Writer Research: Guns

Is your protagonist a former spy on the run from the government? An intrepid reporter who sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong? Guns often play a major role in contemporary fiction, especially in genres like mystery or suspense.

So how do you portray guns accurately? How do you avoid clichés and misconceptions? This primer will help you get started, covering basic terminology while debunking things you may have “learned” from the big screen.

Ready to get started?

Basic Types:

  • Designed to be fired with one hand
  • Barrel is up to 16 inches
  • Includes pistols and revolvers
Long Gun
  • Fired with two hands
  • Usually braced against a shoulder, may be set up on a tripod
  • Barrel is longer than 16 inches
  • Includes rifles and shotguns


  • Silencers/Suppressors – slightly muffles the sound of a shot and/or the muzzle flash
  • Laser sights – assist in aiming by projecting light parallel to the barrel but do not account for bullet drop/wind/etc.
  • Holsters and Cases – carry a gun on your person with some degree of stealth or just for convenience
  • Scope – allows the shooter to see a greater distance
  • Tripod – steadies the weapon for higher accuracy at long range
  • Ammunition – it’s hard to shoot without bullets

Things to remember:

  • Newton’s Third Law of physics applies. Or, as the FBI Academy’s firearms training states, “the impact of the bullet upon the body is no more than the recoil of the weapon. The ratio of bullet mass to target mass is too extreme.” That means that while there is recoil depending on the power and design of the weapon, firing a gun is not going to propel the shooter backward. It also means…
  • People who are hit are not going to get knocked back (and they’re definitely not going to go flying). They’ll either stay standing or they’ll drop. Bullets have a high velocity but they are small – which is why they penetrate rather than literally blowing people away.
  • Hitting what you aim at is hard. Even if a character performs perfectly on the shooting range, a real life shoot out is another thing entirely. People will be moving and/or hiding behind cover, it’ll probably be loud, and for most people, it’s harder to shoot another human than a paper target.
  • Shotguns also have to be aimed. While there is some spread, the shot still lands in a fairly small area. No matter what Hollywood says, your character can’t depend on a single shot taking out a group of targets.
  • While it is technically safer to not have a bullet in the chamber to avoid unintentional discharge, it’s also dangerous in that your character won’t necessarily have time to chamber a round. So unless the shooter has no reason to be prepared, they probably won’t dramatically rack the slide before shooting.
  • Present day firearms do not discharge when dropped. The Gun Control Act of 1968 introduced drop safety requirements (among other things). There is a chance that an older weapon would fire on impact, but it’s not something that could be relied upon.
  • Bullets do not shoot sparks – even if they strike metal. Most are made of copper or copper alloys known to not spark. Rifle bullets may on occasion get hot enough to spark, but it would be a rare occurrence and not nearly so flashy as the special effects guys would like.
  • Silencers do not make a gun quiet, nor do they produce the dart-gun sound one hears in the movies. A suppressor changes the sound of the gun and lessens the distance it carries, but it’s still an obvious sound. The larger the gun, the less effectively it can be suppressed.

Now that you know the basic facts, try digging a little deeper with these reads:

Author: Dee

Dee is a moderator and blogger for Story Scribes. In her downtime she tries out various crafts, plays video games, and makes music. Currently, she’s working on a fantasy story that’s been trying to escape for a few years.

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