Writing Tips: Guns, Bullets And Shooting With J. Daniel Sawyer

I write thrillers so I need to have guns and shoot-em-up scenes. I also like crime novels, action movies and cop shows.

But I’m British and it’s illegal to shoot guns as a civilian here. They don’t feature in everyday life and even the police don’t usually carry them. When living in Australia I went shooting on a range for a day (see right) and really appreciated the physical experience of shooting which definitely helped with my writing.

But let’s face it, most writers don’t know much about guns, bullets or shooting! So I’m pleased to introduce this interview with J. Daniel Sawyer who now brings his expertise to writers in his new book. Audio, video and text below. The video includes Dan showing us real guns.

J Daniel Sawyer is the author of 9 science-fiction, fantasy and mystery novels, as well as a podcaster, media producer and philosopher/polymath. Dan’s latest book is the brilliant Throwing Lead: A Writer’s Guide to Firearms and the people who use them which we are focusing on today.

We won’t be discussing any politics, just the useful aspects of writing about guns which is important in so many genres. Guns are a reality in our world and we use them in our books so that is the focus of the discussion. This is a serious topic but one we need to be aware of to write effectively.

  • How Dan got the idea for the book when a number of writers asked him to help them with writing scenes with guns. Dan comes from a family of cattle ranchers and also military so he has grown up with guns. He was taught gun safety at aged 4 so has a lot of life experience with them. Most people don’t have contact with guns except through seeing a police officer with one, or in films and TV which is often not realistic.
  • What writers get wrong. The confusion between a revolver and a pistol. No shooter would call a revolver a pistol. You have revolvers and semi-automatics and the latter are called pistols. A related confusion is the dramatic moment with the click as the shooter pulls the trigger and nothing happens. This does not happen with a semi-automatic as the slide will lock. [Dan shows us why with a real gun] The person on the other end of the gun can also tell that you’re empty as it actually looks different. No combat shooter will ever run out of ammo without realizing they are about to. They would mentally count down and switch magazines when they are out.
  • Some other things people get wrong. Shotguns don’t fire bullets. They fire sprays of little pellets which makes using a shotgun very different experience, both as the shooter but also in the damage they can do. Cops or combat shooters don’t fire a lot in a crowded spaces and then miss everyone.
  • Bullets go through things. They have power to pierce a lot of material and travel a long way. You can’t protect yourself behind a table from a hail of bullets. Movie physics work on Disney principle of plausible impossible so people get away with that in film.
  • What does a bullet really do to a body? (gruesome). There are two kinds of damage. The puncture wound and the hydrostatic shock wave that pushes all the fluids out the hole and flooding other organs. This can cause sepsis or internal bleeding. Being shot in the torso will usually be very serious. Being shot in the leg or shoulder can hit a major artery so you bleed to death. Your character would likely be ok if they got shot in the ass or shins, so if you want your hero to survive then shoot there. A shooter would not aim for torso or shoulder unless they are taking responsibility for potentially killing someone.
  • When you draw the gun, you accept responsibility for someone dying. That mindset shift makes a difference. Target shooters don’t tend to think about the violent side. It’s more a dangerous toy treated with respect in a special environment. If you’re a cop or in the army, that violence is much more in your awareness. Dan shares how he was seconds away from shooting someone in self-defense. You have to make a value judgment that the person’s life is less important that your own or the person you are protecting. This is very difficult in an egalitarian society. This colors the way you see the world, often permanently, which is why cops and veterans can have issues with stable relationships. They see the world in more strategic terms and this can create a barrier to intimacy. This can create a lot of character dynamics in our writing.
  • What actually happens when you’re a shooter? As the adrenalin kicks up, the blood supply to your peripheral nervous system is starved. So your fine motor control is slowed. This explains how you drop your keys when you’re nervous. Women’s adrenalin takes longer to spike and longer to come down, whereas men go up and down more quickly. Things don’t work right. Aiming therefore is difficult and why combat shooters train under stressful situations so their autonomic system can respond. Your vision will narrow and you will be hyper-focused on details. Focusing on the wrong details can be fatal. Dan gives a real-world example of this.
  • You need to be trained to handle this type of stress or you freeze. The freeze response is how massacres like Columbine happen as no one knows how to respond or do anything. We aren’t used to terror as we live in such a safe world. A civilian under fire from a criminal who then turns bad-ass karate kid would never happen in real life. Combat training will help the characters become habituated to the physiological response of terror.
  • How to choose weapons for your characters. I chose a Barak SP-21 pistol for my protagonist as Morgan Sierra used to work in the Israeli Defence Force. People tend to fall in love with their first gun that fits. It needs to work with your body and your grip. Dan explains his own preference. This also depends on what people train with in the military, and this will also depend on age. It is an individual reaction to guns and people tend to be monogamous e.g. someone in the US army in the 90s they will love the Beretta 92. Civilians get guns later than the military so take that into consideration when ‘shopping’ for your characters. Size is an issue as the bones in your wrist will feel the impact over time. Go to a target range, rent a few weapons and find something that works for you if your character is a similar build to you. Balance this out with where you will carry the gun e.g a derringer in a garter vs a holster. You also need to think about what it is for – rabbits vs humans vs bears.
  • Dan talks about what is in the book that you will find useful: realistic safety practices; the evolution of firearms and the terminology that has grown over time and how you can get it wrong; tactics of home defense; ballistics and forensics; the physiological effects of bullets; handguns and concealment; psychology of snipers; science fiction weaponry; marksmanship and drills; cleaning & maintaining a weapon; silencers; body armor; small artillery; psychology of warrior hunters; … and loads more…

