Writing about guns

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cornflake

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Tom Clancy is perhaps the best known author today who uses info-dump concerning technicalities of weapons or weapons-systems. He does it well, and it is part of his voice.

Personally, I find it interesting. However, most people I know in everyday life just say 'guns' without knowing 'pistol' means a semi-automatic handgun versus a 'hogleg' which means a revolver. (in practical word usage - technically, both revolvers and semi-auto's can be a "pistol") Some of them would like to know the difference, some don't care.

I agree with most of the posters above, in that the amount of detail used to describe the weapon in question depends entirely upon the the character, the setting, the scene and the author voice. I care about authenticity and historical correctness. Rather than info-dump, though, I will try to bake details into the scenes to provide more understanding to the reader.

For example, I wouldn't say "Jeb reloaded his hogleg." I might say, "During a lull, Jeb quickly pushed two more quick-burning nitrate paper cartridges into the empty chambers of his .44 and rammed them carefully with the lever to ensure proper firing." Or something similar. Be careful, though. Only use such an explanation once or it becomes repetitive and boring.

I could discuss the merits of creating a differentiation between pistol and revolver, but I have never heard, or read, the word hogleg in my life.

Also, not for nothing, but Tom Clancy hasn't done anything in a while, heh.
 
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mongo

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I could discuss the merits of creating a differentiation between pistol and revolver, but I have never heard, or read, the word hogleg in my life.

Also, not for nothing, but Tom Clancy hasn't done anything in a while, heh.

Name differentiation for handguns is a subject, like many other subjects, which could lead to snarling fisticuffs among true and focused fans. I'd rather write than argue or debate. I think my only point would be to ensure my reader understood what type of weapon my MC is using. How much detail of understanding would depend on the scene.

As far as the word "hogleg", it was and is used commonly in the West (both Old and New) to refer to a revolver, a six-shooter. The word has been used repeatedly in many movies of the Old West and bunches of novels.

As for Clancy, I think he gave up writing a long time ago and now spends his time overseeing his empire of co-writers and ghost-wirters, only lending his heavy-weight name as leverage for more distribution and sales.

James Patterson is another. No way can one man publish three or four books a year, every year, for years on end.

-Grins all around-
 
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cornflake

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Name differentiation for handguns is a subject, like many other subjects, which could lead to snarling fisticuffs among true and focused fans. I'd rather write than argue or debate. I think my only point would be to ensure my reader understood what type of weapon my MC is using. How much detail of understanding would depend on the scene.

As far as the word "hogleg", it was and is used commonly in the West (both Old and New) to refer to a revolver, a six-shooter. The word has been used repeatedly in many movies of the Old West and bunches of novels.

As for Clancy, I think he gave up writing a long time ago and now spends his time overseeing his empire of co-writers and ghost-wirters, only lending his heavy-weight name as leverage for more distribution and sales.

James Patterson is another. No way can one man publish three or four books a year, every year, for years on end.

-Grins all around-

I don't think I've ever really read an Old West novel, or seen a movie? Never heard hogleg.

Clancy gave up writing... when he died, several years ago.

Patterson chooses not to write his own stuff. People absolutely do write/publish at that level. S. King's average output is certainly likely someplace around there, Nora Roberts I think exceeds that. Robert B. Parker often hit that mark and RBP never farmed out a word; he wrote everything on every page of every series himself. There are others I'm not thinking of or don't know, I'm sure.
 

ironmikezero

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To be fair, cornflake, in reference to Clancy, mongo did say "ghost-writers" . . .

('sorry . . . couldn't resist)
 

cmhbob

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I"ve heard the term hogleg used with regard to guns before. Typically I've seen it used to refer to something with a longer barrel than is common, like over 6 inches. Usually a bigger caliber too.
 

Curlz

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How much detail of understanding would depend on the scene.

As far as the word "hogleg", it was and is used commonly in the West (both Old and New) -
Meriam-Webster dictionary puts the earliest "hogleg" usage in 1908 and Oxford says it's early 20th century. Not quite "Old West".

And the amount of detail is a matter of personal writer's style and choice. Westerns are not really "techno"-thrillers, or "techno"- anything, but it's a time that most people are not closely familiar with so any curiosity detail might be of interest (like the one about the quick-burning nitrate paper cartridges).
 

