This is a guest post by my author friend, William R. Bartlett. It continues his discussion of all things firearms. Part 1, Introduction, was published in late October. Today, Bill explains how semi-automatic handguns work and describes some common writing blunders. Enjoy and bookmark!
A Writer’s Guide to Firearms by William R. Bartlett
Part 2: Semi-Automatic Handguns
A semi-automatic handgun will fire one round per trigger pull, providing there is ammunition. All semi-automatics have the ammunition stored in a magazine, usually removable and stored in the grip. These handguns range in size from barely larger than one’s palm and weighing less than a pound unloaded, to behemoths that weigh almost three pounds or more.
All have a barrel, a frame, which includes a trigger, a magazine, either fixed or removable, a trigger attached to a firing mechanism (which includes a manual safety), a method of extracting an empty case while putting a new round into the chamber, and sights for aiming the weapon. At one time, all of these parts were made from steel and made the weapon deceptively heavy, considering the size. Many modern handguns have a polymer frame which reduces the weight considerably.
The barrel, which includes the chamber, along with the trigger, firing mechanism, (usually, but not always, a hammer hitting a firing pin) and springs are always steel. Magazines can hold as few as five or six rounds or as many as a dozen. Many hold more. Some research may be in order for the writer to decide on a particular firearm and follow the constraints inherent in that weapon.
How it works
When the trigger is pulled on a chambered round with the safety off, it sets a chain of events into motion. In most cases, a hammer hits a firing pin, which hits the primer of the cartridge. The primer ignites the powder in the cartridge and propels the bullet forward. Consistent with Newtonian physics, the forward motion of the bullet starts a rearward motion of the handgun, but a spring keeps the slide forward until the bullet leaves the barrel and pressures drop to safe levels. At this point, the spring gives way and the slide travels rearward, re-cocking the hammer and ejecting empty casing. When the slide travels as far back as it can go, the compressed spring forces the slide forward. The slide strips another cartridge from the magazine and places it into the chamber. The weapon is now ready to fire again. This happens too fast for the eye to see.
When the last round in the magazine is fired, the slide locks in an open position. This does two things. It tells the operator that the ammunition supply in the magazine is depleted and the locked slide leaves the weapon ready to chamber a new round when the empty magazine is extracted and a full magazine is inserted. The operator need only depress a small lever and the released slide will chamber a new round. Incidentally, whenever a round is chambered and the weapon is ready to shoot, it is referred to as being in battery.
Some firearms manufacturers opt to simplify the hammer/firing pin arrangement and use what is called a striker. The striker is just a spring-loaded firing pin. The trigger is pulled and the striker is released to hit the primer on the cartridge. This means that there is no external hammer on the gun. With an external hammer, the operator can lower the hammer so gently as to prevent the weapon from firing. When the weapon is needed, the external hammer can be pulled back and the weapon can fire normally. This cannot be done with a striker. The only way to release the striker without firing is to pull the trigger without any ammunition in the piece.
Since the vast majority of semi-automatic handguns have a slide and the magazine is inserted through the bottom of the grip, that’s the only one I’ll discuss. Just remember, there are exceptions. To shoot a semi-automatic pistol, insert a loaded magazine through the bottom of the grip. Pull the slide all the way back and release it. This is frequently called ‘racking a round,’ or simply ‘racking.’ The weapon is now in battery. Align the sights on the target and squeeze the trigger. The weapon will automatically eject the spent cartridge and chamber another, enabling the piece to fire again. When the last round in the magazine is fired, the slide will stay open. Depress the slide release lever, and the slide will close. If the pistol has an external hammer, it can be lowered. If the weapon is striker fired, the trigger must be pulled to release spring tension on the striker.
There are several safety mechanisms on a semi-automatic handgun. Some have a hammer block, some block the trigger, some are integral with the grip, and some manufacturers incorporate several. Whatever method is used, it’s important to remember that these are mechanical designs and, although nearly always reliable, they are subject to mechanical failure, especially if the weapon isn’t used as designed. Dropping a handgun, for example, can result in an unintended discharge.
These weapons can have a magazine capacity exceeding a dozen rounds. They are usually more accurate since the chamber and the barrel are one integral unit. Felt recoil is lessened because the operation of the weapon absorbs some of the recoil. Reloading is as simple as ejecting the empty magazine and inserting a full magazine.
Because semi-automatics have more moving parts, there is a greater chance of failure. Springs can lose their strength if kept under tension for too long. Jams can take some time to clear. Loading magazines is more difficult because each cartridge has to be inserted against the pressure of the magazine spring. Most semi-automatics with a slide can be rendered inoperative by pushing on the slide at the muzzle, which takes the weapon out of battery. This is extremely dangerous because a character has to be touching the muzzle in order to affect the maneuver. However, if a character is that close, they may have nothing to lose with the attempt.
Many times, a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief can be lost when a writer makes simple errors about semi-automatic weapons. Here are a few:
- Inserting a weapon into any waistband. Sweat suits, fleece pants, pajama bottoms all have a waistband designed for relaxation. These weapons are too heavy for the light elastic in garments of this ilk to hold the weapon safely. A holster on a belt, either threaded through slots or clipped on, is always the safest way to carry a semi-automatic handgun.
- Failure to chamber a round. These weapons are typically stored empty until they’re needed. Inserting a loaded magazine will not make the weapon discharge with a trigger pull. A round must be racked into the chamber before the handgun will shoot.
- Failure to reload. Even though a magazine can hold a large number of cartridges, the magazine can be depleted. At this time, the shooter will have to eject the empty magazine, insert another magazine, and depress the slide release button before shooting again.
- Failure to sight on the target. The sights are deceptively simple. A blade front sight is aligned in a notch rear sight and both are aligned on the target. Even at close range, a target can be difficult to hit.
- Failure to account for the noise. The sound of the gunshot can result in hearing damage if fired within closed spaces.
Some magazines are fixed and cannot be removed, as in the case of the Mauser C-96. The ‘Broomhandle,’ as it’s commonly known, is loaded from the top, using a stripper clip. The Luger doesn’t use a slide, it has a toggle on the top that was designed to work like the human knee. A Ruger handgun in .22 caliber has no slide. Instead, it has a charging handle at the rear and uses a bolt not unlike a small caliber rifle. There are some other handguns with the magazine located forward of the trigger, but not many. The far more popular design is where the magazine is located in the grip. Most likely, there are other exceptions of which I’m not aware.
I hope this helps with your writing. The next installment will cover revolvers.
Great post, guys. These have been so helpful
Yay! Thank you, Rebecca 🙂
Thanks, Rebecca! I’m glad I was able to help.
You definitely did. I’ve had absolutely no experience whatsoever with firearms so these posts were a huge help
Please, accept my humble gratitude yet once again. The next in the series will cover revolvers, a technology that was developed almost two hundred years ago. After that, I’ll cover long guns, that is rifles and shotguns. Finally, I’ll post about some historic firearms that predate the modern era of metallic cartridges. I hope you find those equally helpful.
I’m sure I will.
I’ve done a bit of research into guns, but your post was very succinct and help. Thanks, Nicholas 😀
Thank you, I’m glad I was able to help.
Yay! Thank you 🙂
I have never owned guns, but I have fired quite a few. Bill’s tips are spot on, as there is nothing more irritating than inaccurate writing about the use of firearms. 🙂
I am looking forward to the next one, revolvers. I hope he includes my personal favourite, the Colt Python .357, with the useful 6-inch barrel option!
Best wishes, Pete.
Thank you for that, Pete! I hope Bill is reading 🙂
Thanks, Pete! Even though I won’t say much about a revolver by brand name, the type will certainly be covered. I’ll even cover the difference in barrel lengths. BTW, most people don’t know that a .38 special and a .357 magnum fire a projectile that’s the same size in diameter. The difference between the two is that the .357 magnum has a longer case and can hold more gunpowder. The additional propellant makes for more kinetic energy at impact, or, more simply put, the .357 magnum has more power. Thanks for reading and I totally agree with you about inaccurate firearms information in writing. In fact, that was my motivation for putting together this series.
