By Russel D McLean
Photographs by Jeroen Ten Berge (jeroentenberge.com). Any mistakes in terminology by Russel D McLean who is writing this post a little late at night.
As crime writers, we live a vicarious life. We fool people into thinking we know about the darkness in life. We create ersatz darkness and employ tricks to transport people into situations they may not otherwise know.
In short, we don’t have to live the life to write it.
In THE GOOD SON, a huge part of the climax of the novel relies on a gunfight in an old graveyard. The graveyard is real. At a recent event, someone told me that they had lived in Dundee all their life and never thought to visit this place until they read about in the book. This was a huge compliment to me and made up for the fact that, yes, I did make a few geographical errors here and there in the novel.
But while I knew the geography I was writing about, the truth was that I had never fired or held a gun before writing that scene. I did my research, of course. I made sure that the character handling the gun was as much of a novice as I, and I wrote from having read up on the gun types and the effects of firing them. I knew about the difference between shotguns and ordinary handguns. I had an idea of how much accuracy a shooter would have using the weapons involved.
But all the same… I had never fired a gun.
At Bouchercon, in 2011, all of that would change.
Zoe Sharp – one of the finest thriller writers you should be reading – arranged to take a group of us to a gun range. We were a mixed bunch. Some of us – the Brits, naturally – had zero experience of firearms. Some of us (ie, me) were terrified of the idea and yet determined to experience something outside of their comfort range (no one had told me there would be a simulated shooting range available at the Bouchercon hotel).
What was reassuring was looking at the website of the shooting range we visited. The extensive safety procedures were enough to calm me a little, but all the same, I knew that I would be holding a lump of metal that had the potential to kill someone. And that idea is more than a little unnerving and something one should never lose sight of.
When we arrived at the range, we split into small groups with an experienced shooter at the head of each. Our experienced shooter chose an appropriate gun. One lot had a Glock. Another had a Sig Sauer… and what did your beardy hero wind up with? A .357 magnum. Yes, that’s right, punk. Russel could have blown your head clean off.
Just the mention of the handgun was enough to terrify me. I knew the gun’s reputation, and it was to the be the first weapon I ever fired? Colour me frightened.
Which is the best way to be. The thing to remember is that you need to have a healthy respect
for your weapon. You have to always be aware of what it can do. It’s when you get blasé that things can go very very wrong.
When you go into a range there’s a whole range of forms to fill out. And then you have your safety goggles and your ear-protectors. Because, goddamn, those things are LOUD. Like, really loud. Even with the earphones on, a shot echoes round your head like nobody’s business. And you can feel it, too. The sound of a shot makes your muscles shiver. Maybe that’s a reflex reaction. A kind of fear thing, because you know what that noise represents. But it’s something you don’t forget in a hurry.
Loading the Magnum was an odd experience. As was raising it to point and fire. I remember thinking it was heavy. And I was afraid to let my finger near the trigger. Andy – my experienced shooter, and Zoe's husband – was standing just behind me. Coaxing me to fire. Urging me to keep my arms steady. To squeeze – not pull – the trigger. And I did that.
And nearly dropped the bastard gun.
It wasn’t the recoil – that was less than I expected, but may have been down to the kind of ammunition were using – but the sheer explosive noise that somehow seems more intense when you’re holding the weapon. But at the same time, there was a thrill that went through me. A feeling of power and of controlling that power (albeit not brilliantly) that was reflect in the fact a hole appeared in the target before me.
I put the gun down after one shot. Feel a little dizzy. But loving the feeling. It was an odd mix of exhilaration and healthy fear. I still was fully aware of what that gun could do, but I understood why people got off on firing them.
It was something I hadn’t understood before writing THE GOOD SON, but something that I would bear in mind from that moment on. And it was a sensation that became more palpable when Andy urged me to squeeze off the rest of the shots in the gun. And showed me how to reload.
I moved on to the other weapons. Almost ripped apart the connecting skin between thumb and forefinger when I first used the Glock (lucky for me Zoe noticed how I was holding the weapon and urged me to place hand further down the grip unless I wanted to be injured when the cartridge ejected). These other handguns – semi-autos – were a very different experience. In truth, I felt more comfortable using the Magnum. Something about that weight made it feel more like I was in control.
As time went on in the range, I began to get used to the idea of handling the weapons. I enjoyed the experience of squeezing off a few shots and trying to get them to cluster round the same area of the target.
Others in the group did not find the same, of course. Chris Ewan – author of the brilliant Thieves Guide To… series – has talked on his blog about how he was unnerved by the experience. And I understand why. That burst of adrenaline is a fight or flight thing and you don’t know how you’re going to react. But he got off a few good shots and threw himself into the experience as much as he could, even if he did draw the line when the H&K automatic rifle came out.
Now that was an experience and a half. A range-authorised instructor took us through even stricter safety instructions with that one and had to stand behind us when we used the weapon. While many of the others went to full automatic, I stayed on single shot after I had a great deal of trouble comfortably gripping the weapon (one of the pains of being ambidextrous). But I was proud of my grouping. I remained pretty tight for a guy who had never fired a shot before. But I was truly glad of the instructor’s presence behind me.
Would I go again?
Oh, yes. I remain fully committed to the ideals of strong gun controls. I really do. But I also understand the appeal of firing a weapon and the surge of adrenaline that goes through you when you do so. Its an amazing experience, even if you do realise the whole time precisely the kind of damage you could do with the device in your hands.
And I know that next time I write about guns, I can do so with an air of emotional authority I could never have got from merely reading around the subject. And I can finally claim to be “writing what I know” (at least a little).