December 10th, 2018

Firearms: Know Your Weapon!

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Firearms . . . Love them or hate them, they often turn up in our fiction. Sadly, they often turn up in fiction in fictional ways that leave readers throwing books against the wall. To keep that from happening to WITS readers, let's take a look at the firearms that most often turn up in espionage and crime fiction—the revolver, the semi-automatic, and the automatic. When it comes to handguns, specifically, only revolvers and semiautomatics are usually used by intelligence professionals in the field, as the vast majority of automatic weapons are rifles.

Before we get to the differences in those types of handguns, though, we need to address the most common firearm misnomer of all time -- the "clip" vs. the "magazine." Time and again in fiction, shooters are reloading their "clips" into their "automatic" pistols, when they should be loading their "magazines" into their "semiautomatics." Let's take a look at the differences so that you savvy folks will never make that mistake.

Clip Vs. Magazine

A magazine has a spring that force-feeds the ammunition as the shooter fires. A clip does not have a spring or a feed mechanism. It simply holds the ammo and attaches to a magazine or inserts directly into a firearm. These are examples of "clips."

Image by Piper Bayard

On the left half of the picture, we have an empty M1 Garand clip, an M1 Garand clip loaded with eight rounds of 30-06 ammunition, and the brass from a 30-06 spent cartridge. On the right half of the picture, we have nine rounds of 7.62x39 ammunition loaded onto a "stripper clip" and an empty stripper clip. This stripper clip holds ten rounds. The tenth 7.26x39 cartridge is just above the loaded clip. The clips are plain metal with no springs or gadgets of any kind that assist in feeding the ammunition through the firearm. Once the cartridges have been fired, the clips can be reloaded. However, in combat that is highly unlikely. A clip would normally be discarded and a new clip loaded into the magazine or the magazine well, depending on the firearm.

The vast majority of firearms made after WWII do not use clips.

Extremely few modern weapons that use clips are being manufactured today unless they are replicas of old weapons. One rare example of a modern weapon using a clip is the Smith & Wesson 9mm revolver, which uses a moon clip. So unless your character is using a historical weapon or one of the rare modern firearms that take actual "clips," the terminology is a fiction.

Next we have "magazines." Magazines are widely used in both handguns and rifles. They can be detachable or not. They hold cartridges and can be quickly and easily reloaded. There are springs in the magazines that assist in feeding the ammunition through the firearms.

Image by Piper Bayard

The larger magazine in the picture is an “extended grip” 9mm SIG Sauer magazine, and the smaller magazine is from a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380. These magazines fit into the handles of the pistols shown. Magazines are made of metal or plastic and can be reused countless times. They don’t get “used up” just because all of the rounds are fired.

Writing Tip: If you’re writing historical fiction, you might, indeed, have a weapon that uses a clip. If you are writing anything post-WWII, your weapon, unless it is a revolver, will likely have a magazine. We recommend you do a bit of research on the specific model of weapon in your manuscript, including the year it was made.

Revolvers

A revolver is so called because the cartridges reside in a revolving cylinder. Almost no revolver ever made has an actual manual safety mechanism. Like the semiautomatic, one trigger pull equals one shot. However, the brass shells are not ejected automatically. A shooter must open the cylinder and eject all of the shells simultaneously and reload. A shooter can hasten this process by using a “speed loader” to insert all of the cartridges with one motion. The legalities of revolver ownership vary from state to state, but revolvers are generally the most legally accepted of handguns.

Piper with Holmes's .44 Magnum revolver, posing for the remake of Dirty Harriet

Things to remember about revolvers:

  1. Ammunition is loaded into a cylinder.
  2. Revolvers virtually never have manual safety mechanisms.
  3. One trigger pull results in one shot.
  4. No brass is ejected.
  5. Legal in varying degrees according to state law.

Semiautomatics

With a semiautomatic, ammunition loads into a removable magazine that usually fits into the pistol grip, like the ones pictured above. To reload, a shooter drops the empty magazine out of the grip and snaps in a full magazine. Most people are able to drop a magazine and snap a new one into a semiautomatic faster than they can reload a revolver; however, a skilled shooter is just as quick with a speed loader. Like the revolver, one trigger pull always equals one shot. Unlike the revolver, the brass is ejected with each shot. Also unlike the revolver, a semiautomatic often has a manual safety device.

