Striving for Authenticity, Films Often Use Real Guns On Set

“The reason is simple,” David Brown, a movie firearms safety coordinator, wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 2019. “We want the scene to look as real as possible.”,

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Striving for authenticity, films often use real guns on set.

Real guns have a certain recoil that can be hard to replicate.Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Oct. 22, 2021, 1:34 p.m. ET

On film sets, the safety protocols for using guns are well established and straightforward: weapons must be tightly managed by a licensed armorer, cast members should be trained in gun safety in advance, guns (even fake ones) should never be pointed directly at anyone — and no live ammunition, ever.

Productions routinely use real guns, even in a filmmaking age where visual-effects artists use computers to convincingly create disintegrating cities. They are loaded with blanks, which are cartridge cases with no bullets.

People who know nothing about firearms tend to think that blanks are like toy cap guns for children — a little pop and some smoke. That is not the case. Blanks can still be dangerous since they involve gunpowder, a cartridge and paper wadding or wax, which provide a realistic-looking flame and spark. (When people are injured by firearms on sets, it usually involves a burn to the hand, safety coordinators said.)

Why use actual guns?

“The reason is simple,” David Brown, a movie firearms safety coordinator, wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 2019. “We want the scene to look as real as possible.”

In particular, real guns have a certain weight and recoil that is hard to replicate, particularly when close camera work is involved.

If a movie involves a gun battle, safety planning usually begins long before anyone gathers on a set, according to studio executives who oversee physical production. First, a licensed armorer is brought on board to analyze the script and, working with the director and prop master, decide what weapons are needed. Studios tend to work with the same armorers over and over again; one such expert, John Fox, has credits in 190 films and 650 episodes of television over 25 years.

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Larry Zanoff is an armorer who worked on “Django Unchained.”Credit…Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Armorers own the weapons. They are responsible for storing them on set. Guns are not supposed to leave their hands until cameras are rolling; actors hand them back as soon as “cut” or “wrap” is called and the cameras stop.

Armorers also deal with the blank ammunition.

A production will typically institute rules for keeping a safe distance from the muzzle of a gun loaded with blanks, which is usually 20 feet, according to Larry Zanoff, an armorer for films who worked on the set of “Django Unchained.” He was not involved in “Rust,” the movie being filmed on Thursday when Alec Baldwin shot a gun being used as a prop, killing the director of photography and wounding the director.

As Mr. Brown wrote, “Safe distances vary widely depending on the load and the type of firearm, which is why we test everything in advance. But I’ll share a secret: Normally, I take the distance that people need to be away from a gunshot, and then triple it.”

Studios typically require any cast members who will be performing with firearms to undergo training on a shooting range in advance. There, they are taught safety and given general information about how guns work. Independent productions, for reasons of cost and time, may handle safety demonstrations on set. Various unions operate safety hotlines where anyone on set can anonymously report concerns.

It is not clear precisely what kind of gun was being used in “Rust,” what it was loaded with, or what exactly was happening on the set when it was fired. It was also not known what kind of training the cast members may have had.

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