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Hollywood vs. real weapons sounds

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

One of the things that has bugged me about the way the military is depicted in Hollywood is the sounds the weapons fire and explosions make. When I entered West Point in 1964 and during subsequent weapons training, I was surprised at the way weapons fire and explosions really sounded. It was often not at all like it sounded in war movies and TV shows depicting combat.

M-79 grenade launcher

The biggest discrepancy was the M-79 grenade launcher. It looks like a sawed-off shotgun with a huge diameter barrel. It shoots very big, fat bullet-looking ammunition. The “bullet” is 40mm and explodes like a grenade when it lands. It was meant for the range between the farthest a man can throw a traditional grenade and the shortest mortar range.

The sound it makes is “plink.” There is no other word to describe it. It is the wimpiest sounding weapon I have ever heard. Yet once, I was watching some war movie about Vietnam and the actor on screen fired an M-79. The noise it made in the movie was like five 12-guage shotguns going off simultaneously. That’s when I knew my suspicions about Hollywood weapons sound effects were correct.

You may wonder if the M-79 fires by some sort of metallic catapult action rather than the explosion of a cartridge like a shot gun. Nope. It uses the explosion of a cartridge—a huge cartridge. You would think it would sound like a cannon when it went off. Why did it only make a “plink” sound? I have no idea.

Here is an email about the M-79 I got from a reader:

One if it's rounds was the largest sealed shot gun shell you'd ever see, firing a package of shot or flechetts (sic) that look like tiny aerodynamic darts. A great round and weapon for close quarters clearing of nearby bushes, brush, jungle within about 20 yards, close quarter action. That round going off made, relatively, a hell of a noise. Much more powerful than the 12 gauge shotguns some units used. Problem, the M-79 rounds of any kind are large and in any quantity bulky and heavy.

Here is another email from weapons expert John Ross:

Ross comment: The M-79 round uses a "high-low" pressure design to safely launch a relative heavy projectile (a 40mm grenade) out of a light, handheld weapon. This is where a small charge of propellant fills a small chamber inside the much larger cartridge case of the weapon's 40mm diameter round of ammunition. When this small charge is detonated when the gun is fired, the resulting high-pressure explosion (combustion, technically) in the small chamber is released into the large, empty volume of the cartridge case, pushing the projectile down the bore. By the time the projectile leaves the muzzle of the gun, pressure in the barrel is VERY low (high muzzle pressure is what makes guns really loud.) The "plink" you describe is the sound of the small explosive charge inside the large sealed case. Imagine dropping a firecracker into an empty 55 gallon drum and then placing your palm over the bung. You'll hear a muffled "plink" sound and feel slight air pressure on your hand. Vets often call the M-79 the "blooker" or "blooper," different names for the noise you describe.

I hope someone in the Hollywood weapons sound effects business will contact me and give me the details of what’s going on with military weapons sounds in Hollywood productions.

Hand grenades

I did not see and hear many hand grenades go off to be certain of their effect, but I saw some. I was surprised at the smallness of the visual and audio impact. Police and military have a type of grenade called a “flash-bang.” It does little damage but is used to stun, surprise, and disorient criminals and enemy soldiers.

The more famous grenade is called a fragmentation grenade. It is designed to inflict maximum wounds to nearby persons. Actually, flash-bang is what I would use to describe what happens when a frag grenade goes off. It reminded me of a cherry bomb explosion. A cherry bomb is a fire cracker that looks like a golf ball with a fuse. When it goes off, it makes a flash like a flash bulb and a loud bang.

Hollywood grenades, however, look and sound like 250-pound bombs when they go off. There is a huge cloud of dust, a ball of flame, and a devastating, very loud explosion. I saw a show on TV where they showed how they make the typical Hollywood explosion. They were putting buckets of kerosene or diesel fuel all over to create fireballs. As far as I know, there is no fireball when a frag grenade goes off unless you throw it into a tank of petroleum.

The worst example of a Hollywood explosion I ever saw was a movie in which a San Francisco cable car was sent careening down a San Francisco hill and exploded in a ball of flame when it hit the bottom. Typical Hollywood. Cable cars are powered by, well, cables. I used to live in San Francisco on the Hyde Street cable car line which I took to work every day. Cable cars have a vice grip-like device that grips the cable when they want to move and lets loose when they want to stop. Cable cars are made out of cast iron, steel, and wood. They carry no fuel. They cannot possibly explode—except in Hollywood, where everything explodes in a fire ball nowadays.

The current M-67 frag grenade has 6.5 ounces of Composition B explosive, which is a much bigger charge than a cherry bomb, but the Vietnam-era grenades I saw explode still looked like cherry bombs going off. Just flash and bang! They typically can kill people who are within five meters and wound people who are within 15 meters. Fragments do most of the damage, not the explosion.

