On Writing Weapons: Is it Better to be Accurate or Cool?

How to Write Switchblades in Fiction

Like blue jeans, some weapons in fiction are standard fare for characters. Ubiquity doesn’t equal accuracy, though. How do you know where to draw the line? (Shutterstock photo)

“But ‘Switchblade’ Sounds Cooler”

I’ve beat the drum about “switchblades” and “assisted opening knives” nearly to death (see here, here and here for examples), so I wasn’t surprised to get a little pushback to my (alleged) dogma. If you don’t care to read up with those links, the nut of it is that any time you get the itch to write “switchblade” in a story set in modern times, replace it with “assisted opening knife” or “assisted opener.” One writer thanked me for the explanation, “but ‘switchblade’ sounds cooler,” so that would remain the preferred term.

This plays a little into my post about fingers on triggers in book cover artwork in that there might be a middle ground between accuracy and what “sounds cool” (or looks cool, in the case of the art). With knives, “switchblade” rolls off the tongue a lot easier than the clunky “assisted opening knife” or “assisted opener.” The same could be said for “Glock,” “silencer,” “assault weapon” and other technical sins explored in depth in my book, The Writer’s Guide to Weapons.

It’s tempting to default to whatever suits the reader’s expectations about switchblades, silencers, Glocks and assault weapons. The point is to keep the reader in the story, right?

If I agreed with that line of thinking, I’d have no book. I think you owe it to yourself and your readers to use correct terminology and depictions whenever possible. This has everything to do with the plot. When characters use guns and knives, it’s usually not to open a jar of pickles (unless you’re at my house). Something important is happening, and the rest of the story hinges on the what and how of those bullets and blades. Better weapons equals better plot equals happier readers, even if the latter don’t realize the research you pulled to get them there.

Accuracy vs. Bells and Whistles

This formula still works if you choose to embellish reality. Your unrealistic depictions will be better informed by an understanding of guns and knives in reality. You’ll know where to inject the needle full of steroids.

I can’t tell you where to draw that line, though. I can only give you the best information possible to help you make the decision that’s right for your characters and stories.

If You Don’t Like the Term, Make One Up

I will say this, though. I agree that “switchblade” sounds cooler than “assisted opening knife,” although I still prefer to use the latter term in a story. An alternative might be a nickname the character gives the knife (or other weapon that sounds cool but doesn’t represent reality). That gets around making a decision about verbiage, and adds some color to the character.

How to write knives in fiction

The ESEE 5 fixed blade survival knife, shown here in two versions, turned out to be a great choice for one of my characters. (ESEE photo)

Another option is to identify the brand name of the knife and call it that. I did this recently on a joint project with Vincent Zandri, where the protagonist carried an ESEE 5 survival knife (pictured above). I didn’t think “survival knife,” “fixed blade knife” or “knife” felt right given the character’s familiarity with blades. So I wrote it as “ESEE” instead, after an initial explanation of the knife to the reader.

Pop Culture is a Wobbly Crutch

Whatever you do, don’t rely on pop culture to inform your weapons (unless my book somehow counts as pop culture). A little research can open up new avenues to your characters and stories that you never thought of before. Your readers will thank you for it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pump the switchblade clip on my Glock assault revolver.


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:

9 thoughts on “On Writing Weapons: Is it Better to be Accurate or Cool?

  1. First of all, dear Ben, do not allow morons and imbeciles to spoil your day with their generous spreading of ignorant stupor. It may be persistent, but it is harshly ever appreciated.

    Then, those old 80’s switchblades, the Italian Classics, were once really good. Just that since then nearly 25 years have passed. There are many assisted opening knives which are better, faster, and even cheaper these days!

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  2. There is something very attractive about the word switchblade, but as you well know, not everyone who wants to write about their character using a switchblade fully understands what it is and how to use it. They just like the word, it conjures up all kinds of things. A writer who is concerned with giving their reader the power of accuracy is a writer that cares, not only about his or her research and story, but about readers. Now where can I git me one of them Glocks you mentioned 😉

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    • I think they sell those at Wal-Mart, but only if you ask the right person.

      And you’re right about how “switchblade” invokes imagery and a sense of dread without much effort. It’s a shortcut, but one that can backfire if it doesn’t make sense. The knife cuts both ways. (zing!)

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  3. Some of the stuff here on switchblades vs. assisted-opening knives makes is sound as if a writer can simply choose either descriptive term–not so! A writer can choose what kind of knife to arm the character with, but once that choice is made, stick to the proper terminology. Switchblades and assisted-opening knives are mechanically (and operationally) different. Switchblades are an older design, but their use (and that terminology) is not at all passé–particularly if the date of the events or the nature of the character makes the switchblade a good choice. If you can legally do so, buy one of each type of knife and learn how they work–then you’ll write with more confidence and accuracy about their use in the hands of your characters. You’ll be a better writer for doing so!

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