S. Lee Manning: Guns are important in the espionage thriller genre, and it’s important to get the details right. Television and even some authors get things wrong. When that happens, the story loses credibility.
My protagonist, Kolya Petrov, carries an HK.40 compact handgun. I am not a firearms expert, but in order to
write a realistic gun battle, I took a three-day class – and turned out to be one of the better shots in the group. At the end, my instructor recommended a gun for my character. I bought the same gun – after going through the background checks necessary as a then-resident of New Jersey. I thought it important that I be able to fire, clean, assemble, and disassemble the same type of gun that my character used.
For today’s blog, I thought I would run through some of the mistakes that even I, as an admitted non-expert, have noticed in books and television shows.
Use the right term
The thing that contains cartridges and that you shove into the bottom of the grip of a semi-automatic pistol is a magazine, not a clip. I’ve heard clip instead of magazine on numerous television shows. It’s wrong. WRONG.
It’s cartridges, or rounds, by the way, not bullets. The bullet is what comes out of the muzzle of the
gun. The round or the cartridge is what’s loaded in the magazine. Do find out the size of magazines available for your protagonist’s weapon.
Gun enthusiasts have very specific meanings for the terms accuracy and precision. If you plan to use either term in connection with guns, be careful. Precision means a tight bullet pattern. You shoot four rounds, and they’re grouped together. Accuracy means hitting the desired target. You can be precise without being accurate, and accurate without being precise. Don’t blame me. I didn’t make this up.
A semi-automatic handgun is very different from a revolver. Figure out the differences – and don’t mix up the two.
Learn how it works
My HK.40 has a safety that I can push with my thumb when holding the gun. It will keep the gun from firing. There is no similar type of safety on a Glock. I’ve seen references in books to a safety on a Glock. Hmmm. No.
Glocks do have a mini-trigger safety – that I’ve read about, but never tried. Kolya is staying with the HK .40 – because I’m sure of how it works.
For a semi-automatic weapon to fire, there has to be a round in the chamber. You can snap the slide to bring a round into the chamber. However, once the gun has been fired, the next round moves automatically into the chamber. It’s one of the ways people kill themselves. They take the magazine out and assume the gun is unloaded. It’s not. It still has one round.
I remember reading a book where the author didn’t know that. The villain had just shot one person with a semi-automatic pistol. Somehow the hero managed to get the magazine out of the gun, and when the villain pulled the trigger against the hero’s chest, nothing happened.
Sigh. Roll eyes.
Don’t do stupid stuff
Don’t have your protagonist stick his gun in the back of his pants. Think about it. The whole purpose of having a gun is to be able to quickly protect yourself from a deadly threat. How fast can you get something out of the back of your pants? Try it. You can conceal a gun with a loose shirt or sweater on your hip perfectly well. You can also use a smaller gun that would fit in a pocket. In either case, it would be a lot easier to grab should it be needed.
You can also shoot yourself in the ass – which leads me to my next bit of advice.
Don’t have him stick it down the front of his pants. I’ve seen this one on television, and I just cringe. Yes, it does happen. Idiots do shoot their personal parts off. Almost a Darwin award – or whatever the equivalent would be for a stupid act that doesn’t kill you but keeps you from reproducing.
If your protagonist is in a gunfight, he’ll know how many rounds he has in his gun. He’ll count – if he’s a professional and not just an idiot. Okay, I admit to making this mistake before I took the class. Kolya ran out of ammunition – and was surprised. Wrong. He would know exactly how many rounds he had left. I went back and rewrote the scene.
If someone is firing a heavy gun, like an HK .40, she should use both hands to contain the recoil. It may look cool to shoot one handed, especially with the gun held sideways, but what you gain in cool, you lose in control. Also a mistake I made – and corrected.
Consult an expert – not me
Final piece of advice. Go to a gun store or a firing range. Find out what gun they’d recommend for a particular situation. When I wanted to choose weapons for the bad guys in Ride a Red Horse, the novel I’m currently writing, I visited my local gun shop and asked. I wound up choosing another Heckler and Koch.
Good hunting and good luck.
S. Lee – You have written a terrific "tutorial" on guns and their use. In fact, I just printed it out for reference in future novels. You are absolutely correct when you say that many authors simply don't do the research and end up writing "stupid stuff" in their stories. Thanks so much for all of this great info!
What a terrific primer, S. Lee. I once made an awful "gun mistake" when I changed a character's weapon to a revolver. I knew the difference, but then went on and screwed it up because I forgot I'd changed the gun. Boy, was my face red! All authors should read this post!
Great post! I cheat in my books–using a silencer to create a chirp sound like in the movies. In reality, suppressors (or silencers) don't muffle the sound that well.
Real interesting, Sandy! I guess I won't carry my Glock in my underpants anymore.
Karna, thank you for the good words. I'm honored that you thought it good enough to print out for later use. Gayle, how embarrassing. But I'm sure the readers were so caught up in your story that they didn't notice. Your comment reminds me of an interview by Harold Robbin's editor – who said that halfway through a book, he changed the color of a woman's hair – and refused to sync the two parts of the book. Sonja, you're quite right – the term is suppressor, not silencer, and they don't silence. John, thanks for burning that image into my mind.
Sandy, fabulous information about firearms. I'm a big believer in research, as the authenticity comes through in novels. Kudos to you for being a real rogue woman and doing the homework necessary! Love it.
There's one mistake in this post. In a real gunfight, the participants probably DON'T know how many rounds they have left. I've participated in police training exercises which included shootouts using Simunition guns. The moment I had to pull my gun and start shooting, I got tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, my heart was beating out of my chest. The only things which existed in my world were the front sight and the guy I was shooting at. I couldn't even hear when the instructors screamed "END-EX" (end exercise), I just kept shooting and shooting until my magazine ran dry. I had no ability to think about anything except pulling the trigger until my target went down.
Bottom line, unless you're a professional fighter with multiple gun battles under his belt, your adrenaline is going to go so ridiculously high that you won't be able to do even the simplest mental exercise while the fight is ongoing – including counting your rounds.
My instructor informed me differently. He had been a Philly police officer. I won't say your wrong, but that my source differed. I'm going to stick with the idea that someone who is a professional, shooting frequently, would be counting.
Great information. I'm needing more info on guns as well. My gun toting man is used to handling guns and he'd be counting. I'm thinking of doing a gun course for the same reasons.
When I was writing DARK WATERS, I wanted to know what it felt like to shoot an AK-47 and a Parasol, two common guns used by rebel forces, and a friend in the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America offered a way. I planned to write about it in my post on Monday. Stay tuned.