Yesterday David Dean, mystery writer and police chief, gave us a short course on hand guns; specifically the revolver. Today we go semi-automatic . . .
WRITE TO BEAR ARMS-Part II
by David Dean
Now to those semi-automatics, also referred to as automatics: If they were truly automatic, then the shooter would be able to fire all the bullets the gun contains with a single squeeze of the trigger, like a machine-gun. Instead, semi-automatics fire every time you pull the trigger and the shooter must pull the trigger each and every time he wants another bullet to be off to its target. There are fully automatic pistols, of course, but they have generally been reserved for military use.
Short-barreled guns that fire that rapidly tend to be very inaccurate and are not wise to use in the crowded urban and suburban environment most of us write about. Unless, of course, your bad guy just doesn’t care who all gets killed when he’s out gunning; many don’t.
Semi-autos are sleeker than revolvers (and therefore better at being concealed on one’s person) because they do not require a cylinder which gives the revolver its bulbous middle. Instead they carry a magazine (often called a “clip”) within their handles. Caution: the term “clip” is now considered somewhat anachronistic. These magazines generally carry anywhere from seven to fourteen bullets which are fed into the gun by a spring within it.
Semi-autos are the workhorse of almost all American and European police departments. Only a very few still employ revolvers. When I started out I was assigned a .38 revolver as semi-autos were still a modern notion for cops back then. It’s not that semi-autos were actually new, they weren’t, it’s just that most cities and states couldn’t afford to outfit their police with them. But as cops found themselves running out of bullets even as their opponents were just getting warmed up, the solution became obvious—cops needed semi-automatic pistols. They held more rounds, fired faster, and reloaded a heck of a lot more easily and quickly than did revolvers. All you have to do with the semi is slap another magazine into the well and start shooting again; with the revolver you had to push a bullet into each individual chamber while trying to keep your hands from shaking. Of course, there were “speed-loaders”, but these handy-dandy little contraptions were also bulky and not particularly easy to use, either.
In fact semi-autos have been in use since the beginning of the last century. The U.S. Army helped to pave the way for their use by commissioning the Model 1911 .45 cal semi-automatic, a pistol that remains the arch type of the modern handgun.
At the time (1911, hence the designation) the Army was fighting a little remembered and particularly nasty action against the Moro insurrectionists of the Philippines. We had just become the new owners of that nation with Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War and inherited some unfinished business involving drugged-up religious fanatics wielding machete-like knives and attacking in human waves.
The Army needed a gun that would, at the very least, knock down their opponents since the drugs they ingested appeared to make them impervious to pain, and if they were not killed outright; they just kept a-coming and in great numbers. The .45 fit the bill and did the job. It’s a knock-down gun.
My own department carries a .45 cal though not because of any Moro problems. The pistol’s characteristics make it very suitable for a built-up urban environment—It is dangerous for bad guys and less so for the innocent by-stander. How so, you ask? Cause it fires a large, heavy bullet that travels very slowly (for a bullet) and tends to stop at whatever it encounters along the way (hopefully your target). This not only stops the bad guys, just as it did in 1911, but avoids having the bullet continue on through the target and seeking another, and unintended, one down the street. You don’t get all the ricocheting either, that you would from a faster, lighter round.
The opposite of this was the 9 millimeter pistol so fashionable in the ’90s. This gun fired a smaller, high velocity round that had a tendency to pierce its target and just keep a-goin’ with unfortunate results for the innocent passers-by. Naturally, bad guys don’t care about this and still like them very much as they are lighter and can carry more ammunition. It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to consider anything other than results.
Why do I need to know these things, you ask? Because people, and therefore characters, choose guns in the same manner they choose clothes or purses—according to taste, personality, and intent. A woman may choose a smaller pistol based on the simple fact that her hands are small (hence the term, Lady’s Gun). A hired killer may choose a revolver over a semi-auto because he doesn’t want to leave any shell casings behind for the forensics folks; or a guy who’s not too confident may pick a gun with a high-capacity magazine so that he can make up for his lack of accuracy with volume, while a savvy gunman may pack a revolver because he knows that semi-autos have a tendency to jam.
Smaller calibers such as the .22’s, .25’s, and .380’s have less kick than the larger ones and so accuracy is more easily achieved. Also, the longer the barrel the more accuracy is possible over longer distances, which may make a long-barreled revolver the optimal choice for your assassin who likes to keep things clean and business-like.
In general though, pistols are for up-close and personal encounters of the ugly kind; most gunfights are conducted at about a ten-foot range between opponents. You get much closer than that and you may as well use knives. Rapid-fire semi-autos are probably most optimal in these situations; preferably with the aforementioned “knock-down” power.
So, as you can see, there are lots of choices to make along the way and I hope that this information helps you to make the right ones for your characters. Ammo enters into the equation, as well, but that’s best saved for another day. In the meantime, work on your breathing, and squeeze, don’t jerk, the trigger.