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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Benjamin Sobieck

Benjamin Sobieck

Benjamin Sobieck is the author of Glass Eye: Confessions of a Fake Psychic Detective, the Maynard Soloman detective series, the Cleansing Eden thriller novel, The Invisible Handnovel, a pile of short stories in many a hot crime anthology, and numerous flash fiction pieces sprinkled throughout the shadowy hallways of the Internet.

He's worked for such publications as Gun Digest, BLADE, Modern Shooter, Living Ready, Deer & Deer Hunting, Tactical Gear and many others. He's worked as a government and crime reporter for a few newspapers, too.

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37 Comments on "Writing About Guns: 10 Errors to Avoid in Your Novel"

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Massimo Marino

Spot on article, and it all has to do with doing research when writing on any subject and showing anything on a novel. Fiction is not to be mistaken with Unreal 🙂

culmo80

In regards to pumping the shotgun–that is all true, except the signature sound of the pump action HAS been used in real world scenarios to intimidate. I served with some older guys in the Army, one of whom was in Haiti in the 90s. They were guard UN supplies or something, and a mob assembled. The mob started to get a little aggressive, so one of the guys took an empty shotgun and pumped it. The crow dispersed.

So in some scenarios, doing it for intimidation would make sense.

Ben

Right you are, culmo80. The sound is iconic and can definitely be intimidating. What I see happening in fiction as a reader, though, is a misplacement of that pumping after the shotgun has a round chambered. In that case, the pump is dumping ammo on the ground. Without some firsthand knowledge of how pump-action shotguns work, it’s easier to skip right to “come up with a different way of intimidating a character that doesn’t involve pumping.”

jessiquawittman

Good stuff. Fantastic article. I especially agree with your pleas to “get more creative!”

Ben

Glad you enjoyed it! I hope people will use this book to do just that.

Doug Daniel

Who under God’s blue heaven looks up a barrel to see if a weapon is loaded? Who puts that in a story?? Oh my God…

Re: #10– when I was in the Army, eons ago, the version of M16 issued to us could still fire full auto. In my entire time in Army, though, I fired exactly one standard magazine on full auto, and it was over before I could aim properly. There’s a reason they took that feature off later versions.

Good article.

marcydyer670919403

I’ve seen it in a MS I was critiquing….

Ben

I think it happens more with movies than books. Check out the 39-second mark of this movie trailer. The guy looks right down the barrel. I used this as an example in a webinar. https://youtu.be/ld4x5aymjj4

Steve MC

Great points. The ratcheting-in-a-round sound is even more of a cliché in movies. Like where everyone is holding rifles on the bad guy, but when the bad guy says something they don’t like, they all ratchet their rifles, like to scare him or something.

There’s always going to be some mistake – even gun enthusiast Stephen Hunter has had at least one – but I do admire authors like David Morrell, who’ll have a half page of acknowledgements of the experts they contacted. Taking the time for such research can take one’s novel to a much more authentic level.

Ben

Thanks, Steve, and I’m glad you mentioned Morrell. He wrote the foreword to The Writer’s Guide to Weapons, and actually talks about the times he received mail from readers upset about gun mistakes. He’s one of the best researchers out there, so I thought that was interesting. That’s part of the reason I don’t slam other writers in the book or on my website. You don’t know what you don’t know until you do.

C.M. Albrecht

Unfortunately, many writers clearly learn their gun lore from the movies, where the shooter always pumps a round into the shotgun, or pulls back the hammer to show he/she means business, etc. But, by and large, movies are not to be taken seriously. Movie makers, like Advertising geniuses, think (often rightly) that the average person is a stupid jerk who has to be spoon fed to get the message across.

Garry Rodgers

This article is 100% accurate. You definitely know your firearms, Benjamin.

Frank Hughes

Pretty much on except I don’t entirely agree with number 4: on a double action revolver or semi-automatic pistol, even though the pistol is ready to fire with the hammer down, cocking the hammer not only reinforces that you mean business, it reduces the trigger pull considerably, making for more accurate shot placement. I used this technique in a real life situation many years ago, and it had a dramatic and desired effect. The individual decided he would be better off somewhere else.

joehefferon
Benjamin, Writers definitely need to read this. I’m retired law enforcement and one of those who screams at movies (in my head) when characters do crazy things with guns. For instance, in the new Jurassic World movie I just saw w my son, the hero continually shoots his lever-action rifle without actually operating the lever, which is necessary to eject a shell casing and load the next round. The rifle also had about a forty-round capacity. Absurd. This article is great. Just two fine points. 1) I can imagine a scenario in which a character might cock a revolver, not… Read more »
David VanDyke

I think you missed the mark on #7. You supplied a bunch of alternative terms to “assault weapon” without mentioning the most common, most recognized, and most accurate: “Assault Rifle.” Besides, I can’t recall ever reading “assault weapon” in a thriller or war story. I’ve read “assault rifle” many times, and “assault rifle” is a term firmly established in the lexicon. http://www.britannica.com/technology/assault-rifle

lexacain

This is an awesome article! I’m definitely bookmarking it for future reference – and I’ll tweet it. Thanks, Benjamin!

Tony Acree

Well done. If you are going to use a weapon in your writing, getting to know it in real life is a huge plus.

