Lori L. Lake is the author of Snow Moon Rising, a novel of survival set during World War II, which received a 2007 Golden Crown Literary Award as well as the 2007 Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. She is the creator of the “Gun” series, which is a trilogy consisting of romance/police procedurals Gun Shy and Under The Gun and the adventure/thriller Have Gun We’ll Travel. Her first novel, Ricochet In Time, was about a hate crime. She has also written two books of short stories, a standalone romance, and edited two story anthologies. Lori teaches fiction writing courses at The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. She lives in Minnesota with her partner of 27 years and is currently at work on a mystery series and a How-To Book about the craft of writing. For more information, see her website at www.lorillake.com.
PART III: Outfitting Your Crooks – and Yourself
The guns that villains carry in well-written fiction can be used to characterize. You don’t have to just give your bad guy a “handgun,” “revolver,” or “Glock.” There are scores of choices available to help make your baddie unique and interesting. All of the kinds of guns I talked about in Part I and Part II are available for crooks to use, and there are a few other considerations as well.
The guns widely available in the U.S. may not be so accessible for residents of other countries. The Germans have their Lugers, Mausers, and Heckler & Koch; Belgium specializes in Browning; and Brazil has the Taurus brand, which are often available here in the U.S. But Switzerland has the Sphinx, Ukraine has the Fort series, Finland has the Lahti line, Turkey the Zigana, and Russian-area states have the Korovin, Makarov, and Stechkin. Most people – even avid gun owners – have never heard of those gun models.
Keep in mind that if you want your crook to carry an unusual gun, he (or she) has to have managed to get it into the country where he does his dirty work. It’s one thing for Lawrence Block’s hit man character, Keller, to travel around the U.S. from state to state, but if he were to travel out of the country by plane, he’s not going to be able to take his favorite guns with him and will have to purchase guns in another country. Even if he bought a gun on the street, he’s more likely to get a weapon widely available in that country. Say he’s gone to Italy for a hit. Perhaps he’ll manage to buy this silver Tanfoglio with the wooden handle:
9x19mm Luger/Para, .40SW, or .45ACP Tanfoglio “Combat” model
But if, on the other hand, he was sent to Spain, he might find an entirely different gun such as this Llama-82:
9x19mm Luger/Parabellum Llama M-82
Price and Availability
Choices of weapons for criminals come down a lot of times to price and availability. Contrary to what you see on TV, poor ghetto youth aren’t going to find it so easy to get an AK47, Uzi, or H&K weaponry. These firearms can cost anywhere from $1,000 for a cheap knock-off to $3,500-10,000.00. They’re used often by crooks in the movies, but in real life, fully automatic weapons are illegal and/or heavily regulated practically everywhere in the U.S. and they’re not that easy to get anyway – especially if you don’t possess a gun license.
While high-power micro weapons may be tough to get, your crooks may be able to get their mitts on a bigger gun, a “cheap” AR-15 clone ($400-800).
AR-15 is a generic term for a civilian semi-automatic rifle similar to the military M16/M4. It’s a lightweight, auto-loading, magazine-fed rifle that generally takes 30 shells. AR-15s are not fully automatic weapons. You have to pull the trigger to shoot each and every round. But you can buy kits to make them automatic (“automatic” means they’d shoot nonstop as long as the trigger was depressed until they run out of ammo). It is illegal in most states to convert a semi-auto rifle to an automatic without a permit/license, and most states have laws requiring people to register either or both of these types of guns. Law enforcement AR-15s have often carried a stamp signifying those weapons for military/police use only, but with the loosening of some of the federal restrictions on firearms, that may not be the case anymore.
Crooks may also be able to find the cheaper 9mm or .45 MAC-10 pistol which is somewhat similar to an Uzi. Like an AR-15, the Mac models usually have a 30 round magazine. (MAC stands for Military Armament Corporation). With a conversion kit, this can be turned into fully automatic, and though it’s bigger than a regular handgun, it’s still a lot smaller than a rifle and is easily concealed, especially if the magazine is not in it.
