Tag Archives: firearms reference

Q&A: Gun Tropes

Not sure if this is your domain, but I will still ask a general question: Using guns. What are some common tropes that people get wrong/right? For example, I heard that dual wielding has no use in real life and let’s not forget about the villains who never seem to run out of bullets.

Poor trigger discipline drives me up a wall. Poor barrel discipline is probably a close second. I’d lump in general gun safety issues, but those two are the biggest offenders.

“Trigger discipline,” is a central rule of gun safety: Do not touch the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Usually you’ll keep your trigger finger straight, or rest it along the frame when you’re not about to fire. In some cases, and depending on your hand, you might rest it against the trigger guard. Regardless, do not touch the trigger until you are sighted in and prepared to fire.

The problem is a generation of directors and photographers have insisted on poor trigger discipline for their films and photo shoots. Often with the justification that, “it looks more dangerous.” Of course, this is because it is significantly more dangerous. It’s a recipe for an accidental discharge.

Barrel discipline is another of these. The safety rule is, “never point the gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.” The full implication extends a bit further than that; you want to maintain awareness of where your gun is pointed at all times, and don’t point it at anything you’re not okay with putting a round into.

I’m a bit touchy about these because I have been around people who didn’t take them seriously. Mercifully, I’ve never seen these go horribly wrong in person, but these are central rules to gun safety for very good reasons. If they’re not respected, there’s a very real danger of a catastrophic accident. I still have a .gif around here of someone playing with a laser sight and accidentally putting a round through his hand, as a bit of schadenfreude.

Related to both is a problem where characters are way too happy to draw their gun, long before its warranted. This is the same reason, it communicates danger to the audience. However, this actively dangerous behavior. It’s reasonable if someone’s going to open fire if they see you, but someone who wouldn’t open fire on someone simply for being there is more likely to start shooting if they think that person is coming to kill them.

Threatening someone with a gun is illegal. It doesn’t matter if the gun’s real, fake, if you really meant it, or if it was a bluff, it’s brandishing, and that is a crime.

I’ll confirm the dual wielding thing for you, it doesn’t work. Modern pistols are two handed weapons. You stabilize the gun with your off-hand. While you can hold one in each hand, the result is going to be messy, and you’re not going to hit what you want. The entire philosophy of, “but I’m firing twice as many bullets,” doesn’t really play because you can’t put those rounds where you want them. Also, trying to manage mismatched pistols is just distracting. If you’ve got different ammo counts, you’re going to be staggering them out or running one dry much faster than the other. Reloading is disproportionately more cumbersome. I get that it looks cool, but it does not work, and is not as fun as it looks.

The other example you’re coming up with is a little more complicated than it sounds, so we’re going to be here for a minute. Also, some of these numbers might be a little off, I haven’t thought about film production in years, so I’m spitballing numbers from memory.

Ammo accounting while filming is hard. The more rounds a weapon loads, the harder it will be for the editor to ensure the weapon isn’t firing beyond its capacity. Especially given that the editor is probably not a firearms expert. They had a consultant on set who can quote off the specs, but it’s unlikely the editor and armorer ever met.

You have a film where the protagonist carves through people with a shotgun before running dry, discarding it, and switching to their sidearm. They have two spare mags for the sidearm, and it carries 15+1 rounds. The shotgun carries 8+1, with a 4 shells in the carrier.

As fights on screen goes: this is a pretty easy set up.

They shoot the initial sequence. Everything goes well, except a squib pack fails to deploy on one of the stunt performers. At this point the pistol hasn’t been used at all, the shotgun’s run through 11 rounds.

The armorer restocks the shotgun, and they shoot the initial sequence again. This time it goes to plan.

