Posts Tagged ‘A Writer’s Guide to Guns’

Those of us who spend much time arguing the question of gun rights on the Internet often run into examples of Markley’s Law in action. What is Markley’s Law, my non-gun-enthusiast readers may be asking?

Markley’s Law: The adage that any Internet discussion regarding firearm owners will eventually mention male genitalia.

Generally, this takes the form of someone who supports gun control claiming that gun owners are compensating for small anatomy. But obsession with penises isn’t the only defect of personality to be found in those who yearn to violate the rights of others. Submitted for your consideration is a new law, based on many observations:

As t (time) increases, the probability that a gun control supporter will make a sexist or homophobic remark about a gun rights advocate during a discussion on guns approaches 1.

This observation is all the more interesting since gun control supporters tend to be on the left of the American political spectrum, and thus such language would be unacceptable by their fellows in any other context.


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Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to look at how things are done wrong. With that in mind, today I present to you Hollywood guns, in which we find out that Tinseltown is peeing on our shoes and calling it a submarine movie.

1. Racking the action


In this picture, we see the slide on a semiautomatic pistol pulled back to allow a round to be loaded into the chamber. That’s as should be. That’s what has to be done. But once that’s done, the gun is ready to go. But Hollywood can’t avoid having characters perform that action repeatedly. Every time they want to threaten someone, they whip out pistols and point about the room until the intended victim mouths off, at which time every gun from a snub-nosed revolver to a howitzer produces a clack-clack sound.

What that means is that unless a shell is ejected, the gun didn’t have a round chambered beforehand, and the victim could have waltzed over and taken the weapon. Yes, the Israelis teach their commandos to carry without a round loaded, but I suspect that’s because they had to take whatever kind of gun they could get their hands on in early days, so rules about safeties on some guns but not others would have been confusing. But most people carry their guns ready to go.

2. Suppressors


These are often called silencers, but that’s wrong. They only reduce the volume by a few tens of decibels–enough to save the shooter from hearing damage, but not enough to make the firearm whisper. And if the ammunition is supersonic, the bullet going down range will create a sonic boom.

But in film, every gun can be made to sound like a cat sneezing with a quarter-inch tube on the end of the barrel. That includes revolvers, even though most such guns have a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, allowing the cylinder to turn. Gases escape from that gap–a significant source of noise that can’t be suppressed. Suppressors also change the point of impact and the velocity of the bullet, which means that the sights have to be set for suppressed firing.

The truth is that some guns can be made very quiet, but the size of the suppressor needed makes carrying the thing inconvenient. And if it’s a self-loading firearm, the operation of the machine itself makes a lot of noise.

3. Sound


When not suppressed, guns are loud. We’re talking a rock concert with the speakers turned up to eleven. And for some reason, Hollywood thinks that setting off firearms inside concrete buildings isn’t bad for one’s hearing.


4. Magazine size


Gun control freaks go on and on about how many rounds should be allowed in a magazine. It’s fifteen here, ten there, and seven in New York. That’s until they decide to demand only one at a time. I suspect that’s because they see movies in which bad guys have firearms with infinite capacities. Sometimes, the good guys do as well. And they keep shooting on full-auto for minutes at a time without having to reload.

But that’s plain wrong. Typical pistol magazines run from seven rounds in older M1911s to fifteen or seventeen in many Berettas and Glocks. Revolvers have five or six. Even the banana magazine of the AK-47 holds only thirty. And the rate of fire on those guns, even the semiautomatic only versions, is several hundred rounds a minute. A magazine can be emptied in seconds, if emptying your gun is the only goal. Now there are things like this:


But those have a habit of jamming. And they’re hard to carry, especially if you have to conceal them.

5. Aim


Guns have to be aimed. Yes, if you plan to spray and pray, you can hold your grease gun at your hip and let go, but to score one-shot hits on a desired target, you have to use the sights. Or practice every day with lots of rounds and get really close. Just blasting away is a fine method for wasting ammunition and hitting bystanders, a technique practiced by the NYPD. This is especially true if you hold your handgun sideways, gangsta style.

6. Knockdown power


Newton informed us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means that if your bullet knocks down the guy you’re shooting at, you get knocked down when you fire the gun. Now it is true that some people get hit while they’re running and off-balance and thus fall over when shot, and others drop to the ground out of surprise, but the bullet itself cannot shove someone over.

Along the same lines, the more powerful the round, the more punishing it is to shoot, especially in lightweight guns. And unless the shooter has exceptional luck, one shot from a pipsqueak handgun isn’t going to stop an assailant.

7. Sturm und Drang


When a bullet hits something, what happens to the target? It explodes, naturally. Well, actually, no, it doesn’t. Unless it’s made of nitroglycerin. Even if it’s drenched in gasoline, it’s not likely to flare up. So no, you can’t make a car go up in a ball of fire by shooting its tank.

8. Carry


Remember Agent Smith in The Matrix? Or Ivan Chekov in Boondock Saints? They were big guys. But even so, those Desert Eagles they carried are huge guns. We’re talking about a foot long and more than four pounds in weight. You ain’t hiding one of those in your sock. It’s not even going to be concealed under a tailored suit coat. You’re going to need a big cape or a tent-sized shirt to hide one of those. We’ll talk about how to carry a gun in a sensible manner in the future, but understand that if it looks huge when you draw it, it’s going to feel huge when you’re carrying it.

9. Anachronisms


John Wayne is the quintessential western character. But in just about every western he starred in, he carried an 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver and a 1892 Winchester rifle. But The Searchers, for example, starts in 1868. That’s a neat trick. But it’s not unique to westerns. In Titanic, David Warner’s character packs an M1911, though at that time, such pistols were just getting going as a military firearm. It would have been more accurate to give him a Colt Pocket Hammerless, but that’s a small gun and doesn’t look as impressive.

What’s the point here? Surprise, surprise, surprise, Hollywood engages in trickery when it comes to guns. And that’s part of why I’m writing this series. You, dear writers, need to know what the truth is about firearms. What’s possible, what’s reasonable in how they’re used, and what’s just blowing smoke.

For stories involving gunplay and a whole lot more, visit here.

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In my series on guns and gun information for writers, I’ve mostly stayed away from political matters, since the emphasis here is on what a writer needs to know to get gun facts correct in stories. But today, I’m wading into the thick and smelly. The subject is assault rifles.

First, let’s dispose of another term that shows up in the media and elsewhere, the assault weapon. This is plainly silly. Any weapon can be used to attack. Any weapon can be used to defend. In fact, most weapons are good at both functions. That’s especially true about most firearms. Some have advantages in one or the other area, and we’ll get to those in a moment, but calling something an assault weapon is generally redundant. Certainly, this term has been exploited by advocates of gun control. Note in particular what Josh Sugarmann, currently the head of the Violence Policy Center, had to say in 1988 in a position paper:

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.

But my job in these articles is to inform writers so as to remove confusion.

Moving on then. Have a look at the classic military rifle at the start of the twentieth century:


That’s a Swedish Mauser that shoots a 6.5mm round. The rifle is fifty inches long. The Russian Mosin-Nagant was forty-eight inches. And that was typical for the standard primary arm of the day. Yes, the Americans and the British were using rifles of around forty-four inches, but that’s still lengthy.

There are advantages to this. As I mentioned before, a longer barrel gives the powder time to burn, thereby increasing the velocity. A greater distance between the front and rear sights creates a longer sight radius. This doesn’t affect the inherent accuracy of the gun, but it does make lining up a shot easier for the shooter–at least that’s the idea. And military doctrine of the day expected soldiers to hit targets at considerable distance. Remember that generals always come prepared for the last war. The belief was that the common soldier should be able to fire aimed and effective shots at targets way over yonder. Consider, for example, the mad minute, a requirement of British soldiers to land more than twenty shots in a twelve-inch circle at three-hundred yards in less than sixty seconds. The story goes that during the Christmas peace in World War I, German officers remarked to their British counterparts that they were surprised about the Brits having so many machine guns, when actually the men were just firing the bolt-action SMLE.

