Ask Correia 2– Writing gun stuff

This was posted to the comments last time.

Here is a new writing question for you. What is the best way for a writer to include guns in his/her novel convincingly if he/she has little experience with them? I have ideas for novels involving a lot of firepower, but having lived in mostly gun-unfriendly states (NJ, MA) I don’t have enough experience (ok virtually none) to be able to write about them in a realistic manner. Thanks. – Scott

That’s a great question, and one that I am actually qualified to help with.  For those of you just joining us,  before I was a professional writer, I was a merchant of death (sometimes called a gun dealer in areas outside of Jersey) and a crazy-militia-extremist-terrorist training camp leader (usually known as a Firearms Instructor in places other than Massachusetts).

Guns are great in fiction. If you write anything even vaguely contemporary, and there is an element of danger in it, then there will probably be guns.  Thrillers need guns. Horror is much better with guns. I’m a huge fan of guns in fantasy. Sensitive Oprah book club selections… they definitely need more guns.  

So how do you write good gun stuff?

Guns & Character

You thought I was going to start with technical esoteric factoids, didn’t you?  (pistols have magazines, not clips, there).  Nope. Well written characters are the basis for having good gun stuff in your fiction.

Keep in mind the background of your PoV character. Guns are an everyday part of life for a giant chunk of America.  To us, they are not some weird, scary, mystical item, they’re another cool tool, like a cordless drill, or the George Foreman Grill.  I hate Hate HATE when I read a thriller, where the hero (usually a former Navy SEAL/Ranger/Commando/CIA Ninja) will have some bizarre disdain for firearms, usually from the author’s own personal bias creeping in.  That does not fit the character at all. People who make their living with guns won’t have a psychological dislike for their guns anymore than a NASCAR driver will have a pathological distaste for driving.  Remember the idiotic Lethal Weapon (3? 4?) movie where the director suddenly got on an anti-gun kick, and all of a sudden Mel Gibson’s vet/ninja/assassin/super-cop character, who’s shot 4,000 people with a Beretta in the previous movies, got all sorts of snooty and disdainful about the evil scourge of guns on the street?   Hell, Lethal Weapon 1 was the reason most of us bought Berettas to begin with back then.

If your PoV character falls into the “gun culture” then he will respect his weapons and probably enjoy them.  Now, not all characters with guns need to be a member of the gun culture though.  If the person is an excellent shot under stress (like all thriller heroes) then odds are they are in the gun culture. Cops carry guns, but most of them are relatively clueless about them, and only carry one because it is a job requirement.  If your PoV character falls into that category, then don’t expect them to have buckets of knowledge (and also don’t expect them to shoot very well either). 

Shooting is a skill. Any moron can pick up a gun and shoot it, but it actually takes practice to become good with one.  The insane level of skill demonstrated by most fictional protagonists would only come from somebody who actually enjoys shooting enough to go out and do it on their own time.  Keep that in mind for your characters. Combative shooting is a martial art.  For the love of St. Browning, don’t do that horrible Kung Fu Panda crap where you can defeat somebody who’s trained their entire life because you “believe in yourself”. 

Is your character somebody who is new to guns, but got one because of the events of your plot?  Maybe they will be awkward. They won’t know the details. They will use the wrong terminology. They will probably be clumsy and slow.  Maybe they grew up on a farm and have to think back to the marksmanship lessons their grandfather gave them.  Maybe they are a clueless lefty suburbanite who has to get out of their comfort zone and associate with an evil right-wing death monger instructor (hey, I know that guy) in order to actually learn to defend themselves from the zombies.  They may have psychological hang ups.  How should I know, it’s your character. Make them interesting.

Now as a gun nut, who has had success writing about the adventures of a gun nut, my character will be the kind of person who will spout off all sorts of interesting factoids and jargon. (don’t overdue it, Yes, I am guilty, but I’ll get to that).  If your character is not a gun nut, then they probably won’t pontificate on muzzle velocity and bullet drop of their rifle.  It’ll more likely be “This thing is heavy” or “Oww! My ears!” Stay faithful to your character.

Riot Nerd Weapon Speak

One of my first proof readers, John Shirley (also a gun nut), used the term “Riot Nerd Weapon Speak” to describe my needless info dumps that would cause most reader’s eyes to glaze over.  (believe it or not, the version of MHI you read was actually cleaned up quite a bit) So don’t make it boring.  That’s a fine line for some of us, because trust me, I could easily write six paragraphs describing how awesome a particular weapon is, but 92% of my readers will skim it.  Elmore Leonard (I think it was him, but I paid no attention in English) once said “don’t write the parts people are going to skip.”

Now, if you are posting fiction on the excellent creative writing section over on www.wethearmed.com or you got started like me posting an online serial at www.thehighroad.org then you can write for your audience, and put in every juicy gun detail you feel like. Just be aware that outside of the gun culture, some people are going to fall asleep.  This makes actually getting published kind of difficult.

Avoid info dumps whenever possible, unless you are Tom Clancy, and that’s what you’re getting paid for.  You don’t need to do a complete inventory of a character’s equipment before they enter the fight scene. This is not a role playing game.  And yes, I’ve violated this one, too. So if you’re going to do it, at least try to make it interesting.  Give the equipment information in little bits, interspaced with the rest of the story.  Don’t just hammer the reader over the head with a giant equipment list…

…Unless it is really awesome.  I’m not one of those people who gets hung up on “rules of writing”. That is crap for college professors and people on the internet who’ve never actually written anything.  If it is awesome, and your readers like it, write it.  I info-dumped the hell out of one gun in MHI, but Abomination is borderline a character. (and strangely enough, a really popular one). 

Details

Now this is the part that may require a bit of research. Some writers love research, some of us hate it.  I fall into the love it camp.  I read a four foot stack of history books before I wrote Grimnoir, and I probably still screwed stuff up. If guns are going to be an integral part of your story, then you may have to do some research.  The two webpages I linked to above are filled with great discussion and is mostly technically correct. (remember, advice on the internet is worth what you paid for it). 

Terminology needs to be as correct as possible, but keep in mind the character.  If the character is a hard core shooter, then they will never refer to a pistol’s magazine as a clip. They are magazines.  If they’re Sally Soccermom who just picked up a gun off a partially devoured cop and is fighting off hordes of suddenly (and mysteriously) ravenous squirrels, then she may very well need another “clip” . 

But that’s perception. Now let’s get to reality, and the things that regardless of character, fiction usually manages to get wrong.  Bullet impacts do not lift people up and throw them.  Any weapon that had enough energy to hurl the target backwards, would have so much recoil that it would launch the shooter in the opposite direction. When you shoot somebody with a pistol, you poke a hole in them. That’s it. They will not fly backwards through the air, through a window, do a flip, and catch on fire. (despite how awesome Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis was…)

Rifles and shotguns do more damage than handguns.  Anybody who has a clue, if given the option in a gun fight, will take a long gun or a handgun.  Anything with a stock is easier to aim than something without.  Cop shows where the cop shows he means serious business by opening up a case and strapping on ten different handguns… Crap.  Realistically, the case would open and there would be a rifle inside of it.

Most of the things people hide behind in movies will not stop a properly motivated bullet. Car door. Nope. Sheet rock. Nope.  That said, every little bit helps, but bullets penetrate. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

There are more than one kind of “bulletproof” vests.  The kinds that can be hidden under a shirt will only stop pistol rounds.  The kind capable of stopping rifle bullets have big ceramic plates in them and are very bulky.  Despite what you see on TV, there is no such thing as a cop-killer bullet.  Spraying your bullets with Teflon will not suddenly make them go through vests, but Teflon will make it so that your scrambled eggs do not stick to the pan as much.

