Do I Live in the O.K. Corral?
March 10, 2010 2:25 PM   Subscribe

How can I tell if a gunshot-like-sound was produced by a gun or something else?

I live in a pretty bad neighborhood, where there are definitely guns around. (Someone was robbed at gunpoint near our neighbor's house just last week.) But, there are lots of students and thus shenanigans with fire crackers, cheap cars, etc.

At night we often hear pops and bangs that my roommates think are gunshots, but I'm not convinced. They don't sound deep/strong enough, for one. Also, it happens often enough that I'm thinking there's another explanation besides "constant shootouts!"

What other noises sound like gunshots? Other dwellers-in-bad-areas, what are your experiences? And are there clips online where I can hear what real, typical guns sound like from a short distance? I can only find movie sound effects and I'm guessing those exaggerate.
posted by Solon and Thanks to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Small caliber hand guns sound like a "pop," larger caliber have that deep "boom" sound. If you hear several "pops" with a semi regular rhythm, it's very likely a gun. Firecrackers - unless they're M-80s have a sound that's lighter. I'm sad to know this, but we get a decent amount of gunfire in my area too.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:34 PM on March 10, 2010

I used to live on the edge of the good part of a moderately sized midwestern city. It was common to hear gunshots just about every evening in the summer. I doubt they were related to shootouts between people, but were more likely just people shooting their guns.

Gunshots are usually have a regular rhythm to them, while firecrackers have an irregular rhythm. Gunshots usually come in one long burst, and then don't reoccur, while firecrackers come in one long burst but do reoccur.

If it is just one random bang, it's pretty much impossible to tell.
posted by 517 at 2:40 PM on March 10, 2010

The deep boom you associate with gunfire is a Hollywood invention. A gun sounds sharp, more like a crack than a boom. Although shotguns might sound deeper, depending on gauge and load.

When identifying loud bangs in my Philly neighborhood, we usually relied on the fact that gunshots almost always come in mulitples. So you'll hear three or four bangs, with *exactly* the same sound. That's probably a gun. If it's just one it's maybe a backfire or a gun. A whole string of them, sometimes overlapping, or with varying sounds, probably firecrackers.

But this is hard, really. I shoot all the time, and I don't do better than anybody else in guessing about single shots. But pretty much nobody shooting at another person only shoots once.
posted by Netzapper at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

They don't sound deep/strong enough, for one.

compared to what? Movies? Or other times you have heard gunshots? As someone who's done a bunch of sound design, let me assure you that not very many movies have "realistic" gunfire.

Guns only sound loud and scary when you are close to them; even a couple blocks can diminish the noise to a not-very-impressive pop.
posted by dubold at 2:52 PM on March 10, 2010

How can I tell if a gunshot-like-sound was produced by a gun or something else?

You can't. You can make an educated guess, but so much depends on things like your proximity to the origination of the noise, direction, weather conditions, echoes and reverberation based on buildings and other objects in your vicinity. Even professionals (i.e. law enforcement, military, etc.) can't tell the difference between a gunshot/firecracker/car backfiring under imperfect conditions.
posted by amyms at 2:54 PM on March 10, 2010

I know a bloke who's into both motorcycles and rifles whose bike backfires when the mixture is too rich—and he swears he can't tell the difference between the exhaust bang and a rifle bang. In fact, he kind of boasts that he rides a 500cc .303.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:56 PM on March 10, 2010

If you see someone fire a gun, or see the results of a bullet hit, then you're probably hearing a gunshot. If you don't, there's really no way to tell. Analyzing the patterns is about as good as you can get, but you aren't going to get any definitive answers.
posted by valkyryn at 3:12 PM on March 10, 2010

if the bullet leaving the gun is traveling faster than the speed of sound and you are somewhat removed but not too far from the firearm you will get two cracks-the shot and the sonic boom as the wave front passes you. Usually the only guns that will produce this are rifles, so as far as urban shootouts go not very likely. Backfires and gun shots sound the same because the same thing produces the sound-rapidly expanding gas released from an enclosure. Fireworks/explosions are different-and produce a different sound (to me)but not one I can readily describe. Maybe a gun shot is sharper is the best I can do.
posted by bartonlong at 3:29 PM on March 10, 2010

Here's how to tell the difference: do you see a bunch of police sirens shortly following? Consider other probable causes: car exhaust backfires, heavy things hitting concrete (or one another), fireworks, etc. Having lived in what sounds like a similar college student ghetto, I assure you that the vast majority of sounds are not in fact guns. Look up the local police blotter for further evidence that gun crime is not as prevalent as feared.
posted by pwnguin at 4:09 PM on March 10, 2010

Gunshots are not necessarily indicative of shootouts. In my urban neighborhood, they are usually just idiots shooting into the air to show off.
posted by bwanabetty at 4:30 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, in a weapons training course I took, the instructor told us that in the average fire fight between 2 people, 7 shots are fired in a period of 3 seconds.
posted by yoyoceramic at 4:32 PM on March 10, 2010

Have you had a chance to hear many gunshots in real life? Without that, I don't know how you could hope to recognize them -- movie gunshots sound totally different.

And even then, there are sounds that can be impossible to tell apart from gunshots. Backfires, sure, but also the "crack!" sound of a large piece of lumber or plywood being dropped onto another can do it. Even pneumatic tools can sometimes sound surprisingly like gunfire.

As someone mentioned above, the rhythm of actual gunfire is sometimes different than these other sounds, but again that isn't a perfect giveaway, either. And while you'll never mistake the dull thunk of a shotgun from the sharp crack of a small caliber pistol, neither is inseparable from other noises.

tl;dr: there's no way to be 100% sure 100% of the time, but you can learn to be more accurate than wildly guessing.
posted by Forktine at 4:53 PM on March 10, 2010

Gunshots are much "tighter" than fireworks. If you've ever heard a construction nail gun working, the "chunk" is very similar. Minus the air compressor and air "witch-ah" noise. Just the crack. It could also sound a lot like those really, really tight snare drums they use in marching bands. Especially if you can picture one that's more pop and less snare.

But it depends a lot on the acoustics of the area you are in and the area the shot was fired in.
posted by gjc at 5:09 PM on March 10, 2010

I live in a rough neighbourhood and in my experience, its the sound you hear *next* that indicates a gunshot - someone yelling, a car racing away, etc. Context is key.
posted by kristin at 5:38 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I should think you would care more about the context, whether it is being used as a weapon or for target practice/fun. Kristin's on the nose about how to tell the difference.
posted by davejay at 6:25 PM on March 10, 2010

Great tips/points, everyone, thank you. I'll put it to the test probably soon enough.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:35 PM on March 10, 2010

When I used to live in a shady neighborhood in Chicago, every summer we'd play the game "Backfire, Transformer, or Shotgun?" when we'd hear a sharp sound.

Since moving to a shady neighborhood in LA, now I just wait to see if the helicopters show up.
posted by hwyengr at 7:00 PM on March 10, 2010

Many American cities have set up automated gunshot location and tracking networks, like ShotSpotter. Safety Dynamics is another vendor of gunfire recognition systems. If your city has deployed such a network, you can probably get the police department to give you some pretty accurate stats about gun shot activity in your city. If your city hasn't permanently installed such a system, but you are having a crime wave where gun violence is a major issue, the FBI has lent equipment and expertise on a temporary basis to local and state law enforcement, to assist in finding people responsible for repeated discharge of firearms in urban settings.
posted by paulsc at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2010

If you're really interested in obtaining a portable system for shooter location and tracking, and can get an arms dealer license and appropriate DoD certifications, look into the Boomerang system.
posted by paulsc at 7:47 AM on March 11, 2010

"Bust a cap" is an appropriate slang for shooting a gun since the sound of a handgun is closer to a cap gun than it is to the cannons in the movies and on TV.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:05 AM on March 11, 2010

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