Tag Archives: firearms reference

Q&A: Blanks

How harmless or lethal are blanks? Would they still hurt you if you were to fire them from a close enough range at someone?

It depends on the ranges, but blanks can kill.

So, when we’re talking about injuries and deaths from firearms, the focus is, somewhat obviously, on the bullet. That’s reasonable, the bullet is the most dangerous part of the equation, but it’s not the only danger.

Gunpowder doesn’t, technically, explode, it simply burns very energetically. This means there’s a lot of hot gasses, and burning particulate matter ejected from the barrel. Anything that doesn’t make it out of the barrel (called fouling) needs to be cleaned periodically.

This is an important, and often overlooked detail, conventional firearms are dirty and messy weapons. Modern powders burn cleaner than black powder, but this is still nasty, corrosive, stuff. This is why cleaning your gun is important, and why guns became significantly more mechanically complex after the invention of cordite. As well as after each new iteration of propellants.

Gunpowder at the point of ignition burns somewhere north of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. (Above 1800C.) Now, it doesn’t stay at those temperatures for long, but it does release rapidly expanding, extremely hot gasses. Those can result in severe burns, at extremely close ranges (read: several inches.) Pressing a gun, loaded with blanks against someone and firing it will result in some pretty horrific wounds. This is because the expanding gasses will be forced into the victim, resulting in a star pattern tear in the victim’s skin, significant internal disruption, and burns.

Second, the bullet is not the only projectile a gun will eject. Wadding will also be sent down range. In the case of shotguns, wadding is critical for getting the shot moving. However, in the case of blanks, the wadding is vital for keeping the blank from simply dumping it’s load out the front of the cartridge. This isn’t usually much of a consideration because it’s fairly light weight, and doesn’t tend to go very far before physics catches up with it, but if you’re struck by it when the gun is an inch or two away from your body, it’s still moving quite rapidly, and while the mass is quite low, it will still have some significant force behind it.

All of this is short range, gunshot burns usually end around 3 feet from the gun, though stray particles of burning powder can travel father. So, generally, blanks are, “safe” if you’re more than a few feet from the target. However, for something like a mock execution (where someone puts the gun to the back of another’s head), they can kill.

Unfortunately, there have been more than a few on stage deaths that were the result of actors fooling around with blanks. One example is Jon-Erik Hexum, who started playing Russian roulette with a blank cartridge on the set of Cover Up. The blank blew a hole in his skull, and the resulting bone chip was forced through his brain, killing him.

There are other tools to simulate a gunshot at close ranges, but it’s not as simple as loading blanks into a functional firearm.

Also worth noting that blanks can propel debris in the barrel with as much force as a normal gunshot. The common example are some nail guns, which use blank cartridges to propel the nail into wood.

The more tragic example is the death of Brandon Lee. While shooting The Crow, Michael Massee’s character used a .44 magnum revolver (a S&W Model 629.) The gun had been loaded with blanks. For the scene where his character murders Brandon Lee’s. The problem was in the prop.

The 629 had previously been used in a series of close ups. The production had created dummy rounds, but dismantling live .44 cartridges, and removing the powder, then reassembling the bullets. This left the primers intact. Something that is not an issue with commercially produced dummy rounds, that exist specifically for situations like this.

After shooting the close ups, the prop master dry fired the revolver before removing the handmade dummy shells, and never examined them to determine their condition. There’s so many things wrong with this, but I’ll condense to the important detail, the primer for the round in the chamber migrated the bullet into the barrel where it came to rest. After that, without ever inspecting the barrel, or really examining the weapon, the prop master loaded it with blanks.

When Michael Massee was supposed to fire a blank at Brandon Lee, the bullet in the barrel was ejected, killing him.

Blanks still simulate a gunshot. It’s, “safe,” if you’re careful. But, get close enough, and these can do some singularly horrific things.

If the point of the question was, “can people screw around with them and live?” Yeah, or they can die. There’s a range of possible outcomes, few of them pleasant.

If the point of the question was, “is there any truth to that, the actor gets killed by a blank?” Yeah, that does happen. With just enough frequency to be depressing. Brandon Lee’s death was tragic, but the number of moving parts that created that tragedy was unusual. There are plenty of actors, like Hexum, who have killed themselves or others by mishandling props because, “it’s just a blank.”

-Starke

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Hi guys, I have a character who uses an unloaded handgun purely for intimidation. My questions are: Are there specific types of guns that would appear more threatening to an expert than others, or is the damage they do linked more to the type of ammo used than the gun itself? Would an expert be able to call his bluff? If you have a specific brand/style recommendation that I could look up as well that would be really helpful. (I also read your older post on how to tell if a gun is loaded for ref)

This is an incredibly bad idea for many reasons. It doesn’t
mean you can’t have a character who does this, there are people out there who
engage in exactly this kind of behavior, but there some things you should be
aware of.

Threatening someone with a weapon, even an unloaded firearm
is a crime. This is called brandishing, and the laws vary widely between
states. Both the specific definition, and the severity of the sentencing. In
some states it’s a misdemeanor that will put you in jail for 90 days, in others
it’s a felony that will strip you of the right to vote or own a gun, and
sentence you to at least 3 years.

Pulling a firearm will escalate the situation. This should
be fairly self explanatory: When you draw a gun, you’re announcing to everyone present
that you’re willing to permanently remove someone from this plane of existence.
The problem is, if you just pulled an unloaded firearm, that’s a threat you can’t
make good on. Doing this because you don’t have another option is a dangerous
gamble. Doing this intentionally is stupid, and borderline suicidal.

Turns out, most people object to being killed, and many of
them are willing to preemptively retaliate in self defense. They may have
ethical or moral objections to the decision after the fact, but in the heat of
the moment, they don’t want to die. In the face of someone who is fighting for
their life an unloaded gun is an incredibly poor weapon of choice; especially
if their opponent’s is loaded or they’re carrying a knife. Then, some people are just willing to risk attempting a disarm. If they manage to take the gun (likely since your protagonist can’t shoot them), turn it around and find it isn’t loaded? They’re going to get pissed off. If your protagonist was banking entirely on the idea that the gun would work, then it’s possible they’ve escalated the situation past the point it can be diffused. (That happened the moment they levered a gun at someone.)

The irony is, your character would actually be safer, and
more responsible, pointing a loaded handgun at people. They’re going to create
a situation where (eventually) someone’s going to start shooting back. This isn’t
a “maybe, someday” situation. Someone will look at your character’s gun, and
decide the appropriate response is to shoot them first.

As I said earlier, there is a place for this kind of a stunt
in a story. But it’s not as a character’s normal modus operandi. This is
something they use once, to get out of a desperate situation when they don’t
have any other options. Using this constantly will kill the tension… and then
your character.

Someone who knows what they’re looking at may be able to
know your character is bluffing via a couple tells. I’m going to stress, this
isn’t a fully inclusive list, it’s just things that occur to me off hand.
Cycling an empty automatic pistol will trigger the slide lock. On most models
you can manually hold the lock down, but this is visible. Second, with a little
experience you can actually hear if the action is cycling a round into battery.

You basically cannot pull this with a revolver. While the
chambered round isn’t easily visible, the next two rounds in the cylinder are, which
will probably lead to awkward suspicions about the entire thing being empty.

It’s not a handgun, but, for the sheer intimidation factor, you can’t beat a twelve
gauge at close range. Just don’t let anyone get a look down the barrel; they
might notice there’s no shell in the battery. This is a concern with handguns,
but getting a clear view of the firing pin is slightly more difficult. With a
shotgun you’re looking for a brightly colored plastic shell, and a bore
diameter that is much larger than a handgun’s. As with pistols, cycling an
empty shotgun will sound slightly different from one that’s moving a shell into
the chamber. This is just a function of how the mechanical systems interact with
a loaded gun. When those systems engage, you can hear it, when they don’t, they’re
not there.

To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what causes the
audible difference. Beyond the unhelpful, “more things happen with a loaded gun.”
It’s something I’ve noticed while shooting, but never really bothered to
investigate.

-Starke

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Would firearms of any era work in a burning building? Wouldn’t the flames make the bullets go off or at least heat the gun up so much it is painful to hold?

Most firearms should work in a burning building. There may be some edge case that won’t, but I can’t think of any off hand. That said, any firearm with an exposed powder pan (like a flintlock, wheellock, or matchlock) could easily discharge on its own, if a spark ignited the exposed powder. They’d still work, it just might be much sooner than you were planning.

I’m not sure about percussion cap guns, but they might have a similar issue. These had a nasty habit of chain firing, where the spark from one cap would ignite another, firing multiple rounds at once. This wasn’t a serious problem with pepperbox pistols, instead of one round, it would fire two or more. But it could be a serious issue with revolvers and turrets, where the extra rounds could strike the pistol or (in the case of turrets) the operator. I don’t know if flecks of fire hitting the caps will ignite them, but it is a real risk.

Bullets will discharge if sufficiently heated, called “cooking off.” For example, being tossed into an open flame or into a heated skillet will result in rounds igniting. (Don’t do this, seriously.)

Cooking off can also occur with a firearm that is substantially overheated. If the chamber is too hot, the firearm will cycle, the round will cook off, causing the firearm to cycle again. This is called a “runaway gun.” At this point the only solution is to keep it pointed down range until it runs dry.

It’s probably worth pointing out: Automatic firearms generate a lot of heat, and dealing with that is an important engineering consideration in designing them. Guns that will runaway after extended use are a real issue.

Taking a firearm into a burning building is, in general, a bad idea; much like going into a burning building.

Now, if the gun or ammunition is engulfed in flames, that’s a different problem. As I mentioned earlier, actually setting ammunition on fire will result in it discharging on its own. This is more likely to involve the rounds detonating in the magazine and shredding it, than the gun firing uncontrollably.

This is more of an issue if you’re talking about an ammo cache in the burning building, rather than something your characters took in. If your characters are carrying their firearms, they shouldn’t have any particular issues. At least, none that affect the guns before the smoke and fire finished off anyone left alive.

That said, ammunition left behind in a building would be a serious consideration for fire crews trying to deal with the blaze.

-Starke

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As a comic writer, I’ve been portraying muzzle flashes as incredibly bright, just like the ones seen in films. But when I saw a muzzle flash in real life, it seemed smaller. So what can you tell us about muzzle flashes? What separates the ones seen in fiction from the ones in real life? And if I was to show them in a more realistic light, how could I go about that? Thank you!

The ones you’ll see in films and TV are, for the most part, blanks. These are cartridges that lack a projectile. They’ll have a full, or mostly full, powder charge, with some paper wadding to keep the powder in the shell before firing.

These are much safer than firing live rounds, for somewhat obvious reasons.

When you fire a normal, modern, cartridge: the primer detonates, igniting the powder, pushing the bullet into motion. The muzzle flash you see is burning powder escaping the barrel.

With a blank: the primer detonates, igniting the powder, ejecting most of the still burning powder down the barrel. Propellant that would normally be consumed pushing the projectile gets to wander free and burn in the open atmosphere.

At least, that’s my recollection. I haven’t spent much time with blanks, and all of that was with nail guns, so I could be wrong about exactly why this happens.

It’s probably worth pointing out that blanks can actually be quite dangerous at close range. The biggest risk is the burning powder. With a normal round, fired at close ranges, burning powder can cause minor injuries. Called “stipling,” this is often useful in establishing if the shooter and the victim were within a few yards of each other. It can also result in minor burns from a short range near miss.

