5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies

We're still using real firearms in movies, and that's pretty terrifying.
5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies

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It's difficult to make a blockbuster action movie today without guns. And when a director or production company decides that Keanu Reeves' hands look just plain weird without pistols in them, the filmmakers hire an armorer. Mike Tristano is one of the best in the business. He has more than 500 movie and TV credits to his name. He told us ...

We Use Real Guns On Movies, And That Creates Real Problems

Big-name actors are expensive, and there's generally only a handful of Bruce Willii or Stathams (Jasons, preferably) in the world at a given time. Studios would obviously prefer that these precious acting commodities not be shot in the face. So films use blanks rather than real bullets. But they're still using real firearms: "they give the same flash, and same shell ejection as real firearms. So they are real, they've just been converted to fire blanks only."

This occasionally causes issues, because certain very famous actors also happen to have very large rap sheets, and felons are legally barred from touching firearms in the U.S. Yes, you can take a moment to weep for them now. Mike and his colleagues have ways to deal with that: "That was something that was brought to the attention of armorers in the movie industry years ago, because we did have several actors ... who have felonies on their record, and we were told by ATF and the California Department of Justice that we could not hand them a functioning firearm. So generally ... we hand them something that is not a firearm, never has been a firearm. We specifically make up weapons that have never been firearms, so they've never been in that category."

Since Mike works in California, he's got to deal with that state's notoriously strict gun laws. Even though his firearms have been converted to only fire blanks, he pays for a fistful of gun permits every year: "assault weapon permits, what they call Entertainment Firearms Permits ... they issue anyone these licenses, which they charge a lot of money for, which we have to pay for each year ... I carry ten different licenses, literally, to do what I do, most of which I have to renew every year."

It's kind of silly that a guy in Mike's position has to have the same permits as, say, a company that provides armed security guards. But there are bigger issues. Namely, that Actual Firearms can Actually Kill people: "Obviously, blanks are still dangerous within like, 20 feet." If that's true, then how is any war movie filmed without filling graveyards with the corpses of extras? Well, first off, "A gun is never pointed at an actor on a set, even if they're 50 feet away. It's always off angle, just as an extra safety precaution. It may look on camera ... like actors are firing at one another, but they never are. At least, not when we're there."

Mike's shop has "a couple of thousand" firearms. Most of those are period weapons, like Civil War muskets. "We've had a couple hundred people at a time equipped with weaponry; that's just the live weaponry." Hundreds of non-firing extras can be equipped with rubber fakes that look good enough on camera. But how do you stop the hundreds of people with live, loaded firearms from accidentally shooting anyone?

"We're out there in the field, my crew and I, placing everybody along with the first AD and the director, so when they land in their first spot they're going to have a mark to land on and a mark to fire at. There's no margin of error. If we're doing a big battle scene, we may have five, ten rehearsals, and we're out there in the middle of that ... making sure every one of those people that's firing a blank firing weapon is landing in a safe spot."

The potential for danger is huge, which is why Mike's job exists in the first place. Back in 1993, Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee's son, was killed on the set of The Crow by a gun that should have been firing blank rounds. "Any time anyone has been injured on a film set or TV program with blanks being used, it's usually -- usually -- because there has not been a professional armorer on the set ... I hate to bring this up, but The Crow is the perfect example. There was a very experienced armorer on the set. He wasn't called in that day because they didn't want to pay him that day."

In one scene, a character had to stare right down the barrel of a gun, and so the prop guy took real lead-tipped bullets, removed the gunpowder, and used them for the close-up. Somehow the tip came off when the dummy round was removed from the gun, and remained lodged in the barrel.

"...and nobody had bothered to check it, because this wasn't a real professional armorer...We check the gun multiple times, but nobody checked the gun the way an armorer would do. It was just a perfect storm of horrific mistakes."

