Though the lead writer does happen to have military training, we’re not here to discuss real-world firearms and their use. Furthermore, it is centred on American fiction, since this is the one that floods the world over – and feeds on conventions developed elsewhere, such as Hong Kong action movies of the 1990s.
This article is dual-statted for both DC Heroes 3rd Edition and Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition. Neither of these systems is oriented toward fine-grained distinctions, and a set of stats can easily cover an entire category of weapons.
We’re not going to draw any distinctions between, say a 9x19mm and .40S&W round, because the game systems simply do not support it. People interested in finer distinctions are better-served by more details-oriented games (my favourite is GURPS 4th edition).
This also means that this article isn’t about long lists of guns – they’d all have the same stats !
The illustrations in this article mostly come from the Internet Movies Firearms Database, and we own the copyrights to absolutely none of it. If you like the photos, hit the IMFBD, there are many more and they’re larger.
Return of the caveat
As noted above, and as heavily emphasised through the article, this text is about firearms as depicted in comics books, action movies and video games plus some related genres like pulp novels. This is all about fictional things. It’s not meant to cover anything like real world weapons, which behave differently, and makes no claim whatsoever about realism.
The article does provide some useful facts and figure about how these things work, but this is all intended for verisimilitude, not realism. When the common depiction fiction is very different from the real world we’ll mention it, but the goal is not explain how it works in real life.
The tone and content of the article are probably clear enough that this disclaimer isn’t necessary, but many people have a rigid stance on the subject. Better safe than sorry, heh ?
Since a lot of long guns we are going to cover are rare and unusual – this is about firearms in fiction, after all – we’re going to make two rounds through the categories of guns covered in this article.
The first round will cover the 2-3 common types of weapons in each category, the ones that represent the vast majority of models. Then the second round will cover the “special application” firearms in each category, which are much rarer.
Many firearms reference special rules — for instance Long Reload or Autofire in DCH, or Armour-Piercing or Shotgun Blast in DCA. See the corresponding New Rules Files for each game system.
Submachineguns – the basics
Submachinegun – World War Two
Submachineguns started appearing at the tail end of World War One, with weapons such as the MP18. But, with one exception (which we’ll discuss in the second part of the article), their glory days came during World War Two.
A submachinegun (SMG) is generally shorter than a carbine, fires a handgun round, and is capable of burst fire. It is thus optimised for close-range, high-intensity combat with little time to aim. Trench warfare was the SMG’s craddle, and the urban and jungle combat of WWII prompted wide adoption.
WWII-era submachineguns tended to be designed for cheap, simple mass production. Yet multiple designs were quite successful, and you could still see them in stories during the 1970s or even the 1980s.
DCH WW2 submachinegun [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 06, R#04, Advantage : Autofire].
M&M WW2 submachinegun [Ranged Multiattack Ballistic Damage 4].
The Thompson M1 is the most emblematic American SMG of this era, often associated with the USMC. It is a simplified version of the Thompson M1928 design (more about it later), and fires a .45 ACP round. The likes of Sergeant Rock, the Gravedigger or Sergeant Nick Fury often sported a M1.
The MP40, with its famous silhouette, was the usual gun of the Nazi stormtrooper. It was sometimes erroneously called the “Schmeisser” by Allied troops, and fires 9mm Parabellum.
The Sten was an iconic British design, wielded by mustachioed SAS commandos or doughty Allied partisans such as Mademoiselle Marie. The magazines could be of so-so quality, though. Said magazines go into the side of the weapon, rather than the bottom as with most designs, and are sometimes used as a forward handle.
The M3, nicknamed the “Grease Gun”, came after the Thompson M1. Like the Sten, it could be produced ever more quickly and cheaply to arm the huge armies of WWII. It was also common among NATO troops during the 1950s, and even later for rear-echelon troops.
The “Papasha” (officially, the PPSh-41) was a Soviet weapon, with less of a fictional footprint than the previous ones. It fires 7.62mm Tokarev rounds, and outwardly resembles early SMGs such as the aforementioned MP18.
Submachinegun – Modern
These start appearing in comics and other stories during the late 1970s, and have become dominant during the 1980s. These aren’t too different from their predecessors, but :
- Usually have a higher quality in design and material.
- Often offer selective fire capabilities.
The latter comes from research showing that the three-round burst was the better compromise in terms of hitting the target and not going empty too quickly. Once the selector is in burst mode, each pull of the trigger will release a quick burst of three bullets.
