When it comes to creating or exacerbating myths about combat, nobody’s as good as Hollywood.
We all know movies don’t have to be realistic to be fun, but sometimes a lack of realism can really take you out of the moment. Like mechanics watching “The Fast and the Furious” or doctors watching old episodes of “ER,” it can be tough not to nitpick when you’re watching your profession on screen.
When it comes to the military, Hollywood has always erred on the side of slow-motion explosions, doing their best to make military service look as intense and cinematic as possible. That means that even when they’re depicting a “true” story, the film itself is almost always riddled with errors–either because they failed to capture what military life is actually like, or because their action sequences totally violate the laws of physics (nobody survives being blown through the air by a massive explosion without serious trauma, for instance). If a movie’s good enough, we might be inclined to let these lapses in reality slide, but if we were already on the fence about a flick, these egregious errors can really ruin an otherwise fun evening at the theater.
If you love movies like I do, then you’re probably already sick of seeing these myths about combat on screen.
Movie Myth #1: Bullets zooming through water
It’s a scene we’ve all seen hundreds of times: our hero is on the run and dives into a nearby body of water as bullets wiz past him through the water. It’s one of the most pervasive myths about combat in movies, so much so that it’s even shown in the ultra-realistic Omaha Beach scene depicted in “Saving Private Ryan.” If these movies are to be believed, bullets basically fly through the water in exactly the same way as they fly through the air… the thing is, that’s not the case at all.
Water is significantly more dense than the air bullets are accustomed to traveling through, and that has a significant effect on the way bullets travel. In fact, more often than not, bullets begin to tumble and break apart the instant they hit the water, scrubbing their kinetic energy and drastically reducing the chances that a round would even hit you. Water is so detrimental to a bullet’s flight path that physicist Andreas Wahl stood in a pool just a few feet away from a rifle chambered in 5.56 (the same round carried in the service rifles of American troops) and fired the weapon directly at this chest.
It goes without saying that you probably shouldn’t try this at home… but at least if you do, there’s a good chance you’d survive.
Movie Myth #2: Using cars as cover
Hollywood loves showing our heroes pinned down behind cover, barking orders or formulating a new plan — and if the scene takes place in an urban environment, you can bet that the “cover” our hero hides behind will be a parked car. This myth is so pervasive that just about every TV and movie cop I’ve ever seen has drawn his or her weapon and taken a knee behind their car door as though it might actually provide them cover from people firing back.
(Warning: This clip from “Bad Boys II” includes harsh language and violence)
The truth is, there are some parts of a car that can serve as cover. The engine block and axles are your best bet, but in a pinch, the B-Pillar (between the front and back seats) can provide a bit of protection. A few months ago, I got to hang our with Retired Special Forces CWO3 and founder of Racing for Heroes, Mike Evock. Mike and his team have put thousands of rounds through a variety of vehicles, ranging from police cars to four-wheelers, and he walked me around a Ford Crown Victoria to show where the best places to take cover are.
It may come as surprise, but Mike pointed out that bullets will have a tendency to “skip” when they nick the top of a horizontal surface like a car hood, so the safest way to take cover behind a car is actually a few feet away from it, so you don’t catch a ricochet. Is a car better than nothing? Absolutely–but I wouldn’t hang out there for long.
Movie Myth#3: Silencers are actually silent
Whenever you see a silencer used in a movie (and in most video games) they seem to have the magical ability to mute the sound of the weapon discharging a round. James Bond, famous for leveraging multiple myths about combat to enable his success in films, is able to use a silencer on his trademark Walther PPK to take out the bad guys without anyone else even realizing he’s there. As far as Hollywood is concerned, simply screwing a cylinder to the end of your barrel will turn you into a stealthy assassin that no one will hear coming.
The truth, however, is that silencers like those used in the Special Operations community don’t mute the sound of gunfire, they quiet it down a bit. You can still absolutely hear a gun being fired with a silencer in place, but the sound is lessened enough to not cause serious injuries to the operator’s hearing while discharging a weapon in close quarters indoors.
Silencers, or suppressors, do indeed serve a purpose in combat environments, but they certainly don’t work like they do in movies.
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Feature photo courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys, U.S. Air Force
This article was originally published 8/31/2020