Semiautomatics are legal in all states, but only to varying degrees in different places. In a few states, they practically come as prizes in the bottom of Cracker Jack boxes, while in others, they are more difficult to obtain than a straight answer from a politician.

It is extremely common for a semiautomatic to be inaccurately referred to throughout media, movies, and TV as an “automatic” weapon. No matter how hot the journalist, movie star, or soap opera star might be, it simply isn't so. If you make that mistake in your own writing, you are sure to get a bursting inbox full of corrections.

Things to remember about semiautomatics:

  1. Ammunition is loaded in a magazine.
  2. One trigger pull equals one shot.
  3. Often has manual safety mechanism.
  4. Brass is ejected, usually to the right of the weapon, every time a shot goes off.
  5. Legality varies according to state. Some states make semiautomatics difficult to obtain, or they restrict the size of the magazine. Other states have the Cracker Jack Box standard.

Automatics

With an automatic weapon, the cartridges load into a removable magazine. The weapon is called automatic because when a shooter pulls the trigger, it automatically fires repeated bullets until the shooter takes their finger off the trigger. When the shooter fires, the brass shells of the cartridges are ejected from the weapon at high speed.

Gunner's Mate 1st Class Montrell Dorsey with
M240B automatic weapon
Image by US Navy, public domain

Modern automatic weapons are generally illegal for private ownership without special government procedures—emphasis on “generally.” There are three ways an individual in America can obtain an automatic weapon. . . .

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 made it illegal for private individuals to acquire fully automatic weapons without special permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Private gun owners can still obtain one of the pre-1986 fully automatic firearms if they fill out a form, wait several months, secure a tax stamp, and purchase the firearm for an exorbitant amount of money—exorbitant because, according to the National Rifle Association, there are only around 150,000 pre-1986 fully automatic weapons in private ownership.

The second way private individuals can obtain an automatic weapon is by going through the intense process of obtaining a license to manufacture Class III/NFA firearms. Once the individual has this license, they can secure a conversion kit to modify a semiautomatic rifle to make it fully automatic. With the hassle and expense, though, we recommend using the money for a nice beach vacation rather than pursuing one of these weapons.

The third way to obtain an automatic weapon in America is the timeless and ever-popular method known as theft. If your characters try this method, especially with anyone who owns an automatic weapon, that owner might remember to use it on your character.

Things to remember about automatics:

  1. Ammunition is loaded in a magazine.
  2. One trigger pull equals multiple shots.
  3. Likely has a safety mechanism.
  4. Brass is ejected as the shooter is firing.
  5. Illegal for private owners everywhere in the United States except with a very detailed, expensive process.

Other Factors

It’s worth noting that different types of ammunition and barrels impact accuracy and are used for different purposes. For example, Bayard & Holmes use hollow point cartridges for self-defense because the bullets are less likely to pass through the target and harm someone behind them. Different barrels with different types of rifling are also used depending on the purpose at hand. Firearms experts have written treatises about the many subtleties of ammunition and barrels. If you discuss types of ammunition and barrels in your fiction, we recommend you read one of these treatises before you commit your writing to stone or Kindle. If you make a mistake, firearms experts will call you on it, and they can be pretty rough about it.

Writing Tip: Be aware that no matter how much you research, there are firearms aficionados who will write to you about the rarest and most obscure exception to whatever you say and tell you that you’re stupid. Don’t let that bother you. It’s what they live for. Be reasonably diligent in your vocabulary, hit the big things like “revolver,” “semiautomatic,” “automatic,” “clip,” and “magazine,” and you can be pretty sure the vast majority of your readers will be satisfied. As for the rest, don’t feed the trolls.

Do your characters carry or use firearms? Which firearms do they use? What are your firearms pet peeves in fiction? Do you have any questions for us?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

45 responses to “Firearms: Know Your Weapon!”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    The number one mistake in fiction is characters thumbing the safety off a Glock. Even the big names have done it. John Sandford tells that he decided using "pistol" over and over was boring, so he changed it to a Glock, not checking that he'd made the safety mistake. And he knows guns; it was an oversight in editing. He tells readers who point it out that the weapon had an after-market safety installed.
    Robert Crais also based a novel on a character losing 2 critical seconds while he thumbed the safety off his Glock. I asked him if readers pointed it out. He said, "Every Damn Day."
    I always ask an expert before arming my characters.
    Oh, and cordite hasn't been manufactured since WW II, so present-day characters aren't going to smell it.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      I'm glad you brought up the Glock. I'm not a Glock gal--much prefer SIG Sauer--and none of my characters carry a Glock. However, I've often admired Glock's PR, as they seem to get a mention in every book and movie these days. As a result, many people are going to catch that safety issue. Thank you for pointing it out.

  2. Thank you! This is the article I’ve been looking for- easy to understand and accurate!

  3. jrfinley says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    This is one of those fingernails-on-chalkboard kind of mistake for me. I was in the Marine Corps for twenty years and was a rifle and pistol range instructor there, and again for the NM Corrections Department after that while teaching at the Corrections Academy. I collect firearms, but there are still more types than I could ever hope to be familiar with, and I wouldn't think of using one in a story without downloading the manual and studying it.
    Once I was enjoying a detective novel - the plotting, characterization, setting, and general writing were all handled well - until the lead character put a new magazine into his revolver. I tossed the book into the recycling bin without finishing it and never picked up another by that author. I just couldn't quit remembering that stupid magazine-fed revolver.
    Some additional notes:
    That machine gun in your photo, like a lot of larger automatic weapons, is belt fed - no magazine. It allows for a higher sustained rate of fire and easier logistical support. An automatic weapon mounted on a vehicle, plane, or boat is likely to be belt-fed (and the phrase "belt-fed" used to be USMC slang for "overly excitable or enthusiastic" as an adjective for a person, usually used without an excessive degree of respect.
    Magazine-fed or belt-fed, writers employing machine guns in their stories should have the users fire short bursts instead of just holding down the trigger; otherwise they'd warp or melt the barrels and if the gun is handheld, it would be impossible to keep it on target for more than a short burst anyway.
    If writers are talking mounted machine guns and want a really high rate of fire, they can write in a Gatling-type machine gun. These have multiple barrels on a spinning carousel - as each barrel rotates into position, the gun fires a shot through it. This allows a rate of fire that would melt the barrel of a single-barreled gun. Modern Gatling are usually electrically powered and fire so fast that it's impossible to hear individual shots; they blur together into a roar that sounds kind of like a giant bullfrog clearing its throat.
    Again, thank you! This is such an easy way to blow suspension of disbelief, but also such an easy mistake to avoid. Although the proportion of the population that own and shoot guns is slowly shrinking, I would think that readers of genres in which guns show up might be more likely to be familiar with guns themselves.
    PS That "aftermarket safety on the Glock" is just silly. People buy Glocks because they're simple and relatively inexpensive, though well-made. Getting an aftermarket safety made and installed would cost considerably more than the pistol itself; it would make a lot more sense to just spend another couple of hundred bucks and get a good pistol that has a safety to start with. It can be a useful twist to increase tension by having a character who isn't familiar with a pistol pick one up and lose moments trying to figure out the safety and get it off, too.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      First, thank you for your service. I have a special place in my heart for Marines. #NeverForget

      Second, loading a magazine into a revolver. *head desk*

      Third, thank you so much for sharing so much excellent information about machine guns! It was kind of you to take the time and effort.

      Fourth, thank you for sharing the info about the aftermarket safety for the Glock. I'm sure many people will find that useful.

  4. jagrout says:

    Good details about a confusing topic. Will keep this for future reference.

  5. Perfect timing! I just gave a character in a short story a gun in a shoulder holster. I'll research what type of gun would fit and how to use it.
    Thank You much.

  6. Judy says:

    Thanks for the excellent clarification.

  7. Julie Glover says:

    Great, detailed explanations! Thanks so much for the clarifications. Honestly, I think whenever I use firearms in my books, I will hand that scene over to my younger son, who is fascinated with the history and development of all kinds of weapons. (No, not in a bad way, y'all; he's interested in all the engineering and mechanics involved.) He understands subtleties I definitely do not.

    One quick question, though: If the revolver and the semiautomatic both fire a single shot at a time, why is the semiautomatic called that? I get that there's a spring load there, but does that simply mean the semiautomatic fires a lot more quickly than a revolver?

