By John Ramsey Miller

I have been guilty of having the smell, or swirling of, Cordite in the air after gun play. The other night watching TV I heard one of the techs on CSI (someplace or other) saying that she smelled Cordite in a room, which is more than unlikely since Cordite hasn’t been around since WWII. There is no Cordite whatsoever in modern ammunition. With modern ammo you can smell the pungent Nitroglycerin after firing. Modern powder is basically sawdust soaked in nitro coated with graphite. In very simple terms, the shape and coatings control the burn rates. Of course, you won’t get any smell when using air guns (for the best ones click to read the review here) but with real guns, there’s definitely a smell.

To smell Cordite you’d have to have people firing very old ammunition. According to a quick check under Cordite on Wikipedia: “The smell of Cordite is referenced erroneously in fiction to indicate the recent firing of weapons.” So from now on, unless I am writing a period piece, it will be “The pungent smell of nitroglycerin, sawdust, and graphite swirling in the air.” Or I’ll just say, “the smell of gunpowder.”

We’ve discussed accuracy in fiction here before, and maybe it’s worth a second go-round. There are more mistakes made about guns than most other subjects in modern fiction. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the majority of authors are not gun familiar, or comfortable with guns. When it comes to guns, I don’t know everything about them, but I do know enough to safely handle Airsoft Guns all of my adult life. I am hardly an expert on the subject, but I know several (Scotty Boggs, Jason Parr, and Gary Reeder) and never hesitate to ask them for technical advice.

Modern gunpowder is slow burning and non-explosive until it is put into a confined space to allow compression and a spark is introduced by a primer. If you put black powder into an ashtray and put a cigarette in there, your fingers will throb for a very long time and the blackening will be burned into the skin. It explodes without being compressed when a spark is introduced, or rather it burns so fast it seems to explode. John Gilstrap can write here about explosions as he is an expert in energetic materials. When I was in college I put a cigarette into an ashtray I’d poured black powder into.

Here I present a few basics, and probably as much information as an author really needs to know to keep gun owners from laughing out loud and maybe never reading that author’s books again. The two handguns depicted below are my own: the revolver is a Smith & Wesson K-22 Model 17 in .22, and the semi-automatic is a Colt 1911 Model 80 in .45 ACP.

REVOLVERS are guns with cylinders that turn (clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the manufacturer, model, and date issued) to allow a new bullet to present itself before the firing pin in its turn before the barrel. They are also called “Wheel” guns, and may or may not have an exposed hammer. Some hammers are shrouded so the hammer won’t get caught on clothing. They will hold from five to nine rounds depending on caliber and model. Revolvers do not usually have safeties. Not being cocked and/or not having the trigger pulled back is the revolver’s sole safety method. Older guns may be fired if the hammer is struck by force and the firing pin hits the shell’s primer. That is why most cowboys carried the cylinder under the hammer empty. Modern revolvers have a block between the pin and the primer unless the trigger depressed when the hammer falls. There are two types of revolver: the DA, for double action and the SA, for single action. With an SA you have to cock the hammer to move the cylinder (think cowboy gun) or the DA, whose cylinder turns as you squeeze the trigger, or when you cock the hammer.

A SEMI-AUTOMATIC handgun has no cylinder, but is fed cartridges (bullets are the nose of a cartridge) from a magazine (housed in the handle), which holds the cartridges in a stack under pressure from the spring. As each bullet is fired, the receiver slides back from the pressure of the explosion and the extractor grabs the rim of the casing to pull it from the chamber, and flip it out to the right. (There are a few left-handed 1911s whose casings flip to the left). The receiver then moves forward under spring tension and, as it goes, it pushes the next cartridge in the magazine into the chamber and leaves the hammer (or striker assembly in the Glock) cocked for the next trigger pull.

All handguns have some safety mechanism. Some have magazine disconnects (won’t fire without at least an empty clip in place) or some firing pin block (to prevent firing when dropped) is usually incorporated. Most semi-automatics have one or more safeties, and some have none to speak of except a lack of trigger pull. A Colt 1911 (They come in several calibers including .45 ACP, .38 Super. 9MM, and .22 LR) has several including a thumb safety, a grip-strap safety, and on some a half-cock, and one that involves pushing back the receiver a fraction of an inch to prevent it from firing. The latter would be a last ditch to keep the gun from going off, and if you miscalculate and the gunman is lucky, the bullet will pass through your palm. When semi’s last bullet is fired and its case ejected, the receiver locks open to let the user know the weapon is out of ammunition. Slap in a mag, release the receiver, and there’s a new round in the chamber.