WeaselFire

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You know, I've watched this thread and finally come to realize that nobody seems to have the real answer to this. You describe anything, even guns, in the detail appropriate to the story. In a crime procedural for example, you likely will eventually need to know the specific make, model, caliber and even serial number of a firearm. It's simply going to be a detail required by the story. In a Western you may or may not need the specificity. A gun described as "a small revolver, suitable for a shop keeper or a lady's handbag" might be what's needed. Or you may need to describe a gun as "He carried a '77 Colt Double Action. Yes, it shot faster than my old Remington, but I could see his was well used and would therefor likely jam on him after firing once or twice. My father-in-law had carried a '77, a Colt Lightning in .38, and when it jammed he was shot four times before he could even try to clear it. He had died in an alley the same as I knew the stranger riding past me likely would."

It's the same as you'd describe anything else. A horse for example. "He was on horseback, rode through like the Devil before I could even see what he looked like." Or maybe "He was on a mare, a bay, like Old Man Catheter used to have at his ranch before they found him shot." One way, the sheriff has more to do to find the bad guy, the other he has a valuable lead. What you write depends on what your story needs.

Hope it helps,

Jeff
 

Kevin Rohrer

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I am a gun person, but don't really appreciate when the author goes to great lengths to name and describe guns used, especially when they get the details wrong.

I am of the opinion that the detail described should be determined by the situation the gun is used in. For instance, a cap-and-ball revolver is really slow to reload, and is prone to jamming. This would be important if the writer wants a particular gun to jam or it taking a long time to get it back into service would add to the tension.

Any black powder gun will quickly get gummed-up w/ residue if fired for awhile w/o cleaning, and will rust over a few days time if not cleaned. Indians were notorious for not caring for their firearms, which could mean survival for the settlers.
 
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CWatts

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Bumping the thread for the times when the particular gun is plot-relevant.

It's my understanding that contrary to Hollywood, many saloons and dance halls had folks turn in their guns like a coat check. (Makes you wonder how many SAAs might have been mixed up...) I have a scene in such an establishment where a customer sneaked a gun in. A derringer is the obvious backup but someone needs to spot it and react just as he draws, plus that .41 caliber might pack to much punch for my purposes. A Colt Pocket .31 wasn't much smaller than the standard revolvers but would it make sense that a man could hide it in his suit jacket if people aren't paying attention?
 

R.A. Lundberg

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Bumping the thread for the times when the particular gun is plot-relevant.

It's my understanding that contrary to Hollywood, many saloons and dance halls had folks turn in their guns like a coat check. (Makes you wonder how many SAAs might have been mixed up...) I have a scene in such an establishment where a customer sneaked a gun in. A derringer is the obvious backup but someone needs to spot it and react just as he draws, plus that .41 caliber might pack to much punch for my purposes. A Colt Pocket .31 wasn't much smaller than the standard revolvers but would it make sense that a man could hide it in his suit jacket if people aren't paying attention?

As a matter of documented fact, many gents in the time frame carried pistols in their pockets (hence the name "pocket revolver"). Good old Wyatt Earp actually had what amounted to a holster built around the pocket of his long duster he habitually wore while sheriff of several frontier towns. John Wesley Hardin was also noted for carrying in a pocket as well. These men were not carrying little revolvers but full sized Colts. You have to remember that Victorian-era clothing was rather voluminous and tended to be cut somewhat loosely. If you think the Remington .41 is too much (it was actually a very weak cartridge) then don't forget the little Smith and Wessons that were the first to use the Rollin White bored through cylinder patent. They made a bunch of them, the Model 1, 1 and a half, and model 2 would all work for your pocket carrying character.
 

CWatts

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As a matter of documented fact, many gents in the time frame carried pistols in their pockets (hence the name "pocket revolver"). Good old Wyatt Earp actually had what amounted to a holster built around the pocket of his long duster he habitually wore while sheriff of several frontier towns. John Wesley Hardin was also noted for carrying in a pocket as well. These men were not carrying little revolvers but full sized Colts. You have to remember that Victorian-era clothing was rather voluminous and tended to be cut somewhat loosely. If you think the Remington .41 is too much (it was actually a very weak cartridge) then don't forget the little Smith and Wessons that were the first to use the Rollin White bored through cylinder patent. They made a bunch of them, the Model 1, 1 and a half, and model 2 would all work for your pocket carrying character.

Why thank you. Good to know the Remington .41 is a weak cartridge - I forget it's all about the powder not the bullet. Also that they pocket carried full-size Colts - I was originally going to go with a Navy .38. This guy is a wanted man who ends up shooting my character so I'm looking for the doc to be able to say "but if it was a .45 you'd need the undertaker..."
 

Rob40

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To do guns justice in a piece means you need to understand not just what they look like, but for other reasons, know how they are fitting into the visual scene youre telling. I'm working in 1890 right now. We can use nicknames and describe what that nickname refers to, plus visually what we are seeing in the scene. I have a Wells Fargo man getting a search party ready.
"He pulled a Golden Boy rifle out of the cabinet, known as such for it's brass reciever, and laid it acorss the desk. The long octagonal barrell thumped heavily on the wood next to the six boxes of .44-40 ammunition."

That's an early sentence in my rough draft, but I didn't go too deep. I didn't get too light, and it's been in enough pictures, paintings, and movies for people to get the idea of what the thing looks like. What I also did was try to make the parts of the gun almost be a character in itself.

Also, the notes about what ammunition the gun is using. In some cases it can denote multiple facts about the time period setting or the people involved. A ranch hand only made $1 a day back then, and a new revolver cost about $30. So a months work is what it takes to get a new gun and if a character looses his gun or it's stolen, it's kind of a crushing blow for all the work it took to save up for the thing. Also, 1,000 rounds of that .44-40 costs about a months pay. So when a newfangled weapon I'm working with burns through that much in an hour of fighting, well, can you imagine the budget to use that weapon?

That's kind of why the larger caliber Spence rifles were such a big deal. They were very expensive in comparison and just to shoot it more than on rare occasion took a decent paycheck. That's also a big reason Richard Gatling's hand cranked repeaating gun was not plentiful. It was horribly expensive, yes, but the ammo it used was like that of a spencer. Terribly expensive and it spat it out like we use tap water.

So certain guns in certain periods can denote a certain person of means or not. Can be used as a ploy, deception. But overall I guess I'm getting at is the descriptions must not be technical or too deep, but they can be enough to play within the scene. To add wonder (Like who is the hell would be using a pearl handle way out here in Guatemala
?) or add the impression of overwhelming power (like Clancy or other technothriller writers getting so deep there's no question it can kill really well) so when it's used in the story action later, you can see it operating, ejecting spend shells, venting gasses, the stock absorbing recoils, etc.
 
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Jerome Price

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I might have a little different take on this subject. first of all, there isn't much I don't know about guns especially those used in the old west. First of all, is your story taking place during the Civil War, or anytime up to 1870? During this period of time, there were still a lot of percussion revolvers in use. The Henry, Volcanic arms, and Spencer lever actions were rapidly gaining popularity. In 1873 Colt came out with the single action army revolver that fired the .45 long Colt cartridge. Smith and Wesson's Schofield top-break pistol was equally popular although it fired a shorter .45 cartridge. I am currently writing a story of a man who travels from 2015 to 1878 Deadwood who decides to go with modern weapons and all the advantages they bring. Being an ex-marine sniper, he goes with a Springfield M1A with an ACOG sight, a CZ75 9mm pistol, and a Benelli M4 auto shotgun. One of the things I examine in my story is the examination of modern smokeless powder weapons against blackpowder. If you have a further questions about guns, feel free to ask me.
 

RBEmerson

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Interesting thread although I doubt the Earp boys toted anything capable of full auto. (<-- humor?)

@Curlz Thanks for "Meriam-Webster dictionary puts the earliest "hogleg" usage in 1908 and Oxford says it's early 20th century. Not quite "Old West"

You just removed an anachronism for me. Good on ya.

