Firearm Myths of Hollywood

Woman crouched behind a bed holding a flashlight and pointing a revolver with a green laser

In a prior article, I talked about the misconceptions that people have about firearms and shooting because of the entertainment industry’s lack of knowledge and misrepresentation of the truth. That article dealt primarily with the depiction of the grip. The response was such that I thought I would address other firearm myths that Hollywood perpetrates. Those of us who shoot are aware that due to the Motion Picture industry and other popular media, firearm myths abound. I will now attempt to address some of the most outlandish in no particular order.

Plastic Fantastic

The first one I will address is that “Plastic” guns can not be detected by airport security equipment. This myth was most likely created by the movie, “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” starring Bruce Willis. In that movie, Willis’ character makes a reference to a mythical Glock 7 pistol, which he states is “a porcelain gun made in Germany that cost more than a month’s salary and is undetectable by metal detectors.” Here is the truth concerning that.

Glock 17 9mm semi-auto handgun left profile
The Glock 17 “plastic” pistol is a great piece of hardware that can be relied on for a variety of situations. However, only in Hollywood would anything think it defeat a metal detector.

Glock never made a model 7, its first pistol was the model 17 and Glocks were made in Austria, not Germany. While it is true that a Glock has a fair amount of polymer in its frame, it is a dense material that is visible to X-rays. Also, 85% of the Glock is still made of steel. This is true for any polymer-framed pistol as well, not just Glocks. There’s no such thing as a gun that is invisible to metal detectors.


The next one we have all seen examples of is that you can make anything explode just by shooting it. Once again, we have all seen the hero shoot at a car’s gas tank and it promptly explodes into a huge ball of flame. Or the hero shoots at an oxygen tank embedded in a shark’s mouth and it promptly blows the great fish to smithereens, etc., etc. The truth is, if cars exploded into huge fireballs with every tiny puncture or sudden impact, every automobile manufacturer would have been buried in lawsuits years ago.

To get a gas tank to blow up by shooting it, you need to light a fire outside the tank to vaporize the gas inside it to the point that the tank over-pressurizes. Then, you would have to shoot it with a special incendiary bullet. Ordinary copper or steel-jacketed bullets just don’t produce enough sparks to set anything on fire reliably.

There exists the extreme possibility that a steel-jacketed bullet may produce enough sparks to start a fire, but this is not a reliable method of ignition. Special incendiary bullets have been developed for specialized applications, but they are not commonly available outside the military.

Man firing a shotgun while a car blows up in the foreground
In this scene, we see a shotgun-wielding hero exploding the bad guys with a well-placed round of buckshot.

Travel Reservations?

Another one of my favorites is when someone gets shot with a pistol and flies backwards 20 feet through the air and crashes through a plate glass window on his way to the middle of the street. It’s always impressive but impossible. A bullet fired from a handheld firearm does not have enough kinetic energy to knock someone over let alone propel them through the air. That goes along with another unbelievable favorite where it appears that bullets cannot penetrate car doors. There are always running gun battles in movies where cars get riddled with gunfire and no one is hit or injured and it’s always in amazing style.

The truth is, even small caliber projectiles fired from a handgun will penetrate a single car door, provided they don’t hit the steel support beams of the car. Rifles and shotgun slugs will easily penetrate clear through the body of the car, come out the other side, and keep going. But somehow no one gets hit when machine guns riddle their vehicle at close range…

Checking a target for bullets that penetrated the car door
Here we have the results of pistol rounds penetrating the car’s doors and putting holes in the target before exiting the other side of the car.

Unlimited Ammo? Sign Me Up!

I’m sure you have all questioned this next one. Machine guns that have unlimited amounts of ammo and never need to be reloaded. Watch any action movie where people carry guns and you’ll notice that they keep firing for a very long time. Just to clarify, an M-16 fires at 700–950 rounds per minute depending on the model, which means it fires between 11.67 and 15.83 rounds each second in fully-automatic mode.

A standard magazine contains 20 or 30 rounds. At that rate of fire, a 30-round magazine will be emptied in approximately 2–3 seconds. Also, note that a standard combat load for a U.S. infantryman is around 200 rounds plus or minus. This means if someone carrying a standard combat load fired everything on full-auto, he could comfortably finish firing his entire supply of ammunition in under two minutes, including reloading.

The same is true for all fully-automatic rifles, not just M-16s. AK-47s fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute, which is 10 rounds/second, which means they will empty a 30-round magazine in three seconds flat. An FN FAL has a similar rate of fire at 650–700 rounds per minute. This is why some military rifle models (such as the M16A2 and M16A4 models) do not support full-auto as an option and only offer single-shot and three-round-burst modes.

Ed LaPorta shooting a full auto rifle
This frame is from a video of your humble author emptying the contents of a magazine in about two seconds in full-auto mode. The blurred streaks to my right are the brass being spit out.

Now think of the scene in any movie, where guys or gals break into a room brandishing weapons in full-auto mode and proceed to fire for like 30+ seconds and break every glass in sight, all without reloading once. Now that you understand the physical limitations involved, do you think that could happen in real life?

Dive! Dive!

This next one implies that you can escape being hit with bullets by diving underwater. We have all witnessed the scene where the hero dives underwater while the villain shoots at the water in an attempt to hit him, but the hero always emerges unscathed. Is this really possible? Well, there is some truth to it.

If someone shoots into a large body of water, the water offers a lot of resistance to bullet movement and slows down bullets considerably. To test this one, the popular TV show, Myth Busters aired an episode that tested this myth. They rigged up a block of ballistic gel to simulate a human body and immersed it in a swimming pool. They then shot at it with various weapons.

One of the interesting things noted was that slower-moving bullets from a 9mm pistol seemed to penetrate deeper into the pool than faster-moving spitzer bullets from rifles such as the M1 Garand. In fact, faster-moving spitzer bullets tumbled when they hit the water’s surface and quickly lost their speed. At certain angles, the bullets just disintegrated upon hitting the water’s surface.


Some of the tests included shooting a 9mm pistol vertically into the water at a gel block that was directly below at 8 feet. The bullets lost enough energy that they could not penetrate the gel block. Another test was shooting at a 30-degree angle into the water’s surface (just as someone might shoot at a person escaping across water) with some surprising results.

Handgun being firing underwater in a swimming pool
When fired underwater, you can see the 9mm lose power and start to sink to the bottom after only six feet or so.

One test of an AR rifle shooting NATO 5.56x45mm ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second from a range of 10 feet. The water impact caused the jacketed bullet to shatter when it hit the water’s surface — with no fragments penetrating the gel block. At a range of 3 feet, the bullet broke up as before, but the tip of the bullet just slightly penetrated the gel block in what would produce a non-fatal injury.

Using an M1 Garand rifle (which fires a much larger bullet at 2,600 feet per second) showed similar results. At a range of 10 feet, the bullet simply shattered on hitting the water’s surface, and at 2 feet, it barely penetrated the gel block. When they used a Barrett .50 caliber rifle (the largest shoulder-fired weapon in service), the result was the bullets creating a big splash upon hitting the surface of the water, but they either disintegrated or lost enough momentum after traveling in 3 feet of water that they couldn’t inflict a fatal wound to anyone below this depth.

The conclusion was that this scenario could work if the person is deep enough underwater, as water does decelerate bullets by a surprisingly huge amount. Also, faster-moving spitzer bullets tend to disintegrate a lot quicker when they hit the water surface, depending on the angle and speed.

I Don’t Need No Stinking Spearguns!

So long as we are in the water on this, the last one we will look at is whether you can fire a gun underwater. The first thing I need to mention is that some may have heard of special forces using guns that can fire underwater. To clarify, there is the Russian SPP-1, which is a pistol that was invented for combat divers.

The truth is that you don’t need a special gun that fires underwater, most modern ordinary weapons can do so, but it is an extremely bad idea. The first thing that must be understood is that sound carries a lot further underwater, so if you happen to be underwater when firing a weapon, it could rupture your eardrums and severely disorient or render you unconscious due to the shockwave.