    • Piper Bayard says:

      It has to do with the basic design of the weapon. The revolver is specifically called a revolver because the ammo loads into a revolving cylinder. "Semiautomatic" is not so much to distinguish between a revolver and a semiautomatic as it is to distinguish between being semiautomatic and fully automatic. The semiautomatic does not fire any more quickly than a revolver. With both, the rate of fire depends entirely on the shooter since they are both one trigger pull results in one shot. . . . I hope that answers your question.

  8. johntshea says:

    Many thanks for this informative article. In a way writers should be honored if a reader pays attention and spends the time and effort to point out a mistake!

  9. Fae Rowen says:

    As a person who knows nothing about guns, this post was really helpful, Piper. I can understand someone "in the know" being upset at such simple unnecessary mistakes as clips versus magazines. One of the reasons I write science fiction...I can make up my own weapons—within reason.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      LOL. I get it. My first book was a sci-fi for that reason. I had two small children back before the Internet. Much easier to just write a book that allowed me to make up everything.

      So glad you found the article useful.

  10. Jenny Hansen says:

    Great post, Piper! Could you add some clarification here on the AR15 (which is basically a .22 rifle)? I think the media has convinced the public that the AR stands for "assault rifle." Oy.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Excellent question. AR stands for Armalite Rifle, which refers to the manufacturer. The AR15 take .223 ammo or 5.56 NATO rounds. It's a small round that is not as powerful as the basic deer hunting rifle, and it is commonly used for target shooting competitions. It's a good rifle for young shooters, as it doesn't have as much power or kick as a 30.06 hunting rifle. For some basic AR15 facts, check out this link, AR15 Facts Without Politics.

      https://bayardandholmes.com/2018/02/26/ar15-facts-without-politics/

  11. barbdelong says:

    What a timely post! I've been researching handguns for my story and wanted a personal carry for my California detective. I chose a Glock semi-automatic. Question: if you hold the trigger down, doesn't it fire a certain number of rounds, or just one shot?

  12. Dee says:

    Also, beware of calling an AR-15 an assault rifle. “AR” refers to the original manufacturer: ArmaLite. The AR-15 is mostly suited for turkey or rabbit hunting.

  13. lmadden42 says:

    My WIP is a Regency; I need a very small (pistol, I think) to fit in a reticule. any reference sources would be appreciared.

  14. tracybrody says:

    Another great, informative post. Thanks for sharing. I always fear getting it wrong - though real life Army Special Operations guys are welcome to show up at my house and let me know what I got wrong - as long as I then get to hang out with them a while.

  15. candacecolt says:

    I appreciate this thoughtful post. I am a sport shooter and when I see glaring mistakes in a book or on the screen I want to scream! Something else to keep in mind about shooting is the deafening sound. On TV and movies a thousand rounds are fired and everyone seems blasé to the blasts. It is amazingly loud unless there's a suppressor on the weapon. After anyone shoots without earmuffs they will have ringing in the ear for hours. Funny how nobody ever does on the screen!!! If you are writing about shooting a gun, take a visit to a gun range and try one out. Most indoor ranges will rent you a gun, if you buy the ammo, and supply ears and eyes. "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby." Again, great post!!

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Thank you! Great point about the sound. The one that really drives that home is when people shoot a firearm inside a car and don't even flinch. And then they proceed to hear normally immediately afterward. Next article will likely be on silencers and suppressors. 🙂

  16. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Seriously, this is great info to know when writing police procedurals or mysteries. Thank you so much. Enjoy your holiday!

  17. dholcomb1 says:

    My dad was in the military (Army and National Guard, and he represented the National Guard in competition) and a hunter--knowing the differences in guns is mandatory.

    denise

  18. Great post. One thing to mention. If you intend to write about someone using the weapon, find someplace to try it. An example here would be the Mosin-nagant, a bolt action rifle that's been around since the 1890s. Firing a stock, made in Russia Mosin is an experience best tried (word of warning, You'll be saying, "Oh, my God" a lot. Even if your an Atheist). the first time I fired mine, I did a 40 round course (about what a Russian soldier in WWII carried). My shoulder turned black and blue, and I was eating Tylenol like it was M&Ms. But talk about accuracy!

  19. Floria lena says:

    Seriously, this is good information . Thank you very much. Enjoy your vacation!

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