Writing the Crime Scene: Guns

Your story opens with a female detective kicking in the front door of a drug dealer's house. She points her gun into the darkness of the entryway. Wait! What kind of a gun is it? Is it a Beretta 92FS pistol? Or is it a Mossberg 500 Tactical Tri-Rail Forend shotgun? How many times can she shoot before it needs to be reloaded? Will the muzzle flare light up the hallway when she fires?

Throwing firearms into your fiction can raise lots of questions. But don’t panic about the answers. Finding them is easy with the wealth of resources that the internet makes available. This article will help you avoid common mistakes when writing about firearms, as well as highlighting common misconceptions and myths about guns.

To paraphrase Chuck Wendig, there’s nothing wrong with simply writing, “He pointed the gun and pulled the trigger.”

Learn Your Lingo

That item your character found on the floor of the villain's basement is a magazine and not a clip. That evidence bag holds a bullet, not a shell. Gun aficionados take the small stuff seriously and the probability of your reader being a gun owner is high given recent statistics. There are now more guns than people in the United States, and contrary to what the Canadian media would have you believe about the peaceful nature of their country, roughly 30% of Canucks own a firearm. If you write about the barrel of a gun when you actually mean the slide or the muzzle, you’ve immediately lost your authority with any readers who are familiar with guns. These might seem like insignificant details, but one bad choice can ruin an entire scene for your reader. If you’re not sure about gun terminology, take time to do your research and get it right. A simple Google image search for ‘firearm parts’ or a regular search for ’firearm terminology’ will set you on the right path.

Arming Your Characters

Is your character a city police officer, a state trooper or an FBI agent? Different law enforcement groups are issued different types of weapons. If your main character is packing heat, make sure it’s the proper make and model for whatever outfit he or she is working with. The guns used by different agencies also change over time, so also make sure your standard issue firearm fits the year that you're setting your story in. Once you're armed with your character’s agency and the time period, you can confirm their weapon of choice with a quick internet search.

If your character is not employed by law enforcement, you need to base their firearm choice on suitability for the character. As a rule of thumb, smaller characters will use lighter calibers. The caliber of a firearm is the internal diameter or bore of a gun barrel or the diameter of the bullet it fires. It can be measured in inches or millimeters. That’s why we have 9mm and .357 caliber pistols. As a general rule, the bigger the caliber of the rifle or handgun, the bigger the projectile it fires.

Shotguns are classed according to gauge rather than caliber, but the concept is similar. According to Wikipedia, the gauge of a shotgun refers to how many lead spheres, each with a diameter equal to that of the bore, amount to one pound in weight. Confused? Relax. Don’t get bogged down in the technical aspects you’ll find in your research. Around 50% of the shotguns in the United States are 12-gauge, and the next most popular is a 20-gauge which has less weight and recoil than the 12-gauge. Ten gauges are also common and the .410 shotgun (that’s not the gauge, but the bore measurement…don’t ask) has very little kick making it popular with young shooters. Stick with one of these shotguns and you should be safe.

If your protagonist is a 300-pound gorilla who works as a hitter for the mob, then caliber or gauge isn’t going to be an issue. But an elderly female armed for self-defense wouldn’t be using a weighty high-caliber gun that won’t fit in her purse. However, if she’s a former FBI agent, she may use the same type of gun she was issued by the Bureau out of familiarity. An odd gun choice can be used to reveal more about the history and personality of the character than you think.

Once you decide what type of gun your character is going to use, research the specifications of that particular firearm so you can get the details right. For example, determine at what distance it ceases to be accurate. If a professional shooter couldn’t hit a standard target at fifty feet with a particular gun in perfect range conditions, how could your detective hit a fleeing robber in a rainstorm at seventy-five feet? Most gun models have specs and detailed information about them online. And the beautiful thing about guns is that they are a lot like children and dogs — their owners love to talk about them to strangers. If you’re interested in learning more about the technical aspects of firearms, visit your local range or contact your nearest gunsmith to have all your specific questions answered.

Debunking the Myths

Films, books and television shows have been telling us lies about guns for decades. Most guns will let you know when you’re out of bullets before you pull the trigger again and they don’t go click-click-click when they run out. People who get blasted by shotguns don’t fly through the air like they’ve been hit by a truck. Gas tanks won’t explode when you shoot them. Dropped guns don't discharge when they hit the ground. These are all firearm myths that we encounter in popular culture. Author Chuck Wendig addresses many of these and more in an excellent and hilarious blog post found here. And more can be found in The Writers’ Guide to Weapons by Benjamin Sobieck. This book is loaded with useful information. I keep a copy on my bookshelf. It delves much deeper into all the topics I mentioned here with lots of great diagrams and pictures for reference. You can check out an excerpt of that guide here.