The World War II frag grenades had a pineapple exterior shape and surface. It had about 50 squarish elevated areas on the outside thereby producing about 50 fragments when it exploded. The Vietnam-era grenade was wrapped in a wire with notches in it surrounding the explosive to create more, smaller fragments.

Suffice it to say that the “grenade” explosions of Hollywood must really be much larger charges and they are supplemented with open containers of kerosene or diesel fuel to add a fire ball. They may also spread fine dust around the scene before the explosion to create a huge dust cloud.

Here is a comment from weapons export John Ross:

Ross comment: I shot off hundreds of grenades as a kid before they were reclassified by the feds in 1968. Agree 100% with your comments. Hollywood makes them MUCH more dramatic than real life because real grenades aren't very exciting to watch.

The Rules of Grenade Throwing

Also, I have long been bugged by the way soldiers in Hollywood use grenades. There are at least three pertinent rules that were not taught to me in the military but are self-evident if you think it through.

  • Never throw more than one grenade at a time at the same location. (Think about it.)
  • Never throw a grenade up hill. (Think about it.)
  • Never throw a grenade at night in a thick forest or jungle. (Think about it.)

Violating any of these rules could have the same dire consequence to you. One of my West Point classmates reportedly killed himself by violating the last rule.

In the movie Platoon Leader, not Platoon, the Americans discover a group of North Vietnamese bathing in a pool at the bottom of a waterfall. The Americans at the top of the waterfall all simultaneously throw about ten grenades down on them. I’ll give you a hint as to why that was dumb. Grenades vary in how fast they detonate after the handle pops off. So one of those ten grenades is going to go off before the others. (By the way, the movie Platoon was heralded for its realism. It was pretty good in some respects, but Platoon Leader was much more realistic—when they were not throwing ten grenades at once.)

I’ll give you another hint. I call these the “boomerang rules of grenade throwing.” They should be taught by the military if they are not already.

Throwing oneself on a grenade

Starting in Vietnam, I believe, some American soldiers and Marines began to react to a grenade arriving in the midst of a group of Americans by throwing themselves on top of it—sometimes using their helmet under their stomach as they do it. The thinking is that they are sacrificing themselves to protect their buddies.

I suspect that thinking is incorrect. If so, a number of U.S. servicemen have sacrificed themselves inappropriately and unnecessarily. I further suspect that Hollywood is responsible for this error in thinking. Hollywood depicts grenade detonations as huge explosions that would surely kill every one in the vicinity. Hollywood exaggerates for dramatic effect.

Take the case of former U.S. Senator and VA head Max Cleland. He is a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran.

In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station four days after the Khe Sanh Battle. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.

But that is not what you would think from watching grenades blow up in Hollywood movies. You would think he would be vaporized. He was not even killed or blinded. I am not aware of whether any of the other U.S. military personnel in the helicopter or near Cleland were injured. Apparently not because no mention of it is made is the descriptions of Cleland’s injuries.

But the incident shows that it would have been unwise for Cleland to have thrown himself on top of the grenade. Had he done so, he surely would have been eviscerated and killed. His failure to do so did not result in any deaths whatsoever, not even his own, and he was inches from the exploding grenade.

Because throwing oneself on top of a grenade to protect one’s buddies has achieved the stuff of legend, I fear that many of our soldiers and Marines are mentally rehearsing throwing themselves on grenades as the ultimate act of heroism. Then, when an enemy grenade actually lands in their midst, they instinctively throw themselves on it because of those mental rehearsals. Scientific research would be necessary to say for sure, but I suspect that the best action is to just yell, “Grenade!” and have everybody dive to the ground or behind any available cover. I expect that if everyone got to the ground in time, and no one was lying with vital organs right next to the grenade, that no one would be killed. A grenade explosion is simply not that big—nowhere near as big as Hollywood would have you believe.

What about the arrival of a larger explosive such as a satchel charge? Probably no one should throw themselves on one of those either because the amount of explosive is so great that the single body on top of it would be irrelevant to protecting other soldiers.

Only two Congressional Medals of Honor have been given out during the Iraqi Freedom operation. One was awarded posthumously to a Marine who threw himself on top of a grenade that exploded killing him.

.50 caliber machine gun

A .50 caliber machine gun, which is a massive weapon that can cut down trees, sounds exactly like a kettle drum. If you fire one at an M113 armored personnel carrier of the Vietnam era, the bullet goes in one side of the APC and out the other. To disable an enemy soldier, you have to hit him in a vital area with smaller weapons. But with a .50 caliber, hitting the enemy anywhere on his body disables him. The bullet is about the size of your thumb.

