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Common Mistakes by Authors About Guns

As you work on your mystery or thriller, you suddenly realize that you need to know more about guns. You want to do some research so that you can take advantage of a gun's individual characteristics in your story and what that says about your character.  But you also want to avoid the most common mistakes. Where do you start?

Why should a fiction writer be more careful than the general population about guns? The generally accepted loose use of terms is correct for many characterizations, but incorrect for police examiners or others where special competency is important. The unimportant mingling of words creates misunderstandings that lead to noticeable errors. Noticeable errors disrupt the reader's flow with your story, your message, your credibility, and the strength of the reader's recommendations to friends about your book.

The most common mistake of authors is how the gun in their story is operated. Semi-automatic pistols and revolvers are loaded very differently. Semi-automatic pistols have safety catches (safeties) and revolvers don't. There is no substitute for having someone show you the operation of the gun for your story. A woman author reports having gone to the range and learned how to shoot, and then gave her feelings from the process to one of her characters.

The second most common mistake authors make about guns is choosing a specific era but designating cartridges or gun models not used until a later date, or using a cartridge and a gun that don't go together. For instance, there are about thirty different cartridges for 30 caliber bullets. Most 30 caliber rifles are made for only a few of the 30 caliber cartridges. Check your references before being specific!

HINT**American gun fans and forensic examiners measure bullet diameters in thousandths of an inch. The 30 caliber has a nominal diameter of 30/100ths of an inch. "30" caliber gun barrels have diameters from .306" to .312", with most being .308". The soft lead of a slightly oversized bullet (even with a jacket) when fired are easily squeezed down to the diameter of the barrel. On rare occasion, a murderer has used as "32" caliber pistol bullet measuring .312" in a  30 caliber rifle leaving the police unable to find the pistol, until they took a second look at the rifle.

The 45 caliber pistol is an American icon with most made for only one of two cartridges. With the dates of introduction, these are:

  • 45 Colt Introduced in 1873 for the Colt revolver
  • 45 ACP Introduced in 1911 for the Colt semi-automatic

Smith & Wesson came along twenty years after Colt. Smith & Wesson made an early reputation for accuracy, particularly with its 44 S&W (Russian) cartridge. Since the term "44" is misapplied, the commonly distributed American 44 pistol cartridges and their dates of introduction are:

  • 44 Henry 1860 for rifles and 1870 for pistols and out of production by 1934
  • 44 American 1869 and out of common use by the early 1900s
  • 44 S&W 1870 and also called the 44 (S&W) Russian
  • 44 Colt 1871 and out of common use by the early 1900s recently reintroduced for re-enactors
  • 44-40 1873 for the Winchester 1873 rifle
  • 44 Bulldog 1880 English transplant for pocket pistols and out of common use by World War I
  • 44 Special 1907 and an accuracy champion
  • 44 Magnum 1956 and as powerful as some rifle cartridges
  • 44 Auto Mag 1971 but not commercially made at first

A fast way to make unnecessary mistakes is to specify the model of a gun, unless you are writing an equipment heavy techno-thriller. "Colt revolver" or "Colt auto" will suffice for most. Louis L'Amour defined the modern Western and says no more than "Colt" or "Winchester" and omits the words "pistol" or "rifle" as "too well known." When being specific helps with the people characterization, then for models, quantities made, and years of production consult a reliable reference.

For guns made in the 1800s, consult Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms (Norm Flayderman). Use common models, not rare ones, unless it is within your character and required by your plot. There were guns made before 1885 where so few were produced that even advanced collectors have never seen one--watch the production quantities.

For 20th century guns, look at the Blue Book of Gun Values (S.P. Fjestad). Machine guns are omitted from "Blue Book" as they are not readily traded. For machine guns that can be carried, consult The World's Submachine Guns (Thomas Nelson).

Rarely does a particular gun model help with characterization, but it can. Familiarity with firearms is declining with increasing urbanization. Hunters today from the backwoods buy expensive telescopic sights for a few hundred dollars, but buy less expensive rifles when an expensive rifle can costs thousands.

Many hours of  recreational hunting and carrying by rural owners will fade the metal finish (bluing) and take the gloss off of the stock. Hunters from the city carry rifles with the stock finish lovingly cared for. Modern rifles have target range accuracy out to hundreds of yards, but most deer are taken at 50 yards or less, which is within the effective range of almost any long length firearm made in the past three hundred years.

After both World Wars, there was a flood of war souvenir guns on the American market at very low cost. Now there is a return to the market of earlier service rifles from the decedent's estates of the World War II veterans.

The terminology for the ammunition is loosely used. Both the word "bullet" and the word "shell" are used for a cartridge.

There are not many times an author needs to be concerned with the power of a gun in the story.  But sometimes it makes a difference.  All guns can kill, but short of that, the more powerful the ammunition, the more powerful the muzzle energy, the more able the gun to knock the antagonist down or at least deflect the villain from the grabbing the heroine.

More information about mistakes writers make is on the Knoxville News Sentinal.

More Information for Authors About Civil War Guns

<< Return to Index of Civil War guns.

Did You Know?

Vietnam and later veterans know the M-16 US service rifle has only a negligible kick (recoil). But an author thought it kicked like previous service rifles and muskets somewhere between "heavily" and "like a blue-nosed mule."



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