Gun Basics for Writers: Handguns, Part 2 of 2: Semiautomatics

Time for semiautomatic handguns.

This is a continuation of Monday’s newsletter — as the first installment of running down some gun basics for writers, this week we’re discussing handguns from a writerly point of view.

In Part 1, we started a handgun discussion by talking about revolvers. The other main category of handguns is the semiautomatic handgun. This is often what people immediately think of if they picture a handgun. If you hear references to “a Glock” or “a 9mm” these are types of semiautomatic handguns.

Let’s get started.

Semiautomatic Handguns

Here is a picture of a semiautomatic:

Semiautomatic pistol

Semiautomatic pistol. Grand Power Ltd., Slovakia / CC-BY-SA, OTRS permission.

Semiautomatics are so named because unlike a revolver, the rechambering of each round happens automatically after each shot (whereas with a revolver, you have to either draw the hammer back to rotate the cylinder (single-action) or pull the trigger with more strength to cause the cylinder rotation to the next round (double-action)—you make the revolver move to the next round as opposed to the gun doing it for you in the semiautomatic).  The rounds load out of a stacked magazine (instead of the revolver cylinder, which spins around).

Magazine capacity varies widely among semiautomatics. For example, the single-stack 1911 holds 7; the FNP-9 (potentially) holds 16; Berettas and Glocks generally can hold 15 or 17 respectively. You can also get high-capacity magazines for handguns that hold several times that—of course, they stick out of the gun by a lot.

However, if your writing is set in the U.S. and your characters are law-abiding, be aware that depending on the U.S. state, handgun magazines might have a lower limit. For instance, in California, 10 rounds is the legal max, so even magazines for guns that can usually hold more are blocked at 10 rounds.

You can also potentially load one more round into the gun than the magazine can hold by loading one into the chamber of the semiautomatic and then putting a full magazine below it.

Which brings me to:

How a Character Would Load a Semiautomatic Pistol

Eject the magazine. Usually there's a button or a small lever that releases it on the left side or bottom—it depends on the gun.

Load the magazine by pushing rounds into it one after another—your character can also pre-load extra magazines for quick reloading.  Slide the magazine back into the gun.  Now the magazine is loaded, but the gun is not yet ready to fire—your character must chamber a round by racking the slide of the weapon (pulling the upper part of the gun back and then letting it release forward).  This loads the first round into the chamber and also cocks the hammer back.  The gun is now ready to fire. If you eject the magazine at this point, it will have one fewer round in it, as there is now one round in the chamber of the gun.

Here's a semiautomatic pistol with the magazine ejected.  The magazine well of the pistol is empty, and you can just see one round loaded at the top of the magazine:

Glock handgun with magazine ejected

Pistol with magazine ejected. Photo by Technococcus / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

After the weapon is chambered, racking the slide again will eject the round currently in the chamber—it will pop out and land on the floor—and load the next one out of the magazine.  This wastes a perfectly good round.  So don't have your character chamber a round and then later rack the slide again. Characters do this in movies all the time, and it's ridiculous!

How a Character Would Fire a Semiautomatic Pistol

Pull the trigger.

As the gun fires, it automatically chambers the next round by racking the slide; immediately after firing, the gun is totally ready to fire again.  You do not need to pull the hammer back (it's already back).  You do not need to do anything.  The gun is completely ready to fire again.

In between gun battles, your character could put the safety on (if it exists), and possibly de-cock the gun (semiautomatics can be either single- or double-action, meaning they may or may not need the hammer back to fire, but it only ever matters for the first shot, as every trigger pull re-cocks the gun regardless).  Then your character would have to take the safety off and possibly pull the hammer back (if the gun is single-action-only) before firing again.  But if your character is in the middle of a gunfight, she will do none of these things; she will just keep pulling the trigger until she needs to reload.

If you're trying to keep it simple, to be on the safe side never depict your character drawing the hammer back on a semiautomatic.  I see characters do this when they shouldn't far, far more than I ever see them not doing it when they should. In fact, I don't think I can think of a single example of the latter, and I see the former all the time, which makes me wonder why the character stopped in the middle of the gunfight to de-cock her weapon!  Was it just for the effect when she dramatically re-cocks it?

With every round fired, a shell casing will kick out of the side of the weapon as it rechambers itself (unlike revolvers, where the shell casings stay inside the cylinder and don't go anywhere).  It is possible for shell casings to hit either the shooter or his neighbors, which is only a big problem if they catch someone in the eye or land somewhere on the skin instead of bouncing off (e.g., by going down someone's shirt). In that case they can leave a nice burn. But in any case, it's not fun to be getting hit by your neighbor's shell casings.

Shell casings also make a nice ting-ting-ting sound as they land on hard surfaces.