A Parting Shot

I'm already bracing for the hate mail and corrections on this article from gun experts. As always with research and technical writing, try not to get lost in the details. If firearms aren’t a big part of your story, don’t feel the need to get super-specific about every gun that appears in your manuscript. You don’t always need to bore us to death writing about the intricacies of the firing mechanism or the serial number on the barrel. To paraphrase Wendig, there’s nothing wrong with simply writing, “He pointed the gun and pulled the trigger.”

Repo Kempt

Column by Repo Kempt

Repo Kempt has worked as a criminal lawyer in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years. He is the author of a book about seal hunting, a member of the Horror Writers Association, and a guest columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives on a cricket farm with his wife, Joy and his little dog, Galactus. In his spare time, he looks for an agent for his latest manuscript.

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voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin September 8, 2016 - 1:22pm

Great column Repo, lots of good advice :)

*adds to favorites*

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words September 9, 2016 - 9:27am

I was reviewing a lot of screenplays a while back, and I was amazed at the level of detail given to firearms and automobile makes and models. Personally, I'm glad I know the difference between a handgun and a rifle, or a sedan and coupe.

I think that gun/car choice reflects something about your character, however, beyond the law enforcement/suitability issue brought up above, what does a particular make and model say about a character (to someone who's in the know)?

Also, some of those poor gun-mythology presentations on screen are not the fault of the writer (although dropping a gun and it going off certainly would be). Also, why do we still see shooters holding their firearms sideways? Is that still a thing?

Repo Kempt's picture
Repo Kempt from Newfoundland September 16, 2016 - 7:18pm

Sorry for the delay in responding, Postpomo. A car, like wardrobe, says a lot about a person. We don't know most people when we see them drive by, but we make judgements based on what they drive. Guns are the same. Have character walk onto the page carrying a battered antique double-barrel shotgun held together with duct tape. Or give that same character a shiny brand-new pump-action shotgun. Or give him a huge sniper rifle with a silencer. See the difference in the first impressions of the character. But that's for the layman. For the expert, here's a great article from Guns and Ammo magazine about "What The Gun You Carry Says About You": http://www.gunsandammo.com/uncategorized/what-your-carry-gun-says-about-...

Also, a unique or old gun can be a jumping off point for the backstory of the character. "This was my brother's gun. The notches in the stock are one for every deer he every shot with it. He left it to me after the accident. Ain't no hunting up there."

Something that also didn't make it into the story was that I'd actually suggest giving some guns a try for yourself at the range. Remember the mistakes you make or the things that stand out for you --  the noise, the weight, the feel, the kick -- and use them in your own writing. Talk to people at the range, make friends, take notes. Ask about guns that aren't right for certain people. Put those guns in those characters hands and people who are in the know will know those characters are inexperienced.

Tejun's picture
Tejun from The West is reading Marque De Saude October 17, 2016 - 7:28pm

I love how you were bracing for hate mail.  That made me laugh.  I have been around guns and had guns most of my life and I am still in the dark about how they choose what to call a gun.  30-06 is one way they do it, and M1911, 45-70?  I can never figure out why they decide to call some of them by one measurement and others by a completely different one.  


Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal October 18, 2016 - 7:19pm

One thing.

I am not aware of one single gun that will let you know when you're out of bullets before pulling the trigger again. So there'd be one click when you pulled the trigger before you wondered why it didn't fire.

The slide stays back on a semi-auto, but if you're aiming down the thing and shooting, it looks the same. Revolvers have no mechanism. Nor does a shotgun. Or a rifle of any sort, medium range or long.

So... yeah, no normal gun lets you know that I've ever heard of. 

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children November 30, 2016 - 2:45pm



The M1 Garand used in WWII utilized a "Bloc Clip" which held 8 rounds and automatically ejected when the last round was fired. The expended clip would then land on the ground with a distintive sound. Enemy soldiers quickly learned the sound meant you were out of ammo and had to reload. Our guys quickly learned to carry a few extra empty clips to throw on the ground to make the other guy >think< he was reloading...

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children December 1, 2016 - 12:36pm

Also, dropped firearms can and do discharge. Not everytime but it does happen. There are ways to prevent this, carry on an empty chamber or with the safety enaged. Both methods have their supporters and detractors, great way to get a gun forum all kinds of fired up! The click-click-click happens when dry firing an empty double action revolver. A single action needs to have the hammer manually cocked to fire and a semi-auto handgun just sits there with the slide locked back in most cases. 

DavidLayfield's picture
DavidLayfield April 21, 2021 - 2:53am

If you are an owner of a gun you must be very responsible in terms of saving it. Pick up one of the best gun safe under 500 dollars to keep it home