Bazooka

The bazooka of my era was known as the recoilless rifle. It looked like a fat stove pipe about four feet long. It also had a handle and a sight. You stuck a rocket with an explosive warhead into the rear of it and connected some wires on the rocket to the trigger mechanism.

Growing up as a kid, I had read many comic books where the heroes fired bazookas at the enemy. Because it was a rocket, not an explosive shell, the cartoons showed sounds like “Whoosh.”

Then, at West Point, we each got to fire one. My first surprise was the firing area. It looked like a causeway. There was a long strip of raised ground about six feet wide. A recoilless rifle was lying on the ground with an instructor about every twenty feet. In front, was a distant hill with wrecked cars and trucks strewn about. Behind the causeway was a huge area marked off with yellow tape. If I recall correctly, it was about 75 yards deep. In other words, you were not allowed to get within 75 yards of the back of the recoilless rifles. “What the heck is that about?” I wondered.

There is no “whoosh.” When you shoot it, there is a huge, very loud, sharp bang. True, it’s a rocket, but it sounded like a huge shotgun or artillery shell with no brass base being fired out of a shotgun or cannon with no rear end to the barrel. I did not get the impression that any rocket was propelling it after it left the barrel. The whole idea is there is no recoil because of the lack of a rear end on the barrel. That is quite correct. There is no recoil.

Why the do-not-enter area behind us? Because that entire area is filled by the blast of the firing. When I was the loader, I spread my legs while laying on my stomach so that my body was in the shape of a Y. The instructor told me to move my back leg forward so it was not behind the end of the recoilless rifle. I did a little, but I thought he was exaggerating. He was not. When the blast occurred, it threw my leg to where the instructor had told me to move it. You could not have any part of your body even an inch behind the back of the recoilless rifle. The blast that came out was in a 180-degree radius of the back of the barrel. In other words, the blast area was a semi-circle with about a 50-yard radius emanating from the back of the barrel. The surface in the back blast area was dirt so the firing of the weapon generated a huge cloud of dust and smoke each time.

In a History Channel documentary (“Hunt for Bin Laden” made in 2005) about a firefight in Afghanistan, they depicted the true story of a U.S. officer who got blasted. He thought it was by a mortar exploding. His colleagues thought he had been hit by enemy bullets. He had gone flying heels over head. Turned out it was the back blast from a nearby RPG fired by an Afghan ally. An RPG or Rocket Propelled Grenade is a Soviet bazooka that is widely used by Middle Eastern military forces. The U.S. officer lost both ear drums but was otherwise unhurt.

So now when I see a bazooka or similar recoilless weapon fired in movies and on TV, I am amused when I hear the “whoosh” sound that some Hollywood idiot decided must be used. But I am even more amused to see them fire the bazooka from some confined area like the second-floor window of a bedroom in a house. I expect doing that would blow the back off the house and fry or otherwise seriously injure the idiots who chose to fire the weapon from that position. The truth is you need to be in the wide open spaces. The back blast will wreak havoc on anyone or anything that is in that 75-yard semi-circle rear area. If I were under attack by a bunch of charging men and armed only with a bazooka-type weapon, I might fire it in the opposite direction to hit a whole bunch of them with the back blast. I don’t know how many it would kill, if any. But it would sure as heck knock them on their asses and blind them with blast and debris.

In war movies, the bazooka crew often shoots from hiding and is still not detected after shooting. Forget that. The enemy will sure as heck know where the shot came from as soon as the near mushroom cloud rises from behind you.

On the Military Channel, I saw two new weapons—an 84 CS and a Javelin. Both seem to have corrected the back-blast problem. The 84 CS has a slug of salt water in the back of the rocket which apparently absorbs most of the force of the back blast. The Javelin has two stages. The initial one is a small rocket to get the weapon about 20 feet out of the bazooka. Then a more powerful second stage kicks in to take the Javelin to the target.

Here is a comment I got from weapons expert Jon Ross:

Ross comment: The "Bazooka" was a 1942 development that launched a fin-stabilized, rocket propelled warhead carrying a shaped charge from a smoothbore tube. There were various improvements to the original design, but these weapons were taken out of service a few years after the Korean War. The old TV series "Combat!" used these and the way they were depicted in that show was not too far from the real thing.

The thing you fired at West Point was the M67 recoilless rifle, and yes, the backblast of any RR is pretty spectacular.

The closest U.S. weapon we have to the Bazooka today is probably the M72 LAW, a one-shot throwaway weapon that fires a rocket from a fiberglass tube. Backblast on one of those is about 40 feet, less than the RPG you mention because it fires a smaller projectile than the RPG.

The problem with Hollywood on any of these is that firing real ammo is verboten. There is no way to create what happens when a RR fires using firework-type pyrotechnics that don't propel anything heavier that shredded cardboard and paper. You need to actually send a nine pound projectile out the muzzle at 600 feet per second to get a realistic backblast. They can't do that when filming a movie, so they switch to "whooshing" noises and low-pressure skyrocket-type pyro effects.

Tank gun

When you are standing near it, a tank gun does not really make a noise. It’s more like an ear-splitting blow to your ear drums. “Acoustic trauma,” is what my doctors called it. It contributed to the high-frequency hearing loss I initially got from firing the M-14 without ear plugs.

During the summer before our sophomore year at West Point, we were flown to Fort Knox, KY to get an orientation to the armor branch. Armor is better known to the public as tanks. One night, we went to a line of tanks at a tank target range. I was an extra guy in my tank. No other tank had an extra guy. They told me to stand outside and that I would take turns with one of my classmates who stayed in the tank initially.

I got out and stood right next to the tank. Big mistake. It was dark and very quiet. I could hear virtually no sounds, just murmurs from inside the tanks around me. Suddenly, without warning, the tank I had gotten out of fired its main gun. The muzzle was about 12 feet from my ears.

I ran from the line of tanks to a spot 50 or more yards behind holding my ears. As I did so, the rest of the tanks on the line fired their main guns as well.

Technically, I am a disabled veteran. The disability is a high-frequency hearing loss caused, according to my doctors, by the M-14 firing and the tank gun going off near me. I get no disability payments because my disability is too minor, but the VA told me I would probably have a more serious hearing loss sooner than other people when I get older and that I would likely qualify for some payment then. I’d rather have good hearing.

As with the M-14, I should have been warned to protect my ears. With the tank, I should have been told to stand far away until it was my turn. Again, Hollywood is partly responsible for my hearing loss. I have seen a thousand tanks fire their guns in war movies. The movie theater or TV sound was nothing special. Nor did I see Hollywood soldiers covering their ears or experiencing any discomfort when the tank guns went off.

Why is a tank louder than a cannon? Because it has a much higher muzzle velocity. Why is that? Artillery and mortars are called indirect-fire weapons. That is, they lob the shell up high so it can clear hills and such. Artillery and mortar crews rarely see what they are shooting at. Forward observers with radios tell them where to shoot.

Artillery and mortar crews also take a relatively long time between shots as they recalculate direction, charge, and elevation of the cannon barrel or mortar. Tank main guns are not generally used as indirect-fire weapons. Rather, a tank fights like a cop or soldier moving in an area populated with bad guys. As soon as he sees one, he immediately shoots him. He has no time for direction, charge, and elevation calculations. Just point and shoot. Technically, they do aim a little high because gravity pulls the round down enroute.

In order for a tank gunner to just point and shoot at an enemy tank that may be thousands of yards away, the tank shell must travel very fast. All objects that are not held up fall 16 feet during the first second. That applies equally to a baseball you drop off a roof or a cannon shell that you fire parallel to the ground off the same roof. One second after the ball leaves the hand or the shell leaves the barrel, it will be sixteen feet lower.

In other words, the sound you hear in a Hollywood movie when a tank gun goes off is not the real sound. It would be against the law to subject you to the real sound.

M-16

My recollection of the M-16 was that it sound like rattling metal spoons against loose metal strips. I do not recall the explosive sound that is always associated with gun shots in Hollywood.

M-14

When I entered West Point, the standard military rifle was the M-14. That was the one we were issued at West Point and the one we carried in parades there. It is long, has a wooden stock, and weighs 9.5 lbs. In parades, we attached a ceremonial, chrome-plated bayonet. My first unit in Vietnam also had M-14s.

Someone told me it was the equivalent of a civilian thirty ought six. I wouldn’t know. I believe the official bore size is 7.62 mm.

We were given wax earplugs before we fired them, but no one said why or even recommended that we use the earplugs. I figured they were for super wimps. I had previously fired a .22 caliber rifle with no ear problems. I had never seen a Hollywood person wear any ear protection when firing a weapon. Remember, this was 1964. Nowadays, you sometimes see police and others in Hollywood films wearing acoustic earmuffs and such.

Then I fired the M-14 for the first time and my ears rang for a week. They rang so loud that I could not hear the bell outside our door. It was a loud bell like the fire bells in a high school. I later learned that I had suffered a high-frequency hearing loss. The ear plugs should have been mandatory and I’ll bet they are now. It was really, really loud. If they depicted it accurately in a movie theater, the patrons would all be holding their ears and yelling in pain.

‘Popping sound, firecrackers’

The news media often reports when there is a shooting that witnesses were not aware that guns had been fired. Rather, they say they heard a “popping sound” or “firecrackers.” Why is that? Because the idiots in Hollywood have convinced the public that all gunshots have a loud, high pitched crack and echo. I do not know how Hollywood made their trademark gunshot sound, but I suspect they fired a shotgun in a granite box canyon and recorded it from about 75 yards away.

Real guns, especially pistols, make a popping or small firecracker sound. Probably, some people have been killed or injured as a result of having been trained by Hollywood not to recognize the sound of real small arms fire and failed to escape the area when they could have.

Weapons expert John Ross disputes this:

I don't know what you mean by "Hollywood trademark sound." If you mean the crack followed by a sort of buzzing that changes in pitch, that's what you get when you fire a rifle or pistol (not a shotgun) at a shallow angle at a rock with lots of space behind it, and the buzzing "echo" (as you call it) is the sound of the deformed bullet tumbling through the air for a few hundred yards after it ricochets off the rock. Hollywood used that sound in westerns a lot, and it's accurate. I can duplicate it at any rocky open area with real guns.

When witnesses to real-life shootings report popping noises or firecracker sounds, that's because they heard it happen from across the mall or in another room. Witnesses to real shootings aren't often just a few feet from the gun's muzzle, which is where the camera is for an action scene in a film.

"Real guns, especially pistols, make a popping or small firecracker sound."

Ross comment: Really? Like your M14 that made your ears ring for a week? Small guns like .22 rimfires make small popping sounds if you're 50 or more feet away, but not common centerfire handguns up close. I know you went to Front Sight, would you want to stand on the firing line without ear protection next to a guy shooting a 9mm, or worse, a .357?

I should have said many real guns.

Virginia Tech massacre

The 4/30/07 Newsweek Virginia Tech story contains this passage:

Someone in the class wondered aloud if the noises were gunshots, but somenone else said no; gunshots are a lot louder. Then a man...entered the room. He did not say anything or hesitate. He shot the teacher.

Obviously, the person who said gunshots were a lot louder was wrong. I cannot imagine how they would have gotten such a notion other than from TV and movies.

Time and again during the Virginia Tech incident, students and teachers assumed that the gun shots were construction noises. One teacher heard the sounds and said, “Please tell me that’s not what I think it was.” Her students assured her it was construction noise. Unconvinced, she looked into the hallway where she saw Cho. She slammed the door and told students to call 911. Cho shot and killed the teacher and the student calling 911. The other students attacked the door to hold it closed as Cho tried to ram his way in then gave up. The remaining unshot students in that room survived as a result of their action to keep Cho out.

John Ross says:

Again, movies scenes are filmed near the action. In real life, a very loud gunshot (loud for someone near the gun) sounds very much like a construction noise to people that are not near the gun. I regularly testfire guns I've built in my shop to check function before taking them to my range. I do this in my basement using a bullet trap. People watching television in the living room upstairs say it sounds like one of those pneumatic nailers that roofers use, because that's what a gunshot sounds like if there are insulated walls, floors, and closed doors between the gun and the listener. How often does a movie have a scene where the actor in the scene is in a closed room and someone is firing a gun in a different closed room somewhere else in the building? Not often, and I can't remember a specific instance or I would look up on Netflix to see how far off it is.

Whatever the reason, I have seen many media stories where witnesses to a shooting assumed gun fire was not gun fire because it was more of a mild popping sound than the gun shots they hear on TV and in movies. I stand by my claim that Hollywood has gotten people killed by educating people to believe real world gun shots sound like Hollywood gutn shots. There can be no doubt that Hollywood wants gun shots to sound very dramatic. I would have thought that Hollywood depictions were from the perspective of people in the room, in the next room, upstairs, across the street, every possible distance from the shooter over years of watching Hollywood productions.

Outgoing artillery

I have no quarrel with the Hollywood sound of outgoing artillery. It makes a loud boom and that’s what it sounds like when Hollywood does it. They probably are using real cannons to record it. Of course, it’s much more powerful than what you hear in a theater. If they used the real sound, children would cry and adults would be heading for the exits.

When I was a communications platoon leader in a heavy artillery (self-propelled 8-inch and 175-mm howitzers) battalion in Vietnam, I was astonished that the force was so great that it would lift me off my cot. More likely, the ground beneath me was being forced down like an earthquake. I was even more astonished that you can get used to that and sleep through it.

Incoming artillery and rockets

But they do not get the sound of incoming correct in Hollywood. They use the outgoing boom for it. It does not sound like that. On the way, incoming artillery makes a hissing, spitting sound as the round cuts through the air. I heard a similar sound when I faced a former AAA pitcher throwing 90 miles per hour in adult baseball.

Did I hear incoming artillery in Vietnam? Nope. I heard it at Fort Campbell, KY when I did an internship with a 101st Airborne Division artillery battalion. One howitzer accidentally fired at us forward observers.

I was at bases that were attacked by rockets in Vietnam, but I never heard the sound of one before it hit.

Both enemy rockets and friendly artillery fire sound alike when they hit. It makes a horrific ripping, crunching sound. Imagine a giant suddenly ripping the earth asunder with his hands. There is an explosion too, but my dominant memory is of the ripping and crunching.

The Hollywood types ought to capture that sound. It is much scarier than the outgoing boom. Seems like it would be easy to capture. Just put some microphones in an impact area so that they can record but not get destroyed. I heard that sound at Fort Campbell and in Vietnam, but never in a Hollywood movie.John Ross comment:

Agree that it's scarier than what is usually shown in films. With modern surround sound Hollywood could get it close but they'd need access to the real thing to make the recordings and that's all but impossible, especially in California.

Actually, I recently saw War Horse and commonted to my wife during the movie that they got the incoming artillery sounds much closer to real life in that movie. I would not be surprised if the sound guy in charge read this article. Think about it, they have nothing better to do all day than try to make their sounds more dramatic. They might Google the subject.

War Horse still does not quite have the full sound of incoming artillery, but they were the closest to it I have ever heard.

Incoming small arms fire

I never experienced incoming small-arms fire. World War II guys did. They had to crawl through an obstacle course with live bullets whizzing over their heads. They typically describe it as sounding like angry bees. I suspect the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan got it right when the GIs were on the beach dodging German bullets.

I did see the visual version of incoming fire and it is strangely pretty and fascinating. It looks like twinkling lights—like modern, low-wattage Christmas lights that flash off and on. How so? The lights are the muzzle flashes of the enemy guns. You can see them on the wings of some enemy fighters in World War II actual dog fight footage. At first, it is dangerously mesmerizing. The first thought that goes through your mind is, “Why is someone using Christmas lights out here now?”

The same mesmerization effect is true of tracers only they look like relatively slow-moving, brightly-glowing balls. Every fifth bullet in a machine gun is a tracer. It is to help the gunner aim like a fire hose wielder who can see where the water hits then adjust. A tracer is a bullet with a flare-like chemical that is ignited by being fired, then burns throughout the flight of the bullet.

Again, I hope to hear more details from some Hollywood sound guy who can explain how they make these unrealistic sounds and why they do not use the real thing.

A writer from Finland says this:

Another thing, which you btw did not mention when discussing incoming small arms fire, is that when you're in a position in the woods and being shot at, inexperienced soldiers may get scared because they hear the sound of bullets hitting trees behind them, and think they're surrounded, as if someone's behind there shooting. But it's just the bullets' impact sound, and it's not a good idea to start running around witless.

He also noted that the sounds they have airplanes make in Holywood are bogus, like a high-pitched whine getting louder as the plane dive toward te ground. That is from a German Stuka dive bomber that had a siren on it to create that effect. All other planes just quietly dive into the ground when you point them that way.

Here is an email from a reader:

You solicit thoughtful commentary and learned correction from your readers.

Some months ago I made extensive comments on your Hollywood weapons sounds article, but never saw them published, despite your assurance they would be. Perhaps my email got deleted prematurely. BTW I've enjoyed your writings on the coming inflation, and am preparing to purchase foreign currencies when a large ($3 million) payout comes to me in October. Back to your Hollywood gun sounds piece: Now you are writing about my major area of expertise: small arms.

My credentials: I have been a federally licensed machine gun dealer for 29 years and have also owned and fired almost every machine gun ever made as well as many other larger weapons such as cannons and recoilless rifles, some of which you talk about in this article. I own a rock quarry (non-operating) where I fire these guns and detonate explosives on an almost-weekly basis. I hold state and federal explosives licenses as well. I have been a shooting instructor for over 30 years and I teach at least two classes a week, 46 weeks a year. I have also given instruction to a few people in the FBI and Secret Service on an informal, non-official basis. I was a regional speed-shooting champion as a teenager in the '70s and I also have some experience as a weapons designer. Smith & Wesson produced a limited run (500 units) of my design, the world's most powerful working handgun, the John Ross/Performance Center .500 Magnum. Google it if you want.

Comments:

M-79 Grenade Launcher

"You would think it would sound like a cannon when it went off. Why did it only make a "plink" sound? I have no idea."

