How Gun Smoke Can Shape a Scene

Gunsmoke Shooting Writing Tips

Handguns usually kick out more smoke per shot given there isn’t a long barrel to trap the smoke as it dissipates. This is especially true with cheap ammunition. Generally speaking, if your character can afford or has access to premium ammunition, there won’t be as much smoke because the powder burns cleaner. In that way, the amount of smoke might be an indicator of who the character is in a gunfight scene. Scrappy characters using cheap ammo would be surrounded by more smoke, and professional gunfighters would be clouded in less. (Photo by milan6 via

Crime writer James Pierson dropped a question into the comments on the What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant article, and I thought it’d be helpful to turn it into its own post. As always, I’m happy to help with any writerly questions on guns and knives. Just leave a comment or use the submission form.

Here’s James’s question:

In my scene there’s a big shootout indoors (a medium sized, poorly ventilated warehouse) with multiple shooters firing automatic weapons. How strong would the smell be and are the modern propellants completely smokeless?

And here’s my response:

“Smokeless” powders/propellants are sort of like “stainless” steel and rust in that they’re less smoky but not smoke-free. A lot depends on the quality of the ammunition and the firearm. Cheap ammo, like the kind I buy for target shooting, is smokier than the premium rounds a professional would use for gunfighting. Based on what you’ve described with your scene in the poorly ventilated warehouse, I’d say multiple gunshots would leave a haze similar to cigarette smoke.

As far as the smell, it’s sort of like trying to describe the taste of chocolate. Everyone is going to have a different take on it. I think modern propellants smell like sweet charcoal smoke with a hint of sulfur. In your warehouse scene, the smell would be strong and obvious to everyone in the room, but not so much that it would choke someone. Think burning toast strong, but not burning house, if that makes any sense.

While we’re on the topic, here’s how the FBI defines smokeless powder:

Smokeless powders are a class of propellants that were developed in the late 19th century to replace black powder. The term smokeless refers to the minimal residue left in the gun barrel following the use of smokeless powder.

Best wishes on your debut novel, James! Thanks for stopping by.

Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

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