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July 12, 2022

Star Wars Guns

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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Originally released in May of 1977, Star Wars (aka Star Wars: A New Hope) seemed unlikely to become one of the chief cinematic touchstones of the 20th century; a film made by a guy who wanted to make Flash Gordon but was beaten to the punch by Dino De Laurentiis, starring a mix of American rookies and veteran British thespians, with a limited budget and a rushed production. Forty-five years later, that initial seed has grown into one of the biggest multimedia franchises in American history, with multiple generations of kids having grown up with it (and the whirling maelstrom of highly profitable merchandise around it), spawning countless spin-offs, tie-ins, and arguments between fans. If there’s anything nerds know how to do is argue about their respective franchises. I should know.

Han Solo's BlasTech DL-44 blaster from "Star Wars: A New Hope" will be on offer as Lot 1247 in the Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

Star Wars and its guns would leave a very large personal footprint on both my childhood and my adult life. Like many I got my first exposure in my grade school days, and the circles I ran in through most of my school career considered the Original Trilogy to be Serious Business, and I had no problem taking the Business as Serious as they did. That said, I never really took a side in the whole Wars vs Trek debate, since each franchise scratches a very different itch to me; it’s like picking a side between steak and ribs as far as I’m concerned.

Now, I’ve never gotten a Star Wars tattoo, or named a kid or pet after a character, or anything like that, but the guns of Star Wars did have a major impact on my life. Growing up, I was never around any weapons more potent than a Swiss Army Knife, as my parents were highly opposed to them and no one in my immediate family hunted.

But one day, when perusing through the school library, I spotted something familiar in a book on military small arms, and for the first time I learned the real name of Han Solo’s blaster pistol: the famous C96 Mauser Broomhandle semi-automatic. Reading onward led me to the real names of several other signature weapons from the series, and sparked a lifelong interest in real weapons to go alongside adventures involving fake ones.

Some folks may not find “Star Wars taught me machine guns are cool” to be as wholesome as “Star Trek convinced me to become a doctor,” but I never claimed to be a wholesome person. But wholesome or not, many Star Wars guns started life as real-world weapons. Some Star Wars guns were mainstays on the battlefield, others were popular sporting arms, and still other Star Wars weapons were more niche in nature. But all of them have a story. Two stories, actually...

The Lore vs The Reality

When discussing blasters, both in general and specifically, it helps to unpack the in-universe lore from the real-world facts.

Blasters, the lore: At heart, a blaster is an energy weapon, which uses a small electric charge to excite a gas into a very hot plasma, encase that plasma in a magnetic shell, and launch it at a target. On impact, the magnetic shell ruptures, causing the plasma to violently and rapidly expand, communicating both kinetic energy and heat to the target, causing severe physical trauma and burns. Blasters run on a combination of a power pack to supply the energy needed as well as a reservoir for the gas, and can run upwards of 50-100 shots before needing reloaded (hence why you never see a Stormtrooper futzing about with a spare magazine).

Blasters, the reality: Most Star Wars blasters are real-life guns with a bunch of stuff stuck on them. As discussed in a previous article on the guns of Hollywood, there’s a lot of incentive for a film production (especially one like the original Star Wars, where the budget needed to be carefully minded) to make use of things at hand to make their fantasy come true.

At the time, many studios either had ready access to firearms, or relationships with firms that could set them up with firearms at will (a la the famous Stenbridge rental house in the U.S.), so in the case of Star Wars, taking a normal weapon and strapping on a new scope or a flash hider was reasonably quick, reasonably cost effective, and gave a pretty good looking outcome. Once assembled, a blank firing “live” blaster could then be used as the base for making a mold for producing inert, painted copies to issue to background characters and keep in hands and holsters during scenes that don’t require firing for maximum safety. For Star Wars, the production team worked with London-based prop houose Bapty & Co. to provide all prop weapons for the film.

What follows is a breakdown of both sides of some of the blasters featured in 'Star Wars: A New Hope'. Some Star Wars guns would be “one and done” affairs, while others would go on to be iconic weapons of the franchise.

Princess Leia’s Blaster

The lore: In universe, Leia’s blaster is a “Drearian Defense Conglomerate Defender sporting blaster” — a lightweight blaster normally seen a target weapon for the well off, and not especially lethal unless used with great care and good aim… which Leia promptly demonstrates by shooting a Stormtrooper square in the chest within moments of appearing on screen. She’s not on that blockade runner to play games.

The reality: The gun that served as the base for the “DDC Defender” was the Margolin MCM target pistol, a 22 LR sporting pistol intended for competitive rapid fire target shooting. The designer, Mikhail Margolin, was a veteran of the Russian Civil War who was rendered blind by a head injury, and spent many years struggling with the fact that he had many ideas about firearms, but had difficulty expressing them; drafting them himself was not an option, and trying to talk someone else through drafting them was about as effective as shoving a wet noodle through a keyhole.

Princess Leia proved to be a good shot early in "A New Hope," with her Drearian Defense Conglomerate Defender, in reality a Margolin MCM target pistol.

After much frustration, during a hospital stay a chance suggestion from a fellow patient to try clay sculpting led to the revelation that he could render mockups of his ideas in 3d material and show others exactly what he had on his mind. This allowed him to develop a number of quality target weapons, including the MCM (which was a go-to weapon for Soviet Olympic shooters for many years as well as a popular export item) and the MTsZ-1 (a radical shift from prior designs that put the firing mechanism physically in front of the shooters hand to lower the axis of recoil, which was later banned from international competition).

Margolin’s MCM brought a number of interesting things to the table, including the use of a rear bridge over the slide to keep the rear sight stationary during the firing cycle, and a higher overall elevation of the sights to allow the pistol to be kept more directly in line with the shooter’s shoulder for a reduction in felt recoil. To get dressed up for its moment on screen, the MCM pistol was fitted with a long muzzle device in Star Wars, which gives it a very slender, stretched profile.

Stormtrooper Blaster

The lore: In the original Star Wars, during the opening shootout of the film when Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer catches up to Leia’s Tantive IV, both sides of the fight are armed with compact blasters well suited for close-in fighting. On the Rebel side, the main weapon is the DH-17 blaster pistol, and on the Imperial side it’s the BlasTech E-11 blaster rifle. Both of these weapons reoccur multiple times in the original trilogy, with E-11-armed Stormtroopers being one of the signature images of the franchise. Additionally, the Stormtroopers often outnumbered and outgunned their Rebel opposite numbers, bringing weapons like the DLT-19 heavy blaster and the T-21 light repeating blaster.

Stormtroopers carried the BlasTech E-11 blaster rifles into battle. In reality, these Star Wars guns were actually Sterling submachine guns, a British weapon.

The reality: Both of these Star Wars weapons started life with the Sterling submachine gun. The successor to the STEN gun of World War II fame, the Sterling would serve as a go-to weapon for the Commonwealth for decades, not being retired until the 1990s. At heart an open bolt “tube gun” typical of the era, the Sterling was a solid upgrade to the STEN, with a reputation for reliability and accuracy, and including features like an underfolding stock. Original Sterlings can be tough to find on the American market, as most of the originals were only brought in as sales samples; most fully transferable Sterling submachine guns are either close copies of the original design or “Stenlings” built by taking a registered STEN tube and fitting it out with Sterling parts.

The rebels aboard Princess Leia's ship did their best to fight off Darth Vader and his men with the BlasTech DH-17 blaster pistol, in reality the same gun as the stormtroopers, the Sterling submachine gun.

For their Star Wars appearance as the Rebel DH-17, the stock and much of the barrel were removed, the ventilated barrel shroud was replaced with a tapered metal cover, and a Singlepoint gunsight placed up top. The Singlepoint was a very early pattern red dot sight, which used fiber optics to capture ambient light and create a visible dot, but could not actually be looked through; aiming with both eyes open, the sight would occlude one eye, and the shooter would see the target with the other, and their eyes would naturally put the image together to create an illusion of the dot on the target. While advanced for the time, this style of gunsight is more or less a niche item now, with dot-projecting optics permitting a clear view through the body being the de-facto standard of modern “tactical” accessories. Most of the DH-17s seen on screen were not live firearms converted for blanks, but inert molded copies.

