Archive for August, 2013

Today, we continue the discussion of firearms from the perspective of the writing craft. In the last post, I listed the common types of firearms in use at present. Now we’ll look at what those guns shoot.

The first thing here is to clarify terminology. A lot of words get tossed around with regard to what gets fed into and fired out of a gun, especially by people whose interest is banning rather than understanding. But properly speaking, we’re talking about cartridges. Consider this diagram:


1. Bullet

Typically made of lead, though other materials are sometimes used, and often covered with a jacket of a copper alloy. This is what is sent down the barrel and on out to do work over there.

2. Case

These days usually made of brass, though again, other metals can be used. The case contains the other components until they’re fired.

3. Powder

This is the fuel. When ignited, its burning creates rapidly expanding gases that push the bullet down the barrel. The term, gunpowder, used to mean what we today call blackpowder, a mixture of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal. Most powders now are what is called smokeless powder.

4. Rim

Between the rim and the main body of the case is a groove. Most firearms have a claw, called an extractor, that fits into that groove to eject the case when the mechanism of the gun is opened. If the rim has the same diameter as the rest of the case, it’s called rimless. (Did you expect these terms to make sense?) If it sticks out slightly, it’s semi-rimmed, and a wide and obvious rim is called rimmed. (So you did expect it to make sense…)

5. Primer

This is what ignites the powder. It gets struck by the hammer or by a spring-loaded internal pin. Primers contain a shock-sensitive explosive that goes off hot enough to set the stable powder alight. This part is also called a cap. That goes back to the middle years of the nineteenth century when primers were a separate component. The phrase, bust a cap, comes from that period as well.

The priming method today is divided into rimfire and centerfire:


The dents shown on the cases in the picture are where the hammer or firing pin struck the case. A rimfire round has the explosive compound in a ring around the inside of the rim, while the centerfire concentrates it in a central cap. Rimfire cases aren’t as strong as centerfire cases, so the former, most often a .22, isn’t as powerful as the latter.

You’ll hear people refer to cases as brass, particularly in police procedural shows or books–an officer at a crime scene, say, will be looking for brass. Those are the spent cases. Another term for cartridges or for the bullets themselves is rounds, a name that comes from the days when bullets were primarily round balls.

Bullets come in a variety of forms, but they fit into the following general categories, from left to right:


1. Hollow point

The front end of the bullet is hollow. This has two purposes. One involves the physics of motion through air. The hollow tip improves the bullet’s stability, making the round stay on target. The main purpose, though, is to cause the bullet to expand inside a target, thereby doing more damage and making the round count. Hollow point rounds also tend to stop inside the target, rather than blowing on through.

2. Full metal jacket

Remember Stanley Kubrick’s film? The title comes from the fact that many militaries are required to use rounds that are made of lead that is completely covered by a jacket of copper alloy. This is due to the Hague Conventions (not Geneva!) on the laws of war. Some figured that a full metal jacket round is more humane. Such a round tends to punch through a target and head on toward whatever else is on the other side, making them bad for self-defense or hunting, but these cartridges are generally cheaper and make good practice ammunition.

3. Soft tip

These have their lead cores exposed partway. They function somewhat like hollow points in that the shape of the bullet gets distorted in the target, but that shape also allows for deeper penetration.

4. Round nose

This is an old style, found today in handgun rounds, but not so often for rifles, unless used in a tubular magazine (more on that later).

Some cartridges have what’s called frangible bullets. Those are made of metal powder that’s glued together. The bullets blow apart on impact, causing much less penetration. Those are used by air marshals, for what may be an obvious reason.

Sometimes, these rounds are called shells. That can be confusing, since the term lately is used to refer to shotgun ammunition:


Notice that here, we have the same primer and powder and case arrangement–though the primer is a different size, and the case is typically made of plastic–but the shotgun shell adds wadding over the powder and over the shot pellets. Those pellets are used instead of a single bullet, unless we’re talking slugs, which are single bullets. (Did I mention that things are complicated in the gun nut forest?) As I mentioned in the last article, pellets tend to spread out one inch per yard of travel.


Shotgun shells are big and long and plastic and so are easy to distinguish from rifle or handgun cartridges. That’s only true today, though. If you’re writing westerns, you’ll need to know about metal shells, but guns of the Old West will have to wait for another day.

Shotguns are classified by their bore diameters according to an old system. If you read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, you’ll hear ship’s guns referred to by the weight of ball that they shot. An eight pounder gun, for example, shot an iron ball weighing eight pounds. No human being could hold such a gun. Shotgun bore sizes are actually fractions of a pound. A twelve gauge, then, means a gun that could fire a solid lead ball that weighs 1/12 of a pound. The diameter is around .73 inches. A twenty gauge would shoot a ball 1/20 of a pound in weight. Thus the bigger the gauge number, the smaller the diameter. I’ve seen news articles describing a .12 gauge shotgun, but that’s a typo, since the gun would fire an 8 1/3 pound ball.

