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The film industry has a long history with guns. We the People Holsters discusses the best use of firearms on screen.

We the People Holsters discusses what the film industry gets right about firearms

Firearms are part and partial to the film industry. But, as we all know, filmmakers don’t always get firearms right. Ever watch a shootout scene where a protagonist uses their car door as a shield? Cringe-inducing, we know. It can be hard to suspend disbelief when our hero has a seemingly endless magazine.

Filmmakers expect the average moviegoer to not know that much about firearms. This makes it easier for them to use props on set and for actors who are untrained in firearms to be able to use these props. Directors and producers want their shots to look good, not right. We The People Holsters wants to share what the film industry gets right about firearms. This includes some movies, tactics, and more.

Films that got it right

Let’s talk about a few films that have gone above and beyond to nail it with firearms usage. Our first pick for a film that gets it right is John Wick. Keanu Reeves is an actor with an attention to detail when it comes to action sequences, especially when they involve firearms. 

Just look at the first Matrix movie. (We’ll pretend that the sequels don’t exist though, as no exception firearms usage exists in them.) But, in 2014’s John Wick, it is evident that Reeves spent months working with World Champion Shooter Taran Butler in order to perfect his handling and shooting.

In this film, the titular character takes his time to reload while keeping his eye on potential targets. It’s all about using tactical moves in order to survive. Wick clears a room and reloads before entering the next. Smart and sophisticated, John Wick was destined for series status.

Another movie we have to hand it to is Jerry Bruckheimer’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down, inspired by Mark Bowden’s book of the same name that chronicles the real-life events of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The film follows the US soldiers embroiled in the heat of battle after Operation Gothic Serpent goes awry.

Firearms expert Simon Atherton and U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. veteran Harry Humphries worked with the large crew of actors. The rubber dummy props aren’t dead ringers for the real things, but they come extremely close. If you aren’t a Ranger or SEAL, you might not even notice the difference. The end result is realistic scenes of brutal warfare that will leave you feeling like you’re right there in the heat of battle.

What is it like working with blanks

Working with blanks is crucial to any film that utilizes firearms since you shouldn’t point a loaded gun at an actor and fire it. Even prop guns can lead to tragedies like what happened to actor and martial artist (and son of the great Bruce Lee) Brandon Lee while filming The Crow.

As firearms safety coordinator Dave Brown says, a blank is a cartridge that is fired from either a real- or blank-firing firearm. There is no bullet, but there is enough gunpowder packed in there to create the same bright burst of light at the end of the barrel. This is how filmmakers convince the audience to suspend disbelief, but it’s honestly pure Hollywood ‘flash’ – literally. 

Blanks actually need a lot of gunpowder – far more than what would be in an actual cartridge – in order for this flash to occur. There is no projectile, but the camera catches debris, the burst of light, and unburned flakes, all of which are indeed quite dangerous when you work up close with them. 

But these hazards are predictable and, therefore, easy to control. Still, firearms experts need to be on-hand to control all of the props, not to mention work as teachers for actors who need tactical training.

Training actors

Most actors aren’t firearms experts, nor should we expect them to be. But many actors take their work seriously and go through rigorous training. Take, for example, Val Kilmer. For his part in the film Heat, Kilmer and his fellow actors had to train with British SAS operatives at Los Angeles County Sheriff’s combat shooting ranges. 

They did this in order to perfect what is now known as one of the best shootout sequences in action film history: a ten-minute-long ordeal that saw parts of downtown LA for six straight weekends in order for it to be filmed.

One scene that shows Kilmer laying out fire in multiple directions and reloading without needing a cut scene has been shown to American Green Berets at Fort Bragg as part of their training. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego has also reportedly shown its recruits this scene as a cinematic example of how to properly retreat while taking heavy enemy fire.

Indie films and guns

Indie filmmakers have to work on infinitely stricter budgets than the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and Steven Spielberg. How are they supposed to find prop guns that create the same rad muzzle flashes that audiences enjoy seeing in big-budget action flicks? CGI can only do so much and getting a hold of prop guns can be really expensive.

One of the tricks that indie filmmakers use are Airsoft Guns. They are perhaps best described as ramped-up BB guns and can be purchased for under $50 each. Filmmakers just need to know which ones to get for wide-angle shots versus close-ups. And, of course, they can purchase some inexpensive metallic paint in order to give the prop gun a more realistic sheen. Cheap? Yes. Effective? Sometimes, if the job is done right.

Still, indie filmmakers need Airsoft experts on set to handle these props. Even though these aren’t real guns, they can cause harm if you don’t know what you are doing. They also know how to make Airsoft guns pass for real guns.

