About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

Public Speaking Tips

By John Gilstrap

Before I get to the real business of this post, allow me a moment to update you on the aftermath of a previous post.  Back on February 1, I posted an entry here recapping advice I’d received to work more with my Facebook page to post videos and other media that would potentially draw more eyes to my page.  Taking y’all’s advice to heart, I have now established my own YouTube Channel, on which I have posted and will continue to post short videos that offer an insider’s look into the publishing business.  So far, I’ve talked about the various steps in the editing process, advance reader’s copies and the role of a literary agent.  My intent is to post one video per week, with a maximum length of 4-5 minutes.  If you’re inclined to subscribe and tell your friends, I’d be most grateful.

Thus endeth the sales pitch. (Endith?)

Public speaking is a major part of a successful writer’s life.  Whether sitting on panels or asking questions from the audience, conducting a seminar or delivering a keynote speech, it’s helpful to master the techniques of delivering interesting information in an entertaining way.  I know a number of people who have made major improvements in their speech construction and delivery techniques through Toastmasters International. At the very least, Toastmasters helps those who are fearful of public speaking to wrangle their fears.

While there are countless moving parts in constructing and delivering any kind of speech, there are some inherently destructive practices and habits that can distract from or totally destroy an otherwise viable presentation, and yet are relatively easy to prevent.

Let’s talk about microphones.

Yes, you need one.  I don’t understand the common refusal to use a mic when one is available and offered.  It seems to be a point of pride among some to declare, “people can hear me without a microphone.”  Even when that’s true, a microphone makes you more easily heard.  Remember, you’re competing with the air handler, the whispers and cellophane crinkles of everyone in the room.  Then, there are the physics of it all.  If the room is carpeted and the ceilings are high, the sound pressure just gets lost or absorbed.  If the floors are wooden and the walls concrete, the echo muddles your words.  That’s why they offered you the mic in the first place.

Lavaliere, stand or handheld?  If I am the primary speaker, I vastly prefer a lavaliere mic over the other options, simply because I like to move around while I speak. My second choice is a handheld, for the same reason.  If the other options are not available, I’ll make due with a stand or lectern microphone.  But even with a microphone, there are significant limitations.

  1. Positioning. With a lav, I find the best position to clip the microphone is between the 3rd and 4th buttons of my shirt. That’s where they’re designed to be placed, so you don’t have to look down and speak into it.  Just project out to the audience as you would if you had no amplification.
    1. Neatness counts.  Okay, this is my personal bugaboo, but I hate the look of the microphone cord trailing from the mic to the battery pack.  Tuck that bad boy away so you don’t distract your audience.  Here’s a good short video that shows how to do that.
    2. If you’re doing an interview from a stage in front of a live audience and you have lapels to work with, be sure to mount the lav on the lapel that is closest to the other person.
    3. Remember that jewelry, name tags or any other objects that might hit against the microphone need to be secured.
    4. Important safety tip: If you’re miked up with a lav radio mike, be sure it’s turned off until you want it to be turned on. It’s always worth a second check before you go to the bathroom.
  2. With a handheld mic, remember that you have lost one half of your gesticulating ability.  If you’re pointing with it, it can’t do its job.
  3. Most podium microphones are aggressively directional.  When you look left or right–as you should, to keep everyone’s interest and attention–think of the microphone as the center of a ball and socket joint, always remaining the same distance from your mouth, regardless of the direction you’re looking.
  4. You still have to project and enunciate clearly.  Amplified or not, mumbling never works.

About the delivery . . .

Lose the PowerPoint.  I see too many presenters of all ilks using PowerPoint more or less as a script.  No matter how interesting your topic might be, your audience will stay with you only if your performance is at least as interesting.  If I’m ever elected king, an edict shall be passed that limits any PowerPoint slide to a maximum of ten words.  But if you must use it, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Make the slides an active part of the presentation. Make them worth reading.  For example, when I give my standard How-to-write seminar, immediately after I emphasize the point that there are no rules in writing, I cue the slide that reads, “But there are some very good suggestions.”  I let the audience get the joke, and then we move along.
  2. Videos work very well as PowerPoints, but it can be tricky getting them to run.
    1. No matter how many bajillions of times you have done a presentation, always take time to rehearse the slides and the transitions on the actual equipment you will be using.
  3. Talk to the audience, not to the screen.  The image is there, I promise. If you need a cue on where you are, use your computer screen as a TelePrompTer of sorts.
  4. Buy your own remote clicker and use it to advance your slides, and practice the transitions so you can keep talking even as the slides move.
  5. Assume catastrophic equipment failure, and have a backup plan to make your presentation without visual aids. It happens more than you’d think, and every time is a character-building experience.

Remember that it’s about the audience.  Even if people have not paid to attend your speech or the conference at which your speech is delivered, they are at a minimum paying with their time, and you accordingly owe them a show.

  1. Don’t poison the well before you begin.  This is more prominent among writers who speak than other groups I’ve dealt with.  It usually begins with something like, “I don’t do a lot of public speaking, so if I screw up . . .”  My thought at this point is always, “Then sit the hell down and don’t waste my time.”  If you know ahead of time that you’re going to suck, then do us all a favor and don’t start. Cede your time to someone who’s prepared.
    1. If the apology falls better into the category of the humble brag, keep that to yourself, as well.  If you kill up there, everyone will know and applaud, and if you die up there, they will likewise know yet still applaud.
  2. Know your subject and be well-rehearsed. Back when I was working my Big Boy Job, I delivered a lot of speeches, most of which were designed to be motivational. Think hundreds of times. And before each one, I always rehearsed the first five minutes and the last five minutes of the speech, usually out loud in the hotel room.  Once I got a presentation going, I could maneuver my way through the middle of the speech by feel, but I obsessed about getting the beginning and the end just right.

