Thursday, November 10, 2005

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

It's deer season in Minnesota. I was walking in the woods last weekend -- yes, wearing blaze orange -- when I heard a gunshot distressingly close by. The fellow I was walking with hit the dirt, but I didn't, because I know one of those nasty truths that seems to have eluded most fiction writers and apparently all Hollywood screenwriters.

A high-powered rifle bullet is supersonic. That means it travels faster than the speed of sound. That means, by the time you hear the sound of the gun being fired, the bullet has already either missed or hit you.

I learned this lesson when I worked as a target-setter during high-powered long range matches. (It's kind of like being a pinsetter in a bowling alley, except that people are shooting at you.) I can assure you that when a high-powered rifle is being fired in your direction and you're somewhere near the target, you hear the whap! of the bullet hitting home well before you hear the bang! of the gun going off. Further, even a small-caliber high-velocity bullet makes an ear-splitting crack! as it goes by; it's a tiny sonic boom, you see. So don't bother giving your fictional assassin a "silenced" high-powered rifle. It won't do him any good.

Anything that exceeds the speed of sound in air generates a shockwave that causes a sonic boom. It's unavoidable. When I was a kid the Air Force was still flying B-58 Hustlers on training missions a few miles off the coast, and I can still remember the way the house shook, the windows rattled, and pictures fell off the walls whenever one of those babies went supersonic.

All of which means: Superman may indeed be faster than a speeding bullet, but if he exceeds 1,100 feet per second in the skies over Metropolis, he's going to seriously piss off a lot of people.