Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Bullet and the Shell

By Mark W. Danielson

I recently read a mass-market paperback by a name-brand author who has eight other books out. It was an easy read until a glaring error shot out my eye. Though blinded, I couldn’t block this slip from my mind. I was tortured, like fingernails dragging across a blackboard. This blunder was so large that a baseball field tarp couldn’t cover it; so blatant, it sidetracked me from the story. A bungle important enough, I had to post a blog on it.

So, what is it that has my feathers ruffled? It’s a scene where the protagonist is staring down a shotgun barrel, the cold steel aimed at his head with no chance of escape. The author has made several references to this shotgun; then someone moves, the gun fires, and the bullet hits. Yes, I said bullet! How can a publisher allow such a mistake? If you’re going to write about guns, then know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle; a bullet and a shell.

Tactical shotguns are used for close-in combat because you don’t have to be terribly accurate to hit your target. Sport shotguns are ideal for bird hunting because they send up a swath of BBs called “shot” that increases the odds of hitting something. Shotgun barrels are smooth on the inside, and have large diameters to feed shells full of round shot. A wad keeps the shot in place until it exits the barrel where the barrel’s “choke” or shape, spreads the shot at a predetermined rate. The farther from the barrel, the more dispersed the shot. For deer hunting, a “slug” replaces the bird shot. Deer slugs and bird shot both have limited range.

Rifles are normally used for long distance; pistols for close-in shots. Both weapons use bullets and have barrel “rifling” on the inside, which makes a bullet spin. The moment a rifle or pistol is fired, its bullet bursts from its casing and starts spinning. This spinning maintains the bullet’s trajectory until it either hits its mark, or gravity and the atmosphere end its flight. Whether it’s a sixteen inch battleship gun or a .22 pistol, the principle is the same.

Ben Small has provided excellent information on guns in his blog posts, and I’ve previously written about the importance of getting the details right. Whenever glaring errors like this occur, the author loses instant credibility. To avoid situations like this, take the time to research areas you are not completely familiar with. Even if only one percent of the readers catch an error, that’s one percent too many.