How to Bring your Pen to a Gunfight and Win
Clinton A. Love
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So what do I really need to know about guns? The answer is nothing, if you do not mind people reading your work and seeing that you have no knowledge of your subject matter. Even if you write from the perspective of an ordinary person who knows little about firearms, how they work, or what they can and cannot do, you still need to know what is going on to make it sound believable. Seriously, you have no idea how many big time, bestselling fiction writers I’ve read who write stuff about firearms that make me slap my own forehead and say, “Gawd! Could you have just asked someone who knew, before you wrote that scene?” It matters!
The good news is that you do not have to be a gun nut to make your gunfights sound plausible. In this guest blog, I am going to hit some of the basics that will help you write guns and gunfights better. I will also tell you how to research stuff whenever you run into a problem and do not know the answer.
How guns work:
Essentially, guns work the same way they have for hundreds of years. A single-shot flintlock pistol, the kind you see in pirate movies, makes a bullet fly the same way, as does a modern semiautomatic. It involves a hammer (or striker), a primer used to ignite a main charge of gunpowder, and enough pressure to send a bullet flying out fast enough to kill someone.
With the flintlock, the shooter squeezes the trigger, which causes the hammer to fall. A piece of flint, gripped in the hammer strikes a plate, called a frizzen, and makes sparks. The sparks ignite a bit of powder in the firing pan, which acts as a primer for the main charge of gunpowder in the breech (the base of the barrel). The powder ignites and pressure from the explosion sends the lead bullet flying out of the barrel at a high rate of speed.
A modern pistol works the same, except the primer, main powder charge, and bullet, are all contained in a metal cartridge case. The complete unit is a cartridge. In a modern pistol, the hammer, or in many cases, an internal striker connects with a firing pin, which punches the cartridge’s primer, ignites the powder inside the case, the explosion/high pressure occurs, and the bullet goes Pew! Yes, Pew is an official term. The big advantage of the modern pistol is you can load multiple cartridges into the cylinder, or magazine of the weapon, and make it go Pew a bunch of times, vs. one big Pew, a lot of smoke, and a 2-minute reload.
This brings us to the next issue. Where do all those cartridges go in preparation for their Pew? They go in the clip, right? NO! This is the most common screw-up people make, and it is so easy to avoid! If you follow my lead on this, you have already made yourself smarter than a lot of famous writers and literally all of Hollywood.
When dealing with a modern semi auto, the vast majority store their cartridges (also called rounds) in a MAGAZINE. The terms MAGAZINE and CLIP are not interchangeable. They are two very different things.
A MAGAZINE is like a Pez dispenser for cartridges. You load them in one at a time. A spring keeps pressure on them, so that when one fires a round, just like a Pez dispenser, another pops up in its place, ready to be loaded into battery (meaning the round is in the breech, ready to fire). Since we are talking about a semiautomatic here, what happens next is the bolt comes back on a spring, it pushes the new round into the breech, and a Pew is ready, should you need it! Whether it is a Glock or an AR-15, it works the same.
A CLIP is merely a strip of metal. Most modern weapons do not use them. The ones that do use them typically have an internal magazine, instead of a detachable one. One uses the clip to help load rounds into the internal magazine. The clip holds the rounds in a straight line; one places the clip onto the top of the internal magazine and shoves all the cartridges down into it. The SKS rifle uses them. The M1 Garand rifle actually stores the clip inside the magazine and it goes flying out with a loud pinging noise once one fires the last round. One can modify some revolvers (the ones that look like a cowboy’s six-gun or Dirty Harry’s .44) to use circular clips, called “moon clips” for rapid reload.
This takes us to screw-up number two, the difference between semiautomatic and fully automatic. This is also a very simple thing and people constantly get it wrong.
What semiautomatic means, is that you get one Pew for each pull of the trigger. When one cocks the weapon, and a round is in battery, you may aim and pull the trigger. Pew happens, bullet goes flying, the pressure also throws the bolt back, and an extractor pulls the empty metallic cartridge case and throws it clear, usually down the shirt of the guy next to you on the firing line. Then a spring sends the bolt forward, pushes a round out of the Pez dispenser, uh, magazine and into battery. One more trigger squeeze gets one more Pew. You can continue to do this, until the magazine runs dry and then you have to eject it and insert a new one. Then you charge the weapon (cock it) and you are ready again.