Shotguns do not throw a boulder of death so big that you don’t need to aim. A shotgun still needs to be aimed.  Pattern size varies depending on a lot of factors, but across the largest room of your house, a buckshot pattern is probably only the size of a softball, unless you have a really big house, then it might be the size of a basketball. 

Despite all the cop shows that indicate otherwise, most states do not have any sort of gun registration.  This week on Crime Scene Undercover Special Prosecutors Unit. “The victim was shot with this bullet.” “Don’t worry, our giant super computer says that bullet was registered to Drake Del Fuego.” Dum DUM DUH!!!!!   Also, that whole thing with matching the fired bullets up to some giant database… It doesn’t work the vast majority of the time either.  But all the stuff that CSI gets wrong would fill a really big book, like frozen meat bullets… That’s just idiotic. Don’t get me started.

Most professionals keep a round in the chamber of their weapon while they are carrying it. Only in the movies does the hero pause to dramatically rack the slide of his pistol before heading into to the climactic battle scene.  “Wow! He means business now!” 

Some guns have manual safeties. Some do not. The vast majority of revolvers don’t. 

 Techniques for the Advanced Writer

Shoot guns.  I know that is kind of crazy, but if you’re going to write about them, you may want to actually try them. You might actually find that they are fun.  Plus, no matter how much somebody tells you about doing something, nothing will hit home like doing it yourself.  I promise that your scenes will be more realistic and visceral once you’ve actually done it yourself.

Techniques for the Super Advanced Best Selling Writer with a closet full of awards

Once you become an actual gun nut, you’ll find that you’ll be able to just look at a gun, and that gun will just want to tell you the story of the fascinating character that used it.  Rusty Winchester 30-30 with the stock held on by black electrical tape… The old man that used that gun has seen some things.   I see an old .38 Super Colt, and I think of a tough P.I.  chasing down leads in a seedy back alley. I see a beat up Inglis High-Power, and there’s an African mercenary who crossed a diamond exchange.  This only works with guns that have character of course.  Sorry, but when I see an HK Mk.23, I see some guy who drives a Hummer, who spends too much time on the internet, and has more money than sense.  And when I see a Desert Eagle, I see somebody who has played way too many videogames (probably calls it a Deagle), and if it is gold plated, I can’t see anything through the tears of sadness.   See?  The gun culture people got that, everybody else skimmed it.

Picking a particular gun for a character

In Hard Magic, (I’ll stick with the free sample chapters, because most of you have read those I’m guessing) I’ve got one character who buys her first gun.  She isn’t an expert. She knows zip about terminology. Her experience is using her Grandpa’s shotgun on crows around the farm. She buys a crappy little Iver Johnson .32 revolver because it will fit in her pocket, and it and a box of 50 cartridges is only ten whole dollars!  Her experience is limited, but she’s a very practical country girl, so she goes behind the store and shoots two cylinders worth of ammo at a stump to make sure it works. Faye is proud that she hit the stump. Mostly.

Then I’ve got another character who is a veteran and gunman. This guy is tough, practical, no BS, and has made his living by his ability to kick ass.  He’s not flashy, but he does appreciate, care for, and respect his hardware. Sullivan would be dangerous with any gun you put in his hands.  At one point his Colt 1911 is broken. He is bothered because the 1911 was expensive, and he is inherently cheap, but he immediately starts carrying a .38 Smith because it was available.  He’s not the emotional type.  The man loses a Lewis gun and doesn’t freak out. I’d still be depressed.

The kind of gun a character shows up with can tell you about them. From Dirty Harry’s  .44 Mag model 29, to James Bond’s PPK,  a signature weapon can say a lot about a character’s nature.

When I was last on tour with John Brown, he had just finished a thriller where the main character was an assassin who carried a Glock. John is not a gunnie, and he asked if that was appropriate, since the Glock is kind of the plain vanilla of the gun world.  In this case, you’ve got a guy who is all business, who is going to whack somebody, and then maybe have to ditch the weapon, and then go with another one that is exactly the same later. That actually sounds like a perfect character match to me.

The proper gun can flesh out a character.

72 Responses

  1. As an aspring author and confirmed hoplophile, your advice is spot on. Another good example would be the movie Quigley. Selleck’s character is a somewhat cold and reserved yet intensely disciplined and methodical man. His being a long range shooter makes sense, as does his clear affection for his Sharps rifle. He doesn’t care for the lack of precision and closeness involved with Colts. However, he knows how to use them very well.

    Similarly, Magnum PI (to stay with the same actor) uses the 1911 because it is the weapon he went to war with and thus has an emotional attachment to it. He can use other weapons (and the plot line where he steals and sights in a sniper weapon is very good for demonstrating this) but he always returns to the 1911 because that it is part of him.

  2. Just don’t do what a close friend of mine, a fairly well know published hard SF writer did – Glock 19s don’t have safetys one clicks off.
    Ooops. I still tease him a little about it.

    • This can be a fun bit of gun trivia to throw in, if only to mess with the gun nuts ;) — there *is* an aftermarket thumb safety for Glocks made by Cominolli Custom.
      (To Larry) I just found your site; I devour your books, can’t wait for more! In the meantime, I am really enjoying this site! :D

  3. Larry, that would be Model 29 not 629 (when “Dirty Harry” hit the theaters in 1972 Smith had not yet produced the .44 Mag. in stainless steel). This however, makes your point about putting in info dumps on things like weaponry, because someone will find a small error and pick it apart…just sayin’.

  4. lol, John Shirley and I go waaayyy back. Haven’t seen him in a bit, but I still count him as one of my best friends. I actually had to look around when you quoted him, because I SWEAR I heard his voice in that quote.

    Good advice, every bit of it.

  5. Larry

    I had an idea for a thought excercise for writers on the proper “characterization” of weapons. Perhaps from time to time you could toss out a weapon, and people could provide a short description of the character who would use it.

    Then again, you may not want to do that here as it could become a clog on the blog.

    • Dillis, that’s a pretty good idea, but they should each be on their own posts. Maybe start a new subforum at THR or We The Armed for it?

      Just for the heck of it, I’ll throw one out… (note, the guns I’m describing have never actually been built)

      Our UNSUB favors a Thompson, chambered for .50GI, usually uses drum magazines. Parkerized finish, stock removed. Also dual 6″ doublestack 1911s, left- and right-hand versions, same chambering.

      Profilers, start your engines…

      • An old fashioned Gorilla who wears a fedora, suit, and tie.
        Expects to be fighting large numbers of large foes, for whatever reason.
        Likes customized firearms, and jazz.

      • Not clogging up the blog is a good idea. That being said, our UNSUB is a character in an alternate universe where likely opponents operate in groups, are abnormally resistant to damage, or some combination thereof. The UNSUB may be either a large male or female as the weapon chamberings and weight indicate that the character is itself abnormally strong. This could be moderated somewhat by the possibility that 1) the character has a considerable amount of training and experience and 2) the Thompson is typically not carried but only brought along in vehicle or on special occasions. The character would work well as a Heavy or Brute from Larry’s Hard Magic universe.

      • To add to my reply, the character would likely be a Hard Magic version of Earl.

        Hunters in the Hard Magic universe. Now that’s interesting. They wouldn’t have to be covert, but whether their pay would be impacted would be an open question.

