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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…
You can find Dan at JDSawyer.net and on twitter @dsawyer
That book has one of those covers which makes me want to buy it right away. Which is a good sign, of course.
Not sure how a girl holding a gun can be cute, but somehow you pulled it off! Great interview.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Doug – next time I need to be hardcore thriller looking, rather than cute though!
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.
J. Daniel Sawyer says
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.
Joanna Penn says
Dan – you managed to get SO much in – it was a great interview – I know we could have gone on for hours 🙂 Thank you again.
J. Daniel Sawyer says
Always a pleasure — thanks for having me on!
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.
Turndog Millionaire 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)
Joanna Penn 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!
Bruce H. Johnson 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.
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.
Joanna Penn 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 🙂
J. Daniel Sawyer 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.
Jessica Meats 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.
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.
Just grabbed a copy of ‘Throwing Lead’ and threw in a copy of the ‘Science Fiction Weaponry’ for good measures. Thanks for the recommendation!
Stan R. Mitchell 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.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Stan 🙂
Gary A Swaby says
This is a fantastic bit of information, thanks guys.
I will definitely be purchasing Throwing Lead.
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.
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.)
Penny Taylor says
Joanna, I’m just catching up on some of your older posts and was delighted to see you covering firearms with Dan. As far as your photo, you’d be right at home along side Annie Oakley.
I don’t know that I agree with Dan about women and wrist size. My wrist is on 6 1/2 ” and I’m fine with larger caliber pistols. For me it always comes down to the grip. It used to be guys would hand me a pistol and say, “Try this, it’s got a smaller grip,” thinking that at 5’1″ with small hands that’s what I could handle. Totally wrong. A tiny grip bounces around in my hand & makes it harder to control. I want something substantial to hang on to for total control.
I prefer steel frames to Polymer.
As for where you shoot someone, I know of no professional who doesn’t shoot center mass. With an adrenaline dump and movement, it’s hard enough to hit anyone, period in a gun battle. You’re moving, the bad guy is moving and if/when you miss you are still responsible for where that bullet goes, which can be a block away, through a wall and into an innocent kid. I hate to bring politics into it, but it’s TV and books having the hero “wing” someone or shooting them in the arm, that has lead to these unrealistic fantasy expectations and condemnation in officer involved shootings. “Why did he have to kill him?” (cry/wail) “He should have shot him in the leg!”
The book looks awesome. I’m definitely going to pick it up. Also keep in mind how much is available on YouTube. It can give a writer both good and bad examples of firearms in action. USCCA has a YouTube channel that takes shooters through various scenarios. Seeing people getting it right & getting it wrong can trigger ideas for how your gun battles can go.
As for vests, I know the limitations. I don’t get specific in describing some of the weaknesses. I’ve decided the entire world does NOT need to know how to kill a cop.
One thing to keep in mind, whether you buy into studies that say eye t brain recognition is 13 milliseconds or 400 milliseconds, the fact of the matter is, in real danger, it does take time for what you eye sees to get to your brain. And then it takes longer to react to that. When someone has pulled a gun on you, that’s all the time it takes to be dead. You are already behind the curve. Situational awareness can save your character’s life and distraction can endanger life.
My favorite Sig P226
If you get out to California we should hit the range.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Penny – I’d love to come out to a range in California sometime 🙂
Penny Taylor says
One more thing your writers may be interested in. Below is a link to a police sniper shooting the gun out of a man’s hand. Pay NO attention to the commentator, he has no idea what he’s talking about and gets everything wrong. The sniper is PD NOT army. The guys in camo are PD not army.
The thing to note is this shot was successful because of patterning. Whereas the commentator says they became “impatient” and finally shot the gun out of his hand, the opposite is true. The sniper patiently watched the gunman. He was agitated and would get up and walk around, then sit back down, rest his arms on his knees. When the sniper found a pattern the man repeated over time, he waited for him to go back to a position he had taken time and time again and then fired to hit the gun where he knew it was going to be.
As for “army blokes,” they’re S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons & Tactics) with Columbus, Ohio Police Department. The sniper was Mike Plumb (now retired). (The Dublin police car was from nearby Dublin, Ohio not Ireland
I never thought about the impact gun regulations in different countries would have on being able to write a book with shooters! Thanks for the tips!
Anonymous Storydefender says
Gun owners need to stop. Much of the presumption of movie myths are false. Ask them which is it, a revolver or pistol, when it is in the Age before revolvers, with muzzle loaded Musket ball guns?
Most of these are not even problems, or are are true realistic details to get right or wrong. Modern combatants have a lot of issues mentally not shared by all, not historically and I hope by less people as time wears on. PTSD has been more modern than you think, or at least this much depression involved. Cops can have issues…some of it realistically amounts to paranoia in some situations, but I’m betting that is not the exact character the writer of this neweapon book is attempting to explain.
Yes, you can run out of ammo without knowing, I don’t care how well they train or lie to you, but too many people don’t even remember how many shots they fired. This is a common problem after shootings. How well professionals count, I’m not sure, but I would advise caution towards even the professionals who try to correct others. Often many exaggerate the hearing loss and PTSD issues.
Guns started running out of ammo and being reloaded, too many films to exactly analyze most of the time how many shots, when, or where before being reloaded. Yet the NRA insists we now use infinite reloads in film, despite most people who come out of dangerous and long confrontation recommend more ammo to be brought.
Ask which is it? Clip or mag? Realistically, old and young gun owners use both terms. The modern gun culture has become more legalistic, and even gun safety is modern and not continuous through all gun owners.
“A civilian under fire turns…” I would almost say if you found this guy in life to slug him for that one…maybe with a shotgun, which isn’t a cluster of pellets. Except he is neither a historian or a nazi, to be punished respectively. No…he is like many. The reason you write about this gun owner as a writer, is because you and every audience member in this generation and the last has built up a negative bias towards fiction, a strong and unrealistic disbelief that blinds us to the true nature of a story and the laws physical and historical that guide it. It is not our world, nor ever could be, however close to the laws we experience.
Trying to save Story by blindness, hate, and disbelief will result in nothing. I study movie myths, and have proven hundreds wrong, and the movies real. Yet there will be those that contradict the continuity of laws they have made, including guns. The most common are sparking bullets, which still may occasionally or circumstantial be realistic; failure to penetrate, which is still hard to gauge and does not dictate tactics of cover and concealment, as humans, however well trained, act in as variable manners as results in real life; small petulance, or bits of whether this gun or that has a safety or not, does this one rattle with a round loose in the magazine, and until what action, etc. The last is hard to know in every circumstance whether it is right or wrong, and nothing defines fiction as a whole, which is what this book and others attempt. We need to stop generalizing, and respect fiction and have belief. I mourn more than hate the failures of continuity in tales…because they have destroyed themselves, the writers and fulfilling their world in the story. But this negative disbelief which is absolute and cannot be satisfied must not.
Realistically, this man represents one perspective out of infinite. Realistically, a civilian can without training stop a terrorist. No law of physics dictates otherwise, and probability does not exist. What happens happens, and historically exceptions to the rule occur as heroes and villains in life, I’m afraid. And they are the rule: from Hitler and his high survival rate, to Sergeant York, to Captain John Smith, and others. No…there is no higher realism in training or a professional’ preference that automatically renders a civilian untrained incapable of stopping a terrorist. And if so…how much more incredible and unique a story to make? Caution to all…life is more dramatic than you think.