The Proofreader's Parlour
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This is the second in a series of guest posts by my colleague Steve Allen, a soldier-turned-editor who specializes in firearms and military-particulars editing. Here are four more tips to consider when writing about firearms in fiction.
1. Is it just a gun?
Is is ever just a gun? Yes and no.
Any gun is not substitutable at will for another gun. Not all guns share the same features, nor can one gun do everything. Just as mechanics need more than one wrench, some tasks require different guns.
All firearms share common basic features but are quite varied, similar to tools. Choose the correct tool for your characters based on the story and situation.
Do not give the hero a 9mm pistol nailing bad guys at 900 yards (823 metres). Use a scoped high-power rifle for shots greater than 600 yards (549 metres).
A shotgun, even when loaded with rifled slugs, cannot shoot accurately across a valley. Shotguns and pistols are designed for up close and personal.
2. Terminology tangles
I don’t fault writers for simple and common terminology and vernacular mistakes, unless their target readers would.
I ignore basic firearms terminology mistakes as long as the author is clear on intent and meaning.
Most people use cartridges, shells, rounds and bullets interchangeably. Referring to a magazine as a clip is usually not a story-killer – unless you’re writing very gun-centric fiction where the character would not make that mistake.
Firearms terminology and acronyms are writer-trapping quagmires – avoid them if you can. Establish gun terms early in the manuscript.
If your writing feels like you’re trying too hard, your readers will know.
Be consistent with your terminology and keep things simple. If you refer to a magazine as a clip, do so throughout the story. Flipping back and forth between terms confuses readers.
Use the term assault rifle with care. Know if you will offend your readers by the use of 'assault rifle' or if they will even care.
There is no precise lawful definition of what is an assault rifle. Adolf Hitler is credited with creating the term as a propaganda piece during WWII. In the US, assault rifle is generally used by politicians demonizing a particular weapon, hoping to ban by legislation its ownership and sale.
3. Clip-fed revolvers … and reloading
The revolver reloaded by a magazine is a less frequent mistake, but one I notice occasionally.
Revolvers are loaded by stripper clips, speed loaders or loose rounds, not magazines. Know at least the basics of how and with what the guns are reloaded in your story.
Reloading a weapon is best kept general, with as few words as possible, before returning to the action quickly. Explaining that your character popped open his revolver, dumped the empty cartridges, then refilled it with loose rounds from his pocket, snapping it closed when full, is sufficient.
Better yet, just mention that the character reloaded and let the readers form their own mental images. You don’t need to describe every single step of reloading a gun, because it detracts from the action.
4. Your hero put what on a what?
Improper use of firearm accessories or impossible accessory attachment is a fairly common mistake. For example – rogue Chinese general assassinates the Chinese president with a suppressed revolver. Frequent mistakes that I see include:
With attachments and accessories, follow the KISS principle. For a writer unfamiliar with guns, KISS means Keep It Simple, Stupid.
More is not always better. Complicating firearms in combat can be disastrous for your hero.
Next time, we'll be looking at thumb safeties and silencers among other things. Until then, if you have any questions for Steve about firearms in fiction, drop them in the comments and he'll help you out.
Steve Allen is a retired soldier living north of Seattle, WA, with his lovely wife and daughters, and a neurotic terrier and a goofy black Labrador.
When not editing, Steve wanders the Pacific Northwest on roads less travelled, searching for good books and very cold beer.
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Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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