Vehicular crews and shock infantry were a big customer for these. But much of the fictional footprint came with tactical police (such as SWAT units) getting equipped with those, usually to storm buildings. They excel for close assault, burst fire partially compensates for poor visibility (say, from tear gas) and the lighter ammunition won’t penetrate walls and thus hit unintended targets.
Starting with the 2010s, the fictional footprint receded as tactical police (especially in the US) started being depicted as using assault carbines.
DCH Submachinegun [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 07, R#03, Advantage : Autofire].
M&M Submachinegun [Ranged Multiattack Ballistic Damage 4].
While there are many designs, two models pretty much own the category in English-language fiction.
The Uzi is a 9mm Israeli design from the 1950s. Aside from images of Israeli troops, it gained exposure from images of Ronald Reagan ’s bodyguards and was used in 1984 by the Terminator. Uzis were everywhere in 1980s and 1990s stories, and had a reputation for being highly reliable.
The Uzi was also often seen in its Mini-Uzi variant. There’s no difference between the two, story-wise.
The Heckler & Koch (H&K) MP5 is a 9mm European design from the 1960s. It was famously used by the SAS in counter-terror operations, and from there trickled down to become the de rigueur tactical police weapon. It is an expensive gun with German engineering, seen as accurate and reliable.
John McClane (Bruce Willis in Die Hard) used one, which contributed to the weapon’s fictional footprint.
The HK MP5 has an action-heroes-friendly feature. Once you have inserted a fresh magazine, the bolt has to return to its forward position to chamber a round. This is called the “HK slap”, since the correct method is actually to hit the cocking handle on the top with the fat of your hand to let it fly forward unassisted with a satisfying, macho metallic sound.
As with the Uzi, the MP5K (for “Kurtz”, meaning “short”) variant is often seen with little functional difference.
Shotguns – the basics
A pump-action and/or semi-automatic rifle-sized firearm, usually firing buckshot. Shotguns see a lot of use in police work, particularly in the US. In the real world their advantages are debatable. But in movies, video games, comics and the like shotguns are powerful weapons.
They’ll shred everything, and inexplicably send people flying. They are great for shooting monsters, zombies, etc.. This inflated image of power is probably tied to the pump action used in many models, giving the impression that each shot is so large and powerful that it needs a strong, loud, vigourous move to be readied. Ka-chink !
These guns nearly always fire 12-gauge, 00 buckshot. In fiction and games, such a load is usually powerful enough to defeat body armour yet spreads quickly enough after leaving the barrel to hit two persons standing close to each other. It has essentially no downsides.
Shotguns have access to numerous speciality ammunition types. These are usually depicted as being even more powerful than buckshot.
Just like action heroes might rake the slide of their semi-auto pistol before a fight, they pump a round into their shotgun (sometimes even if the weapon doesn’t have a pump !) before they go in. Because this looks even better.
DCH Repeater Shotgun [BODY 04, Shotgun Blast (Range 03): 06, Ammo: 07, R#03, Recommended STR: 02, Drawback: Very Long Reload].
M&M Repeater Shotgun [Shotgun Blast 5].
Older shotguns that only have a pump action require an Automatic Action (in DCH) or a Move Action (in DCA) to ready a new round before shooting. This can be alleviated with removing a bit called the disconnector – when you do that you can just keep the trigger depressed and every round you pump into the chamber will immediately be fired.
Some early pump-action shotguns never had a disconnector. Modern shotguns often have a semi-automatic action, and can be fired without expending extra Actions.
The Remington 870 and its variants are the archetypal American shotgun. It is also the most common police shotgun in the US since forever. Characters who use it are innumerable, so let’s just mention Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator II.
Benelli M3 and M4 Super 90 shotguns, preferably with a pistol grip and few tactical attachments, are another police shotgun example. Visually, this sort of weapon is more associated with SWAT units that with patrol officers or detectives. These series have a reputation for their quick action. Renee Montoya of the GCPD has occasionally used shotguns like those.
The Franchi SPAS-12 is a model with distinctive visuals, which earned it a role in innumerable movies and video games. It stock can fold up to rest atop of the gun. It makes for easier carrying, and helps with the mean and powerful looks. The photo below is for a short-barrelled model. Notable SPAS-12 users include the Terminator, Roberta the maid (Black Lagoon) and Hella.