Fully automatic means that if you hold down the trigger, you get continuous Pews at a very high rate of speed, until the magazine runs out of cartridges. No need for another trigger pull, just pull the trigger once and hang on! Machineguns, submachine guns, machine pistols, and most assault rifles are capable of fully automatic fire. Magazines typically feed automatics or sometimes belts made of metal links hold the rounds. Belt fed machineguns can literally make thousands of Pews on one pull of the trigger. An UZI submachine gun can spit out 30 Pews in about two seconds, completely emptying its magazine! A GAU-8 Avenger is a 30mm autocannon that can send huge freakin’ 30mm rounds downrange at 3900 rounds per minute and destroy a tank at over 3 kilometers away. It makes a BRAAAP sound and suddenly a large armored vehicle is a burning pile of metal junk. Full auto is nuts.
So how do you translate all of this gun nut gobbledygook to my story?
Easy, your main character (MC) has a gun, for example. What kind of gun is it? You do not know yet. So who is he? Well, he is young and ex-military and he wants a military type sidearm, because he is comfortable with it and can shoot it well. A rifle is too big to be walking around the streets of Chicago. He will go to jail. You could move him to Texas and then that would not be a problem. No, the MC needs to stay in Chi-town so he’s gonna need a pistol. You Google it, and right now, the U.S. military issues the M-9, which is essentially a Beretta model 92FS. The Beretta 92 is a large, black semiautomatic pistol. You now know how a semi auto fires, but you want to get all the loading, cocking, safety and other details right, too. Welcome to YouTube, where you can actually watch a U.S. Army training video on the M-9 and see how it works!
So now, your MC is bopping around Chicago with his Beretta in its shoulder rig, under his coat, and lo and behold, the Bad Guy (BG) appears in a dark alley, and tries to bust a cap in his ass. Let us give the BG a sawed-off .20 gauge shotgun, because he is a bad guy and does not give a shit about gun laws. Of course, you do your appropriate research on that weapon as well. Your MC draws his Beretta. He is Billy Badass, so it is already cocked and locked, safety off. He is fast as lightning and puts four bullets in the BG’s chest. What do those bullets do? Kill him, duh, but like, what do they actually do to his body?
Here is a general rule. I paraphrase Clint Smith from Thunder Ranch, a firearms training facility.
“A handgun will put holes in you, a rifle will put holes through you, and a shotgun, with the right load, and at the right range, will take a chunk of shit off your opponent and throw that shit on the floor.”
You Google the lethal effects of 9mm bullets and find out that 7 out of 8 people shot with handguns survive. Worse, a shot in the chest will not necessarily stop a BG cold like in the movies. The BG is a hardened thug, determined to kill, and he is full of adrenaline, and maybe drugs. The four hollow point bullets will incapacitate him in a couple of seconds, but that is still plenty of time to fire that shotty! BOOM BG hits MC in the chest, blows a chunk of shit off him and he dies, story is over.
No, no, no. We cannot have that. You go back and edit in a ballistic vest for your MC. Ha! Suck it, Bad Guy! But wait! Can a ballistic vest stop a .20 gauge shotgun full of buckshot? It is Google time, again. Yes! A level 3a ballistic vest will stop buckshot, so Oof! MC takes a hit and goes down, but he gets to live to the next chapter. He will be nursing bruises and a broken rib, but that is great! It makes him human and overcoming pain while trying to complete his mission makes your story more believable. The hollow points from MC’s 9mm ultimately kill this BG and he is out of the fight, but now the Big Bad is even more determined to get the MC. The plot thickens.
As you can see, applying a little knowledge here and there makes a world of difference in how well you write the story, and how believable your action sequences are. Even more, someone who has seen or been in a gunfight will find your scenario more believable than if you had a lot of A-Team firing, gratuitous gun cocking, 9mm bullets blowing huge holes through people, or people flying backward 20 feet when shot with a shotgun.
What else can I do? Go to the gun range! Most major cities and even medium to large towns in the U.S. have a local gun club or shooting range. For anywhere from $50 to $100 you can even get one on one instruction! Many will even rent you the weapons you want to try for cheap. Tell them you are a writer doing research and they may take interest and cut you a deal.
If my essay has had its usual affect, you now have more questions than answers. That is cool. If Ms. Felix allows me, I will do more guest blogs on this kind of thing, so make with the questions! In addition, you can ask me by hunting me down on Twitter. My handle is @clintlove4real.
Clinton A. Love is a writer, musician, and mortician from Dallas, Texas. He is the author of several books, most recently the Heaven nor Hell Urban Fantasy series of novels. Find him on the web at http://www.therealclintlove.com
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