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Writing Weapons: Rifles

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Disclaimer: This series of blogs will deal with the issue of handguns, shotguns and rifles. The information is to help writers write more accurately about them. It is in no way a statement for or against guns and should not be misconstrued to be such.

To conclude the discussion on long guns, let’s review rifles. Rifles are called rifles because of the rifling in their barrels.

What is rifling? Rifling is spiral grooves cut inside the barrel. Rifling causes the oblong shell or cartridge to spin. The spin allows the bullet to travel straighter and farther than without it. Think of a football. If it’s not spinning, it isn’t going very far.

Rifles are as task specific as shotguns. They’re really too numerous to discuss with any specificity here because for each task, there can be a number of configurations for that rifle. There have been books written on specific rifle types and if you are writing in such detail, do the research and get one of those books. For our purposes, I’ll keep it generalized and basic.

Rifles, like all other firearms, come with different actions. The action is the method of getting the cartridge loaded and the hammer cocked ready for shooting.

Break action rifles break open at the receiver just like the break action shotguns. They can come with single or double barrels. The double barrels are used for firing two, typically large caliber, cartridges rapidly. They are rare and have an incredible recoil. The double barrels are used mainly in hunting big game. Think African safaris.

Bolt action rifles most commonly have an internal magazine so more than one cartridge can be loaded. The number of cartridges that can be loaded in the magazine will be determined by the caliber of the rifle. Anywhere from 3 – 20 depending.

Pump action rifles also have an internal magazine. They make that ratcheting sound like the shotguns do. Typically, the pump action rifles handle smaller caliber cartridges.

Lever action rifles also have an internal magazine and can hold an number of cartridges for rapidly firing in succession. They are the old “cowboy” style where the lever is pulled and then the trigger is pulled. Think the opening sequence to “The Rifleman” from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s starring Chuck Connors. If you are too young to remember it, or never had the pleasure, you can see it here.

Finally, there are the semi automatic rifles. These will usually have detachable magazines.

Rifles shoot cartridges that contain a single bullet rather than a number of pellets that the shotguns shoot. They are also more accurate at longer distances. The size and varieties of the cartridges rifles shoot are as individual as the rifles themselves. They are even measured in both English measures and metric. However, the most popular American cartridge is the 30-06.

Rifles come in any number of styles and configuration and can be utilitarian and “off the shelf,” or highly customized with adjustable stocks and engraving, antique and rare.

A couple of other types of rifles are the carbine rifles which have a shorter barrel than other rifles and is capable of shooting handgun ammunition. And military style rifles, basically, are semi automatic rifles with a defined pistol grip and detachable magazine.

Rifles also come with iron sights and are commonly tapped for attaching a scope. Scopes are sold separately. They, rifles, are usually only sighted up to 100 yard straight from the store. To have them adjusted for accuracy for longer than that they must be taken to the range.

Rarely will rifles be used in committing a crime because they are too long to conceal. There would be no point in sawing off the barrel because that is where the accuracy of this particular weapon comes from. However, if your character is a sniper, he or she may be using a bolt action or semi automatic rifle.

If you have an older character, he may have on hand an M1 Garand which was the WWII service rifle. They are still available today. Or, he may have an old lever action rifle.

A good thing to remember is that rifles can shoot farther than the average person can see. So if your character shoots but misses his target, he may hit something else. That may be something to consider.

If your character is a sniper, and his target is at a long distance he will have to take into consideration effects on the bullet. There are all sorts of things from temperature, humidity, wind, elevation of the target and elevation of the sniper, and if the distance is great enough even the curvature of the earth.

With all things, if you are writing rifles into your story, you will want to do your research. Read books, go to a gun store, go to a rifle range, ask questions. Happy writing!


Pilcrow & Dagger is now accepting submissions for the January and March 2015 issues. Please see our submissions page for more information.

Also, we are seeking writers to submit stories for the Pilcrow & Dagger Sunday newspaper. Stories must be fictitious, witty and good-natured. Please review the newspapers through the Sunday Newspaper category on the right side of the screen. Email inquiries regarding the newspaper to

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NaNoWriMo is Almost Here!!!

Yes, I know it’s only October but NaNoWriMo will be here before you know it. What’s NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month gives people interested in a full time career as a writer a realistic look at the dedication involved. It’s free to participate, just sign up at They have support groups, you can follow other writers and their progress, it’s filled with encouragement, tips and tricks. To win, all you have to do is write 1667 words per day, for thirty days and at the end you’ll meet the goal of 50,000 words. The prize: you’ll get major discounts on writing software such as Scrivener – my software of choice.

Since Pilcrow & Dagger is all about providing tidings and tidbits for writers, every Thursday for the month of October, we will feature a video that provides tips for NaNoWriMo success. Here is the first in the series. a video published by EliteEditingNYC. Watch this video then get ready to write!

Pilcrow & Dagger is now accepting submissions for the January and March 2015 issues. Please see our submissions page for more information.

Also, we are seeking writers to submit stories for the Pilcrow & Dagger Sunday newspaper. Stories must be fictitious, witty and good-natured. Please review the newspapers through the Sunday Newspaper category on the right side of the screen. Email inquiries regarding the newspaper to


Writing Weapons: Shotguns

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” /]

Disclaimer: This series of blogs will deal with the issue of handguns, shotguns and rifles. The information is to help writers write more accurately about them. It is in no way a statement for or against guns and should not be misconstrued to be such.

We’ve talked about handguns and now it is time to move on to long guns. Basically, long guns are shotguns and rifles. They are not the same. Rifles have rifling in the barrels; shotgun barrels have a smooth bore.

Shotguns are all about barrel size and configuration. Barrels come in different gauges With the most common sizes being 12 gauge and 20 gauge. The lower the number the larger the barrel. That’s diameter, not length. It’s actually an interesting history lesson on why this is the case, but that is a digression we don’t need at this time.

As far as length is concerned; barrels may come in any length depending on the purpose of the gun. The most common lengths are 26″ and 28″. Again, it varies. There could be shorter barrels as short as 22 or 24 inches for some skeet shooting applications or 30 + inches for trap shooting or hunting. We’ll discuss sawed-off shot guns later.

The shotgun fires …. well …. shot. Shot are lead pellets. They are contained in a plastic hull with primer, powder, wad, and the brass cup. The shell goes into the shotgun and the pellets are projected from the front of the barrel. The remaining hull and brass cup are removed from the rear of the barrel after firing.

The shot, or pellets, are either birdshot or buckshot. Birdshot is small – smaller than 5mm in diameter. Buckshot is greater than 5mm in diameter and increases with the type of critter you are hunting. For skeet shooting the most common shot size is 9 shot which packs 700-800 pellets in a shell. At long distances it won’t kill a bird. On the other hand, the largest buckshot will fit only 2 to 3 pellets in the shell and it is very deadly. Slugs, or a single shot, can also be fired.

The range of the shotgun depends mainly on the barrel gauge and shot size and choke. Older shotguns had a fixed choke that controlled the spread of the shot. This required having different guns or barrels for different choke patterns. Today, many chokes are removable and allows for changing shot spread without changing guns or barrels. An open choke allows the shot to spread quickly, a closed choke holds the shot together longer and over a greater distance.

The number of barrels a shotgun has can vary too. There are single barrel shotguns for trap shooting. They usually have a longer barrel too. There are also double barrel shotguns for skeet and field hunting. These barrels tend to be shorter. Most double barrel shotguns are over-under configuration. There are side-by-side shotguns too but mostly those are older models. If your villain comes nose-to-barrel with a side-by-side shotgun he has probably provoked an older man or woman who has a shotgun from their childhood or handed down from their father.

