Gun 101

GunfightI just finished reading the galley of a bestselling author’s soon-to-be-released thriller. Early in the book the author describes how the main character loads a 17-round magazine for a revolver. I realized I had my work cut out for me.

Unless one has hands-on experience with firearms, it’s easy to make mistakes. At a mystery writers’ workshop, I asked the audience how many had used firearms in their mysteries or thrillers. Almost every hand went up. I then asked how many had ever shot a firearm. Less than half the hands went up. If we’re going to write in these genres, let’s know a little about the weapons our characters use.

So, let’s look at some basics. First, how is a revolver different from a semi-automatic pistol? The first mass-produced, modern revolvers were developed in the early 1800s. Black-powder and a lead ball were loaded into the gun’s cylinders by hand. Not until the Civil War did self-contained cartridges appear.

Here’s a typical .38 caliber, snub-nose revolver:

It’s called a revolver because the cylinder which holds the bullets revolves each time you pull the trigger, bringing a fresh cartridge under the hammer.

Most revolvers hold six bullets; compact models may hold five; small caliber such as .22 may appear in a nine-shot model.

The technology of the semi-automatic pistol is designed to hold more bullets than a similar caliber revolver and to allow the pistol to reload the firing chamber and get rid of the empty shell casing in a way that is more streamlined than with a revolver. Here’s probably the best-known semi-automatic pistol, the .45 caliber Model 1911:

As you can see, there’s no cylinder. Bullets are held in a magazine which fits into the handle. Each time the gun is fired, the explosion pushes back the slide at the top, the empty brass is ejected, then as the slide bounces forward, it pulls off the top bullet in the magazine and slams it home in the firing chamber. Because the explosion does all the work, including re-cocking the hammer, the trigger pull necessary for the next firing is much less than it would be with a revolver. A semi-automatic pistol can be fired more rapidly and more easily than a revolver. Holding more bullets is a plus.
What about bullets? What is caliber? We see such designations as .38 special, .44 magnum, .22 long rifle, and .45 auto. Caliber is merely fractions of an inch designating bullet diameter. Some bullets are designated in millimeters, such as the 9 mm parabellum. European countries use millimeters while England and America use caliber. A 9 mm bullet is very close in size to a .38 caliber bullet.

Bullet cartridges have four major components: the brass casing, the bullet, gunpowder, and a firing primer. When the firing pin of a pistol hits the primer a small explosion occurs. The fire of that explosion sets off the main powder charge which propels the bullet out of the brass casing and down the barrel of the gun.

Bullets can be rounded lead (ball), flat lead (called wad-cutters) brass-jacketed (full metal jacket), hollow point, and frangible. The extent of bullet technology was recently pushed to the limit in a product called Zombie Max (tag line: Just In Case…). It has to be one of the most fearsome self-defense rounds on the market, with an explosively amazing terminal impact. (Yes, Virginia, this would definitely kill a zombie.)

Does a mystery/thriller writer need to be an expert to use firearms in fiction? No, but it’s good to know when you don’t know something. Some writers want to create an atmosphere of professional hit men, spies, detectives, etc. and get excessively involved in trying to describe things they don’t know about. Result? They figuratively shoot themselves in the foot.

A female novelist recently asked how her female protagonist might finish off a bad guy using a 12-gauge shotgun. She wanted to know: (a) would it blow a hole in him big enough to see through? (Terminator movies); (b) would it take off his head? (The Walking Dead); and (c) how far would his body fly through the air? This author had never owned a gun, never fired or even touched a gun, so she thought what she saw in movies was true. (Answers: (a) No, (b) No, (c) He’d fall over, not fly.)

Advice for writers: Never think that what you see in movies is true; check resources such as people knowledgeable about firearms; peruse the photos and descriptions on websites of major weapons manufacturers – Glock, Smith & Wesson, Taurus, Colt, etc. You’ll find hundreds of videos on YouTube showing firearms in action: what happens to a car when shot with various caliber bullets; how a suppressed pistol sounds versus an unsuppressed pistol, etc.

And try going to a pistol range for some hands-on experience.

Matthew Bayan is a writer and a firearms expert. Learn more at