5 Ways Movies Get Gunfights Wrong (Based on Experience)
Everybody knows action movies are fake, but that doesn't change the fact that they're responsible for approximately 100 percent of our education on the subject of guns and combat. That's why the average person's knowledge of those things is hilariously, sometimes fatally, wrong.
To sort out fact from fiction, we interviewed two decorated combat veterans who also have experience working in Hollywood. Matt Wagner is a former Army Ranger who saw combat all over the world, including Africa, South America, and Afghanistan, then was a technical consultant for a number of Hollywood productions, including Stargate SG-1 and The Colt. "Jerry" was a private military and security contractor who worked throughout Central and South America and spent time as a stuntman and fight choreographer. They told us ...
Automatic Weapons Are Useful, but a Huge Pain in the Ass
Movie machine guns turn anyone into a one-man army -- stick one in the hands of a protagonist and multiple platoons of trained soldiers will get mowed down like weeds:
Holding a real M60 at the hip is a great way to pulverize your kidney stones.
In reality, if you do that for more than a couple of minutes, your gun explodes.
One of our experienced combat veterans, Jerry, said it's called a "runaway gun." Every time a gun -- any gun -- fires, the barrel heats up a little bit. After all, the bullet is being propelled by a tiny explosion, and it's creating metal-on-metal friction all the way down the barrel. If you pass a lot of bullets through that barrel in a row without giving it a chance to cool down, the whole gun gets literally red hot.
Hot enough, in fact, that it will eventually start spontaneously igniting (or "cooking off") the bullets without waiting for you to pull the trigger. Congratulations, you now are holding a possessed machine gun that is randomly spraying bullets on its own, which is enough to make even the most grizzled member of the Expendables cast shit his pants:
Now imagine the above happening when you're, say, running, or have just climbed into a vehicle, or any other situation where you totally don't want to be shooting a gun at that particular moment (life is actually full of such situations, if you think about it). And that's the best-case scenario -- when ammunition cooks off, things can get uncomfortably explodey for the man behind the gun:
Yeah, notice how that happens right when your face is pressed up against it. (Wait, is this why the aforementioned Expendables guys all look like they've had so much plastic surgery? From the face burns?) That's why, in real life, these fragile, temperamental weapons have to be used in careful coordination -- not only is a guy with a machine gun not a one-man army, he's literally not allowed to be -- the Marine Corps manual, as one of its first rules of machine gun deployment, states: "No machine gun should be placed in isolation." There are many reasons for this, but the unspoken second half of that sentence could well be: "unless you want to catch your own face on fire."
As Matt, our former Army Ranger, says, "There's a science to using machine guns. Let's say you've got three big guns in a weapon squad. They aren't just picking targets and shooting -- and they sure as hell aren't firing at random. They fire as part of a unit. Gun 1 fires a short burst, then Gun 2 fires, then Gun 3 fires, and then back to Gun 1. This is called talking."
"Hey, why don't you guys come out, so you can hear us a little bit clearer."
Yeah, that's how much work goes into just making sure nobody's gun melts. Matt says that if, say, you have a squad raiding a building full of bad guys, at the start all of the machine guns will go full-auto just long enough to make everyone on the other end duck. That's right -- the primary use of the weapons at that stage is taking advantage of the fact that they're scary. Then they "talk" their way through the firefight in short bursts while the rest of the men advance and do their thing. Then, if things go sour and everybody has to retreat, that's when everyone goes full-auto again to cover -- it's just a spray of bullets intended to act like a ninja's smoke bomb.
Everyone Is Completely Deaf During a Firefight
We've mentioned before that if you've never been right next to a fired gun, you'd be shocked at how loud they are. Like, "loud enough that you can't hear anything for a bit after it goes off." Even the way movie theaters crank up the surround sound during action scenes, that doesn't in any way convey how loud real gunfire is -- if it did, it would permanently damage the hearing of everyone in the theater. Gunshots are louder than jackhammers -- a 12-gauge shotgun going off in the same room is louder than standing on the tarmac near a jet engine. This is actually a key factor in any firefight, and one that pretty much no movie acknowledges.
That should be the first clue that the Matrix is a simulation.
"It drives me crazy in movies when people are in a metal hallway, ripping out rounds while talking. Like all they have to do is let go of the trigger long enough to have a casual conversation," Jerry says. "That's just fucking bullshit. Guns are loud. Grenades are loud. Artillery is fucking ridiculous. In the old days we didn't always have ear protection, so we adopted a cop technique; if you don't have plugs, pistol rounds fit in your ears pretty well."