The classification of rifle and handgun rounds is complicated, but one way to simplify things is to remember that rifle rounds are long, while handgun rounds are short:


The one on the left is for a rifle; the one on the right is for a handgun. But then there’s the one in the middle. That’s used in the AK-47 and other guns. It’s an intermediate (in the middle, get it?) round. The longer the case, the more powder it can hold. Longer is generally more powerful.

But all three of those are the same caliber, namely .30 inches. Caliber simply means the diameter of the barrel or the bullet. (As always, there are complications, but we’ll leave those aside for now.) Rifle calibers are usually a good indication of the diameter. A .308 Winchester, for example, shoots a bullet of about .308 inches. Listing rifles in order of their calibers is a rough way to organize them by power, though you have to remember that for a given caliber, the longer the case, the more powerful the cartridge.

With handguns, things are a mess.


Here’s a list of typical cartridges in order of the diameter of their bullets:

.32 S&W, .32 A.C.P., 7.62 Tokarev
.380, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, .357 Sig
9mm Makarov
.40 S&W, 10mm
.44 Russian, .44 Special, .44 Magnum
.45 Colt, .45 A.C.P.

The .32s are about one third of an inch, and the group that starts with .380 are all around .355 inches. The .44s are actually .429 in diameter. But in terms of power, things are all over the map. A .25, for example, is weaker than a .22. While a .357 Magnum bullet is the same diameter as a .38 Special (and a .357 revolver can fire .38 Specials), the case of the former is longer and holds more powder. Speaking of news articles, sometimes I see a .9mm referred to. The decimal point there is wrong, since in English terms, that’s 0.03543 inches, the diameter of a middling hypodermic needle.

The short version of this long talk is that we’ll discuss power at a later date. For now, understand that handgun caliber doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how much punch is coming out the business end.

Gun people sometimes talk about feeding their guns. This long discussion shows what we mean. As you can see, guns have specific diets. This isn’t too complicated, so long as you remember that you need to know what the particular gun you’re writing about happens to use. When cats drink milk, they get looseness of the bowels. The same occurs to our stories when we don’t do research. But with this guide, at least you now know where to get started.

Read Full Post »

You’ve probably heard the expression, the pen is mightier than the sword.


This phrase was given to us by the same fellow who coined, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” Yes, that latter saying goes on. It’s author was one Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, and with a name like that, perhaps wordiness was to be expected. But too often, the mighty pen fails when describing the sword–or the firearm, as will be the point of this and following articles.

When I first entered the gun nut forest–a territory both vast and varied with many climates, cultures, and crannies–I found a webpage by speculative fiction writer, William Sanders, that introduced me to a great many subjects that people too often get wrong when it comes to guns. Alas, that site is now dark, and so, in my own version of apostolic succession, I’m going to offer a guide to gunpowder weapons for writers.

Why is this necessary? Because too many get the subject wildly wrong. Now this is not unique to firearms. There are an unfortunate number of scribblers who are laboring under the opinion that research isn’t necessary. Sorry, but that’s the wrong answer. If you’re going to write a story about a time and a place, you need to know pages of material about such for every sentence you put in. Unless the story is science fiction or the like, I don’t want to see airplanes that flap their wings to fly. Yes, that has been done, but we’re talking a rare thing here, and there isn’t regular passenger service using that technique. Yes, I also know that hacks like Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote stories about the Trojan War as though the conflict happened in their own times, but unless you can write at their level, you’d better not tell me a story about Alexander the Great using stirrups, for example–unless you’ve got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ done to justify it.

All right. Where to begin? We’ll start with the categories of firearms as found in common use today:

1. Rifle


That particular beauty is a Springfield M1903, one of the long arms issued to American soldiers in the First and Second World Wars. The term is an example of synecdoche, using a part of the thing to describe the whole. Rifling is something done to the inside of the barrel whereby spiraling grooves are cut into the metal, causing the bullet to spin as it goes down, giving it gyroscopic motion, much like a spinning football. The word can also mean to ransack or steal, and both meanings come from a word in Middle French that meant scrape or scratch.

A rifle is a long gun. That means that it’s, well, long, but it also means that you fire it with the butt of the stock (the back end) against your shoulder, and you use two hands to hold it. Can it be fired from the hip with one hand? Perhaps, but that’s not any wiser than looking down the barrel to see if something’s going to come out. The fact that it’s long doesn’t by itself affect the accuracy, but the length of barrel does give the powder used time to burn more fully, thereby increasing the velocity of the bullet. Jeff Cooper–retired Marine, firearms expert, and all around man from another age–called the rifle the queen of personal weapons. Depending on the type of cartridge used, a rifle can hit targets at over a thousand yards, and one good hit is enough to stop an animal, human or otherwise, or break machinery.