The armorer restocks the shotgun, and they collect a set of insert shots. Close ups of hands. The protagonist moving shells from the carrier into the shotgun. The protagonist is filmed dropping the, “empty,” shotgun three times. The second time, the shotgun is scuffed when it lands, and is replaced by another rental of the same make, model, and modifications. (These are called hero props, by the way. If you get a closeup of it, that’s a “hero prop.” If you’re seeing something it wide shots, it might actually be a facsimile. Hollywood uses a lot of plastic guns for scenes where you’ll never get a good look at it, and it’s never fired.) If they have to go back and do some pickups of shots they did earlier, it will now be with a different shotgun, because the first prop has now been visibly altered by that scuff.

Second sequence is shot, this more elaborate, it involves involves a lot of insert shots, a lot of cuts. There’s a wardrobe change midway through, as the protagonist’s jacket is damaged by gunfire. They’re also, “injured,” requiring a makeup change.

The shooting schedule says that everything after the injury was shot last week, along with a couple dialog scenes and some shoe leather for the post fight wrap up, so that’s already done. Everything after the wardrobe change will be done in the afternoon. Wardrobe says they have four copies of the “damaged” jacket on hand. (Same reason you have the extra shotgun: If something happens to one, you need a replacement on hand immediately.)

So, shooting begins. Each of the shots on the schedule for the day have to be done repeatedly. Again, I’m being generous here, but we’ll assume a few go on the first take, and some require a few tries. An easy way to make sure it works as intended is to carve up the shots into the smallest pieces possible, so if something does go wrong it doesn’t cascade out, they can call “cut,” and redo that specific component.

So an individual shot may just be the lead firing a couple rounds, or reloading. One of the henchmen getting shot, taking a dirt nap. Some of this may be arranged by who’s available at the moment, and some of the shooting may get slightly out of sequence if something malfunctions, or they have to swap out props.

Still here?

Six months later, an editor is handed the film, along all of that chaos. They now have roughly 10 hours of footage, of which they’ll use a few minutes. Remembering they’re not an expert on firearms, they do not know what the handgun can hold, or how many rounds you can put in a pump action shotgun. They now need to construct a coherent fight scene from yards of film that are partially out of sequence, and were shot on different days.

When the film gets to theaters, someone who sits down and carefully counts will note that the protagonist just fired 19 rounds from a SIG P226 without reloading.

Oops.

This even happens with films that are very careful about this stuff. I may be misremembering, but I could swear there’s a scene in John Wick 2 where he fires 11 shells from a Benelli M4 without reloading. For reference, a military variant of that shotgun will usually carry 7+1.

On the downside, some directors and editors really don’t care. So you won’t have any shots of reloading or the reloading inserts will get dropped by the editor. (“Left on the cutting room floor,” used to be literal, not a figure of speech.) There’s a lot of things that can happen here. I don’t generally hold a grudge about it. “John Woo clips” are their own kind of joke at this point. That said, when you see director and editor who are being careful about this minutiae, it’s always a nice touch.

“Clips,” and, “magazines,” are both correct terminology, however, they’re not interchangeable, and most of the things non-gun users refer to as clips are magazines.

Every repeating firearm will have a magazine. It’s where extra rounds are stored before being loaded into the receiver. In the example of a pump action shotgun, it’s the tube below the barrel which holds shells in reserve. Magazines do not need to be removable, though it is convenient when they are.

A clip is a device which holds lose rounds in place and assists in feeding them into the magazine. On many rifles with integrated (non-removable) magazines, a clip will be used to quickly feed loose rounds.

The easiest rule of thumb is, “if the object mounts into the gun and stays there,” it’s a magazine. “If the bullets are removed, the object is emptied and discarded, during the reload process,” it’s a clip. I can think of a few oddball counter examples to those specific descriptions, but the basic idea is there.

So with that in mind, “John Woo clips,” is technically incorrect, because the weapons in his films used detachable box mags, however, that’s the idiom.

Extremely rare guns will sometimes raise an eyebrow for me. The Pancor Jackhammer comes to mind. It was a fully automatic shotgun developed in the late 80s and has a very distinctive look. That said, it never hit commercial production, and only three prototypes were ever built. At least one of these ended up with a Hollywood Armory, and was rented out extensively in the 90s.