The most common shotgun action is the break action. This is when the barrel or barrels break open at the receiver for loading and closing it back up cocks it for firing. Other most common actions for a shotgun are semi automatic and pump action. The semi automatic works in much the same way as semi automatic handguns but without the detachable magazine; semi automatic shotguns typically have built-in magazines. These come in with single barrels. The recoil of the semi automatic is less than that of break action shotguns.

The pump action is the manual cycle of ejecting the spent hull and loading a new one for firing. It is the one that makes the distinctive ratcheting sound. Imagine your character sneaking into a supposedly abandoned house and he hears the ratchet of a 12-gauge pump action shotgun.

Shotguns are famous for their bling. Many semi automatics are used for hunting and will be decorated, or disguised, with cammo patterns. Then there are the very high end shotguns that belong to collectors or the wealthy sportsmen. These will have engravings on the receiver, custom fitted stocks, specialty wood for the stocks, the total length will be measured to fit the shooter, etc. Shotguns can be the most inexpensive weapon to purchase and commonplace, or the most expensive and rare weapons you’ll find.

For forensic ballistic purposes, there’s really no way to trace a particular shotgun to a shot. Ballistics studies the rifle pattern on the shell. Shoguns don’t have rifling. Shoguns don’t have brass shells to leave behind. There might be a way to link an imprint of a firing pin in a brass cup and to test for lead residue inside the barrel with that of the shot but those are rare and highly expensive tests.

Now to talk about sawed-off shotguns. This refers to shortening the barrel of a shotgun for concealment purposes. In most states anything over 18 inches is legal and 18 inches and under is considered illegal. Be sure to check your state’s requirements before writing it into your story. The shortening of the barrel makes it a powerful weapon at close range but ineffective at distances.

Because shotguns are purpose specific they are as individual as the user. The type action, barrel gauge, length, stock, bling, use, etc. will depend on the person in your story using it. An English gentleman hunting quail in the countryside will have a different type of shotgun than a duck hunter in Louisiana. Always, know your character and research what would be right for him or her to have.


Pilcrow & Dagger is now accepting submissions for the January and March 2015 issues. Please see our submissions page for more information.

Also, we are seeking writers to submit stories for the Pilcrow & Dagger Sunday newspaper. Stories must be fictitious, witty and good-natured. Please review the newspapers through the Sunday Newspaper category on the right side of the screen. Email inquiries regarding the newspaper to

Forensics & Fiction: Time of Death (Algor Mortis)

Courtesy of adamr at

Courtesy of adamr at

Papa Smurf collapses in his yard. There are no witnesses to his death. Smurfette stops by to check on him and finds him unresponsive.  EMS respond to the scene but they are unable to resuscitate. The police arrive followed by the investigator for the medical examiner’s office.

 “How long has he been dead,” the police ask?

 “About three hours,” the investigator responds.

Scenes like the above one are common in television shows and movies. A representative of the medical examiner’s office is somehow able to magically tell how long the decedent has been dead for. Why do I say magic? Because that’s what it is. Magic.

In reality, the only time anyone can say for certain how long an individual has been dead is if the death was witnessed. For example, if the individual died under hospice care, in a hospital, or if a bystander witnessed the death. 

Hollywood isn’t completely in the wrong when they have a doctor give an approximate time of death. Studies performed on cadavers, in controlled environments, have provided researchers with valid information used to establish time of death.  However, the information collected was done so in a controlled environment.  Deaths do not occur in controlled environments.

Here’s what you need to know about time of death:

There are three postmortem changes that occur immediately following death.  It is the combination of all three of these changes that is used to make an estimate on time of death.  The first one is algor mortis. 

Algor mortis is the cooling of the body after death. We know from research the body temperature of an average-sized, previously healthy individual will drop approximately 2 degrees F per hour for the first twelve hours.If the individual’s body temperature at the time of death was 98.6 degrees then it can be safely estimated. Here’s the problem: How does anyone know what the decedent’s body temperature was at the time of death? Furthermore, there are several events that can cause an increase in body temperature prior to death.

 Factors Affecting Body Temperature

  • Seizures
  • Drug use (illegal or prescribed)
  • Fever prior to death
  • Exercise prior to death
  • Hyperthermia (heat stroke)

Any of the above-listed variables can raise the body temperature higher than 98.6. If Papa Smurf was mowing his lawn in 102 degree weather, it’s possible he died from hyperthermia.  That means his body temperature was greater than 98.6 when he died.

Here’s one more fun fact.  Have you ever wondered how the doctors/police on television are taking body temperatures?

You can’t take temperature from the skin.  The skin will cool the fastest. The best way to determine postmortem body temperature is to take a core temperature (liver, brain or rectal).  For the record, I’ve never seen any of these used.  The only office I’ve heard of that takes a core body temperature on scene is the St. Louis, MO office.  I’m not sure if they still do it but once upon a time they took liver temperatures on scene.  How do you take a liver temperature?  You use a meat thermometer.  It is generally inserted on the right quadrant of the abdomen.  After the investigator makes note of the temperature, he/she will then draw a circle around the puncture site, using a felt tip pen and mark their initials next to it. This tells the pathologist where the investigator took the temperature and that it was the investigator that made that puncture in the abdomen.  Most medical examiner and coroner’s offices do not practice this because the above-mentioned variables make taking a body temperature pointless.

Next week I’ll continue the Time of Death series with Rigor mortis.  If you have any questions on the information I’ve presented please leave me a comment.

Enjoy the rest of your week!




Writing Weapons: Semi Automatics

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” /]

Disclaimer: This series of blogs will deal with the issue of handguns, shotguns and rifles. The information is to help writers write more accurately about them. It is in no way a statement for or against guns and should not be misconstrued to be such.

Last Wednesday I talked about revolvers and this week I will talk about semi-automatic guns. Before I get started on our new topic, I would like to put to rest the topic of revolvers. There were a few things I need to add and correct.

First, the single action revolver has a cylinder that spins and must be spun to load the pistol and then unload, or discard, the spent shells. The double action revolver has a cylinder release that flips the cylinder out for easy loading and a plunger that ejects the shell casings. There are also speed loaders which is a cylinder-like clip that holds the shells in place for quick, all-at-once loading into a released cylinder.

Second, I made note last week that revolvers could be carried in holsters that were outside-the-waste or inside-the-waste. Clearly I meant waist. I can only say that I was either being distracted by all the males in my house or I was exhausted or both. *hangs head* I apologize for the misspelling.

Now onto semi automatics. They are called semi automatics because when a round is fired the forces from that firing eject the spent shell, chambers a new round, and cocks the hammer ready for the next firing. Most of these weapons can be fired quite rapidly and that really is their purpose.

There are three basic types of firing action for semi automatic weapons: single action, double action, and striker-fired. The single action pistol has to have the hammer cocked back on the first round before pulling the trigger. After that, a pull of the trigger is all that is needed. A prime example of this is your classic 1911.

A double-action is when the pull of the trigger does both – cocks the hammer and fires the round. Strictly speaking the single action gun can be fired more rapidly than a double action gun. Some police forces have mandated double action only to prevent accidental shootings.

The striker-fired weapons do not have a hammer to cock before firing because they use a firing pin. Most of these are your more modern polymer framed guns and Glocks.

The pistols are loaded via a magazine which is a box-shaped spring-loaded thing that fits up into the handle of the gun. Magazines can hold any number of shells but 7 – 15 is most common. There is an ejector on the side of the gun that drops the empty magazine out of the gun and a new, full one can be inserted. The ejecting of the empty and the replacing with the full one can take mere seconds.

Before a round can be fired it must be chambered. This means it must be drawn up into the weapon from the magazine. This is done by pulling the slide on the top of the gun and letting it fall back into place. During firing the slide travels back and forth and the spent shell is ejected from the top when it opens. The ejected shell will be hot so make note.

When a semi-automatic is referred to as “locked and loaded” it means that there is a round in the chamber and the hammer is back ready to fire. Your character may feel it necessary to carry this way if he or she is in a bad neighborhood or going into a touchy situation.