We writers are communicators, after all.  The only difference between writing and speaking is that with the latter, there’s only one draft.

Many of you do more public speaking than I. What have I missed?



The Code

By John Gilstrap

I turned the Big Six-Oh this week, which triggered some of the reflection that big birthdays bring.  Nothing morose, mind you–in fact, quite the opposite.  I wouldn’t go back and live my thirties again for anything.  I enjoy the stability and sense of ease that is my life of the moment.  I’m aware that things can change on a dime, but for now, the view out the windshield is at least as bright and sunny as the one in the rearview mirror.

For this week’s TKZ entry, I thought I’d talk about how storytelling has evolved just within my lifetime.  I’ve recently discovered MeTV, a television network for geezers, which runs TV series from days gone by.  I’m particularly taken by “The Rifleman”, starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son, Mark.  Truth be told, I don’t remember any of the episodes from when I watched them as a kid, though I do remember the opening sequence with the rapid-fire Winchester.  Thanks to the wonders of DVR technology, I’ve been able to record all of the shows, and in the evening, when I want to unwind before bed, I’ll watch an episode or two.  While the stories tend to be small, the storytelling itself is really quite good.  Sam Peckinpah wrote and/or directed quite a few of the episodes.

In watching those old episodes, I’ve come to realize how much the Westerns of my youth have influenced my storytelling sensibilities.  In fact, it has been said of my Jonathan Grave series that they are Westerns with different costumes.  I don’t know that I would go that far, but there’s no ignoring the kernel of truth, and I think some of those truths take us to the core of what makes a good hero.

A good man (or woman) lives to a code.  Lucas McCain was loyal to his friends, devoted to his son, and committed to helping others in need.  He neither took nor offered charity, but he was always there to offer a job to a man who’d hit hard times and wanted to regain his self respect through honest work.  He never picked a fight, but he never walked away from one out of fear, because he knew that reputations were fragile and that predators needed only the first whiff of weakness to be encouraged.

A good man is a gentleman.  Hard stop. He stands when a lady enters or leaves, and he would never wear a hat at the table.  And he would never impugn a lady’s honor.

A good man (or woman) defends what is his or hers.  John Wayne put it best as John Bernard Book in The Shootist when he said, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” This goes back to the code I mentioned above. The lesson taught by these shows–and echoed through my father as I was growing up–was that there’s no dishonor in losing a fight so long as you fight as hard as you can. As a kid, I repeatedly proved to myself and others that I was not a good fighter, but that experience led me to become a good de-fuser.

Good triumphs over evil, but only after a brutal effort. My cowboy heroes always got up again–if not after the initial fight, then certainly by the end of the story.  And the bad guys always got their comeuppance.

Then came the seventies.  Good and evil became muddled on television and on the screen and in books.  “Injun savages” evolved to “endangered minorities” and the European settlers became the predators.  Modern military service members evolved from defenders of freedom to killers of innocent children. Cynicism raged, and heroes were hard to find anywhere.  Popeye Doyle? Please. Serpico?  Archie Bunker?  No joke was funny, it seemed, unless it insulted someone else in the process.

As a budding writer in college (1975-79), in the age of Rod McKuen and Richard Bach, my admittedly simple view of right and wrong–of hero and villain–was scoffed at by professors and my lit’ry student colleagues.  The professor of one of only two writing classes I ever took told me, “You have no talent, stop writing.” I was only 20 years old.  And it was not some reverse psychology plan on his part.  He was so enraged by my view of good guys and bad guys on the page that he wanted nothing to do with me, and he wanted to discourage me from any path forward.

So, here we are, a few decades later.  Current political screeching notwithstanding, I think we’ve evolved past the blinding cynicism of the ’70s, but it is still there in my writing.  My good guys recognize that in their world, predators have been allowed to thrive as innocents are discouraged from protecting what is theirs.  Fierce independence is frowned upon, in favor of dependence on others, government agencies in particular.  In Jonathan Grave’s world, the police are almost always good guys, but they value their own careers over the pursuit of real justice. Those cops who do take risks on behalf of the innocent are keenly aware that they are one out-of-context cell phone video away from losing everything they hold dear.

The one chance society has in Jonathan Grave’s world is for the noble gunslinger to take that risk that no one else is willing to take. He does it not for himself, but for the benefit of the innocent.  Because he is on the side of the angels.

Come to think of it, maybe I need to give him a Winchester.


Which Handgun Should Your Character Carry?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show (Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Technology–at best, a tortured acronym), which is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The SHOT Show is to shooting and archery what the Detroit Auto Show is for car manufacturers, the event when new products are launched. It’s also an opportunity for me to meet with my subject matter experts face-to-face.  A highlight of the SHOT Show is Media Day at the Range, when folks like me can shoot a wide variety of weapons, while sending hundreds of rounds of free ammo downrange.

As I wandered the 17 miles (!) of display aisles, it occurred to me that the average writer–or person, for that matter–cannot comprehend the thousands of variations that exist for what we casually call a gun.  In this post, I thought I’d walk you through some of the major decisions your character would consider in deciding which firearm to carry.

Revolver, Pistol, or . . . Something Different?

For we gun porn purists, pistols and revolvers are mutually exclusive. Both are handguns, but they operate under entirely different principles.  A revolver, otherwise known as a “wheel gun”, holds its cartridges in a cylinder that rotates as the hammer comes back and prepares for each shot. The revolver in the picture features an external hammer, and can be fired double action (DA) or single action (SA), which makes it a DA/SA revolver. (Double action means that with the hammer down, a single pull of the trigger with bring the hammer back, rotate the cylinder, and then drop the hammer again, firing the gun. Single action would describe the condition where the hammer is manually cocked and remains back–“condition zero”. From this condition, the trigger is more sensitive by a large margin.)  Generally, there are no external safeties on a revolver.  The fact of the long DA trigger pull functions as a safety.  Only a fool would carry a revolver in condition zero.

