Guns: Magic or Science / Author Ernest Lancaster

Author Ernest Lancaster

Author Ernest Lancaster

I wouldn’t dare presume to tell you how to define the weapons your characters use.  After all, Hollywood churns out films with magical guns and bullets that defy the laws of physics.  And heroes with implausible powers from Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter command legions of loyal fans.

Yet, even though Superman really can’t fly, mystical vampires don’t prey on our blood, zombies don’t rise from the grave to walk the earth and the magic of Excalibur doesn’t reside in guns, they all excel at one thing.  They sell lots of books, movies, television and merchandise.  To paraphrase Thomas Hardy, fact ain’t fiction.

However, hunters, sportsmen, those in the military, police, courts, science, and firearms industry must confront guns as they actually perform in the real world.  So you may seem silly if you’re not writing fantasy and your characters’ guns behave in impossible ways.  Fine-tuning fiction with gun-accuracy can refine your story with distinction like the difference between wine and Kool-Aid.

Both the entertainment and the news media advance ignorance in firearms.  Hollywood, television and too many novels live in alternate universes with guns.  And the news media has proven incapable of competing with Hollywood myth.

To begin, what is an assault rifle?  The first rudimentary cannons, utilizing bells stuffed with gunpowder and a ball, were assault weapons.  That is, their inventors intended to assault their targets, whether those targets were human or animal. Today the term “assault weapon” resembles pornography.  It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.  Unfortunately, that description caught on and even became acceptable in federal law with the now-expired assault weapons ban.

English is a living language.  If we have to live with such an amorphous label, an assault weapon might be thought of as a military-style rifle, capable of firing multiple rounds quickly.

Writers serve readers better pinpointing more specific terms.  A few of the guns that many consider to be assault weapons are semi-automatic rifles, automatic rifles, machine guns, submachine guns and other military weapons designed for combat.

A pistol is a gun designed to be fired from the hand, with a barrel under 12” or so in length.  A rifle is a shoulder-fired weapon with a longer barrel.  The longer barrel allows for greater accuracy when firing at distant targets.

Any gun that continues to fire bullets for as long as the trigger is depressed until it runs out of ammo is an automatic weapon.  Any magazine-fed gun that fires one bullet with a single trigger pull and continues to fire a bullet with each subsequent trigger pull until the gun runs empty is semi-automatic.

The first automatics, machine guns, fired rifle-size bullets.  These tripod-mounted heavy weapons were designed to mow down soldiers in combat.  In World War I, machine guns turned trench warfare into a meat grinder.  Over the top, boys.

"Precinct Memphis - Cop Tales" by Ernest Lancaster

“Precinct Memphis – Cop Tales” by Ernest Lancaster

Later, shoulder-fired automatic weapons, which shot bullets the caliber of pistols, hit the battlefield.  These became known as submachine guns. The first such mass-produced gun was the Thompson submachine gun.  Congress outlawed Tommy guns for civilian use as gangsters committed outrages like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Guns have come a long way since the Chinese invented gunpowder.  For further basic explanations of firearms and ballistics, I invite you to attend my class at the 2013 Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference: Magic or Science?  Do You Write Hollywood or Real Guns?

A few of the things I’ll discuss include: What neuters bullets?  What guns cannot be suppressed with a silencer?  Is knockdown power a myth?  What’s the difference between a magazine and a clip?  What’s the difference between a bullet and a cartridge?  What does fiction most often get wrong about sniper rifles?  Are laser sights foolproof?  How strong are bulletproof vests?

Killer Nashville is an essential gathering of writers, readers and industry pros.  This will be my sixth year attending.  Hope to see you there.

Ernest Lancaster retired from the Memphis Police Department in 2006 after a 33-year career as a cop.  He served as a firearms instructor and a police sniper on the TACT Unit for 26 years.  Lancaster has written two unpublished novels and published a collection of short stories, PRECINCT MEMPHIS – COP TALES.

(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at


About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker ( and founder of Killer Nashville ( As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” ( and the music CD “XO” ( A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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