Do your research: Armed and dangerous

Welcome back everyone!

This episode of ‘Do your research’ is all about shooting. No wussy heroes being brain-damaged by a knock on the head, no this time we’ll bring out the big guns.

This issue will be concentrating on semi-automatic pistols, with a side-dish of the differences to a revolver, though most of the things I’ll speak about go for rifles and shotguns as well. If there’s enough interest, I will do a follow up with them as well, addressing issues particular to these weapons.

So let’s return to Gustav, our hero and see what we can do wrong before whacking him with reality.


The short version

You can avoid many mistakes writing about guns by knowing exactly which model the character is using and what its features are.



The Scenario

After his involuntary trip to Siberia, Gustav is back and he’s out for revenge. By his side his trusty Glock 19. He releases the safety and enters the Big Bad’s secret underground lair, shooting two guards on sight. The shot rings through the building, the guards thrown back by the impact of the bullet, and sure enough not a minute after there’s te-  thirty mooks blocking the path.

Gustav prefaces with the patented Action Hero Smirk and racks the slide, the classic tchk-a thus informing his enemies that he means business. Thirty hits later he steps over the neatly piled bodies of his enemies and on to the Big Bad.

No hero worth his money would just shoot the Big Bad on sight. It’s personal, Gustav wants to know the why. This time his archnemesis won’t get away. He presses the pistol’s muzzle against the Big Bad’s head, demanding for him to explain himself.

But whatever self-preservation instinct the human mind possesses, it floats into nothingness the moment you have to proof you are the more aloof in a dangerous situation. The Big Bad provokes Gustav. Probably makes a mean joke about his dead girlfriend.

Gustav cocks the hammer, reminding the Big Bad who’s in charge here. After a bit more of snarky banter he pulls the trigger. An empty click is all that happens. The gun’s magazine was empty. The Big Bad seizes his chance, knocks the gun out of Gustav’s hand and opens up the scene for a badass melee battle.


The Science

This scene contains nearly every mistake you can make when writing about firearms. Most of them occur because I tried to write about four different guns at the same time.

See, the reader doesn’t need to know every detail about the gun Gustav is carrying. But you as the writer, do.

First, let’s look at what are we actually going to talk about.



This is the Glock 19 used by Gustav in our scenario.

Glock is a big and one of the most popular manufacturer of pistols. It’s a good all-around gun, not the best in anything but it has no major flaws either. That’s one reason it is used by law enforcement and military all around the world.

Let’s go through the list of mistakes in order of their appearance, shall we?


The first thing Gustav does is to release the safety on his gun.

… Notice the safety on the picture above? No? Good, because the Glock doesn’t have one. It uses an internal safety system, that keeps the gun from firing unless the trigger is fully pressed down. Some models have a manual safety switch (many single-action do), but this one? Not really.


He shoots the first guard and – hold your horses, no shooting yet. The Glock is a semi-automatic pistol.

Semi-automatic means that the gun uses the energy from recoil after every shot to automatically load a new round from the magazine into the chamber. But before your first shot you have to do it manually, by pulling back the upper part of your gun (the slide).

Now, usually, you don’t have to mention anything of this, but later in the scenario Gustav is shown ‘racking’ the slide when he clearly doesn’t have to because he’s between shots and his weapon’s mechanism would have pulled a new round into the chamber by itself.

So if you want to mention the motion for dramatic effect, make sure you do it when it’s appropriate. Meaning, after your Gustav reloaded his gun.


The shot fired by Gustav throws back the guard. Only it doesn’t. Even if Gustav’s pistol would have miraculously transformed into a shotgun loaded with giant slugs (the ammo, not the animal. Though the latter would shake routine up), there would be no throwing back. The human body is simply too big and heavy to be thrown back by gunfire.


Okay, the mooks don’t perform air tricks after being shot once each, wounded fatally. Think about this. Shooting targets at range is an olympic discipline. And there the contestants shoot in a safe environment, worrying about having all their dreams crushed in case they lose, instead of, say, having their kidney’s pierced.

On a battlefield over 90% of all shots fired never hit anything remotely living. (They are not even meant to. Most of them are just a tactical way to advise the enemy that it might not be such a good idea to raise your head and take your time aiming.)


But, let’s just say Jesus helped Gustav aim (if he can take the wheel, he can pull the trigger, just saying) and now he confronts the Big Bad, who promptly proves to be a major asshole by making an inappropriate remark about Gustav’s girlfriend. Cue cocking the hammer, aka, pulling that tiny lever on top of the gun down. That means it’s asskicking time.

It’s what makes that delicious ‘click‘ noise prior to any well-done shooting. Let’s do it again, shall we? Look for that lever on the picture above, to cock the hammer. What do you mean, you can’t find it?

Should have gone with a M1911.


Beware, because it gets a bit technical.

Firearms are classified into single-action and double-action mechanisms.

The Glock 19 is a double-action (actually, it uses a different system entirely, called ‘safe-action’, but that distinction is not important for our purposes).

Double-action means that the trigger performs two actions on being pulled. The first is, well, triggering the shot. The other is cocking the hammer, which on these models is placed on the inside of the gun. Nothing to cock for you there.

On a single-action pistol, like the M1911 you have to do that manually, but only before the first shot. After that the slide cocks the hammer for you on a semi-automatic. On a revolver you have to do it after every shot.

If you want that click, make sure you pick a single-action gun.


There is a special type of semi-automatic handgun that’s called SA/DA, a mix between single-action and double-action. The difference there is that it can work like a double-action, aka you don’t have to so much as look at your hammer. But if you want to, you can cock the thing yourself.


Back to business. After Gustav cocked his non-existent hammer, he finally decides to shoot. Only, the magazine is empty. No bullets left. A sad click is all you get.

Except you don’t even get that.

A semi-automatic pistol doesn’t click on an empty magazine. The trigger is disengaged, you can do as much as you want with it, without ever hearing anything. The only gun that clicks on empty is the revolver, because the cylinder keeps rotating each time you pull the trigger.


And here’s another mistake right on top. If you kept count, you know Gustav shot 32 mooks on his way to the Big Bad without ever reloading.

A standard Glock 19 comes with 15 rounds capacity. You can load an extra bullet into the chamber beforehand (called ‘topping off’) which raises your capacity by one. That still makes only 16.

With a Glock you can however use magazines with different capacities (even use magazines from other models as long as the caliber is the same or other brands, since they often design their magazines to fit into a Glock). On this specific model you can get up to 33 rounds, topping off makes 34.

That’s why it’s important that you keep track of your shots. In this situation Gustav would either have run out of bullets halfway through the mook slaughterfest or actually have two rounds left to shoot the Big Bad with.

So there’s our reality. Now how to make reality and Rule of Cool kiss and make up?


The Alternative

Know your guns. Even if you write about fictional guns that shoot blue-eyed fairies, write down some facts that you stick to.

Here are some of the most commonly used handguns in the United States to help you along.


Name: Glock 19

Caliber: .9mm

Capacity: 10, 15, 17, 33

Fire Modes: Double-action (safe-action)

Used by:

Law Enforcement Agencies from all around the world. Among them Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland and the United States.

Some branches in the US and UK military also use the Glock 19 or it’s larger sister the Model 17.


Name: Sig Sauer P226

Caliber: .9mm, .40 S&W, .357 SIG

Capacity: 10, 12, 13, 15 (.40 & .357)

10, 15, 17, 18, 20 (9mm)

Fire Modes: Double-action, DA/SA

Used By: Mainly Military from around the world, especially Canada, Finland, France, UK, US, Germany as well as many others


Name: Beretta M9

Caliber: .9mm

Capacity: 10, 15, 17, 18, 20, 30, 32

Fire Modes: DA/SA

Used By: Along with the P226 it’s the main semi-automatic pistol used by the US military, also used in Libya, Afghanistan, among others


Name: M1911

Caliber: .45 ACP

Capacity: 7

Fire Modes: Single-action

Used By: The standard semi-automatic pistol for the US Military until the 1970s, widely used around the world until replaced with more modern guns like the Beretta and the P220 series

Additional Notes: There are many alternative versions of the M1911, with different calibers, capacities. It also allows for much customization. It’s the one gun where you can get away with pretty much anything


Name: Desert Eagle .50

Caliber: .50 Action Express

Capacity: 7, 8, 9

Fire Modes: Single-action

Used By: Pretty much nobody, except for Poland, Portugal and Israel (certain branches only)

Additional notes: Widely described as one of the worst guns in existence. The main point of critique is the insane recoil and unusual caliber but there are many other points. I included this because it seems to be a fiction-favourite.

(for reference, it’s the gun that’s used by the girl in this video)


Name: Smith & Wesson Model 27

Caliber: .357 Magnum, .38 special

Capacity: Six-round cylinder

Fire Modes: Double-action

Additional Notes: One of the most widely recognised revolvers


This list is of course only a peek into the vast array of handguns available on the market. The best way to write well about guns is to know exactly which model your character is carrying. But remember, the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail. Experts can fill in the blanks themselves, amateurs wouldn’t know what to do with the information either way. Make sure you stay consistent with the amount of detail you describe and to remember that a gun fight is badass in even the most realistic setting.

If you like to continue reading on guns and how fiction butchers them, Cracked has an interesting article about how movies gets gun-fights wrong. Be sure to check it out



See you next month on a new episode of “Do your research”.

I’ll also announce any news on my Twitter






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