  6. In his film criticism, Stephen Hunter has often written about guns relating to character. I believe that it’s in his book “Violent Screen”, but there’s one essay in particular that specifically addresses the issue. The thing that sticks in my mind is his analysis of Die Hard, where he contrasts the utilitarian Beretta 92 carried by the blue-collar cop, John McClane against the exotic H&K P7 carried by the classically educated European terrorist Hans Gruber.

  7. Please no smell of Cordite, unless one is using a pre WW-2 and more than likely a pre WW-1 firearm.

    • I second that. One of the only two things in Collateral that bothered me was when the detective says that. And the Feds chambering weapons inside a moving vehicle.

    • Although it’s a reasonably common saying, even amongst people who know what Cordite IS, and even more so amongst guys who may know guns, but don’t know Cordite.

  8. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve given MHI its own page on the TvTropes wiki. It’s a bit sparse on the tropes list, but I’m hoping someone besides me will come and help flesh it out; it’s been too long since I’ve read it (and I don’t have my own copy for reference), so I don’t remember a lot of the details. And unlike Wikipedia, I don’t think anyone will care if you edit it yourself!

  9. A couple of other things…
    1) Location, location, location. What guns are available in the story location, and why? Alaskans tend to openly carry large revolvers in heavy calibers. Why? Because of bears. People in the third world usually use AK’s. Why? Because the USSR dumped millions of them to just about anyone who asked.

    2) Avoid the rare guns. There’s a whole lot of cool guns out there. And there’s guns that are cool, but there’s not a whole lot of them around. H&K G-11′s, Glock 18′s, Beretta 93R’s… the list goes on. Keep it real.

    • Amen. I recall in the Deadlands series the main character used a LAPA bullpup with DA trigger, and a G11. Too bad neither ever made it into production. ;)

      Clancy had an issue with this as well. He gave his characters Beretta 10mms in one book. In his defense, he was writing when the 10mm was increasing in popularity so, given his love of the Beretta, he figured a Beretta 10mm was a guarantee.

      Clancy was saved from additional “failures” by circumstances outside his control. In Rainbow Six and subsequent works, he introduced the MP10 (an MP-5 in 10mm) and a Beretta .45. Fortunately for him, HK introduced both weapons with his only mistakes being the name of the subgun and the fact that HSLD teams wouldn’t use the Cougar.

    • And up here in Maine, we use stuff from world war 2, and ARs. But not AKs cause the ones up here are shit.

  10. Where can we who enjoy information dumps get a copy of MHI: Uncut?

    • Ditto–us Abomination Builders need more gun-porn… er, I mean “specifications”… to build from… especially if I’m ever going to write the Abomination Cookbook.

    • EJ, those don’t exist. There is only the one version. (and it is the official and best version, trust me on this one) :)

    • It’s like when you watch a movie, then see the deleted scenes, and you say to yourself, ‘I can see why those scenes got deleted.’

      The first newspapers in america were totally unedited. And they weren’t pretty.

      I’ll bet Larry could do an info dump blog post if we asked him really nicely, we wouldn’t have drudge up MHI: First Draft.

  11. Thanks Larry. That is great advice.

    -Scott

  12. Although the advice about overdoing the firearm info dump is sound, I have to make the observation that if it weren’t for the constant inventory and gun info scenes in the collected works of Jerry Ahern that I read as a teenager, I never would have become a gun nut and my life would be diminished in too many ways to count. For example, I wouldn’t have been carrying a gun on a couple of really nasty occasions that might have resulted in my being dead if I had been unarmed. So indirectly, Jerry Ahern saved my life.

    Thanks, Jerry.

    Also, when my baby sister was reading MHI, she sat there with the computer on next to her so she could look up the cool firearms featured in the book. She also started asking me gun questions and now she wants me to take her shooting. So good work, Larry; I was never able to get her interested in guns before MHI. came along.

    Remember, every reader is a potential gun geek waiting to happen, so don’t skimp on the gun talk too much. At least give ‘em enough detail to send them to the nearest Google page to look up what the characters’ guns looks like.

    It’s a successful formula, and I’m living proof.

  13. I can definately see where you’re coming from on guns. I was taught how to shoot by my Uncle who was a State Parole Officer, and I still enjoy going out occasionally to kill me a bunch o’ them deadly paper plates; but about the extent of my knowledge is how to shoot and most .380′s feel better in my hand than most 9mm. That, and (at least according my Uncle) 9mm’s are designed to kill civilized Europeans while .45′s are designed to kill grizzly bears. What I am however is a Brown Belt in American Kenpo with experience in Shotokan, Tang Soo Do, and Kuk Sool Won; and there is nothing than drives me battier than to be reading a book and see a character do something impossible (or at least really, really unlikely). For example, in one book I read recently the hero blew out his opponet’s left knee with a kick and then broke his left cheek bone with a right back knuckle. Yes, when you’re facing your opponet your right side is to his left; but when you blow out someone’s knee with a front thrust kick they’re going to turn towards that side 9 times out of 10. Which in this case means turning their left cheek away from you, making it doubly hard to hit. Secondly, when you strike with a back knuckle, you’re striking with the BACK of the hand. So unless you’re inverting your hand so that your thumb is towards the ground, or you managed to get behind them, it’s going to be awfully hard to strike your opponet’s left cheek with a right back knuckle. Also, outside of professional sports, very few fights last longer than 30 seconds to a minute; yet how many times do we see fights in books or on TV that go on for 5 or 6 minutes? If it’s not a “Karate” movie where that sort of thing is expected, it tends to really put me off.

  14. Hey I got a question you can possibly write a post about, How do you write coherent dialogue? I’ve always had trouble when it came to conversations between two characters.

    • Nick, go over it in your head. HEAR it. I’ve been told that dialogue is one of my strengths as a writer. You also have to be able to get into the part of the character to know how he/she/it speaks. Speech impediments, accents, ect can be fun as long as they aren’t overdone. I’ve got a Scottish character that most people crack up when reading his lines, but it would get old if he wasn’t a man of few words. Write it, then act it out if you have to. Now, I’m not yet published, so take it for what it’s worth.

      • I have a character whose accent gets stronger when she gets especially angry. Since it is an odd accent, it adds to the “where exactly are you from and should I be getting worried about now?” factor. But again, it is used sparingly.

        As Scott says, listen to people around you, to good characters in movies or on TV. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who know and work with each other a great deal talk less than others do. After a certain point you don’t have to talk, aside from the basics: “That one there?” “Affirmative.” Bang.

  15. [...] Granted, it’s not for a novel, but maybe you could get some gun writing advice from Larry. [...]

  16. Newbies point of view: I’m a canadian civilian type. But I have a friend who’s ex-artillery in the canadian army and a “bit” of a gun nut. He’s taken me to the range a few times. One time in particular was special and I got to shoot the following:

    Walther PPK (modified to make it legal in canada with a longer barrel – looks vaguely soviet like that)
    .357 Magnum
    .44 Magnum
    .45 Colt Single action replica (Think Peace maker)
    .45 Colt 1911 Auto (built in 1917)
    .45 Colt 1911 Auto (built in 1941)
    .22 semi-auto target pistol (no recoil at all)

    Now I’ve been to the range maybe 6 times in my entire life, so this is a newbie commenting on the above set of guns. We did shoot for like 6h and went thru an enormous amount of ammo.

    PPK: Damn that slide bites – I can see about the concealment factor due to the small size but wouldn’t buy it otherwise – bit light for the size of round.