Thanks, Bill. That is much appreciated.
I knew about the magnum difference, but would be interested to hear your thoughts on the Glaser safety slug, and hollow-point rounds.
No problem about brand names, by the way. It’s just a blog. 🙂
Best wishes, Pete.
Thanks, Pete. I think the Glaser Safety Slug is a good idea for specialized applications. As you know, it was developed specifically to neutralize an airline hijacking threat within the aircraft without collateral damage, either to other passengers or to the airframe. For more generalized applications, such as day-to-day law enforcement, the Glaser Safety Slug may not be the best choice. Because the bullet is frangible, it isn’t able to penetrate safety glass like auto windshields or hollow core doors, situations where ground based law enforcement are more likely to need the additional penetrating power. Hollow point rounds were developed to create more trauma upon impact. Although I can’t quote chapter and verse, I seem to recall that collateral damage wasn’t really a goal during the development of hollow point ammunition. Instead, this was discovered during or after development as an additional benefit of the round. I may be mistaken.
Thanks for that information, Bill. I am really enjoying this series!
Best wishes, Pete.
Thanks! So helpful. As a person who has never owned a gun, I have a few questions about the general habits of gun owners. E.g. Do you (“you” being generic, let’s say) keep a handgun in the glove box? If so, is it loaded? If not, where do you keep the magazine?
I’ll leave it to Bill to reply, as I don’t own any guns. I suspect it depends on your individual owner, though. Some are bound to be more careful than others.
It was my pleasure, Sara, I’m happy to help. Most gun owners store their weapons in a safe place. Many have a gun safe where they’re kept under lock and key until it’s time to use them. I don’t have any statistics, but my general feeling is that a glove box isn’t the preferred location for carrying a handgun. Better locations would be a holster on a waist belt, a shoulder holster, or, if the weapon is simply being transported without the need for quick access, the trunk. A semi automatic handgun can be kept in a glove box, in a holster, or anywhere else with a fully loaded magazine and still be impossible to fire. Placing the magazine in the firearm is only the first step of the two-step firing preparation process. In order to fire, a cartridge from the magazine must be placed in the chamber. The second step is to pull back the slide as far as it will go and release it. This will strip the top cartridge from the magazine and insert it into the chamber. The weapon is then in battery and is ready to shoot. Loading alone (inserting the loaded magazine into the grip) will not make the weapon capable of firing. That being said, many will not carry a round chambered for safety reasons. Their opinion is that it only takes a moment to rack the slide and shoot. The sound of racking a handgun is frequently enough to deter an assailant, whose definition of courage doesn’t follow traditional lines. Others say that carrying a semi automatic without a round in the chamber is akin to carrying an unloaded weapon. Their judgment is twofold: Firstly, seconds count and the time needed to place a round in the chamber may be the difference between life and death. Secondly, racking a round into the chamber makes a distinctive noise that could alert a miscreant that a weapon is being placed into battery, to the detriment of the good guy. I hope I cleared things up for you.
Spot-on explanation, Bill!
Thank you! Crucial information for a central scene in my WIP.
My pleasure, Sara! I’m glad I could help.
This is a huge research time-saver, thanks!
Thanks, Jacquie! I hope it helps.
Yay! I’m so glad you found it useful 🙂
Thanks for part 2 in the series from William. Saving this one too for future reference. Great info, Nicholas.
Aw, call me Bill. It was my pleasure. I’ve always been of the notion that more knowledge is better than less. I’m just glad I was able to help.
Thanks, Bill. My books don’t have guns in them, but the info is perfect for when and if that time comes. 🙂
My pleasure. Most writers don’t have the melting point of gold specified in their stories, either. This information will be ready and waiting for you when and if you need it. BTW, gold melts at 1064 C, or 1948 F.
Thank you, D! I’m so glad you found it useful 🙂
Excellent post. Thanks for all the details.
I’m just happy I could help. If this helps your writing, I’ll consider myself a success.
Thanks, I’m so glad you found it useful 🙂