As long as we’re talking about guns and combat, I might as well hit on a few other movie mistakes (MMs) that shouldn’t exist.
MM1a: The Instant Experts (or “Why does everybody know how to use a gun when it’s convenient?”)
Most people have probably never fired a gun, and if they have its more likely to have been a shotgun or rifle. Hollywood takes advantage of this little fact in countless movies and TV shows. How? In Under Siege II, Steven Seagal manages to teach a young adult how to effectively use a pistol against mercenaries in something like three sentences. Granted, that’s not just a martial arts movie, but a sequel to a Steven Seagal movie, so realism isn’t expected. However, plenty of movies and TV show episodes involving some bystander, an untrained girlfriend/wife/child/friend of our protagonist, etc., being given or picking up a pistol and taking out one or more of the bad guys.
Ok, but what’s the problem? Well, here there isn’t usually one because the type of movies in which this happens aren’t the type that try to get details such as shooting stances right or render realistically the dynamics of CQB. However, this is more of an introduction to other inaccuracies. Basically, most people who fire a handgun for the first time, and in a firing range (not under duress or in mortal danger) can’t hit a target a few meters away. Pistols rarely have more than iron sites (i.e., no scope). What most people call “aiming’ gun enthusiasts, LE, military, etc., call getting a good “sight picture”.
This is a combination of “sight alignment” (holding the pistol such that the front and rear sights are aligned) and placement (the sights are aligned and placement is on the target).
This sounds easy. And for many an individual at some range it is. That’s because they close one eye. To see why this matters, try holding your hand up with your fingers curled into a circle, then, while keeping both eyes open, “focus” the circle on some object in the room. Now close your left eye, then open it and close your right. You’ll notice that not only does it seem as if your hand “jumps’ to the left or right, but that the smaller you make the hole and the smaller you try to center some object in that whole, the more likely it is that closing an eye means your hand “jumps” enough to cover the object that it was supposed to be centered on.
By closing one eye, you don’t get this effect: your sight alignment is aligned using only one eye. Shooters keep both eyes open, which means practicing something that I can only describe as somehow using only one eye to focus on the sights by “de-emphasizing” the visual information fed into the other eye.
That’s still the easy part. The hard part is having a good sight picture when you fire. All guns have something called “trigger pull”. Back when dueling with pistols was not that uncommon, many people had dueling pistols. What made them dueling pistols was mainly a very light trigger pull. The last thing you want, however, if you are on a special response team or you are an LE officer faced with a threat that requires you to draw your weapon is a “hair trigger” that will fire with the slightest touch. Chances are you will end up accidently firing your weapon. That’s why it is important to have a certain amount of trigger pull weight such that you actually have to use a fair degree of pressure when squeezing the trigger. The problem, however, is that this squeezing action tends to move your hand. In other words, even if your sight picture is perfect before you fire, when you start squeezing the trigger it’s difficult not to move your hand so much so that you totally miss your target. Finally, bullets are propelled out of their shells by a small explosion. By “small”, I mean relative to a block of C4 or a stick of dynamite. It’s a big enough explosion to move your hands enough to miss.
That’s without getting into the fact that it’s impossible to keep perfectly still, the effect of breathing on your sight picture, etc. Basically, it’s a lot harder to hit what would appear to be an easy target than one might think.
Unless, of course, one is a character in a film.
MM1b: How we know everybody in Hollywood has exactly the same vision
While the untrained character picking up a pistol for the first time tends not to occur in movies in which great care is taken to depict combat accurately enough so as not to strain credulity, there’s a related problem to “The Instant Expert” that does occur in such movies. Whether we’re watching Matt Damon or Liam Neeson using a rifle or submachine gun taken from a “bad guy” who they’ve just crippled using a series of strikes to the throat, groin, eyes, etc., or Leonardo DiCaprio picking up a dropped AK-47, there are countless times in which some highly trained soldier, spy, agent, etc., ends up obtaining a rifle that isn’t their own. What never happens is any adjustment to the sights. Let me explain.
Rear and front sights on a pistol are pretty close. That’s one reason why some pistols don’t allow you (at least not readily) to adjust the sights, and why often enough factory settings are fine. The other reason is that most of the time someone uses a handgun the distance between them and their assailant is minimal. With “long guns” (basically, anything with a barrel longer than that of a pistol), it’s an entirely different story. For example, take the standard US rifle and its smaller relative: the M16 and the M4 carbine. First, the front and rear sights are farther apart than they are for a pistol, and both are higher relative to the barrel than are pistol sights. This means that if you use “battle sight zero” (you set the sights so that they are aligned with where the bullet will hit first at 25 meters than 300), assuming you’ve adjusted the sights to fit what “battle sight zero” is for you (it’s different for everybody because things like where our eyes are located when holding the rifle and many other factors differ from person to person), and granted a perfect sight picture with perfect position and perfect everything, you are guaranteed to miss whatever is in your sight picture. As modern warfare is much more frequently urban warfare, and as a lot of people using m4s are part of some LE paramilitary unit, this 300 zero is usually a bad idea.
