What’s a prop gun and why are real guns used on movie sets?

The tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins has put the issue of gun safety on film and TV sets in the crosshairs. How do guns on film sets work?

Last week, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed and director Joel Souza injured on the set of a movie in New Mexico when a prop gun being used by Alec Baldwin, the co-writer, producer and star of Rust, was fired twice.

Baldwin was rehearsing a move in which he would draw the gun across his chest and aim it towards the camera when it discharged, according to an affidavit released on Monday. A projectile of some sort, possibly a bullet, hit Hutchins in the chest and passed through her to hit Souza, who was standing behind her. They were both taken to hospital, where she was pronounced dead and he was later released.

This tragic incident has put the issue of the use of guns in film and television productions in the crosshairs. What kind of weapons and charges are safe to use? How they are to be handled? Is there even a place anymore for “real” guns on set given the advances in visual effects?

Jon-Erik Hexum, who died after a prank with a revolver loaded with a blank in 1984. Credit:Wally Fong

Is this the first time something like this has happened?

Sadly, no. In 1984, 26-year-old actor Jon-Erik Hexum died after shooting himself in the temple with a blank from a pistol between takes on the set of the TV series Cover Up. In 1993, actor Brandon Lee – son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee – died on the set of the feature film The Crow after being shot in the abdomen by a modified bullet fired from a supposedly safe prop gun. And in 2017, stuntman Johann Ofner died after being shot in the chest by a prop shotgun containing blanks while filming a video for hip-hop act Bliss’n’Eso in Brisbane.

But aren’t blanks meant to be safe?

According to John Fox, a veteran motion picture armourer whose credits include Romper Stomper, Animal Kingdom and the weaponry-heavy Son of a Gun, “many people think blanks are like toy caps and are safe to use and that no harm can come to them … in fact, the blanks that are used in today’s film industry are very powerful and can cause severe injury or death when fired at close range to vital organs, soft body tissue, the head or the heart.” They can also cause damage to hearing and eyesight.

“Blanks are extremely dangerous, but they’re safe when they’re used in a safe way,” says Cameron Douglas, who trains filmmakers in the appropriate use of weaponry. “The reason you have an armourer on set is to ensure that everyone knows how to use them in a safe manner.”

What, exactly, is a blank?

A blank is “the same as a real bullet except there’s no projectile,” says Douglas. That means it has a primer and propulsive charge inside a cartridge case (or shell), but no projectile (the actual bullet at the tip of the entire device, which is properly known as a cartridge).

It may have what is known as “wadding”, which might consist of paper or even dacron (the polyester fibre used in pillows) but in many cases it does not.

The idea is to create the impression of a gunshot – principally flash, smoke and kickback – minus the actual bullet and the risk it poses. After it is fired, the empty casing simply pops out of the weapon. “If used correctly, under the appropriate supervision of a qualified and licensed armourer, blanks can be used safely,” says Douglas.

Brandon Lee died during the filming of <i>The Crow</i>.Credit:

Sounds safe; where does the risk come in?

In short, preparation and procedure.

Brandon Lee’s death was a result of a chain of mishaps, starting with the prop gun (a real revolver) being loaded with dummy rounds made from modified live bullets that had their explosive charges removed (so they would look real in close-up but could not actually fire). However, the primers (the small charges used to ignite the main propellant that actually fires the bullet) remained.

When the shells were removed from the gun and replaced with blanks (which had propellants but no bullets) no one noticed that a bullet had become dislodged from its casing and lodged in the barrel. When the trigger was pulled, the explosive charge in the blank was enough to force the bullet out of the chamber and into Lee’s abdomen.

In the case of Ofner, a coronial inquest recently heard that a prop shotgun had been loaded with blanks that had been prepared to be fired into the air, not at a body at close range. The man who prepared the blanks told the inquest that had he known they were to be fired at a person, “I probably would have said no”. The inquest is due to deliver its findings in November.

Hexom’s death resulted from an apparent failure to understand the danger posed by blanks. In a joking riff on the movie The Deer Hunter, he emptied the chamber of all but one shell before spinning it Russian roulette style and holding the gun to his temple. As he pulled the trigger, the wadding in the blank hit his head with such force that it pushed fragments of skull into his brain.

It’s too soon to say what happened on the set of Rust, though early reports suggest the presence of live ammunition on set (two rounds were reportedly fired in a separate incident two weeks earlier, again from a gun that had been declared cold), a prop gun being handled by a first assistant director rather than an armourer, and an armed weapon being pointed directly at people – all of which would be in clear breach of on-set safety guidelines in Australia.

Johann Ofner died after he was shot during the filming of a Bliss n Eso music video in Brisbane.Credit:Facebook

Should real guns simply be banned from sets?

Plenty of people think so. A petition on change.org started by director Bandar Albuliwi calling for a ban on real firearms has attracted more than 22,000 signatures. Alex Proyas, the Australian director of The Crow, has the kind of experience in this matter no one wants. On Saturday, he posted on Facebook that “real guns should have been banned on sets after The Crow. Why they’re still used is utterly inexplicable.

“I am filled with sadness for the victims, and I’m also so angry over this. Ban functioning guns on movie sets now! I’ll add my voice to the chorus, in the hope this time something might change.”

There’s a case to be made that metal replicas, rubber guns, even detailed water pistols can look convincing, especially once flash and smoke are added in post-production. But, says Glenn Melenhorst, Emmy award-winning VFX supervisor at Method, “it’s an expensive endeavour, and it requires forethought”.

It can be done realistically in complete safety – “you shoot the real weapons in a controlled environment, capture those shots from multiple angles, and add it into the frame in post” – but it’s complicated and “a lot more expensive than having an armourer on set”.

So, can real guns be used safely on sets or not?

According to armourers, yes. But it’s a serious business and demands to be treated as such.

“We know what the camera needs to see, but we also know we can’t just let students run around the streets pretending to be bank robbers,” says John Fox, who once had to train 150 people in how to safely fire $1 million worth of blanks on Steven Spielberg’s mini-series The Pacific. “The safety requirements on a small student film with no budget are exactly the same as on a $20-million film.”

In a nutshell, it boils down to a few simple rules: never allow live ammunition (real bullets) on set; ensure a fully qualified licensed armourer is in sole control of weaponry at all times, including up to the actual shot and immediately afterwards; never point a live weapon (including one armed with blanks) at someone at close range; ensure weapons are in good mechanical condition and blanks have been fully tested beforehand; ensure that any “empty” weapon really is empty.

“If I’ve got a six-shot revolver, I will fire seven shots in front of the crew and the actor to make absolutely clear that it is empty,” says Cameron Douglas.

Bottom line, this may be play-acting, but prop guns are not toys.

“People’s lives are on the line, and we take that very seriously,” says Douglas. “It makes my guts churn when I think about how easy it is to hurt or kill somebody.”

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