The handheld minigun from Predator and Terminator 2 is a similar situation. There’s one prop, and it keeps getting reused in films. The real M134s are mounted weapons, not handheld.

Conversely, I’ve got a soft spot for the M91, because the gun never existed. A Vancouver gunsmith rigged the thing up in the early 90s to fire blanks. I’m not sure how many were made, but they pop up intermittently, starting in the early 90s.

There’s an inverse example where production companies will simply use standard firearms as advanced sci-fi hardware. I still hold a grudge against the BSG reboot for handing out unaltered Vektor CP1s and FN P90s. Firefly, is another egregious offender here.

In contrast, there’s stuff like the M41a Pulse Rifles in Aliens, which were actually Thompson SMGs, with mounted underbarrel SPAS-12s. Good luck realizing that while watching the film.

Star Wars is infamous for kit bashing existing firearms, and I do really wish people would stop modifying surviving Mauser C96s into “BlasTech DL-44s.” That’s a fairly rare antique they’re destroying. When they could just get a non-firing replica for a fraction of the price. Fun trivia: If you watch carefully, you can actually see the Stormtrooper Blaster Rifles ejecting 9mm shell casings in some scenes from ANH.

I’m not wild about Desert Eagles. They’re simply not worth the price. I get why they’re used in film. It’s a very distinctive looking gun. It’s a very intimidating design. But, it’s not a good weapon, and every time I see someone who’s supposed to be some kind of special operations badass pull one, I’m immediately gone.

Bullets pass through objects. If you’re shooting at someone, and they “take cover,” behind a couch or an interior wall, just shoot through it. Those won’t stop a handgun round. You need solid barriers to protect against gunfire. It will punch through things. Taking cover behind the engine block of a car or the wheels is an option, but hiding behind the body won’t work. The bullet will simply pass through that, and you.

You cannot snipe with a laser at long ranges. Lasers can be useful at very close ranges. If you’re in the same room, it can help you get a bead on where your round will go without having to sight in. However, a laser is still a focused beam of light. It gets wider the further it lands from you. Meaning, as an aim point it loses its value. Second, and more critically, your bullet is a physical object, your laser is a stream of photons. Your bullet is affected by gravity and wind. Meaning, at range, you’ll need to adjust for bullet drop. It is not as simple as lining up the crosshairs and pulling the trigger. At extreme ranges (over a mile) it gets really complicated. Short version, a sniper with a laser gets nothing from it, except the ability to inform their victim a bullet’s about to hit.

Suppressors do not silence a weapon. They can significantly reduce the sound from a gunshot, but it’s still going to make a lot of noise. The sound of the gunshot is the rapidly expanding, burning gasses. If you could fully capture those, you would dramatically reduce the noise a gun makes. This is somewhat possible with purpose built firearms designed to be as silent as possible, however it takes a lot more than just screwing a can on the end of your barrel. Suppressors do let you fire a gun without alerting the whole block, but everyone the immediate area will still hear the (quieter) gunshots.

Related bit, threaded barrels on firearms are a little unusual. Most commercially available guns in the US cannot mount a suppressor without modification. Variants with threaded barrels do exist (for many), though getting access to those will take extra work.

When it comes to silencing a firearm, the magic number is 343m/s. If your bullet is traveling faster than that, it is faster than sound, and the bullet will create an audible crack as it travels. This is, literally, a mini-sonic boom and the only way to prevent it is to keep the initial velocity under that. Incidentally, if you’re using a modern 9mm pistol, your muzzle velocity will be at least 360m/s, unless you’re using subsonic ammo.

“Gangsta Style,” shooting, where the the gun is held horizontally, doesn’t work. You can’t hit anything. You need to be able to use the sights of your weapon.

Do not close your opposite eye while aiming. You might squint a bit, but you need that eye to help judge distance, and improve awareness. This might not hold true when you’re firing a .50 into an adjacent zip code, but, 99% of the time, keep it open.

Magazines aren’t disposable. Those are actually fairly expensive ($15-$20 USD on the low end for common magazine types.) You really don’t want to just drop them on the ground and forget about them. You want to swap a partial mag for a fresh one, depositing the partial in a convenient pocket, pouch, or whatever. Restack your mags when you have time, after the shooting is over.

Related to that, you don’t want to run a gun dry. Reload when you have a moment and are starting to run low, not after it’s empty. The only time you want to empty your gun is when you’re doing practice shooting on the range. The last thing you want to is drop a hammer an empty chamber when someone’s trying to kill you.

Firearms magazines aren’t cross compatible between weapons, except when they are. Handgun mags are, very rarely cross compatible. If a weapon is built to a specific pattern, like the Beretta 92/M9 knock offs, Then magazines built for that pattern should be compatible with other pistols of the same pattern. The entire point is to allow multiple manufacturers to supply military contracts.

There’s one major exception with handguns: Glocks are very cross compatible. If the magazine is sized for the correct cartridge, you can cross load any magazine from a larger, compatible Glock. For example, the Glock 26 is a subcompact 9mm. It will accept magazines from the full frame 9mm (the Glock 17), the compact 9mm (the Glock 19), and (I assume) a few of the more recent 9mm variants like the Glock 46. Conversely, your Glock 17 can not load any of the smaller magazines.

When it comes to assault rifles, there’s a couple standards, and a lot of rifles that aren’t interested. In the early 80s, NATO adopted the STANAG format. This isn’t a single magazine type, it’s standards on how the magazine should interface with the weapon, so that they are cross compatible. The entire idea behind NATO was transnational joint operations, and the STANAG was adopted along side the selection of 5.56mm as the standard assault rifle cartridge. Having a shared magazine format would make logistics easier to manage in situations where multiple armed forces were operating together. The Warsaw Pact had a similar standard, it’s used in the AK, though I’m unaware of what the formal name is.

Ammunition names are more than a little idiosyncratic. Generally speaking there are three different conflicting measurement systems.

Metric is the simplest, this is the diameter of the projectile, expressed in millimetres. Sometimes this comes with a qualifier, or with the length also expressed. So, 9mm Parabellum and 9x19mm are the same round. This is often abbreviated to 9mm without qualification, but that’s actually a problem, there a lot of common 9mm cartridges. So, 9×19, which is “the standard” 9mm cartridge you’d think of. There’s 9mm Makarov (9×18) which was the Warsaw Pact 9mm pistol round, there’s .380 (9×17), there’s .357 Magnum (9x32mm though you’ll rarely see the metric measurement for this one.) If it’s a .38 (including the .357 family), it’s a 9mm round.

Caliber is where the wheels come off. In theory, the caliber is the diameter of the bullet in hundredths of an inch. In practice, it sometimes adjusts that value as a ratio against the length of the cartridge. This is probably why a .38 and a .357 are both the same size, even though the .38 should be significantly larger if it were just hundredths of an inch. (And, unless my math skills are worse than usual, 9mm should work out to around .36, so probably .357, meaning the .38 is the one messing with us here.) I say, “probably,” because sometimes the caliber changes on a whim. The .30-06 comes to mind. It’s a .30 round but the “06” refers to 1906.

Gauge is used exclusively for shotguns, and this one is a really goofy measurement system. The size of the bore is calculated based on a lead sphere weighing one pound divided by the gauge. So, a 12 gauge is the diameter of a lead sphere weighing 1/12th lb. So, a 12 gauge has a bore diameter of 18.53mm (and yes, I had to look that up.) This means, as the gauge goes down, the size goes up. It also means looking a metric measurements for shotguns is really messy.

If that’s not confusing enough, there’s also one shotgun shell (the .410) which uses a caliber instead of a gauge. It’s also the smallest commercial shotgun shell.

While we’re on the subject of shotguns, it’s worth noting these things have a lot of range to them. This is very dependent on the individual shotgun, but figure a “normal” 12 gauge pump loaded with buck will have a six foot spread at 100 yards. There’s two implications to this. First, it kill someone at 100 yards. Second, you need to aim. It’s not a scatter gun that will paint everything in the room.