Below is a spendy Steyr ($1295–1800.00) with the magazine inserted. As you can see, that takes up a lot of space, so if your criminal wants to cart the gun around and not noticed, you’ll want him to carry the weapon and magazine separately, then make sure he smacks the magazine in at the last minute before he opens fire.
Other “Big” Guns
Rifles are difficult to conceal, but we’ve all seen snipers carrying them in surprising small duffel bags and briefcases. I won’t go into detail here regarding choosing a sniper weapon, but if you want to learn more, this site details many excellent guns from around the world: www.snipercentral.com/rifles.htm
However, I will mention the sawed-off shotgun. These guns aren’t necessarily “sawed-off” (though someone could modify a shotgun that way if they knew what they were doing). This is the term for the federally restricted “short-barreled shotgun (rifle)” which is a conventional shotgun with an unusually short barrel. Usually the stock is also abbreviated so that the weapon is more concealable.
Imagine a shotgun shell a bit thicker than a woman’s lipstick case and half-filled with metal balls, each a little smaller than a pea. The shorter barrel will cause the shot to explode outward in a broad pattern and cover a wide area as if several dozen shots were fired at once. The blast of multiple projectiles can take down a deer, a bear, or a person. One of my instructors said that if the shot is big enough, the impact to a person is like getting hit with a burst from a submachine gun.
So the advantage of a shotgun (besides concealment) is that your crook can walk into tight quarters such as a restaurant or an office, fire once, and take nearly everyone out. With a double-barreled shotgun, if anyone’s still standing, he can load a round into the chamber and take them down, too. At that point, anybody not mortally wounded can be dispatched with his handy-dandy sidearm, and in less than two minutes, your fictional assassin can be away.
Omar Little, the determined drug dealer on HBO’s “The Wire,” often wore a trench coat to hide the high-power sawed-off weapon he carried. Nothing quite equals that metallic sound as the criminal racks a shotgun.
Mel Gibson also carried a sawed-off shotgun in the Mad Max movies.
The More Common Types of Guns
Besides the “sexy” high-power guns and shotguns that we see a lot on TV and in movies, in real life villains tend to carry concealable handguns, and the cost of those guns will come into play. Obviously middle- and upper-class criminals are going to have the funds to buy whatever weapons they choose, and you’ll be able to give those characters guns using some of the same rationale that you used for your sleuths.
But a Sig Sauer, a Walther, a Beretta, or a Glock semi-automatic handgun may cost in excess of $800 brand new (and often well into the thousands, especially when you add scopes, laser sights, suppressors, etc.) When such high-quality weapons are purchased at gun shows for cheaper prices, usually it’s because they’re worn. Guns do wear out. Parts break, springs wear, barrels lose their bore. What determines how long a gun lasts is simple: the original quality of the gun, how much it is fired, the intensity of the ammunition, and the care (cleaning and oiling, in particular) that the weapon receives during its lifetime.
I would argue that many crooks have a lesser variety of weaponry to choose from in terms of style and make. Because they can’t easily get permits, they’re stuck using stolen or black market weapons, some of which are pretty beat up. They’ve got Saturday night specials, old Colts, revolvers, and the like, some of which are quite battered or have not been cared for at all.
Can you see some creep cobbling this one back together with duct tape just to have something to scare people with? It looks like it got run over by a car!
But many guns LOOK like they’re perfectly fine. For instance, the one below certainly looks sturdy, doesn’t it?
You would never know the barrel has been damaged by firing the wrong size of ammunition through it. The inside of the barrel is pitted, enlarged slightly in one place, and grooved oddly, making this gun wildly inaccurate. If you can’t tell from looking, then neither will the criminal. And if the wrong ammo is inserted into the gun again, it can severely damage the chamber or the barrel (or the person holding it).