Recent years have seen a growth in the popularity of the DAO (double action only) revolver.  With no external hammer to cock, every pull of the trigger is double action.  The upside of a hammerless revolver is the ease of the draw from concealment (hammers have a way of snagging on clothing).

A pistol, on the other hand, carries its load in a magazine that is inserted in the grip. As the weapon fires, the slide cycles, ejecting the spent shell casing and pushing the next round into battery. The picture at the top of this post of me at the range shows this cycling action of a Glock 36 at 1/4000 of a second–thanks to my son, Chris, for getting the picture. The pistol in the picture with the revolver has no hammer, but is rather “striker fired”–a distinction that is best left to a future post.  Striker fired pistols may or may not have external safeties.  Some pistols have external hammers, such as the Colt Defender in the picture.  As shown, the Colt is in condition one, which means cartridge in the chamber, hammer back and safety on–otherwise known as “cocked and locked.”  In yet another iteration, many manufacturers make DA/SA pistols.  The Bersa Thunder in the photo offers a very long, hard DA trigger pull for the first shot, which leaves the hammer back for a SA follow-up shot. For most DA/SA pistols, the “safety” is not a safety at all, but rather a de-cocker, which safely returns the hammer to its DA position.

What difference does it make?

There are so many variables, but consider just a few:

  1. If your character is going to shoot through a pocket or a purse, a revolver is the better choice because a pistol’s slide would likely get fouled or tangled in fabric, making a follow-up shot difficult if not impossible.
  2. It’s much more cumbersome and time consuming to reload a revolver.
  3. No modern revolver I can think of is compatible with a suppressor.
  4. For less-experienced shooters, a DA/SA revolver is generally a better choice.

What Caliber?

I’ve discussed bullet choices here in TKZ before, so I won’t regurgitate all of that here, but it is definitely a consideration. If your character is a cop or in the military, chances are that s/he won’t carry anything smaller than 9mm.  On the flip side, I don’t know anyone who carries the Harry Callahan .44 magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head cleeean off), but I know lots of people who carry .45 or .357 magnum.

Where on their bodies do they carry the gun?

If your character is an on-duty cop or active duty military, where sidearms are worn in some kind of duty rig, the sky’s the limit for what they want to carry.  You can buy holsters for all kinds of hand cannons.  The choices become more limited when it’s important for your character to conceal his or her weapon. As a general rule, the larger the firearm, the harder it is to conceal. The obvious corollary is that bigger people can conceal bigger guns.

When it comes to carrying a gun on one’s belt, the critical first choice is inside-the-waistband (IWB) vs. outside-the-waistband (OWB), and both mean exactly what the words say.  Generally, OWB carry is more detectable, but with the right holster and an effective cover garment, it can be very effective.  By contrast, IWB carry allows for concealment by means as simple as an untucked T-shirt. On the downside, the gun takes up waistband real estate that would otherwise be used by the waist.  If your character wears skinny jeans, IWB could be a problem.  IWB carry positions are referred to as positions on a clock face, where one’s navel would be 12 o’clock and the right hip would be 3 o’clock. The IWB position in the picture is referred to as “appendix carry”, and for the life of me, I don’t know how he would be able to sit down.  Shoulder rigs are popular in movies and television shows, but I have never met a real person who wore one and didn’t hate it over time. They’re hard on the shoulders, and you can never let your arms hang normally. But the deal breaker for me would be that during the draw stroke, you pretty much have to point the gun at the person behind you, and then subsequently at yourself. That violates the basic tenets of firearm safety–as do many of the specialty retention devices such as the bra holster.  ‘Nuff said, can we agree?

Now, suppose your character needs to go for deep concealment, and the weapon is merely for close-in defense? Suppose the only concealment option is a vest pocket, or perhaps a boot?  Search the Web for specialty guns that are actually well-made and very effective for what they are.  North American Arms makes a mini-revolver that easily fits in your fist, and can be chambered in .22 magnum, a round that shows very similar terminal ballistics to a .38 special, under ideal circumstances.  The tiny, nearly non-existent barrel is a problem for a shot longer than, say, 10 yards, but as a belly gun, it’s kind of impressive, and since it’s a revolver, your character gets five tries to bring justice to another character.

The Derringer lives on. Bond Arms manufactures a wide line of two-shot firearms that come chambered in nearly every caliber. One will even take 410 gauge shotgun shells. Beware, however, that there’s a direct trade-off between the weight of a firearm and the degree of felt recoil. These little guns kick like angry horses.


At this point, rather than me blathering on answering presumed questions, let’s switch over to the real things.  Any particular problems you’re tackling in your WIP?




What Would You Like to Know?

By John Gilstrap

Last week, when I published the January issue of Dispatches, my Jonathan Grave newsletter, I asked for guidance from my readership on how frequently the newsletter should come out. We all get pummeled by unwanted email, and I never want to tip over the line into the spam category.  The overwhelming consensus among the 30 or so respondents was for quarterly updates. (Click here if you’d like to subscribe.  I’d love to have you.)

A solid handful of people who wrote back to me also said that they would like to have links to videos or other media that show what a writer’s life is like. It’s easy to shrug off a request like that with the observation that the writing life is not significantly different than any other life that involves long hours of quiet contemplation at a desk, but I understand where they are coming from.  I recognize that I am blessed to be able to spend my days living the dream I’ve dreamed since childhood, and that alone puts writers in exotic real estate, especially in the perception of readers.  It explains why the pictures on my website of my office is one of the most frequently visited pages. I get it.  I respect it. In fact, one of my favorite pictures of another author is that of Stephen King working in a cluttered space with his feet propped up on the desk. It’s nice to get that peek behind the curtain.

