Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Common Mistakes in Military Writing.

You may be working on a TV or movie script or creating a video game. You may be writing a news report, sourcebook, article or novel. The chances are that sooner or later you will have to deal with weapon or military related topics. Using the wrong term can easily make your efforts worthless nonsense. Here are some common mistakes that can easily be avoided.


One of the most common and prevalent mistakes is also one of the easiest to avoid. There are few ways that will as easily destroy your credibility or that of your character as this mistake. A “clip” is not a “magazine”. Despite common misuse “clip” is not an alternative term for “magazine”, they are separate and distinct things.  A clip is a mechanical component that fits inside a magazine. To say they are the same is like claiming a rabbit is the same as a burrow or a sock the same as a foot! It is not “semantics”, it is just plain wrong! I have known at least one veteran soldier who would grind his teeth every time a journalist, screen writer or supposed “expert” gun writer made this mistake. Details that you may not appreciate may matter a lot to others. If you cannot get a basic detail like this right you might as well give up writing.

The quick rule of thumb is, if you want to use “clip” you should use “magazine”. For small arms clips are something of an anachronism and only found is some vintage weapons. Very few modern firearms require ammunition to be loaded into a clip. Rounds fit directly into the magazine. Futuristic weapons are very unlikely to use a clip. See here for more detailed explanations. If you take one thing away from this article, make it this and your writing will have improved considerably.


Shrapnel is a term that needs to be treated with some caution. Strictly speaking shrapnel comes from a shrapnel shell. Typically a shrapnel shell contains a mass of musket balls of around half an inch diameter. Unlike a shotgun shell or canister load a shrapnel shell explodes in mid-air to release its cargo. Shrapnel shells were adopted in 1803, copied by other nations and saw a decline in use during the First World War, the large infantry formations that were the intended target becoming uncommon. Some later designs such as the AHEAD anti-aircraft round could be legitimately described as shrapnel. The term is actually seldom used in modern military technology publications. See here for a space warfare application of shrapnel.

Most of the time someone uses the term “shrapnel” they actually mean splinters or fragments. It could be argued shrapnel has become a generic term for such things but its more definite meaning can cause problems. I recently read a book where the author spoke of “ground strewn with jagged shrapnel”, which is a ludicrous oxymoron to the educated reader. A very nice example of the problem was in the BBC Musketeers series where a character claims men have been wounded by shrapnel. Not only did she actually mean wooden splinters and stone fragments, but this constitutes an anachronism too.

It is tempting to use specialized jargon to create the impression that you are knowledgeable. Not doing your research and using it wrongly can create the opposite effect.

Shrapnel is a term best reserved for character dialogue only.


You will find assertions that the term “silencer” is wrong and that the correct term is “suppressor” or “moderator”. This is a modern affection and is actually wrong. Maxim’s first designs were called “silencers” so the term is legitimate. Many people who claim this is wrong call magazines “clips”, which tells you all you really need to know about them! Suppressor and moderator are more fashionable terms in modern usage so are the terms more likely to be used by characters familiar with firearms or military hardware. What term a character uses will depend on their familiarity with such devices and their era. A cop in the 1920s or a modern civilian non-shooter is likely to claim a suspect had a silencer.

Graticule vs Reticule.

This is an easy one to remember. A graticule has some form of graduations, a reticule does not.


In some older books “revolver” is used as a generic term for a pistol or handgun. Characters will draw a revolver which in a later passage is identified as a Luger! You will also see revolvers treated as being distinct from pistols. This confusion is the result of “automatic” being dropped from “automatic pistol”. Revolvers are actually a subset of pistols or handguns, so calling them pistols is permissible.

A revolver has a cylinder with a number of chambers in it. One round goes into each chamber. Typically there are six chambers. Small revolvers and large calibre designs may have fewer chambers. Small calibre revolvers or some more modern designs may have more. You can say that a revolver only has “two shots in its cylinder”. You cannot say it only has “two shots in its chamber”.

Revolvers have a gap between the barrel and the chamber. Therefore most revolvers cannot effectively use a suppressor/ silencer. There are exceptions to this but that stable of 70s cop shows, the detective special with a little Champaign cork-sized thing on the muzzle, is pure fantasy.

Trading Shots.

If two units are “trading shots” they are shooting at each other. I would have thought that did not have to be explained, but I recently read a book where several times artillery “trade salvos” and the shots are then described as being targeted against other units.

Incidentally, a weapon is not “the answer to…” another system unless it is a direct counter to it. The German Nebelwerfer was not the answer to the Soviet Stalin’s Organ, it was its equivalent.


Like many institutions and cultures the military have their own jargon, some of which are effectively shibboleth. You should familiarize yourself with some of these before writing on the subject. For traditional reasons the British rifleman will call his bayonet “a sword”, no matter how short the blade. A private of a rifle regiment will be a “rifleman”, not a “trooper” incidentally. A more common tradition is the US military practice of calling caps and hats “covers”.

A tradition to note is that US marines do not refer to themselves as “soldiers”. One marine will never call another a soldier. I have even seen a marine chewing out kindergarten children on this when the children had sent a letter “hoping that he and the other soldiers were safe”. Traditions and terminology matter.


In the English-speaking militaries an NCO is never addressed as “sir”. Civilians may be addressed as “sir”, officers are “sir” but corporals, sergeants and warrant officers are never “sir”.

You should not write on military matters unless you have some comprehension of rank and how it fits into a military structure. A major would not normally command a rifle squad, nor would he be commanding a division. There is a movie where a character is introduced as “a colonel in the SAS”. Generally regiments only have one colonel, and they are unlikely to be twenty-somethings who are sent to single-handedly deal with alien invasions.
I could fill a book with dumb and avoidable mistakes in modern media. Don’t assume you know things, do some research. Some of your assumptions will prove to be misconceptions, which may be uncomfortable and difficult to accept. Don’t claim an aircraft has a twelve cylinder engine when a couple of seconds’ research will tell the reader it had nine. Don’t fuel your T34 with gasoline. Don’t give a character a laser weapon and then have him notice the increased recoil. A shotgun is not a rifle. “RPG” does not actually stand for “rocket propelled grenade”. “Chain guns” do not have multiple spinning barrels. Decimate does not mean “nearly wipe out”. “Shaped-charge/ hollow-charge/ HEAT” does not melt through armour, it forces through.

Good writing is in the details. Not bothering to get the details right shows a contempt for your reader and your subject. Even if your writing is not sympathetic to the topic getting your details right can only help you convey your message.  
Just as important as getting your details right is to be consistent. I have read books where a firearm changes calibre four times in a short paragraph, sometimes within the same sentence! In a book I read recently a character is described as a “dashing colonel”. Later in the same scene he worries about offending a superior officer who is a major. On the next page he is engaged in conversation and is frequently addressed as “major”. In a later scene set a day or so later he is once again called a colonel. This is just sloppy and there is not really any defence for this.
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