It’s not just the barrel that can be damaged if the wrong ammunition is used. Here’s a better illustration. (Remember that the bigger the gauge, the bigger the ammo is.) You would think that a gun would do all right with the smaller 20-gauge shells in the larger 12-gauge barrel, right? But that’s not so. Without the tight barrel around the shotgun shell (or the tight barrel fitting perfectly around the cartridge in a handgun), the gases and powder have too much room to ignite. Rather than the gases behind the bullet propelling it down the tight barrel and out of the gun, the whole cartridge expands and can explode, damaging the chamber and/or barrel. The shooter – and anyone standing nearby as well – can be injured or even killed.
Other Gun Mishaps and Unfortunate Accidents
Guns can be rendered ineffective or useless by bad sanitary habits. People are surprised to learn that over time perspiration can rust a gun. Purse lint can build up in the barrel and actually cause a squib round. Other objects (a pen or your kid’s color crayon, for instance) could get lodged in the barrel. If the powder inside the bullet or the primer in the firing cap at the end of the cartridge get overly damp, one or the other (or both) may not flare properly to fire the bullet.
Any of these issues may cause a squib, which is where the cartridge case ejects, but there isn’t enough pressure to propel the bullet down and out of the barrel, leaving a bullet clogging up the works. Prayers go out to the person who pulls the trigger next. When the second round is loaded and fired, the barrel is blocked, and the shooter may end up holding a fistful of metal and bits in whatever is left of his hand.
When you fire any gun, gradually there is a build-up of oily dirt and gun powder residue. Add a little lint and dust, and voilá! So how often does your crook clean her gun? How careful is he in keeping it properly lubricated? Can she afford whatever patches, tips, brushes, mops, cleaning rods, solvent, gun oil, and preservatives are needed in order to keep the weapon in working order? Is he even smart enough to know that these things are needed?
(I sometimes wonder about Stephanie Plum’s cookie jar crumbs.)
Guns have parts that wear. In particular, semi-autos have a recoil spring that works as part of the mechanism to eject the cartridges as the bullets are fired. The spring is sturdy, as are all parts of a gun, but they can be damaged by improper handling, stepping on them, etc. and they do gradually lose their oomph. How many crooks are going to pay attention to those details?
I’ve mentioned before (and so have Lee and a number of others) that some Glocks periodically have jams, particularly if the gun gets hot in a pitched gun battle. So if you want your crook’s gun to jam or misfire in the course of your story, maybe it would be good to give him a Glock. And keep in mind that many Glocks (and plenty of other handguns) can be converted to fully automatic so they’ll fire 33 bullets in seconds with one trigger pull. For as little as $10 with homemade parts, a villain can quickly convert to weapons to full automatic mode. But the crook has to be fairly smart and resourceful to figure out how to do this. Is he also smart enough to keep his gun free of gunpowder residue and other crud so that in full auto the gun doesn’t jam or even possibly blow up in his hand?
One of my police friends mentioned that many a cop’s life has been saved because the criminal was too stupid to take care of his gun, and at the crucial moment, it misfired, jammed, or actually refused to chamber the cartridge.
When your crook can’t get a cheap gun, if he’s clever enough, he can improvise a single-shooter made from a piece of steel tube or pipe. The cartridge is held in place by an endcap, with a small hole drilled in the rear to allow a nail or other thin piece of metal access to the primer as a firing pin. The user only has to propel a hammer against the rear of the firing pin using a rubber band or other spring, and the cartridge will fire. Because of the cheap expense, availability, and low operating pressure, Zip guns generally use .22 Long Rifle ammunition.
The picture below shows a crude but effective zip gun made from a pipe. In this case, a spring was inserted inside with a level to pull it back. Pretty fancy – and also effective for a zip gun.
Zip guns are up-close weapons. There’s virtually no ability to aim it, and one shot is probably all the shooter gets, so proximity is the key to success.
It’s also important to note that even with a zip gun, the ammunition needs to fit somewhat snugly into the tubing to ensure that the hammer hits the firing pin squarely. If the bullet is cockeyed in the tube, it can misfire or, even worse, explode and turn that tube into scary pieces of shrapnel.