I had the opportunity to bring this up over the weekend during a conclave of sorts with other authors, hoping to find some idea of what the subject of such videos might be, and I was introduced to the concept of Facebook Live, which, as I understand it, is pretty much what it sounds like: live audio-video streaming over Facebook, during which there can be direct and immediate interaction with viewers. With decent promotion of the event ahead of time, I could see that as a good way to stay closer to fans.

The big question, of course, is what I would talk about. Some suggested that I could do talks about guns and explosives, and while that clearly is a topic that interests me, I questioned whether or not it would do anything to promote or sell books. Perhaps I could read a chapter or a section from one of my books, kind of a fireside chat. The consensus was that the main goal was simply to be real to readers.  I’m going to give it a shot.

So, now I ask you: If you’re going to spend a half hour or so in direct contact with an author–it doesn’t have to be me specifically–what would you like the focus to be?  What information would you like to know?


The So-What

by John Gilstrap

If you’re around this writing biz long enough, and attend enough seminars or classes, sooner or later you’re going to hear about the three-act structure.  I’m of the belief that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction-writing—that if it works, it works—but it’s pretty hard to tell any story without a beginning, a middle and an end.

Now, the Syd Fieldses of the world embrace a form of the three-act structure that is far more draconian and, frankly, intimidating than mine.  Truth be told, looking back on 17 published novels, I would be hard pressed to identify precise act-to-act transitions in any of them.  I think more in terms of setup, development and climax.  Or, as I wrote above, a beginning, a middle and an end.

A few weeks ago, as I was teaching a two-hour writing seminar in Alexandria, Virginia, I was smitten with the notion that, structurally, there’s another critical element of successful storytelling: the so-what.  It’s a little hard to define, but it goes to the heart of what makes an otherwise well-told story fall flat, and what makes some mundane storytelling very successful.  In my view, it’s the missing element that renders a lot of so-called literary fiction to be under-performers at the cash register.

A successful so-what leaves readers satisfied that the time they invested in the reading was well-spent.  After investing a few hours (or a lot of hours) into reading a story, I need to feel that the characters I’ve bonded with have changed somehow, and that their journey has left their slice of the world somehow changed.  Brilliantly-painted word pictures and navel-gazing angst all have their places, but the absence of a good so-what leaves me, as a reader, a little angry at the author.  Would it have killed the writer to include an identifiable story along with the beautiful words?

Every year at ThrillerFest in New York City, International Thriller Writers Association sponsors an event called Pitch Fest, where attendees can carve out face time with NY literary agents to pitch their book ideas.  Last year, I agreed to participate in Practice Pitch Fest, in which I would sit where an agent would later sit and help writers hone their pitches.  It was a real eye-opener for me, not least because, never having had to pitch, I don’t know that I could do it.

After sitting across from fifteen, maybe eighteen authors, the most common weakness among the pitches I heard was the lack of a solid so-what.  Consider:

My book is based on my mother’s brave effort to conquer cancer. The so-what questions here are, how was your mother’s fight more brave or essentially different than every other mother’s fight to conquer cancer?  Why are you and you alone the right person to write this book?  What will the reader take away that is different from other books about parents’ brave struggles with illness?  Actually, this is the problem with most memoirs.

An emotionally scarred New Orleans detective stalks a serial killer who preys on tourists in the Big Easy.  Emotionally scarred detectives have been done to death.  The New Orleans beat is covered by countless gumshoes already, and serial killers are ubiquitous in crime fiction.  The so-what in a story like this could be the evolution of the detective over the course of the book from good to bad, or bad to good.  Or that the serial killer is of a nature that we’ve never seen before.  But without the so-what, the idea is just another serial killer book.  Been there.  Ho-hum.

Sometimes, the so-what has little to do with plot and everything to do with character.  For some mysteries—but no thrillers I can think of—the so-what is as simple as letting readers spend a fun few hours with characters they have come to love over the years.  But that’s a tough hill to climb for Book One.

So, does this make sense or am I all wet here?  Can you think of a book you disliked yet you thought you were going to love?  No need to name names, but when a book leaves you flat, what is the most likely missing element?

Fair warning: When this post appears, I will be in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, researching what new toys Jonathan Grave needs to add to his arsenal.  I will accordingly be slow to respond to comments.


Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!

by John Gilstrap

With all that holiday frivolity behind us, I’m going to continue my quest to help writers understand some of the technical aspects of weaponry so that their action scenes can be more realistic.  Today, we’re going to talk about some practical applications for high explosives.  It’s been a while since we last got into the weeds of things that go boom, so if you want a quick refresher, feel free to click here.  We’ll wait for you.

Welcome back.

When I was a kid, the whole point of playing with cherry bombs and lady fingers and M80s was to make a big bang.  Or, maybe to launch a galvanized bucket into the air.  (By the way, if you’re ever tempted to light a cherry bomb and flush it down the toilet, be sure you’re at a friend’s house, not your own.  Just sayin’.  And you’re welcome.)  As I got older and more sophisticated in my knowledge of such things, I realized that while making craters for craters’ sake was deeply satisfying, the real-life application of explosives is more nuanced.

Since TKZ is about writing thrillers and suspense fiction, I’m going to limit what follows to explosives used as weapons–to kill people and break things.  Of course, there are many more constructive uses for highly energetic materials, and while the principles are universal, the applications are very different.

Hand grenades are simple, lethal and un-artful bits of destructive weaponry.  Containing only 6-7 ounces of explosive (usually Composition B, or “Comp B”), they are designed to wreak havoc in relatively small spaces.  The M67 grenade that is commonly used by US forces has a fatality radius of 5 meters and an injury radius of 15 meters. Within those ranges, the primary mechanisms of injury are pressure and fragmentation.

