If you write adventure, mysteries, war stories, or westerns (to name a few), you’ll use guns. Unfortunately, not very many writers have been trained in the fine art of gunfighting (and yes, it is an art). As someone who’s done it for real, let me try to pass a few lesson along to you that I learned as a police officer, soldier, and writer. With luck, it will make your scenes more realistic.

1: Know when the weapon was made and characteristics of that weapon. In my Lawman series, Will Diaz carries a Colt 1911. The 1911 is chambered in 45 ACP, and has been around for a very long time. But like so many weapons with some history, it’s evolved along the way. Examples of this evolution are changes in finishes, features, etc. So if you’re talking about a specific type of 1911 (such as one that has a Parkerized finish, or rubberized grips), it might be useful to find out if and when that kind of finish was offered, and if rubberized grips are available for the 1911 and when they came out. An example would be if I had something set in the trenches of Korea. Was either one these on the Colt 1911 that an Army officer might carry in Korea? (The answer is no.) Pay attention to the details.

The Colt 1911. My personal fav for a weapon. Will Diaz carries one also.

Additionally, there’s a long running debate over whether law enforcement officers should carry the 1911. There’s also the continued debate in the military of the 45 vs the 9mm. It’s a little bit like arguing religion or politics, as the discussions can get heated.

The debate is centered all around knockdown power. In short, which weapon will kill you with the fewest bullets. While the 9mm is smaller than the 45, the bullet is also faster. Upon impact, speed turns into the force into the body it impacted. The same happens with 45. Question becomes, which does more damage the quickest.

Another check against the 45 in Law Enforcement is that the first shot is single action. What does that mean. It means for the 45 to be ready to go, you have to have the hammer back. So carrying the 45 for Law Enforcement purposes would mean either having the hammer back and the thumb safety on, or training to thumb the hammer back while drawing the weapon like they did in the old days.

The majority of the 9mms are double action, meaning if you have a round in the chamber, you just squeeze the trigger. Like the 45, a lot of 9s also have the grip safety.

One advantage of the 9 over the 45 is the majority of 9mms made today have a greater magazine capacity. Sometimes, the outcome of a gunfight is determine by who runs out of bullets first.

2: Holsters. Will carries a flap holster just like he did in the Army. He admits he shouldn’t but he’s used to it. One of the best holsters made is the breakfront holster. A lot of officers have used it, especially in my time. But I’ve noticed among the modern day officers, I’m not seeing too many breakfronts. Research the equipment of the time. If set in modern day, a great source of research is your local PD and police supply stores or websites.

3: This isn’t the old west where you never reload. I hate TV shows or movies where cops or soldiers are rock and rolling with their weapons (meaning just shooting). It looks dramatic, and in certain tactical settings, might make sense. But there’s a problem with firing that way. First, the barrel of a weapon tends to climb upward as you fire. You end up missing more than you’re hitting. Every bullet that misses its target is still in flight, often times for miles. It doesn’t matter if a bullet has traveled two feet or two miles. It’s still dangerous.

That’s also a good reason not to have your character give warning shots. The warning shot goes someplace, and hopefully not into someone else. Additionally, officers and soldiers aren’t trained that way. If you pull the weapon, you use it. It’s that simple. You don’t bluff with a weapon.

Another reason you don’t want your characters firing as fast as they can is simple. We call it ammo discipline. Every cop and soldier has that drilled into them. You have X amount of bullets. If you run out of bullets before your run out of targets, you’re in trouble.

Which brings me to moving and shooting. If you’ve trained for it, you can move and shoot. Soldiers train for it all the time.  It’s also very dangerous in you need to know where your people are. Get in front of the advancing line, and you might catch a bullet in the back. Fall behind, and you might kill one of your buddies. Situational awareness is the key here. You also need to be watching for things you can trip over or obstacles in your path. The thing I’ve found very useful for this kind of movement is the red dot scope. You don’t need traditional aiming techniques with it, and you can keep both eyes open and engage multiple targets quickly and easily with it.

With officers moving, training and communication are king. This is something you have to train for, it doesn’t just happen.

4: How many rounds are in the weapon. A common complaint I hear is that if you load a magazine to maximum, you have feed and jam problems. Let’s say the rifle magazine holds ten rounds. I’ve learned to put one or two less than maximum capacity. Getting a first time feed is important.

An example of a pistol or rifle magazine

Which brings me to an important fact. Things happen to weapons. The most common problem, especially with semi-autos is misfeeds and jams. Every soldier and police officer is trained how to deal with these, and they know how to clear them and get right back into the fight. Know how to do it, even if your character’s weapon never jams.

Also, a lot of people call a weapon’s magazine such the as the one here, a “clip.” There’s a huge difference between the two. If I called a magazine a clip in the military, I could expect a course on the difference. The proper name is important.

An example might be I use the magazine in my pistol. A magazine is what holds the bullets that I’m going to shoot.

I use a clip to load my Mosin-Nagant rifle. While this picture isn’t of a Mosin being loaded up, the idea is the same. If you look down into the rifle, you’ll see two grooves. This is where the stripper clip fits. Put it in there, and the easiest way I’ve found is to grab the top bullet from the forward end of the bullet, and then push down. This pushes the bullets in the magazine well of the weapon.

Stripper clip

A good explanation of the difference can be found here:

I count how many rounds I’ve fired. With a ten round magazine, I load nine. The second I’ve fired round 8, the next round is chambered. I’ve practiced to be able to drop the now empty magazine and put another in before I fire bullet 9. Incidentally, except for a few military and police schools, you won’t see that taught. An officer or soldier will react exactly the way they’ve been trained. Most are trained to fire till the weapon is empty and then reload.

And for god sakes, don’t have your people picking up a fallen magazine. They’re trained to leave them where they fall.

5: Weird things happen! Two I want to relate here. When I was a rookie officer, I’d purchased a brand new, Smith and Wesson Model 66. I was testing some ammo that was advertised as made for law enforcement. I’d been firing the weapon, and for those of you who have fired a .357 magnum, you know it’s a loud weapon with a nice kick. I’m firing, and I hear a soft pop and no recoil. I gave the weapon a couple of minutes in the event the round was cooking off, but it never did. So I try to open the cylinder (it was a revolver) to drop the rounds. It wouldn’t open. I ended up taking it to a gunsmith, and it took a rubber mallet to get it open. What had happened was one of the rounds was defective and so it puckered out, effectively locking the weapon so I couldn’t clear the defective round. In a tactical situation, I’d have been in big trouble.

The other happened in a training scenario. We were practicing building assaults. The idea was I would be on side of large door (in this case a warehouse loading dock), and another officer would be on the other side. Both of us were armed with M-16s. We’re firing into another building that is “supposedly” occupied by terrorists. Between our two lanes of fire, an assault team moves up to the loading dock. At the last second, we stop firing, and they toss two grenades in, the grenades goes off, and they enter the building.

Routine maneuver. Well, anytime you’re doing anything like this, expect Mr. Murphy (in the military, we long ago decided he was at least a Warrant Officer) to show up and mess with things. We started firing, and the assault team starts moving between the two lanes of fire.

All of sudden I hear a cry of pain from the other officer. What had happened was as we were firing, one of the empty cartridges I’d just fired ejected from my weapon like it should have. It caught my partner, a female officer on the side of the face. When the cartridge ejects, it’s burning hot. It left a nice third degree burn where it hit her. I have to give her credit. Except for the cry of pain, she didn’t stop or flinch. She maintained her presence of mind, stayed focused on what she was doing, and the mission was a success.

To the day we graduated, she had the brand of the spent cartridge on the side of her face. She was a very pretty girl, and hopefully she’s had it fixed.

6: I’m all about the research. If I’m going to have a character use a weapon, I want to know something about it. An example is the Mosin-Nagant rifle that Will and his team uses as a sniper rifle. First, I want to know the history of the weapon (the basic design is over a hundred years old). That doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s still used. Our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan run into it often. I took a Mosin out to the range to get a feel for it. First, when you fire the weapon, it hurts. I did a forty round course, and my shoulder turned black and blue. Also the trigger assembly is a piece of trash. Squeezing the trigger was almost out of the question. It was more like get a tire iron, but it through the trigger guard, and use that as a lever to pull the trigger. The bolt had problems and  it took a lot of effort to chamber a round. Loading it quickly (a relative term) involved using stripper clips, and that takes a little work to get down. One word about stripper clips. You can cut yourself while loading, which is useful to add realism.

The Mosin-Nagant – Very old school but reliably built and one heck of a shooter.

The thing the Mosin has going for it is it’s rugged, and it’s a shooter. Russian snipers in WWII were getting easy kills up to a thousand meters. It’s not unheard of to get hits up to five hundred meters with just the iron sights.

Will likes the Mosin, and has set out to make it a better weapon.

7: Know your stances. Most people will try to fire a pistol single handed (big mistake). It looks dramatic and bad-ass (is that a correct word), but doesn’t work so well in the real world. My personal favorite stance is Weaver technique. That involves the pistol in front of you, with the other hand helping to support the weapon. This makes for a very stable platform. it also makes for being able to move and shoot quickly easier.

Weaver Stance

Another mistake often made is the character has a weapon and is looking around anywhere except where the weapon is pointed. One of the first rules is where ever you’re looking, that’s where the weapon is pointing. A good example is Tom Cruise in the first Mission Impossible movie. There’s a scene where he has the weapon, and wherever that weapon is pointed, that’s where he’s looking. They did it right in that movie. It’s this simple. If you see a threat and you need to bring the weapon around to deal with it, you’re already at a disadvantage.