Ross comment: The M-79 round uses a "high-low" pressure design to safely launch a relative heavy projectile (a 40mm grenade) out of a light, handheld weapon. This is where a small charge of propellant fills a small chamber inside the much larger cartridge case of the weapon's 40mm diameter round of ammunition. When this small charge is detonated when the gun is fired, the resulting high-pressure explosion (combustion, technically) in the small chamber is released into the large, empty volume of the cartridge case, pushing the projectile down the bore. By the time the projectile leaves the muzzle of the gun, pressure in the barrel is VERY low (high muzzle pressure is what makes guns really loud.) The "plink" you describe is the sound of the small explosive charge inside the large sealed case. Imagine dropping a firecracker into an empty 55 gallon drum and then placing your palm over the bung. You'll hear a muffled "plink" sound and feel slight air pressure on your hand. Vets often call the M-79 the "blooker" or "blooper," different names for the noise you describe.

Hand Grenades

Ross comment: I shot off hundreds of grenades as a kid before they were reclassified by the feds in 1968. Agree 100% with your comments. Hollywood makes them MUCH more dramatic than real life because real grenades aren't very exciting to watch.

.50 caliber machine gun

"A .50 caliber machine gun, which is a massive weapon that can cut down trees, sounds exactly like a kettle drum."

Ross comment: Depends on how far away you are. I don't know anyone FIRING a .50 MG that would describe it as sounding like that. I currently own several of these guns and fire them regularly.

Bazooka

"The bazooka of my era was known as the recoilless rifle. It looked like a fat stove pipe about four feet long. It also had a handle and a sight. You stuck a rocket with an explosive warhead into the rear of it and connected some wires on the rocket to the trigger mechanism."

Ross comment: The "Bazooka" was a 1942 development that launched a fin-stabilized, rocket propelled warhead carrying a shaped charge from a smoothbore tube. There were various improvements to the original design, but these weapons were taken out of service a few years after the Korean War. The old TV series "Combat!" used these and the way they were depicted in that show was not too far from the real thing.

The thing you fired at West Point was the M67 recoilless rifle, and yes, the backblast of any RR is pretty spectacular.

For your amusement here's a link to a 2010 YouTube video of a rare 1942 Carl Gustav 20mm recoilless rifle being fired with real ammunition. This was the SMALLEST RR ever manufactured, I believe. Fewer than 2000 were made. I watched one being fired in 1967. The 2010 video is just like I remembered. I had a chance to buy one of these in 1985 but didn't as ammo is almost nonexistent, and making rounds for a RR from scratch is beyond my skills or those of anyone I trust.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUoBb3h9HWA

The closest U.S. weapon we have to the Bazooka today is probably the M72 LAW, a one-shot throwaway weapon that fires a rocket from a fiberglass tube. Backblast on one of those is about 40 feet, less than the RPG you mention because it fires a smaller projectile than the RPG.

The problem with Hollywood on any of these is that firing real ammo is verboten. There is no way to create what happens when a RR fires using firework-type pyrotechnics that don't propel anything heavier that shredded cardboard and paper. You need to actually send a nine pound projectile out the muzzle at 600 feet per second to get a realistic backblast. They can't do that when filming a movie, so they switch to "whooshing" noises and low-pressure skyrocket-type pyro effects.

Tank Gun

"Why is a tank louder than a cannon? Because it has a much higher muzzle velocity."

Ross comment: The loudness comes from the higher muzzle pressure, but since that causes higher muzzle velocity, I shouldn't quibble.

"Artillery and mortars are called indirect-fire weapons. That is, they lob the shell up high so it can clear hills and such. Artillery and mortar crews rarely see what they are shooting at. Forward observers with radios tell them where to shoot." Correct.

"All objects that are not held up fall 16 feet during the first second. That applies equally to a baseball you drop off a roof or a cannon shell that you fire parallel to the ground off the same roof. One second after the ball leaves the hand or the shell leaves the barrel, it will be sixteen feet lower." Correct.

"So if the tank is firing at an enemy tank, say, 3,000 yards away, the round must arrive at the enemy tank within about two tenths of a second, otherwise it will fall so far it will hit the ground in front of the enemy tank instead."

Ross comment: AAAUGHHH! So your tank gun has a muzzle velocity high enough that the AVERAGE speed of the projectile over a 3000 yard distance is 9000 feet in 2/10 second = 45,000 feet per second average speed? What's the muzzle velocity, then? 60,000 FPS? Utter insanity!

Tank guns don't "lob" their rounds like a mortar or a howitzer, but they have to have SOME elevation adjustment, and the barrel isn't exactly parallel to the ground. When you fire a high velocity round at a target, your "line drive" as you call it has to rise at least a little bit above the height of the target so that it will hit the target after being influenced by gravity over the time it took to get to the target.

A modern tank gun's muzzle velocity is about 5400 FPS. In your 3000 yard example, let's use an average velocity of 4500 FPS for a time of flight of 2 seconds. Distance calculation S= ½ Acceleration*Time squared. So, ½ acceleration due to gravity is one half of 32.2 feet per second per second or about 16; two seconds squared is 4. 4x16= 64 FEET of drop. You are going to have to elevate your tank gun barrel so that it is aimed at a point 64 feet directly above the thing you want to hit that's 3000 yards away.