Russian SPP-1 pistol on a red piece of felt
Russian SPP-1 pistol invented to be fired underwater by combat divers.

The second problem is when the barrel contains an air bubble when underwater, the bullet travels through the bubble and then hits the water. Because the water is not as compressible as air, the pressure spreads in all directions. With the sudden pressure building up, something has to give and it usually ends up with either the barrel or the action failing.

Let’s assume for the moment that you clear the weapon of all air bubbles and then attach a string so that the weapon remains underwater to fire while the shooter stays out of the water (or at least with their head out). In that case, most modern weapon wills fire. However, the range of the weapon will be severely shortened since water provides significantly more resistance to bullets than air. Tests have determined that even an M-1 Garand bullet only had a range of around 6 feet) when fired underwater.

The resistance of water also applies to the operating mechanisms of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. This means that these weapons will most likely not go through their operating cycles and most likely will only fire one shot. In conclusion, it is possible to fire a gun underwater, but it is an extremely bad idea.

I hope this has addressed some of the things about firearms you may have questioned over the years and provides some truth and understanding for you. Surely you have some favorite firearm movie myths (lasers, suppressors) of your own. Share them in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (30)

  1. Very interesting article. I learned a lot about the penetrating abilities of firearms in water. Hollywood fooled me again..Glad I read this author’s clarification on it.

  2. Very interesting article. I learned a lot about the penetrating abilities of firearms in water. Hollywood fooled me again..

  3. @Sgt. Davis… I was just relating what “someone who was there” related to me. I have no idea of any of the particulars of the incident. And the .40 and 10mm are about the only calibers in general circulation that I have never fired, so, I will not claim to know anymore that what I related. I suppose it could be that that officer just did not like .40’s or the Feds were at a range that was not reasonable to make those shots. As I said, I don’t know.

    As far as old trucks go, many years ago, I had a ’65 Ford Pickup, that on more than one occasion, I found myself standing on the hood or the roof of the cab to retrieve things for other people out of trees, etc. I could never do that with my 2005 Ranger. As I think about it, those doors were very stout, but that was decades ago, when all cars and trucks were just huge chunks of steel. And as a footnote, I never considered testing them for ballistic resistance.

  4. Real fun article to read Ed but does this mean that we have to wait until Godzilla comes ashore before we can take pot shots at it? Now don’t go and tell me to “get a submarine” because it’s totally impractical at this point in my life. Great article as usual!

  5. @Bo… what were the Feds using, powdered bullets? Haha! I carried the .40 for years on duty and still do occasionlly in civilian life… My former father in law had a ’67 F100 and I’ve had some older trucks and indeed the steel is thicker than today’s but for the deputy to say that the .40 didn’t even penetrate the outer shell… I can’t say I buy that at all unless the Feds had some REALLY craptastic ammo. My 180gr .40 has no trouble going through BOTH doors of a modern vehicle from 20 yards away and still carry enough energy to severly injure someone on the other side… I figure two doors worth of modern steel is equal to or greater than the thickness of one “old Ford” door. .45 ACP as a round is good though, no doubt. Just not a big fan of the 1911 platform.

  6. As I read this post I was reminded of a 1973 ford I once owned. Ford made heavy duty trucks back then and the sheet metal was indeed thicker. Also the door had that thicker steel on the outside and the inside of the door. That being said I was struggling believing the story you were told. I have experience with the .45 and the .40 as well as the 9mm. I have done some lay testing on all three. When the officer said the .40s didn’t penetrate the truck I was doubtful, but not prepared to call BS. Like I said the trucks were tuff. However, I assume the statement “looked like it had been hit with a ball peen hammer” meant that the .40 didn’t even penetrate the outer layer. To that I call a very profound BS. The old Ford trucks were tuff, but they weren’t armored. The officer was likely fabricating a story to support your common belief in the .45. Which by way, I totally agree with.