But World War I bogged down into trenches, and the leaders needed a way to break out. Winston Churchill loved the idea of the tank, while Americans used the trench broom, a short-barreled shotgun, and the Germans toyed with this:


the Bergmann MP-18. It fired the 9mm Parabellum cartridge and thus was a submachine gun. We developed our own in the form of the Thompson, known as the Tommy Gun. We’ll talk about this type of gun later.

The Russians tried this beast, the Fedorov avtomat from 1915:


It fired a full-power rifle cartridge, but its design was complicated.

A battle rifle cartridge is as powerful as it is for the purpose of penetrating armor and hitting targets at long ranges. But firing a lot of those rounds in a hurry isn’t conducive to accuracy without a gun mount, and military thinkers were coming on the idea that when a lot of people are running at you quickly, you need to shovel the lead out. The distance involved won’t be that much–under three hundred yards.

The need for this became apparent especially in World War II on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Germans had the Mauser K98, a shortened version of the Gewehr 98, their long battle rifle from the First World War, firing a full-power round, and the MP-40:


a submachine gun or machine pistol that shot the standard 9mm used in German handguns. But battle rifles are good for a thousand yards, and handguns do their best work at talking distances. What about in between?

Introducing the MP-44:


It fired a bullet of 7.92mm from a case that was 33mm in length. The Mausers used 7.92 x 57 rounds. The notion there is that it’s easier to retool if you’re not changing the barrel diameter. But the reduced power of the cartridge allows for easier control of fully automatic fire necessary to stop mass attacks inside of three hundred yards. Hitler got a look at the gun and declared it a Sturmgewehr–an assault rifle. He loved adding “assault” to everything, but even though the thought about this weapon was defensive, being able to send a wall of bullets down range is useful in storming (the other translation of sturm) through an enemy’s line, particularly in urban combat.

Are you thinking that the MP-44 looks familiar? How about this weapon:


If you think that the AK-47 looks a lot like the German rifle, you’re not alone. In fact, lots of people other than Mikhail Kalashnikov have said the same thing. The Russian gun shoots a 7.62 x 39 round, their battle rifle round being 7.62 x 54, has a detachable magazine with the distinctive curve required by the shape of the cartridge, and is made for the same purpose as the MP-44. The Russians declared, Oh my Marx, no, we didn’t copy the German gun. Uh huh. It’s length, by the way, is around 35 inches with the stock extended.

Americans, loving plastic and high-tech widgets, went for this ray gun:


the M-16, designed by Eugene Stoner, a man who had been working in the aircraft industry. It’s made of plastic and aluminum and so forth, all with the purpose of reducing its weight. It shoots a 5.56 x 45 cartridge. In English units, that’s a .22, a tiny round. General Curtis LeMay tried an early model out and figured it made a good primary weapon for air base security police, and some of our special forces units operating in Vietnam in the run up to our full involvement there liked it, so Robert McNamara and his bean counters–I mean whiz kids–decided to inflict the M-16 on everyone. (Do you get the idea that I don’t like it? We’ll discuss it’s mechanism in the future.)

Today, the lines between submachine gun and assault rifle are getting blurred:


This dingus, one of the stars of Stargate SG-1, shoots a pistol round that acts a lot like a light-weight rifle round that can’t decide what it wants to be.

But what is an assault rifle? Remember that the goal of such a weapon is to facilitate rapid movement in close-quarters battle or to stop an enemy attempting such. That being the case, it has to have the following characteristics:

1. Intermediate cartridge

I’ve explained that here and there in this article, but the round is intermediate between the power of a handgun round and a battle rifle cartridge. It’s not a .45 ACP, and it’s not a .30-’06, but it wants to be able to do what both of those can do.

2. Detachable magazine

Changing out magazines is easier than pulling out stripper clips of rounds and shoving them into the fixed mag.

3. Selective fire

The weapon must be capable of semiautomatic fire–one trigger squeeze, one shot–and full-auto–keeps shooting till the trigger is released or the gun runs dry. Many of them also have a three-round burst setting. But without full-auto capability, it’s not an assault rifle.