Buy it now for your Kindle, or grab it in all formats from Smashwords. It will be out in paperback in the next few months.

You can find Dan at JDSawyer.net and on twitter @dsawyer

Do you have any questions about guns or shooting as it relates to writing?

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  1. MarkH says

    Actually shotguns can fire slugs, single rounds that can be devastating and usually used for big game and is usually what is in police shotguns. Then there’s buck shot in which the load is usually 3 good-sized pellets the size of marbles. A small game load, like for skeet trap or bird hunting is relatively weak. Hence, Cheney shot a 70-year-old lawyer in the face with small game load and the guy survived to apologize to Cheney a few days later for, I don’t know, blocking his shot with his face or something.

    • says

      Mark —

      Quite true. And you’ve just hit on one of the things I was thinking “I really should have mentioned that in the podcast.” The book has a chapter devoted to the different things one can put in a shotgun, peppered (no pun intended) with anecdotes related to some of the more bizarre ones.


    • says

      It’s true that shotgun slugs are devastating rounds, and are generally used for big game hunting at close range, and for defense against bears and other large animals. (Although some civilians and soldiers use them for home defense/combat ammo.) There are solid point slugs, which penetrate large animals and barriers especially well; and hollow point slugs, which expand and do more damage.

      The vast majority of police shotguns are loaded with buckshot, which is very effective at close range, but less likely to punch right through a human torso than a slug, therefore posing less risk to bystanders in the background. The most common type/size buckshot for police, military and home defense use is 00 (pronounced double-aught), which, in the standard 12 gauge load, has nine .33 pellets. (Thirty-three caliber, which equals 33/100 inch, or 1/3-inch diameter.) The largest buckshot is 000 (triple-aught), which, in the standard 12 gauge load, fires eight .36 pellets. The most savvy experts hold the minority opinion that the #1 buck load is the most effective; this is sixteen .30 pellets in the standard 12 gauge load. Magnum loads (in each size — 000, 00, #1, #4 buck, etc.) contain more pellets, but have really harsh recoil.

      Birdshot fires hundreds of tiny pellets, and is used for hunting small game and skeet shooting, and sometimes for home defense, because it penetrates walls less than buckshot or slugs. It can be deadly at close range, but loses its energy quickly at longer ranges.

      Virtually all modern police and military shotguns are in the 12 gauge chambering — either pump-actions (most commonly) or semi-automatics. Pump-action shotguns are also the most popular for home defense use among civilians, although many people prefer semi-automatics.

  2. says

    wow, that’s some pretty interesting stuff. Guns terrify me. I shot one once and it was so unnatural. Not for me, but i didn’t know all the ins and out

    Book research is rather vital, isn’t it?

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    • says

      This research was a lot of fun for me, and clearly Dan enjoys his guns :) I’m going to try and do some hardcore thriller driving for my next wedding anniversary!

  3. says

    Don’t mess wit da broad in da picture.

    Lots of authors seem to go on and on about what weapons their characters use. Glocks, Hyborean Special and all that neat stuff.

    I’ve used weapons for target shooting in my (far behind me) youth, so there’s no fear there. Sawyer’s book will be an excellent reference.

  4. TW says

    A few points:

    1- I dont know how facetious you were being, but you can go shooting in Britain as a private citizen.

    2- Magazine vs clip. That is a bigger “tell” than the revolver vs pistol pedantry. 😉

    3- My own personal opinion: Counting rounds is more a game thing than a combat thing. Keeping track of round count in combat is extremely difficult. Sure you may have a general idea of number of rounds expended, but it is still easy to shoot to slide lock, especially in a fast paced MOUT (or FISH for those Brits out there). Even the best do it. For the most part, your brain is better off trying to keep track of other things than an exact count of rounds expended.

    That is why the saying “If you are in a fight and you arent shooting, you are reloading…” came into being and why failure drills are so important in training.

