Specific Knowledge:
John Evans on Guns

“Write what you know”: the great writing maxim that forms the base of one of the fundamentals of great writing. But what do you do when you need to write about something that you don’t know? Well, research, duh, and I don’t mean doom-scrolling social media. With the advent of the internet, writers have access to great sources of information on nearly every topic under the sun. However, book (or online) learning can only take you so far. In most cases, the lack of experience can and will shine through even good writing. 

One of the main areas we see this in fiction is with weapons. 

Why? Well, largely it boils down to an issue of general knowledge vs. specific knowledge. This applies to a myriad of things, from vehicles to professions, but I notice this the most when it comes to firearms. Although I could go into various weapons individually—throwing weapons, knife fighting, etc, etc.—firearms are the biggest offender in my personal experience.

Now the issue with general knowledge (GK) vs. specific knowledge (SK) is a little more subtle. GK can easily get your point across and convey the scene you want, but SK can lend more weight and realism to your work.

For example, if your character is an FBI agent, you might want to look up what weapon is standard issue for the FBI, then familiarize yourself with that gun and how it works so that you avoid making one of the most common mistakes I see with firearms in fiction: writing a line about how someone takes the safety off on their Glock. 


Oh, that annoys me so much when I read it. For most readers, it’s not an issue because they don’t see the mistake. They have GK: a gun is a gun to them. But to someone with SK in that area, this is a glaring error that breaks immersion. I know this tends to get into the realm of nitpicking. For some people, it can be a little speed bump but for others, it can derail the whole train.

Weirdly enough, in my experience, this seems to be more of an issue for bigger authors. One of my favorite authors, who employs a “firearms and ballistics” guy to check their work, is probably the biggest offender of this. They had a book come a couple of years ago, it was really good…but it had so many horrible errors.

I am someone with extensive SK in firearms from over two decades of carrying them professionally, and it just so happened that the main character and I had overlapping fields of knowledge and experience. It was hair-pulling frustration to read all the justifications this “professional military-trained sniper” gave for doing everything wrong, including using the wrong terminology.

First, he used a deer hunting rifle, which isn’t that bad since the model he used—the Remington 700—is used by police and military as a precision rifle. There is a difference in quality and performance between the sniper variants and the commercial hunting rifle, but it would still do the job and make the shot.

Then he makes two major glaring errors a sniper would never make. 

Shooting from a highrise with windows that don’t open, he cuts a hole in the glass, but then he sticks the barrel through the hole. You have probably seen this on TV and in movies, but it’s incorrect and amateurish, not something a trained sniper would do. Loopholes (AKA spider holes) used by snipers are meant for concealment: you shoot through the opening, which hides the flash and dampens some of the sound from the shot, making it harder to spot the sniper. Because he failed to do this, the main character is spotted.

He also justifies not using a suppressor, claiming it will mess with the trajectory of the bullet. This is untrue, especially with a shot at less than 500 yards—the suppressor wouldn’t have any effect. 

Suppressors are also one of those things that media gets wrong. Silencers in TV and movies make a gunshot quieter than a mouse fart, but this is pure fantasy. Suppressors lower the volume of a gunshot by roughly 30 decibels, but the most effective ones will still result in a noise of around 120 dbls,  the same level as a jet engine. It’s still clearly audible as a gunshot.

So why do snipers use them? Well, snipers and soldiers run suppressors on their weapons to reduce muzzle flash and concussive force, defuse sound, and overall lower their profile,  making them harder to spot. This, as you can imagine, is very important for a sniper, and a military-trained sniper who saw action in Fallujah would know this. Soldiers don’t deviate much from how they are trained, even if they take up work as hired killers.

Then comes the WORST error in the book. The author has the main character PUT A SUPPRESSOR ON A REVOLVER. 

That is when I pitched the book across the room in frustration and scared the crap out of my girlfriend’s cat. You can’t suppress a revolver (outside of a few exceptions) due to how they are built. Suppressors work by trapping the gas that escapes out of the barrel as the bullet is fired. Revolvers have an open cylinder, so gas escapes down the barrel but also out the sides through the cylinder gaps. So, there is no point in putting a suppressor on a revolver. 

Now most of you are wondering if there is a point to this rant, yes. This is a prime example of the failings of general knowledge, over specific knowledge. In this case, the main character is failed by the author’s lack of knowledge on the subject, leading to all kinds of issues. Don’t get me wrong though, the book is still good and definitely worth a read. So, while GK in many cases is enough, lack of SK can and will cause issues within the plot outside of nerds like me nitpicking.

John Evans is a writer of old-school horror and urban fantasy. Growing up in a small rural town reading the likes of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury left him with a love of all things horror. Outside of writing John has a varied work history including a 3-year stint as a private military contractor and roughly 15 years as a bond enforcement agent (aka a bounty hunter). This resulted in enough skills and knowledge that it is very annoying to watch action and horror movies with him. His novel Midnight Falls releases in September from Rowan Prose Publishing. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.