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

Peter
#1. Sorry, in common use, clip and magazine mean the same thing. Walk into a gun store or a military supply depot, ask for a clip for a Model 1911 and they’ll hand you a magazine. Every time. #3. Pumping a shotgun heightens the dramatic effect, whether it’s needed or not. It’s a very distinctive sound and would heighten the tension of anyone familiar with shotguns. Also, since many people do not carry a round in, pumping the shotgun lets you know it is definitely loaded. The only possible downside is pumping a live round onto the ground, and most… Read more »
marcydyer670919403

Peter, clip and magazine may be used in the same way nowadays, but I know quite a few gun guys who cringe when they hear a magazine called a clip.

Mark Kalvin
I have to disagree with you on a couple of points: 1. The “clip” thing depends on whom you say it in front of. Gun-proud/gun savvy people cringe and if then tell you about stripper-clips and the metal round holder that popped out of the M-1 Garand. They have a point because the fixed magazine in bolt-action rifles has a spring-loaded mechanism that puts pushes rounds into position to be loaded, just as the detachable magazine of modern assault rifles do. 2. The tubular magazine in a pump-action shotgun (shared by lever-action rifles) has a capacity that it limited by… Read more »
Nathan

#10 is true, although you don’t quite go into enough details for logistics.

Most full-auto weapons are belt-fed, and operated in two-man teams: the gunner who’s aiming and shooting, and a support guy who’s feeding bullets out of a crate and also changing barrels.

Yes, changing barrels. Even if you have Solid Snake’s infinite ammo bandana, firing continuously is going to make the barrel overheat, eventually resulting in a cook-off (that’s when the barrel is so hot that the round detonates while being loaded).

Steve
One comment on cocking the a double action. I have used a semi-auto with an external hammer, most have internal that you can’t manually cock and de-cock. The benefit of cocking this type of automatic the first time is that the pull on the trigger is significantly softer and smoother and therefor more accurate. After the first shot the slide has already cocked it for the next shot as part of the recoil. Otherwise if you do de-cock it the first shot is harder and jerkier. With a double action revolver it does benefit accuracy to cock it manually than… Read more »
dellanioakes

Thank you for this! I try not to sound stupid when I talk about guns. I’m happy that I haven’t made these mistakes. WHEW!

marcydyer670919403

Excellent article! You hit on several things that make me cringe when reading. Another point that is frustrating is when someone drops a modern firearm causing it to discharge. Or when a character sticks the bullets in her pocket instead of loading the gun because it might shoot her… I’ve read both scenarios.

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[…] How to write about guns without sounding like a doorknob. Benjamin Sobieck (who was much more polite about it that I was) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s blog. […]

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[…] writing characters, you need to get the details right. Benjamin Sobieck has 10 errors to avoid when writing about guns, and Roz Morris tells us how to write dialogue that’s convincing and full of […]

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[…] originally commented on my post about guns over at Jane Friedman’s blog, where he offered some interesting insights. I invited him to flesh them out with a proper post. […]

Pimion

I can’t believe it. I’m just writing a new novel with descriptions of a lot of different weapons, including guns.
Your article is a salvation for me! Thanks;)

Jenny Allen

I just bookmarked this. What a great resource. Thanks!

Mark Kalvin
Hello Bob, You might want to refine your third point. In the world of shooting guns, the trigger releases a hammer. The hammer falls, and either hits the primer in the cartridge with something pointy on the hammer itself (alla them cowboy revolvers), or hits a firing pin which hits the primer (automatic pistols). Now, the fun part. The hammer that falls to hit whatever it hits does it with a quick snapping motion because it’s driven by a spring of some kind. The spring has to be pressed down or stretched out and then held in place so it… Read more »
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[…] to a recent post in Jane Friedman’s excellent “Resources for Writers” blog, written by Sobieck, here are some of the key points about guns that writers should keep in […]

Martin Buck
I was reading a 2014 novel by Jo Nisbo, called “The Son”. I stopped after the chapter where firearms were involved. Here are the egregious errors that put me off: 1: He clicked off the safety on his revolver (revolvers do not have safeties); 2: He picked up the ejected rounds he had fired (revolvers only eject rounds when being reloaded); 3: He didn’t want the serial numbers of the cartridge case being found (WTF???- they do not HAVE serial numbers); 4: He also didn’t want police to see the number microstamped onto the cartridge by the firing pin (very… Read more »
paul crosley

A revolver is a pistol. A semi auto is a pistol. A single shot hand held flintlock is a pistol. Ever heard the term pistoleros? They were not using semi autos when the term was invented.

Stan Bundy

One of the things I’ve seen that annoys me, in real life and in fiction(like TV shows), is when someone is supposedly doing a “bullet-catching” illusion in a magic show (or performed a superheroic bullet-catching), they end up showing UNFIRED CARTRIDGES as what they supposedly caught. (insert Godzilla-sized facepalm here).

And, there needs to be an 8.a. “Automatic Pistols” are all SEMI-AUTOMATIC (with extremely rare exceptions that are generally extremely rare).

Trevor
Great advice whether it’s guns or anything else that is in the real world. I’m in the UK – the only time I’ve handled a weapon was when I was in cadets at school and that was in a range so I’d be cautious about writing about guns without a lot of research. But if you wrote about computers I’d probably know almost instantly whether you’d done enough research before you wrote. Even just casual references that would only be truly understood by those “in the know” can make the world of difference between something that’s obviously fiction and something… Read more »
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