All semi automatics will have a safety of some kind. It could be a manual safety, a trigger safety, or a grip safety or even a combination of these. These will vary depending on model and manufacturer. It may be sufficient to say only that he released the safety. Or not.

Like revolvers, semi automatics can be made of different materials but most often steel, aluminum or polymers. Barrel length can vary from 3 to 5 inches with 5 inches being the norm. A 3-inch barrel is a good length for carrying concealed.

Also like revolvers, the shorter the barrel, the bigger the kickback. And the greater the caliber of shell the greater the kickback. The most common calibers for semi automatics are .45 caliber and 9 millimeter. Many police forces have gone to a .40 caliber.

If you have a character who is inclined to carry a semi automatic weapon your best bet is to do your research. Go to a gun shop and ask questions. Whatever you do, don’t have your character spin the cylinder of her 9 millimeter.

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Conversations I Have with Qualm

Dedicated to creative minds everywhere

The sad and unfortunate part of being an artist, whether you’re a painter, graphic designer, singer or writer, is that doubt is always there when you need her the least: shoving her cruelest comments down your throat while you’re trying to battle your insecurities long enough to get some work done.

Today was one of those days for me. A popular website advertised the need for writers and I decided to apply. But before applying, I took some time to review the articles on the website. Wow! Were they good. Really, really good! I felt overwhelmed and out of my league. That’s when Qualm arrived.

“You are out of your league,” Qualm said.

I rolled my eyes. I hated Qualm and her disembodied voice. She was too much.

“Go away Qualm. I’m busy.” I clicked on the link for the application process and printed the directions. It seemed easy enough.  

  • Send an email with a small bio
  • Include writing samples or a link to your blog
  • Tell us what you’d like to write about.

That last one was the one that had me stumped. They wanted friendly and fun articles. The possibilities were endless. Endless possibilities are when I typically get lost.

“Write articles about how you can’t write because you’re a loser. They’ll love that.”

“Rude much?” I leaned back in my chair staring at the screen, wishing an idea would pop into my head.

“I’m not rude,” Qualm said. “I’m honest. They’re not going to hire you. They want real writers. Not the make-believe kind.”

I followed her disembodied voice to my right and stared her down. Or at least, I tried to.

“What in the heck is a make-believe writer?” Why did I open that can of worms?

Qualm cleared her throat. “You. You are a make-believe writer. You fancy yourself a writer but all you actually are is lazy and unambitious.”

“That was uncalled for. Now leave me alone. I’m brainstorming.”

“I’m not the only one who says it. Everyone else says it when you’re back is turned. Thea is unambitious and lazy. She lacks imagination.  She’s never going to have anything published and even if she does, no one will buy it. She’ll go down in history as the worst writer ever!”

“That does it!” I slammed Amos, my laptop, shut and grabbed Nancy, my faithful composition notebook. It was time for Qualm to go away. I wrote as fast as I could. The faster I did this the sooner Qualm would disappear.

“What are you doing?” 

I felt Qualm breathing down my neck. It didn’t matter. She thinks I lack creativity. Well, she’d better get ready for this.

Character name: Qualm

Personality: Annoying, rude, obnoxious, irritating

Friends: She doesn’t have any.

“Hey! I resent that! I have lots of friends: Apprehension, Insecurity, and Doubt. They’re all good friends of mine.”

Ignoring her, I moved on with the character sketch.

Physical traits: Small obtuse head.

Oblong thorax with a shiny black surface

2 wings

2 antennae

4 legs

Total body length is approximately 1 inch long

“Ha! Take that!” I leaned back in my chair and waited.  

Sure enough, it was a matter of seconds before Qualm appeared before my eyes as the tiny, disgusting cockroach that she was.

“You call this creative?” She looked down at her legs and wings, wiggling each of them. You could have turned me into anything…anything at all and you turned me into a bug?”

She tapped her right front leg on the desk. “Come on! I’ve tormented worse writers than you who could come up with anything better than-“

I slammed my Chicago Manual of Style on top of Qualm, smashing her into a pile of goo. I fisted the top of my book a couple of times, to make sure the deed was done. As I pulled the book off the desk I heard a sticky, crunchy sound from underneath.  

Holding the book in the air, I looked down. The desk was clean. There wasn’t a body part in sight. I turned the book around to look at the back side.  Yup. There was Qualm: a sticky, gooey mess all over the back of my book. 

“So much for the dust cover.” I pulled the dust cover off and tossed it in the trash.

“Farewell, Qualm. Time of death 2:15 p.m. Cause of death, blunt force trauma. Manner of death, Justifiable Homicide.”

I returned to my laptop and opened it up, continuing my email.

To whom it may concern.  My name is Thea Baxter and I’m interested in applying for the position of Staff Writer.  I’d like to write a feature piece called, “5 Ways to Kill Qualm – The Creative’s Guide to Overcoming Doubt.” Attached are samples of my writing and a link to my blog.


Thea Baxter

Now this is a good day. I killed Qualm and applied for my very first writing job.

“And she said I wasn’t creative. Ha!”



Writing Weapons: Revolvers

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” /]

Disclaimer: This series of blogs will deal with the issue of handguns, shotguns and rifles. The information is to help writers write more accurately about them. It is in no way a statement for or against guns and should not be misconstrued to be such.


The characters in our novels have jobs and interests. Sometimes those jobs and interests will require that they have and use guns. For example, if one of our characters is a police officer, it is likely that on and off duty he may carry a semi-automatic handgun. Or if one of our characters hunts, he may use a rifle or a shotgun or a bow and arrow, depending on his prey. It is our responsibility as writers to write realistically about them. There is nothing worse than referring to a character as a “quick draw” and then giving him a .44 Magnum with an 8-inch barrel as his weapon. There is no way anyone is going to quickly draw an 8-inch barrel from a holster. And seriously, never, ever say “she emptied the magazine of her revolver.” No she didn’t. And you cannot shoot eight bullets from a 5-shot revolver as is so often seen in the movies. Ugh.

For the general public, there are two categories of guns: handguns and long guns. The two most used of handguns are semi-automatic and revolvers. Long guns are shotguns and rifles. Each has its own carry method and set of accessories. I’ll start this series with handguns because they really are the most common.

To begin, I will talk about revolvers. The revolver, like many handguns, have many different variations: barrel length, type of grip, type of sight, laser sights (or not), number of shots in the cylinder (4 + shots), caliber, metals, and with or without hammers. Longer barrels are more accurate but harder to conceal. Snub-nose revolvers are easy to conceal but are only accurate up close and personal. The most common revolvers carried are .357 Magnum and .38 Special.

The .357 Magnum is most common with a longer barrel although it can be snub-nosed. The shorter the barrel the greater the recoil. And the recoil is painful. Sometimes this is eased by loading the revolver with .38 Special shells. Either way, there will be recoil and this should be noted. The .38 Special revolver commonly comes with a shorter barrel and cannot fire the .357 Magnum shell..

The metal the guns are made from will be something to make note of too. The older generation revolvers would be made from blued-steel. In modern times, there is stainless steel for durability , the light-weight alloys are preferred for concealed carry including a few models that are made from polymers. This can add a dimension to your character all by itself. Is he a grumpy old man who likes his revolver “Old Blue?” Or is she hip and fresh and carries an alloy J-frame in her purse?

Grips can run the gamut from rubber, wood, ivory, bejeweled, etc. It is the bling of the gun. Or not. Sometimes it’s all about pure function. A character who has rubber grips is all business. The character who has the mother of pearl grips to match her cigarette case is all bling.

Be sure to fact check on the number of shots in the cylinder for the model revolver you choose to have your character carry. The number of shots can vary greatly from 5 for a .38 Special to 12 in a .22 target pistol. The best place to find specific information is from the gun manufacturers.

How the character chooses to tote his weapon around is to be considered too. Does he carry it in an outside-the-waste holster, inside-the-waste holster, pocket holster, shoulder holster, or ankle holster? Or does she toss it in her purse with her lipstick? Is your character in a state that allows open carry? Does he need a permit? Does he care? This list will help you.

It can be important to know how the gun is shot. Yes, your character would have to pull the trigger. But is it a single-action where he has to cock the hammer first before pulling the trigger or a double-action where the pull on the trigger does both – cock the hammer and release it? Most modern revolvers are double action but your character may like collector pistols or have an old one. Does it even have a hammer? Many of the smaller revolvers designed for concealed carry purposes don’t even have protruding hammers.

This is just some basic information on revolvers that may add a little interesting detail and insight into a character who may have one or use one.

Forensics & Fiction: The Death Certificate

Despite what you see on C.S.I, Bones, Criminal Minds, etc., it takes approximately six to eight weeks from the time the autopsy is performed before the death certificate is signed. Why? Because the autopsy is only part of the process. Before a pathologist will sign the death certificate she will also need the toxicology results, police report, ambulance report, medical records, psychological records. This can go on and on depending on the circumstances surrounding the death being investigated.

Once all of the toxicology results are back and all of the medical records and other various reports have been reviewed the doctor will issue his findings in the form of Cause and Manner of death. Here’s what you need to know.

Examples of Cause of Death

  • Cancer
  • Gun Shot wound
  • Head Injury
  • Asphyxia
  • Blunt force trauma

 Examples of Manner of Death

  • Natural
  • Homicide
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Unknown


  • Homicide is defined as the act of one person killing another.
  • Classifying a death as a homicide has nothing to do with intent.
  • Whether or not the coroner or medical examiner labels a death as a homicide has very little to do with whether or not the case will be prosecuted.

 Example: A young child picks up a loaded gun and pulls the trigger, killing his caregiver. This death will be classified as a homicide on the death certificate. However, the police will likely call it an accidental death.


  • An accident is an unintentional event that results in the loss of life.
  • Classifying a death as an accident does not mean the police won’t prosecute the case as a homicide.

 Example: A pedestrian is struck and killed by a drunk driver. The coroner/medical examiner will classify this death as an accident. The police will likely charge the driver with drunk driving and vehicular homicide or manslaughter. The only way the coroner/medical examiner would classify this death as a homicide is if the police discovered evidence that the driver intended to kill the pedestrian.

 Who Can Sign the Death Certificate on a Natural Death?

  • The coroner or medical examiner
  • The decedent’s primary care physician
  • A hospital doctor – E.R. doctors often refuse to sign the death certificate because they aren’t familiar with the patient’s medical history.

Doctors are not trained in medical school on how to sign death certificates. Periodically a physician will unknowingly sign a death certificate on case that should have been referred to the coroner or medical examiner. When this happens, the Department of Vitals & Statistics will send the death certificate to the coroner/medical examiner’s office for correction.

Example: A young women falls off a horse and becomes a paraplegic. Because of her injuries, she becomes vulnerable to a number of illnesses an otherwise healthy person would not suffer. Over the course of 20 years her health declines. Eventually she develops pneumonia and succumbs to it.

Her primary cause of death is pneumonia; however her decline in health ultimately resulted from the fall off the horse. The signing physician lists the secondary cause of death as paraplegia. Paraplegia is not a natural death. Therefore the decedent’s death should have been referred. Given the nature of her injuries and how long ago they occurred, it isn’t likely she would have been autopsied but that decision is ultimately up to the assigned pathologist.

That about wraps it up for this Forensics & Fiction post. If you have any questions about the material I’ve provided in this post or any others, please leave a comment.

Below is a link to the CDC’s website which displays a standard format used for U.S. death certificates. It also includes instructions to assist physicians and funeral homes on how to fill it out. Some of the information the form requires may spark an idea or two for your story. You can find the death certificate template here.

Have a great day!

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