January 12, 2021
By Ryan F. Sullivan
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Nearly from the beginning of American cinema and television, the firearm has had a role to play in the narrative. Those roles varied in importance, from nameless set dressing like the pistols in the belt holsters of the extras in a war movie, to the Colt 1908 Vest Pocket automatic that drives the entire plot of the Kurosawa film "Stray Dog."
When it came time to fire a gun on camera, often the most straightforward solution was to fire an actual gun, either modified or unmodified; after all, why go through the hassle to have the prop department make something that looks like a gun, sounds like a gun, and acts like a gun when they could just buy a gun? Even when the action strayed into the realm of the fantastic, real-world firearms could still play a part, either as they were or by dressing to impress.
And of course, no matter how careful you are, accidents will happen...
When Hollywood first began shooting guns on film, the procedure was reasonably simple—find a gun, load it with blanks, and shoot it. Manually operated firearms frequently used in shooting pieces or westerns presented no issues on this front because they were not dependent on recoil forces or captured gases to drive their actions. Initially, more modern weapons (such as semi-automatics and MGs) suffered from issues, as blanks did not produce the forces needed to drive them with no action of driving the bullet forward, no equal and opposite reaction to drive the slide.
At first, the solution was not technical in nature, but editorial. With the war epics of the 1940s and the action extravaganzas of the 80s still decades away, most scripts often called for a single, well-timed shot to serve the role instead of the more realistic, but harder to film, hail of bullets that happens more often in real gunfights (consider the single round to the back that ended the life of many a film noir character or the exchange of single rounds between Western gunfighters versus the absolute hell of gunfire Sonny Corleone caught in The Godfather), or foley artists providing the volume of fire for an off-camera gun that it couldn't produce on camera.
Eventually, this problem would be solved on a technical level, with the introduction of gas checks that could be installed into internally threaded barrels. Working on similar mechanical principles to blank adapters used for military training, these devices created enough back-pressure for semi-automatic weapons to operate while being discrete enough to not show up on camera. This development had many knock on effects for film, as it allowed for cinema to provide a greater sense of realism to conflicts involving machine guns, essential to any attempt to depict warfare in the 20th century, as well as allowing for the staging of more dynamic and dramatic gunfights with contemporary weapons. In turn, this allowed film to grow as a visual medium able to show what was going on, instead of being as reliant on implication and staging to carry the message across.
While this development had a significant impact on how productions could be staged and filmed, there were still limitations. Blank rounds—though safe if handled correctly—still required precautions, like ensuring distance between the shooter and the target and careful staging and avoiding shots like those directly to the face.
Modern developments in computer graphics provide an answer for directors wanting to have a close-range hit up front and clearly visible, allowing all the flash and splatter without needing to have a human being in peril. An inert prop, enhanced by digital artists, can provided the look and sound of the real thing without being a hazard or a hassle to transport or store.
Hollywood has a long, proud history of being able to work with the resources at hand to make the mundane into the fantastic. "Mad Max" visionary George Miller famously used his own vehicle as a sacrifice to produce the classic film, while the creators of "Monty Python's Holy Grail" managed to make several castles out of a single structure shot from different sides. The armorers and prop masters of Hollywood followed this same tradition when called upon to provide the weapons of tomorrow, today. Many weapons, both famous and niche, have found famous second careers as signature weapons in classic science fiction and action films.
In some cases, the armorer's job is already mostly done before they get there, as some weapons hit the market looking so futuristic that they could be put in space or after the apocalypse and look like they fit in. For instance, the Claridge Hi-Tec, a short lived but extremely novel appearing handgun, was able to go right from the box onto the set of the Arnold Schwarzenegger action classic "Total Recall" as a plausible weapon for government agents and rebels fighting for the future of Mars, and still looked exotic enough to plausibly be a future astronaut's survival gun in the 2001 remake of "Planet of the Apes."
