Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Egregious Gunplay . . .
April 16, 2007, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Sean Chercover

As writers of crime fiction, we write a lot about guns. So you’d think we’d know a lot about ’em. I’m sorry to say that as a profession, we often indulge in egregious gunplay that defies all laws of physics and, for that matter, good common sense. And when we do this, we jerk many readers (those who know anything about guns) out of the fictional universe we’ve worked so hard to create, and we rudely deny them the ability to continue suspending their disbelief.

So, in an effort to make the world a better place, I’m offering a few tips about how to deal with guns in your writing.

Let’s be clear – If you’ve chosen an aesthetic style that allows for all sorts of fantasy and unreal action (a la, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or KILL BILL) then all bets are off, and you can do anything you like.  If you want people to explode into a vapor when shot, go right ahead (actually, that would be really cool).  But . . . if you’re trying to achieve some degree of realism, trying to reflect the universe in which we live, read on.

Although I used to carry a gun for work, I am not a ‘gun nut’, nor would I call myself a gun expert. And I’m not suggesting that you need to become an expert, either. But there are some things that you need to know.

1. If you’re not willing to learn at least a little bit about guns, then follow Chandler’s advice, and just call every gun “a gun,” and offer NO other details.

2. If you must go into detail, do the damned research. A semi-auto is not an automatic. A magazine is not a clip. A bullet is not a round . . . etc. I mean, this ain’t rocket surgery . . . brain science . . . whatever.

3. People do not fly backward through the air when they are shot. They just don’t. So knock it off with the people flying through the air. It’s stupid, no matter how many times you saw it in a Steven Segal movie. Not only do they not fly backward through the air, most times they don’t even fall down for a while. Truth is, most people who are shot don’t even know they’re shot, right away. They’re in shock, and it takes some time before they realize they’ve been hit (this amazing story from the Chicago Sun-Times just the other day, illustrates the point). Movie nonsense aside, if a bullet were able to send someone flying backward, then the shooter would also be sent flying by the recoil. Action-reaction. Laws of physics. Get it? Good.

4. Don’t “check your load.” You know the drill: The cop (or PI, or thief, or whomever) is about to go into a dangerous situation. So he flips his revolver open and “checks his load.” What the hell is this? Could it be that the rounds he fed into the gun when he loaded it that morning have since magically evaporated? I mean, really. Why the hell would he “check his load”? Stop it. It’s ridiculous, unless you intend the reader to think that your protagonist is mentally challenged.

5. Stop “jacking a round into the chamber.” This is the pistol equivalent of “checking your load.” What made you think this was a cool thing for tough guys to do? Oh, yeah, those Steven Segal movies. Right. If your character is a professional (PI, cop, or professional bad guy) then s/he will most likely carry in Condition One. Which means, a round in the chamber, safety on. There’s no reason to jack the slide, since there’s already a round in the chamber. Yes, there are pistols that you don’t carry in this manner, but even then, stop “jacking a round into the chamber” for dramatic effect. You’re driving us crazy with that crap, and it’s a cheap substitute for real tension.

6. Guns are loud. If you fire a gun without ear protection on (especially indoors), your ears will ring and everything will sound muffled and you will probably talk too loud for a few days. Fire a gun in a car with the windows closed, and you will suffer permanent hearing loss.

7. When shot, people do not usually die. In fact, over 80% of gunshot victims survive.

8. And when they do die, they don’t die instantly, in the vast majority of cases. So, stop making your victims drop instantly dead, as soon as they are shot. Unless it is a perfect head- or heart-shot with a large-caliber bullet, they’re gonna stagger around for a bit.

9. And when they are shot in the shoulder, they suffer for a long time and need major surgery and may not regain the use of that arm. All the nerves that feed the arm go through the shoulder joint, and there’s a pretty big artery going through that joint, as well. I know many of us grew up in the ’70s, when Starsky (or Hutch, or Mannix, or whomever) would take a bullet to the shoulder and be fine next week. Not like that in real life. So if you need your hero to take a relatively inconsequential bullet, have him take it in the buttocks.

These are but a few examples of Egregious Gunplay that drive me nuts. But I’ve ranted enough, and it is now your turn to vent.

Wait . . . I just got off the phone with my friend Michael Black (who is not only a cop, but also an author you should read) and he gave me a few of his pet peeves:
1. When a semi-auto is out of bullets, the slide locks open. So don’t have a character repeatedly pulling the trigger on a pistol that has run out of ammo.

2. Glocks are misrepresented in many ways. Here are a few things to know about Glocks: They are not invisible to metal detectors. The striker is inside; there is no external hammer to cock. They do not have manual safeties that you can engage or disengage.

3. Revolvers do not have manual safeties, either.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What details drive you nuts? Not necessarily about guns, but about anything? What details do writers fake or ignore or generally get wrong, that kill your suspension of disbelief?


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

The crazy details for me are always computer-related. People are always doing things with computers that computers don’t do, or do things in ways that computers don’t work. Like in the first Mission Impossible movie, with that idiotic Job email address.

Plus, people use hackers as Deus Ex Machina wizards too much. “I need this secret information, so I’ll put it on a computer and then create an oddball hacker character who can magically access it and prove his hacking ‘kung fu.'”

Makes me crazy.

Comment by Bill Cameron

OMG, this is so right on. I know very little about guns & ALWAYS ask lots of dumb questions before writing about one. You touched on a number of details that I included in the last gun scene I wrote – people do not just immediately drop when shot, they do not immediately die, and gunshots are generally pretty loud (though perception is something to consider…someone used to the sound won’t “hear” it in the same one as someone who hasn’t). Great post!

Comment by Angie

Bill – yeah, that hacker thing is sometimes tempting to do. Must resist hacker cop-out…must resist hacker cop-out…

Angie – Thanks. You’re right about the loudness issue; the shooter won’t perceive it as being as loud as it is, but s/he’ll sure notice it later, when everything sounds muffled and the ears are ringing and everybody keeps saying, “why are you talking so loud?”

Comment by killeryear

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Comment by akber

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