We can now… yes ? Ah, good point from our friend Angelina about visuals. Here’s one last example of how to make a repeater shotgun look scarier on the movie screen or comic book page. What’s Ms. Jolie is about to demonstrate was also used by Barb Wire in her comic book during the 1990s :
The weapon used here looks like some brutal house-clearing monster, but it’s a normal repeater shotgun (a H&K FABARM FP6 – presumably the Entry model with a 14” barrel).
However it seems very dangerous because it has been shortened (normally the barrel is longer) and thus looks thicker, and a heat shield has been added over the barrel so it’s thicker, heavier and has a perforated pattern that evokes an old machinegun — which is… just about the only use of a heat shield nowadays.
The actress also uses a grip that leaves the matte pump in evidence to make it clear it has a manly pump action. This is a typical set-up that visually suggests power, and inspire the depiction of shotguns in action media — this shot is a nice example of why shotguns in fiction have such high stats.
Thanks, Angelina ! You’re a dear.
Double-Barrelled Sawed-Off Shotgun
A break-open shotgun, usually with two side-by-side barrels. Said barrels have been sawed to shorten them, and in many cases the butt-stock has also been removed.
Such a weapon is wielded by disparate but influential types of characters. It was at first strongly associated with Mafia assassins, who needed a weapon that could be hidden under a coat yet deliver a powerful one-shot attack at close range – it is sometimes called a lupara (“gun used against wolves”) since before that it was associated with shepherds.
Later influential users were Mel Gibson in the Mad Max movies, the anonymous marine in the DooM video games and Ash in Evil Dead, with his “boom stick”. No wonder that the 12-gauge sawed-off has developed an image of brutal power going even beyond that of the full-sized shotgun — basic ballistics be damned.
DCH Double-Barrelled Sawed Off [BODY 03, Shotgun Blast (Range 02): 07, Ammo: 02, R#04, Recommended STR: 03, Drawback: Long Reload. Note : EV can be raised to 08 Diminishing by shooting both barrels at once, expending two Ammo and increasing Recommended STR to 04].
M&M Double-Barrelled Sawed Off [Shotgun Blast 6 Wide Choke, Diminished Range 1, Limited 1 (One shot, then must be reloaded)].
The “super-shotgun” in the 1990s DooM video game is a special beast. For starters, it shoots more pellets than what you load in. See our DooM Weapons Locker article for more.
Other sorts of shortened shotguns
Enshortening scatterguns has long been an American preoccupation, and several archetypes have emerged over time.
1930s- whippet gun
A typical 1930s approach is the “whippet gun” famously used by Ms. Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie & Clyde fame). Hers was 20-gauge semi-auto Remington Model 11 with a cut down barrel. Here’s a famous photo, though her forearm obscures the stock.
A “whippet gun” (so named because it can be kept hidden under a coat and whipped out for use) doesn’t look particularly short by modern standards. But keep in mind that back then shotguns were chiefly used for hunting, and thus had long barrels. Bonnie’s whippet gun was also low-cap by modern standards (four rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber).
1950s – Stakeout shotgun and 1980s – Witness Protection shotgun
Essentially the same thing, especially for storytelling purposes. The stock has been removed, a new grip had been added, and the barrel has been shortened as compared to a combat shotgun. This weapon can easily be carried in a car by an officer, and can be quickly produced for self-defense or close-quarter fighting purposes.
“Stakeout” is the name of a specific release of the Ithaca Model 37, with a pistol grip. Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn in Aliens 2) uses one. Capacity is also 4 + 1.
“Witness Protection” comes from noticing during the 1980s that some US Marshals used such shortened shotguns, particularly in the Witness Protection Program. These were typically converted Remington 870s, with a distinctive “dog bone” grip. The sling is also an unusual arrangement, allowing the weapon to be carried upside-down around the shoulder and concealed under a jacket.
A variant seen in many 1990s stories (frex, in Marvel’s Johnny Blaze’s hands) was a Remington 870 with a pistol grip, a pump with a pistol grip underneath, and probably a saddle-type shell holder. It’s the same gun, but the front grip helps working the pump and the holder allows for carrying more ammo in an easily accessible manner.
Shorter still !
See the second half of the article for even shorter stuff.
Rifles – the basics
Infantry Bolt-Action Rifle
The sort of rifle that was the standard weapon for soldiers during much of World War Two – and before. This is chiefly of interest to campaigns set during the war. While the heroes will probably sport submachineguns, many of their opponents and allies will have bolt-action rifles. And of course, these weapons remained in use for decades in guard units, militias, poorer countries, etc.
“Bolt action” means that there’s a sort of knobbed lever above the trigger. You work it to get a new round into the chamber so you can fire. As can be imagined, having a lot of practice considerably improves the rate of fire of such a rifle. The ammunition is stored in a magazine, but not the kind you can eject – you reload it bullet by bullet then lock it back in position.
These weapons were replaced by semi-automatic rifles (such as the M1 Garand) and soon by battle rifles and then assault rifles. Bolt-action rifles endure today in some applications, such as sniper rifles and hunting rifles.
DCH IBA Rifle [BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 06, Ammo: 05, R#02, Drawback: Long Reload, Misc.: an Automatic Action is needed to ready the next round by working the bolt].
M&M IBA Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 5, Quirk (a Move Action is necessary to ready the next round by working the bolt].
Some bolt-action rifles had more ammunition. For instance, the excellent Lee-Enfield SMLE had a magazine holding ten bullets.
The leading bolt-action rifles of the first half of the XXth century look very much like each other. So we’ll only illustrate one.
The most classic is probably the Mauser Karabiner 98 Kurtz (which is neither a carbine, nor short), which armed German soldiers. This exceptional design is one of the weapons that did wonders for the Mauser brand name and the image of German gunmakers in general. Its bolt action is still used by most modern sniper rifles.
The standard infantry weapon worldwide. Though previously a symbol of soldiers, the assault rifle started spreading to other users in the 1980s.
In particular, US fiction had the archetypal arm of the USSR, the AK-type assault rifle, as a symbol of social disorder arming revolutionaries, terrorists and gang members. Conversely the archetypal American gun, the M16 type assault rifle, came to arm law enforcement agents.
Beyond the symbolism, this reflects various real-world trends. There are literally millions of cheap, durable AK rifles worldwide since the 1960s. Conversely, by the 1990s SWAT teams in the US started favouring M4-type assault carbines instead of SMGs, while some police agencies started using semi-automatic M16-type rifles as their long arm of choice.
Assault rifles became the standard in the military since most infantry engagements now occurred at limited range – powerful, long-range bullets were no longer an advantage. Furthermore, short bursts of automatic fire are an efficient means to hit the enemy, and the light rounds used by assault rifles are easier to carry in large quantities – yet remain deadly enough in most applications.
DCH Assault Rifle [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 06, Ammo: 08, R#02, Advantage : Autofire].
M&M Assault Rifle [Ranged Multiattack Ballistic Damage 5].
A few emblematic models:
- A type 2 AK-47 as a common AK-series Russian assault rifle.
- A M16A3 as a common M16-series American assault rifle.
- A M4 as a common M16-type American assault carbine.
- The Steyr AUG is an Austrian 1970s weapon, but its unique visuals often led to it being used as a symbol of an advanced/next-gen assault rifle.
- The FAMAS F1, an older French assault rifle, also has a unique look that has been sometimes used to signify an advanced/sci-fi-ish weapon. It is often featured in the landmark Metal Gear Solid video game.
- The SAR21 is a modern Singaporean assault rifle, and would be a good prop for a comic book futuristic assault rifle.
M1 .30 Carbine
This American carbine from World War Two wasn’t the greatest. Its .30 round was nothing to text home about. But it was convenient, it was easy to use, and it was ubiquitous.
You can find it in all sorts of stories from the later half of World War Two to the early 1980s (when they get replaced by submachineguns such as Uzis). And it’s used by everyone – soldiers, policemen, gangsters, thugs, mercenaries, militiamen, terrorists, ex-soldiers, agents… everyone !
Early on the M1 Carbine — like the Garand rifle — had the immense advantage of being a semi-automatic, clip-fed weapon in a world still mostly equipped with bolt-action rifles. Furthermore, it was small and light compared to a ‘real’ infantry rifle. So you could take it with you in a vehicle, airdrop with it, or wield it even if small and underfed.
15 shots before a quick reload was an edge. And of course, having a long barrel and a stock, it was much more precise than any pistol (at least in the real world).
Whenever somebody in a campaign set in the 1940s to the 1970s needs something heavier than a pistol that is not a shotgun, assume a M1 Carbine. And for snipers who are just mooks and are not meant as a serious threat ? M1 Carbine with a scope.
DCH M1 Carbine [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 15].
M&M M1 Carbine [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Extended Range 1].
The first carbine below is a typical late 1940s one. The second is a airborne version (presumably a M1A1), with the distinctive folding stock.
A powerful, accurate, long-range rifle fitted with a precision scope.
