Wednesday, May 03, 2006

So You Wanna Write About Handguns

I'm not a gun expert. But I've fired a few and have learned some things about them. Here's a smattering of definitions, explanations, and notes:

  • Guns are loud. Even little ones. Louder than firecrackers. If you don't have ear protection, it seriously hurts.

  • Silencers aren't real. Nothing can silence a bullet. There are things called suppressors, which can be used to muffle the sound of a bullet firing. It's still as loud as a hand clap. Suppressors are illegal for public citizens. Suppressors work on semi-autos and rifles, but not revolvers or shotguns.

  • A revolver is an old West/Dirty Harry type of gun. It generally holds five or six bullets in a cylinder. Suppressors don't work on revolvers because the cylinder is open to the air, so the noise isn't trapped.

  • Semi-automatics are sometimes called autos, even though they aren't true automatics--those are machine guns where holding the trigger will fire multiple times. Semi-autos are also known as auto-loaders, because when a bullet is fired, the brass cartridge is ejected and the next bullet is forced into the chamber. Instead of a center rotating cylinder, they have a clip that goes into the grip.

  • A clip is not a magazine. A magazine has a spring inside that forces bullets into the chamber, behind the hammer, as the gun is fired. A clip simply holds bullets.

  • Full metal jacket means the slug is encased in metal and doesn't expand when it hits the target. Slugs normally expand into a mushroom shape when they hit something. This flattening out means the bullet stops within a target, transferring the maximum amount of energy. FMJ go through targets. Hollow points fragment within the target, causing lots of damage.

  • Cocked and locked is a term that means there's a bullet in the chamber, the hammer is cocked (pulled back) and the safety is on. The gun won't fire like this. But if you flick off the safety, you're ready to shoot.

  • Double action weapons don't need to be cocked each time they are fired--pulling the trigger will set up the next bullet to be fired and also cock the hammer back. Single action weapons need to be cocked each time a bullet is fired--there is no automatic recocking.

  • Cocking a handgun involves chambering a round in a semi-auto, and/or pulling the hammer back. When this is done, the trigger moves back, making for an easier and shorter trigger pull.

  • Caliber refers to how wide the barrel is, and what bullets it will fire. A .22 is a very small bullet (point twenty-two inches wide.) The slug is about the size of a BB (22LR is slightly longer.) The only part that fires is the top part of the bullet. The bottom part, called the cartridge (often called brass) holds the charge. This brass can be packed with different amounts of grain for faster or slower velocity. Pull the trigger, the hammer releases on a spring, smacks into the back of the bullet (center fire for most handguns) which ignites the powder, causing it to explode and expel the slug.

  • A bullet consists of a slug and a cartridge. The slug is what fires. The cartidge is what stays in the gun, or is ejected. If you've ever seen a movie where the slow-motion bullet looks like a bullet that just came out of the box, it's wrong---only the top part of the bullet is the projectile.

  • Rifling is a corkscrew pattern inside the barrel. When the bullet is fired, this causes it to spin, and become more stable and accurate.

  • Semi-automatics can jam. If a gun isn't clean, it can jam a lot. Jamming occurs when the cartridge isn't ejected properly after firing, or if the next bullet doesn't load properly. Either the empty casing, or the new bullet, gets caught in the eject port. This can be cleared by pulling back the slide.

  • Loading clips is time consuming and hard on the fingers. The spring inside a clip is powerful, and it takes some force and some time to get the bullets in there. For example, a nine-year-old probably wouldn't have strong enough fingers. You can buy speed loaders which pull back the spring, making it easier and faster, but even then, reloading a 13 round clip will take at least 30 seconds to a minute.

  • Guns and bullets are heavy. Sticking a 9mm in your front pocket is not a smart idea for many reasons, one of which is it will pull down your pants.

  • Glocks don't have hammers, or thumb safeties. They have an extra lever on the trigger that needs to be pressed before they fire.

  • Someone unfamiliar with semi-autos wouldn't be able to fire one, at least not quickly. If there's no bullet in the chamber, pulling the trigger will have no effect. The first round needs to be chambered by pulling back the slide. Depending on the gun, the safety may need to be switched off, or the hammer may need to be pulled back if there's a round already chambered.

  • Aiming isn't easy. It isn't unreasonable that a person firing a gun for the first time could miss a target from only fifteen feet away, or closer.

  • Cordite smells like firecrackers.

  • Dehorning a gun means it has all of the sharp edges taken off, so it doesn't catch on clothing or the holster.

  • Bluing, chroming, and Parkerizing are finishes that protect against rust.

  • Teflon coated, or cop-killer bullets, aren't real. Or, more precisely, Teflon isn't what makes bullets penetrate armor and bullet proof vests. Bullets that can do that are armor piercing bullets, made out of harder metals. Teflon simply reduces the wear and tear on a gun.

  • A Saturday Night Special is any cheap gun, usually used to commit crimes.

  • A zip gun is a homemade gun, which usually fires a single shot. All a person needs is a pipe and a striking mechanism to shoot a bullet.

  • Holding a gun gangsta style, sideways, is a really easy way to miss a target.

  • Always treat every gun you encounter as loaded.

Any questions?


Adam Hurtubise said...

Couple of points from somebody who grew up hunting, Joe:

"Pull the trigger, the hammer releases on a spring, smacks into the back of the bullet (center fire for most handguns) which ignites the powder, causing it to explode and expel the slug."

Sometimes the hammer hits the bullet directly, and sometimes the trigger pull sends the hammer into the firing pin, which then hits the bullet.

On bullets and slugs...

With handguns, you can actually call a bullet... a bullet. In other words, there are 2 parts, bullet and cartridge, and the whole thing is still called a bullet.

"Slug" has fallen out of favor (as a bullet description) because a slug comes out of a shotgun (which uses "shells" consisting of powder, wadding, and either birdshot, buckshot or slugs).

Slugs are the equivalent of bullets in a shotgun, but they're much bigger... which is why shotguns use gauges instead of calibers. Except for the smallest shotgun, the .410, which is actually a caliber (.41 inches).

The rest of your post is one-stop shopping for people who want to write about guns.


Sandra Ruttan said...

And frankly, anyone who's never fired a gun has to be pretty unfuckingbelievably lucky to nail a target first go with a stranger's gun from 50 feet and kill them first shot.

My husband (military trained) taught me to shoot and ever since then, I see some unreal scene like that in a movie, the credibility is just shot.

The recoil really surprised me, as well as the noise.

Allison Brennan said...

Love the list. It's all stuff I know, but it's nice to have it compiled in one place.

I had a friend criticize me about saying that my heroine picked up a "cold" Glock because Glocks are made (externally) of plastic and wouldn't be cold. (This was a guy who sort of missed the allusion to my heroine sleeping with a cold gun as oppose to a hot man) but anyway, I emailed an FBI agent friend of mine who went over to her Glock and said it felt cold to the touch. Maybe not as cold as a metal gun, but not room temp either.

Now I want a Glock :) . . . I have a .357 because I was more comfortable with revolvers when I first bought my gun, but now I'm wondering if I should go back to the shooting range and try out more semi-autos.

William G. said...

Good stuff, Joe.

One myth that I've heard quite a lot before, but I don't know if it's still as prevalent as it was in a post 9/11 era, is that Glocks are plastic guns that can go through metal detectors. Obviously, any reliable gun will have some kind of metal barrel, not to mention springs, pins, etc...

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for those clarifications, Adam.

Joan Reeves said...

I grew up in the mostly rural South so my dad taught me to shoot a variety of guns when I was a kid. A couple things you didn't mention: it takes some serious arm/hand strength to fire a double action without cocking it first or to pull the slide back on a semi-automatic. (Same if a revolver has been cocked and you want to release the trigger without firing.) I can work the slide on my .380 relatively easy even though I'm on the petite side, but I have difficulty working the one on my husband's 45. Oh, and the amount of kick when firing is surprising. My little 380 has quite a bit. So if someone has never fired a gun before, the kick will affect them greatly. First time I ever fired a shotgun, it nearly knocked me on my rear.

As to hitting a target, well, I'm good with stationary targets, but anything moving is a different story. My nephew who is a deputy was in a shootout last year which started face to face. He and the man he was trying to arrest both emptied their guns at each other (firing, running zig zag, crouching, etc.) and no one was injured. My nephew made it to his car and called for backup. The suspect had them all outgunned and pretty much shot up 3 cars before he was taken out. So emotion, adrenalin, kinetics, etc. all play a huge role in the ability to hit a target.

JA Konrath said...

It's probably possible to make some kind of ceramic/plastic composite, like Malkovich did in IN THE LINE OF FIRE, to get through metal detectors. I don't know of any guns currently manufactured that can.

Jude Hardin said...

I read or heard somewhere that two-liter soda bottles are sometimes used as makeshift silencers. Anybody ever heard of that, or tried it?

JA Konrath said...

I did the soda bottle supressor thing in BLOODY MARY. I've never tried it in real life, but the principle behind it makes sense.

Sound comes out of the barrel. If the barrel is in a plastic bottle, some of the sound will get trapped in the bottle, the air inside being a cushion. Like yelling into cupped hands.

Porting a gun (putting holes in the barrel to reduce recoil) has the opposite effect: more air is let in, so the sound is louder.

Bernita said...

Depending where you grew up, bullets/cartridges may be called "shells."
I was taught gun safety by the time I was six.

Unknown said...

This is fascinating. I grew up around black powder fanatics. So I know how to fire guns from the 16th-early 19th centuries (the kind that light your shirt on fire, LOL!), but I don’t know that much about modern guns (I’ve been to the range with friends, but I’m just not attracted to them).

I even have friends who own working cannons (boy are those fun!).

Anonymous said...

Far as I know they do call them silencers (at least around here). I can get one for my Walther P22 - However, according to my local firearms regs, I have to apply for a permit to buy a silencer with the police department and they run an extensive background check. My local gun dealer cannot sell me one without proof of the permit. It took a guy that works for my husband 6 months to get approval.

I worked in the firearms industry, my husband still does, and it's amazing how much there is to learn. Nice to have my husband's expertise at my fingertips whenever I need him :) This is a great post for those who need clarification.

Anonymous said...

I went to a gun and antique show this weekend. I was looking for old books.

WOW. What an eye-opening. The place was wall-to-wall-to-wall guns. Virtually no antiques. And all the books were about hunting, jerky, survival, defending your freedom in your bunker and more jerky.

Of course, I live in Montana. That description could also apply to the public library.

I'm an occasional hunter, but WOW. That was a lot of guns.

Jaye Wells said...

Interesting stuff. I know next to nothing about guns. But with every item you listed I could think of at least one time I've seen a show or movie get it wrong.

Thanks for this, more fodder for future books and my trivia banks.

Mindy Tarquini said...

This is a great list, Joe! Thanks. I'm now more determined than ever to stick to writing humor. I don't shoot guns but I hear them echo across the valley. They don't sound like cars backfiring or firecrackers, they sound like explosions. At least from a distance. And I hope to always keep them at a distance.

Gun safety for my kids:

See a gun, don't stop and play,
Get your feet in gear and run away.

Anonymous said...

Actually citizens can legally own silencers and fully automatic weapons. They need a Class 3 license which costs +/- $200 per gun or supressor. (I think that's the correct figure.) In addition to a very extensive background check, the Class 3 license also requires the chief of police or the sheriff of the county/town/city where the applicant resides to approve the application. Most chiefs and sheriffs would rather not have the general population own fully automatic firearms so getting their approval is a deal killer in most case.

Another interesting factoid about owning automatic weapons is that it is illegal for a regular citizen to own any machine gun made after 1986, class 3 license or not. (Can't recall why at the moment.) Consequently the prices for pre-86 weapons are astronimical. Think in terms of $7,000 or $8,000 for a MAC-10, a $500 submachine gun generally regared as the Yugo of automatic weapons. A quality weapon like a Heckler & Koch MP5 will be well over $10K.

One final note: A pillow held over the muzzle of a .22 caliber revolver firing .22 long rifle cartridges will silence the muzzle blast quite nicely.

Or so I've been told.

Harry Hunsicker

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for dropping by, Harry.

For those of you who haven't read STILL RIVER, it was one of the best PI debuts ever, and the upcoming sequel, NEXT TIME YOU DIE, is even better. Just the right mix of harboiled and laugh aloud humor, up there with the best of Robert Crais and Robert B. Parker. Joe says: Go buy them.

Adam Hurtubise said...

"Magazines are not clips. Magazines are for semi-automatics and clips are for machine guns."

That's not the difference. The difference is really one of semantics, but since we're all writers:

A magazine is intended to be reusable. A clip can be reusable or reloaded, but it's more disposable. Clips are generally used in police and military weapons.

Fully automatic assault rifles use clips, but a hunting rifle will tend to have a magazine. You can put a magazine in a gun designed for a clip; you can put a clip in a gun designed for a magazine. In fact, the term is often interchangeable.

Fully automatic assault rifles fire like machine guns, but they use magazines... an M-16 uses a 20 or 30 round magazine or a 20 or 30 round clip... again, the big difference there is that the clip is meant to be thrown away... clips come pre-loaded for soldiers. Magazines you load yourself.

Fully automatic rifles that fire like machine guns aren't the same as machine guns. Fully automatic rifles can fire single shots.

A submachinegun, like an Uzi, fires a clip.

A "real" machine gun is too heavy to be shoulder-fired or hip fired and requires a bipod or tripod, and usually somebody else to help spot and load.

John Rambo in the movie version of First Blood aside, i.e., not Morrell's masterpiece of a debut, carries an M-60. Which is too heavy to carry around like that.

And machine guns are designed to fire on full auto only. You can fire single shots, but it takes a lot of practice to squeeze off just one round. Because they're so big and they fire so many rounds so quickly, they don't use clips or magazines at all. They use belts of ammunition. Sometimes big "drums," but usually belts of ammo.


I have some really great venison jerky recipes if you want them.


Anonymous said...

On the Glock being 'plastic' / 'cool.'--I've used a Glock for 13 years in law enforcement (first the 9mm and now a .40 cal). While the lower portion of the weapon is made of a a dense plastic and is thus very light, many of the mechanisms inside the lower receiver are metal. Also, the slide and barrel are metal and are about as heavy as you'd expect. Thus, the Glock's overall weight is less, but it is still heavier than most people would suspect. It would certainly set off a metal detector. And for the woman who's heroine touch a Glock and found it cold? Tell your know-it-all reader friend the heroine obviously touched the metal portion of the weapon, which was indeed cold.

On the sound of bullets...I've never been shot at close enough to hear the pops, but I've had one fly overhead a few yards and it did have a whistling, whizzing nature to it. Not the sharp "pyeeer" like in the movies.

On penetration...I second the previous comments on that. This is one reason to use hollow points--you avoid overpenetration of errant rounds. The other side-effect is maximized damage to the target.

On movies...well, we all know how that rant goes, don't we? Oddly enough, though, some people come to law enforcement expecting it to be like the movies.

Lastly...what a great list of very accurate gun facts, Joe. I read through it thinking, "Well, I'm not the most gun-expert kind of guy there is, but Joe said he isn't either, so I'm sure I'll come across something mistaken or not entirely accurate...but no, not really. Your s**t was wired tight.

Christine said...

No, but I found that I already knew most of that. Why, I don't know. I guess I watch too many cop shows - like Dallas Swat, not like Law & Order. Although CSI does a good job with their facts.

I didn't know that thing about the Full Metal Jacket though. Gives new meaning to the title of that movie.

Bernita said...

I think the BB comparison is a little off though.

JA Konrath said...

The first time I saw a .22 bullet, I was shocked at how tiny it was, about the width of a firecaracker, but only 2/3 as long. And the part of the slug protruding from the cartridge was BB size.

I've read countless times that assassins prefer them, because it packs enough punch to enter the skull but not exit, which means it will bounce around inside after penetration and do all kinds of damage.

Being shot with a bullet isn't like being shot with an arrow, where the hole is the extent of the damage. When a bullet transfers energy to a target, there is an expanding wave. Which, along with fragmentation and expansion, is the reason exit holes are larger than entry holes.

The more kinetic energy a bullet posseses, the bigger the temporary cavity---within the body, the hole momentarily becomes many times larger than the entry diameter hole, like an expanding balloon of air. A 9mm makes a 9mm size hole going in, but depending on the velocity of the bullet, the hole can be several inches in diameter inside the body for a fraction of time.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Guns scare the crap out of me. I wouldn't trust myself with a gun in my hand.

A friend once had an old, old gun in his desk drawer. It was broken. No ammo. I jokingly picked it up, pointed it at my head and pulled the trigger.

Funeral services were held the next day.

Okay, okay, nothing happened. But who would do something so idiotic?

Me, that's who.

I've never touched a gun since and don't plan to.

Bernita said...

