Handguns: You’re Still Writing Them Wrong. Yeah, You!
Okay, I attempted to read another book last week, a book I wanted to toss off a steep cliff into the Pacific Ocean. Why would I want to drive 3,000 miles just for the pleasure of watching a book sink into Half Moon Bay? It’s a simple answer really. I like my green tea hot with just a touch of milk, I like my Riesling chilled to the right temperature, and I like my freakin’ books to be believable. Even fantasy rings true if the author puts forth some sort of honest effort. But to write about guns, especially cop guns, and not do even a little bit of research just rubs me wrong. Like nails on a chalkboard. The information is out there. In fact, it’s everywhere – on the internet, shooting ranges, police officers, gun enthusiasts, target clubs, hunters, gun clubs, websites, blogs, Google, books, libraries, newspapers…you get the idea, right?
Anyway…one more time.
– Not all pistols have safeties.
– Revolvers do not automatically eject brass when fired.
– Pistols and revolvers are not the same (see images below). Therefore, their parts are different (Again, see below).
– Cops DO NOT pull the slide back on their pistols, chambering a fresh round before going into dangerous situations.
Police officers keep a bullet in the chamber at all times. Racking the slide would eject a bullet, which would leave the officer with less ammunition. Of course I do know a few cops who are one round short of a full magazine, but that’s another story. Oh, and the safety should always be switched to the OFF position on a cop’s weapon (if it has one). Please do not write, “Officer Doo Doo Head racked a round into the chamber and then flipped the safety off on his Ham Hock .45.” The very time you need to return fire would be the time you forgot to flip, switch, or click a safety to the OFF position. Result – a funeral complete with bagpipes.
Here are two diagrams showing the parts (nomenclature) of a pistol and a revolver. For fun, I’ve also added images of a shotgun and a rifle. By the way, the latter are not interchangeable. A shotgun is a shotgun and a rifle is a rifle. After all, we don’t confuse a giraffe with a kitten, right? And for goodness sake, a shotgun blast DOES NOT send people flying through air. Bits of flesh and brain matter yes, but the body simply falls down.
Some handgun parts can be customized to suit the shooter, like grips and sights.
Various grips are designed for comfort, and fit the hand better than others.
Sights, both front and rear, are interchangeable. Some even glow in the dark for night shooting. You may not be able to see your target, but you’ll certainly be able to clearly see the little sights on your weapon.
And finally, your protagonist CANNOT smell Cordite when he/she enters a murder scene. It hasn’t been manufactured for normal firearms use in decades! Cordite is actually strings of powder that are packed into a round like greasy spaghetti.
The top image is of Cordite (the orange stuff). The lower round is loaded with black powder.
Off the subject a bit, but anything incorrect takes me right out of the read or movie, never to return. I still haven’t seen the last 2/3 of “Dances With Wolves” because when the Indian boys are stealing the trooper’s horse, they’re speaking in dialect, and the subtitle says, “They’ll write songs about us.” Well, excuse me, but the concept of writing is alien to every Native American tribe (at least at the time) and the correct translation should have been, “They sing songs about us.” I looked up the book, and he had it right, but movie people…
I’m probably anal, but I walked out of the theater and never looked back. If they can’t get a simple thing like that, that’s easily researched right, or the folks who vet these things can’t spot a glaring mistake like that, then I assume the rest of it is as sloppy as that is and I’m done with it. My wife says I’m anal, as I won’t eat at a restaurant that has a misspelling in their sign or marquee, as I don’t trust food prepared and served by someone that dumb. Who knows what’s happened to the food prepared by someone semi-literate. Could they perhaps have read the recipe wrong? We put up with too much sloppy stuff these days and standards really aren’t even close to what they should be.
Reminds me of a panel I was with with a famous (won’t name him) author a couple of years and I pointed out a mistake in one of his books where a military radioman said, in closing his transmission, “Over and out.” Made me want to scream. “Over” means “invitation to transmit,” and “out” means, “end of transmission.” Only very bad movies and books make this mistake.
