Saturday, June 22, 2013

What's that smell?

As writers we're asked to provide details that will immerse the reader in the experience we're trying to convey. And one detail we often try to include is the sense of smell.

How many times have we read a passage where the detective (or the next victim) discovers a freshly murdered body and remarks on the odor of a fired gun? How accurate is that?

Does a fired gun produce a smell? To answer that question I organized an outing with fellow mystery writers to a shooting range. After we had fired six rounds from a .357 magnum I asked everyone to take a deep whiff. The scent of newly burnt gun propellent was noticeable but faint. In fact, a lit cigarette would've been more apparent. Since there were plenty of other shooters busting caps alongside us you would've guessed the range should stink of fired ammo, but no.

Thinking back to my time in the army, when we fired hundreds of rounds in one sitting, what I remembered was the smell of gun lube when it smoked off a hot barrel and receiver. If you put your nose close to a fired gun, you would get the pungent odor of burnt propellent. You'd also get the same smell if you stuck your face in the muzzle of a cannon.

My conclusion. Unless the killer used an automatic weapon (or a cannon) in a confined space, I vote no, you wouldn't smell a fired gun. I think the odor of blood or loosened bowels would be stronger.

What does smell is gun oil. If a goon was to unholster a pistol and lay it on a table, you would notice the aroma.

As for gun smoke, modern gun propellents are considered smokeless though they actually make a small amount that quickly dissipates. If you write westerns or steampunk, the guns of that time period would've fired black powder, which produces a hell of a lot of stinky smoke. Think fireworks.

Lastly...cordite. If you say, "the smell of cordite," and don't get the historical details exactly right, then expect plenty of hate-mail from gun nuts and armchair generals. Cordite was a brand of early smokeless propellent and replaced black powder for a short time. But it was seldom used in the US and become obsolete around the First World War. So use cordite at your own risk but I admit that cordite sounds a lot cooler than gun propellent.

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