"protruding from the cartridge" - thank you.

JA Konrath said...

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was UHF, which had the line, "Guns don't kill people, I do."

Anonymous said...

Couple of points from a random girl who's just started in this handgun thing —

Suppressors don't work on revolvers because the cylinder is open to the air, so the noise isn't trapped.

- An exception exists in the 1985 Mosin revolver, which has the cylinder run forward flush with the barrel on firing.

FMJ go through targets. Hollow points fragment within the target, causing lots of damage.

- Hollowpoints mushroom (expand in size), causing a greater wound cavity, but (usually) do not fragment. Fragmentation usually happens with rifle rounds that fly at such a velocity that the density difference between target and air causes the bullet to tumble and break apart (such as the 5.56 NATO FMJ). Pistol rounds generally do not have the energy for this to happen.

A clip is not a magazine. A clip has a spring inside that forces bullets into the chamber, behind the hammer, as the gun is fired. A magazine simply holds bullets.

- I believe this is the other way around: magazines usually have a spring and forces bullets into the chamber in most semiauto pistols. Clips (also known as stripper clips) hold cartridges and are used for ease in loading a magazine, whether the magazine is detachable or not.

A bullet consists of a slug and a cartridge. The slug is what fires. The cartidge is what stays in the gun, or is ejected.

- As previously mentioned, slug is usually only reserved for shotguns. A "bullet" technically only applies to the projectile on a handgun or rifle round — the full assembly of bullet, powder, primer, and casing is called a "cartridge" or "round."

Anonymous said...

My sister is a writer and asked me to glance at and evaluate your notes for her. Frankly, I'm surprised at all the praise you're getting. There are so many inaccuracies and slight-truths that a thorough explanation and clarification is simply beyond my patience.

Since your notes, however, are intended primarily for people who want to write about, as opposed to use, handguns and there seem to be few attention-to-detail fiction writers out there, I guess what you've noted might suffice. Bit of advice: (1) 'always treat a gun as if it is loaded' should be the very first thing on your page, not the last, and it should be in bold, underlined text; (2) you should probably offer a more expansive disclaimer than 'not a gun expert.'

Anonymous said...

Though I'm certain this is quite old at this point, a BB is a .18 caliber bullet. That might help clarify.

actionjksn said...

Travis is right, this article is wrong in so many ways it would take an entire article to straighten it all out. And yes the spring loaded thing with bullets that you shove into the underside of a gun is a magazine not a clip. No somewhat knowledgeable person would call a mag a clip. You need to submit it all to a real gun site, like maybe "Glock Talk" or something. And then rewrite the article. I can't believe how many people praised the accuracy of this piece.

Chris Werb said...

OK, I've greatly enjoyed your blog, but there are quite a few inaccuracies in the firearms section that I need to address.

1. Silencers can be incredibly quiet if used with subsonic ammuntion. This is commonplace in countries like the UK where I live where silencers and suppressors are commonplace and both are typically referred to as 'sound moderators'. I had a CZ452 rifle in .22LR where you could only hear the sound of the firing pin dropping and the impact of the bullet at the target.

2. Typically the word 'suppressor' is used for sound quietening devices used on centrefire firearms and 'silencer' is only still used for those used on rimfires. It is much easier to tuly silence a rimfire because there is only about a 500fps difference in velocity between high velocity and subsonic ammuntion in this calibre and subsonic .22LR is thus almost as lethal (just as lethal if using headshots).

3. Silencers and suppressors are legal in many juridictions - you have to apply for paperwork from the BATF and pay $200 transfer tax. In the UK you have to apply for a separate 'variation' to your firarms certificate unless the silencer is integral to the firearm (i.e. needs tools to remove) in which case you don't even need to specify it.

4. A bullet is the projectile. A bullet with a case, propellant and primer is a 'round', 'cartridge' or sometimes, in US parlance a 'shell'. Only the bullet travels to the target.

5. Although the distinction is widely abused, there is a big difference between a magazine and a clip. A magazine is completely integral. It houses the rounds and has a spring and follower that move the rounds into position to be chambered. In most weapons this takes the form of a detachable box or drum, but in pump and most semi auto shotguns and lever and some bolt action rifles, it is a fixed tube under the barrel. The big disadvantage to the tube is that it can only be reloaded one round at a time.

To be continued...