by Ben Small
Many mystery and thriller writers use guns in their stories. Guns are perceived as simple, deadly and hard to track, assuming the murder weapon is not found.
But that’s not always true, just as it’s not always true that ballistics can match the gun to the bullet. And in some cases, DNA might be a bigger threat to the perp than ballistics.
Many writers don’t use the research tools available to provide realism to their character’s gun use. Ignorance or error may cause the writer to overlook what might be a fascinating plot turn, or worse yet, there's an error that turns off the reader. Trial judges usually give juries a form of the following instruction, “If you find that a witness has been untruthful in one part of his or her testimony, you may disregard the testimony in whole or in part.”
Many readers apply the same rule to the books they’re reading.
So let’s discuss some interesting aspects of gun use, some mis-conceptions, and I’ll toss in some research resources where you can learn other tidbits useful in your writing.
First, DNA may be as large a hazard to the gun-toting perp as ballistics. Probably the most famous and best American gun designer to date was John Moses Browning. The famed 1911 pistol was a Browning design, as are most non-striker-fired semi-automatic pistols. A recent enhancement, most notably developed by Ed Brown, a high-end custom gun manufacturer, is the beavertail, a looping attachment at the butt end of a gun that looks like an extended thumb. (See image on right.)
The purpose of the beavertail is to protect the shooter's hand from slide-bite, caused by a meaty hand or a high grip on many semi-automatic pistols. As the trigger is pulled, hot gases from the discharge rocket the slide backward. Anything caught in this movement, like the webbing of the hand between the thumb and first finger, will be torn, leaving the shooter’s DNA on the slide and the perp wearing a bandage. Slide-bite can occur on any gun lacking a beavertail, even on a Glock or Sig Sauer, but it’s most prevalent with guns that follow Browning’s designs more closely, guns like the Browning Hi-Power, still with a high market share, and the famous Sig Sauer P-210, perhaps the most accurate production pistol ever made.
These babies can take some skin.
For this reason, many shooters use shooting gloves, usually possessing nylon webbing where slide-bite may occur and thinner material for the trigger finger, so the shooting finger will still fit within the trigger guard.
But slide-bite isn’t the only DNA risk. If you’ve loaded many semi-auto mags, you no doubt know how sore your loading thumb gets. If you’re not wearing gloves, you’ll not only leave prints on the cartridge casing, you may leave some skin, too. Saavy shooters use auto-loaders for their semi-auto pistols, little plastic devices that fit over the magazine. A bullet is inserted and a button pushed, then the bullet is slid into place. Easy on thumbs, but no protection against prints.
The shooter may wear gloves as he’s loading the cartridges, but will he wear them when he’s removing the cartridges from the box? Not doing so will leave at least partial prints and maybe some loose skin tissue on the bottom of the cartridge. Wearing gloves will make cartridge removal awkward, unless the shooter just dumps the box out, in which case a cartridge or two may roll away, perhaps rolling under a couch or chair.
Another hazard exists in racking a semi-auto’s slide. While slide grooves or serrations usually exist front and back, to provide traction with a somewhat difficult slide, racking the slide using the front grooves exposes the meat of the hand to hangfire risk. A hangfire is an accidental discharge caused by something striking the primer and causing the bullet to fire when the trigger hasn’t been pulled. Until recently, when Hornaday developed the LeverEvolution bullet, lever guns with tube feed used rounded, soft lead bullets. The guns were loaded in a horizontal position. All this because of hangfire danger, risk that the tip of one bullet might bump the primer of the bullet on top of it. Well, hangfire can occur in semi-automatic pistols, too, which is why experts caution people to only rack the slide using the rear serrations. Needless to say, a semi-automatic pistol hangfire can do serious damage to a hand exposed to an open slide via the front serration pull. The problem is that some guns, especially 1911s, custom guns, and new guns are tight, the slides don’t move easily. Many women and men with small hands have difficulty racking these slides. So they use the front serrations.
That can be an oops the shooter will remember.
Another oops can arise from shooting a revolver the same way one usually shoots a semi-auto. Many semi-auto instructors teach one to use the support hand to point at the target and support the firing hand in anticipating recoil. This positions at least one finger in front of the trigger guard. Do this with a revolver, and you may be missing some fingers, or you’ll at least suffer a bad burn. Why? Because there’s a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, and hot gases explode out of the revolver’s cylinder and leak around the barrel. The preferred support hand positioning for a revolver is below the firing hand, not in front of it. Screw up this rule and your perp will be in a bad way.
And what about ballistics? It’s not foolproof, you know.
First, one must find the bullet. If the perp used a FMJ (full metal jacket) bullet, the traditional ball ammo, the bullet probably passed through the victim and may never be found. If a JHP (jacketed hollow point) bullet was used, it may be a mostly flat blob of metal inside the victim’s body. Some barrel marks may be visible under magnification, but maybe not. If a .223 round was used, the bullet will likely fragment, break up into little pieces. These bullets don’t often pass through windshields or body armor, one of the reasons the M-4 and M-16 rifles aren’t popular with troops.