Other times, a modern weapon needs a little something extra to fit the bill, and a bit of dressing is enough to make it happen. The "Star Wars" franchise, for instance, is rife with classic arms redressed for action long, long ago and far, far away, as blank firing guns with appropriate bits and bobs stood in for the various blaster weapons used by both heroes and villains. For those who know what to look for, it's not hard to turn off your suspension of disbelief and see the real weapons all dressed up to play; the Sterling SMGs and Lewis Guns carried by the stormtroopers, Han Solo's scoped Mauser Broomhandle, the stubby AR-15 variants taken into action by Rebel commandos in "Rogue One," and many, many others. From the "Alien" franchise, a prominent item in the Colonial Marine arsenal was the "M56 Smart Gun," a futuristic squad automatic weapon made by strapping motorcycle parts to a pair of MG42s and then rigging them to Steadicam harnesses.
In other cases, the weapons are completely hidden from view; much like an actor might get into a full suit to portray a monster, a blank-firing firearm may be completely enclosed in an outer shell to play its role. A group of M1A1 Thompson SMGs so equipped served as the "M41A Pulse Rifle" in the science fiction classic "Aliens," with some also fitted with a chopped-down Remington 870 stuck inside a SPAS-12 heat shield to act as the on-board grenade launcher. Aside from a small bit of the receiver and charging handle visible on the right side, the Thompson vanishes into the role. A Calico 950 performs similar duty to act as the weapon of Skynet's forces in the "Future War" opening sequence of Terminator 2: Judgement day.
Some of these converted weapons have even managed to become recurring bit players, being kept in storage in modified form and broken out again for use in later productions. A dressed-up variant of the Winchester 1887 lever action shotgun seen in the film Blade: Trinity and reused for the television programs "Stargate: Atlantis," "Eureka," and "Sanctuary" as an advanced combat rifle. Similarly, an exceptionally tricked out Saiga-12 shotgun originally made for the film Showtime was brought back out of the arsenal to serve as "Vera," a signature weapon on the beloved but short-lived "Firefly" television series.
While many steps can be taken to mitigate risk in film, the core fact is that using a firearm on a film set often requires that several critical safety steps need to be skipped, most critically 1) not aiming it at anything or anyone you don't want to kill and 2) being mindful of your backdrop. In addition to being called upon to handle firearms as though intending to kill and in an environment that lacks proper backstops, actors can be called upon to emulate unhinged or incompetent behavior as they portray homicidal, suicidal, or just plain stupid characters who wield firearms with a callous or illogical disregard for the safety of others or themselves. This can, and has, resulted in tragedy, sometimes fatal.
During the early days of film, sometimes live rounds were used interchangeably with blanks as production required, since the technology of the era made it easier to just shoot something instead of indulging in trickery; no one could "just CGI it" back the silent film days. This resulted in an incident on the set of the 1915 Cecil De Mille film "The Captive," where a group of soldiers was supposed to shoot up a locked door (with live rounds), reload with blanks while the film was stopped, and then proceed with the action of bashing the door down. Someone missed a step and went into the door battering phase with a live round chambered in their gun, which then went off and fatally struck another performer in the head, killing them. As the scripted action called for multiple blank rounds to go off during the battering, no official determination was ever made as to which person failed to clear their weapon.
The blanks used in film firearms, while worlds safer than a live bullet, are not without hazards. Blank discharges, especially in enclosed spaces, can result in significant hearing damage, as reportedly suffered by Bruce Willis when filming a scene firing a Beretta 92 handgun through the underside of a board room table in the first "Die Hard," and Linda Hamilton while firing a customized Colt/Detonics Series 70 Government Model in an elevator for Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
While serious injuries from blanks are rare, due to careful understanding of how different blank loads need to be prepared and handled, blank rounds have resulted in two fatalities, that of actor Jon-Erik Hexum on the set of the television show "Cover Up," and of Brandon Lee on the set of the film "The Crow." Hexum was killed by a blank while engaging in horseplay with a revolver between takes, using a single blank round "Russian roulette" style, which resulted in a discharge of the blank directly into his right temple, causing internal spalling of his skull and fatal brain damage.
The scenario with Lee is more complicated, and required multiple weapon handling failures. First, a revolver was loaded with improperly prepared dummy cartridges for close-up filming, and one of the bullets was dislodged from its cartridge and became lodged in the barrel. Then, the same revolver was used to film a scene of Lee being shot, and the combination of the bullet in the barrel and the blank in the chamber turned out to be just as lethal as a proper cartridge.
In other, slightly ironic cases, the peril came not from the firearms themselves, but the effects intended to hide the fact that a real weapon was not in play. During the production of the film "First Blood," the introductory installment of the classic "Rambo" franchise, actor Sylvester Stallone suffered a number of injuries while performing his own stunts, including a number of broken bones from falling onto tree branches, severe bruising from "pretending" to be beaten by cops, and a serious hand injury from fake gunfire.
While filming a scene where his character is fleeing under fire from a group of National Guardsmen attempt to hunt him down, he set his hand in the wrong place and put it on top of a squib, a tiny pyrotechnic device designed to simulate the effects of the Guardsmen's rifle fire on the environment around him. Certainly less harmful than a live 5.56mm round, but still a horribly painful surprise to receive.
On occasions in the past, our firm has had the opportunity to bring a film-used weapon to the auction block. In particular, a number of arms formerly of the Stembridge Gun Rental collection have passed through the hall. One of the oldest and most famous armories in Hollywood, Stembridge made their name by accumulating a highly impressive array of weapons, from tiny pocket guns to full size belt-fed machine guns, and when they closed their doors in 1999 many of those firearms entered the general market.
A group of those weapons passed through our hall back in 2008, including a set of tranquilizer rifles prepared for the filming of "Mighty Joe Young," and a number of Taurus semi-automatic pistols decorated out for the film "Mystery Men." More recently, we had the chance to handle a Thompson SMG from the Stembridge collection that was documented to the production of the crime epic "The Godfather," which had the dual level cool of being connected to an epic of American cinema while also being a fully functional, registered and transferable machine gun. On the consignment front, film weapons can be a feast or famine situation, as we can go a while without receiving any and then suddenly have multiple show up from a single client, either coincidentally or because they specifically sought out film guns for collection purposes.
Rock Island Auction Company is no stranger to coming in contact with items owned by celebrities or ones used in blockbuster movies. Clark Gable, Tom Selleck, and Elvis Presley have all had items sold at Rock Island Auction Company. That being said, amazing items that astonish even the experts here frequently find their ways to a Rock Island Auction Company event, but the only way to find out is to see for yourself.
Interested in learning more? Rock Island Auction Company will be holding their first Sporting & Collector Auction of 2021 from February 3-6. With thousands of firearms, hundreds of industry-leading manufacturers, and a myriad of other rare and unique collectables decorating the digital catalog, this auction is not something to miss. As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, future auctions, or any of the items listed here, please contact Rock Island Auction Company today.
HiBAPTY's were the British equivalent of Stembridge -- still going. Fred Day was their armourer and we were both members of the Marylebone Rifle & Pistol Club in the City of London. I recall talking to him about the lack of snc sometimes in the 1950s1960s War films and he explained it. He asked me whether the posture adopted by the "soldiers" was correct, pointing out that often the man was holding the SMG across his body with left arm alongside his ribs. TO BE CONTINUED
CONTINUED... He explained that it was to hide the rubber tube feeding Coal Gas *** to the muzzle, where he had fitted a spark plug. When the gasair mixture reached the right proportions it ignited, giving a flash at the muzzle, simulating live fire. The studia then dubbed the "bangs" onto the sound track. More than one way of solving a problem ;-)***(known at the time as "Town Gas" and used for domestic gas ovens --- now replaced by "Natural Gas")
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