In my WIP, the MC acquires the pistol and rifle of someone who loses at calling out someone dealing from the bottom or whatever. Point being, it's Aug. '73 and there's Winchester '73 waiting for him or double-action Colt Peacemaker (sorry - personal bias showing on both). The DA came out in '73 but it's darn near impossible the late Howie Rudd owned one. Ditto for the Winchester. Point being, I do want to get the right weapons into the story. Howie, dating a lady gunsmith, scored on a '71 open top predecessor - minor plot element. The '66 Winchester lever action was/is(?) called a "yellow boy" because the main part was brass ("yellow"). Again minor plot element. But after than, going through chapter and verse on more about either is gratuitous and "see what I know".

IMHO Clancy was showing off and, occasionally, getting it wrong - Hunt for Red October puts ballast venting in the wrong place. Oopsie. A recent time out with Louis L'amour had him delivering all but where the screws in whatever weapon went where, the properties of Mormon tea, etc., etc., etc. IMHO, showing off.

Or... if a detail is hanging Chekov's gun on the wall, fine. If it's "I know all", keep it to yourself. The reader might just know it, and spot the reference source that got it wrong.
 

RBEmerson

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Question: I read that the shotgun shell came out sometime in the mid-1860s (66?), but I can't seem to find any info on any actual shotguns manufactured at that time that would fire the shells. Anyone know of a model or manufacturer who did?
Follow up on the term "greener". And if you really want to be esoteric, although I don't have any dates, there have been bolt action shotguns, not just the break it type seen in every Western film I've ever seen. But if you want to be way cool, try a bolt action 20 gauge. Woohoo!

There are pump action shotguns, beloved of movie police and anyone who wants to rack a round and be REALLY LOUD about it. V. intimidating. In the movies, anyway. IIRC one is heard in Dire Straits "Private Investigation".
 

RBEmerson

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Tom Clancy is perhaps the best known author today who uses info-dump concerning technicalities of weapons or weapons-systems. He does it well, and it is part of his voice.

Personally, I find it interesting. However, most people I know in everyday life just say 'guns' without knowing 'pistol' means a semi-automatic handgun versus a 'hogleg' which means a revolver. (in practical word usage - technically, both revolvers and semi-auto's can be a "pistol") Some of them would like to know the difference, some don't care.

I agree with most of the posters above, in that the amount of detail used to describe the weapon in question depends entirely upon the the character, the setting, the scene and the author voice. I care about authenticity and historical correctness. Rather than info-dump, though, I will try to bake details into the scenes to provide more understanding to the reader.

For example, I wouldn't say "Jeb reloaded his hogleg." I might say, "During a lull, Jeb quickly pushed two more quick-burning nitrate paper cartridges into the empty chambers of his .44 and rammed them carefully with the lever to ensure proper firing." Or something similar. Be careful, though. Only use such an explanation once or it becomes repetitive and boring.
My male MC goes sniffing around the entrance to a ranch where something's but nobody says what. He walks his horse towards the gate, "yella boy" across the saddle (v. in the scabbard). Someone on the ranch house porch fires a shot towards MC (no hit or dramatic, whining ricochet). MC fires two shots as "suppression fire" (no doubt common terminology in the 1970's - [/laugh]) and departs. Later, he "loads two bullets to replace the two fired" (or close to it). Why bother with caliber, lot number, etc., etc. just replace the rounds and call it a day.

Another scene. In almost every movie I've seen, prior to "going into action" with a pump gun or lever action, it's "pump" or "swings lever". OK, pump guns need it to cock the thing (counter example??), but either a round comes out (oopsie, one round lost or bend over and pick it up and stuff it back in the magazine/tube) or no round in the chamber (varying positions on safe or not safe idea). Can't think of a 19th C. lever action that didn't have an external hammer. So everybody swings that lever (very I'm here to kick butt!!), but either that means no round in the chamber or a la pump gun, oopsie, just tossed a round away while galloping and getting ready to shoot. Oh for dumb!

Question: Was "rounds" or "round" used at all in the 1870's west? Or anywhere? Or was it just "bullet(s)"?
 
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RBEmerson

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Guns are like cars, windows to the soul and lifestyle of the characters who own them. Bombergirl's MC is a perfect example. Just those two details speak volumes about the character. Hard to get better word count bang for your buck!

