Writing About Guns: 10 Errors to Avoid in Your Novel

Writer's Guide to Weapons
photo by Anas Ahmad / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from The Writer’s Guide to Weapons by Benjamin Sobieck, just released by Writer’s Digest Books. You read more about the book at the author’s website.

You’ll find common myths and misconceptions about weapons in thrillers, mysteries, and crime fiction. These tropes are easy to trip over, so avoiding them will help your credibility.

1. Clip and magazine don’t mean the same thing.

When most writers use clip, they really mean magazine. Colloquially that may not make a big difference with readers, but, technically speaking, they’re not synonymous. Confusing the two is also a major indication that the writer isn’t familiar with firearms. In the vast majority of cases, magazine or mag is accurate.

A magazine holds cartridges in reserve inside the firearm, where they wait to be loaded for firing. Some magazines are built into the firearms themselves. Others are detachable.

A clip holds cartridges together for insertion into a magazine. Taking the extra step to put the cartridges into the clip can be necessary depending on the firearm’s design. However, most firearms don’t require a clip outside of a few older models.

If this seems like splitting hairs, it’s not. This is a major gripe from the gun crowd—and therefore with many of your potential readers. It’s also an easy fix with a tremendous return on investment.

2. Bullet doesn’t mean the same thing as shell, round, or cartridge.

This is another set of terms sometimes used interchangeably. Like clip and magazine, they are not the same things.

A bullet is a component of a cartridge (also known as a shell or round). It’s the metal projectile seated at the top of the cartridge.

The cartridge (shell or round) is the whole thing, which includes the bullet, powder, primer, casing, and other components. You might spot empty casings on the ground, but not empty bullets.

3. Pumping a shotgun does not heighten the dramatic effect.

This usually happens when one character intimidates another with a shotgun during a tense situation. It actually makes no sense. Having a character pump a shotgun to punctuate the drama has less to do with looking tough and more to do with being stupid.

A pump-action shotgun loads a shell with a single pump. That same pump simultaneously ejects the previously loaded shell, whether it’s been fired or not. An extra pump for dramatic effect after the shotgun is loaded is just dumping unfired ammunition onto the ground.

A dramatic shotgun pump is called for only if the firearm is not loaded. However, why stick a character into a tense situation with an unloaded shotgun in the first place?

4. The same thing goes for cocking the hammer on a handgun for dramatic effect.

This trope is usually used when one character intimidates another with a handgun. It’s unnecessary for the same reason as dramatic shotgun pumping. Why aim a gun at someone if it’s not ready to fire?

Let’s start with the basics. There are two kinds of handguns: revolvers and pistols. A revolver has a rotating cylinder of multiple chambers where cartridges are inserted (think Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum or a cowboy’s trusty Colt). Pistols use only a single, stationary chamber where cartridges are fed in and out (think James Bond’s iconic Walther or a police officer’s Glock).

These revolvers and pistols can be further broken down into single-actions and double- actions. Each type addresses the hammer—the metal tab that must be pulled back (cocked) in order to ready the firearm to shoot.

With a single-action revolver, the shooter must manually cock the hammer before each shot. It’s a little different with a double-action revolver. The shooter can either cock the hammer or not before pulling the trigger to shoot.

Pistols are another story. Most modern single-action pistols have hammers that must be cocked before firing. However, the hammer is cocked automatically as the firearm is loaded or fired.

With double-action pistols, cocking the hammer is not necessary prior to pulling the trigger.

There are good reasons for eliminating dramatic cocking that go beyond the technical. A character pausing to unnecessarily cock the hammer is shifting attention away from the surroundings. That split second might be the perfect opportunity for someone else to attack. Also, a writer might lose count of the number of times a handgun is cocked. I’ve read more than a few stories where a single handgun was cocked multiple times without ever firing. The character kept cocking that hammer over and over.

If all of this went over your head, there’s an easy fix: Don’t write about characters cocking handguns.

5. Most rifles and all shotguns don’t reload with a pump.

For some reason in fiction, it’s somewhat common for characters to pump any shotgun (and sometimes rifle) within reach. After all, the click-clack sound of a shooter pumping a sliding mechanism underneath the barrel is iconic. That’s fine if the firearm uses a pump to load and reload ammunition. But not all do.

As a reader, I’ve come across many examples of this misnomer. Bolt-action rifle? Pumped for dramatic effect. Sawed-off, single-shot shotgun? Reloaded with a pump. Fully automatic tactical rifle? Pumped. Handguns? Okay, I haven’t seen those pumped. Yet.

Know how your weapon works before pumping away at a terrible mistake.

6. Don’t look down the barrel to see if it’s loaded.

Unless a character has a death wish, there is never a reason to look down the barrel of a firearm.

7. An assault weapon is not a handy catch-all term for any rifle with military-style features.

Federal, state, and local regulations usually use the term assault weapon when labeling a category of restricted firearms. None of these regulations are consistent. What was considered an assault weapon in the 1930s is different from the definition in the 1990s. It’s also not a term the firearms industry often uses to describe its products.

The solution is to use a term other than assault weapon. Tactical rifle, tactical shotgun, machine gun, submachine gun, fully automatic rifle, and even the ubergeneric gun all work better than the vague assault weapon. They are blanket terms that cover firearms with features suitable for combat or defense. The firearm industry uses these terms, too.

8. Semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons are not the same thing.

A semi-automatic firearm will shoot one time with each pull of the trigger. This is a key difference compared to fully automatic firearms, which can fire multiple times with a single pull of the trigger. Confusing one for the other is a major trip-up area when writing, especially when citing “automatic” firearms without deciding on the type. Pick one and stick to it.

9. Fully automatic firearms aren’t just as accurate as any other weapon.

Fully automatic firearms lose accuracy in a hurry. Sorry, wannabe Rambos, but holding down the trigger on a fully automatic firearm kills accuracy, not bad guys.

Fully automatic firearms are most accurate when fired in short bursts. This keeps the shots grouped together rather than air balling all over the place.

The reason for this has everything to do with recoil—the manner in which a gun jerks back when firing a round. The impact of recoil becomes exponentially greater the longer the trigger is pulled because there’s no recovery time between shots. The shooter is budged off target little by little with each shot. That can translate into big, Shaq-at-the-free-throw-line misses.

Guns mounted to vehicles or structures are a different story, since they transfer that recoil energy into solid materials.

10. Fully automatic firearms cannot fire continuously for minutes on end.

Again, wannabe Rambos need to check their egos at the door. Hold down that trigger and don’t blink as the thirty-, fifty-, or one hundred-round magazine empties in a matter of seconds, not minutes. That’s approximately 1.3 Rambo grunts per magazine—not nearly enough time to cover for Sylvester Stallone’s acting abilities.

A character needs to reload every few seconds to keep a continuous stream of lead in the air. Figure that into a scene with a lot of full-auto gunplay. While you’re at it, determine how the character is lugging around all that Writer's Guide to Weaponsammunition.

If you enjoyed this post, then you can find a list of even more popular misconceptions about firearms in The Writer’s Guide to Weapons, along with accurate, comprehensive information on shotguns, rifles, handguns, knives, and much more. You can also read more about the book at the author’s website.

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