You’ve all seen TV shows and movies where assassins use silencers, the devices that screw onto the end of a gun and render the gun noiseless. Noiseless? Yeah, right. A better name would be “suppressor” because there is no such thing as completely silencing the sound of a gun firing. However, people tend to use the terms interchangeably.
A fired gun makes a combination of sounds: 1) the hammer or striker being released makes a clicking sound; 2) the muzzle blast; and 3) the ballistic crack we hear as the bullet is propelled out. All of those sounds seem to happen almost simultaneously, but it’s the latter two that are the loudest.
Impulse II-A Pistols Silencer
When gunpowder in a cartridge or shell is ignited, it creates a high-pressure pulse of hot gas with so much pressure (on the order of three thousand pounds per square inch) that the bullet is forced down the barrel of the gun at enormous speed along with a very loud report. It’s like uncorking a tightly sealed wine bottle. You can’t avoid the popping sound, or, in the gun’s case, the muzzle blast.
In addition, the more powerful the gun and ammo are, the more chance the bullet will travel at supersonic speed and produce that loud ballistic crack. A high-powered, supersonic bullet can’t be completely silenced because it has literally created a tiny sonic boom as it travels from the barrel.
To illustrate these phenomena, forensic researchers used a special imaging camera. The man in the photo below has discharged a .44 Magnum revolver. Two spherical shock waves are seen. One is a bright flash and cloud of gunpowder combustion centered at the gun’s muzzle (the muzzle blast); the other is centered near the cylinder and envelops the hands of the shooter (around the body of the gun and chamber/cylinder). The supersonic bullet is visible at the far left. This kind of split-split-second photography helps forensics experts understand the transfer of gunpowder traces to the hands when firing a gun. It also allows us to “see” the muzzle flash, the gases exploding out, and the flight of the bullet, all of which aren’t ordinarily visible to the naked eye.
Silencers/suppressors screw on to the end of the barrel. Inside, there are baffles to absorb some of the hot gases and powder. There’s a lot more room inside the device compared to the very tight barrel of the gun, so the silencer has 20 or 30 times more room for the pressurized gas to expand into. The silencer decreases pressure from the hot gas, and if enough of the propellant gases are bled away, the bullet can be slowed to less than supersonic speed. When the bullet finally exits through the hole in the silencer, the pressure being uncorked is considerably lower, and the sound of the gun firing is much softer. If the shooter in the picture above had used a silencer/suppressor, the photo would be much different.
So a high-quality silencer may remove most of the muzzle blast and perhaps all of the ballistic cracking sound, but it won’t be completely silent. The best example I have been told is that if you use a pin to pop a balloon, it makes a loud noise. But if you untie the end of the balloon and let the air out in a slower rush, you can minimize the noise. That is the basic idea behind how a silencer works.
Here is a revealing 14-second Video where you can hear how loud the shot is from a suppressed Glock:
As you can hear, there is still some sound. You can see a lot of smoke and gun powder emitted from the barrel and the back of the gun, too. If you look closely, you can also see some of the shells being ejected from the right side of the gun.
If your crook is unable to buy a silencer on the black market, or if he’s just cheap, there’s always the poor man’s version, the Pop Bottle Silencer. Here is another video, “Soda Bottle Suppressor,” that’s well worth taking a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAi9JFxLO3k
(I don’t think that’s what Fanta had in mind when they designed their 2-liter bottle!)
Contrary to popular belief, Federal law regulates but does not ban the possession of silencers/suppressors. Civilians must have authorization from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives (BAFTE) to buy, sell, own, or make silencers, but upon application, this is routinely given to anyone who is 21 or older, not a felon, and otherwise allowed to own firearms. State and local jurisdictions may impose regulations, though, so for your law-abiding characters, check with the local police or sheriff.
How To Select a Gun For Yourself
In real life, if you decide you want to buy a handgun for your own use, here are some criteria you might want to use to make your decision:
- The gun should fit your hand perfectly and not cause hot spots or discomfort anywhere.