You will hear over and over that “Glocks do not have safeties.” But they do. Glocks do not have “external” safeties, but they have the two-part “safe-trigger” which actually is a safety. On a Glock the “Striker” (no internal hammer) is half cocked by the first 1/4″ of slide retraction while chambering a cartridge. The other “half-cocking” of the striker is the first stage take up of the trigger pull. On a Glock you get ONE SNAP, then you have to jack the slide resetting the half cock on the striker to have another snap. With some practice you can only pull the slide back just enough to reset the action without ejecting the “dud” round for another try. Interesting isn’t it? There may be exceptions to what I’ve written, but I think it is accurate enough to get a writer around in a shootout. And probably more than most of you want to know.

A cartridge is made up of four parts: Casing, Bullet, Primer, and Gunpowder. The bullet is the projectile that is seated in the casing, but the cartridge is never accurately called a bullet. A shotgun round is referred to as a shell. A shotgun shell (or round) that has been fired is often called a hull. A shotgun shell holds either pellets or a single slug.

A magazine can hold as many rounds as its length and width accommodates. Some mags hold bullets in a straight line and some are wider to allow staggered rounds. Low capacity factory magazines hold from six to eight rounds. You can keep one on the chamber to add an additional round to the gun’s capacity. Hi-capacity magazines hold more shells than a standard mag. I have had fifteen round mags, and some handgun magazines hold twenty or even thirty rounds. Some handgun drum magazines hold more …a lot more.

A magazine can be called a clip. In the military a rifle or machine gun has a Magazine, handguns can have clips. People rarely say clip any more but it was once common to call any magazine a clip. There are clips that hold .45 ACPs in a half moon for use in .45 LC revolvers, and to shoot 9MM rounds in a 38, but they are rare enough that an author shouldn’t need to concern themselves with those.

There’s lots more to know like available calibers, shotgun gauges, How a barrel length’s effects powder burn and velocity, range, knock-down values, recoil, and trajectory. There are enough bullet types and weights to fill several books. And every author who writes weapons should buy a copy of Gun Digest so they can read about and look at the weapons they write about. Write it off as reference material. Get the latest one you can find because they add new gun models yearly, but anything in the past ten years is plenty for most applications. Any bookseller has them and EBay has lots of them used. Here’s the link:

You can study guns for the rest of your life, but the truth is, authors don’t need to know very much to keep from writing someone shoving a clip into a revolver, playing Russian Roulette with a Glock, or just writing convincingly about what a character has in their hand, handbag, or holster, or how that gun works.


  1. I guess it’s a lot more about the subject than anybody really wants to know, until they need to know. If they ever need to know. In reading the post, I think a lot of people will change the method of kill to a knife or a blunt object.

  2. Although my new thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, takes place in present time, a portion occurs in 1876. I had to do a great deal of research on the guns my character would be using. As writers, more research data is always better than too little. The art is how much to use in the actual story. Your overview, John, should help all of us avoid stupid mistakes.

  3. I’m bookmarking this for my thriller WIP, John. For my upcoming Fat City Mystery, I had to look into less hard core aspects of firepower, such as the fact that they make a TASER in hot metallic pink for women. Evidently at one point they also had one with zebra stripes, although that one no longer seems to be on the market. I put it in the book though, because it’s too funny to go to waste. Her father the cop sends it to her for self-protection.

  4. It’s the research that’s half the fun, don’t you think? I’m always amazed at how gracious people can be when I tell them I’m a novelist and I’ve got a couple questions about what they do.

    But I’m also the geek that thinks “How it’s Made” on the Discovery Channel is the best thing on TV. Who knew there were so many steps to making a shovel?

  5. Thanks John – believe it or not I have to do some research on a Webley revolver circa 1913 so I’ll be checking out my own gun research soon…

  6. Ah, the .455 Wembley. Went from black powder to Cordite and to modern powder. You can still buy rounds for them from some Italian manufacturer. I’ve fired them and they are nice. Manageable recoil, slow moving round, but very effective. I’ve always loved the way that gun breaks open like a Schofield. Yes, but here I go again…

  7. Great bit of information John. Eventhough I know my way around guns a good bit, I’ve fallen the cordite word a couple times myself.
    Here’s a bit of trivia;

    In our age of fully automatic weapons, did you know that American machine guns that existed at the time of the John’s Colt 1911was invented were all crew served weapons? That means one man could not operate the weapon alone. While a person could fire it alone for a very short period of time, they required a minimum of two, a preferably three people to operate properly. And they were hardly what we would call portable today, weighing between 60 adn 120 lbs pounds. A machine gun squad would be 6-9 men all focusing on serving taht weapon. 2 or 3 to operate and the others to run ammo, get water, carry and protect the weapon. They also required a large amount of water to keep them cool. If they ran out of water soldiers were known to urinate into the barrel jacket to keep the fight going to the enemy. If fired too rapidly, the barrel would turn white hot, bend, then a round could explode inside possibly killing the crew that manned it.