  7. Response to David,
    Check out MCWP 3-15.1 Machineguns and Machinegun Gunnery, Chapter 6 and associated annexes how to fire from a defoliate position and use the indirect fire method to achieve effects on target. The art of indirect machinegun gunnery was put to deadly use in WWI, several good books on the subject.

  8. Arnold firing M16s like pistols, one in each hand mind you, in Commando because you know: he’s yuuuge!
    Also, worst one ever: curving the bullet with Angie Jolie in Wanted… uhhhggghhh!
    A more in depth critique is in the older 60’s spy movies where the shooter has smaller caliber pistols 25, 38, etc the idea is they’re such a good shot they can hit vitals at 10 feet and score a one shot kill to the heart or head…the chest plate and forward portion of the skull are pretty thick… there’s a reason Saturday night specials were intended to be shoved into the victims gut or neck before discharging…

  9. Why is it that, in every scene where someone threatens to shoot another person, they put in a gun cocking sound each time the gun is pointed at the person. If the gun was cocked the first time it was pointed, then why does it need to be re-cocked each time it is re-pointed? Drives me bonkers.

  10. Maybe 20 years ago, plus or minus a few, I was working in the ER when a member of the Oklahoma County Sheriff Department’s Fugitive Apprehension Team was in our department escorting a patient to be seen. I immediately noticed he was carrying a 1911 and commented on it. That led to a lengthy conversation as we talked about his gun and our mutual affection for the 1911. He stated that all of the people on his team carried pistols chambered in .45 ACP and not just 1911’s. He then related an incident that he had been involved in some months previous when their team, in concert with Federal agents, were rounding up a variety of wanted individuals.

    The two teams were following a particular pair of individuals who were driving an “old beat-up Ford pickup” when one of the guys realized that there were several cars full of LEO’s following them. He assumed the driver of the truck had narked him out and killed him when they were stopped at a light before he began shooting at the officers. There was a major shootout at the light, right beside a school bus loaded with children. The individual in question did not survive the encounter, but at least no children were injured.

    The officer went on to state that all of the Feds were carrying .40’s and not a single .40 caliber round penetrated the shell of the pickup; they shattered the windshield, front and side windows, and the mirrors. The perp dropped down below the window for protection as he fired on the officers. The perp was killed by .45 ACP rounds fired by the locals through the doors and metal shell of the truck. He used the words Swiss cheese when describing the holes where the .45 pounds hit, said where the .40’s hit just looked like someone had taken a ball peen hammer to the truck.

    I do not have any idea as to the distance the Feds were from the truck or how far the locals were, for that matter. Did not do anything to build confidence in the .40 caliber round as an effective way to stop a fleeing felon.

  11. This was a good article, but a couple of movie references are off a little. First the Plastic Gun vs. xrays issue goes way back before any of the Die Hard movies. When a new fledging company out of Austria started making a handgun with a polymer frame, the Anti gunners went nuts. Every liberal talk show host had their input on how hijackers would have a hayday. This was back in the day when hijackers wanted money and wanted to live to spend it.

    The flaming Mercedes above is from the Patrick Swazey move “Road House”. It does not have the bad guy in it. The bad guy or one of them is the guy with the shotgun. The car belongs to Swazey, good guy. We found out a few moments later that he was not in it. Then he goes on to take out all of the bad guys, all of which have guns, without ever using a gun. But that’s a “could they really do that” question for another forum.

  12. My absolute favorite is the Western ‘Open Range.’ A great movie, but it breaks down somewhat during the final shoot-out scene in which the character played by Kevin Costner fans his .45 and fire’s off at least ten or twelve rounds…all after firing several shots without reloading. Absoutely amazing!

  13. It seems the best shooters in world history all reside in the Walking Dead universe. All head shots, every time all the time at Any distance with any firearm. It boggles the mind.

  14. I always like it when a fire sprinkler head is shot, and every sprinkler in the building starts spraying….only in hollywood!!