When the gun is out of ammunition, the slide will (for most semiautos) lock open automatically, exposing the now-empty chamber (see below for a picture).  It is therefore obvious when a shooter is out of ammo.

How a Character Would Reload a Semiautomatic Pistol

Assuming the character has just run out of ammo and the slide is locked open: Eject the empty magazine.  Insert a new (fully loaded) magazine. Hit the slide release—this is a small lever on the side of the gun that releases the slide and chambers the first round (the same thing racking the slide did when your character first loaded up—in fact, when first loading, if desired your character could instead manually lock the slide open, insert the magazine, and then hit the slide release, instead of racking the slide—both of these actions do the same thing).

The gun is now ready to fire again.

Here is a picture of a gun with slide locked back as the shooter reloads (you can see the gap at the top where you can look into the chamber):

Shooter reloading, slide locked back

Shooter reloading the magazine with the slide locked back. Public domain.

You might have gotten the drift by now that every time the gun chambers the slide must go back to the position shown above and then slide forward again to load the next round in.  When loading or reloading, the shooter does this manually, either by racking the slide or by hitting the release when the slide is already open.  When firing, the gun does this automatically every time the trigger is pulled, rocketing the slide back to this position and then forward again very very fast to chamber the next round (and staying locked open after the final round).

This is where the name “semiautomatic” comes from.

How a Character Would Clear a Semiautomatic Pistol

Assuming there is still some unknown amount of ammunition in the gun (i.e., it is not in the empty-and-slide-locked-back state): Eject the magazine.  Then rack the slide, which makes any live round in the chamber pop out.  Both of these steps are necessary to clear the weapon.

A character can show the gun is safe and clear by showing an empty magazine and pulling the slide back to show an empty chamber.  Locking the slide open and leaving it that way shows the gun is safe to anyone in the vicinity.

How a Character Would Clean a Semiautomatic Pistol

Your character would need to field strip it.  Different semiautos have all different take down steps, but essentially, your character would take it apart so it's in pieces (slide, barrel, spring, etc.), clean and lubricate the pieces, and then put it all back together.

Here's a picture of a field stripped 1911:

Field stripped Springfield 1911

Field stripped Springfield 1911 pistol. Photo by Jan Hrdonka / public domain.

Why a Character Would Prefer a Semiautomatic Pistol

Semiautos (in general) hold more ammunition than revolvers, and are easier to reload quickly if you have extra, pre-loaded magazines.  Some people prefer the feel of firing them, or see revolvers as slightly antiquated.  And some people have certain brands of semiautomatic they happen to prefer to all other handguns.

Also, most issue weapons in military/law enforcement are semiautomatics, so sometimes people are just used to them.

Other Useful Notes

  • Semiautomatics are all vastly different.  Some have safeties, some don't.  Some have external hammers, some don't.  Some have de-cockers, some don't.  Some are double-action, some are single- or double-action, and some are single-action-only (which on a semiauto, again, only matters for the first shot, as the gun resets itself for all subsequent ones).  They all have different magazine capacities and most of them take down differently.  If you need any of these details, do research on the specific type of semiautomatic handgun your character is carrying.

  • Semiautomatic frames can be made of either metal, polymer, or a combination. Polymer guns are much lighter than metal ones, and therefore tend to have more kick as a side effect.

  • For some models of semiautomatic, it is possible for an inexperienced shooter to hold the gun incorrectly and sustain a hand injury from the slide of the gun rocketing back to chamber the next round when the trigger is pulled.  This can take a good bite out of the shooter's hand if it happens.  (It's rare—I've never seen it happen, but I've heard stories.)

  • It's also possible for people to give themselves minor blood blisters if they catch their skin in the slide when racking it. Most shooters I know have experienced this at one time or another.

  • Malfunctions happen much more often with semiautomatics than with revolvers.  If a jam occurs, you could describe the shooter racking the slide to try to clear the malfunction.  (He may have to eject the magazine, as well—I've had jams so bad I had to take down the gun and use a screwdriver or a pair of pliers to clear them.)  Like any other aspect of semiautos, there's a lot of variation: good semiautomatics fire very smoothly and can go through many magazines with not a single malfunction; bad ones (or badly cleaned ones) will jam more.  Also, because of the way semiautos work, an inexperienced shooter can cause the weapon to jam by "limp wristing" it—not providing enough wrist support to the recoil for the blowback to chamber the next round effectively.  If the next round doesn't chamber all the way, the gun will jam.

This and the post on revolvers together cover the basics of loading and firing handguns.  There's a lot more detail that can be had, of course, but the above should at least give you enough to mention handgun use in passing without making an error.

Somewhere down the line, we’ll have some posts on long guns and other firerarms basics. And as always, feel free to ask questions!