TLDR: If a character is supposed to know something about firearms and knives, abide by common sense safety rules.
Not every character is or needs to be the embodiment of safe firearm and knife handling, but some should demonstrate a basic understanding in keeping their backgrounds. When this doesn’t happen, it’s a clear “tell” that something is wrong with the writer (in the weapons area, since it’s safe to assume writers wouldn’t be writing if there wasn’t something wrong with them in the first place).
Here are the basic safety principles accepted by the firearm and knife worlds.
Basic Firearm Safety Rules
TREAT EVERY FIREARM AS IF IT IS LOADED
Unless a character is reckless, he or she would use the same amount of caution with an unloaded firearm as with a loaded one.
KEEP THE FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNLESS PREPARED TO FIRE
Sure, people could drive with two feet on the gas if they wanted to, but one split second of confusion can end in tragedy. That’s why red flags go up when characters, especially law enforcement types, put a finger on the trigger before bolting into a tense scene. However, if a firearm uses a safety (not all do; be sure to research the model), the character would disengage the safety if he thought firing a shot were probable.
BE SURE OF THE TARGET AND WHAT LIES BEYOND
You could also say that what goes up must come down. Projectiles from even the smallest firearm can travel miles. The character shooting is responsible for that shot the entire journey. Characters cracking off random shots are being reckless. And when law enforcement characters shoot at a fleeing vehicle, they’re just asking for collateral damage. Warning shots are another problem. If you shoot up, that bullet still has to land somewhere.
NEVER POINT THE FIREARM AT PEOPLE OR PROPERTY THE CHARACTER IS NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
In other words, if a fi rearm is aimed or even briefly pointed at a character, that character better be someone the shooter is willing to kill. It follows that a character would never check to see if a firearm is loaded by looking down the barrel. Need a visual example of what not to do? Let Ed Wood’s turkey, Plan 9 from Outer Space, key you in:
USE TWO HANDS WHEN POSSIBLE
Accuracy, and therefore safety, is always compromised when only one hand is used to shoot. Even with small handguns, using two hands is the safest, most accurate way to shoot. Reckless characters, or writers going for flash, might not care. That’s okay, but it’s worth stating anyway.
Basic Knife Safety Rules
A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. Duller blades slip easier when attempting to cut through something. And a knife that slips is going to cut something you didn’t intend to cut—never a good thing.
Knives are a little like guns in that they shouldn’t be directed at people and things that shouldn’t be cut. So when using a knife, cut away from your body—or anyone else’s body for that matter—because if the knife suddenly jerks forward, you don’t want it to cause an injury.
Running with scissors is a bad idea, and the same goes for knives. Dramatic foot chases involving knives are just begging for an accident. Stick those knives back in their sheaths if possible.
Avoid using the knife inside the “Triangle of Death.” Picture the triangular space between your inner thighs and groin when your legs are spread apart—that’s the Triangle of Death. A cut to these areas could cause severe blood loss or death in a matter of minutes. This concern is most common when sitting hunched over and using the knife to cut rope, whittle, etc.
Not every knife that folds works the same way. It’s a good idea to find out exactly how it works before fumbling around with one. That’s how people lose fingers.
If a knife falls, don’t try to catch it. Let it hit the ground.
Passing a knife with an exposed blade (such as a butcher knife or an open folding knife) to someone else is always tricky. Should you hand it over handle first or blade first? Handle first is the best method, but that doesn’t mean you should grip the blade and risk an injury. Turn the knife over so the spine (the thin, unsharpened edge on top of the blade) rests between your thumb and index finger, then grip the handle. Extend the handle to the other person to pass off the knife. Of course, throwing the knife to the other person is another option, but it’s not polite.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) distills complex weapons topics into easy-to-understand concepts for fiction writers. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: