How Real Weapons Sound

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

John Reed entered West Point in 1964 and in his training was surprised by how real weapons sounds — that is, nothing like their Hollywood counterparts.

A real hand grenade, for instance, sounds like a cherry bomb, a golf-ball-sized firecracker:

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.

This overblown depiction may have cost soldiers and Marines their lives:

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.

Exaggerated Hollywood handgun sounds have also cost people their lives:

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.

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.

Full-power battle rifles, like the M-14, on the other hand, are even louder than people imagine:

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.

As you might imagine, a tank gun is even louder:

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.
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.

Incoming small-arms fire sounds like angry bees — but it’s also visually unusual, 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.

(Hat tip to Ilkka.)


  1. Rick C says:

    Nonetheless, you’d be smart to make an attempt to protect your hearing whenever possible. I fired a .357 revolver once outside in the country at a friend’s house, and the sound was loud enough to set my ears ringing and effectively deafen me for a few minutes. Every other time I’ve fired a gun I wore earplugs.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    A former soldier told me that while standing guard during our little war of independence here in Slovenia, it took them a minute before they figured out that the strange whistling was live AK fire, nothing at all like in the movies.

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