Actually, the weight of any ammo is pretty damned noticeable, IMHO. In the revolver category, I have a S&W 686 K-frame 4″, and even with 6 lousy Gold Dots, I absolutely KNOW whether it’s loaded or not. Sure, I might not be certain if it had one round…but I know if it’s full. In the automatic category, we have a 9 and ye olden 1911, and I can STILL tell if the weapon is loaded. On the AR-15, sure, I’ll concur that when down to a round or two, it’s hard to tell. And, yes, of course a round could be “loaded” with no magazine (or cartridge).
However, that’s just no excuse for the lousy writing we see both in books AND in TV, and some authors just STRIVE to make themselves obnoxious on this topic (particularly those who in public claim to be “experts” on weapons or to have “trained” on the weapons they write for their heroes/heroines). If an author has a character that clearly isn’t a weapons expert or who isn’t supposed to be experienced with weaponry, fine and dandy…but it really irks me when an author writes a character that is supposed to be a weapons badass, goes into (what *appears* to the untrained eye to be) great detail about the weapons s/he carries, but (the author) patently has no CLUE what s/he is doing in the real world – like the ludicrous Uncle Mike’s Inner-pants holster-hottie heroine I wrote about in my first comment. It was such a *stoopid* mistake to make (over and over, I might add) that it yanked me out of the story every time I read those details.
I mean, in a large number of states, it is just NOT that hard to go to the range (indoors, even!) and take ten hours of instruction and learn at least SOMETHING about the weapon about which one intends to write. Isn’t the cardinal rule “write what you know?” Or, hell, as you suggested as a fallback, at least ASK folks online who DO shoot/wear that particular weapon to see if what is being written is viable.
Agreed that racking IS a satisfying sound, but it’s a bit like the “endless clip” syndrome…again, it can yank you out of the story in a movie or tv show when the racking is like the baseline on the soundtrack or the clip never empties. JMHO.
Hitch – The weight of a full magazine is more noticeable on a light-weight gun like a Glock. Less noticeable on a full-size Sig, say. Also, a magazine might not be full, and a gun could be loaded even if there’s no magazine in place at all. Finally, if I’ve never touched a gun before, I have no idea what to expect the weight to be.
Jonathan – As much as I hate seeing cops rack their guns in TV and movies, I also have to admit that it’s a satisfying sound. 🙂
And as I was thinking more about my earlier safety/decocker question and Lee’s response, it served as a great reminder to always research any specific gun I decide to write into my story. I’m reasonably comfortable with pistols, but there are so many different makes/models, each with its own quirks, that it pays to spend a few minutes online (or shoot it, if possible). There are internet forums for guns in general and most brands specifically.
Larry, I stand corrected! Thanks for the info. I took my gun into a dealer and that’s what he told me. Like you said, even pros get stuff wrong.
Now… I’ve got to figure out why the shells didn’t move up. Any suggestions?
But let’s face it: there are few things quite as satisfying as the sound of a pistol being racked…
Hitch, on my last suit, the Men’s Warehouse added a reinforced patch inside my pants, and inside the back of my suit, so I wouldn’t keep rubbing holes in it. 🙂
“Another thing that usually isn’t mentioned is how many times shells don’t move up in a clip because it’s lain dormant for so long and the spring has been “stretched” and has lost its resiliency.”
Actually, I’ve got to jump in on that. Springs do not wear out from being full compressed. While compressed, they are at not moving. Springs only wear out by working. Springs do not take a set. I’ve had this confirmed by mechanical engineers at FN and S&W. If it does, it is because there is something wrong with it.
They have taken 1911 mags that have been loaded since WWII, and fired them. Most quality magazine springs are good for 2,000-5,000 rounds of work depending on the type of mag.
