Some time back, I was reading a novel by a prominent best seller when I came across a passage wherein the protagonist, supposedly a person with firearms experience, called a shotgun a rifle. I stopped reading the story right there.
If we’re going to write mysteries or thrillers or crime novels, we’re sooner or later going to involve firearms, so it behooves us to know a little about them. The best way to do this is to spend a few hours at a local range, where you can actually fire guns at targets, inspect various weapons, and ask questions.
But if you don’t have the time for that, here’s a basic lesson. It’s a good bit to take in, so pay attention:
A shotgun is a smooth-bore long gun capable of firing a shell containing pellets ranging from numerous lead flakes (bird shot) to a number of lead balls (buckshot). The flakes or pellets exit the muzzle and disperse in a spray pattern, which pattern is controlled somewhat by the choke, or degree of diameter reduction toward the end portion of the barrel. A full choke tends to confine the spray pattern so the charge is effective over a longer range, whereas a modified choke, for example, allows the charge to disperse sooner, at shorter range for more coverage. Accurate aiming of a shotgun is not required because a target can be anywhere within the spray pattern and still get hit with at least a few pellets.
A rifle, on the other hand, has helical grooves and lands that have been machined into the bore in order to impart a spin to the bullet, thus increasing accuracy. By the way, there is virtually no difference between the lethal power of an assault rifle round and many ordinary deer rifle rounds, despite the overwhelming bad press the assault rifle has received. In fact, many game rifles have far better accuracy over a longer range than assault rifles do, so a deer rifle, especially with a telescopic sight mounted on it, can be a much more effective weapon than an assault rifle.
Long guns (both shotguns and rifles) may be operated semi-automatically, that is, producing a discharge with every pull of the trigger. Or a mechanism like a lever, a bolt, or a pump may be used to bring a new round into firing position before every trigger pull. Fully automatic guns of any design, which produce a rapid succession of discharges as long as the trigger is held back (as a machine gun does), have for many years been illegal to possess anywhere in America, and violation of that federal law carries a severe penalty. The fastest-firing guns of any type that are legal (including assault rifles) require one trigger pull for every round fired.
There are two basic types of hand guns: revolvers and semi-automatics.
A revolver holds five or six rounds in a cylindrical cluster, rotating a new round into firing position on each trigger pull (or when the hammer is thumbed back). This type of gun is famously used in western movies. There is no safety. You simply aim the gun and pull the trigger. It is impossible to suppress the sound because gases, and thus noise, can escape between the end of the cylinder and the beginning of the barrel.
A semi-automatic pistol (often erroneously called an automatic) carries a number of rounds, from as few as seven to a dozen or more, in a magazine that is commonly contained in the gun’s grip. The gun almost always has at least one safety mechanism and can be effectively sound-suppressed (the long tube that you see Bruce Willis screwing onto the muzzle is not really a silencer; it’s more accurately called a suppressor).
The thingy you load into a cylinder or a magazine is not a bullet. It is a cartridge, which consists of a casing (usually brass) containing the primer, the powdered propellant, and the bullet. In a revolver, the empty casing is retained in the cylinder after firing (therefore it won’t normally be left behind as evidence), whereas the casing is always ejected from a semi-automatic (or from a rifle) and could be flung some distance from the gun in the process. Bullets are usually made of lead and come in many varieties, solid-nosed or hollow-nosed, nylon clad, Teflon coated, and so on.
The caliber of a cartridge tells you its bullet diameter. In other words, a .38 caliber cartridge has a bullet with a diameter of .38 inch, or about three-eighths of an inch. A fifty-caliber round is one-half inch in diameter.
You got all that?
With ready access to the Web, there’s never any excuse for not getting technical details right. Fiction is a fragile construction, and all it takes is a single glaring error to crumble it all to dust for the reader, as happened for me when that best-selling author carelessly called a shotgun a rifle.
(Incidentally, the other day a hoodlum fired a hand gun into a combination convenience store/McDonald's a block from my home. Luckily, he was a lousy shot and only injured one person. I don’t live in blitzed Detroit or in any of the other lawless city wilds around the country. I live in a nice little coastal city where most folks are law-abiding. The sad fact is, though, drugs and violence are everywhere these days, as a recent meth lab bust in an idyllic rural county adjacent to mine attests. It’s one reason I took the necessary training and now have a permit to carry concealed my .38 Special revolver in thirty-six states.)