Consultant for writers on crime, police, & court procedures.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Firearms terminology confuses many writers.  Sue Grafton, a superstar in the world of crime fiction, was blasted by many readers when she equipped her private eye Kinsey Millhone with a measly .32 caliber pistol when any self-respecting ex-cop would carry a .357, 9mm, .40 cal—anything but never a .32.

Confusing “revolver” and “pistol” is a classic mistake. Pistol usually refers to any handgun not a revolver, primarily large capacity, semi-automatic handguns.  Having a revolver eject spent shells onto the ground will prompt snorts of derision from educated readers.

The revolver vs. pistol issue was covered in an earlier blog post, so I’ll move on to some terms related to ammunition that could be used in your story:

Caliber – the dimension of the bullet. Sometimes measured in hundredths of an inch like .38 caliber, sometimes in millimeters (9mm).

Cartridge – complete unfired ammunition consisting of a cartridge case, powder charge, bullet and primer. This is what you load in your firearm. 
common pistol cartridges
Bullet – the projectile attached to the front of a cartridge.  This is what is fired from your firearm.
The bullet is the projectile that is fired at the target. The exterior is often a copper or      
brass jacket covering lead and other metals.

Bullet jacket – the copper or brass outer skin of a jacketed bullet. Sometimes portions of the jacket will fragment off when the bullet strikes an object.

Case - the portion of a cartridge containing the gunpowder. A pistol ejects the case when it is fired. For a revolver, you must physically remove the fired cases from the cylinder to reload. Cases are informally referred to as "hulls" or "brass."

Slug – while sometimes used to refer to a bullet, a slug is a lead projectile fired from a shotgun. Some shotgun shells contain numerous pellets. A slug shell contains only the large lead projectile.
comparison of 00 shotgun shell with slug

“00-buck” shell – shotgun shell referred to as “double ought buck” or “double ought buckshot.” The shotgun shell most commonly used by law enforcement. The shell contains nine .32 caliber lead pellets.

Wad or wadding – plastic, paper, or fiber disk that separates the powder from the shot in a shotgun shell. It is propelled out of the gun along with the pellets, sometimes into the target. The wad only travels a few yards, so drawing a line from the victim back to the wad and extending it will indicate the direction from which the shot was fired.

stippling around entry wound

Stippling – abrasions or ‘tattooing’ produced on the skin by gunpowder when the gun is fired from a short distance.  

GSR – a general term for gunshot (gunpowder) residue. A test for residue is abbreviated GSR.

Powder particles – sometimes visible, unburned gunpowder can be found on the clothing or body of a wounded person.

Magazine – a device for holding cartridges which is inserted into the grip of a pistol.  It is NOT a “clip.”
This is a magazine, not a 'clip.'

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Thousands of people go missing in the United States each year.  Some are voluntary disappearances, such as runaways.  Not just teenagers, but adults who want to flee their former lives.  A few are actual abductions. There's always been a myth that a person has to be missing for 24 hours before the police can act.  Not true.  It can be five minutes if the circumstances warrant it.

I've taken missing person reports from all manner of people--spouses, parents, neighbors, friends.  Generally, missing person cases investigated by the police fall into one of these categories:

1.  runaway teens and missing children
2.  people who may be victims of foul play
3.  those who have a condition that places them in danger--Alzheimer's, mental illness, medical condition, etc.

In these situations, the person can be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system as a missing person.  Should a police officer encounter the person and run a check, a missing person "hit" would come back with information to contact the investigating agency.

A case of a missing adult in which no foul play is suspected and no extenuating condition exists may not be a high priority for the police.  Disappearing to begin a new life is not a crime.

In the case of a missing person who was traveling, the report is filed at the jurisdiction the person is missing from, not the destination.  The agency receiving the report would probably contact the police at the destination for assistance.

For "missing" children, the circumstances are different in every case.  Police agencies have learned from botched investigations that you jump on missing children cases fast and with every resource available. The priority may be marshaling search and rescue personnel to initiate a search of the immediate area, broadcasting AMBER alerts, notifying the media, etc.  Supervisory personnel decide what resources shall be called, whether other agencies, the FBI, a CART team (see link) are notified. 
This link includes a checklist of what law enforcement does when a child is missing: