Thursday, November 26, 2020

Firearms In Fiction: What Authors Need to Know

By Dave Chesson, @DaveChesson

Part of The Indie Authors Series 

JH: Not every writer is an expert on firearms, but if you're using them in your novel, make sure you get the details right. Dave Chesson shares tips and info on what writers need to know about firearms.

Dave Chesson is the founder of and creator of Publisher Rocket, a software that helps authors market their books more effectively.

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Take it away Dave…

Having characters use firearms in a book can be common practice. There are some genres that use them extensively like science fiction, thrillers, crime novels, and more. However, regardless of what genre you write in, there is a chance that at some point, a firearm will be a necessary plot point, component, or a part of your next scene.

Writing about guns can seem simple since we see them a lot on TV and movies. However, the movies usually get it wrong, and this has caused many misconceptions that bleed into a lot of stories.

So as to help authors understand weapons better, and thus create stronger stories, I’m going to start by discussing major concepts and principles. Then I’ll show you some resources you can look to, as well as some ideas on how to investigate or do field work if you choose. 

Some Firearms Facts & Principles You Should Know

I can’t cover everything you need to know about weapons in this article. However, the below facts and principles are some of the biggest mistakes I see authors make when including a weapon in their book:

Guns Recoil: When someone fires a gun, it recoils. This is where the gun pushes back a bit and usually pivots up in the hand or arm. The amount of recoil is different depending on the gun, caliber, and other factors. You don’t see this in movies because when filming, they use blanks to simulate the firing of a weapon, but because it doesn’t actually shoot anything, there is no recoil. To understand this better, here is an article that explains it. Also, for the super nerdy, here is a calculator.

Bullets Don’t Make People Fly Back When Hit: Bullets don’t impact the target with more force than what was imparted on the shooter. If the bad guy goes flying back after being hit, then the good guy would fly back equally when they pulled the trigger. It’s Newton’s 3rd law. So, no more bad guys flying back when shot.

Guns Are Ridiculously Loud: In a real life situation, without hearing protection, those who were in a gun fight would have major ringing in their ears and not be able to communicate well. The noise levels of guns are extremely loud. If someone were to fire a handgun within a couple of feet from someone’s ears, it could cause permanent damage. You may not choose to include this element in your story (many don’t) but keep this in mind, especially if your character needs to be stealthy.

What About Silencers/Suppressor? First off, let’s clear something up; Silencers and Suppressors are the same thing. Most gun enthusiasts prefer to call them suppressors though because that’s what the laws refer to them as. 

Also, silencers/suppressors are NOT very quiet – another reason why gun specialists don’t like to call them silencers. Unlike in the movies, they don’t make that tiny “sssst” sound. They only reduce the gunshot noise from ‘just about blew out your ears’ to ‘boy that’s still loud.’ The only reason why most buy them is so as to reduce the noise level just a bit, but absolutely not for stealth. So, your hitman cannot walk into a room with a suppressor on 9mm handgun, pull the trigger, and the person in the next room not hear the attack.

Guns Need to be Reloaded: Each gun has a max capacity of the number of bullets it can hold without reloading. If you choose a gun for your main character, keep count of how many shots they made, and properly make sure they reload at the appropriate time.

AR in AR15 Does NOT Stand for “Assault Rifle”: A mistake many news agencies, politicians and authors make is that they assume the AR in AR-15 stands for “Assault Rifle.” It does not. It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” the name of the original manufacturer. That’s it. So, don’t make that mistake.

Are Machine Guns Legal? Yes and no. Prior to 1986, a prohibited person in certain states could purchase a machine gun. However, after that, you couldn’t buy a new machine gun. If, however, you own a machine gun that was made before 1986, then you’re grandfathered and good to go. There are some ways for you to still procure a machine gun, but this would require that person to go through a lot of scrutiny and own a Federal Firearms License (FFL).

Concealed Gun Size Matters: As a writer, if you’re trying to figure out what gun your character should be carrying on them, then size probably matters. Police officers have holsters that are Outside the Waistband (OWB). Because of this, they carry a larger weapon. 

But if you were trying to conceal a weapon and carry it with you throughout the day (like some of our literary heroes do), then they’d probably have what is called a CCW weapon – meaning concealed carry. Generally, they are smaller weapons made for this purpose. Only Dirty Harry carried a Magnum revolver on him…and that required a mentality of Clint Eastwood to pull off.

Is Gun Maintenance Needed: It depends. If I fire my weapon in the rain, then I immediately clean it with solvents and gun oil. But if I fire my CCW, I can go a while before I’d need to or want to clean it. It’s really a preference of the shooter. So, don’t think you need to add in a maintenance period for your character, unless there was some other purpose. 

