Earlier I talked about semi-automatic actions in a general way, focusing more on the difference between single and double actions. In this entry, I’m going to look at the entire class, but in a slightly more detailed way. This will be mainly for handguns, not rifles or shotguns unless noted.
Semi-automatic is the correct term for a firearm that will eject a fired casing and load a new one to be fired, all without any input from the shooter. This is often just called automatic, or auto. I will probably do that too, but technically, automatic weapons will also fire the second round to complete the cycle. They will do this until the trigger is released. Just be aware that semi-auto and auto can mean the same thing, just as automatic and full-auto mean the same thing.
Okay, moving on.
Semi-automatic handguns are popular in fiction and in real life because they are more modern than revolvers. They tend to look cooler. They can hold more ammunition. They can be reloaded faster. They tend not to kick as much. The list goes on.
The problem for a writer is that along with all that sexy, there is the very real issue that they are far more complicated and there can be a wide range of operational differences. The bullet fired from a brand new Glock chambered in .45 ACP will be just as effective as the bullet fired from a 90 year old M-1911. The bullet won’t see a difference. The target won’t see a difference. The shooter. He’ll see a difference.
There is no real safety on the Glock. There is one that prevents the gun from firing accidentally, but if there is a finger on the trigger and a round in the chamber, the Glock will go off. With the 1911, there are three different ways to keep it from going off even if the trigger is pulled, and any two of those can be active at the same time.
As a writer, you need to be aware of those differences, or you need to ignore them completely. By that I mean, don’t make any mention of the safety, or the condition of the gun prior to it going off. Don’t have the shooter pull the hammer back unless you know it has a hammer. Don’t have the hero see that the safety is engaged on the Glock and rush the thug. Don’t have either gun fall to the floor and just go off, unless you know enough about the mechanics of it to make it plausible. With the 1911, it’s possible to pin down one of the safety mechanisms and make it non-functioning. If neither of the others are engaged, then it’s possible that the gun could go off if dropped.
The point here is that semi automatic pistols are not like revolvers where they are all more or less the same. Find out what type you want to use and learn how it works, in detail, before you write about it. If at all possible, visit a gun store and talk to people, or even handle the guns you want to use. You don’t have to shoot them, but you should know more about them than the color and name.
As far as the basic operation of them goes, there are some commonalities. The rounds go into a magazine (not a clip, technically), which is inserted into the hollow grip if the gun (in most cases). There are a few notable exceptions. “Broom Handle” Mausers have a magazine that goes in front of the trigger rather than in the grip.
See that, we can’t even load the things the same way.
Once the magazine is wherever it’s supposed to go, the slide is pulled back and released. In some guns, this action is replaced by a charging handle or some other method, but some way or another, some part of the gun is drawn back far enough to pick up a bullet from the magazine and feed it to the chamber. From this position, the gun is ready to be fired.
When the trigger is pulled, the gun goes off, causing the slide or bolt to move back and eject the spent shell casing and pick up a new one to reload in preparation for the next shot.
In most guns that have an actual slide, this will move back in a way that can cause injury to anything in its path. The thing most likely to be in its path is the thumb of the shooter’s non-firing hand. Some people cross one thumb over the other. While this is possible to do with a revolver, it’s not a good idea to do with an auto. The slide will come back and take a bite out of the thumb.
I also saw someone dumb enough to try aiming like a rifle once. Well, I didn’t see them aiming, I saw them with a slide impression just below their right eye. There are only so many ways that can happen without someone else committing assault, and the guy was damn lucky to still have an eye.
In some guns, the bolt is contained totally inside the frame and nothing on the back of the gun moves back and forth when fired. Again. If it’s important enough to describe, don’t guess about it.
When the last round it fired, most modern semi-autos will lock the slide or bolt in the open position. This means the bolt or slide is back far enough to pick up a fresh round, but stays in the spot because a small cut-out on the magazine moves something into the spot that holds it open. This tells the shooter that the magazine is empty. It also makes it impossible for the gun to go “Click” like an empty revolver.
That last bit is important. Empty automatics do not go “click”. That’s a noise that comes from the hammer falling on an empty chamber.
Once the empty magazine is removed, normally by pressing a button near the trigger guard with the thumb of the right hand, a new magazine can be inserted. Some guns, mainly European designs, don’t have this button. Instead, they have a small catch on the bottom of the magazine well that holds the magazine in place. For this type, two hands are strongly advised, since the magazine will not just slide out on its own.
Once the loaded magazine has been inserted, the slide or bolt is released to pick up a new round and continue firing. This can be done by releasing the catch on the side of the gun, or by pulling the slide back slightly with the opposite hand for those guns that do not have the little catch.
The main point of this section is that there is such a wide variation in types of semi-automatic handguns that a writer really needs to know they type they write about well, or they need to skip all the details. There are too many places to make a mistake.