- The gun should only be as large and/or powerful as you are comfortable with. This also means that you should be able to manipulate all parts (including the trigger and safety) with either hand alone.
- The gun should be reliable, well-made, constructed sturdily, and be of high enough quality to withstand heavy use and rough handling.
- You should enjoy firing the weapon, and you should feel like you are in control of it.
- After practice and training, you should be able to shoot the gun with a high level of accuracy. The gun and any sights should be accurate enough that you are able to consistently hit a six-inch target at ten yards.
- You should be able to carry it or conceal it comfortably and effectively for whatever use you intend.
- You will want to know how expensive the ammunition and replacement parts are. Do not select an unusual caliber for which ammunition is not readily available. You may have a hard time finding parts for unusual, rare, foreign, or very old guns, so before you purchase, be sure to check with a dealer to make sure you can get all supplies and parts.
Guns and Ammo magazine has a good article on “Gun Shopping 101” here: http://www.gunsandammomag.com/long_guns/gshop101_031307/index.html
Clockwise from top: Smith & Wesson Model 60 Revolver, North American Arms Guardian Sub-Compact, Glock Model 36, Kimber 1911 Compact Aluminum, Kahr PM9, S&W Model 340 Revolver.
Further Helpful Resources
Every gun manufacturer has a website. Enter “Heckler and Koch” into your browser to search, and you’ll find www.hk-usa.com is their web address. Put in “Colt Guns” and www.coltsmfg.com comes up. If you want to know about a particular brand, Google it.
And by the way, Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate. Gun manufacturers and firearms enthusiasts have done a LOT of work to make it so.
Here are some other websites that you may find helpful.
Glossary of Definitions – www.nraila.org/issues/FirearmsGlossary/default.aspx
Hunting/Gun info & online tutorial/test – www.homestudy.ihea.com/index01.htm
Great Reviews of many types of guns – http://www.remtek.com/arms/
Gun World with tons of information – www.gunworld.50megs.com
Modern Combat Pistols – world.guns.ru/handguns/pistolbook-e.htm
Women & Guns Forum – womenandguns.servertalk.in/womenandguns-forum-1.html
Women & Guns Magazine – www.womenandguns.com/order.html
Holsters – www.sightm1911.com/lib/ccw/ccw_holsters.htm
Laser Sights & Mounts – www.opticsplanet.net/laser-sight.html
Laser Grips – www.crimsontrace.com/
Sniper Rifles – www.snipercentral.com/rifles.htm
Optics, Mounts & Scopes for Handguns – findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3197/is_9_44/ai_57286920
Education and Training – www.nrahq.org/education/training/basictraining.asp
I highly recommend popping for a year (six issues) of the Women & Guns Magazine. For women (or men) who are just learning about firearms, you can’t go wrong for $18 bucks, and just reading six issues will give anybody a lot more information. Besides, the pictures are great and it’s easy to imagine your characters carrying these guns. You can cut them out and use them on your bulletin board as reminders, too.
In addition, there are scores of books out there about owning firearms, safety, history, politics, and for women contemplating gun ownership. Your local library or bookseller will probably have scads. Here is just a brief sample, including my old standby encyclopedia, and a 2007 book geared towards writers regarding the history of firearms:
- Encyclopedia of Pistols and Revolvers by A.E. Hartink
- Firearms in American History: A Guide for Writers, Curators, and General Readers by Charles G. Worman
- Essential Guide to Handguns: Firearm Instruction for Personal Defense and Protection by Rementer and Eimer
- Blown Away: American Women and Guns by Caitlin Kelly
- Armed and Female: Twelve Million American Women Own Guns, Should You? by Paxton Quigley
- The Politics of Gun Control, 4th Edition by Robert J. Spitzer
There is so much more to share about firearms, but my blog time is over, so I’ll have to stop here. Thank you for reading Parts I, II, and III of this topic. Let me know if you have any questions at all, and always remember to keep your eye on the target.