Did you know replacement barrels are available? Barsto is one company that makes replacement barrels for almost any pistol. And gun manufacturers sell replacement barrels, too. Some of these barrels may have to be fitted by a gunsmith, but others are drop-in. It would be easy for a perp to switch gun barrels, kill someone, then replace his old barrel and dispose of the new one. Ballistics might be able to match a strange firing pin profile on the primer, but they’d never match the barrels. Replacement barrels can be ordered by anybody, and some gun shops have them on hand. Nothing to sign, no background check required. Throw that into your ballistics stew and chew on it.
Another company, Otis Technology, has come out with a ceramic barrel liner. Just coat a bunch of bullets, fire them, and whamo, you’ve got new life in an old barrel. And new life in the old barrel probably means a new ballistics pattern, although there may be some carryover. Can Ballistics determine if this ceramic coated barrel is from the same gun before the ceramic treatment? Stay tuned. This stuff is too new for anyone to say with certainty.
It’s widely believed that hollow point bullets are rare, that usage of them demonstrates intent to kill. This is just false. In fact, hollow points are considered the standard defense round and the round cops carry in their guns. Why? Because they’re safer to bystanders than ball ammo; they tend to keep the damage limited to the target.
Many people don’t believe the 9mm bullet to be a man-stopper. While proponents complain it’s all about aim, and protest that a 9mm bullet aimed correctly will do the job, most people believe the 9mm bullet is not the preferred man-stopper. In fact, the FBI developed the .40 cal S&W cartridge after a fatal Miami bad guy encounter. The bad guys were pumped full of 9mm bullets, but still managed to keep firing and killing FBI agents.
Many people feel the primary risk associated with a .45 acp round is over-penetration, the likelihood that a round will penetrate walls and strike people even at distance. But tests with ballistic gelatin show that .45 acp bullets, because of their mass, travel at slower speeds than 9mm bullets and penetrate less. Make that bullet a hollow point, and there will likely be no .45 acp over-penetration at all.
I’ve often heard the statement made by experts that mystery writers who claim a gun can be identified by a bullet alone are wrong. And in most cases, that’s a correct statement. But as with most things, this isn’t the full story. In fact, in some cases, the crime investigators and CSI folks can come mighty close.
For instance, short barreled pistols are popular for concealed carry, for obvious reasons. But hollow point bullets shot out of a Baby Glock (G26, G27, G28, G29, G30, G33 and G36) for instance, may not open up. Hollow points need to reach a certain velocity to open upon impact, and the extremely short barrel of some guns prevents the velocity from reaching terminal energy limits of the round. These hollow point bullets may perform like ball ammo. An investigator who sees an unopened hollow point will likely determine it was shot out of a short-barreled gun.
That narrows the field somewhat, but let’s carry this scenario further. What if it was a .357 round? Well, the .357 was designed for a revolver. The semi-auto version is the .357 Sig. They’re different bullets. There are very few short barreled revolvers shooting a .357 round; fewer still semi-auto models shooting the .357 Sig round. (A side note is necessary here. If you’re an investigator investigating a .357 indoor shooting, look for someone who’s deaf. Most crimes are spontaneous, and even if not, how many mysteries or thrillers have you read where the gun-shooting perp was wearing hearing protection?)
What if the bullet was lead? Well, if you’re thinking Glock, which has the largest gun market share, lead bullets should not be used. Most guns have lands and grooves inside the barrel. These are used to start the bullet spinning, which like a spiral pass in football, makes the bullet more accurate. But Glocks use a proprietary system, different from the typical lands and grooves. Read your Glock manual; it says not to use lead bullets. Lead bullets in a Glock, even just one firing, will foul a Glock barrel, affecting accuracy and velocity. Only someone who doesn’t know much about Glocks would fire a lead bullet in one.
Issues like these abound in shootings and the investigation of them. If you’re looking for ways to trip up your perp and make your protag more brilliant, knowledge of some of these facts or issues may be of help. In future columns, I may add some more interesting factoids that make your book a little more special.
But you can also research these things yourself. As I said in my last blog here, I got interested in guns when my editor excoriated me for a gun safety error I’d made. So I researched guns, bought some and found I caught the bug. No, I haven’t shot anybody, and I don’t intend to. But the gun is America’s weapon of choice, and I decided if I was going to write about them, I should learn something about them. And I’ve found some really good resources.
I subscribe to many gun magazines. The three best, I believe, are Combat Handguns, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman, the magazine of the NRA. Additionally, Personal Defense, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman are television programs that are broadcast weekly. Another good television program is Tactical Impact, where not only are stalking skills taught but also comparative analysis of the positives and negatives associated with various weapons assigned to various missions. Interesting and useful stuff.
But by far the best resource I’ve found is the internet. My favorite site is SigForum.com. You’ll find over forty-five thousand members talking guns, not limited to Sig Sauers, and most of the members are military or law enforcement. Ask a question, you’ll get an answer. Or use the search function. This site is extremely well run and is focused on being helpful. Jerks are not tolerated.
Other useful sites are GlockTalk.com, The HighRoad.com, WarRifles.com, AR15.com, and ArizonaShooting.com to name a few.
Bottom line: If your perp used a gun, make sure you know what you’re writing about.