For the most part, all hand grenades work on the same principles. By pulling the safety pin and releasing the striker lever (the “spoon”), the operator releases a striker–think of it as a firing pin–that strikes a percussion cap which ignites a pyrotechnic fuse that will burn for four or five seconds before it initiates the detonator and the grenade goes bang.  It’s important to note that once that spoon flies, there’s no going back.

Claymore mines operate on the same tactical principle as a shotgun, in the sense that it is designed to send a massive jet of pellets downrange, to devastating effect.  Invented by a guy named Norman MacLeod, the mine is named after a Scottish sword used in Medieval times. Unlike the hand grenade, which sends its fragments out in all directions, the Claymore is directional by design.  (I’ve always been amused by the embossed letters on the front of every Claymore mine, which read, “front toward enemy.”  As Peter Venkman famously said while hunting ghosts, “Important safety tip. Thanks,Egon.”)

The guts of a Claymore consist of a 1.5-pound slab of C-4 explosive and about 700 3.2 millimeter steel balls. When the mine is detonated by remote control, those steel balls launch downrange at over 3,900 feet per second in a 60-degree pattern that is six and a half feet tall and 55 yards wide at a spot that is 50 meters down range.

The fatality range of a Claymore mine is 50 meters, and the injury range is 100 meters.  (Note that because of the directional nature of the Claymore, we’re noting ranges, whereas with the omnidirectional hand grenade, we noted radii.)

Both the hand grenade and the Claymore mine are considered to be anti-personnel weapons.  While they’ll certainly leave an ugly dent in a car and would punch through the walls of standard construction, they would do little more than scratch the paint on an armored vehicle like a tank. To kill a tank, we need to pierce that heavy armor, and to do that, we put the laws of physics to work for us.

Shaped charges are designed to direct a detonation wave in a way that focuses tremendous energy on a single spot, thus piercing even heavy armor.  The principle is simple and enormously effective.

The illustration on the left shows a cutaway view of a classic shaped charge munition. You’re looking at a cross-section of a hollow cone of explosives. Imagine that you’re looking into an empty martini glass where the inside of the glass is made of cast explosive that is then covered with a thin layer of metal.  The explosive is essentially sandwiched between external and internal conical walls.  The open end of the cone is the front of the munition.

The initiator/detonator is seated at the pointy end of the cone (the rear of the munition), and when it goes off, a lot happens in the next few microseconds.  As the charge detonates, the blast waves that are directed toward the center of the cone combine and multiply while reducing that center liner into a molten jet that is propelled by enormous energy.  When that jet impacts a tank’s armor, its energy transforms the armor to molten steel which is then propelled into the confines of the vehicle, which becomes a very unpleasant place to be. The photo of the big disk with the hole in the middle bears the classic look of a hit by a shaped charge.

Now you understand why rocket-propelled grenades like the one in the picture have such a distinctive shape. The nose cone is there for stability in flight, and it also houses the triggering mechanisms.

The picture on the right is a single frame from a demonstration video in which somebody shot a travel trailer with an RPG.  The arrow shows the direction of the munition’s flight. There was no armor to pierce so the videographer was able to capture the raw power of that supersonic jet of energy from the shaped charge.


My Day With John Wayne and Perry Como

By John Gilstrap

For those of you who came here today to learn a little more about blowing stuff up–which I promised to discuss–you’re likely to be a little disappointed.  Fact is, there’s breaking news that takes precedence.  On December 19, at 3:00 pm (and probably again, later) getTV will rebroadcast Perry Como’s Early American Christmas, which first aired on December 12, 1978.  It features the College of William and Mary Choir, of which I was a part.  Here’s a screen shot of my 21-year-old self in the company of my dear friend, Jim Shaffran (who is now part of the permanent company of the Washington National Opera).


That was taken while shooting a tavern scene, the entirety of which can be seen here.  It’s worth noting that shooting started somewhere around 5:00 a.m., encompassed many takes, and that the tankards all contained real beer.  More on that later.

We had known from the beginning of the school year that the Perry Como Christmas Special would be shot in Williamsburg, and that the choir would be involved.  We also knew that the Men of the Choir (as we called ourselves) would have a featured part, but as I recall, we didn’t know until very late in the game that it would be a costumed performance.  That meant visits to the Colonial Williamsburg costume shop, fittings, and, well, responsibility.  By the time I was a senior, I had designed my entire existence around as little responsibility as possible.  But I stepped up and, I have to say, rocked the outfit.

Was I concerned that the shooting schedule fell squarely in the middle of midterm exams?  Well, maybe.  But I was going to get to meet John Wayne.  No, really.  John Friggin Wayne.  I could repeat my senior year if I had to, but, come on . . . John Wayne!

First a little bit about Mr. Wayne.  For me, being a male of a certain age, the Duke exhibited pretty much everything that defined being a man’s man.  In person, he was huge.  When he shook my hand, he engulfed pretty much the whole thing, up to the wrist.  He spoke in real life in that same halting syntax that you hear in the movies.  And he was cranky.  (We didn’t know it at the time, but this Christmas special would be one of his last performances before passing away.)

If you’ve ever done any kind of video, you know how long and boring the setup for any shot can be.  While the crews did their thing, Perry worked the crowd.  We were at least one–maybe two–flagons of ale into the morning before the director said, “action” for the first time.  If you listen carefully to Perry, I think you’ll hear that he was a bit lolly-tongued when it came time for “I Saw Three Ships.”  And he kept blowing takes.  Full disclosure: As a practical matter, it was impossible for us to blow takes because the singing you hear was all prerecorded.  It’s all our voices, but done in a studio.  In the video, we’re singing along with the playback.

As the morning–and the takes–ground on, John Wayne’s fuse grew shorter and shorter.