    .357: Regular ammo: most accurate of the guns I shot that day: Magnum: Same. If I was to buy a gun as a newbie this would probably be it out of the set. Surprisingly control-able

    .44: Loud – hand bruising when you’re firing all day so let’s stick with the .357

    .45 Colt – ok, different stance, one hand gun, does not feel in any way right in a two handed stance at all. But the ergonomics of the design! Most “natural” feel of the guns used. Slowest loading (no flip out cylinder here).

    .45 Auto (the one built in 1941): This brings to mind the words: Hand Cannon. Definitely military not a home defense thing at all. It shows. Thanks I stuck to semi-auto when firing it – not enough experience to try full auto I’d need to fire it more to make sure I could control it.

    .45 Auto (the one build in 1917): A much “tighter” gun. I can see how the older version would have had trouble in mud and what not. Probably more accurate (personally not good enough to tell the difference). The most interesting is the contrast between the two 1911′s One build for WWI and one build for WW2.

    The 3 things I took out of this experience:
    - If as a newbie I wanted to hit something, I’d go for the.357 it felt the most “control-able”.
    - Colt new his ergonomics before the word existed, if it wasn’t for the reload speed issues, I’d have to say this was the gun that felt the best. Being a computer geek, holding the gun at arms length to sight it would be an issue after a long time (my brother would have no such issues, especially back the the days he was a stacker in a hardwood lumber yard – Popeye’s physique is more realistic than you think. At 25 he was 5’9, 155lbs and his forearms were larger than is biceps)
    - The difference between the 1917 and the 1941 built 1911′s was very very interesting. Prety sure they “loosened” up the tolerances to better handle grit and grime.

    • The 1917 built weapon was likely a M1911, while the latter was an M1911A1. The principal changes were to the ergonomics of the weapon rather than tolerances. M1911s were highly successful in the muck and mire of WWI and subsequent campaigns.

      Neither weapon is capable of fully automatic fire without some serious (and generally illegal under US or Canadian laws). The Auto is just a common way of describing autoloading pistols.

      • That should be “serious (and generally illegal under US or Canadian laws) modifications.” Personally, I blame BP for the typo. It’s getting the blame for everything else, so why not?

      • grandfathered

      • and yes the amount of paperwork was insane

      • No doubt. The paperwork in the US is bad. I can’t conceive of what it’s like in Canada. As I said in my reply (erroneously tagged to the main thread), please post pics, videos, etc. That thing is exceedingly rare. Any background would be appreciated as well.

  17. It still sticks in my craw that one of King’s characters in The Gunslinger series carries a “Ruger 44 semi-automatic.” It’s a book called THE GUNSLINGER. NO such weapon exists! DAMMIT! Of course the series goes off the rails anyway in the later books but I was enjoying things until that paragraph.

    So please future writers, if you are going to include details fact check each and every one. This will have the side benefit of limiting info dumps as well.

  18. letrange, your buddy has a full auto 1911? I knew they were out there (that was one of the reason for the NFA getting kicked off in ’34). If your buddy ever wants to make a gun nut happy, have him post photos of the weapon or (better yet) a video of it going full auto.

  19. Speaking of infodumps, there is a great scene in the anime “Black Lagoon”, in which one of the heroines confronts a neo-nazi. Said neo-nazi pulls out a huge custom Luger in .454 Casull and begins an infodump monologue about said Luger, with notes about how awesome he is for carrying it.

    Our heroine uses the time to reload and then shoots the Nazi. After shooting him, she ask “Were you trying to sell me the damn thing?”

    • Saw that one, too, loved it. That scene was the true illustration between the professional gunslinger (heroine Revy) and the wanna-be (Illinois Nazi). Despite the anime’s wanderings into Hollywood/Hong Kong action territory, there is sometimes some moments that acknowledge reality versus hype. IN another story, Revy sees some kids playing cops and robbers and is amused at the “shot” kids’ TV-inspired acting when hit. She then shows the kids what happens when a person really is fatally shot. (And she should know!) The kids don’t believe her at all; so much for realism. ^_^

    • And I remember hearing that Luger couldn’t have had .454 Casull, because the grip would be too huge to work with. The only thing more important than knowing guns is knowing your bullets. Getting every technical detail of your real-life gun (Or if you’re like me, the one you made up. It’s a big revolver, by the way.) is all well and good, but if the bullets aren’t right for whatever reason-too big, more powerful than they should have been, too obscure, gun isn’t chambered in that-it feels really, really terrible.

  20. Another thing to keep in mind that relates to your first “Ask Correia – Writing Stuff,” is that the narrator in a 1st person story may not know about the guns he/she is describing to the reader.

    Ex: “The big mercenary flicked the saftey off on his blocky pistol he earlier referred to as a Glock.”

    Sorry buddy, that was a selector switch, and your merc is ready to rock and roll. But you don’t know that because you are a tech weenie or something.

  21. You have a bit more leeway with describing firearms when you’re doing futuristic science fiction. You aren’t limited to current production firearms, and you can make some things up.

    However, it still helps to know a bit about firearms, first. Models, brands, and cartridges may change, but the basics won’t.

    For instance, quipping your giant (9+ feet tall) alien shock troopers with .90 caliber assault rifles (something that doesn’t exist today) is acceptable. A creature that size would be able to handle the recoil of a cartridge that big (a little bigger than a 6 gauge shotgun shell) without an issue. Equipping them with a 90mm assault rifle would be an issue (for comparison, this would be the same size as the main gun on a WWII era tank).

    Also, keep your terminology consistent. Don’t refer to it as a .90 caliber rifle one time, then 90mm another, then .9mm or 9mm on other occasions. This shows that you’re sloppy and don’t read your own notes.

    Finally, make sure you’re using bullet and cartridge measurements correctly, and try not to confuse your terminology, as in the above example. Caliber is a reference to the bullet’s diameter in thousandths of an inch, and obviously millimeter is a reference to the bullet’s diameter in millionths of a meter. So, while you’re writing, try and think through whether or not the size of the bullet and cartridge makes sense for your character to be using.

    For what it’s worth, I encountered all of the mistakes mentioned above in a single book, written in the 1970s called “Alien Eyes.” Overall it wasn’t that bad of a book, but the changing terminology for the firearms that they were using really took me out of the story.

  22. Also consistency. I know you may not care whether your hero carries a Desert Eagle* in .50 or .375, but some of your readers do. Seriously I the hero of one book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_Station_(novel)) I read ended up carrying at least two different variants of the Desert Eagle, maybe even three or four (it’s been a while since I read it).

    * Let’s not even get into why a Marine Lieutenant isn’t carrying a M9 like he should be.

    • Ha….Matt Reilly’s books are fun, and the Scarecrow is a genuine badass (along with most of the characters…at least the ones who live)…but he drives me up the wall with gun mistakes, and a general reflexive anti-Americanism that really turns me off.

      Especially his new series, where a plucky band of soldiers from various nations gallivants around stopping evil Americans and evil corporations from getting their hands on powerful artifacts.

      Still, his books are a lot of fun, perfect for the beach.

      • They’re even better if you run out of toilet paper. I’ve got sick of his anti-USA/UK views, let alone his psychopathic elephant seals.

  23. Good write up Larry. One thing that annoys me is when someone horribly messes up something as simple as the number of rounds a weapon holds. Was Google was too much work for them?

  24. Also — have a KNOWLEDGEABLE gun person (knowledgeable about that type of gun) proof any scenes where you are describing working the gun.