And that’s the key point. In America, unless you have a Class III firearms license and all the paperwork and tax stamps, you can’t legally own a full-auto gun. The AR-15, the semiautomatic only version of the M-16, is no different from any other semiautomatic rifle in its basic functioning, except that it looks funny. People who say otherwise are simply trying to cloud the issue. If your character is a chief of police who has to kowtow to the mayor, that person may refer to a gun as an assault rifle. If your character has an anti-gun agenda, the same is true. But you need to know the correct definitions so as to be aware of when you’re creating characterization.

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In the previous discussion about cartridges, I touched briefly on the subject of power. Today, that’s the focus. Power comes from three factors: shape, velocity, and mass. We’ll take those one at a time.


1. Shape

The shape of the bullet makes a difference in what it does inside the target. Hollow point rounds, when moving at a high enough speed, open up, thereby tearing a bigger hole, but penetrating less distance. Spitzer rounds–bullets with spire points–tend to go straight through whatever they hit, though the lighter weight ones can tumble, such as what can happen with the 5.56 NATO or .223 round fired by the AR-15. Long bullets penetrate more than short bullets (get your mind out of the gutter) in the way that a dump truck will hurt you, but a freight train will keep on hurting you. The infamous 6.5 Carcano round, for example, has a narrow diameter–.25 inches–but a long body. What the bullet does in the target is called terminal ballistics.

The shape of the bullet also affects how it moves through the air. This is known as external ballistics. Bullets with a round nose tend to be less stable than spitzer bullets, and pointy bullets with a hollow tip are more stable still. The bullet is lighter on the front end, shifting the center of mass back, stabilizing it. (That’s how the U.S. military gets around the Hague Convention’s ban on expanding ammunition–it’s for the trajectory, you see, not for the end effect.)


2. Velocity

This may seem simple, but it’s more than just how much speeding a speeding bullet does. On that subject, the velocity is typically given in feet per second or meters per second, if you’re on the metric system. That’s how many units of distance the bullet will travel in one second.

The faster the bullet goes, the sooner it reaches out and touches something, but there’s more, as you might expect. In high school physics, there’s often a thought experiment about a hunter sitting in a tree who spots a monkey at his height in another tree. Should the hunter aim above, below, or right at the monkey, presuming the monkey lets go of the tree and drops toward the ground when the shot is fired? The answer is to aim right at the animal, since gravity affects the monkey and the bullet the same way when the bullet is fired horizontally. This is bullet drop, and you can consult Galileo and Newton for more on the subject. It’s the reason that the sights on a gun are actually not precisely parallel to the barrel. They create a slight rise in the bullet’s trajectory. If they didn’t, the round would drop into the earth long before one second was up. (Objects with no upward force acting on them fall thirty-two feet in the first second in Earth’s gravity.) The faster a bullet starts out, the more momentum it has, thus helping it overcome air resistance, and the longer it goes before coming to the ground.

But there’s a curious effect that bullets going more than two thousand feet per second tend to have. When they hit soft tissue, they generate a shockwave, called hydrostatic shock, that causes massive damage even in areas that the bullet did not touch. Handgun rounds typically don’t move rapidly enough to do this, while rifle rounds generally are above that threshold for most of their flight. A thirty caliber handgun round, such as the .32 S&W Long, will make a hole .312 inches in diameter, while a .30-’06 round will create a big cavity inside a body after punching the same .312 inch hole, even if the two bullets have the same weight.

Another effect of velocity is to determine whether hollow point rounds will open up. Today’s bullets are designed to open at lower velocities, but a general truism is that faster makes for better expansion. The speed also affects penetration. A compact car that’s roaring down the highway will hit you harder than a train that’s barely moving, even though the train will be more insistent.

Velocity is determined by how much powder is pushing how much mass. If the weight remains the same, more powder means more speed. Heavier bullets go slower than lighter bullets with the same amount of powder. Well, sort of. Powder charges do funny things sometimes that we’ll have to discuss later. One fact from internal ballistics–what happens inside the firearm–is that a longer barrel gives more time for the powder to burn behind the bullet, rather than out in open air. Of course, there comes a point at which all the powder is burned, but within limits, the longer the barrel, the faster the bullet will go. We carry short-barreled firearms for convenience, not because they are more effective.

