look at the chambers, those holes on the front of the cylinder.  See how they are blank and look empty?  That's because they are empty.

You can see if a revolver has any bullets left in it, except right under the hammer.  And with a double-action revolver (like Dirty Harry's .44 magnum), when you pull the hammer back it rotates the cylinder to put the next bullet up to the barrel for firing.  This is useful, because it means you can see if the gun has a bullet ready to fire or not in some situations.  In movies, they will put a fake bullet tip in the cylinder to make it look like its loaded. 

That's how Brandon Lee, the talented son of Bruce Lee was killed making a movie: the fake tips put in for close ups were left in, and one of them was fired with a blank into his stomach and he died from the wound, believe it or not.

Also, guns are very, very loud.  Very.  Ear-splittingly loud.  Don't have your characters engaging in a witty conversation while they are in a gun battle, they probably can't hear each other, let alone understand anything even between gunshots.

A small bit on "silencers."  Its okay to call them this, because it is a popular culture word, but the proper name is "suppressor."  They do not "silence" anything.  In fact, they don't really make guns all that quiet.  A suppressor will make a gun considerably quieter, but even a .22 will make a popping noise when it is fired.  A larger gun will sound about the volume level of a book dropped on the ground.

The purpose of a suppressor is to disguise the muzzle flare (the flame that comes out the end of a gun when it is fired) and to make it less clear where a shot came from.  The suppressed level of volume and change in its sound makes it uncertain what happened; was that really a gunshot?  Where did it come from?  What it does not do is make a little 'pfft!' sound like in the movies.

Where 'gunshot residue' comes from
And no, a suppressor will usually not do a thing for a revolver.  Revolvers have too many gaps that gasses (thus fire and sound) will escape and make a lot of noise.  There are gas-sealed revolvers but they are very rare, unusual, and expensive.  All a silencer does a the end of a revolver is look silly to people in the know.

Oh, and when you are trying to intimidate someone with a gun?  Constantly cocking and working the slide is not a good thing.  Once a shotgun with a pump action is racked, it is loaded.  It makes a really impressive sound and looks good to do that, but now it has a shell in place to fire.  If you do it again, you eject the shell in your gun and the action pushes a new shell into place.  Its not nearly as intimidating to jack a perfectly good shotgun shell to the floor.  Especially since most shotguns don't hold more than 8 shells to begin with.

With an automatic, pulling the slide back does the same thing: loads a round.  Doing so again, same thing, a bullet pops out and tinkles off the floor in a very non-impressive manner.  And while that 1911 .45 pistol is a nice workhorse gun, it only holds 7 rounds in the magazine, so you don't have much to spare.

Goes well with pearls
Now, this is a bit tricky.  Unless someone is a real gun buff, they don't need to know that your hero is holding a Tavor TAR-21 Israeli bullpup 5.56mm assault rifle.  Its fun to mention that, but many people don't know a Glock from a shotgun (hence the common mistakes in reporting on guns). 

Like any technical aspect of a story, giving too much detail can be not just annoying but confusing to readers.  But leaving it out entirely sounds too vague and amateurish.  I find it best to let the perspective of the characters dictate what you describe.

For example, a bad guy steps into a crowded restaurant with a TAR-21 and brandishes it.  The 8 year old girl just knows its a big scary gun.  The soccer mom thinks its an "assault weapon" because that's what they call them on the news.  The recently-discharged marine lance corporal knows exactly what it is and would call it by its name.  The bad guy just calls it "Sophie" and polishes it every night with gun oil and a My Little Pony pillowcase.  

So when the perspective or narrative is from their perspective, call the weapon what they would call it.  Most of the time "gun" will suffice, but its useful for readers to know what sort, so at least in the establishing shot say something more specific.

Taking time to know your weapons - guns, sword, lasers, etc - will make your work seem more authentic, plausible, and immersive.  The story will read more smoothly without annoying people in the know, shocking readers out of their reading trance, and making you seem silly, resulting in mocking and angry internet posts and reviews.  And nobody needs to be called a n00b on Guns and Ammo Forum.