First, 300 meters is no longer the typical range. Second, a person who is 100 meters away is a bigger threat, and the battle sight zero will be significantly less accurate at this range. Third, 100 meters is about the standard range, and a 100m zero will be pretty accurate (maximum error of about 5cm) for any distance from 0 to 100m with a ~15cm error at 200m. In other words, a 100m zero will mean good accuracy at everything from someone standing right in front of you to someone over 100m away, and decent enough at distances of 200m. Meanwhile, if your target is 100m away and partially covered (e.g., shooting through a window), the battle site zero will require you to aim roughly a foot away from where you want to hit.
Yet, somehow, in every movie I’ve ever seen in which someone picks up a rifle of a fallen comrade (or enemy) or finds a weapons cache, or otherwise obtains a long gun, not only do they never adjust the sights for their particular vision, they don’t compensate for the inaccuracies that necessarily result from the sights at all. Somehow, though, this never matters.
MM2: The Cowboy
This one is an example of increased accuracy/realism in general, because we typically find it in stupid action flicks that we don’t expect realism from. It’s the use of two handguns at once. I don’t have to say much because luckily I’ve covered most of the relevant information in MM1. Basically, in order to hit a target with a handgun, you have to obtain a good sight picture and keep it as you fire. It’s hard enough when holding one pistol; it’s impossible if you’re shooting two pistols while running, leaping, or any of the other standard motions we find The Cowboy MM scene.
MM3: Enough about guns.
Ok, let’s talk explosives. Movies like Saving Private Ryan are among the few that are accurate here. Explosions result in a loud noise and a lot of dirt flying everywhere. In most movies, there’s the inevitable fireball. In reality, in order to get that fireball using real explosives, you have to use additional incendiary devices, and even military leaders at the Pentagon aren’t so stupid as to pay to make special pryotechnic modifications to all missiles, bombs, claymores, grenades, etc., just so that the explosions will look cooler.
MM4: Throwing knives and ninja stars
For purists, should I say shuriken? Regardless, Bujinkan Ninpo (the only current ninjitsu school I am familiar with) includes the use of “throwing stars”, but as a deterrent or distraction. They are typically just square or diamond shaped flattened steel with a big hole in the middle so that you can rapidly throw many of them (imagine holding a stack of cards and using your thumb to “flick” the topmost card at something multiple times and very quickly), and rapidly make many of them (they’re cheap; historically, this means the materials are readily available and the construction simple).
Worse still is knife throwing. The Hunted was a great movie when it comes to the depiction of knife fights between two trained individuals (something very rare in real life). The stance, moves, etc., while not universally agreed on as ideal (there is no universal agreement here), are definitely one of several standard stances, and in the film the stances are taken from the early days of combatives training developed by Fairbairn, Applegate, & Sykes (which is apropos, as training to fight knife-to-knife isn’t really a part of modern combatives systems outside of “traditional” martial arts, particularly Filipino, and what exists for US forces is mostly the same techniques introduced by Fairbairn, Sykes, & Applegate). The one big issue is the knife throwing. Yea, I have seen clips of people throwing knives into wood and I know that there are knife-throwing competitions, but I am not saying it is impossible to throw a knife at a board and have it stick. I’m referring to the idea that Hollywood depictions are consistent with physics and probability. Throwing a knife so that the point of impact is between the point of the knife and the target is one thing. Throwing a knife that actually penetrates someone’s rib cage or otherwise goes through bone is just ridiculous. Most operators carry folders, and consider it a bad thing to have to use their sidearm (I don’t mean transitioning to your secondary weapon to put the target down before reloading your primary; I mean, for whatever reason, your primary is out of action). Having to rely on a knife means things have gone terribly, terribly wrong. Throwing your knife is just giving away a weapon/tool. You’ve a better chance of using shuriken effectively.
The main issue is not that it is impossible for someone to throw a knife such that the point hits the target. It’s that, granting this, what will almost always happen is the knife will then bounce off. It takes a lot of force to stab through bone, and a fair amount to penetrate muscle and other tissue. So when some commando throws a combat fixed-blade in a scene and we see the 6 inch blade going through the target’s entire neck (The Rock) or into their heart (too many bad movies), it’s only slightly more realistic than making bullets curve or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Wires.