And the flagons flowed.  I was pretty much an Olympic class beer drinker when I was 21, and I remember realizing that I was ripshit well before noon.  Not shown in the video clip is the climax of the tavern scene where Perry and the Duke toast us with, “Merry Christmas!” and we respond in kind, upending the mugs of beer and their contents.  And then a new mug would appear.  And of course, the scene had to be shot from every angle.

By the time it ended, the Duke was, well, pissed off.  Made things a little awkward on the set, but Perry seemed to be having the time of his life.

I had a blast that day.  At the end of the shooting, around 1:30, as I recall, the director said they needed extras for other scenes they’d be shooting that day and night and asked if any of us would like to stick around.  What the hell?  No one looks at senior year grades anyway.  If you watch the entire special and look closely, you’ll see me walking in and around a number of other scenes.  You’ll also see a couple of stunning performances by the entire choir.

For as long as I can remember, my mother had a serious crush on Perry Como, the the news of my involvement in the Christmas special was particularly well-received in Springfield, Virginia.  To hear her tell the story, the show was really about Perry and me.  Moms are like that.  In one especially amusing anecdote, I called home to relay the events of the shooting day.  While telling the story of the endless flagons of ale and Perry’s progressing inebriation, I mentioned in passing that during one of the breaks, Perry and I chatted while peeing at adjacent urinals.  My mother’s question: “Did you peek?”  Me: “Mom!”

When the very long day was over, and crews were breaking things down, I found myself face-to-face with John Wayne with no others pulling at his attention.  I told him that I was a huge fan of his work, and what an honor it was to have spent the day with him, and if I could please have an autograph.  He said, and I quote, “No.”  Then he walked away.  I figure he wasn’t feeling well.

But I got to meet him.  And I shook his hand.

We folks at The Killzone will be taking our Holiday Hiatus before my next posting time comes around, so let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful time with family and friends, good food and lots of laughter.  I’ll see you on the flip, in 2017, and I promise we’ll start by blowing stuff up again.



Things That Go Boom (Not Bang)

Let’s talk a bit about explosives, shall we?  After such a warm reception to back-to-back posts on guns and bullets, it seems like a natural progression.  This post is going to address some of the technical concepts behind what explosions are, and why they do so much damage.  Two weeks from today, I’ll go into more detail on the proper applications of explosives.

Understanding the essentials of overpressure.  All day every day, each of us carries on our shoulders (and the rest of our bodies) the weight of our atmosphere.  All of that nitrogen and oxygen and water vapor has mass, after all, and it exerts a pressure at sea level of 14.5 pounds per square inch (psi) of surface area.  Take that number literally.  Every area of 10 square inches of surface area is carrying a pressure (think weight) of 145 pounds; every 1,000 inches of surface area is bearing the burden of 1,450 pounds.  Like that.  Scientists and engineers refer to the pressure of “one atmosphere” (14.5 psi) as 1 “bar”.  Twice that pressure would be called two bars, and so forth.  Any pressure that exceeds one bar is called “overpressure”.  The greater the magnitude, the greater the resulting damage.

One way we experience relatively harmless overpressure every day is sound.  When we speak or clap our hands, we send waves of pressure through the air that our ears register as sound.  The decibel scale, then, is actually a measure of overpressure, wherein every three-decibel increase represents a doubling of sound pressure.  When someone whispers, he crfeates an overpressure of about 13 decibels, which is measured in microbars (millionths of one bar).  As noise increases in intensity, the pressure increases geometrically.  We start seeing glass breakage at 163dB.  At 195 dB, we reach a one-bar overpressure the equivalent of an additional atmosphere of pressure.  Ear drums will almost certainly rupture at that level.  A Space Shuttle launch exerts about 215 dB at its surface.

My point here is that sound and pressure are the same thing.  It’s an important concept to keep in mind when we talk about explosions, because the practical definition of an explosion is the rapid expansion of gases that creates an audible boom.  A latex balloon goes pop when you stick a pin in it because the expanding flexible surface of the balloon has trapped gas under pressure.  As soon as the pressure vessel fails, the gas instantly reconverts to atmospheric pressure and the suddenness of it all creates a ripple of pressure that we register as an explosion.  If you stick a pin into a Mylar balloon, however, there’ll be no pop because there’s no expansion.

Still with me?  Okay, here we go.

A gunshot makes a loud boom because the combustion gases which propel the bullet down the barrel are under tremendous pressure until they get to the opening at the muzzle, at which point they instantly expand and reduce to atmospheric pressure, disturbing all the still air that was surrounding it.  A suppressor (“silencer”) works by dissipating those pressures through baffles in the barrel of the device to the point that they are nearly reduced to ambient pressure by the time they are released to the atmosphere.  Thus, no bang.

Why the Speed of Sound Matters.  The speed of sound (767 mph) is essentially the speed at which air molecules can move out of each other’s way.  When anything moves faster than 767 mph–whether it’s an airplane, a bullet or super-heated gases–air molecules stack up on the leading edge of the speeding mass because they can’t get out of the way and they create more pressure–sometimes a lot more pressure.  And as we discussed when talking about bullets, since nature abhors imbalance, as soon as the speeding mass passes by, it is followed by and equal yet opposite negative pressure (a “rarefaction” wave).  When this pressure fluctuation is caused by a speeding jet, the resulting explosion is called a sonic boom, and it is often powerful enough to shatter glass.  When it’s caused by munitions or certain other events, we call the resulting explosion a blast wave, and it is often powerful enough to reduce buildings and people to vapor–literally.

An explosion whose blast wave travels faster than the speed of sound is called a “detonation”.  If the blast wave travels at less than supersonic speed, it’s called a “deflagration”.  To put that in perspective, TNT detonates; napalm deflagrates.