    Examples I have seen far too often in literature, TV, and movies –

    If you rack the slide and THEN eject the magazine (as I have seen in FAR too many cop shows and movies), you haven’t unloaded the gun — you stuck a round in the chamber, and then took the rest out, but it’s still loaded to go BANG once. (Do it the other way around — mag first, then slide, and it’s unloaded.)

    You can’t cock a Glock. It’s either loaded and ready to go, or it’s unloaded. Nor do they (except for the extremely uncommon full-auto versions that aren’t even real popular with SWAT teams and special operations guys) have manual safeties. Yet cop shows EVERY NIGHT (and movies every year) have the Foley engineer insert the sound of an Old West 6-shooter being thumb cocked, or a 1911 safety being clicked off when the script calls for the guy to seem really, fur sure, no-foolin’, serious.

    Yes, the US .50 Browning machinegun (M2HB — that big honkin’ thing at the commander’s hatch of the Abrams tank, or the M3 aircraft version the bomber gunners used in WWII) have to have the handle jerked twice to load them. It’s a 19th Century design at heart, and it has a few “quirks” — one of them being, a single yank “half-loads” it, a second yank finishes the job. That DOES NOT mean that an M60 GPMG (the belt fed jobbie the US adopted in the 1950′s and still uses somewhat today — it’s the one Rambo was shooting one handed with the belt hanging out) works the same way. You cock the M60 ONCE, and THEN load the belt into the feed tray — you do not carry it around waiting to be cocked (you can acytually BREAK it doing that stuff with all but the very latest versions.) I’ve seen THAT error in a novel set in Vietnam, where the author’s blurb clearly identified him as a Vietnam Vet!

    Guns have these little stickie-up thingies on top called “sights”. They help you line up your gun with the target. Unless your character is a total newbie, a gang-banger, or a typical 1940′s cop, he is going to at least bring the gun up where the sights are in his field of view. Even Old West gunfighters like Wyatt Earp used the sights — that’s why they were PUT there. Point shooting was NEVER the preferred technique of professionals until the early 20th Century, and it started to die out in WWII. (Yeah, point shooting is fun, but your accuracy sucks.)

    Professionals DO NOT poke people with guns, unless they are sinking a bayonet into the enemy. If I am close enough to poke you with my gun, you can try and GRAB said gun, and now we’re holding a wrestling match. Guns are DISTANCE weapons, intended to avoid the messy risks of CONTACT fighting.

    Professionals DO NOT blaze away like the team in “Predator” clearing the jungle, unless the only thing they are trying to do is make the other guys duck (and hpoing luck may cause at least ONE of the bad guys to get hit). Nor do they ALL blaze away at the same time, even if they are trying to get people to duck — you don’t want all your guys out of ammo and reloading at the same time. Trust me, you don’t. Just like kindergarten, professionals learn to take turns.

    When it comes to stopping people, all handguns suck. (Some, more than others.) If you want a super awesome manstopper 100% garanteed instant kill no matter how big/how bad/how doped up, try a heavy artillery piece loaded with cannister. Or a nuke from orbit. Handguns are like the emergency mylar moon blanket of the gun world — it beats the alternative of “nothing”.

    Little goofs like these can make a gunnie’s head go “CLANK!” like he just threw a rod in the Brain Housing Group.

  25. On a different note. Not every book with guns or a gun scene in it has to be a “gun book”. In even a “normal” novel or story without an “action” theme guns may arise. Guns are used defensively in this country hundreds of thousands or millions of times a year, millions of normal folks own them and keep them for odd bumps in the night but aren’t “gun fighters”. That kind of casual, normal, competent, responsible ownership realistically should show up in more stories set in the US.

    The example that sticks with me is a scene in the recent comedic movie “Couple’s Retreat”. Early in the film Vince Vaughn’s car dealer(?) character, a suburban husband and father of 3, is in bed with the wife talking over the day’s events when they hear “breaking in” noises downstairs.

    The alarm goes off and Vince rather calmly opens the nightstand revealing a push-button gun vault (young children in the house). He takes a out a pistol and magazine, smoothly loads and chambers it and goes downstairs to investigate. It turns out to be a buddy of his clumsily wanting to ask the plot-driving question. While they talk the wife calls the alarm company and the gun sits harmlessly on the kitchen table. It is never seen or mentioned again.

    THAT’S what most actual gun ownership and use is like (well, aside from it being a buddy or anyone else actually breaking in). Noises in the dark that turn out to be nothing or a trip to the range or some plinking while camping.

    The gun in the first act doesn’t have to go off in the third, not if your story is at all realistic. It can and should be just another everyday American vignette.

  26. Very interesting article. I disagree with you on one point: “gun nuts” are those who try to ban guns; those of us who appreciate the value of a gun are “gun enthusiasts”.

    • I disagree. I wear Gun Nut with pride. Screw the banners. Who are they to dictate terms to me?

  27. A New Writing Question:

    Hi Larry. Here is a new writing question. What would be the best approach for writing about futuristic weapons (say 200-300 years in the future)? How does one figure out what those weapons would look like, act like, sound like, etc.? I look at authors like David Weber and can only shake my head at how they figure out weapon calibers, etc.

    Are there certain limitations and factors to consider that would hold no matter when a weapon is designed?

    Let’s limit it to “average” army weapons (e.g. pistols, assualt rifles, sniper rifles etc.).

    Thanks,

    Scott

    • The last 200-300 years have seen major changes to firearms, it would be very hard to work out what the next 200-300 years will hold. It’s possible we’ll just have fancier versions of what’s used Today, or we might have entirely switched to something completely new. Probably the most important part is to make sure the ergonomics of the weapon make sense. Some of the Star Trek phasers (I think NG) are examples of doing this wrong. They where shaped in such a way that it would have been almost impossible to point them with any precision. Obviously more relevant to TV and movies that books though, but it still applies if you’re going to describe the usage of the weapon in detail.

      Another potential fault would be to make the limitations of your sci-fi super weapon such that modern weapons would be better. Sure your super-laser will vaporise people with a single shot, but it’s super fragile, only has one shot before it needs to sit for five minutes to recharge, and costs a fortune; why not just give your soldiers AK-47s? Obviously this is a hard mistake to make, but I have seen it occasionally.

    • Beyond physics and the tradeoffs inherent in any man portable system, there are two questions I’ve found helpful when “designing” weapons: 1) what is the purpose of the weapon and 2) what kind of society/character designed it? In some circumstances, they are related.

      Is the society one where function, cost and simplicity the main goal? In that case, you might end up with something like an AK: cheap, shoddy to some, yet very reliable. The weapon’s purpose is to be sufficiently cheap to arm mass numbers, yet effective enough that it will do its job.

      Is the society one where harming another “excessively” or “unnecessarily” frowned upon? You could have a 22nd Century Hague convention which limited the nature of ammuniton. Or perhaps all weapons will require safety interlocks to insure only certain people could use them. Such a society would also lean heavily towards less than lethal weapons (which shows how purpose and societal background are related).

      As with everything, research is key. The one thing you don’t want to do is to violate physics and common sense without very good reason. Anything projectile launcher will have recoil commensurate with the physics involved unless it’s a self-propelled round or has some handwavium going on (nothing like reading about recoilless rail guns or small arms throwing objects at relativistic speeds without ill effect on the shooter to reveal that the author either misunderstood what was happening or left out a step like “inertial dampening” when describing the scene. If the rest of the technology doesn’t reflect that such things exist, then the former answer is more likely than the latter).

