“He’s Got a Gun!”

gun, firearm, weapon

(photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license)

The late Elmore Leonard advised budding crime-writers, “when your story starts to drag, have someone pull out a gun.” Maybe too many of us have been following that advice, because several recent books aim to inject more accuracy into the portrayal of guns (and other weaponry). Errors make some readers swear off a writer and, as the introduction to The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction
explains, “no wrath is greater than that of firearms enthusiasts.”

According to a recent post in Jane Friedman’s excellent “Resources for Writers” blog, written by Benjamin Sobieck, who also wrote the Writer’s Guide, above, here are key points about guns that writers should keep in mind to avoid those credibility-shattering results:

  1. Clip and magazine are not the same. A clip holds cartridges that go into a magazine. Most modern firearms don’t require a clip. But it sounds good, no? Clip: Manly. Magazine: Better Homes & Gardens
  2. Bullet is not the same as shell, round, or cartridge. You never find empty bullets on the ground after a shooting. Casings, yes.
  3. The whole pumping of a shotgun or cocking the hammer of a handgun is a sound cue from the movies, intended for intimidation, but, as Sobieck says, “less to do with looking tough and more to do with being stupid.” These extra and in most cases unnecessary pumps/cocks just “dump unfired ammunition onto the ground.” Why would anyone intimidate another person with a firearm, if it weren’t ready to fire? Good question. Ask your author.
  4. While this would seem to be an “it goes without saying” kind of thing, a character should never look down the barrel of a gun to see whether it’s loaded. Who’d be that stupid? I had a clip showing a tv character actually doing this, but it has disappeared. Sorry!
  5. And, perhaps the most pervasive of all gun errors in both news and entertainment media currently, the term “assault weapon.” This actually is meaningless. ANY weapon can be used for assault. The industry doesn’t use it. Sobieck says “tactical rifle (or shotgun), machine gun, submachine gun, fully automatic rifle,” or even “gun” are more meaningful than “assault weapon.”
  6. The term “automatic weapon” is often elided to mean either a semi-automatic weapon (which shoots one time with each trigger pull) or a “fully automatic weapon” which fires many times with a single pull. The idea of “automatic” weapons needs to be well defined. Fully automatic weapons are not very accurate after the first few shots because of recoil, so long, Rambo-inspired bursts of fire are actually useless if the goal is to hit anything.

Finally, in his book, Sobieck includes “Ten Golden Tips for Writing about Weapons,” which includes this advice: “If it’s in a movie or on television, it’s probably inaccurate.”