Why Do Characters Flip Over or Fly Backward When They Are Shot?

The rider on the left was shot, but he's not being thrown off his horse from the impact of the bullet. The horse reared up and tossed him backward. (Shutterstock image)

The rider on the left was shot, but he’s not being thrown off his horse from the impact of the bullet. The horse reared up and tossed him backward. (Shutterstock image)

TLDR: Dramatic movements after being shot are caused by a secondary effect, such as an involuntary muscle reaction, not from the force of being hit by one or more projectiles.

If you’ve read my book, The Writer’s Guide to Weapons, (you have right?) you know that characters hit by gunfire wouldn’t fly backward several feet from the force of being shot. It’s simple physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the target flies back several feet after being shot, the shooter should, too.

For the sake of space in my book, I couldn’t take the next step in that discussion. When characters are shot, they can still make movements that make it appear as if they’re being manipulated by the force of the shot. Here’s why.

An Example

So we’re all on the same page, here’s an example of what I’m talking about from the movie, Shane. (Thanks to reader Ralph Schneider.)

The Trauma of Being Shot Can Spark Unnatural Movements

Guide to Concealed Carry HandgunsAs you might imagine, human beings’ bodies aren’t designed to take bullets and other projectiles. Getting shot causes all sorts of physiological malfunctions. Some of them include flipping, jumping, stumbling, running, twisting, turning or falling, in varying degrees of dramatic fashion.

In his book, Gun Digest Guide to Concealed Carry Handguns, Dick Jones explains this phenomenon perfectly. Here’s an excerpt, posted with permission from the publisher:

As a young man, I heard stories from World War II veterans about enemy soldiers being hit in the shoulder with a .45 slug and the impact flipping them into a distant foxhole.

While early TV shows depicted those who were shot simply freezing in place and dying, later TV shows and movies popularized the concept of bad guys being thrown over cars and across rooms. Neither scenario was realistic. People who are shot react differently, but violent movements come as a reaction from the person who’s received a gunshot, not from tremendous energy being released against their body.

The website TV Tropes expands on that:

It is possible for a disproportionate response to an impact to result from involuntary muscle spasms, in the same way that an electric shock can “knock you over”. However, while that explanation could reasonably cover “the victim’s limbs flew out and he crashed over on his back,” and there are cases of people staggering back, sometimes for several meters, after having being pushed off balance by a bullet impact, it kind of falls apart when you try to stretch it into “the victim hurtled fifteen feet backward.”

On the other hand, some may not react at all. From Jones:

If the aggressor is pumped up with adrenalin, or drugs, or is experiencing a psychotic episode, he may not even feel a fatal shot that takes his life within seconds.

Others may still be in complete control of their bodies. Jones writes:

Many bad guys decide to stop simply because they’ve been shot. While I’ve never been shot, I have talked to people who have, and they tell me it’s not a pleasant experience.

The Takeaway for Writers

What does this mean for your writing? Three things.

  1. A character shot by gunfire may exhibit some of the movement associated with the trope of flying backward. However, that movement is a physical reaction caused completely by the character’s body, either involuntary or voluntary. Don’t stretch this too far.
  2. The state of the character prior to being shot matters quite a bit. A character on drugs, as Jones notes, may not be aware a shot was fired.
  3. There isn’t one way for a character to react to being shot. That’s good news for you as a writer, because it offers flexibility.

Yes, it is possible for the force of a projectile to physically move the target character’s body all on its own. However, those instances are exceptions, and the nuance of each is too much to cover here. Stick to the above three points and you’ll be fine.

Is It the Same with Knives?

You bet. Everything mentioned above applies for knives and other edged instruments hurled into a character.


 

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:

4 thoughts on “Why Do Characters Flip Over or Fly Backward When They Are Shot?

  1. Splendid! Crime-Fiction is really thorough on solid basics and science behind the murders… Thanks, Ben! And some scenes still make sense. The slim dark elf will be knocked-back by the brutal strength with which our barbarian hero throws that axe or hammer into the pointy-eared villains’ body.

    This article combines well with your article on recoil by caliber-size, doesn’t it? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! This is a very cogent and useful explanation of the Hollywood phenomenon of shooting victims flying backward when hit. I suspect that much of this kind of stupidity may have derived from the movie “Shane” which shows a shooting victim being knocked halfway across the street when hit by a bullet from the bad buy’s (Jack Palance’s) .45. Well done, Ben!

    Liked by 1 person

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