    4-I would never describe the M9 (aka Beretta 92) as tiny.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment TW – it’s marvellous to have so many people know about these things!
      On the UK, my mistake – shooting handguns (pistols) isn’t allowed for private citizens but of course, people have guns for shooting animals etc. I think that’s right but I can’t be 100% positive. I haven’t tried yet :)

    • says

      Hey TW —

      Going point by point…

      1) See Joanna for this one–I’m not hip to current British gun law. Last I knew shotguns and hunting rifles were legal, but handguns weren’t, but since I don’t live there I don’t pay a great deal of attention unless it’s grabbing across-the-pond headlines.

      2) So true! We’ve got a whole section on the roots of this confusion in the book. It’s one of those tricky ones that varies by subculture, as well.

      3) This one might vary by subculture, too. My combat instructor was huge on it, as was my co-author’s, the rationale being that you train for it to be automatic so that you’re less likely to get caught with an empty weapon at an inopportune moment. The efficacy of such training is going to vary, for sure, especially when under fire–and it may be that police departments and private security forces aren’t training this way anymore. I shall look into it for the second edition and/or errata page.

      4) Tiny is a relative term. I was using it to contrast the 92 with what it replaced (the 1911) as the standard issue duty weapon for the US and related armed forces. Compared to the .45, the 9mm punches a pretty small hole and isn’t all that powerful. It makes up for it in rate-of-fire and capacity advantages, and since it fits a wider range of shooters, it’s not a bad choice for a standard-issue sidearm. A lot of police departments these days are splitting the difference and opting for the .40S&W or a similar load as a mid point that most people can handle, that still comes in high-capacity versions, and yet throws a heavier slug.


      • says

        In the UK, shooting shotguns and things like that is OK so TW is right on this. You have to go through huge license processes and checks to own one (I think – I’ve never tried to buy a gun) but you can go to places and shoot. I’ve been clay pigeon shooting with a shotgun in the UK.

        Handguns are another matter entirely. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can go in the UK as a private citizen to shoot handguns. The only times I’ve shot handguns have been in the USA – mostly so that I vaguely knew what I was talking about when writing scenes with shooting. It did give me one experience which it would never have occurred to me to write about – having an empty shell fly out and go down the front of a low-cut top. That’s a nice little moment to include in a story. :)

        I think I need this book as I still don’t know enough about guns. Living in the UK does have its drawbacks at times as an action/adventure writer.

    • says

      Yeah…what he said. I concur with all four points TW makes.

      “Pistol” is a generic term, like “handgun”, and includes revolvers as well as automatics, derringers, etc. The important thing for writers is to avoid referring to an automatic as a “revolver” (as Brits sometimes do). A revolver is a specific type of handgun, distinct from an automatic. A revolver has a revolving cylinder that holds the cartridges, instead of a detachable magazine in the grip/butt.

      Vitually all modern automatic pistols, as well as assault rifles and submachineguns, use “magazines” that contain the ammo — not “clips” which were simple metal strips used for loading ammo into certain military-style rifles and pistols from days past.

  5. says

    Just grabbed a copy of ‘Throwing Lead’ and threw in a copy of the ‘Science Fiction Weaponry’ for good measures. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. says

    Definitely important to get the details right, and if there’s anyone who knows the details, it’s gun owners. They will punish you to no end if you write something stupid.

    I still remember a book I was once reading — it was honest to goodness a great book — and about 3/4 of the way through it, the author said the main character shot six times into a quarter-size hole at 50 yards. And that was standing, not with a rest or with a pistol with a scope.

    I read that line twice to make sure I hadn’t misread it, realized the author was full of shit, and closed that book for good. Such a ludicrous statement made me instantly question every other sentence that author wrote.

    I wish I remember who wrote that, but in the end, it’s irrelevant because if you mess up a gun fact, the gun nuts — myself included — will never forgive you.

    So, if you don’t know guns, better buy the book above, or you’ll be that author who has someone slamming your great book shut for good because you messed up a single fact.

    Stan R. Mitchell

    P.S. And Joanna, you start sporting that pic and I guarantee you unending success. I mean, that’s a sexy pic.

  7. Claire says

    This was a really interesting piece and I feel really smug that I already knew a lot of it.

    I was wondering though how you’d describe the sound of a submachine gun running out of ammo. My only knowledge stems from movies and google, but the latter seems to be tight-fisted with the answers tonight and I’m not sure I trust movies.

    • says

      When a submachinegun runs out of ammo, there is a sort of clacking sound as the bolt locks back on an empty magazine. But the gun makes so much racket, I’m not sure that sound would be heard/noticed.

      I’m pretty sure that, with most submachineguns, there would NOT be a “click” if the shooter then pulled the trigger on an empty gun. The Heckler & Koch MP5 and a few others, which fire from a closed bolt, would be an exception, I think. (It’s been a while since I fired a SMG.)


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