Snipers appeared during WWI, and by WWII started being mythologised (particularly Red Army lone snipers). The Kennedy assassination, movie hitmen, elite infantrymen such as the USMC’s Scout-Snipers, and successful video games with potent sniper rifles (such as Counterstrike) continued this trend.
Sniping in a military context usually takes place in the 500-to-800 metres range.
It is an exacting technique. Howbeit fiction tends to either completely overlook the realities of sniping (align cross-hair with target, pull trigger) or be detailed about all the considerations it implies. Ammunition-specific ballistic tables to calculate bullet drop, precise ranging, wind speed and direction, humidity, controlled breathing, hand-loaded match-grade ammunition, etc.
Fiction seldom depicts the heroes being sniped out of the blue (unless they’re bulletproof). GMs should consider having the first shot from a sniper automatically miss, or kill somebody who’s not important to the plot.
The third cliché is the grazing hit. Usually it knocks out the heroes rather than kill them and is presented as an amazing stroke of luck. The last cliché is the “laser glint” (see the Accessories and Ammunition article).
Sniper rifles are fragile, and the realities of the field can easily throw something out of alignment. It’s not uncommon to operate with the rifle protected by a sort of special padded backpack to isolate it from random small impacts.
DCH Sniper Rifle [BODY 01, Projectile weapon: 06, Range: 08, Telescopic vision: 04, Ammo: 06, R#02. Limitation: Projectile weapon has No Range – use the Range given next instead].
M&M Sniper Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 5, Improved Range 1, Improved Critical 1, Senses 1 (Extended visual 1), Quirk 1 (Fragile)].
Certain bolt-action sniper rifles can have the drawback of requiring an Automatic action (DCH) or a Move Action (DCA) to chamber the next round, as with the infantry bolt-action rifles above.
The Remington M700 series is the archetypal American sniper rifle. It is used by both the police and the military. The Accuracy International Arctic Warfare 7.62mm, seen in many video games, has a visual design that even more strongly evokes the image of a sniper rifle.
The SVD Dragunov is a Soviet rifle. While not intended to be used at the ranges a dedicated sniper rifle works at (it’s a squad’s marksman rifle, not a real sniper rifle) its ominous name and lines give it all the properties of a sniper rifle in fiction.
Finally, the DSR-1 is included because of its unusual looks. It’s a bullpup rifle, with the magazine and chamber behind the pistol grip, making it more compact than older designs. The magazine in front of the trigger guard is a spare one, it doesn’t feed anything.
Special applications weapons
Part #2 of this article covers each category again, in the same order. But now that we’ve done the basics, we’ll cover much rarer, specialised weapons.
Part #2 is now presented as a separate page, to facilitate loading on slow connections and devices.
When it comes to firearms in fiction, perception is everything, and one of the key branding elements for guns, sports cars and other macho pieces of equipment is nationality.
Though this will not usually matter for off-the-rack equipment, equipment specifically used by a Player Character or recurrent Non-Player Character might have the following adjustments based on common stereotypes :
- Israeli equipment (Desert Eagle or Jericho pistols, various sorts of Uzi submachineguns, Galil or Tavor assault rifles, etc.) and Russian equipment (AK-series assault rifles, Dragunov precision rifle, Guyrza pistol, etc.) are super-tough, need little maintenance – and in the rare case when they jam, they can be fixed with a manly slap on the receiver. In DC Heroes you can increase BODY by 01 and/or decrease R# by 1. In Mutants and Masterminds you can add Feature 1 (Exceptionally rugged).
- German equipment (MP5-series submachineguns, USP-series pistols, PSG-1 sniper rifles…) is super-accurate and a marvel of precision engineering. In Mutants and Masterminds you can consider Accurate 1, in DC Heroes giving it a Range 1 AP higher than normal.
- Other countries do not have enough of a marketing image on the US market to develop such stereotypes, though most emergent countries (China, Brazil, Mexico…) are liable to see their guns considered as less reliable purely out of stereotype.
- American guns are the standard and inform the base stats of the weapon categories in this article, such as anything “magnum” or with a pump action (real or imagined…) being more powerful. One niche is the mythology that existed (and still exists) around the stopping power of the .45 ACP round – in some stories it may be strong enough to give some .45s the stats of high-power semi-autos.
Helper(s): Roy Cowan, Chris Cottingham, Eric Langendorff, Azraelfl, Max, Darci and (allegedly) Angelina Jolie.