Firearms Information For Writers - And Readers

(Parts of this article originally appeared in Hardboiled magazine.)

So I'm reading this pretty good mystery by this pretty good writer I've never read before, and I'm starting to get seriously impressed by how good she is, and I'm further impressed that she's outfitted her heroine with a Smith & Wesson Chief's Special, an excellent choice. (I used to own one in fact, still would but my mother sold it while I was in jail.)

And the she (the detective, not my mother) starts to enter this suspicious room and she pulls out her little S&W and aaaaaghhhhh, she's slipping off the SAFETY, and here I go once again leaping up and throwing a book across the room and scaring the shit out of my cat. You'd think she'd be used to it by now, but then you'd think I'd be used to otherwise competent writers who can't be bothered to do the most basic homework where firearms are concerned.

In this particular case the author later gets into some computer stuff and it's obvious that she's put a good deal of time into learning the details and the terminology. So why the hell couldn't she take a few minutes to find out that revolvers, such as her protagonist's Chief's Special, don't have safeties?

I don't know how many times I've seen the same phenomenon: an author goes to great lengths to provide details - whether essential to the plot or just background color - and then makes the most grotesque and elementary errors as soon as the guns come out. And the more they try to sound as if they know all about this stuff, the deeper they step into the brown and smelly.

Indeed the problem only becomes a problem when the writer is trying to creat an atmosphere of nuts-and-bolts authenticity. Ross McDonald may have been a firearms expert or he may never have seen a gun close up; we can't tell from his work, because the guns in his stories are treated in a vague, sketchy way. Dashiell Hammett, given his PI background, must have known a bit about firearms, but he doesn't let it show. In the classic school of detective fiction a gun is a gun - or at most maybe "a shiny automatic" - a car is a car, and a shoe is a shoe. The specifics, barring a plot-driven reason to supply them, are left to the reader's imagination; and there are conservatives who will tell you that a preoccupation with such things is effete. But modern fashion demands authenticity and "gritty" realism, which creates traps for the unwary.

Time was when women writers got a free pass; they weren't expected to know about guns, or auto mechanics or police procedures or anything else like that, because they weren't expected to write the kind of stories where such questions arose. Now, though, detective novels by and about women are all over the place, and the authors seem to feel obliged to throw in bits of knowledgeable-sounding gun talk to reinforce the hardish-boiled image of their protagonists.

All too often, they wind up tossing out hopelessly scrambled bites of misunderstood terminology, so that you get such howlers as Mercedes Lambert's immortal "He pulled back the clip and began feeding bullets one by one into the cylinders." Or Sarah Paretsky's remarkable "Smith & Wesson thirty-eight" which holds eight shots, or maybe nine, and which apparently has both a cylinder and a clip, not to mention a safety.

But the phenomenon is by no means confined to women writers. Many of the most successful male authors have been just as bad. John D. MacDonald, creator of the ultimate macho-man Travis McGee, sometimes made me wonder if he knew any more about guns than Zsa Zsa Gabor. Jack Higgins talks very confidently about firearms, and about half the time he does it through his hat. Ian Fleming had the benefit of advice from the famous gun expert Boothroyd, yet he must not have listened closely, because the James Bond books are full of the most outrageous boners. (Possibly an unfortunate choice of words there....)

Why do they do it? Guns, after all, are a pretty basid element of the mystery-and-suspense picture, like them or not.

(And of other genres as well; science fiction writers are bad about this sort of thing, even though you'd think they'd have a certain basic respect for any field of technology. One admirable exception has been the alternative-history author Harry Turtledove, who once sought out an AK-47 owner and got him to take him through a brief familiarization course in preparation for a novel he was writing.)

It can't be simple laziness, at least not always. Time and again, I've read police-procedural novels that revealed enough background study to pass a Lieutenant's exam, yet contained firearms misinformation that would embarrass a fifteen-year-old street kid from South Central.

Can you imagine a story beginning, "I raised the hood of my Volkswagen Mini, checked to make sure the spark cylinders were bolted into the pistons, and got in and started the 7-cylinder diesel, only to hear the turbo-supercharged whine of an oncoming Yugo limo - "?

Or, to put it another way: there are works of fiction on the market, some by very successful and well-regarded authors, which are the precise equivalent of pornography written by someone who thinks women have penises.

OK. Better to light one candle, and all that. The following pages are primarily for the benefit of writers and would-be writers who would like to have a basic grounding in the subject of firearms - at least enough to avoid the most common mistakes - and also for readers and movie viewers who would like to know whether Joe Hasenfratz got it right in Kill Me In Perth Amboy. Possibly some of this might also be of value to the person who knows nothing about guns but is considering acquiring one.

Whatever. Let's go. Among other things I'll tell you why revolvers don't have safeties.

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