She's also right that weapon choice can have all sorts of consequences on the plot. In my WIP, the MC has to borrow a gun for his first gunfight. It's a double action revolver referred to at the time as a "Whistler". In 1870, you bet that detail makes a lot of difference! First, virtually everyone was still packing SA, mostly cap and ball. Second, shooting DA is tricky. Heavier trigger pull means lots of SA shooters end up losing accuracy until they acclimate. (Something I know from personal experience. Grew up shooting SA. Had a real blow to my ego the first time I took a DA belly gun to the range.) So quicker to shoot, but generally less accurate.

I could have just said my MC borrowed "a" revolver. And that he missed. But I like to think the extra detail, with all its implications, adds some realism to the narrative. Or at least some flavor.

Then again I'm a gun nut, and will happily read paragraphs of details about a character's choice of weapon, so long as they're pertinent and well researched.
Ah-hah! This is the post I was looking for (unleashed other posts as I skimmed for this - me and brevity don't mix.)

I get the part about a double action pistol having a heavier pull - spin cylinder and cock hammer versus spin and shooter manages hammer. I get changing from SA to DA is going to change things. But a DA is always less accurate? After getting used to the pull, the DA is still less accurate? Unfortunately my only experience with a "six-gun" amounts to a Ruger .22LR Peacemaker-wannabe and a SA .45 firing primer (6 shots for $5, with wax "bullets") took a couple to figure out wax drops a lot more than lead... Grouping wasn't too bad afterwards, which is weird because target stands fear me, targets laugh at me.

See? Brief! LOL
 

RBEmerson

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Assorted mostly western gun thoughts

"Fanning" breaks pistols. They just aren't meant to abused that way. If an MC is bent on cleaning up the bad guys with lots of fanning, if he doesn't have a bespoke gunsmith, either the author's goofed or MC's exceedingly lucky. Those blindingly wicked fast quick draw folks all have a few guns along out of many guns they own. The others are being fixed. Again.

Colt made an early Peacemaker referred to as an "open top" (pre '73 Peacemaker everybody knows). Not too surprisingly missing the "strap" running across the top of the cylinder made the pistol weaker than the later "closed top" version. That also means gas blowing out between the cylinder and barrel. Not Good. This was a high(er) maintenance animal.

Spinning a cylinder (v. cool to roll the cylinder down the arm) does bad things to the mechanism - access to gunsmith needed, to repair abuse.

Somebody mentioned rimfire versus center fire. A simple example of a rimfire gun is anything shooting a .22 Long Rifle round (plinking guns, target pistols, all sorts of stuff). The firing pin is typically rectangular and smacks the back of the round off center, on the edge of the back of the round or... on the rim. The pin comes from behind and parallel to the center line of the barrel, not at right angles. Dry firing (cock, pull trigger with nothing in the chamber beats up the firing pin and area around where the base of the round sits. Bad Idea.

Centerfire rounds have a primer (easier to set off than main powder charge) in the middle of the base. The firing pin comes in from behind (as with the .22) but straight down the centerline. Dry firing is still a Bad Idea for different reasons.

Point being, not even a hope of swapping center fire and rimfire rounds, even if the they'd fit in the first place. The "Henry" started out as rimfire and a later Henry used centerfire. No swappies.

A .45 is not just the ring from LOTR - one bullet to bind them all. Different length cartridges, length of bullet (heavy piece up front), powder charge, etc. Ditto for almost any caliber of note. Including .22's where a .22 Short will fit into a gun chambered for a .22LR. The .22LR won't fit into something chambered for a .22Short. Wonder why... Side point. The .22, which might be thought of as a "toy", can still toss a bullet up to a mile (give or take, more take) away. No accuracy, and not much oompf in the last couple of feet, but thinking a .22 will run out of steam "not that far" is a Bad Idea. Guess bigger calibers with more powder might often go further, eh?

For non-shooter writers. A gun is always and forever loaded. "Don't point where you don't mean to shoot." Tenderfoot shoots some part of self or someone else with an "unloaded" gun. Possible plot element?

"One in the pipe" or not. Back to the lever action rifles and jacking the lever before "goin' in ta action, hombre". If there's no round in the chamber (where the round sits until fired), that clack-clack is needed to actually load up for shooting. If, however, you want your MC to be ready to shoot like it already happened, put a round in the chamber, pull back the hammer, and bang. Thank of shotguns with a shell sitting in the/each barrel. Pull the hammer and watch the shot fly. Pull the trigger with the hammer back by mistake, oopsie. (Always and forever loaded)

In revolvers, having all chambers filled is pretty obvious. In some police instances, the hammer had to be on an empty cylinder. Cops didn't shoot cops (or cop's feet) so much, but bad guys could get a shot off faster and had one more round in the cylinder.