For the Star Wars Imperial E-11, the gun stock and the full length barrel and shroud stayed in place (though to the best of my knowledge the stock was never unfolded at any point in any of the films), with a gunsight taken off a Sherman tank for a sighting device and ribbing applied to the shroud to give a little extra flair. In contrast to the DH-17, several live blank-converted Sterlings were used during production, with the discharge of the blanks giving the Star Wars effects crew a handy reference for when and where they needed to add a blaster bolt effect to the scene; of course, this also means there’s a few places in the film where you can spot a 9mm casing being ejected, which just goes to show that nothing is perfect.

Some stormtroopers in Star Wars carried a little more firepower, like the T-21, a repeating blaster, that is in reality a Lewis Gun, from World War I.

The Star Wars DLT-19 and the T-21 were both real world machine guns with a bit of extra flair. The DLT-19 was a German MG34 belt-fed machine gun with a black paint job and a set of cabinet runners added to the heat shield, while the T-21 was a Lewis Gun of World War I fame with the magazine discarded and some ribbing applied at the back of the barrel shroud. Introduced prior to the outbreak of World War II, the MG34 was a very well designed general purpose machine gun, and while in theory it was surpassed by the easier-to-make MG42, it saw service clear through to the end of the war. The Lewis gun, meanwhile, was one of the transitional steps from the machine gun as a fixed-position crew-served weapon to a one-person weapon intended to move and maneuver with an infantry unit, and while bulky by modern standards it was exceptionally light and agile for the time period.

Here a storm trooper is armed with a BlasTech DLT-19 heavy blaster rifle that is really a German MG34 machine gun.

Han Solo’s Blaster vs. Greedo’s Blaster

Wanna start a fight? Bring up these next two blasters in the wrong room. In between the original release of a New Hope and the theatrical re-release in the 1990s, several major changes happened to the Star Wars film on the pretense of “remastering” it. Per the man himself, George Lucas, he saw the original films less as finished artistic works and more unaccomplished goals, as there were things he simply couldn’t do with the time, technology and budget at his disposal. So instead of just giving the old classic a dust-off and a touch-up, several scenes were adjusted or inserted whole-cloth. Reaction was… mixed. And by “mixed” I mean it ran a spectrum from “who cares?” to a series of colorful words not fit for print.

The most famous of these adjustments was a confrontation between the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo and famous scoundrel/smuggler/nerf-herder Han Solo, as the former catches up to the latter in a shady space cantina. While the end is always the same (Greedo gets dropped like a bad habit, Han saunters off to become one of the best-known names in American cinema), the steps in between change, specifically whether or not Greedo manages to get a shot off before Han punches his ticket. The matter was quite a hot-button topic, especially if you ran in the sort of circles where Nerd Stuff was a big deal, to the point where it has its own Wikipedia page.

The Han Solo blaster in "Star Wars: A New Hope" is based off a Mauser C96 Broomhandle. It is available in the Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

Lucas claims that he always meant for Greedo vs Han to be more of a “fair fight,” but he also claims that New Hope was always meant to be the fourth of nine Star Wars movies (even though the original release never included the “Episode IV” labelling) among other things, so forgive us for taking that with a grain of salt the size of a toaster oven. It’s been decided that this is the way it went down, with later revisions doubling down on the changes and further codifying “Greedo shot first” as the official word from on high, but as the wise Jedi master Mace Windu once said, “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-___ decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.”

Alright, rant over, back to Star Wars guns.

The lore: Tale of the tape, both parties were pretty evenly equipped, and at least on paper it was Greedo’s fight to lose, what with him having successfully gotten the drop on Han and having spent the entire conversation with his weapon in-hand and on-target. Each had a heavy blaster pistol, Greedo a DT-12 and Han a DL-44, both BlasTech products. The DT-12 was chiefly associated with police and military forces, and generally was popular with aliens with slightly larger than human-standard hands. The DL-44 was an old and tested design, a bit over 30 years old at the start of New Hope, with features such as a vibration module in the grip to silently warn the shooter when they were low on ammo, and the ability to fire overcharged shots capable of blowing through otherwise blaster-resistant armor.

The history of this particular DL-44 was expanded in the more recent film Solo, where it was shown to be reconfigurable between multiple different modes, being employed as a sniper-style rifle before being stripped down to the raw pistol format in which it was seen in the original trilogy, and it would be Han’s weapon of choice through the original trilogy and into the sequel trilogy, where it was presumably destroyed when Starkiller Base exploded.

In the original Star Wars, Greedo's BlasTech DT-12 was drawn but Han Solo still got the drop on him. Greedo's blaster is really a gun called the Ruger Mark I semi-automatic pistol.