The military and international community refer to detonable explosives as Class 1.1 explosives (“Class One, Division One), while the American civilian community refers to them as Class A explosives.  Deflagrable, or mass-fire, explosives are referred to as Class 1.3 (Class One, Division Three) or Class B explosives respectively.  Most fireworks are Class B.

Primary vs. Secondary Explosives.  Blowing stuff up requires trade-offs.  For example, you want it to go bang on time every time, yet you never want it to go off unexpectedly.  Given these constraints, how do you transport your boomers from here to there and not yourself become humidity in the process?

The solution is to make the main charge of deployable bombs relatively hard to set off.  For example, you can shoot a block of C-4 explosive with a bullet and it won’t explode, but you can cut off a chunk and use it to safely start a fire.  Similarly, if a bomber crashes on takeoff, the bombs it carries will not explode.  (Both of the above examples ignore the presence of gremlins, who so often prove us engineering types to be full of it.)  These main charges are called “secondary explosives” because in order to get them to explode you need to hit them with a “primary” detonation wave.  That’s what blasting caps, or detonators, or initiators, are all about.

Primary explosives are highly energetic, stupidly sensitive explosives that will go high-order (detonate) on impact or in response to a tickling charge of electricity.  The primer in the back end of a bullet is a primary explosive.  So is the active ingredient of a blasting cap.  When those babies go off, they send a supersonic wave of energy into the secondary explosive, thereby causing it to detonate.

We’ve all seen those old newsreels of a B17 squadron during World War Two dropping bombs out of their bellies, and then the flicker of explosions way down there on the ground.  What you don’t see is the progression of events that made those explosions possible.  On takeoff, none of the bombs is yet capable of exploding because the fuses have not yet been activated.  As they fall, however, a tiny propeller spins off the nose of the bomb and in the process arms the fuse.  When the fuse encounters the proper conditions–altitude, in the case of an air burst, or impact in the case of an impact or penetration explosion–the fuse triggers the primary charge which sends a blast of energy through the secondary charge and the bomb goes off.

Okay, that’s it for tonight.  By now, I figure you’re either bored to tears or totally jazzed.  Either way, I’ll be back with more explosive material in a couple of weeks.


Let’s Talk Bullets

By John Gilstrap

I know I promised last post that I would talk about dialogue this week, but I got distracted and had a hard time taming the post.  Next time.

This week, inspired by the classic John Miller piece posted a little while ago about guns and cordite and stuff, I thought I would continue the theme with a post about bullets and their behavior.  Let’s start by recognizing that virtually everything you’ve ever seen on television regarding bullet behavior and the damage they cause is wrong.  No matter how tough a tough guy is, if he’s been shot in the leg and his leg is broken, he cannot walk on it–except maybe if it’s a fibula (ask John Wilkes Booth about that).  Remember all those heroes of our youth who were “only” shot in the shoulder, and then were back in action by the epilogue with his arm in a sling?  Well, here’s what a shoulder joint looks like:


There’s no place for a bullet to go that would not shatter a bone or three.  Not to mention the complex arrangement of blood vessels in there that are just waiting to get torn up.  Torn blood vessels bleed.  If the bleeding can’t be stopped, the victim dies.  Blood loss is the primary cause of fatalities when bullets are involved.

The Myth That Caliber Equals Stopping Power

Here’s a selection of common pistol bullets:


From left to right, the bullets are .410; .38 Police Special; .45 ACP; .40 ACP; 9mm Luger; .380 ACP; .25 ACP; .22 Long Rifle.  The ACP suffix stands for “automatic Colt pistol” because that was the first firearm to use that shell casing design.  The decimals refer to the diameter of the bullet at its widest point (and remember, the bullet is the nosecone atop the shell casing), measured in inches.  A .45, then, is 45/100 of an inch at its widest point.  You’ll also see bullets measured in millimeters.  Thank NATO for that.

And here is an assortment of rifle bullets:


From left to right: .300 WinMag (Winchester Magnum–a sniper round); 7.62mm; 5.56mm (used in M16s, AR15s; M4s); 4.6mm (used mainly by Special Forces and specialized units); .22 Long Rifle.  Without getting too deeply into gun porn, it’s important to note that two of these NATO rounds–noted by the metric measurement–have caliber equivalents: 7.62mm=.308 caliber; 5.56mm=.223 caliber.

Note, then, that both of these bullets are .22 caliber:


So, there’s more to bullet energy than caliber.  The amount of propellant and the weight of the bullet, usually measured in grains, have a lot to do with the lethality of a bullet.  The rest of the lethality equation has everything to do with shot placement.  A small bullet, properly inflicted, will do more harm than a poorly aimed big bullet.  Ronald Reagan and George Wallace were both critically wounded by that little bitty .22 long rifle round, and Bobby Kennedy was killed with one.

Kinetic Energy

Most modern bullets travel at supersonic speeds.  Since the speed of sound represents the speed at which air molecules can get out of each other’s way a bullet in flight creates a pressure wave at its nose, and because Mother Nature abhors imbalance, that positive pressure at the nose creates a negative pressure at the tail.  When a bullet hits a person, the pressures surrounding the projectile do an enormous amount of damage to surrounding tissues.

Here’s a slow motion video of a 9mm pistol bullet impacting ballistic gelatin, which is designed to simulate the consistency of human flesh:

See how that wound channel opens and snaps shut?  Imagine that all of that energy was being absorbed/inflicted on a liver.  Getting the bullet out is far from the most pressing emergency in many bullet wound cases.

Here’s a similar video showing the damage inflicted by a .308/7.62mm rifle bullet:

So, yeah.  A bigger, heavier bullet traveling at a much greater speed causes a heck of a lot more damage.  The reason you’re able to see such pronounced spiraling in that video is because the bullet is a hollow point, which is designed to open up on impact.  This is what a hollow point bullet looks like before it’s fired:


The common alternative to a hollow point is a full metal jacket, which looks like this:


While the hollow point undoubtedly inflicts more damage upon the person it hits, the true purpose of the bullet’s design is to prevent over-penetration, where a bullet intended for a bad guy would not travel through-and-through to hit the good guy standing behind him.