3. Mass

Bullet mass is measured in grains, of which there are seven thousand in a pound. Look at the first picture again. Those are .270 caliber rounds. The first on the left is 100 grains, the next 115, the one after that 130, and the last is 150. The heavier a bullet is, the more it adds to the constant part, M, of the F = MV equation and thus the higher F, or force, will be for more of the trajectory. Heavy bullets punch through the wind better, and they tend to be more stable. That stability can be good, if the bullet has to penetrate tough material, but it also doesn’t tumble in soft tissue, meaning the round just goes on through, instead of staying inside to be useful. To use the train metaphor again, the first bullet is the engine, while each successive bullet adds more cars behind.

What does this all add up to?


Note the second and third cartridges from the right. The third is a .38 Special, while the second is a .357 magnum. They both have bullets of the same diameter–the .38 number comes from an older style of bullet–and those bullets are often the same weight, but the .38 Special comes with less powder. Thus the .357 Magnum is faster. The family of .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, and .357 Sig–the last one being in the center of the picture–all are .355 in diamter, but that list is in order from least to greatest in power, thanks to how much fuel is behind the ball. The .357 Sig round in fact has a bottleneck case–the lower part of the case is broader than the neck–allowing for a greater charge.

This matters to you as a writer because knowing what a bullet will do down range makes for more realistic fiction. Remember the episode of Breaking Bad when–spoiler alert–Jessie shoots Gale? The kid uses a .380 ACP, and the bullet goes through Gale’s head and into a metal pot on the stove at the other side of the room. Yeah, maybe, but a 9mm Luger round would have been more believable. Certainly, one staple of Hollywood that seems to be dying off now is the bullet that knocks its victim clean out of Dodge. A guy who is off balance to begin with may topple over when shot, but if the round can send a person flying, the force of the cartridge firing would send the shooter just as far in the other direction. Recoil can be stout, but in the real world, it’s not that bad.

I give more on the subject of what handgun bullets do in terms of self-defense over here, but this article is to provide a sense of how bullets act. They are physical objects only, not rings of power or any other magical thing, and writers who includes gunplay in their stories ought to have some sense of what’s possible and what’s cartoonish.

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Just as there are many cartridges in the Gun Nut Forest, there are also many actions. By action I mean the way the firearm operates. The first distinction to be made is between single-shot and repeaters.

1. Single shot

This means that the firearm has to be reloaded by the shooter after each shot. From the first guns in the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, this is how just about everything worked. But such weapons are still with us, as you’ll see.

A. Muzzleloaders


These are also called front stuffers, and that tells you exactly what loading many of them is like. The procedure for that, whether we’re talking the handgun shown above all the way to the biggest cannon of the period, was to send powder down the barrel through the muzzle–either by pouring it or shoving a packet in–ram home a round, again down the muzzle and often with a cloth wad between it and the powder, and add priming powder to the charge hole at the back of the barrel. The example in the picture is a flintlock, which means that when the trigger is squeezed, the piece of flint in the hammer snaps down to strike a steel plate. The resulting sparks ignite the priming powder, and that sets off the main charge, launching the bullet. Matchlock guns had a burning cord that was brought into contact with the primer, while wheellock guns used a spring-loaded mechanism like a Zippo lighter–and were about as reliable. Once the weapon had fired, the whole loading business had to be done again, often with the addition of running a sponge or patch through the barrel to make sure that no burning embers remained.

If you’ve seen someone in a movie blow across the muzzle of a gun, this is why. Black powder becomes sticky when it burns and can leave behind partially burned residue that is still glowing. Blowing across the muzzle has the same effect as wind moving across a chimney–it accelerates the combustion. But doing so with a gun using modern powders is an act of bravado with no other utility.

B. Breechloaders


If you click on the image above, you’ll see how one type, a falling-block action, functions. That’s one variety of several different means of locking the block in place for a shot, then moving it out of the way for extraction–rolling, falling, and tilting block are the common ones. In cartridge versions of the Sharps rifle–think Quigley Down Under–the trigger guard was also a lever that opened the action to extract the spent shell and allow a new one to be loaded. Falling-block actions can be especially strong, since the limitation on the size of the block and the receiver that it locks into are only how much a person is able to hold, and since no parts other than the hammer or striker have to move during firing, these guns have an extra measure of mechanical accuracy. (We’ll talk about accuracy in more detail in a later article.)