With a blank, you’re looking at the entire load of powder being dumped into someone’s face, the burns can be nasty. It’s not quite the same as pumping a round into them, these burns can be lethal. At very close ranges, the kinetic shock from high power blanks can break bones. In some cases, the wading (usually paper or light plastic) can penetrate and function as an impromptu bullet.

Incidentally, you could scale back the powder to produce a more “realistic” muzzle flash. But, with any automatically cycling firearm, under-powered cartridges have a nasty habit of not delivering enough force to cycle the mechanism. A good example of this would be loading 12 gauge flare shells or dragon’s breath shells into a semi-automatic shotgun. The gun can fire them, but you’ll need to manually cycle it between shots, because neither produces enough force to actually cycle the action. This can also happen when crossloading rounds, like chambering a .380 in a 9x19mm pistol or a .40 in a 10mm pistol (do not try this, the results can be far worse than the pistol not cycling).

-Starke

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How effective are combination weapons? Like a pistol-ax or sword-pistol?

Sword pistols are a weird historical oddity. They exist, mostly from the 18th century (not counting the modern gunswords specifically patterned off Final Fantasy.)

The problem is, they don’t really work that well. The extra weight makes the pistol harder to aim, while the modifications to include a functional gun reduces the sword’s balance, increases the weight, and undermines it’s effectiveness.

I’m not sure about a gun/axe combo, but to an extent you’re looking at the same basic concessions.

The one good counter example are bayonets. At a really reductive level, you could call those a combo weapon. Though in that case, you’re talking about using a longarm, and a lightweight melee weapon. My understanding is that the extra weight of the blade does make the weapon a little harder to operate, but, the entire idea is you’d be attaching the bayonet when you weren’t expecting the gun to be enough on it’s own anyway.

There may be some integrated longarm with an attached blade that I’m unaware of, so the gun axe or a gun halberd is just this side of plausible. But, again, I’ve never heard of any historical examples.

Combo weapons can also include things like an under-slung grenade launcher, shotgun, or other attachment. For what they’re intended to do, those work. Though it’s probably not what you were thinking of.

There’s also the Lemat pistol. This was a .36 or .42 caliber revolver with an integrated 20 gauge shotgun in the center of the cylinder, and designed to fire from a secondary barrel located under the primary. Again, it’s more of a historical oddity than a practical weapon, as less than three thousand of these pistols were originally produced. Though I believe you can buy modern reproductions chambered in .44, 20 gauge.

-Starke

I’m developing guns for a secondary world and I’m not sure how to go about naming them. I’d like them to sound ‘authentic’ although companies like Smith & Wesson don’t exist in this setting. Do you know of any resources to get a comprehensive sense of how firearms are names? Companies, models, brands (and what do all the letters and numbers mean?)

The real answer is, they don’t mean anything.

Company names tend to be like any other. You have companies that were named after the founder (or founders). For example, S&W was named after it’s founders, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Glock, Winchester, H&K, and Colt are also examples.

There are companies that were named very descriptively. The best explanation would probably be through exact examples. IMI is simply an abbreviation of Israeli Military Industries. FN Herstal (usually referred to as FN) is Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal (or National Factory of Herstal).

SIG Sauer is an interesting combination of both. It’s actually two separate companies. SIG is Schweizerrische Industriegesellschaft, or Swiss Industrial Company. Sauer is actually J. P. Sauer und Sohn GmbH, which (I’m assuming) was named for the company’s original founders, though given it was founded in 1751, I can’t verify that off hand.

Companies that were named because someone liked the way it sounded, but don’t actually mean anything. Microtech, Freedom Arms, and Taurus come to mind.

The weapon names are created by the company. So in a lot of cases you’re looking at the result of market research guys deciding what to name something. Again, these names can be descriptive, H&K’s USP is derived from Universelle Selbstladepistole. Or, universal self-loading pistol. Or they can be entirely designed to the consumer, like the Colt Python, or the S&W Sigma.