See, even in the gun community we don’t always get all our facts right. I worked for many years as an instructor, 3gunner, gun magazine writer, and I was a Title 7 SOT. I worked with LE and a lot of military, and there are constant mistakes, even from people who should know better. I heard some pretty absurd things over the years from professionals.
Personally, I totally botch terminology. I always say gun. 🙂
As for 1st round malfunctions from LE guns, the most abused, neglected, rusty, filthy weapons I’ve ever seen have been in duty holsters. I’ve known cops who only took their gun out for bi-annual qualifications, and didn’t think that was a big deal.
Funny, Hitch! I like where the cop runs out of shells then throws his gun away. Must have a trust fund to finance the guns he tosses…
Yeah, the ubiquitous weapons errors will continue, though…more so as increasing numbers of “writers” derive their facts from the boob tube, which promulgates all sorts of nonsense (like the ENDLESS slide racking, practically every few seconds, by the same cop/good guy/protagonist before going into aforementioned “bad” situation).
One female author I recall used to constantly write about her heroine going into whatever situation with “an Uncle Mike’s inner-pants holster” inside her front belt-band, which nearly slayed me given that same heroine’s propensity for skin-tight pants. OR the fact that the heroine was something like 5’1″, and didn’t have the length of drop (from waist-to, errr, hoo-hah) to carry anything longer than an old pepperbox. When she wrote about carrying at her spine (because, she said, “she had a slight sway to her back”), I instantly knew that, yup, here’s a woman who has never sat DOWN wearing a weapon. Small sway, my…well, you get my drift.
Ooooh, and another favorite – the “I’ve picked up this weapon and don’t know if it’s loaded or not.” Really? Clue: it weighs a LOT more WITH rounds, if we’re talking about handguns.
I’d like to submit a proposal to make writers actually CARRY weapons on their person – somewhere, anywhere – for a while, with the adjustments to wardrobe and physical discomforts that come with it – before they write any hero or heroine with concealed carry. Not to mention little goodies like speed-loaders (for the revolver set) and spare clips for the automatic set. Let’s see where you put THOSE babies in a slinky dress or a clutch bag, eh? Or a nice men’s suit? In my experience, speed-loaders really mess with your custom tailoring. 😉
Excellent article. Good to see SOMEBODY who cares about the niceties.
Another thing that usually isn’t mentioned is how many times shells don’t move up in a clip because it’s lain dormant for so long and the spring has been “stretched” and has lost its resiliency. A character in a novel will pick up say a .45 after it’s lain in a locker for years and it operates perfectly. It’s possible, but not very probable.
I had a little midnight special, a Raven .25, that if you didn’t take the shells out about every other day at the least and put them back in, you’d get one shot (from the shell in the chamber) and that would be it.
When I was in the Navy (I was a cryptographer) during the Cuban Crisis (I was on the island of San Salvador), we had a new recruit come down and they had him do the grunt duty of being the guard inside the crypto shack (which is a steel-enclosed room inside the comm shack. When someone relives the guard, they’re required to assume the .45 and go through a procedure to be sure it’s ready to fire. First, they take the clip out, and then pull the slide to eject the shell, then sight down the barrel, release the slide, and then hold the gun up and fire on an empty chamber, then put the clip back in, and chamber a new shell in and put the safety on. Gun ready to go. Well, this kid must have been daydreaming during that exercise, because we were all out in the comm room, having a meeting, and there was this huge gunshot inside the crypto shack. We ran in, opened the door, and this poor schmuck was lying on the floor, white as a sheet. The bullet had riccocheted all around the steel room and it was a miracle he wasn’t hit. Seems he’d pulled the slide back when the clip was still in, sighted down the barrel, then took the clip out. And then held it up to click on an empty chamber. Only… it wasn’t empty. He’d just put a shell into it. After we figured out he was all right (except for the smelly drawers) we laughed until we cried… I think he was a Reservist. That would make sense…
Hi Jonathan – First, are we somehow missing some email messages? I’ll try again later today.
I’m not a fan of the Glock because I’ve seen so many jam and stove pipe rounds while on the firing range. I’ve tried the ankle holster thing, but don’t like it. it just feels odd to me.
Great post, Lee – particularly with the photos.
A couple of comments. Re: “smokeless powders” – during the 20 years I’ve been a medical examiner, I think that the efficiency of smokeless powders has increased. We rely on gunpowder residue – fragments, soot deposited on the body or in the wounds – to determine range of fire, and we seem to be seeing much lighter deposition to the point that sometimes it’s hard to make any out at all. Sure, it’s still easy to spot, say, stippling from a magnum, but powders do seem more smokeless to me than when I started.
With regard to the Glock, here in NYC, the NYPD enhances safety by adjusting the trigger pull weight, making it much harder to accidentally discharge a weapon.
One thing that HAS impressed me when talking with cops is how quickly a pistol can jam, even a well-maintained one. I’ve had officers tell me their gun jammed with the first shot; I’d assumed that would be something that would only happen when they’d fired multiple rounds, and the barrel and chamber were getting dirty or heating up or something. A number of the detectives I know carry a little snubbie revolver in an ankle holster as a back-up.
Finally, yeah, I know it’s not realistic, but I LOVE it in the movies when shotgunned bad guys go flying across the room!
Thank God you didn’t get into the issue of “stopping power”…
I’m with Robin on a few points. Most of us say gun instead of weapon, and I still catch myself using the term clip when I should say magazine. And I used to think cordite was a brand of gunpowder.
A good example is the many cops who use the term Mace when referring to all pepper sprays (there are many brands). Mace is a particular company’s brand name. Yes, there is a Mace pepper spray, but there’s also Mace handcuffs, holsters, etc.
As previously mentioned, not all cops are experts–and most assuredly not with weapons, other than aiming downrange and squeezing that trigger. Some say magazines, some say clips. This is in real life. I have heard it over and over again. The magazine/clip is used interchangeably. Now if you had a range master saying this, I would have to throw the book down. But a street cop, no matter how many years on, could very well make this mistake. And a crook would undoubtedly make this mistake, unless he has been educated in the military, or was well-versed in weapons. To this day, even though I say magazine, in the back of my head I always have to double check to remind myself if I have the right term.
And if you really want to get technical, and point out a mistake, what about gun versus weapon? There is a difference. Yet you still hear the majority of us say gun. The thing is that colloquially you are going to hear something in one locale, and maybe not another.
Same for the cordite/gunpowder thing. (Sorry, Pat.) I still hear cops say they smell cordite. No doubt it comes from the fact they don’t know what cordite is. I didn’t, until someone very kindly wrote about it on some list after Pat brought it up. Why? Because I’m not a gun expert. And yet as a cop I have been trained for over 25 years to handle weapons, shoot, and field strip them (once we switched over to semiautos). At one time, I practiced so much that I even beat one of our SWAT guys shooting for lunch. Had one asked me what cordite was before Pat brought it up, I probably would have said, “gunpowder?”
So, though real cops may make mistakes, we writers have to be careful how we write them. Yes, errors in our field of expertise can be maddening. However…They don’t bother me near as much as they used to, as long as the author tells a damn good story.
I loved comparing giraffes to kittens. That’s so much better than apples to oranges.
BTW, I read someone using the term “cancer of the bloodstream” today and had to stop reading. It’s a beginning writer, but still. The word they were looking for was leukemia.
Errors that are made in your area of expertise can be maddening.
And with your helpful book and blog, writers don’t have any excuse to be making such whoppers as you describe when it comes to firearms.
Yes, writers need to work on characterizations, plot points, etc., but it is imperative to take time for research. Otherwise the characters look incompetent and the writer looks foolish.