All things to keep in mind when gunning up your MC.
 
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redpbass

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Interesting thread although I doubt the Earp boys toted anything capable of full auto. (<-- humor?)

@Curlz Thanks for "Meriam-Webster dictionary puts the earliest "hogleg" usage in 1908 and Oxford says it's early 20th century. Not quite "Old West"

You just removed an anachronism for me. Good on ya.

Just as a side note, "hogleg" is just about the stupidest nickname for a type of gun I've ever heard. To me, nicknames for types of guns are generally stupid sounding at best, and confusing at worst. I've seen the sawn-off rifle called a hogleg (Zoe in the TV show Firefly uses one), and I thought it sounded ridiculous then. Really, the only two guns people will automatically recognize by nickname are the Peacemaker and the Tommy Gun. That's it.

---

Also, as a side note, you mentioned bolt-action shotguns. There are also revolver-style shotguns, lever action shotguns, and probably other styles as well. I imagine the break open style was more common overall because of mechanical simplicity if nothing else, however.
 

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What? You don't see the family resemblance between the seductive curve of the Colt grip (IMNSHO Colt roolz, anything else droolz) and the hind leg of a porker?

Again IMNSHO "hog leg", "smoke wagon", "smokestack", "six-shooter", "six gun", etc., no matter how period correct the term is, at this distant remove, almost a cliche. Think of "chicago piano", "gat", "heater", "tommy gun", etc., again, from here, most of that strikes me as "please put it away". The problem isn't "What Would Wyatt Do", it's what would the reader do? Sure, some will gobble it up and think "Wow! Authentic Cowboy Talk!!" and some will wonder if there are enough pages to start a campfire with. My WIP has some of this in it, but as a mild, amused "we all know I haven't a clue about this sort of thing" reference to carrying a gun or having one.

One last thing on this stream... My snap reaction is to take "used in TV/movie" to mean highly suspect until proven to be otherwise. Right in there with Edith Head doing costumes for Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" with John Wayne. Seriously, it's in the credits. It's going to ruin some of the film, but go back and look at the costumes, the color, cut, and the hats the Bad Guys wear, young Angie Dickinson... I almost snorted mah ol' rotgut out mah nose... Yep, if it's on a screen, it's questionable.
- - -
Shotguns... any weapon, sometimes without looking too hard, appears in strange configurations. The full-auto M1911... I can't imagine shooting one, let alone putting anything vaguely where desired. The semi-auto has challenged me enough. I mentioned the bolt action shotgun as something that might show up in an obscure corner of a sod shanty or whatever. There are things with a rifle barrel over, and a (smaller) shotgun barrel under (commonly .410 comes back to me).

Merely as an observation and question: strikes me under-over shotguns are scarce in "the good old days" writing. Or is that just me?
 

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I have always skipped out on guns with my novels until my latest book, even though I love guns WAYYYYYYY too much. Like others have said, length of description depends on the scope of the story.

Generally I think its good to show a bit of accuracy, only because the anti-gun people have butchered the terms way too much, like an anti-gun story on the news showing a 12 gauge shotgun blowing apart a watermelon and it was subtitled as an AR-15. (Not even close). That can anger gun owners, and there are a few of us in the USA after all, and despite what the media seems to think, yep we are able to read!

In my latest novel, I had the main characters pinned down by a sniper, and really had to hold back on the info-dump on that. That is really my thing too, as my type of shooting is ultra-long-range target shooting. (1300 yards or 3/4 of a mile is the longest shot I can take on my farm).

But I did flip the novel a bit. I had the female main character in my story carry a concealed handgun, while the male main character was scared of guns. It worked because the female was an attorney and I do not know any attorney or judge that does not conceal carry for their protection.
 

Maryn

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Things worth noting:

1) This thread was necroed from 2008.
2) Judges routinely make people furious with their rulings.
3) People furious with a judge have no trouble getting guns.
 
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