Wednesday, June 29, 2005

So you want to write about guns...

Here's a question we exalted gun gurus get a heck of a lot, and popped up on the NoR today:
"Hello, I am sure this has been asked before but I just didnt know where to look... I am an aspiring author and one of my characters will use a gun regularly. As such I was hoping someone would be able to tell me what the difference between a .38 and a 9mm is, in power and accuracy, or direct me to a link that explains it. Any help you all can give me will be most apreciated."
Doesn't it really irritate you when an otherwise good author, who should really know better because their audience consists of many gun savvy people; gets basic firearms details entirely wrong?

I'm a big fan of the Anita Blake series for example (vampires, werewolves, guns, smut... whats not to like); and although Laurell K. Hamilton does her best, her main character is s'posed to be something of a gun nut, and Laurell doesnt really know much about guns.

She DOES however have a lot of friends who do (she lives in St. Louis, which is STILL trying to resist the Missouri state CCW law BTW), and they generally help her out.

Well, to all aspiring authors... here goes.

First, go to your nearest range, and TALK TO PEOPLE. Get to know how they shoot, what they are shooting, and why. Pick up and handle a few guns. Ask questions. Then get on the range with an instructor, and fire a few boxes of cartridges (generic ammo usually comes in boxes of 50), from a couple of different guns.

Do your research, and you will come away with an INFINITELY better understanding of what you are writing.

Now on to direct answers...

First (in this section anyway), bullets aren't... or rather what most people call bullets are actually cartridges (also called rounds), which consist of the following:

  1. The bullet: the part that actually comes flying out of the gun at high speed towards your targe, and is stuck in the top of...

  2. The case: The cartridge case holds all the other parts together, and seals the chamber against the explosion of...

  3. The powder charge : more properly referred to as the propellant, which is not actually "gun powder" any more, it's now an extruded nitrocellulose compound (even ball is initially extruded), which is ignited by...

  4. The primer: Which is a shock sensitive explosive sandwhiched between two pieces of metal, that detonates when the firing pin hits it; thus igniting the powder, and sending the bullet flying out of the case, and through the barrel (we hope) down range at the target (or at least in that general direction)
It's not as complicated as it sounds; in fact many of us shooters actually make our own ammunition (because it's cheaper and if you spend a lot of time you can get better results than all but the most expensive factory ammo).

The proper way to refer to a generic class of guns that fire the same type of cartridges is their "chambering". For example the Glock 17 is chambered for the 9mm parabellum; and when refering to the type of cartridges it fires you would say "its chambering", or "The number of pistols chambering 9mm is very large" etc...

Now our aspiring author actually chose two very good examples, because they are among the most commonly used pistol chamberings, especially in police and detective fiction; and are also among the most mis-understood. To some people any revolver must be a "38" and any auto-loader must be a "9", especially if it's black and partially plastic.

They are also a great example, because the .38spl and the 9mm are two very different cartridges, using almost the same sized bullets, and which were intended to serve a similar purpose; issue to military and police (in fact the full name of the 9x19 cartridge that most of us just call 9mm, is actually the "9mm x 19mm parabellum" which means "For War" in latin).

The other major similarity, is that 9mm is pretty close to the same diameter as .38spl (which isn't really .38", it's actually .357").
NOTE: A word on cartridge designations. In the english speaking world it is customary to refer to a chambering by its "caliber", expressed as a decimal fraction of an inch. For example, .22 is jsut over 1/5" .30 is just under 1/3", and .45 is just under .5". The only problem with that designation method, is that there are a lot of chamberings where the bullet is the same diameter, but the cases that the bullet are shoved into are very different length. Even worse, there are a lot of numeric designations, that arent the real measurement of the size of the bullet.

For example, the .38spl and the .357 magnum share the same bullet diameter (in fact they sometimes use the exact same bullets), but the case of the magnum is longer, so that it can't be fired in a pistol designed to fire the less powerful .38spl.

