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Guns of TV and movie: behind the scenes.

The successful ones are masterful imitators. All of them spit fire and smoke. Some simply go "bang!" and that's enough. Others utter a loud staccato stutter and realistically fling their gleaming brass into the atmosphere. A few have helped advance careers--Clint Eastwood's and Charles Bronson's come immediately to mind. Still others, like the Buntline Special, have become celebrities in their own right, firing shots heard--and seen--'round the world.

TV and motion picture guns create powerful, unforgettable images that have had a measurable impact on the shooting world. The guns of cinema and television hold a unique place in the realm of firearms. They are bigger than life yet they are illusions. They are very real, yet they're not. Their most realistic performances spring mostly from the work of a small group of dedicated professionals.

In industry jargon, these guns are simply "props," handled behind the scenes by highly skilled prop men who work minor miracles, somewhat akin to magic. Gun props are so commonplace and generally believable today that we tend to forget why they appear so real. We also tend to forget what they represent and the role that they really play, the emotions they can evoke and their overall influence in the wordly scheme of things.

Where the use of real guns has shaped and changed the broader currents of history, Hollywood's gund have interpreted the real guns of history and colored our perceptions of their use and importance. Yet the make-believe guns have a real history and a real presence all their own. And they have been crucial factors in countless cinematic stories whether the stories involved make believe mayhem or not.

Try to imagine the old hit TV series Gunsmoke without guns. How about the recent films, Star Wars, Rambo, Silverado or Red Dawn? Where would TV's Miami Vice, The A-Team or Riptide be without their flashy, state-of-the-art arsenals or spectacular shootouts?

Hollywood's blazing guns have decided more issues and done in more evildoers than real guns ever did. With such a large number of guns being handled over a long spread of years--predominately by amateurs--there would appear to be an unvoidable potential for tragedy. But over the years there have been a few serious gun accidents in and around the sets. The tragic and accidental death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum by a blank cartridge earlier this year was a rare exception.

"There have been gun safety standards in the industry for a long time and they work fairly well," according to Mike Gibsons, propm man/weapons expert for Stephen J. Cannell Productions. "When you consider the amount of weapons used and their close proximity to film crews and actors, we have relatively few serious firearms-related accidents."

Gibbons and fellow prop man, Mike May, point out that live ammunition has never been allowed on the sets where they have worked. Most of their inventory of arms are modified to fire blanks, and live ammo would blow up these guns. "Besides, live ammo usually doesn't give a good visual image," Gibbons notes. "And that's what movie-making is all about-getting a good visual image."

Bill Alylmore is an armorer for Bapty & Co., Ltd., of London, England. Bapty, now 60 years old, is the largest supplier of firearms and every conceivable kind of weapon to the British film and TV industry. Though the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has strict gun handling rules, the film and TV production outfits in the British Isles have no generally recognized gun safety standards, Aylmore said, but they adhere to safe practices.

Safe gun handling is preached by armorers and prop men alike, so the British, like the Americans, have had few serious gun-related accidents over the years.

Live ammunition is occasionally used by Bapty technicians during filming (as it is in some U.S. productions), but "only if the directors really want it," Aylmore pointed out. "It's up to the armorer to determine if the use of live ammo is feasible and to make the proper safety arrangements if it is used."

TV and movie industry armorers and prop men are responsible for converting all types of firearms to shoot blanks, and for maintaining the arms. They also advise studio and production company prop men on appropriate arms to be used in all types of stories from period pieces to contemporary yarns. In lieu of professional gun coaches, they also coach and train the stars in proper gun handling when requested.

Are the stars cooperative? "It depends," Gibbons said. "When it involves safety, they are--or we remove the guns from the set! Most have never handled firearms before, but many others personally own and shoot guns themselves; these actors often modify or compromise our suggestions. I don't mind, so long as their ideas are safe and reasonable." A director, of course, has final say.

To attain realism, from time to time actors and actresses live fire the type of guns which they will use in a production. But this is not a requirement, Gibbons says.

Some of the studios and production companies, like Cannell Productions, own their own prop guns, but most rent from outfits like Ellis Mercantile, the famous Stembridge Gun Rentals Company on Bapty & Co., Ltd. Bapty designed the guns for Star Wars, supplied all the runs for the James Bond films, and recently supplied guns for a new theatrical film, Revolution. Revolution is set in the American Revolutionary period and stars Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland and other top performers.

Closer to home, G&A staffer, Feature Editor Garry James, is lending his firearms knowledge and expertise to an American public television production, Roanoak. "to my knowledge, this is the first time that a TV show will actually fire match-lock and wheellock arms on camera," James relates. "In the past, only non-shooting replicas of these firearms were used. Believe me, it will be a challenge." Roanoak's story is about the first contact between English explorer/settlers and native Americans.

Another G&A staffer, Feature Editor Phil Spangenberger, has served as a film and TV production firearms technical adviser for about 10 years. It was he who originally contributed the idea of the Auto Mag pistol which Clint Eastwood wielded in Sudden Impact. More typically, Spanberger taught actor Charlton Heston how to use a muzzle-loading plains rifle for the 1980 release, The Mountain Men. He is currently working on an upcoming network TV mini-series about explorer John C. Fremont.

Getting all the elements to work and work properly is the trick. And it's not as easy as they make it look. "For me, fully automatic guns that fire blanks are the hardest guns to work with," Gibbons confides. "For machine guns, we generally use propane gas fired with a spark plug that's not too noticeable."

When everyone concerned--prop men, advisers, actors, directors, et. al.--have successfully done their jobs, it all works and the illusion is complete. With all the other ingredients of a show working, if the guns carry off their part, the story will have the appearance of reality.

The impact is known. Remember the far-from-authentic, misnamed but engaging "adult" TV Westerns of the 1950s? They're credited with creating a large demand for Colt's Single Action Peacemaker revolver and convincing Colt to place it back into production. Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" films similarly caused a demand for the S&W M29 .44 Magnum revolver.

Audiences long ago learned the right approach to screen guns. Once projectors and video tape machines begin to roll, they quickly forget that more shots have been fired on Hollywood studio backlots and sound stages than were ever fired in the real Old West, on dark, crime-ridden city streets, or on many real-life battlefields. They lean back and let their eyes and ears tell them that the image before them is real--anyway.

"As an avid shooter myself," Spangenberger muses, "working with movie guns is both fun and frustrating--you have to be technically correct and creative at the same time--but who can resist the magic of moviemaking?"
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Author:Rutledge, Lee A.
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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