How to Learn About Firearms

The above principles will help you with your firearms scene. However, if you want to take it a step further, here are some resources and investigation methods to help you learn even more…for research purposes:

Look at Lists of Guns to help You Choose: In case you aren’t sure what kind of gun to use in what scenario, or even what type your character would put in their purse, bag, or holster, then type that into Google. Structure this search like “Top guns that women buy” or “best tactical shotgun.” With this, you can see a list of guns and their pictures to help you choose the one you’ll want your characters to use.

Research Gun Reviews Before You Select: If you’re going to tell the audience what kind of gun the person was shooting, then do yourself a favor and Google the name of the gun, plus “review.” In reviews like how Gun University did of the Sig Sauer p365, you can see its size, specs, accuracy, limitations and even what kind of person would shoot it (on a side note, this is my favorite CCW weapon). 

For post-apocalyptic writers, you might want to look up what is called SHTF guns. I won’t break out that abbreviation but basically they are the guns you’d want if in a post-apocalyptic world. Either way, make sure you have a bit of knowledge about that particular weapon.

Go To the Range: If you’ve never fired a gun or been to a range, it can feel a bit scary. But you shouldn’t worry. First, ranges are usually very professional and accommodating. I have never been to range where they didn’t do a great job making you feel like you’re welcome. 

Another great thing for research purposes is that most ranges allow you to rent guns of different types, and also offer classes to get you familiar. If you will be writing about firearms at some point, then get a group of author friends, go to the nearest indoor range and have some fun. If you’re going for the first time, here is a great article to help you as well as gun cleaning equipment used.

Take a Gun Person out for a Drink: I’m sure we all know someone who is a gun person, or was in the military or police. Ask them if they’d like some coffee or a drink. Most gun fans love to talk about guns. So, it shouldn’t be hard to get them out. But by talking to them, you’ll find out some amazing information about funs in the field, their operations and other things. Plus, it can be a great opportunity to come up with some ideas. 

So, What Now?

Like I said, you don’t need to be an firearms expert in order to present a good gun fight, or add to your character by choosing the most apt weapon. Just using some of the principles and rules above, as well as some of the resources, and you can craft a believable situation with a weapon.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting post. How well do the various first person shooters approximate firearms?
    Obviously they can't fully reproduce the noise levels, but things like recoil and the ability to carry ammunition are often modelled with what seems like a high level of accuracy. I think CoD even includes Coriolis effects for sniper weapons.
    Shooting ranges are easily accessible in the USA, but elsewhere it's a lot more difficult to experience real firearms.

    1. The games are getting more accurate with some of those details. But I'd venture to guess its because it's lucrative for the gun company to get their weapon included in a game like CoD and are probably more involved in that process. Therefore, making sure you get the right specs and that sort of thing in it.

  2. Great advice. A couple of handy specifics I'd add:

    "Semi-automatic" isn't a machine gun. It means one shot per trigger pull, and includes almost any pistol (except revolvers aren't called that) or anything that's between bolt-action and machine gun speed. Machine guns are "fully automatic" -- or "selective fire" more often.

    "Assault weapon" isn't a gun type, it's a range of laws about various guns and accessories *including* the actual type: "assault rifle." (Meaning a fully automatic rifle.)

    The big one: never ever ever mention a "clip" of ammunition instead of a "magazine," unless it's dialogue from someone who'll promptly get corrected. Gun fans will come out of the woodwork to blame you for that mistake.

    1. Haha...I actually had all three of those in my original draft but had to cut out a bit because the article was way too long. 100% agree on all of those.

  3. As everything in life, weapons have pros and cons. Authors could work on the cons and use them as "creative constraints" to come up with more realistic and yet satisfying scenes. It's a bit like writing poetry...

  4. A friend and I were just talking about this today in our Thanksgiving phone call. The amount of ignorance shown in mysteries and thrillers (and on tv newscasts) is phenomenal, starting with the mention of safeties on Glocks right through anyone shot dropping dead instantly.

    It's like horse info in Westerns. Why do people who don't know the difference between hay and straw write Westerns without at least a beta read by someone who does know?

    1. I actually had the "anyone shot dropping dead instantly" in my original draft. But deleted it due to the article being 5000 words in my original draft.

  5. Something I would also like to bring up. If your writing is about Spec-Ops teams, then it's also important to portray the weapon of choice, which may or may not be different for that respective unit. Several changes have occurred over the years, with recommended weapons for specific units and their mission. Depending on the time period, it could influence what weapon is used. For example the M1911 Browning being replaced by the Glock 19, although some stalwarts still use the Browning.

  6. I was watching Die Hard over Christmas (don't we all) and got to a point where I was asking how many rounds were in those machine guns! Even extra capacity clips have limits.