I agree, Lee. Drives me nuts when I see something like that. Another thing that bugs the heck out of me in action movies is when the good guy shoots at the bad guy and then pauses to see if he’s hit him. I was in the Navy four years and we were always taught to keep firing until we were sure the guy was dead. I’ve seen dramas where a homeowner was convicted of first-degree murder because he fired more than once, which drives me batty. If the guy served in the Armed Forces, he was taught to basically empty the clip. The “reasoning” on the shows I’ve seen is that if he’d only fired first, it was self-defense, but if he kept firing, he must have intended to murder the guy. Well… duh… if someone is attacking you or has just broken into your home, you have to assume he’s dangerous and capable of killing you and if it was me, I’d use every shell in the clip.
This is a great article. I believe it should be mandatory reading for copy editors as well. Imagine how much embarassment could be saved if someone with a clue could catch it before publication.
Can’t wait for the Writer’s Police Academy!
Anthony, yes. As of three years ago there were still several guys grandfathered in at Salt Lake County carrying 1911s, condition one. As of right now I couldn’t tell you.
I don’t get hung up on not disengaging a safety, but I’ve been carrying a 1911 of some kind for about 10 years now. I always carry cocked & locked. As an instructor, if somebody wants to carry with a manual safety, I think that’s great, they just need to practice their draw 10,000 times. 🙂
Susan – Or, I’m trying to get out of writing something for a day…
Ya know, that sounds suspiciously like an attempt to make me write…
Ha. I’m on to you.
Susan – I think you’d be the perfect person to write the blog article regarding ammo related terminology. What do you think?
Lori Lake wrote one for us a while back that’s still really popular. Lots and lots of hits on each of her three posts.
You knew I couldn’t let this one pass. On behalf of gun owners everywhere, I thank you for posting this. If I have to read one more heroine who (although she knows nothing about guns) can tell IN THE DARK what caliber a semi-auto laying on the ground twenty feet away is, I’m going to beat my head against a wall.
Here’s another peeve. A gun rarely, if ever, goes off when you drop it.
Maybe another post about some ammo-related terminology wouldn’t go amiss, if you’re so inclined. Until then, can you clear up one more thing for the masses? Can you please tell them that the little part that holds ammo in a semi-auto handgun is a MAGAZINE? (or mag, as noted in your diagram.) It’s not a clip or a cartridge. I read one book recently where the bad guy said he had “emptied the cartridge” of a gun.
NY Times bestseller. Good author. Silly mistake. The truth is out there, people.
Larry – Just for you I added the word “should” to my comment about officers carrying their weapons with safeties off. However, I was a firearms instructor and an instructor for officer safety for a police academy that certified several jurisdictions, and we taught recruits and veteran officers to always carry with the safety off. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not safe.
Lee, great article. This is also a pet peeve of mine, and the mistakes I see today are inexcusable, really, with the wealth of information out there on the interwebs.
Larry: I’m curious. Did the 1911 guys carry cocked and locked?
I see those mistakes all the time, but the one that jolted me the most (and disappointed me) was when a 17 year LAPD veteran had a cop say he smelled cordite. I couldn’t believe it, but is it any wonder we get it wrong, when the people who know better repeat the same errors?
I’m also a novelist (with Baen), and I’m a former gun store owner, firearms instructor, and all around gun fanatic. Nothing drives me nuttier than bad gun mistakes.
I’ve got to disagree with one thing though. Cops can carry with the safety on, it just depends on the department. Where I live, many of the smaller departments and the grandfathered guys on the big ones carry 1911s. One department I worked with had S&W 4506s on the approved list, and doctrine was to carry on safe.
At a recent Con, I was able to help out a few other writers. I was able to prevent at least one instance of 5.56 tumbling through the air before impact. 🙂
Great post. I promise to revisit if I write a gun battle in one of my books.
If I could jump in here to answer your question, most officers would say, “I smell gunpowder.” At least that is what I would say. Most officers are not firearms experts. They know the smell of burnt gunpowder, propellent, cordite, or whatever, from having shot their own handguns on the range, not from being experts.
One solution – “Hey you smell that? Someone’s recently fired a gun in here.” Notice I didn’t say pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, etc. Just gun.