There’s also a very specific consideration with shotguns, slugs or shot. A shotgun can put a monstrous slug down range, and if you have rifling, that’s going to be fairly accurate, and lethal, beyond handgun range. Shotguns are a little weird here, because there’s multiple roads to rifling. You can have a rifled barrel, you can have rifled slugs, or you can have a rifled choke. Firing shot down a rifled barrel will widen your cone (not sure exactly how much, I haven’t done this personally.) If it’s a slug, you want to make sure you’re getting rifling somewhere, or the slug will tumble in flight, and your accuracy will suffer.

I’m not sure when this transitioned from a list of gripes to a firearms primer, but here we are. I hope you enjoyed.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Gunfire

Hi. Yet another gunfire question, actually two: 1) While ricochets can be just as lethal, are they more realistic for “flesh wounds” that don’t break (shatter) bones? 2) Looking at stats like muzzle velocity, many late 19th-century rifles seem roughly the same power as modern handguns of the same caliber. Can we use this to estimate what the bullets can or can’t do?

cathreese-blog-blog

I’m going to focus on a minor, but critical part of this question: Grazing hits from direct fire and ricochets are equally realistic. Both of these things occur. It’s not that they’re particularly common, but it’s no more or less realistic for a character to suffer a superficial injury from a gunshot than from shrapnel or a ricochet. These things happen.

With gunfire, a graze is one that doesn’t penetrate deeply. It may skim across the surface, though in some circumstances a bullet will skate across bone. The victim walks away with a minor injury

Of course, a bullet doesn’t need to break bones to kill you. A through and through that ruptures an artery is immediately life threatening. A shot to the lower abdomen is an excruciating way to die. Either of these can occur without any skeletal damage. If you get shot, you can bleed to death and die from, “a flesh wound.”

This is before you get into, “fun,” concepts like hydrostatic shock, which holds it’s possible to cause neural damage from suffering a gunshot elsewhere on the body. (Though, last I checked, hydrostatic shock was a disputed phenomena.)

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth reminding people that it’s quite easy to miss the fact that you’ve shot in combat. The adrenaline means your pain response is dulled, and your body doesn’t know what to make of a gunshot wound. This has a few implications:

First: You don’t know if you’ve received a grazing hit. You probably won’t find out until afterwards.

Second: It’s entirely possible to end up with shrapnel in your body that you don’t know about. This is unusual, but not particularly noteworthy.

Third: It’s possible to suffer a terminal injury and not realize it. You can’t feel the injury, and in the adrenaline fueled state your only warning is if you realize you’re bleeding heavily. It is entirely realistic for someone to just keep fighting until they lose consciousness and bleed to death.

The exception to that final point is if the gunshot does shatter bones. That is something you cannot ignore. It’s not a pain issue, you need your bones to function, break them and you’ll be unable to use those limbs.

As for 19th century weapons? No, not really. I’m not going to say it’s completely impossible to take a 19th century weapon and find some modern analogy. Physically, it’s the same principle; you’re ejecting a chunk of metal at your target, so, if the math lines up, all things should be equal. However, the engineering is entirely different. That engineering meant that 19th century weapons had a lot of issues we just don’t see anymore. Rapid fouling (the buildup of unburnt powder) isn’t an issue. Overpressurizing the chamber causing the firearm to explode is still technically possible, but you’d only see that with sloppy hand loads, faulty weapons, or loading the wrong cartridge into a weapon.

There is a significant difference in how you’d use a 19th century firearm compared to a modern one. Because reloading took significantly longer, you couldn’t afford to spray and pray, the way you can with modern box magazines. This means less bullets in flight, more focus on making sure those rounds connect.

So, can we compare 19th century firearms to modern ones? Not really. Even stuff like ballistic gel tests are going to be somewhat suspect. Just remember that any bullet can kill if it hits something vital.

-Starke

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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