      In all honesty, it’s important to remember that the more things change, the more they remain the same. As others have stated, we’ve reached a certain pinnacle of small arms. Most development now is evolutionary rather revolutionary, and the really revolutionary stuff (i.e. directed energy weapons) has some significant drawbacks.

      If Han Solo hadn’t had a very compact power source and highly effective energy projection and heat dispersal capabilities, along with some mechanism for handling considerable recoil (even energy weaons will display recoil), then he would have been carrying something a lot closer to a Glock than a blaster.

      Ultimately, though, it’s your story. It can be interesting to start with what you want your character to have (a Smith & Glock 2.5mm coil gun firing lexan slugs with dial a yield anti-matter cores) and then say “why is this guy carrying that weapon and what kind of society and tech will support it”?

    • By the way, here is an excellent site that goes into some of the issues surrounding sci fi weapons.

      http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/rocket3l.html

    • Scott,

      I’ll second what everyone here has said about sci-fi guns. Note that energy weapons don’t have as MUCH recoil as a slug thrower of equivalent delivered energy, and anything that chucks energy without using a physical propellant pushing it will have less (the weight and speed of the powder charge has a tangible effect on felt recoil.)

      With energy weapons, there are two factors that can add recoil that often get overlooked.

      First, if you have a sealed tube (“barrel”) around your beam path (for example, to protect the shooter from side scatter, or give him a place to hang on like a rifle), your energy weapon is probably going to heat the atmosphere inside that tube. (Other than REALLY big guns, like antistarship cannon, this is likely to be unnoticeable to the shooter under any sort of effective gravity.)

      Second, if you are injecting an inert cooling gas into the bore of your blaster every shot (for example, David Drake’s powerguns from the Hammer’s Slammers series), that is likely to produce some minor recoil as well.

      There are a few seemingly minor issues most authors tend to overlook.

      1. Projectile & ammo seperately loaded. (This includes energy weapons that have a seperate physical componant, whether cooling, or chemically generated lasers.) Often seen in magnetically or gravitically propelled slug throwers. Likewise “all or nothing” energyu sources that only come in big sizes. Great idea for artillery, acceptable for mounted heavy weapons, this concept has only ben obsolete for practical infantry weapons since the American Civil War. As David Drake best summed it up (in an in-setting exposition he used as technotes for the collected Hammer’s Slammers stories), an effective infantry laser requires a fairly heavy generator — any lighter, and it isn’t less effective, it simply doesn’t have enough juice. A cartridge fed machinegun is just as dangerous – once – as one with a 100 round belt. If yopu have a pure “juice” powered gun, you can use a capacitor or battery. . . and better yet, one of moderate physical size that can easily be swapped for a fresh cell. If you need more than one thing to make the bang, combine one shot’s worth into a single loading unit (a “cartridge”). A plasma gun that shoots lasers at a deuterium pellet and creates a small fusion burst that travels in a straight line because the lasers only give it one pinpoint and linear escape route can be great. If I have to remember to monitor the effective levels on my pellets, my batteries, and my cooling gas resevoirs. . . not so much. It also means I probbaly cannot redistribute ammo easily — how do I get top off my batteries, gas resevoirs, etc., from a pile of partially expended ones? If enough of each for one shot are all in a single casing, and are ejected after firing (just like a modern gun), I can just stuff them into 20th Century style magazines, and top off from loose rounds at will. (And if my “firing chamber” for the energy reaction is inside the case, I’ll be throwing away a LOT of my excess heat. . . better coat the cases with a good heat insulator akin to a shuttle tile, or any firefights in dry woods or grass will always result in massive wild fires.) In short — “muzzleloading” ray guns are bad grunt guns. Do not want.

      2. Thermal bloom. If your mondo ray gun is shooting through the atmosphere, unless that atmosphere is 100% transparent to ALL frequencies in the shot, you will waste some of your energy on heating the atmosphere. (This is what a lightning bolt is.) This will give you a loud noise, a visible beam that leads straight back to the shooter, all that energy has been watsed on pretty visual and audio special effects. Does not happen in vacuum.

      3. Atmospheric scattering (made worse by thermal bloom). Makes it hard to hold a tight focus, especially the longer the beam duration. Does not happen in vacuum.

      4. ALL beams diverge. Even lasers. Even in vacuum. lasers in vacuum don’t diverge very much, but as your range increases, your “spot” gets larger. Energy weapons are delivering “ouch” by how much energy (lets use joules as our unit) per square unit (lets use centimeters as our unit). In other words, if your spot has twice the surface area, you are doing about half the “ouch”. So long as you are still delivering more joules per square centimeter per hit than the surface can deal with, and your spot is still 100% on the target, cool. But at a certain range, you will be delivering a nice suntan to the target where at closer ranges the target metal vaporized so quickly that the hull exploded like a high explosive round hit it.

      I’ll cover typical hand-wavies(tm) around some of this in a separate post.

      • Typical hand-wavies that can get around serious energy weapon drawbacks.

        1. “Wormholes, warp guns, and other shortcuts”. The beam doesn’t actualy travel through the intervening space. (Traveller RPG’s meson guns, the energy guns from David Weber’s Apocalypse Troll, etc.) No bloom, no scatter, no snazzy Star Wars blaster bolt searing a line in your retina back to the shooter. The energy just shows up on target.

        It can be remotely generated on target (for example, you could remotely open a really brief gate to a really energetic place, and make sure the gate just happens to coincide with the targte’s location, like a trapdoor to Hell. . . you open a picosecond gate to the heart of a quasar at the remote location of your choosing, and it’s gonna hurt). This tends to look a LOT like artillery. This also means, depending on how your “gate” tech works, that the gun doesn’t need to use as much power as it delivers — just as your garage door opener doesn’t need to have enough juice to actually lift the door. . . neither the door opener nor the gun actually do the work, they just trigger the work from a seperate power source.

        It can travel through another dimension or universe (i.e., through hyperspace), and the gun calculated the “Real World” distance it needed to go, so it “drops out of warp” right on top of the target. If it’s cheap enough (in energy terms) to send your ray gun bolt to “jump to hyperspace”, then you may be able to simply ignore the range drop off in energy delivery altogether. A cute variant on this is to “jump” a physical projo (which need not be going very fast) that will collapse to energy (if any appreciable percentage is converted, your projo need not be large at all — E = mc^2 rocks) due to some feature of the phenomenon. (It could be related to your FTL system — objects without a working “stabilizer” gizmo erupt from warp as a flash of energy and a bucket of quarks. Which could make battle damage to the drive system REALLY sucky.)

        2. “Gravitic lenses.” Bending the “fabric of space” space to give you a much bigger effective focus lens, or to provide a HUGE corrective lens en route to the target. Pretty cool — all other things being effectively equal, a really big lens will hold focus better. Same idea can be applied to notional energy weapons as well.

        3. Destabilizing packets. Your bolt of bubbling goodness is encapsulated in a shield of some sort like a water balloon of energy. The packet can destabilize on impact, and/or based on time (giving you a maximum possible range). Often called “plasma” (or ‘energy”) “torpedoes” when written as naval weapons, and often the encapsulation is written as a magnetic bottle. It does allow you to ignore atmospheric and scatter effects so long as your bottle holds. If you’re chunking higjly energetic bits of matter (and plasma IS a state of matter), there will be recoil. Cool common malfunction — bottle rupture or failure to form on firing, meaning the shooter is Ground Zero.

        4. Using energy that the atmosphere is 100% transparent to, especially “warp” energies or gravitic energy. No noticeable firing effect, may be totally silent. Stuff just seems to happen at the far end.

