Bullets Are Not Magic and Guns Are Not Nuclear!

I just finished reading a book that was well written in plot, dialogue, imagery etc, but was atrocious in its depiction of violence and firearms.  I suppose it’s expected that in this day and age of “Anti-Gun” attitudes, we would be breeding a society with little or no first hand experience with firearms or their destructive capabilities, but part of being a writer is doing one’s research.  If it’s going to be part of your story, it ill serves your readers if what they are given is simply more Hollywood or literary myths continually propagated by writers who have never fired a weapon, much less killed something or watched something die.

I have had a life-long intimate relationship with firearms of all types.  Further, I’ve killed a great many creatures, large and small (thankfully none human).  Still, while I’ve been blessed not to have taken a human life, I’ve been in the position where using deadly force was a viable option that was only narrowly avoided in each circumstance.

Where my experience may be helpful to you, the best-selling or even hopeful novice writer, is in the area of knowing what a gun will and will not do mechanically, and what the projectile(s) will and won’t do physically!  Numerous death scenes and autopsies have given me an insight that few writers get the opportunity to develop professionally.  I want you to make your work more authentic and thereby increase the enjoyment factor for your reader and perhaps their knowledge base as well.

“Caliber Vs Damage”

Small pocket pistols are normally of nominal caliber.  While caliber alone does not always equate to the physical damage of a projectile, the platform from which that projectile is delivered will tell the reader what to expect.  So, a small pocket “semi-automatic” pistol will not…cannot deliver a projectile that will significantly disrupt bone and tissue to the extent many writers attribute to it.  The aforementioned book described the damage as nearly “taking the head off” a person.  This is impossible with the weapon described.

On the other end of the spectrum, take the twelve-gauge shotgun.  This weapon has a caliber of .72 or seventy-two one-hundredths of an inch.  This is a significant caliber and correspondingly, it produces significant damage to flesh.  Still, the last autopsy I assisted with involved this caliber at contact distance to the forehead of a woman.  While the portion of the head from the bridge of the nose upward was missing, both eyes were more or less intact and the facial features were identifiable.  The damage was dramatic, but it serves to illustrate that a small semi-automatic pistol, or a small concealable revolver will not produce this effect and every hand held weapon in between will not either, so it should never appear in print.  Ever!

The vaunted .357 Magnum, a very effective pistol caliber will – when the bullet strikes the cranium – normally deliver enough energy to cause significant fracturing of the skull, particularly long the cranial sutures.  I’ve seen heads opened up by this round to the extent that copious amounts of brain matter were allowed to escape and re-paint a living room wall, but the heads themselves were largely intact and the features of the deceased were easily recognizable.  The equally infamous .44 Magnum will produce correspondingly greater damage, but unless the wound is delivered to the cranial vault in a way that the hydrostatic energies have no escape avenue, the damage will be extensive, but not to the point of “removing” someone’s head.

The greatest physical damage I’ve encountered came from a scene in which a woman took her own life by placing the barrel of a rifle into her mouth and closing her lips around the tube.  This created an expansion chamber within the head and the results were dramatic to say the least.  Nothing above the lower jaw to the back of the neck at the cervical spine where the Atlas bone supported the head was intact.  It was as if a small bomb had gone off inside the woman’s head.  In effect, it had.

“Kinetic Energy on the Body”

How many movies or books have continued to shovel the mythological bull-crap that a pistol or rifle will toss the human body around like a rag-doll?  At the very most, the punch experienced by the hapless soul being targeted and struck will be similar to that which is delivered by a fist, and often, not even that much kinetic energy will be demonstrated visually.  We should never confuse the hydrostatic shock produced by a speeding projectile impacting on flesh, with the kinetic energy being delivered to a target designed to absorb kinetic energy.

The human body was designed (either divinely or naturally, depending on your belief system) to absorb certain levels kinetic energy and survive.  It was not designed to absorb projectiles that produce hydrostatic shock waves that disrupt the central nervous system and can tear and rend tissue within the temporary cavity produced by the shock waves.  These energies can and will often lead to critical injury and/or death, but they will not lift the body off the floor or fling it significant distances from which it was standing when the bullet struck.  It “Ain’t” gonna happen!  Don’t’ write it!

In truth, based on countless video surveillance or combat camera films, the visual effect of a bullet’s impact on the body is almost indiscernible except in extreme slow motion.  The dramatic effect is largely based on the neurological effects of muscular extension and flexion.  There will be jerking in some instances and spasms in others.  But, the most common effect is simply that which is similar to a body that is instantaneously deprived of its support mechanism.  It drops limply to the surface and this is an effect that is very difficult to describe if it hasn’t been seen first hand.  “Difficult” is not impossible.  Writers should be able to work through it.

Good luck.

Dan Chamberlain

If you like what you’ve read, consider reading my book, “The Long-Shooters,” available at Amazon.com  http://shrvl.com/22Hz8


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.

5 Responses to Bullets Are Not Magic and Guns Are Not Nuclear!

  1. Firas Janabi says:

    Very nice blog, and I couldn’t agree more. I was getting tired of seeing movies or reading books where the person gets shot then flies across the room into a wall, a bit ridiculous really. Almost like when you see someone firing a revolver, and you count the shots to add up to more than 6. But informative blog!

  2. Teri Heyer says:

    Thanks for the info. A great reminder to “do your homework” before including it in your book. I’m one of those people who counts the shots when watching a “shoot ’em up movie” and am always amazed. Where do all those “extra” shots come from?

    • Teri and Firas

      Thank you both for visiting. My current occupation has taken me away from the world of guns and violence, but I still feel there’s a place for the things I’ve learned. Just trying to help out. Love it when people visit and leave comments.

      Thanks again


  3. Bruce Talmas says:

    I had to laugh when I read this: it’s one of my pet peeves both as a reader and a writer. I’m familiar enough with handguns to know how they’re handled and what they can do, but I still have a list of experts to cover the gaps in my knowledge, which really covers anything larger than a .44 Magnum. Maybe I’ll add you to that list, if you don’t mind getting the occasional creepy, “So what would happen to a human eyeball if…” email.

    • Well, if you’re talking about anything larger than the .44 Mag, the human eyeball would pretty much disappear. Still, you might be able to find some of the sclera decorating the landscape if you look closely enough.

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