I’ll admit to being annoyed at an action movie using the “have a star shoot a few blanks, have a few stunties fall down, instant badass” formula. It has a time and place, I’ll admit, but it just feels lazy.
The unfortunate fly in that jam is that it’s all too often not a case of impossibility, but (occasionally ridiculously) high improbability.
Bullets can (and occasionally do) go damn near anywhere. The axiom that covers this is as follows:
“Firearms are precision instruments by design. Humans are not precision shooters by design.”
There are exceptions, but overall, this applies. The action of a firing gun and the travel of a bullet to the target is a known, quantifiable, and trackable phenomenon that lies well within the boundaries of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. Then you put humans into the mix and the fucking quantum shows up.
(I realize most of my work is aimed at actors, and I’m bringing in math and science. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible here)
The basic idea of that is that a firearm is designed to send a tiny projectile in a specific path in a specific way, and every variable that a shooter, a target, and the environment brings into the mix affects that path.
Take a laser pointer. Aim it at a spot on the wall. Now see how small a movement it takes to move the dot a foot to one side. Multiply that by all the excitement happening in a gunfight.
(And people don’t believe me when I say pistol shooting is a lot like smallsword)
There is training that compensates for this. But even that only goes so far.
So, getting back to the title of the piece, how this affects performing a theatrical or cinematic gunbattle. There’s a multitude of ways gunshot wounds (hereafter GSW’s) can occur and effect. But for acting purposes, we can distill these down into 5 categories. Organized by severity.
Instant Kill: This is one of the most debatable kinds of GSW’s, mostly for arguments over the definitions of “Death,” “life,” and “instant.” Truly “instant” death for purposes of this category involves massive trauma to the brain stem upon impact of the projectile. In short, the bullet hits a plum-sized target inside the skull, and everything stops.
Instant Shock: Often mistaken for an instant kill, Instant Shock in this case is a GSW that causes enough damage on impact to cause instantaneous loss of consciousness. Short version: getting shot causes enough damage for the victim to pass out instantly and die soon after.
Disabling wound: A wound that causes the loss of use of an extremity or mobility. Major joints and the spinal column are all targets that can result in a disabling wound. Short version: a GSW that renders a limb (or more than one limb) unusable.
Noticed wound: A wound that doesn’t cause loss of consciousness or use of an extremity, but does cause trauma, blood loss, ect. The most “playable” of GSW’s, as the victim is able to continue the scene with the widest range of possible choices, but still noticeably reacts to the wound as it occurs and through the remainder of the scene.
Unnoticed wound: The wound occurs, but is not visibly reacted to by the victim. This may be the result of adrenaline, shock, a supernatural nature to the character, or other reasons. The audience may see the shot occur, or it may be a reveal later in the scene.
As with anything involving firearms, introducing one rule will summon a legion of exceptions, but I’d like to think this at least provides some sort of broad, useable generalization.