Rifles fire these:


We’ll talk more in the future about classes of cartridges.

2. Shotgun

This is also a long gun, though sometimes we see short versions. Old-timers also called this a scattergun, and therein lies a problem. First, have a look at one type:


This is the Winchester Model 1897, invented by John Moses Browning, a person you’ll hear about repeatedly in the gun nut forest. (He and a fellow from Austria are responsible for a huge swath of modern firearms.) The shotgun fires shells:


The shell contains pellets or a single slug (or other things) that are fired down a smooth tube, unlike the grooved barrel of a rifle. The pellets tend to spread out one inch per yard of travel, though there are variations in that. This means that the effective reach of a shotgun is well under a hundred yards with pellets, though a slug (a big chunk of lead) can hit what is wanted a bit farther out. The fact that those projectiles aren’t accurate past that distance doesn’t mean that they aren’t still dangerous.

But close in–inside a room or within conversational distance, the pellets are bunched up together. You can’t vaguely point a shotgun in the general direction of your target and expect to achieve the desired results. Shotguns have to be aimed. The fact that the pellets spread out does mean that the target in range gets a bunch of holes in it per shot, instead of just one hole.

3. Handgun

As indicated by the name, a handgun is used by the hand. No shoulder involved. Typically in days gone by, only one hand was used, though decades ago, Jack Weaver and the aforementioned Jeff Cooper, et al. taught us that a two-handed grip is better for control and accuracy.

Handguns fall into two categories, revolver and self-loading:

A. Revolver

This type was invented by Samuel Colt (and possibly others). It has a cylinder that holds cartridges and revolves (surprise, surprise, surprise), bringing one cartridge at a time in line with the barrel to be fired.


Revolvers are fired by a hammer–in the picture, that’s the spur at the rear above the grip. Cocking the gun means pulling back the hammer till it locks into place, waiting to be released by the trigger. Early revolvers had to be cocked as a separate process, but most today can be cocked and fired by squeezing the trigger in one motion. More about that later.

Though there have been some rare exceptions, most revolvers do not have external safeties. This means no thumb lever, no switch, and no catch to disengage before squeezing the trigger. We’ll talk about revolvers and safeties in the future, but for now, just take it that revolvers don’t have safeties. They typically carry five or six rounds, but as always, there are other possibilities.

B. Self-loading

This type is problematic in naming. They used to be called automatics. Today, they’re called semiautomatics. They’re also known as self-loaders. What do we mean? First, have a look at one popular example, an M1911:


and another, a Glock:


These are loaded with a box called a magazine that fits into the grip. When the trigger is squeezed, the force of the firing cartridge pushes the top part of the gun, called the slide, back, ejecting the empty cartridge case and picking up another one from the magazine to insert into the chamber, the rear end of the barrel.

Some of these have external safeties, while others do not. On the M1911, note the lever at the rear just below the hammer. When the hammer is cocked, the safety can be engaged, blocking the gun from firing. The Glock, by contrast, only has a lever on the trigger itself. If you’re going to write about automatic pistols, know exactly which kind and how it works, since there are many variations.

Those are the basic types of firearms used today. There are many subcategories and some oddball things here and there, and we’ve yet to get into guns of days gone by, but this is good enough to be going on with. In discussions to follow, we’ll get into the details.

Read Full Post »

Today we mourn the death of Elmore Leonard. In honor of what he taught writers, here are his ten rules:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Elmore Leonard

Read Full Post »

I’m a writer. This means, of course, that I hope soon to be making my living primarily by writing. I scribble in a variety of genres. Some of what I write I call literary, while much of my works are westerns and science fiction, with a smattering of beats-the-hell-out-of-me. I do tend toward what used to be called romances. Understand that the term once meant stories about ancient Rome–in other words, tales of long ago and far away.

Today, we call those speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and so forth. Tolkien referred to them as faerie stories. But whatever name you care to give them, they all involve a narrative that pulls the reader out of the mundane and into magic. (Recall that Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic.) But how can you know if this particular genre is what you ought to be writing?

Here’s a sentence that will answer the question:

The empire in the west had fallen, but remnants survived in the east.

What does that sentence do inside you?

If it calls to mind the Roman Empire, you have a good grasp of history.

If thoughts of the Mongols or the Chinese come to mind, you’re a multiculturalist. (Unless you’re reading me in Asia, then apply this to the first reaction.)

If your reaction is one of boredom or revulsion, I can’t help you.

But if you read that sentence and feel a wave of fascination about distant lands, shifting powers, the possibilities of kingdoms won and lost, maidens (or fine swains, depending on your interests) seduced, and mysteries to be opened and beheld in awe, then you stand in good chance of being a bard of Faerie.

The rest is the discipline of the craft.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: