Firearm tropes in film and literature

hollywood firearms

A trope is like a cliché, you really don’t want to use one if you can help it. The definition of trope is a noun that is figurative, metaphorical or ironical. The use of tropes in films is not uncommon. The same can be said in literature.

A firearm trope is an action or move that is common in Hollywood films that carries over into the written entertain genre. These are actions like shooting a gas tank and causing a massive explosion. This cannot happen unless you’re using incendiary rounds and actually hit the tank. And that may take several shots to get adequate penetration. Firing a shotgun, handgun, rifle, or submachine gun into a gas tank will not make it explode.

One that is really overused is the cocking a handgun after your hero character has entered the ‘hot zone’. What that means is, every author has a ‘hero’ character. This hero is usually after the villain of the story yet somewhere towards the climatic end, the hero has to rack the slide of his handgun to chamber a round. Wait a minute. Take a step back and think about it. The hero, who throughout the entire book/series, has tracked Mr. Evil to his lair, engaged thugs, minions, serpents, etc., when finally confronting Evil, he racks a round into his weapon? That means that the whole time he was moving through the ‘hot zone’ he had an empty chamber.

Can you say dead hero?

For a good example of this, watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead. In the beginning scenes where the salvage/forage team is in the town,  Mike (played by Shawn Roberts in a really short role) that is with Cholo, has an Uzi. Not only does he sweep pretty much everyone with the barrel, but when Cholo states they’re hitting the liquor store for booze and cigars, he yanks back the cocking handle. That means he left the ‘Green Zone’, Fiddler’s Green, traveled all that way into an area full of stenches (the zombies) without a round in the chamber.

mike LoD Uzi

Can you say dead? He gets bit shortly after this scene.

Another issue to look at is the sparking of bullets off a car, dumpster, or corner of a building. Bullets are made out of copper or a copper alloy, that, for the most part doesn’t spark. Copper is kind of known for not sparking. That means that there would not be any sparking when a bullet strikes another piece of metal. Rifle bullets might cause a spark but nowhere close to what Hollywood special effects portray.

Bullet proof items. There is no such thing as bullet proof. There is only levels of bullet resistance. One does not don a bullet proof vest, one dons a bullet resistant garment aka body armor, that is rated to stop up to a certain caliber of bullet either by the level of material or a combination of material and inserted trauma plates. This is a very common mistake in books and film and very few authors get it right.

IOTV ballistic vest

Someone always writes something like ‘he put on his bullet proof vest.’

SAPI plates

Yeah, not going to happen.

One favorite of mine is the ‘bullet proof’ car doors. Vehicles are made of sheet metal. Sheet metal is thin. Bullets will punch through sheet metal relatively easy. A car door will stop some small caliber rounds but put enough rounds into it and you’re going to achieve penetration. Want to test this? Remove the interior door panel of any car or just visit a junk yard and look at car doors. This same issue applies to household furniture. Think a couch will stop a bullet? Look at your own couch, flip it on its back and look inside with a flashlight. Unless a hostile is shooting at you with bird shot, which will eventually penetrate, there is no way standard household furniture will stop or deflect any fast moving projectiles.

Another trope is the shotgun. Shotguns are area weapons not precise engagement weapons. For urban warfare, combat inside a building, or home defense, shotguns are nice hallway sweepers. Sweepers, not precise engagement weapons. Sense of déjà vu? A shotgun is normally a smooth barrel weapon that fires a shell composed of small pellets known as buckshot or birdshot depending on the shell. These shells and weapons are designed to engage targets at close range not at a distance. With exception to the AA-12 which is not commonly used while duck hunting, a standard, pump action shotgun is good for home defense and hunting.

benelli m90

Shotguns, like all other firearms, need to be reloaded. Hollywood seems to forget this in pretty much all the films they release and so do a number of authors. I recently read a book where a character took out a hostile with a shotgun loaded with buckshot at over 50 yards. Not something that can happen as the spread pattern would be so wide at that range that you would literally be hitting the side of a barn. A standard pump action shotgun has anywhere between 3-9 rounds in a tubular magazine under the barrel, depending on the configuration, model, and choke. One more thing to consider about shotguns, shooting the front of a car will not make the hood fly up and the engine burst into flames. Depending on the ammunition used, the most likely event would be a punctured radiator and that would take several rounds to accomplish and make the car slow or stop.

SPAS12 shotgun

A really odd favorite of Hollywood and some authors, is the whole dropped weapon firing issue. Dropping a weapon will not make it fire. Every firearm manufacturer has to pass a mandatory drop safety test, this was instituted back in 1968. Handguns, submachine guns, shotguns, rifles, PDWs, will not fire when dropped. Case in point, the Colt 1911 .45 handgun. You can jack a round into the chamber, thumb the hammer back to full cock and throw that weapon down to the floor and it will not go off. While I don’t recommend doing that with any loaded weapon, firearms will not fire when dropped contrary to what Hollywood shows you.

A somewhat comedic and fictional example of a dropped weapon firing can be found in the film True Lies. Jamie Lee Curtis drops a M10 (often commonly referred to as a MAC-10 and not to be confused for the MAC-11 or MAC-12) submachine gun down a flight of stairs and it somehow fires out its entire magazine and kills a large number of hostiles. Only if there is some kind of massive mechanical failure or in Hollywood can something like that happen.

MAC10 down the stairs

One trope that I recently came across was in a book where the author stated that the Galil rifle that one character was using, had an integrated bayonet. That one threw me a little. The Galil, a rifle made in Israel by IMI, and loosely based on the AKM-47, does not have an integrated bayonet. Some models, depending on whether they are for the military, police, or civilian market, might have a bayonet lug that can accept the M7 bayonet but there are no Galil rifles that have an integrated, flip out, bayonet. Maybe not a trope per se, but more of a research issue.


What you see under the front of this model of Galil rifle is the integral bipod in the up and folded position. There is no way one can confuse the bipod for a bayonet.

Here’s one more to look at. This pic is from the popular Walking Dead series. Here we see Daryl using a metal file cabinet for a bench rest. Note the black scorch marks on the cabinet allegedly indicating a bullet strike. What’s being shot at Daryl? Roman candles? No, live rounds that would penetrate that metal cabinet just like they would penetrate any sheet metal object like say, a car door. Its possible that the effect is trying to convey that these are oblique strikes from an angle but one never knows. This is yet another firearm trope that the movie and television studios use.

Daryl behind a file cabinet


This is why The Ward Room exists. To prevent these tropes from being used and to provide information about why they should never be used. If all your weapons handling knowledge comes from film and television, these kind of mistakes will plague you.



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