Also, know how to handle things like a flashlight and a weapon at the same time. Lot of techniques for that. In the movies they often settled just for having the flashlight attached to the weapon. Looks good, and is done in real life. Problem is if I’m the bad guy, guess what I’m shooting for.

You can use light to your advantage, by using it sparingly. If you look into a  flashlight for a split second in a darkened room, and it goes out, the world just gets a whole lot darker. In that split second, the person with the flashlight can move in that darkness and be several yards from where the light came on and then went off.

8: They should carry the same weapons. In a military unit, that’s easy. Everyone is outfitted by the government which tells them what they’ll use. Small police departments are different. Most will try to carry at least the same caliber, and that works best with revolvers. If we all carry 357s, we can swap ammo all day long. We can even use a .38 caliber bullet from the detectives. Problem is, if the detectives all carry .38s, they can’t use the 357 ammo. Their pistols just aren’t chambered for it.

A very good example of this was in the movie Battle: Los Angeles. In it, a group of Marines had to fight their way through enemy lines to what had been a safe zone hours before. Running low on ammunition, they strip dead soldiers and air force personnel for rifle magazines. They all fired the same ammo, and the magazines from one weapon fits the others. Not only is it very practical, the writers used it well and it’s an emotional and well done scene.

As mentioned earlier, Will likes the Colt 1911. This puts him at a disadvantage since most everyone else carries the 357 or 9mm pistol. He can’t swap bullets with them. This problem can also extend to the 9mm and the like. The magazines from a Berretta won’t work with a S&W 39 and so on.

The Smith & Wesson Model 39.  Carried by RJ and others.

At the end of Judas Tree Will swaps his 45 out for a Colt Python. At least he can swap ammo with some of the officers and detectives in his county.

9: Know the difference between a pistol/rifle and a gun. Yes, Virginia, there is a difference. A pistol or rifle is something a man or woman can easily carry. A gun is usually mounted but can be carried. In that configuration, the gun is fired at a distance from the body.

If  you need an explanation, the pictures should help.


This picture has someone carrying a pistol. Easy carry. A rifle is also an easy carry.

There’s whole generations of soldiers and Marines who learned the hard way the difference between the two. It usually involved push ups till you puked or a chant and actions that while comical, can be somewhat obscene, so we won’t go there.


Now a “gun” looks like this. Not exactly something you’re just going to carry around, unless you happen to be the Hulk or Superman.

10. Know the difference between cover and concealment. Cover is anything that you can’t shoot through. Concealment is anything you can’t see through.

An example is this. The engine block of a car makes great cover. Almost nothing is going to go through it. Concealment might be hiding on the other side of a wall in an office. They can’t see you, but bullets will go through it. Incidentally, car doors make terrible cover, despite what you see on TV and the movies. A high number of rifle and pistol caliber bullets will go right through them.

11. Being shot while wearing body armor hurts. An officer I know who got shot with a 9mm bullet while wearing body armor put it this way. Take a ball strike from a major league pitcher, and focus that speed and energy down to less than an inch. That’s a lot of energy, and it still has an impact on the officer.

Bruising left from a bullet strike despite wearing body armor.

We might see broken ribs, we’ll definitely see some serious bruising, and it’s not at all uncommon to see at least some internal injuries. The force of impact may even knock the officer on his or her butt.

The officer I know actually said that being shot, might have hurt less. Of course he’d probably have been killed.

Body armor may or may not protect you from knives. A slash it will. A direct stab, I wouldn’t count on it. The reason for that is body armor is made of fabric. A knife could pass through and cut the fabric.

And oh, not all body armor is considered equal. There’s different levels of body armor. Most officers will wear a level III vest (will stop pistol caliber ammo), and then they upgrade it with a metal or ceramic plate behind that (that will stop a knife, just to let you know). If going into a tactical situation they usually have a heavier duty vest that will take a rifle bullet, that they slip over their clothing.

There’s tons of books out there, and I recommend you do your research. One of the best, but it’s starting to get a little dated is a book named “No Second Place Winner by Bill Jordan.” Don’t confine it to what you see on TV or movies. Some do a very good job, others are the end product of script writers and directors.

One thing I’ve actually seen people advocate is to carry snake shot as your first couple of bullets. The idea is you get a first time hit.

Now here’s the problem with that idea. If the bad guy is hopped up on drugs, and you shoot them with snake shot, it’s not going to slow them down. If anything, it might make them angrier. Snake shot is designed to kill snakes, and with a very few exceptions, a human being is not a snake.

So how do you get a first time hit?

Practice, and lots of it!

One thing modern day officers got through is use of force training. When a new officer graduates from the police academy, he or she knows where the line is drawn.

We’ll talk about use of force later. That’s a really big topic.