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
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
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
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