Let’s talk about gun shot wounds, shall we? So you want your fiction to be believable, but you don’t want it to be so graphic that it will turn your readership off. You want to strike that balance that gives the reader the shiver they’re looking for without having the gorge rise in the back of their throat. The devil’s in the details.
A quick recap of previous posts:
#1. A handgun is not a construction crane. It cannot fire a projectile that will lift a human body – even a child’s – off the floor and fling it back against a wall or out a broken window.
#2. Entry wounds are generally (I’ll provide an example of when this is not true) the same basic size or diameter as the bullet. Given the elasticity of skin, often times the entry wound is considerably smaller than the diameter of the bullet. One cannot look at the entry wound and surmise the caliber that made it, except in poorly written fiction or Hollywood scripts.
#3. The exit wound is generally (I’ll provide an example of when this is not true) larger in diameter – and often much more delightfully gruesome than the entry wound.
As for number one, that old unbreakable law of physics that reasons for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction comes into play here. If a bullet imparts incredible force on a body, that same force must be imparted in the opposite direction as the bullet is leaving the barrel of the gun. Therefore, if we see a body picked up and flung against a wall due to the impact of a bullet, the shooter would be experiencing roughly the same force against their arm. Imagine the comedy there. Enough said. Don’t make this mistake.
Number two is a little more difficult. Unless we are shooting naked people in our books, bullets must first penetrate clothing before getting to the flesh. Depending on the article of clothing worn, a lot of things can happen to the bullet before it enters the body. We’ll talk about this momentarily.
Number three is my favorite topic because with the exception of number one, it is the most often abused in fiction.
Bullet wounds are a study in themselves. A blog post can never do justice to the topic so I urge writers of fiction to do their research. This essay is merely to shed light on the topic so one’s fiction is more authentic and doesn’t immediately mark the author as a fraud.
High powered rifle caliber bullets are capable of doing great internal and external damage. Some handguns are capable of delivering enough energy to cause similar damage as well, but normally, the handguns used in most fiction are not in that specialty category to replicate rifle energies. Our most popular contemporary handguns are the 9mm Parabellum, the .45 ACP (automatic Colt pistol), the .357 Magnum, the .38 Special, the .380 ACP and the .44 Magnum.
I won’t take each caliber and dissect the damage it can do as there are plenty of articles one can research on these rounds. I suggest you Google Ed Sanow and see what comes up. What I’ll do is approach the topic from the standpoint of someone who has witnessed bullet wounds from several of these rounds and attended the autopsies of the victims who suffered them.
Most bullets used today in defensive situations (I’m omitting war as the ammunition used in war is technically designed to be less damaging than that used in law enforcement or civilian applications) are designed to expand when contacting flesh and bone. This expansion is supposed to cause greater lethality and a more abrupt cessation of combat. At handgun velocities, many bullets perform as designed, but certain factors can come into play, which have an impact (pardon the pun) on what the wounds are going to look like. A bullet with a hollow nose, designed to expand like the petals of a flower can become clogged with cloth as it passes through various articles of clothing and fail to expand. I only mention this because it’s nice to know and knowing it, can make you seem like a more knowledgeable writer.
If you watch slow motion video of handguns firing, you will see a significant amount of expanding gas from the explosive forces propelling the bullet as it exits the barrel. I mentioned earlier about exceptions to the entry wound being the same size or smaller than the projectile. This is one of those cases. If your victim was executed with the muzzle of the gun placed against the skin of the head or body, these explosive forces can create an entry wound that is sensational! But there are always exceptions. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, the gases enter the body and dissipate inside without making the entry wound any larger than the diameter of the bullet. On contact wounds to the head, with say a .45ACP, or .380 ACP or other “low pressure” rounds, there will be an expansion that occurs under the skin between the skull and skin that causes a temporary bulging of the flesh. What you may see there is an imprint of the muzzle of the weapon surrounding the entry wound that may help you identify the weapon used. Keep this in mind if you want to play CSI at the scene.
The reason exit wounds are often described as gaping is due to a temporary wound cavity being created by the hydrostatic forces generated as the bullet passes through flesh. If the bullet has sufficient force as it exits, so that this temporary cavity is still being generated, it will manifest itself in a much larger wound than the diameter of the bullet would suggest. As in the case of entry wounds, of course, there are always exceptions. If there is a tight article of clothing holding the flesh in place at the point of exit, such as a heavy leather belt, a bra strap or some such item, the exit wound can resemble the entry wound. In cases like that, an autopsy is the only 100% court-approved way to tell which directions the bullet was going when it entered and exited.
This is just touching on the topic. Like I often say, be authentic.
If you enjoyed this essay, perhaps you’d like to read my bestselling novel: THE LONG SHOOTERS, available at the following outlets.