End of math lesson and back to Hollywood: As with the recoilless rifles and RPGs, you can't film a tank gun accurately without using live ammunition and even if you were able to do that, there is no speaker system on earth that can reproduce the aural signature of one of these weapons at close distance. If there were, as you say, it would be illegal to subject movie patrons to it.

M16

"My recollection of the M-16 was that it sounded like rattling metal spoons against loose metal strips."

Ross comment: Perhaps from a distance. I shoot M16s regularly and have set some up for blank use. Hollywood uses muzzle restrictors that result in the blanks having the same muzzle pressure as live rounds in a normal barrel, so the actions will cycle properly. The sound is VERY close to the real thing. Metal spoons might be the sound at a distance, but not up close. There is little difference in muzzle pressure between the M16 and the M14 you later describe.

M14

"Someone told me it was the equivalent of a civilian thirty ought six. I wouldn't know. I believe the official bore size is 7.62 mm."

Ross comment: The bore sizes are identical, 7.62mm or .308" diameter, take your pick. The .30-'06 was a MILITARY round adopted in 1906, thus the name. Civilians have used it in great numbers ever since. The round your M14 fired is a shorter cartridge that fires the same projectile at slightly lower speed, called the 7.62x51 in military metric terms or .308 Winchester in its commercial loading. We switched from the .30-'06 to this shorter NATO standard round in the 1950s. Most commercial hunting calibers are more powerful than the round the M14 fires. Humans are easier to kill or incapacitate than game animals.

'Popping sound, firecrackers'

"The news media often reports when there is a shooting that witnesses were not aware that guns had been fired. Rather, they say they heard a "popping sound" or "firecrackers." Why is that? Because the idiots in Hollywood have convinced the public that all gunshots have a loud, high pitched crack and echo. I do not know how Hollywood made their trademark gunshot sound, but I suspect they fired a shotgun in a granite box canyon and recorded it from about 75 yards away."

Ross comment: I don't know what you mean by "Hollywood trademark sound." If you mean the crack followed by a sort of buzzing that changes in pitch, that's what you get when you fire a rifle or pistol (not a shotgun) at a shallow angle at a rock with lots of space behind it, and the buzzing "echo" (as you call it) is the sound of the deformed bullet tumbling through the air for a few hundred yards after it ricochets off the rock. Hollywood used that sound in westerns a lot, and it's accurate. I can duplicate it at any rocky open area with real guns.

When witnesses to real-life shootings report popping noises or firecracker sounds, that's because they heard it happen from across the mall or in another room. Witnesses to real shootings aren't often just a few feet from the gun's muzzle, which is where the camera is for an action scene in a film.

"Real guns, especially pistols, make a popping or small firecracker sound."

Ross comment: Really? Like your M14 that made your ears ring for a week? Small guns like .22 rimfires make small popping sounds if you're 50 or more feet away, but not common centerfire handguns up close. I know you went to Front Sight, would you want to stand on the firing line without ear protection next to a guy shooting a 9mm, or worse, a .357?

Virginia Tech massacre

"The 4/30/07 Newsweek Virginia Tech story contains this passage:

"Someone in the class wondered aloud if the noises were gunshots, but someone else said no; gunshots are a lot louder. Then a man...entered the room. He did not say anything or hesitate. He shot the teacher."

You say, "Obviously, the person who said gunshots were a lot louder was wrong. I cannot imagine how they would have gotten such a notion other than from TV and movies.

"Time and again during the Virginia Tech incident, students and teachers assumed that the gun shots were construction noises."

Ross comment: Again, movies scenes are filmed near the action. In real life, a very loud gunshot (loud for someone near the gun) sounds very much like a construction noise to people that are not near the gun, and have walls between them and the shooter. I regularly testfire guns I've built in my home shop to check function before taking them to my range. I do this in my basement using a bullet trap. People watching television in the living room upstairs say it sounds like one of those pneumatic nailers that roofers use, because that's what a gunshot sounds like if there are insulated walls, floors, and closed doors between the gun and the listener. How often does a movie have a scene where the actor in the scene is in a closed room and someone is firing a gun in a different closed room somewhere else in the building? Not often, and I can't remember a specific instance or I would look up on Netflix to see how far off it is.

Incoming artillery and rockets

Agree that it's scarier than what is usually shown in films. With modern surround sound Hollywood could get it close but they'd need access to the real thing to make the recordings and that's all but impossible, especially in California.

Incoming small arms fire

I've experienced a lot of it with training sessions and angry bees is about right. So is your suspicion about the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

Use any or all of these comments as well as my name, if you want.

John Ross

 


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