As with the company, it’s not unheard of for a pistol to be named after the designer. FN’s Browning Hi-Power for example.

It’s also not unheard of for firearms to be named after their year of implementation. The 1911 pattern pistol is a classic example. It’s not always safe to assume this is the case.

For a partial trifecta, you can look at the AK-47 AK is short for Avtomat Kalashnikova. Avtomat is just Russian for Automatic. Kalashnikova is a female patronymic based on the designer’s name (Mikhail Kalashnikov). And, the gun was intended to enter service in 1947, though, that didn’t quite happen, it does reflect the general time the weapon entered service.

That said, the numbers don’t automatically mean anything. They can refer to general product iterations, Glock and SIG both do this. They can be picked to sound cool, Colt’s been guilty of this a few times. Or, they can actually have a fairly complex internal meaning, like many of the S&W automatics.

Numbers and letters can be combined to identify iterations in a firearm’s design. This happens by amending an “a” to the number. Further minor iterations can be indicated by adding a number after the letter. More substantial iterations can be indicated by increment the letter, and resetting the number progression. So an “a” then an “a1″, an “a2″, then on a major iteration, a “b”, followed by a “b1.″

Functionally, this works fairly similarly to software patch numbers, though those are delineated with decimal points.

Also, sometimes a letter will be appended to a firearm to indicate that it’s a specific variant. The H&K MP5K isn’t the 10th iteration of an MP5, it’s the “kurz” or “short” version. Though, the MP5 does have a series of A# variants, that are iterative. For the MP5K, the A gets applied after the K, so an MP5KA1.

Ammunition is almost as random, and it gets wedged comfortably in a weird state between Imperial and Metric measurements, sometimes with the same round existing in both.

Caliber is a decimal of an inch. So, .50 would be half an inch, .45 is 9/20ths, and so on.

A millimeter value is just the diameter of the bullet, so, that’s what 9mm means. Technically, you also often have to identify the length of the bullet under the metric system, to differentiate between something like 9x19mm Parabellum (the NATO version of 9mm you’re probably familiar with) and 9x18mm Makarov (the Warsaw Pact version.)

There are metric equivalent values for Calibers, it’s the same bullet, just under a different name. So, a 12.7mm round is going to be a .50. A .40 is a 10mm round, though it’s actually a 10x22mm, in comparison the “normal” 10mm round, which is 10x25mm. Which is why they use different names, even though they came out of the same R&D project. The .40 is a lower power version, developed after the 10x25mm proved too difficult to use.

Shotgun gauges are calculated through an incredibly archaic system. It’s the barrel diameter to fit a single lead ball of that fraction of a pound (dating back to non-scattershot, unrifled barrels). So a 12 gauge is chambered to take a musket ball that weighs 1/12th of a pound. A 20 gauge, 1/20th, and so on. 12 gauge works out to be roughly 18.5mm, if I remember correctly, but that’s a statistic basically no one uses.

If you’re wanting a useful takeaway from that, I’d say, settle on a round for the role you want, and don’t worry too much about making the ammunition match to real world cartridges, because the ones in the real world are an incredibly diverse arrangement.

I’m hesitant to even start a discussion about firearms types, in this context, because of how much history gets dragged in. The rise of automatic weapons in the 20th century is intertwined with the world’s wars. The submachine gun was something that, specifically, had a very hard time wining over entrenched military bureaucracies before the Germans started making heavy use of it in WWII. In turn that lead to the evolution of assault rifles in the final days of, and after WWII. Well, battle rifles, modern assault rifles were a further result of trying to take the 7.62mm automatic rifles and bringing them down into something more manageable, based on the ranges that combat was actually occurring at, rather than what military thinking thought they should be fought at.

When you start building your own setting, you have to decide how much of that is getting jettisoned, and how much needs to be brought over.

-Starke