Another type of single-shot (or sometimes double-shot) breechloader is the break action. These are often seen in shotguns, particularly older models. It’s also seen in some revolvers, as we discussed before. This kind is only as strong as the latching mechanism, limiting guns using it to lower pressure cartridges.

Other actions can be single-shot, including bolt action, which we’ll deal with in a moment, but most of those are obsolete today.

2. Manual repeaters

Logically enough, this term refers to firearms that can have one round in the chamber and more in a magazine or cylinder. They are cycled by the shooter.

A. Revolver

We’ve already discussed this one. Multiple cartridges are held in the cylinder that rotates around a pin, bringing each round successively in line with the chamber.

B. Lever action


Think of every John Wayne western you’ve seen. Or every western, period. A lever gun will be the long gun that a lot of the characters carry. The one in the picture is the Winchester Model 1873, the gun that won the West, or so the movies tell us. It certainly did a lot of work in the period. If you’ve seen those films or if you remember the television program, The Rifleman, you know how this gun operates. The loop of metal attached to the trigger guard gets cranked downward to eject the shell in the chamber–straight up into the air, typically, which is why putting scopes on many lever guns is a challenge–and cycle another one in. The bolt here often is of the same type as the falling or rotating block described above.

Notice the tube under the barrel. That’s not another barrel. It’s the tubular magazine. (If your mind jumped immediately to “Tubular Bells” and Linda Blair spitting out pea soup, you’ve one strange character–and I love you for it.) Remember the bullet types?


Pointed bullets, called spitzer rounds (a round point–I know), don’t work in tubular magazines. That point can strike the primer of the next cartridge in line on recoil, setting off the whole lot of them in order. There are some lever guns that use a rotary magazine or other mechanisms, but those aren’t common.

C. Pump action


This is commonly found in shotguns and also in some rifles, particularly .22 rimfire guns. The ribbed, brown slider beneath the barrel in the picture is pumped back and then forward, doing the work of ejecting one shell and chambering another. Again, if you watch movies or television, you’ve probably seen someone work a pump gun, accompanied by the clack-clack sound of the action. It’s an impressive display, if you’re impressed by displays. If the slider isn’t brought all the way back and all the way forward, the cycle can hang up. That’s called short-shucking.

D. Bolt action


Here, the bolt, the part that has the firing pin and holds the cartridge on the bolt face, gets cycled in typically one of two ways. The usual type involves lifting the bolt handle up, pulling the bolt back to eject a shell, then pushed forward to take a round out of the magazine and into the chamber, after which the handle is pressed down again. Rifles patterned on the German Mauser design cock the action at the beginning of that process, while the Lee-Enfields of the British cock on closing. Straight-pull bolt actions are just what you’d imagine–pull back, push forward. The bolts on both types have lugs that get inserted into grooves in the receiver–the metal body of the back part of the firearm–to hold the action in place during firing. Because the bolt doesn’t have to move while the round is going down the barrel, that lockup can be strong, allowing bolt actions to fire some freakish Magnum cartridges, such as the .577 Tyrannosaur:


3. Automatic repeaters

Before we get into the details, I have to clarify that by automatic, in this context, I don’t necessarily mean a “machine gun.” As we discussed in the first of these articles, the names get confused. Automatic, semiautomatic, and self-loader mean the same thing in terms of how the action is cycled. What gets called fully automatic or full-auto these days is a gun that will fire as long as there are rounds in the magazine and the trigger is squeezed, but that’s a different matter.

Automatic repeaters use the energy of the firing cartridge to work the mechanism, either employing the direct force of recoil or the expanding gas from the burning powder. Some part of the gun–the slide, the bolt, or some other part–goes through a reciprocating motion, back and forward again.

A. Blowback


Click on the link to watch the action operate. Friction holds the fired shell in the chamber long enough for the bullet to go down the barrel, and the force of the expanding gas works like rocket fuel to push that shell backward and the bolt along with it. The spent shell is then ejected, and a new one picked up when the spring forces the bolt forward again.

Recognize this gun:


Yup, that’s the gun that this fellow


used when he was watching birds.

No, wait, um, that guy’s the ornithologist. The Walther PPK is, of course, the gun used by James Bond, the secret agent. Except that everyone knows his name, his drink, and the fact that his gun shoots a pissant little round. Most blowback actions don’t lock the slide and bolt together during firing, so they can’t stand a lot of force. From zero to .380 (look at that snail accelerate!), the rounds are weak enough to allow this type of action to work.

There are some mechanisms that delay the blowback, such as rollers that lock the action for the beginning of the firing process, allowing for more powerful cartridges. Another option is to make the slide or bolt heavier to delay the cycling. The Tommy gun of gangster fame used that approach, though the .45 ACP that it used isn’t a high pressure round.

B. Recoil operated

Another way of describing this is to call it a locked-breech action.


When the slide is forward, the barrel is locked to it by lugs. Upon firing, the recoil force acting on the shell presses the slide backward. The barrel travels a bit with the slide, then is disengaged by a link or ramp that pulls it down. The slide continues on back, ejecting the shell and stripping off a new one from the magazine when the spring pulls the slide forward again.

C. Gas operated

This category takes us into one of the hottest controversies in the Gun Nut Forest: Piston or direct impingement

i. Piston


See the tube on top? There’s a tiny hole in the barrel that allows gas to enter that tube and press on a piston that will drive the bolt backward. The AK-47, as shown, the M1 Garand, the SKS, and many other gas operated firearms use this method. The Desert Eagle also uses a variation on this method. It works, but it has several moving parts.

ii. Direct impingement


In this gun, the M-16, there’s just a tube. The gas itself forces the bolt to cycle. That means one fewer moving part, which means less to throw off the aim, but if that gas is dirty–and it often is–it reminds us of the phrase, don’t shit where you eat. The M-16 in its early days in Vietnam tended to jam. Either the gas tube would gum up or the powder residue would gum up the bolt’s channel, or this, or that, or the other. I try to remain neutral in these articles (yeah, right), but I’ll point out that while I’ve seen piston guns firing away at the range, I’ve also seen many direct impingement guns being disassembled at the range so the owner can find where the thing is stuck.

iii. Gas-delayed blowback

Think back to that wonderous Christmas movie, Die Hard. Remember Hans Grüber’s handgun, the H&K P7:


It bleeds off some of the firing gas to press on a spring-loaded piston that holds the slide in place until the bullet leaves the barrel.


As always, there are lots of variations on what I’ve described here, and there are a plenty of other designs. These are the most common actions. The astonishing thing is that these work at all. The weakest cartridges fire at more than ten thousand pounds per square inch. The power only goes up from there. But this is what happens inside the gun, and when you make choices for your characters, remember that what firearm you select says things about the person you’re creating.

Fire at will, and now you know what’s going on inside when you do it.

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In the discussion of classes of firearms, I told you that handguns fall into two subcategories: self-loaders and revolvers. Today’s article is on the latter of those two:


This is typical of the breed, a six-shot, double-action Colt New Service revolver, the M1909. Six shot means that the cylinder has six chambers, the typical number for revolvers. Double action we discussed already. It was chambered in a variety of calibers, including .45 Colt, .45 ACP, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum.

This type of firearm goes back to the early days of firearms, such as this model from the 1500s:


Over the next centuries, other attempts were made, but the first practical and working model was invented by Samuel Colt, reportedly after watching a ship’s wheel:


That’s the Paterson model, named for the city in New Jersey where Colt’s plant was located in the 1830s. (Yes, New Jersey used to understand the Second Amendment.) It had a trigger that folded up until the hammer was cocked, and the mechanism for turning the cylinder was complicated, but it allowed its owner to have five shots available, instead of just one, allowing the Texas Rangers to surprise the Comanches in the Battle of Bandera Pass.