  15. Subsonic ammunition will travel further underwater than supersonic ammunition. And DSG Technology AS, produces Supercavitating Bullets called CAV-X! Unfortunately they’re available in only three calibers 5.56×45 NATO, 7.62×51 NATO and 12.7×99 NATO! The latter .50BMG will travel up to 60-meters underwater and penetrate ~100mm mild steel when fired directly underwater! In the Air, fired from ~2* the bullet will only travel ~30-meters once entering water…

  16. Thanks. Forwarded this to “she who must be obeyed” to give some credence to my “nope, never would happen” comments. She really loves my comments about military uniforms on TV. like Lt. Commanders wearing scrambled eggs (NCIS New Orleans).

  17. Thanks for pulling together some information that can be used while engaged in conversation with those who don’t shoot. Being knowledgable on a subject is always helpful.
    You didn’t mean how holiwood movies fail to reflect the reality of the report when a gun is fired, especially in an enclosed space such as a car (Pulp Fictio, as an example). When I was much, much younger my shooting body and I thought it would be a good idea to use the bench seat in a car as a rifle rest. We opened both doors and shot through the vehicle. The repercussion of the rifle was extremly painful, even with hearing protection. As a result I am extremly reluctant to discharge a gun while in an enclosed space, such as a car, cave, culvert, etc. Over reaction on my part or unrealistic dipiction by movie producers?

  18. A bit off topic… I’m writing a novel where at some point the bad guy fires an AR-10 at an angle (greater than 60 degrees) in order to hit a tall structure that is some distance from the shooter and is open at the top (the opening is the target). I know that hitting a target at a bullet’s terminal velocity would not be as effective as hitting it at relatively close range, and also that the bullet will not follow a perfect parabolic curve (the shot cannot be that accurate), and will be influenced by the current altutude, air temperature, etc. Anyways, would love to see an article (based on facts or speculation) that addresses a situation similar to the one I just described. Feel free to contact me if in need of more details. Thank you.

  19. Don’t forget to explain that suppressors don’t totally quiet a round being fired like Hollywood shows in movies. Like Hillary Clinton said after the Las Vegas shooter shot into the crowds from above. ” Thank God the shooter didn’t have a silencer because then the people never would have known they were being shot at.” But how owning a suppressor shouldn’t be restrictive because it makes shooting better reducing decibels.

  20. Pretty good article, Ed… funny enough, Thursday night I happen to catch two episodes of Hollywood Weapons… and the two senarios they were doing….? Shooting a windshield under water and of course the JAWS diver’s tank in the giant shark’s mouth scene. Haha! Now I pretty much already knew nothing was going to come of the SCUBA tank one. Just not going blow unless MAYBE using some type of tracer or similar. However what I did find interesting was the under water through windshield test. I knew water slowed a projectile down quite a bit, hence the whole reason for water capture tanks in forensics ballistic testing, the 9mm bouncing off wasn’t exactly a shocker but the .357 mag not making it was. It wound up taking a .454 Casull to go through the glass… and the shooter Terry Schappert only fired it once. You could tell he wanted no part of firing a second shot, said the shockwave was “a bit much”. Some of the junk Hollywood tries to portray with firearms has so many non-shooters confused into thinking it can actually happen and then we wind up with goofball politicians basing silly laws/restrictions on such misbelief… anyway, thanks again, Ed

  21. I would like to thank Jayson, Dale, Ace and all the others that have posted complimentary comments regarding my efforts, it is most appreciated and a wonderful break from the usual internet commentators that really don’t know how much they don’t know. Thank You, Ed

  22. This contributor is quickly becoming my favorite because of hs diverse topics and deep knowledge.
    Now I know to stop bringing my Desert Eagle into the shower and tub. I’m going to get me a PPKs like James, James Bond. They seem to work everywhere. ; )

    All seriousness aside, this is a very interesting article. Different, definitely different and unusual topic.

  23. The most interesting man in the world knows a thing or two about Hollywood, as a cursory google search reveals his history…
    But he also knows guns and ballistics.
    Reality, unfortunately, is not as entertaining as the fantasy of Hollywood.

    Another great article, Mr. LaPorta.

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