In the rest of the world, and since WW1 in England and Australia, it has been more common to refer to the actual (or nominal, which is close but not perfect) diameter of the bullet in millimeters, with either the manufacturers name (7.65 browning) or the length of the cartridge case (7.65x17) appended to the end.
Oh and coincidentally the .38spl and the 9mm parabellum were also both introduced in the same year (1902).

Given all those similarities, you would think they were very similar cartridges, but in fact they are completely different; because they were designed to be fired in different types of guns.

The 9mm was explicitly developed for the then-new auto-loading pistol; the .38spl was designed as an improvement over an older revolver chambering.

Revolvers work by loading cartridges into a cylinder with chambers bored into it. Pulling the hammer back (or in most cases pulling the trigger), rotates the cylinder so that the chambers will come into line with the barrel. Pulling the trigger all the way through, then releases the hammer to fall forward, sending the firing pin into the primer in the base of the cartridge and BANG! Once you've expended all the rounds in the chambers, you pop the empty cartridge casings out manually, and reload the cartridges either by hand or with a speed loading device (speed loader, moon clip, speed strip or something similar).

Auto-loaders generally take their cartridges from a stacked magazine (NOT a clip, as is so commonly misused), most often in the butt of the gun, but occaisonally in front of, or behind it. The force of the bullet being fired causes the action to move, pulling the spent (and very hot) cartridge case out of the chamber (which in an auto-loader is part of the barrel instead of acylinder like in a revolver), and throwing it onto the ground (or into your eyes, or hair, or face, or frequently for women down their cleavage); then stripping a new cartridge from the top of the magazine and pushing it back into the chamber, ready to be fired. When all the rounds in the magazine have been fired, you press a button or move a catch, remove the magazine; and replace it with another that has the cartridges preloaded.

Please note, in autoloading pistols (or rifles for that matter), only ONE round is fired every time you pull the trigger; unless the weapon is specially designed (and in most places licensed) to fire more than one. There are NO pistols, rifles, or other weapons designed to do this, and manufactured for sale to anyone but the military or law enforcement in the United States since 1986. It is POSSIBLE to purchase weapons made before this that were designed to do so, however they are very rare, and VERY expensive (starting at about $5000 for the worst piece of junk).

Hey while we are at it (busting myths that is):
You can't make a gun out of all plastic to get it through the metal detectors at an airport. It is entirely possible to sneak a gun onto a plane, but not by making it out of non-metallic materials; and there are no guns currently made, or possible to hand make, that will give you a useful handgun without setting off a metal detector (springs, catches and the like). This MAY be possible in the future, but not until we figure out how to make polymers act like metals. Also there are explosive sniffers at airports that can detect residues from ammunition and gunfire (I've been stopped a couple times actually).
Back on direct topic, the .38 was, and still is used extensively in the U.S. for personal defense. It was the dominant chambering for police weapons until the late 1970s and early 1980s when police on the whole switched to 9mm semi-automatics (another word for auto-loaders, generally shortened to automatics, or just autos).

The main problem with .38 as a police or personal defense round, is that it is a low pressure, slow round. It doesn't have great penetration, or expansion. This is why the .357 magnum was developed (first by hand loaders for sport, and then at the request of the FBI for law enforcement). Starting in the 1930's law enforcement agencies that had to deal with more dangerous criminals, or criminals in vehicles (which the .38 doesn't penetrate well) switched to more powerful calibers such as the .357 magnum. In fact, by the 1970's most police outside of the major cities had standardized on the .357 (just in time to start changing to automatics).

The .357 was and is historically the best civilian "manstopper" of any of the major calibers. More people have been shot and successfully stopped with .357mag than any other chambering (in civilian use). The main difference between the .38spl, and .357, is that the .357 is longer, and loaded with a more powerful powder charge, which produces more presure and makes the bullet go faster. This expands the bullet to a greater diameter when it hits th body, and transfers more force into the body (a lighter punch versus a harder one), which does more damage, and causes more shock; thus is often (though not always) more likely to stop a hostile subject quicker.