A stronger and simpler firearm came after Texas Ranger Captain Walker discussed the matter with Colt:


Note the loading level beneath the barrel. The Patersons didn’t have those at first, though some came with the addition later on. These are front-loading firearms, requiring powder to be poured into the open chamber and then a bullet to be rammed in by the lever. The rear of the chamber is covered by a nipple onto which a primer cap is placed. The phrase, bust a cap, comes from this period, not from modern gang movies.

And yes, those things were called nipples, though polite people used the term, cone. They are removed for cleaning by a nipple wrench and cleared of powder fouling by a nipple prick.

Have we returned from thoughts of BSDM yet?

Another famous firearms company, Smith & Wesson, came up with a revolver that used self-contained cartridges, instead of loose powder and ball:


The definitive cartridge revolver of the Old West, though, was the Colt Single Action Army:


There is a fact about all of these that many have forgotten in our modern age of law suits and histrionics. The firing pin was on the hammer, and nothing kept the it from being in contact with a primer when the hammer rested on a live chamber. This meant that under normal circumstances, the hammer was carried down on an empty chamber, making those six-guns actually five shots in practical terms. I’ve read somewhere that at least some pistoleroes rolled up bills in the top chamber in case they needed to pay for their own funerals.

Modern revolvers typically have some mechanism to keep the firing pin off the primer, often by a blocking device to hold the hammer off until the trigger is squeezed. An old timer in your stories might still load only five in a six-gun, but that’s casting your character as out of step with the modern world (and good on you for doing so). Best practice today is to load a modern revolver all the way and go in health.

Another aspect that comes up when revolvers appear in a story is whether or not they have safeties. I’ve already mentioned the firing pin block. But hardly any revolver has a safety lever that has to be disengaged. Gun nuts refer to these guns as the original point-and-click interface. It’s ready to go, and nothing gets in its way.

There have been some safeties on revolvers, though. One model, the Smith & Wesson Lemon Squeezer, used a grip safety:


This is similar to the M1911, but it’s disengaged when the shooter takes hold of the gun, so there’s no thought involved.

But as always in the gun nut forest, there’s something out there that throws a spanner in the works. Behold, the Webley-Fosbery:


It’s a semiautomatic revolver. Yup, that means that when one round fires, the barrel-cylinder-hammer arrangement slides backward under recoil, cocking the hammer and rotating the cylinder by means of a stud that works through the zig-zag cuts. Since this was a single-action gun, it had to be carried cocked to be ready for use, thus the lever at the top of the grip–a gen-u-ine thumb safety. Your characters aren’t likely to have one of these, but they have shown up in The Maltese Falcon, one of the greats of detective fiction, and in Zardoz, a thoroughly dreadful movie starring Sean Connery in a diaper when he decided that he was, in fact, not James Bond.

I’ve already told you how the front-loaders got fed. The Single Action Army and some others of the period had a loading gate to the right rear of the cylinder:


that allowed one round to be inserted at a time, once the hammer had been pulled back to half cock. To go off half-cocked, by the way, means to fire when you’re not supposed to. This was a slow process, one of the reasons that figures of the Old West often carried more than one handgun. They weren’t usually firing both at once. The point was to have a second gun available when the first one went dry. (This practice today is called a New York reload, but don’t use that term in a western.)

Some revolvers, such as the standard Webley,


broke open at the top and kicked out all the shells in the same manner as a top-break shotgun.

But modern revolvers mostly have a cylinder that swings out when released by the latch:


that can be charged with a speedloader:


or loaded one cartridge at a time.

The cartridges used in revolvers typically have to be rimmed, though moon clips:


allow rimless cartridges to be used.

So here you’ve had a quick tour of Wheelgun Hollar in the Gun Nut Forest. Revolvers are seen by some as old-fashioned these days, but since they don’t require the force of the firing cartridge to operate (minus the Webley-Fosbery), they aren’t sensitive to the power of the round. A light target load and a hot magnum load will both work, so long as the shooter can cock and fire.

Many in this world carry revolvers as backup guns, but if your character packs a wheelgun as a primary sidearm, you’re painting said person as someone who cares not at all about fitting into modern styles. I’ll like you for doing that.

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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.

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