By: Peter Suciu
Part of movie-making is convincing the viewer that the impossible is possible, and when it comes to action films, this task often includes gunfights. One of the biggest misconceptions in Hollywood surrounds what are today all too commonly called “prop guns,” because technically these weapons don’t exist.
Simply put, the guns that fire on screen aren’t “props.” Rather, these are typically very real firearms that have been modified so they can shoot blanks. The only time a firearm should be called a “prop” is when it is completely non-functional.
Shooting Real Bullets in Movies
Of course, modern action stars are not going to let someone shoot “real” bullets at them, but this wasn’t always the case. During the early days of cinema, there was no practical way to simulate a bullet hitting a wall or window, so instead of fancy special effects, the director called up “marksmen” or “sharpshooters” to shoot over actors’ heads.
In the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, not only were real cannons reportedly used, in some scenes, cannonballs were actually fired!
Even when blanks were finally introduced, some directors stuck with real bullets. Cecil B. DeMille had a lot of pull in the early days of Hollywood, and because he felt live ammunition looked more realistic, that’s what he used. The gun experts hired by film studios argued live ammunition in the hands of expert marksmen was safer than blanks shot by inexperienced extras. Blanks of the pre-World War II era were more dangerous than those used in recent decades.
Real firearms (and cannons) shooting live ammunition provided realism to early films, but it also created some serious dangers for the cast and crew. Charles Chandler, an extra on the 1915 silent film The Captive, was shot and killed because DeMille called for real bullets to be used in a scene in which a soldier shoots a door, and the crew forgot to switch out those live rounds for blanks for a subsequent shootout.
This disaster did no spell doom for real bullets, however. Far from it. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, real bullets were used, and in many cases advertisements for films actually boasted that real bullets were used.
The use of live ammo is most notable in the 1931 gangster film, The Public Enemy, which starred-up-and-coming actor James Cagney, whose character ducks around a corner just an instant before a real Thompson submachine gun was used with great – but not special – effect! Another scene in the film shows a room getting shot up and a mirror shattering just feet from two child actors.
While Cagney put up with live ammo being fired in his direction in The Public Enemy, just a year later he was nearly shot while making Taxi! After a few rounds narrowly missed his head, he banned the practice in his future films, and when he helped found the Screen Actors Guild, one of the key points of the organization was to increase safety in film production by instituting a total ban of live ammunition on set.
Real Guns Remain
While real ammunition has disappeared from film productions, what hasn’t gone away are “real guns.” As noted, the movie industry – at least in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe – largely relies on firearms that have been modified to utilize blanks only.
The firearms that don’t fire at all are often dubbed “holster stuffers.” They’re the firearms a police officer or cowboy might have tucked into his or her holster on screen. Other times, these solid props –made of real metal, wood, plastic, or resin – are carried by characters in the background. Even in the era of high-definition screens, a painted resin firearm in the background is visually indistinguishable from a real gun.
Just as guns in “real life” aren’t toys, movie guns are not treated as such during production. Guns are carefully controlled during filming and generally are only in the hands of the actors for the scene they’re filming, and they’re tightly controlled the rest of the time to avoid accidents.
Tragedies still happen, though. One example is the untimely death of Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son) in 1993, who was shot while filming The Crow. Because of a tight filming schedule, the film’s prop master modified real bullets into dummy bullets for a particular scene in which a victim looks down the barrel of a revolver being loaded.
After filming that scene, the lead tip from the dummy round became lodged in the barrel. Two weeks later, the same gun was used again, this time firing blanks, which tragically was enough to propel the .44 round into Lee’s body.
Blanks need a special adapter that constricts the barrel and allows the firearm to cycle. This means either plugging the end of the barrel temporarily, which would be visible externally, or modifying the gun more permanently modified, in what case live ammo can’t be chambered.
Even modifying firearms properly to fire only blanks can still be dangerous. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed when he pointed a blank-loaded .44 Magnum revolver at his head and pulled the trigger. Blanks use paper or plastic wadding to seal the gunpowder in the cartridge, and this wadding is propelled from the gun. It can cause injury if a weapon is fired within a few feet of the body, and in Hexum’s case, the discharge created enough blunt force trauma to shatter a quarter-sized piece of his skull.
These two heartbreaking incidents are reason enough for all guns on film sets to never be considered harmless “props.”
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.