Oh, and you know how in movies, when special forces are sneaking into a place, they have those cool hand signals they give each other, to coordinate their actions?
"'Watch TV. See nothing.' Got it."
Movies tend to portray those hand signals as the key to a stealthy night operation, but hand signals generally aren't visible at night. However, hand signals are great when your ears get ruined by tinnitus:
"Yeah, those cool hand signals you see in movies? They aren't to make us stealthier during assaults or whatever -- they're because combat deafens people," Jerry says.
In case your buddy can't hear you yell "fuck," there's a hand signal for that too.
"And God help you when the guy next to you starts firing," Matt says. "Most flash suppressors -- the way they work is by directing gas, pressure, and noise out to the side -- so if the dude next to you shoots, you are deaf. Eventually even screaming loses out to hand gestures."
This is why hearing loss and tinnitus are the single most common injury for returning veterans. In reality, John McClane would have been completely deaf by the third Die Hard movie. Which ... actually, could have made the last two much better.
There Are Weird Breaks in the Action
A Hollywood action scene is carefully edited with pacing in mind -- you get escalating action, the stakes rising with each fired shot, things getting more and more frenetic until finally something explodes into a huge orange fireball. In a real firefight, there are these strange pauses in the action that can be tense, or boring, or hilarious.
For instance, sometimes you're like Matt, stuck in a truck and waiting for your boss to tell you it's OK to light up the guys shooting your windshield:
"I was on patrol outside of a village. The good news is they hated the Taliban. The bad news is they hated us, too. A vehicle had been hit by four RPGs, and we were the closest unit to respond. I was up on a heavily armored route clearance vehicle, and our job was to get between the damaged truck and any potential bad guys. Then I hear the sound of a bullet flying overhead. They sound so different when they're coming towards you. It's a kind of angry-bees sound.
Which marks one of the rare times that an "angry bee swarm" would have been the good option.
"I crouch down, grab my mic and say, '2-7, this is Ranger. I'm taking fire, over.' And the first thing 2-7, the convoy leader, asks me is, 'Are you sure?' 'Hear that?' I ask him, 'that's not rain hitting my windows, dude.' I wanted to fire back -- I really wanted to fire back -- but we didn't know exactly where the front line was, so I couldn't without risking hitting friendlies. So, there was a lull as we sat there for several minutes doing nothing but taking fire. Fire so accurate it was hitting our windows, trying to find a way in to me or my driver."
So they just waited there, playing I Spy and Count the Bullet Pings.
And when's the last time a movie has shown the hero stopping right in the middle of a gun battle to take a piss? Those bodily functions don't just shut off because you happen to be holding an assault rifle.
Jerry says: "The worst for me was sitting in a stairwell in a two-story adobe plaster house in Mexico. There was no way to get in from the outside, and the bad guys were on the top floor, so if you weren't one of the first two guys in line, there was nothing to do. And while you're waiting, things relax a bit. You make jokes. You look at the scenery. You realize you've had to piss for the last two hours and that you can't hold it any longer."
And sometimes, you suddenly realize that you didn't hold it in any longer
Or, according to Jerry, everybody just stops fighting to have lunch:
"One time, there was a standoff while we were assaulting a compound, and I realized I hadn't eaten since dinner the night before; so out came an MRE. At first everyone was looking at me like I was an idiot, but -- one by one -- they slowly realized the same thing, so we all had lunch while the line traded periodic pot-shots with a drug cartel."
"No, thanks; I'm good with beef teriyaki."
And, on occasion, everyone just takes a moment to appreciate the utter insanity of it all:
"We were in a fight," Matt says, "and it's fairly close; no more than 50 to 75 meters between all of us. And while the rounds are flying, a donkey -- I kid you not -- a fucking donkey runs into the middle of the firefight and takes a RPG [i.e., gets exploded by a rocket]. And everybody stops. Everybody -- us and the Taliban. Everyone went, 'Huh?' and looked at each other, then back at the donkey, and then started shooting again. But there was a good three seconds where everything stopped."
You Form Emotional Attachments to Tools
When Jayne from Firefly gave his rifle a name, we chuckled at the silliness and took it as one more sign that he was the token "crazy gun nut" character. But in real life, when you rely on the same tools, every day, as a matter of life and death, they start to develop personalities. And you fall in love a little bit.
