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All Fired Up: Firearm Basics for Fiction Writers

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Our characters often need weapons to carry out plot lines, but how does an author accurately portray the use or description of a gun when their experience may be limited? To help avoid the pitfalls of starting from zero with firearms knowledge, this article will tackle some basics. 

Types of Firearms

First on the menu is handguns. This is exactly what it sounds like: guns that can be shot with one hand, most commonly a revolver or a pistol. For revolvers, picture the guns used in the Wild West. At the center of these guns is a set of ammunition cylinders that literally “revolve” around an ejector rod. For pistols, think of the last modern action or crime movie you watched; the small black handgun held by probably any character is likely a pistol. In simple terms, a pistol is a handgun whose chamber is integrated with the barrel. 

Our second grouping of guns includes shotguns and rifles. Both types have longer barrels and are intended to be fired with two hands, unless you are the Terminator shooting the T2000. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elmer Fudd used the double barrel (though there are single barrel versions) shotguns, which have two long barrels and are intended for short range targets. For a visual cue of rifles, think of the weapon slung over the back of your favorite military leading character or Scarface screaming “Say hello to my little friend!” In general, rifles fire a projectile down one barrel at a time and are meant for long range targets. 

Common Mistakes Made by Authors

Now that we’ve got a baseline for the most commonly used firearms, let’s talk about the mistakes writers make when including guns in their novels. 

  • Overexplaining: Yes, you have to cock the weapon, load the ammo, pull the trigger, etc., but just like you don’t necessarily need to add the narrative minutiae of how your character brushes their teeth or puts on pants, you might be able to simply say  “fired the pistol” to obtain the same effect. 
  • Forgetting to reload: Ever read a book where the main character fired a weapon so many times that you lost count? Well, that’s gonna be a problem. Revolvers have a maximum number of chambers, typically six, that you can load with a single bullet. Shotguns are a shoot and immediately reload kind of gig. Pistols and rifles may be single load or have a magazine—often colloquially called a “clip”—that holds multiple bullets or rounds of ammunition. 
  • Novice vs. Experienced Shooters: Guns are awkward if you aren’t used to them. At first, you don’t know where your fingers go, and you certainly need a moment to disengage the safety, if you even realize that there is a safety to flip. With the exception of a very lucky shot, someone who is firing a weapon for the first time would be extremely fortunate to come within a few feet of their target. If that target is moving, forget about it. 

On the flip side, someone who’s an experienced shooter may not always be a great shot, but they do know how to fire a gun, and they understand the safety guidelines. For well-trained professionals, they would likely not miss their targets unless under extreme pressure, so that henchman is probably going to hit whatever they’re aiming at. These aren’t Stormtroopers, folks! 

  • State, Local, and International Gun Laws and Norms: These exist. Weapons cannot always be easily transported from place to place and may be banned altogether in some locations. Before you write about an officer in Iceland discharging their pistol, you should know that the police in Iceland do not typically carry firearms. Understand the role your setting plays in the availability or use of firearms.
  • Using stereotypes: Never recommended. We’ve all seen that overdone “gangster” character holding a gun sideways, but believe it or not, if you want to hit your target, you’ll hold the gun correctly, no matter what extracurricular activities you’re engaged in. 

We recognize that firearms are so much more nuanced than these few short paragraphs can easily summarize, but we hope that this has provided a broad overview and a starting place. For more information on firearms and how they relate to writing, check out The Writer’s Guide to Weapons and https://crimefictionbook.com/

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