The Dreaded Smell of Cordite

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, with a topic that crops up regularly in mystery-writing circles. Several weeks ago, Lee Lofland of Writers’ Police Academy and “The Graveyard Shift” fame, who blogs about mistakes in police procedure seen on popular television shows like Castle, posted a list of twenty of these mistakes that have shown up in recent advance reading copies of crime novels. It’s a sad and sometimes funny commentary on careless research and you can read it (after reading the rest of this post, of course), at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/youre-still-writing-it-and-its-wrong/ 

What caught my eye was number twenty, which reads, and I quote: “Do I really need to address cordite? NO ODOR OF CORDITE!!!!”

 

"cords" of cordite

“cords” of cordite

Well, sadly, it does need to be addressed, because some otherwise intelligent writers of crime fiction apparently still don’t get that getting stuff wrong turns off readers who know better. Lee himself had a previous post on the subject back in 2009, which you can read at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/cordite-putting-this-puppy-in-the-graveagain/

Closer to home, the husband of a good friend of mine, a retired college professor, has for years felt compelled, when he comes across the phrase “the smell of cordite” in a novel, to write to the author. He has done this so often over the years that he developed what amounts to a form letter to send out. It reads as follows:

“Enjoy your books, but wonder why you (and other authors) use ‘the smell of cordite,’ a gunpowder that was last used in WW2 by the British using leftover obsolete powders in their long weapons. The smell is distinctive, unlike earlier black powder, and not at all like the subsequent gunpowders. It would not be used in any modern firearm, even in handloaded ammunition!”

He goes on to wonder if this an “in joke” among authors.

The joke is on us, I think, if we persist in ignoring the facts. And sadly, that’s just what some authors do. They don’t think it’s important to “get it right.” I won’t name names, but I’ve had other writers (even one from Maine!) tell me that it’s no big deal. Okay, yes, the majority of readers don’t know the smell of cordite from the stench of cigar smoke, but some do, and some of those readers are going to say, “If he got that wrong, what else was he careless about?”

In case you’re wondering, cordite was first developed in the U.K. in 1889 and used in rifle cartridges, tank guns, and naval guns. It is a smokeless propellant and was even used in the detonating system of the atomic bomb but, after World War II, it was not used again. Yes, there is a distinctive odor when a modern gun is fired, but it isn’t cordite. Today’s gunpowder smells sort of like fireworks.

Writers owe it to readers to check their facts and get the details right. Just because the detectives on television do it or say it doesn’t make it true, and using television dramas as research isn’t just plain lazy, it’s almost criminal!

Okay. End of rant. This one, by the way, was a fairly mild one. Unless you’re prepared for an explosion, don’t ever ask me what I think of the historical accuracy in the Showtime series The Tudors.

16th century wheel lock pistol

16th century wheel lock pistol

 

They did have guns in sixteenth-century England, by the way (but no cordite!!!). They took forever to load and prime and weren’t very accurate, but their presence created enough of a problem that Parliament passed laws regulating them. As early as 1523, there was an act against crossbows and handguns. In 1559, there was a proclamation to restrict the use of handguns and dags (similar to pistols) due to their use in crimes, and in 1573 another proclamation was issued against dags and pistols because so many vagrants were armed. In 1600, Parliament passed a law against dags, fowling pieces, and other guns, linking the common practice of carrying firearms to the high rate of criminal activity. Some things never change!

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8 Responses to The Dreaded Smell of Cordite

  1. Lee Lofland says:

    I have only one thing to say…HOORAY!

    Seriously, this is a great article. I’ve been on the anti-cordite march for a few years now, but I’m still seeing it used in some books. To those who know firearms and ammunition, seeing the word cordite used in a modern setting could be compared to writers using a hammer and chisel to carve words into rock. Silly, huh? Well, many people who know guns think the use of cordite is just as silly. For me, when I see cordite in a book, I normally set the book aside and move on to an author who’s not afraid to do a bit of research.

    • Thanks, Lee. For years, I’ve pushed the idea that research can be painless (and, sometimes, fun!), but to a few otherwise savvy writers the thought of spending even an hour in a library or online must bring back too many bad memories of high school and college term papers. They’d rather take a chance on getting things wrong than make the effort to get them right.

  2. Sherry Harris says:

    Thanks for sharing this information! Very interesting.

  3. Lee Lofland says:

    You know, it was seeing errors in books, like the cordite thing, that prompted me to start the Writers’ Police Academy, and that event has opened the eyes of a lot of writers. To actually train at an actual police academy is an experience like no other. We go far and beyond even the most detailed citizens police academy, and the WPA is designed especially for writers.

  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    I learned early on that no gun-related error will go unnoticed. Never mentioned cordite but incorrectly describe the get the safety mechanism on a certain model of handgun and readers will let you know. As they should.

  5. dhoniboyd Simonson says:

    What the term being used in Harry Brown: the writers must have known, no?

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