No, not like that.
"The EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] robot operators would get very attached to their bots," Matt says. "It didn't help that seemingly every one of those machines was named Johnny Five. The ones with weird problems tended to get the most attention, and I think those are the ones people attributed with the most 'personality.'"
Some operators go so far as to hold funerals for their destroyed robots. Both Jerry and Matt had tender feelings for some of their weapons:
"They were tools, disposable if they had to be. But all of mine were girls; we had deep conversations while I was cleaning them," Jerry says. "One of my very special weapons was a Colt 1911 that was my primary secondary. And in one fight she jammed on me. And the only way to unjam her was to rack her by punching her slide against the wall really, really hard. But brains being what they are, I actually took the time -- while people were shooting at me -- to say, 'Sorry, girl.' I don't know why."
The really disturbing part was when she forgave him.
"My first weapon was a CAR-15," Matt says. "It had been burned on a jump, so I'd had to have a dish welded to the side, and the barrel looked damn near smooth because it had been shot out. But I loved it because it was my gun and I could hit what I needed with it. I haven't had a relationship with a weapon like that one since then."
Hollywood Gun Myths Get People Killed
Going all the way back to the first gunfights on film, shooting a bad guy meant he fell to the dirt like a rag doll, out like a light. Which meant that all you ever had to do to win a gunfight in Hollywood was to be fastest on the draw -- and even if the falling bad guy lives long enough to get a round off, it's going to fly harmlessly into the air, giving you just enough time to think of the perfect quip to murmur as soon as he hits the ground. In reality, you have no freaking idea what will happen after a person gets hit with a bullet. And we mean that literally no one has any idea -- it's impossible to predict.
"I did not see that coming."
"There's a scene in Young Guns," Jerry says, "where a guy files down his front site so he gets an 'eighth of a second drop' on the bad guy. An eighth of a second? Are you fucking kidding me? Maybe, if you pull off a perfect shot right to the apricot [the medulla oblongata, a part of the brain] that might -- might -- matter. But in real life, getting shot is almost never immediately fatal. I've seen people do all kinds of stuff after they get shot, including stay in the fight for hours."
Another thing you see in movie firefights is that dramatic moment where the hero shoots until he hears a dry "click" of the trigger, then has to dive behind cover to reload. In reality, that's the equivalent of driving your car until the tank is completely empty, knowing it will leave you stranded in bear country. "Any time you get a chance, you top-off," Matt says. "And if the mag still has rounds in it, you dump it into your drop bag, a loose-carry pouch, so you can keep those bullets for later. Running your gun empty is a sign you've done something really wrong."
To learn that, watch less movies and play more video games.
Cartel gunmen may be the foot soldiers of an unspeakably evil crime syndicate, they were kids once and they watched exactly as much Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone as you did. This has gotten some of them killed, according to Jerry. "Working in South America, so many of the bad guys would just stand there shooting until they're empty -- and then have no idea what to do. To be entirely honest, I saw the last frame in a bunch of people's reels be them just standing there, looking down at their own weapon in confusion and disbelief because the gun ran dry. Apparently the idea that they'd be fucked when the bullets ran out had never occurred to them."
And, while pretty much any solid object can stop a Hollywood bullet, the real ones tend to punch through anything short of a concrete wall or an engine block. The average person clearly doesn't realize this. According to Jerry: "We once had a guy pop up, shoot at us a bunch and then drop back down 'into cover.' We heard him laughing like he'd gotten away, but he was hiding behind a couch. A couch. You'd also see guys hide behind sheetrock walls, corrugated metal sheets, and car doors. But none of those things stop bullets."
Don't count on your late father's police badge saving you either.
"Yeah," Matt agrees, "you could definitely tell that a lot of the insurgents and terrorists throughout the world got most of their 'training' from movies, or from TV, or from fuckwits who had gotten their training from movies and TV."
So in a way, you could argue that all of Hollywood's gunfight bullshittery is a significant asset to our national defense. And, therefore, when Jerry and Matt transitioned from battlefields to movies and TV, they still played a role in fighting America's enemies, through sheer misinformation. Keep that bullshit flowing, Hollywood. America needs you.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways Growing Up in North Korea Is Crazier Than You Think and 5 Things I Learned Sneaking Over the U.S.-Mexico Border. Have a story to share with Cracked? Reach us here.