Since the rise of the auto pistols in the 70's the .38spl has largely fallen into the role of backup gun, using it as practice ammo for the .357 magnum (which can fire .38spl, but .38s cant fire .357); in ULTRA small revolvers for deep concealment; or for people who have limited hand strength, and can't handle the recoil of more powerful rounds in smaller guns (it is ideal in this role).

Also many people purchase .357 magnum chambered revolvers, and load them with special higher pressure .38spl cartridges, so that they can more easily control the weapon (and are less likely to be blinded by the bright flash of the magnum) in the event of social unpleasantness in the middle of the night.

The other drawback of the .38spl of course, is that it is designed only to be fired from revolvers (ammunition for revolvers is generally not compatible with autos and vice versa, though there are exceptions). The revolver is limited to 6 or in some cases 7 or 8 round capacity, which is often seen as a disadvantage.

The 9mm faces a similar problem as the .38. Though it is loaded to a far higher pressure and velocity, it is still quite a small and light bullet. Although recent advances in bullet technology have helped increase the stopping capability of the 9mm (through reliable expansion of hollowpoint bullets, which the .38 at lower pressures has a bigger problem with); it has proven over time to be a somewhat less effective chambering for ending violent conflict quickly (of course NO pistol cartridge is going to do that job well, they are all just a compromise; and a way to fight your way back to a real weapon like a rifle or shotgun).

The 9mm was popularized by the Austrian/German Luger self loading pistol; which is why 9mm is often referred to as 9mm luger (this is generally incorrect, as 9mm luger is a very specific loading of the 9mm cartridge, with a single weight of bullet, and strength of powder charge). The real advantage of the 9mm has been that it IS a very small round, and therefore you can fit far more of them in a magazine, than more powerful rounds such as the .45acp (For comparison, you can fit up to 18 9mm rounds in the magazine of a full sized service pistol in 9mm. That same pistol in .45 would most likely only hold 13 rounds)

More on this subject later in the post...

Now, I've mentioned the .45 here... and that bears some expanding.

The .45acp, first widely issued in 1912 along with the Colt government model pistol of 1911 (also known as the Gov't model, or the 1911), are together the most popular hand gun, and most popular chambering in the U.S. by far. This is because that historically the .45acp has proven to be a very effective cartridge with proper ammunition chocie, and because the pistols chambered for it are seen by many as the best in the world to shoot (of course some violently disagree).

That said, more badguys have been killed by the U.S. military with .45 than any other pistol caliber. It was our designated service pistol from 1911 to 1986 (yes, thats 75 years), and has in fact never completely left military service (for special operations units. also it is used with swat teams, and the FBI extensively). A lot of people figure that counts for something.

THe .45 caliber bullet used in the .45 aACP chambering is big. It's almost half an inch across. It's also havey for a bullet, at up to 230 grains, which is about equal to a half an ounce/ It's also a relatively slow bullet at 800 - 1250 feet per second, vs 1000-1400 for the much lighter (about half the weight actually) 9mm. That big, heavy bullet, when loaded to the top end of the pressure range, and with a good modern hollowpoint bullet is one hell of a manstopper. And that is taking in to account bullet construction. if for some reason you are stuck with military style ball ammo (FMJ or full metal jacket as mandated by the hague convention. It's a lot less effective and damaging than what civilians can use), the extra mass and size of the .45 seem to be far more effective at stopping a fight than the small and light 9mm.

Another myth to bust:

The military actually uses less dangerous ammunition than is available to police and civilians. This is not however because of the Geneva convention, or even the Hague convention (which sets out the rules of land warfare). We limit them as a courtesy to other nations; because we are not signatory to either treaty, though we are a member of the U/N/ which references both treaties in ITS rules for warfare.
There are a lot of strong feelings about the .45 vs. 9mm issue; in part because the people who preferred the 9mm round said a lot of very bad (untrue), and some moderately bad (true) things about .45s when they were trying to sell the world 9mm's

Of course the reverse is true of .45 zealots who were resisting the 9mm...

Gun people are both very opinionated, and very resistant to change. Get used to it.

Relating to that, most people who use firearms extensively have a strong perference for EITHER revolvers or auto-loading pistols; though some use both (including myself, though I generally prefer autos). This is more of a religious preference than anything else, though there are valid points on both sides.

Auto partisans talk about cartridge capacity (from 6 at the low end to 20 on the high end for autos, vs 5-8 for revolvers), speed of reloading, and natural pointability. Revolver evangelists make much of the fact that it's very difficult to jam up a revolver, and if you have a misfire you just pull the trigger again and the gun goes bang. Also if you have weak hands, the strong springs used in automatics can make them difficult for you to operate.

Irrespective of action type, professionals who use and carry firearms on a daily basis have by and large moved to (or moved back to) larger and more powerful chamberings such as .40 S&W, and .45 ACP for their primary weapons; or to chamberings that approximate more powerful revolver loads, in auto pistols (the .357 sig for the .357 mag; the 10mm for the .41mag or .44spl).

These days (in the Unites States anyway) generally 9mm and .38spl are considered backup calibers, or calibers for smaller very easily concealable guns.

Many of us here carry on a daily basis (including myself) and I can tell you my deep cover gun (for concealment without larger covering garments like a large shirt, jacket, or coat) is a compact 9mm; and my primary carry guns are both .45acp.

Police departments on the whole have switched (or are switching) from 9mm to .40S&w or .357sig.

Now all of this talk assumes that you are setting your characters in the modern day United States. Certainly different time periods, and diferent locations, require different weapons choices for accuracy. For example in most of the world outside the U.S, revolvers are far less common; and 9mm is the dominant caliber by at least a factor of two (most likely more). Also, in Europe and Asia, smaller calibers such as the .380acp (9mm kurz), the 32acp (7.65x17 browning) and the .25acp (6.5x15.5 browning) are taken more seriously.

In the U.S. even relatively recent times have seen radically different weapons choices. For example the .40S&W wasn't introduced as a mainstream offering until '92, when the FBI decided to pull back from their choice of the much more powerful 10mm cartridge .

The .40 was actually developed directly from the 10mm; they are the same diameter, but the 10mm is longer, and can use heavier bullets and more powder. The 10mm was initially chosen by the FBI for it's excellent penetration, and expansion in testing. It is a very powerful, chambering, but not so powerful as to caus a hazard for people behind the person being shot (as can be the case with large magnums, or some rifle chamberings).

The problem is, the 10mm is a VERY powerful chambering (it's one of my favorites actually). Many smaller agents found the recoil to be difficult to control, and it was very hard on the weapons. To help with this, the FBI developed a reduced power 10mm load called appropriately enough "the FBI load". Smith and Wesson, the primary contractor to the FBI for 10mm pistols, saw that the cartridge with the reduced charge didn't have to be so long, so they cut it down, and the .40 S&W was born.

Law enforcement users immediately found it to be far superior to the 9mm for their needs, and began adopting it quite quickly. The .40 then really took off in civilian non-police sales, after the supply of 11-19 round magazines for "wundernines" dried up in the mid '90s

NOTE: The use of larger calibers as a whole was falling into decline throughout the 80s as the very high capacity (up to 19 rounds) 9mm pistols rose into prominence. This also was the era of final transition away from revolvers for most law enforcement organizations.
With the passage of the 10rd magazine ban in '94, the high capacity 9s were now limited to 10rds, and people started looking for more potent calibers to compensate for the loss of capacity. Ever since then, the trend has been larger calibers in smaller packages. Just in the last few years, stuffing the .45 ACP into the smallest possible package has become quite popular. With improved metallurgy, it has also become possible to produce INCREDIBLY light weight and compact revolvers chambering the .357 magnum (as light as 10oz!).

Next gun myth:
The assault weapon ban didnt actually ban assault weapons. It banned normal sem-automatics that LOOKED like real assault weapons; made in other countries; from being imported for sale her ein th U.S. It also banned the new manufacture of some guns that LOOKED like real assault weapons here in the U.S. based on certain features like threaded barrels, folding stocks, detachable magazines (whcih almsot all guns have), ... basically if ti looked like the military would use it, they wanted to ban it.

Of course the ban was jsut based on looks. Civilians in America (except police) havent been able to buy real fully automatic assault weapons made since '86; and they havent been able to buy anything fully auto since 1934 without paying a special tax, and getting a huge and lengthly (6-18 months depending on your background) background investigation by the ATF and FBI. Those weapons they can buy are incredibly rare and expensive.

Finally, it banned the new manufacture or importation of magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Of course since you can't shoot more than one round at a time, why should the number of rounds in a single magazine matter... Not to mention the fact that there were already millions of them in circulation, and you cant have an ex-post facto seizure law in this country.

Oh and I can show you conclusive prrof the AWB hasnt done a thing for or against crime. Crime has been on the decline in this country since 1978, and especially since 1987. In fact crime is falling faster now that the AWB has expired.
It appears that the sunset of the AWB last september, and the availability of new full capacity magazines isn't going to reverse the trend towards smaller pistols in larger calibers (or even smaller 9mms like the Rorbaugh), and very compact revolvers in .357 magnum.

It seems the general realization has dawned that fewer shots, placed more accurately, with a more effective caliber; are far more effective than spraying large quantities of underpowered pellets, at ending an active social disagreement.

So what do cops, security guards, private detectives, and the military use?

Well the easist one is the Military, because there's a standard, and its the Beretta M9, a 16 shot, full sized, 9mm pistol. It is also very popular with the police, and other civilian shooters.

That may be changing soon, to an H&K USP pistol, or one of it's derivatives. Also some smaller units, and special operations units use SIG or H&K pistols already. Some also still use (or have gone back to) high end 1911 style pistols in .45acp.

Look through my site on the articles about military guns for more info.

Rent-a-cop type security guards are generally not the savviest about guns. Generally whatever gun is the cheapest, that the company specifies is OK. Most commonly they would have Glock, Ruger, or S&W autos; though some use Berettas.

Private security on the other hand tend to be very weapon savvy indeed (and they are also frequently ex military), and tend to use .357 sig or .45 acp from Glock, SIG, H&K, or in a high end 1911.

Private investigators run the gamut from "whatever the cops in my area used to use 10 years ago" to "Hottest and slickest shit you can buy". "Hard Boiled" detectives however almsot invariably used a snub nosed .38 (chiefs special or detectives special).

As to the police and other law enforcement agencies, they are more varied, but still generally they will have one of the following

1. Glock in 9mm, .40s&w, or .357 sig (more than half of all police departments issue Glocks)
2. Beretta auto pistol in 9mm or .40s&w (several models)
3. SIG p226, 228, or 229 in 9mm, .40s&w, or .357 sig
4. Smith and Wesson auto pistol in 9mm or .40S&W (there are a ot of models)
5. Ruger auto pistol in 9mm or .40 S&W (several models)
6. Some departments will allow 1911s, or other .45acp pistols, but it is relatively rare

The largest police department in the country, the NYPD, issues 9MM Glocks, and allows officers to carry the Kahr K9, the Smith and Wesson chiefs special (a .38spl revolver), and the Colt detective special (also a .38 revolver), as a backup weapon, or a primary weapon for plainclothes officers.

The FBI currently issues either Glocks, or SIG's (and has allowed choices before) in 9mm, .40, and .357 sig depending on when the weapon was issued, and out of what office. Most other federal law enforcement agencies have standardised on the SIG in one of those three calibers, everyone else uses the Glock, or the HK, except for special operations teams.

Many SWAT or other special operations teams use SIG or HK pistols; and many also use 1911 style pistols in .45 acp. A few still use a Browning Hi-Power variant (13 shot 9mm).

Any questions? No? Good.... (actually feel free to ask away).

Now, writers, go forth and sin no more