Guns and crime drama

One of the film and television genres we have to bring up since guns are crucial to their plots are crime dramas. Fans of crime dramas expect the prop guns used in them to be extremely realistic. Ever watch an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? Ballistics is a major component of solving many criminal cases, both on film and in real life. From prop guns to prop bullets, replicas have to look realistic on the screen.

Here is where on-set experts are essential. Their knowledge and expertise can literally be woven into the story. How many screenwriters are going to know about how silencers work on different guns (and that they don’t completely silence them)? How many would know that police officers are trained to swap handgun magazines and hang onto the less-full ones just in case the remaining rounds are needed later?

When and how to use cover

Way of the Gun is one of the best examples of how cover is used in a shootout scene. This film has been massively overlooked but, in our book, is one of the best when it comes to tactical procedures and trigger discipline with the actors. 

This 2000 film by Christopher McQuarrie feels authentic, and that is due in part to McQuarrie’s Navy SEAL brother, Doug McQuarrie, serving as a firearms expert. It shows in how the characters wear their IWB holsters, that’s for sure. These characters are criminals who have to conceal carry in order to avoid detection from law enforcement. Makes sense, right?

What stands out here is the use of cover. In a shootout scenario, you want cover, but you want safe coverage. You don’t want to dive behind just anything because you could end up getting an arm full of glass. Ouch. 

You also have to make sure that your entire body is concealed. The film actually teaches you these lessons as the characters make these mistakes and learn the hard way. It’s clever and, indeed, the way of the gun.

Hiring firearm prop specialists

When the budget can afford it, a firearms prop specialist will get called in for their craftsmanship. Just ask former actor-turned-owner of the Specialists, Rick Washburn. His collection includes over 5,000 firearms, ranging from revolvers to sniper rifles and even a 15th-century wheel lock. 

These guns all fired live ammo one upon a time, but they were all modified on-site to shoot blanks or simply serve as props that are unable to be shot at all.

Over the past three decades, Specialists have been the go-to specialists for prop firearms, especially on the East Coast. It even supplied Men in Black 3 with its assortment of ultra-cool alien weaponry. 

They also contributed firearms to the huge blockbuster hit, The Dark Knight Rises. Although those movies have a lot of CGI, a lot of the firearms are fairly real.

Firearms prop specialists have to know real firearms so that they can produce the prop variants. Since many films take place in the past, a firearms prop expert has to know what kind of guns were used in that particular time period. 

If a film is set in World War II from the perspective of an Italian soldier, a Beretta M1934 is probably going to have to be worked into the film. Historical accuracy is paramount in war films after all, right down to the most minute details.

Leaving a lasting impact

The way guns are portrayed leaves a lasting impact. Just think of the scene from 1971’s Dirty Harry when Clint Eastwood’s character, Inspector Harry Callahan, points his .44 Magnum at a wounded bank robber and says he doesn’t know how many rounds he fired. 

Harry adds “But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

After that movie came out, sales for that beautiful long-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum skyrocketed. S&W still manufactures this timeless model because of the nostalgia factor. Eastwood is no stranger to firearms, and his skills show on-screen as he conveys Harry’s trust in his .44.

Before the film came out, the 28 was not a popular choice, and this carries over on-screen with other police officers choosing to use .38s instead. In the original script, Harry was supposed to carry a nickel-finish 29 with a four-inch barrel, but screen tests showed that a longer barrel looked better. 

Therefore, two longer barrels were procured: a 6.5-inch barrel for filming and an 8.38-inch barrel to be predominantly used for posters where up-close shots were needed. The end result was something that looked amazing and felt realistic.

Sales for the 29 tripled after the film’s release, and even televised marathons of Dirty Harry reportedly caused surges in sales of 29s at local gun shops. Does it matter that the Model 29 has been massively outperformed by newer revolvers? Not if you ask an Eastwood fan. The right gun, in the hands of the right actor, with the right script and director at the helm, can leave a lasting, positive impression on viewers.

When done right, a film can leave a lasting impression on its audiences with how guns are used. Viewers don’t want to see silly shootouts where supposedly skilled firearms wielders are diving willy-nilly to avoid gunfire. 

Viewers don’t want to see their heroes shooting magically endless magazines or a bunch of cut-screens. Viewers want to feel immersed in the experience, as if they are next to their heroes with their own weapons drawn.

We The People Holsters have seen some really awesome movies that convey positive – and realistic – messages about guns. A good prop gun goes a long way, but a skilled firearms expert is needed to assist in training actors with tactical skills and helping screenwriters and directors shape plots and dialogues. 

A few movies have found this winning combination, and we cannot recommend them enough for real-life firearms owners and enthusiasts to watch.

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