We talk about research quite a lot here at TKZ, and I recommend that  anyone who writes about this stuff in their stories take some time to visit your local gun store or go to a gun show.  You’ll find lots of very nice folks who love to talk about all things firearms related.  Many gun stores will let you rent a gun and fire it on their range.  If you’re not comfortable handling them, no problem.  They’ll be happy to help you out.

Just remember rules:

  1. Assume that every gun is loaded, even when you’re certain it is not;
  2. Never point the muzzle at anything you’re not wiling to destroy; and
  3. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re sure you’ve acquired your target.



Taming POV: Think Camera Placement

By John Gilstrap

Taming point of view is a critical step toward taming a story.

A couple of times a year, I teach daylong seminars on writing suspense fiction.  In one of my favorite writing exercises, I prompt students to picture the image of a 14-year-old boy stepping out the back door of a bar at 11:00 pm and lighting a cigarette.  Then we spitball ideas as to the kid’s motivation for being there and doing that.  It turns out that there are any number of reasons why a kid would be lighting a cigarette behind a bar, not the least of which is that he needs a cigarette.  Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, right?

To develop the exercise even further, though, for illustrative purposes, I tell students to assume that the kid is signaling another person.  It could be that the coast is clear, or that he has the ransom or that the bartender is dead.  Or something else.  Just for grins and giggles, let’s say that he’s signaling that he’s successfully robbed the place, and that the accomplice can move on to the next step.

That scene could be described from any number of points of view:

  1. The kid’s POV;
  2. The POV of the guy who’s awaiting the signal;
  3. The POV of a passerby; or
  4. A combination of all of the above.

[Note to JSB: Those semicolons are for you, my friend, because I know how much you love them. :-)]

Once the point of view has been selected, everything else in the scene should flow through the POV character’s worldview.  Remember, we’re showing, not telling.

From the kid’s point of view, does the smoke burn his throat and chest and make him cough, or does it calm him?  Each of those choices develops the character differently.  Are his hands shaking or are they steady?  Is he frightened, excited, happy or sad?  What does he see through the darkness?  What does he hear?

From the accomplice/bad guy’s point of view, does he think of the kid in admiring terms or in deprecating ones?  There’s a world of difference between,

That’s it, he thought. Tommy came through.  Maybe this nightmare was about to end, and

It’s about time, he thought.  The kid took his sweet damn time, but he finally grew enough smarts to do what was good for him.

What would a passerby think of this scene?  Appalled, maybe, that a kid was at a bar to begin with, not to mention being out this late and smoking a cigarette.  Suppose the passerby is his teacher.  Is she disgusted to see him, or is she terrified that he might see her?

The students in my class make their own choices on motivation and POV and then I give them five minutes to write a scene.  I am always amazed by how many words they can commit to paper in so short a time.  Those who are willing to share what they’ve written are given an opportunity to read aloud.  In one particularly memorable example, one of the students—a woman of a certain age—assumed the point of view of the kid’s teacher, and the essay went into detail of just how much she wanted him naked in bed with her.  And it was well written.  When she was done, it was as if she’d drawn a vacuum on the room.  Silence.  Yes, her piece made everyone squirm, but I give her credit for originality.

Think camera placement.

In my thriller series, Jonathan Grave is a badass weapons expert and saver of lives.  Because he is the star of most of the scenes in which he appears, sentences like these work just fine:

Of the five bad guys who swarmed through the gate, three carried AR15 clones.  That was plenty enough firepower to ruin his day, but Jonathan was far more concerned by the two goons on the flanks who toted M14s.  When the balloon went up, they needed to die first.

The gun porn is important to a lot of my readers, but it will be glossed over by others.  Either way, every reader will understand that Jonathan is keenly aware of his surroundings.  At the very least, readers will understand that two guys’ rifles are more powerful than the other three.

Now let’s take that same action and write it from the point of view of a ten-year-old hostage who’s watching from a window.

Billy knew that he was supposed to be hiding, but he couldn’t help himself.  Leaning in from the side, and pushing the drapes away just a little, he could see the expanse of the yard while exposing only one eye.  His heartrate tripled.  There were five of them.  They all carried rifles—long, black, ugly things—and they all looked angry.

Billy’s POV has nothing to do with weaponry or tactics, and everything to do with his emotions.  In either point of view, the reader would still know that there were five bad guys and that they were all well-armed.

The same scene written from the POV of the approaching bad guys might go something like this:

Parker would have sold his soul for a little cover.  He tried to keep his team separated and therefore make a more complicated target, but there’s something about human nature that makes people want to stay close when they’re scared.  And if these boys weren’t scared now, then they just didn’t understand the peril they were in.  For the fifth time in the last minute, Parker ran his right thumb along his M4’s selector switch to make sure that it was still set to full-auto.

 Either of these approaches would advance the story toward the same point, but by choosing the appropriate point of view, you choose which character will be more developed in the reader’s mind.  Jonathan can’t know how frightened Billy is, nor can he know about Parker’s frustration with his team.  Billy would be too scared to worry about anyone other than himself.  For maximum impact in a scene like this, I would likely break the action into parts and tell the story from all points of view, with a physical space break between POV changes.

The approach that never works is one that goes something like this: Parker’s team worried that they were wandering into a trap . . .  Teams don’t think in unison.  Individuals within the team think unique thoughts which may or may not be similar to others’ but there’d be no way for them to know without talking about it.  That’s where dialogue comes in.

And I’ll talk about that in a couple of weeks.