    Anyhow, if you are writing any period fiction from WW1 up to early WW2 that’s an idea of what it took to have a fraction of the fire power a single modern soldier of today carries.

    Have a nice weekend.

  8. Great post, John- very helpful. And Basil, great point. In college, I based my senior thesis on my grandfather’s WWI diaries (he was a medic in France). And the stories were truly harrowing.

  9. I really appreciate you posting this. My current WIP, Uninvoked, has nothing whatever to do with guns. I do have plans and an aging rough draft that could all benefit from your article.

    I will be bookmarking this and coming back to reference it whenever necessary. Thank you. 🙂

  10. Great post, I’m bookmarking this one!

    Just wanted to ask – I know next to nothing about guns, but I have a character in my book sniffing the breech of a shotgun to tell if its been recently fired… how warm am I?

    • Modern revolvers, most of them, have a “transfer bar” which rises up with trigger pull to allow the hammer to hit it which in turn hits the firing pin. A fully cocked revolver that is dropped and the hammer releases will not discharge since the trigger is not being pulled back hence transfer bar stays down.

  11. John, you stated that “The cartridge is never accurately called a bullet.”
    In the very next paragraph however you state “Some mags hold BULLETS in a straight line……
    I think you might want to edit this 🙂
    Good overall information and presentation.

  12. Sorry,but your description of the composition of gunpowder is way off. The major component is nitocellulose, cellusloic material which has been treated with nitric acid (with a bit of sulphuric), not sawdust soaked in nitro. Many formulations are “double based”, meaning that they have some nitroglycerine in addition to athe nitrocellulose (Cordite was double-based). So the smell of some burnt powders would be indestinguishable from Cordite. I was informed by an Aussie ballistician that Cordite is still in production, though it no longer is in the original cord shape.

  13. Just for giggles…Go to Google and type in “Is Cordite Still Manufactured?” or “The history of Cordite.” I think you’ll find overwhelming evidence that I am correct.

  14. Very good article, but I do have one quibble:
    “A magazine can be called a clip”. It can also be called an elephant, but you really should not do that. A clip originally (besides the one for the .45 ACP used in revolvers, that you did mention) was what held the rounds so you could quickly load the magazine of a bolt-action rifle. The clip holds the rounds in a straight line, you open the bolt, place the clip so the rounds are parallel to the magazine, and push down firmly so the rounds enter the magazine. Another type of clip was the one used in the M-1 Garand, which held 8 staggered rounds – when you fired the last shot, the clip was ejected, and you would insert the new one, push it all the way in, which releases the bolt to load the first round. It is advisable to hold the bolt back with your palm, lest it try to chamber your thumb, and you end up with the infamous “M-1 thumb”. Otherwise, GREAT article.

  15. I had to laugh when I saw this post. I thought I was the only one who’d done that! A weapons expert pointed that out to me – this was in a book I wrote fourteen years ago but had new life as an ebook. I’ve just gotten the uncorrected proofs for my last book, and darned if the smell of cordite wasn’t in the air again! I’d written it before the weapons expert corrected me on the older book.

  16. Great comment. Only one correction– it wasn’t CSI, it was Law and Order: SVU, episode 20 of season 8 ‘Annihilated’. At 22:44, Benson and Stabler enter a room, and Benson comments about smelling cordite.

    I only know because I was watching the episode and googled cordite when I didn’t recognize the word.

  17. For my second novel, The Carbon Cross, I chose to refer to gunsmoke smell as an acrid odor. And another time as nitrosated gunsmoke.

    I also appreciate the correction of clip to magazine, though it came to late to make it into The Carbon Trap.

    Randy Dutton

  18. I’ll give you one guess whose blog I printed out today. 🙂 Thank you so much for the information. If will come in handy, for many of us.
    Marja McGraw

  19. Check your facts..i think cordite was being used as recently as 1989…The ammo that i recalled used in the M-198 howitzer..155mm cannon was cordite.

  20. The other correction I would make is the use of clip. A magazine is placed into a gun for firing while a clip holds bullets to be placed in a magazine. The use of clip for magazine is cringe worthy to most in the gun community.

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