        5. “Warp gun, Rev 2″. A variation on #1, only we don’t send our beam of Hate and Discontent through a wormhole to the target — we send pieces of the target into hyperspace. This is especially disconcerting to those pieces left behind in normal space. . . Again, energy cost is purely dealer’s choice — you decide how much juice it takes to make things go FTL (maybe the major drive energy cost in your world is to bring things safely OUT of jump drive — see item #1 again.)

      • With slug throwers, it is important to realize you’re usually punching through an atmosphere. If your projo goes too fast, it will burn up. If your projo goes faster than escape velocity and you don’t your target (or the mountain he’s standing in front of), it isn’t coming back down.

        Slug thrower hand-wavies:

        It’s all about “felt recoil”. Recoil is basically the sum total of the kinetic energy (velocity squared, times mass, divided by two, or more conventionally MV^2/2) of EVERYTHING leaving the barrel, applied to the mass of the whole gun. Things get a little different as one approaches the speed of light, but for things still moving at Newtonian velocities, doubling the velocity quadruples the energy.

        The way conventional propellants work is they give a big whack of their energy to the projo at the very beginning, and a lower but continuing push until the bullet leaves the bore. This is actually not really efficient — a lot of excess energy is often used to make sure we get the big jump start — and when calculating recoil, even all that extra powder that burned outside the bore in a big flash still counts.

        There’s a few “tricks” you can play with recoil — a straighter stock configuration makes it easier to deal with (the M16 rifle), you can vent some of the propellant gasses off at a sharp angle to the axis of the bore (muzzle breaks, compensators), and you can extend the cycle (“silencers” slow down gasses before they leave the barrel and stretch out the time they act, futuristic propellants (“grav” guns, “gauss” guns, electrothermal chemical propellants) can be tweaked to give a steadier, more efficient, push to the projo (menaing more “oomph” for less energy wasted, so less energy for recoil) , or you can go exotic.

        (We’ll ignore artillery style hydraulic shock absorbers,”constant recoil” and the like.)

        Exotic solutions are things like “inertial dampeners” and recoilless systems.

        1. Recoilless systems. In short, it looks like a bazooka, but it’s a cannon. The gun sends part of the propellant gas forward to drive the projo down the barrel, and sends enough gas to the rear to offset that kinetic energy by shooting out nozzles. (ISTR the rule of thumb is about 3/4 or the propellant in a recoilless design gets sent aft, and only about 1/4 actually drives the projo.) This creates a very hazardous backblast area behind the shooter. Many military rocket and missile systems use a recoilless launch system (the long range missiles that do this often have sustainer motors that kick in after launch). You DO NOT want to do recoilless weapons for infantry small arms unless you can be SURE that PVT Snuffy not only cannot end up hitting himselt in teh face with his own backblast, but that he won’t vaporize his buddy behind him either. Sorry, Harry Harrison — a .75 caliber recoilless pistol is a good path to blindness and death.

        2. Inertial dampeners basically mean you have something that msakes the gun want to stay wehre it is on firing. If it’s a hand fired gun, it better be something that automatically cuts on ONLY for the duration of the shot, or it will get pretty hard to move the gun from target to target.

        2.A. Accelerating the projo via gravity effects (“grav guns”) makes it easy to plausibly incorporate a recoil reducing (or elimintaing) effect — the circuits to oppose gun movement can be run parallel to the drive circuits for equal and opposite actions. (Effectively, it’s a “recoiless rifle” without the backblast. If your tech is a grav pusher type like this, your grav vehicles will act like they are held up via thrust — they’ll hover like Harriers, not like balloons. Moving heavy loads by slapping a grav pusher under them will leave dents in teh roadway, unless the grav fields surface footprint is big enough. the weight of the object is still transmitted down.)

        2.B. If your grav tech works, not by pushing, but by “eliminating” or otherwise making gravity do unusual things, you may be able to launch your rounds “inertialessly” in the gun, and once they are out of the field that inertialess effect is left behind so they are Newtonian ballistic objects again. No compensator needed — it’s inherent to the launching system. If this is the case, your grav vehicles probbaly float effortless, hover without a problem, and have NO effect on the ground surface beneath them. (Think Star Trek shuttles. They didn’t disturb the flowers they hovered over.)

        3. Relativistic velocity guns. Basically, you treat these like energy weapons. If you have a relativistic gun, your projectile is going to be TINY. Remember, you’re approaching E=mc^2 energy here — a 1 gram projectile is a HUGE impact downrange at .9 c.

        You still have to remove heat from your guns (although you can hand-wavie around that with graviticically drivien guns). Heat is where ALL the energy used in firing that doesn’t drive the projectile, make noise, or make light. ALL machines produce heat. If you produce heat faster than you get rid of it, eventually, you will melt.

        There are three ways of dealing with heat in a gun.

        1. Radiation. Basically, you wait for it to cool off. While it’s nice to incorporate as much radiative cooling as possible in a design, it generally doesn’t amount to squat. In other words, “air cooled weapons aren’t.”

        2. Heat sinks. You add enough mass with a high enough heat capacity to hold teh heat you EXPECT to build up. Thicker barrel walls and componants, for example. (This is the most common way in modern arms.) In older machinguns, water was used as a good heat sink — water can hold a LOT of heat (but eventually, it WILL boil off and have to be replaced.. . this ties in with teh next item.) In a futuristic arm, you could incorporate things like the shuttle reentry tiles are made of around high heat areas — but it only works if the high heat areas can THEMSELVES hold the heat without weakening. A barrel you can hold on to with a bare hand is still useless if it’s turned all gooey.

        3. You can dump heat to some heat sink mass, and then throw that mass away (taking the heat with it). This is how MANY water cooled machineguns worked — when you see the Vickers with the hose running into a can, it’s letting the gun boil off the water into steam freely, to be repalced with more water. (The can is there to recycle as much of that water as possible as condensation forms in the cooler can.) believe it or not, this is a significant feature of brass cartridge cases, and a major design issue with caseless weapons — the brass takes a decent amount of heat out of the gun when it is ejected, rather than leaving it to build up in the chamber!

      • In the end, figure out what you want your guns to do, then invent a technological basis to allow them to work the way you intend for story purposes, then follow those rules.

        Aim to deliver at least as much energy to the target as modern guns do, and remember that energy weapons that travel to the target tend to have their primary effect on the surface of the target. If the target is meat, well, meat is mostly water — laser guns will make steam explosions, not surgical cuts. (Soil will also frequently go boom from steam explosions and other rapid heating effects. . .) However, you won;t get as much energy FROM the target as you spent shooting at the target, so a laser powered with an AA battery won’t make a guy “glow and go”. (This does not hold true for guns that merely trigger an energy source from wlsewhere to show up on target. Even if it only takes 1kW to make a wormhole to Hell show up, the energy actually delivered to target is limited only by your self-set rules.)

        Try to avoid the shortcomings of the past (guns that need different things loaded into them, guns where grunts cannot share ammo to even out the supply), and theatrical mistakes of Hollywood. (Things that stand out draw fire. Dudes shooting eye-searing purple bolts that lead right back to their position stand out. This is also a past mistake — one of the reasons they went to “smokeless” powder and why antitank missiles with flashy launches and smoky trails are obsolete.)

