Crime Fiction Gun Nomenclature for Novices!

This is the first in a three part series on basic firearms for novices.  The subject requires a fairly comprehensive coverage based on the many mistakes I’ve encountered in my reading crime fiction.  First we’ll touch on nomenclature.  In the next installment, we’ll talk about what these guns can and cannot reasonably do.

Nothing drives gun people crazy more than watching a movie or reading a novel where the author makes it obvious the closest they’ve ever been to a firearm is the distance between their couch and the television set.  Gun people watch movies and read novels. But they seldom read an author twice, when they encounter such fraud.  Yes, I wrote “fraud.”  Why?  Readers want to connect with their favorite authors.  A good writer wants this as well.  They want their story to resonate with the person who purchased their book, be it romance, mystery, horror, violence, sex or love; the reader demands authenticity!

Guns come in many shapes and sizes.  We can’t recount them all here.  But let’s do an overview.  First, there are long guns, which include rifles and shotguns.  Rifles shoot single projectiles – bullets – while shotguns shoot both single projectiles – slugs – and multiple projectiles called either shot, or buck shot.  Buck shot is differentiated from shot because it is suitable for taking deer…and humans, while “shot” is smaller and engineered for smaller game.

Shotguns and rifles can be single shot, meaning they require manually loading each and every shot.  They can be double barreled, with the barrels being either side by side or over and under.  Side by side shotguns being the most common found in literature, movies, westerns and hunting blinds.  Over and under shotguns are somewhat more elite and upper class, though many thousands of dollars are required for upper tier side by side shotguns.  Rifles can also be double barreled, but these are more rare and seldom used in crime fiction.

Shotguns and rifles can also be pump action where a bolt is manually worked by sliding the forearm back and forth, ejecting spent “shells” and chambering new ones.  By the way, “shells” or “hulls” are the proper nomenclature for expended shotgun ammunition, while “cases” are correct for rifles.

Finally, shotguns and rifles can also be semi-automatic.  This means either the forces of recoil or gases from burning gun powder, are used to cycle the action and eject and re-chamber ammunition.

Rifles are required by law to have barrels no shorter than 16 inches.  Shotguns have an 18 inch restriction.  So, typically, shotguns may be “sawed off” in crime fiction.  Keep in mind, having a shotgun with less than 18 of barrel is a federal crime, unless one has gone to the trouble and expense of getting the proper federal permits.  This is not difficult, but costly.  So if someone owns a “sawed off” shotgun, they may not necessarily be in possession of an illegal weapon, but if that person is a gang-banger, you can pretty much guess they are not “legal” sawed off shotgun owners.

Handguns are most often incorporated in fiction.  One of the most fascinating things I’ve found when dealing with people who have never actually held a firearm in their lives, is that for some, there is a visceral disgust with an inanimate object that cannot in and of itself, cause mayhem.  For others, there is an almost orgasmic emotion when holding one in their hands for the first time.  Thankfully, this is normally short lived!

Like shotguns and rifles, handguns come in single shot configuration, but most commonly they are either revolvers or semi-automatics.  Revolvers are identified by a rotating cylinder that holds the “cartridges” (NOT BULLETS).  The cylinder rotates; it does not revolve.  It’s known as a revolver because the chambers of the cylinder that hold the cartridges revolve around the center axis as the cylinder rotates.

There can be as many as 10 chambers in a cylinder, but for 99 percent of crime fiction, the “six shooter” is appropriate.  While some revolvers now typically hold 7 and 8 cartridges as in the Smith and Wesson offerings, and some by Taurus.  Six is the norm.  But if you want to really impress people, don’t use 7 or 8, without at least mentioning the maker and model to show you’ve done your homework.

One point I’d like to make about revolvers.  THEY DO NOT – AS A RULE – HAVE SAFETIES!  Very few revolvers have any manual safety mechanism included.  There are some obsolete weapons that may have one included, but keep it simple unless you are wanting to really delve into obscure weaponry.  When an author mentions putting the safety on, when using a revolver, they identify themselves as a “gun moron.”

Semi-automatic handguns or pistols typically have a slide that is actuated by the forces of recoil to eject cases and re-chamber fresh ammo.  Some, have a bolt actuated by the same forces, while others, much more rare, have a reciprocating toggle action as found in the rare and very expensive Luger.  I love the Luger, but they are astonishingly expensive as they are no longer made and have never been the first choice of one bent on homicide – Nazi war criminals notwithstanding.

Semi-automatic pistols are fed by either internal or external “magazines,” NOT clips…never clips…EVER clips!  Magazines must be ejected and inserted to reload or refresh the weapon.

Semi-automatic pistols will normally, but not always have manual safeties.  If you mention it, you will normally not be in violation of any conventional rule of nomenclature.

I hope this has been reasonably informative for novices.  We will touch on the capability of hand-held weapons in the next chapter.

More to come.



About danielchamberlain

Former Chief of Police. Former Special Agent, AFOSI (Retired). Former Director of Security of multi-national corporation. Currently, Registered Nurse. Father Husband Outdoorsman
Gallery | This entry was posted in Guns'n Violence for Crime Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Crime Fiction Gun Nomenclature for Novices!

  1. Piper Bayard says:

    Dan this is awesome. Thank you. I hate it, too, when Hollywood refers to every handgun as an “automatic.” Right. I think every crime writer who isn’t personally familiar with the weapons they mention should be required to read this blog before they are allowed to approach a computer.

  2. Piper,
    Thanks so much for the visit and the comments. My only published novel is a “western” so I thought my sister’s watercolor to be an appropriate graphic for the blog. I’m gratified by the visits and comments so far. I hope I didn’t make too many errors as I actually write my blog articles in real time, as opposed to writing, editing, copying and pasting. What you read is the first draft.

    Thanks again. Dan

  3. Thanks for explaining the different type of guns. Have you ever considered writing a screenplay? I think you’ll do a good job with all the knowledge you have..

  4. My personal favorite was a book where the hero used a “silencer” on his Colt revolver. Just screwed it onto the end of the barrel. Uh-huh.

  5. Ah yes, the old silencer on the revolver trick. If I had a nickel for every time….
    Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.


  6. I enjoyed reading your article about guns. I try to be realistic in my novels and will use this information when I talk about the murder weapon used.

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