Keep it simple.
Many cops still say they smell gunpowder (I do, too) even though the actual stuff that’s used in small arms ammunition is smokeless powder. The funny thing about smokeless powder is that it’s not completely smokeless, nor is it a true powder.
Thanks for the diagrams and discussion. A quick question: I knew the cordite error, but would one say: I smelled burnt powder in the room. There was a smell of burned propellant. The room stunk of fired primer. etc.? I guess the question might be what could one say that would be accurate (if not quite idiomatic) and what might say a cop say?
Karen – I’d think, if you’re heroine is a police officer she’d carry a revolver. But pistols were certainly around at that time.
My department (I was with the sheriff’s office at the time) switched from revolvers to pistols (Beretta 92F)in the mid to late 80’s. I remember that we were all reluctant to change, and we were quite intimidated by the newfangled high-tech things.
Margaret – The Writers Police Academy is scheduled for September 24-26, 2010, in Jamestown, N.C. (just outside Greensboro). The exact location is on the campus of Guilford Technical Community College and Criminal Justice Academy.
Here’s a link to some preliminary information about the academy. Jeffery Deaver is the keynote speaker.
Thanks Lee! Another great post and the diagram’s a keeper.
Where and when is the Writers Police Academy?
I lurk a lot but I had to emerge from deep cover to say thanks for this blog. So, would my WW II heroine pocket her service revolver or her service pistol?
What fun! and how useful this information is. But truth be told, the part I liked best was Officer Doo Doo Head. Shows what kind of sense of humor I have. Thanks, Lee!
Gayle – I’m sending the novel police to arrest you and your editor! Seriously, I’ve even heard a cop or two make the cordite mistake.
Hey, this is why writers should attend the Writers Police Academy!
Okay, okay, don’t be mad at me, Lee! I made the cordite mistake in my debut novel, although I conveniently let the bad guy shoot his gun while the protagonist’s gun-clueless POV described it, which means I could keep it all vague. Anyhoo, about the cordite… I asked my cop friend about it and he kind of did the “yeah, yeah” handwave. I thought he was saying I was right. Turns out he was just blowing me off.
I promise to do better next time.
gretchen – Sure. It’s not really a safety in the sense of a true safety like on other weapons. When you squeeze the trigger on the Glock you also squeeze the trigger “safety,” and the gun fires. There’s no extra button, lever, or switch, or extra action required.
Actually, the trigger safety on a Glock is pretty useless as far as safeties go. So, you can safely (a little pun there) say that a Glock has NO safety.
Did I say “safety” enough in that response?
Whew, dodged..oh nevermind. Suffice it to say I haven’t embarassed myself on these points. Question about safeties. Looking at the Glock website, they talked about the safety on a model 26 (I think – the baby Glock) being on the trigger. The image was clear but I’m having a hard time getting my head around how that would work. Seems like a rather precarious position for a safety. Do you know how that would work?
Very interesting. Thanks for the explanation!
jenifer- Yes, you read it correctly. Some models of the Berretta 92 feature a slide-mounted safety that serves both as a true safety AND as a decocking device, which is pictured above.
Am I reading that nomenclature diagram wrong, or does it say that a hammer drop lever (aka decocker) and a safety are the same thing? Most guns have one or the other (or neither), and they’re typically both located in the same place on a pistol, but they certainly serve different functions.
Amen, I have read books I wanted to just find the author and knock them in the head. That is one of my biggest pet peeves. If you don’t know the subject matter research it before you write about it. Yes, books need to entertaining it, but they should also be believable, especially by those of us who know the subject.
If you don’t know the subject either don’t write about it or research it. There is sos much stuff out there on the net, and there are so many people who are experts who are willing to talk about it – do writers do yourself and your reader base a favor. Get EDUCATED before you write. Don’t wind up with egg on your face becasue you don’t know your subject.
Yvonne Mason, Author