When Writing About Guns

By Benjamin Dancer

It’s hard to imagine a thriller without guns. And if you know anything about firearms, that knowledge has likely ruined some of the best books you’ve read. As a matter of fact, there are a few ubiquitous research errors that have become something of a joke among those familiar with guns. This piece will correct the two most common mistakes.

Before I go any further, I should give a little background about myself. Even though I’m familiar with firearms, I keep to the weapons I know in my writing. And because I’ve never been in combat, I do a lot of research on how that type of stress affects the human psyche. One of the most authoritative experts on the subject is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. When I finished the manuscript of my upcoming thriller, I sent it to Dave and asked for his endorsement. You can find that endorsement below:

Patriarch Run accomplishes something few thrillers have achieved: it gets the guns right, and it gets the psychology of the gunfight right. Benjamin Dancer writes the gunfight scenes with a realism seldom seen in fiction.”

The first research error I’d like to correct is that of the safety. Almost every author I’ve read (myself included) feels compelled to have their gun-wielding characters switch off the thumb safety after the weapon has been introduced into the scene. The gesture is irresistible to us because it increases dramatic tension. It’s often the last bit of narration before the trigger is pulled. However, few authors seem to be aware that many of the guns they have unholstered in their writing are manufactured without external safeties.

No matter how gripping a story is, when I read about a thumb safety on a Glock (a handgun well-known for not having an external safety), all the credibility the author has built up in the narrative is immediately lost. As a matter of fact, some of the most popular handguns being manufactured today have no external safeties. Revolvers fall into that category.

There’s a good reason for this. The human stress response is such that manipulating a thumb safety in a gunfight can be difficult, so difficult that it can get a person killed. If that fact seems bizarre to us, it’s because we haven’t yet been in a situation in which our bodies have involuntarily reacted to that type of stress.

Don’t ever have a character switch off the safety on a gun unless you’re certain that the gun is manufactured with one.

The second research error I’d like to correct involves nomenclature. Unless you’re writing about a vintage weapon (such as the M1 Garand, the United States Armed Forces service rifle during WWII) don’t ever use the word “clip” when referring to guns. The correct word to use is magazine. What’s the difference?

Simply put, a clip feeds a magazine. A magazine feeds a weapon. One of the differences between a clip and a magazine is that a magazine functions with a spring. It uses that spring to help feed cartridges into the chamber of a gun.

Some speculate that this error in language was introduced by veterans of World War II. The M1 Garand uses an en bloc clip to charge its fixed magazine. The speculation is that, after the war, troops familiar with the Garand adopted the term clip when referring to the magazines in their civilian guns. Today the term clip is widely misused. Because of the way our language has evolved, the term has become the signature giveaway for those who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Avoiding these two common research errors would go a long way in making a story more believable.

Benjamin Dancer is the author of the literary thriller PATRIARCH RUN, which is available for pre-order now. It is the first book in a series that will include FIDELITY and THE STORY OF THE BOY. He also writes about parenting and education. You can learn more at BenjaminDancer.com.

To learn more about PATRIARCH RUN, click on the cover below: