Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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In TV shows and movies we often see someone shoot a revolver and then immediately place it inside the front waistband of their pants. Wouldn’t they get burned in a very sensitive place from the extremely hot barrel? —Remy Luria

When we go through the pile for questions, Remy, I have to be honest: while some things the world needs to know about, others just sound like they’d be a hoot to research. When my assistants Una and Fierra came across your letter, their little eyes lit up.

“Boss,” they said, “we could perform a detailed computational heat transfer analysis. Or we could grab some guns and ammo and head out to the shooting range. Which approach do you think is likelier to boost our Google page rank?” Three minutes later they were rummaging through their closets looking for the Glock.

The women assembled a subset of their alarming collection of firearms: the abovementioned Glock 26 nine-millimeter semiautomatic, representing a typical concealed-carry semiautomatic handgun; a Ruger P85 nine-millimeter semiautomatic, representing a typical full-size semiautomatic handgun; and a Ruger Super Redhawk .44 magnum revolver, representing the kind of cannon you use when asking a punk whether he feels lucky.

The surface temperature of each gun was measured before and after firing using a Fluke infrared thermometer, the goal being to find the highest temperature of any part likely to touch skin if stuffed down one’s pants. Each pistol was fired once and had its temperature taken at five seconds and again at 60 seconds. The experimenters then happily blasted their way through an entire magazine, then two magazines, with a firing rate of two rounds per second (one round every two seconds for the .44, owing to the need to collect oneself between shots).

Firing a single round from the nine-millimeter firearms didn’t make them appreciably hotter. Emptying a full Glock magazine resulted in a maximum temperature increase of 10 degrees Fahrenheit; after two magazines the maximum increase was 14 degrees. The P85 heated up 18 degrees after one magazine, no doubt mainly because it held 15 rounds, as opposed to ten rounds for the Glock. After a 30-round rapid-fire session, the P85 had gained 26 degrees. Conclusion: neither semiautomatic was likely to cause burns unless the weapon was already pretty warm.

The .44 was a different story. One shot raised its temperature two degrees, six shots raised it 25 degrees, and after 18 shots the gun’s barrel was 42 degrees toastier than its starting temperature. But was this hot enough to burn? Deciding there was only one way to find out, Una slid the now-unloaded .44 behind the waistband of her skirt. While uncomfortable, it didn’t burn her. She did learn that a four-pound weapon stuck in your waistband will pull your knickers to your knees.

I caution that discharging enough rounds from a large enough firearm can absolutely generate enough residual heat to burn you. Una recalls watching scores of rounds rapid-fired from a military-style rifle, after which the barrel glowed a dull red. Placing a branding iron like that against your skin would clearly be unwise. With lesser weapons, however, be my guest.

I just read your answer [March 21, 1986] to the question “How many dinosaurs did it take to make a barrel of oil?” In it you refer to scientist Thomas Gold, who theorized that most oil is from nonbiological sources. It’s been almost 30 years since that column appeared. Have any of Gold’s ideas panned out? —Dan W., Shippenville, Pa.

I haven’t done an update mainly for lack of definitive developments. However, I’m happy to add the following points of detail:

  1. Scientists have been able to place inorganic compounds under high heat and pressure to make complex hydrocarbons in the lab, bolstering the theory that similar processes could create oil within the Earth’s crust.
  2. Hydrocarbons, most likely of abiotic origin, have often been detected in asteroids, comets, and planetary moons in trace amounts, and a few puzzling small hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered in unusual locations on earth.
  3. To date, though, there’s been no sign of large-scale abiotic oil. In 1986 I said a well was being drilled in Sweden looking for the stuff, but as of this year both it and successor wells have been a bust. Abiotic theory predicts that oil might bubble up near major fault lines even in the absence of sedimentary source rock, but no such oil has yet been found.
  4. Nonetheless, abiotic oil remains a popular notion in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Proponents point to deep drilling successes in the Caspian basin and elsewhere as evidence of abiotic oil; mainstream oil geologists see these claims as evidence of too much vodka in the borscht. If anything changes I’ll let you know.

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