The reality: The base unit for the DT-12 in Star Wars was a gun called the Ruger Mark I semi-automatic pistol. Originally developed in the late 1940s by Bill Ruger and financed by backer Alex Sturm (the titular Sturm and Ruger of Sturm, Ruger, & Company) and originally dubbed the “Standard Model”, the Mark I drew heavy inspiration from the Japanese Type 14 Nambu semi-automatic pistol, using a round upper receiver to house a reciprocating bolt assembly. Scaled down to run the 22 Long Rifle cartridge and integrating a number of design innovations to reduce price and speed production, the Standard Model was a good gun at a good price, allowing it to carve out a solid niche in the market, and both the pistol (which is up to the Mark IV iteration) and the company (which was declared the largest firearms maker in the United States by the BATFE in 2015) are still going strong. For its transformation into a Star Wars gun, the Ruger received a shortened barrel, a flared and fluted muzzle device, modified grips and a number of extra bits and bobs mounted on the receiver for dressing.

For Han Solo's gun in Star Wars, Bapty & Co. chose a Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol. One of the first successful semi-automatic pistols on the market, the “Broomhandle” is readily identifiable by its narrow grip and prominent internal box magazine. The Broomhandle has a multi-decade career as a military, police and paramilitary gun, having been carried as a privately purchased sidearm in the Boer War by a young Winston Churchill, imported into China in mass quantities, and seeing action in the trenches of World War One as both an individually purchased weapon and in the issued “Red Nine” variant.

The Mauser C96 "broomhandle" on the left and the BlasTech DL-44 that it became in "Star Wars: A New Hope." The DL-44 used in "A New Hope" will be on offer as lot 1247 in Rock Island Auction Company's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

China in particular took strongly to the C96 pistol, making their own copies ranging from the nigh-flawless copies made in professional military arsenals to rough imitations turned out in backwoods shops to take advantage of customers who were born several decades too early to Google the correct markings

For the C96's appearance as a Star Wars gun, a set of three blank-firing Broomhandles were prepared (in case of breakage or malfunction). Thankfully, original documentation from Star Wars Lead Armorer Carl Schmidt as well as from Tony Watts, who acquired Bapty & Co. in 2000, have provided fantastic insight into the modifications made to create Han Solo's blaster, as well as its provenance.

To begin, the original sights were removed, the barrel shortened, and a muzzle device from a MG-81 was installed on the muzzle. A rig of a Hensoldt-Wetzlar 3x sniper scope with a frame mountable base assembly was put together, giving the DL-44 much of its distinctive profile. This scope and base assembly was shared between three Han Solo blasters.

This frame mounting style kept the weight of the scope off the upper receiver assembly and offset the scope so it wouldn’t interfere with loading. Most famous for being used by German snipers in World War I, the Hensoldt-Wetzlar had been previously used (with a different mounting assembly) on a "schnellfeuer" pattern Mauser in the film Sitting Target. The Mauser parts previously appeared in the Frank Sinatra flick “Naked Runner.”

Image courtesy of IMDB

Han Solo Blaster for Auction

Available in Rock Island Auction Company's August 26 - 28 will be Han Solo's DL-44 heavy blaster from Star Wars: A New Hope. This is the blaster used in filming the near entirety of the 1977 blockbuster. From original Star Wars armorer Carl Schmidt and English prop house Bapty & Co., rose the blaster featured prominently in what would become arguably the single most popular film franchises of all time. If this isn't measured in spin-off projects, sequels, prequels, and merchandise, then surely its longevity places it in the very highest ranks. A more in-depth look at the path and history of this instantly recognizable pistol will be covered in an upcoming blog.

Han Solo's BlasTech DL-44 blaster, one of the most iconic guns in movie history, will be for sale during Rock Island Auction Company's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

The guns of Star Wars and other popular film and television properties have long fascinated the collecting community. Gun collecting and pop culture have always gone hand in hand, so subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos every week. From articles on popular films such as Winchester 73, True Grit, and Quigley Down Under, to television hits like the Walking Dead, Peaky Blinders, Yellowstone, 1883, Outlander, and more, we explore the most popular and intriguing guns of Hollywood.

Another famous piece of Hollywood history on sale this August.

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