        Infantry guns NEED to able to shoot and disable or kill typical targets. They MAY need to be able to disable slightly larger targets. You DO NOT give PVT Snuffy an “assualt rifle” with an infinity magazine, line of sight to the moon range, 10kt delivered energy per shot, and then tell him to go search a village. PVT Snuffy needs something he can fire at typical targets without killing himself and his squad.

        Likewise, guns intended for unarmored humanoid targets will probably have a limit of lethality suffiicient to vaporize a torso or so — why make it bigger than that, when you could make the gun smaller, or hold more ammo? Shooting a mugger with a concealed handgun that levels half the block is prone to get one talked about.

        In all probability, effective militaries will aim for general issue guns that require a minimum of fiddling by PVT Snuffy, other than getting the sights aligned. If Snuffy needs an 8 hour block of instruction on how to change magzines and get the connectors all clipped together, that’s bad. Likewise, if you can make the delicate stuff occure in disposable single use cartridges, there’s less chance Snuffy will break his weapon. It’s easier to build tough one-use items than a firing circuit that will survive years of being bashed against trees and dragged through the mud on exercises.

        Think — Bad laser cartridge? Work the action to get rid of it and load the next one — you still have 59 others in your magazine. Bad laser firing chamber in the weapon? Go see the armorer, hope he’s got a spare.

        Remember that armies spend a lot more time TRAINING than they do FIGHTING, even in war. If your guns are too frightful to use in training, that’s a problem. Missile crews can run drills and such on computers, space navy gunnery crews can blast useless asteroids. But there’s really no substitute for infantry doing force on force exercises with “those prima donna wannabes from 2nd Battalion”. And no, just flipping a switch to “training mode” is a NO-GO in any army I can think of, now or in the future. Maybe they replace the main ray gun emitter with one that is clearly marked for trianing and just tingles. Maybe there’s a physical lockout that holds the switch in the STUN setting (although a guy who drowns or falls off a cliff when he’s stunned is just as dead.). Maybe there’s a whole extra set of “training only” non-lethal guns (but that gets expensive.) But no one wants PVT Snuffy accidentally vaporizing his buddy on a training exercise because he thought his blaster was set to “STUN”, but it was really set on “JULIEN FRIES”.

        Armies like guns that PVT Snuffy can make absolutely stone safe, and any fool can easily see it is so at a glance. Some way to PHYSICALLY remove the ammo (batteries) and leave that space open is a really good way to do that. If the ray gun has an integral battery that cannot be removed, the military will certainly insist on SOME major motion that looks obvious that kills the gun dead, so the Space Marines don’t burn a hole through the hull of the ship while putting their phasers on the charger.

        Details like that may NEVER come out in your story — but you might want to think of them as background, to make sure that you don’t write something that makes the gun absolutely impractical, because, for instance, there’s no way to unload it.

        The more points of firm contact you get between the gun and the shooter, the steadier it will be. Two hands are better than one. Add a shoulder stock, and it gets steadier still (longer, too.) Mount it on a mechnical mount (like a tripod), and it’s as steady as the mount. But there are limits as to how steady a human being can hold a gun. A twitch that would make a shot miss by 1″ at 100 yards (1 minute of angle) will make it miss by 10″ at 1000 yards — and 1MOA is considered a good scoped hunting rifle. (1MOA used to be considered a really good sniper rifle not too long ago. It’s STILL more accurate than the milspec on an M16, which is considered a HIGHLY accurate assault rifle, which plenty of Marines have benn able to make 300m head shots with.) In other words, even if the beam is capable of delivering man killking power line-of-sight to the moon, no human will be able to hold it steady enough to make the shot.

        In contrast, Star Trek:TNG hand phasers were stupid and sucky guns — no sights, and one handed use only. Guns the size of a horse pistol, only suitable for shootouts at poker-table ranges. (Real powerful, though.)

        Guns are TOOLS. Tools to be used by (in this case) HUMANS. Tools that can do a lot of unwanted hurt if they aren’t used properly, or are too hard to use precisely. Tools that work at a distance (which is why your cordless drill doesn need a trigger guard and a thumb safety, but most guns have them.)

        But they are just tools.

    • Well, the ergonomics probably wouldn’t change much. I don’t find it very likely we’ll go from the AR and AK to energy weapons that look like this:

  28. Scott,

    It’s all about energy generation and transfer, Physics 101 stuff.

    Gunpowder and bullets are a good balance of weight and portability for energy produced via chemical reaction with a reasonably effective means of transferring that energy to a target in a way to cause harm against most countermeasures.

    Thus a lot of mil scifi simply go to caseless ammo, or other upgraded but not revolutionarily different versions of modern small arms.

    If you go with energy weapons you either have to explain or handwave what is producing the power and then how that light/heat/plasma energy is sufficient to damage a tarrget and not be easily deflected and such.

  29. Well first sorry to say I do have a H&K .45(got a good deal on it used), and no I do not drive a hummer. I do enjoy the fact you know guns and are bringing some real knowledge to the genre. I also do like some of the humor displayed “suicide by accountant comes to mind” keep it up.

  30. I’d like to see someone write a short but fun choose your own “Gun-venture” where different guns produce different results.

    For example, if someone starts attacking you with a “ballping” hammer perhaps you have a choice of a few – a pocket pistol like the Kel-Tec P3AT .380, an FN FNP .45, a Remington 870 12ga, a BCM 11.5″ SBR AR in 5.56, or the gun that will always defeat a “ballgping” hammer the HK VP70Z loaded with 18 BAT 9mm bullets and set for 3 round burst. You choose the 870 and the attacker closes the short 2 foot distance, you can’t get on target and you die – end of adventure. However, you choose the FN and have 15 rounds of .45 and you mangle his face as the hammer drops harmlessly to the ground – The adventure continues. Then of course you could choose the HK – its complicated mechanism malfunctions and you die a painful “ballpinged” death.

    You get the idea. As a fellow gun nut I’d read that. However, I would probably do like I used to as a kid and read the book front to back so I get every adventure all at once.

    • Just finished MHI and thought it a hoot! Permit me to correct a small point. The SPG 9 is actually a rocket launcher that looks like a recoilless rifle. I know this ‘cuz I trained up on one near Jalalabad. JANES Infantry Weapons claims the booster core is shot out with the rocket. No. One must extract that item manually. Shoots flat and fast as an RPG with the AT warhead. It is electrically fired via a magneto.

  31. “Only in the movies does the hero pause to dramatically rack the slide of his pistol before heading into to the climactic battle scene. “Wow! He means business now!””
    …Yeah one more thing. Racking the slide of automatics like that to “look cool” causes bullet setback. And that’s pretty bad, especially with 1911s and hollowpoints.

  32. […] SF writer who used to be a firearms instructor, who wrote his own blog post on the subject, “Ask Correia – Writing Gun Stuff,” in which he goes into more writerly detail about what kinds of characters are likely to […]

  33. I confess that I am one of those pathetic nerds who will drool over endless descriptions of character weapon load outs. Everything from John Benteen’s character Fargo in the book of the same name checking out his personal gear in an hotel room, to Matthew Quigley explaining his Sharps rifle to even Alan Quatermain talking about the elephant guns and repeaters he brings along during King Solomon’s Mines.

    For some reason weapon descriptions soak me into stories like portals like few other things do.

    Also, I may or may not have squeed like a little girl when first reading MHI and saw that Sam carried a Marlin 45-70 with cast bullets. I tend to swing towards those spectacular big bores. :)

  34. Larry, I sent a message to your “other mailbox” that was writing gun related. then I stumbled on this. So a lot of the questions are answered. Heading over to the space guns area now.

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