Two weeks later, the same gun was loaded with a blank and fired at Brandon Lee. The gunpowder from the blank propelled the actual bullet into Lee, killing him. Had an armorer been on set, it would have surely been caught. Though it's worth noting Brandon also wouldn't have died if there'd been someone on set enforcing a more basic rule of gun safety: never point a gun at a person.

The "Cool Stuff" Requires The Invention Of Entirely New Guns

Modern action movies have developed a strong preference for close-quarters gun battles. Scenes like this are incredibly common:

5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies
Summit Entertainment

But for the most part, real gunfights occur at about 10-20 feet ("I would say 7-20 feet", says Mike). In war, that distance increases greatly. In older action movies, most of the shooting tended to stick to more realistic distances, because blanks were the only option (outside of, um, firing real bullets at actors), and you really shouldn't fire blanks that close to humans. But we've grown to love watching Keanu Reeves shoot people from two feet away, and that means Mike and his team have had to create new, fake guns to simulate close combat:

"It's something we developed called a zero blank, it does eject a shell, but there's nothing that comes out of gun ... basically it's a blank that doesn't have any charge to it, just a mechanism in it ... to eject a shell casing. That way, there's no chance of an actor being hurt."

And what if you want to show, say, Bob Saget executing a cartel member at point-blank range? "We also have another type of gun where the flash goes out of the top ... so basically ... the flash is going upwards, but the barrel is totally plugged."

Mike and his team even maintain several fake guns made specifically for "suicide shots." And of course they also build the fancy futuristic space guns for your favorite sci-fi movies. "If you have a film where they want to have a futuristic weapon, sometimes we build a futuristic weapon based on a modern firing gun. On Starship Troopers, I think they used a Ruger that they built a fiberglass structure over."

11 L
20th Century Fox

They also added an Ithica Model 37 shotgun underneath, because every gun can use a backup gun.

"And a lot of times ... we design it and have a technician make a propane or butane torches in flamers. Like the flamers in Aliens, those were butane."

Most of the futuristic guns in your favorite movies are non-firing props. But a few of them are built over real firearms. Yes, this means that somewhere out in the world, there exists a functioning pulse rifle.

20th Century Fox

We hear Sigourney Weaver keeps it in her car.

Holding Guns Sideways Is Impractical, Of Course, But It's Also Dangerous

Action movies love the image of guys diving through the air firing a pair of guns. Now, that's an obviously bad idea, because shooting one-handed is less accurate than shooting two-handed, and shooting while diving sideways through the air is the least accurate thing of all. To illustrate this, try doing anything at all while diving through the air.

5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies
Paramount Pictures

Like acting, for example ...

"If you have an actor doing that, he's firing it with one hand and he may tweak his wrist one way or the other ..." It's easier to get hurt, in other words. It requires multiple professionals working in tandem to pull such stunts off safely. "That falls to me and the stunt coordinator doing it together."

Mike's big pet peeve is firing guns sideways, because "if anything's going to jam a gun, it's that." Firearms are not meant to be used like that, no matter how sweet it looks. But "the director has the last call, unless it has something to do with safety." But Mike does pull every lever he's got to urge against it: "if it's a named actor, that's not something I would recommend."

But if they really, truly want to have somebody shooting a gun "gangsta-style," all Mike can do is tell them to keep their wrists straight. And presumably sigh in exasperation.

A Good Gun In Reality Doesn't Always Make For A Good Gun In Movies

If you've ever seen Bruce Willis shoot someone with a handgun, it's probably been this one:

5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies
20th Century Fox

Also shot: his hearing.

That's the Beretta 92S. It's the gun Willis first used in Die Hard. That movie is a major reason the Beretta is such a popular handgun today, but it's not the only one: "The Beretta 92 ... because of its wide ejection port, when firing blanks has a less of a tendency to jam than let's say a Glock would. So if Bruce is flying through the air firing two handguns, well, he may tweak his wrist or whatever doing a stunt, you want him to have a gun that's as reliable as possible."

It's risky to reshoot stunt scenes. So if you're going to have a protagonist doing some ridiculous shit while shooting their gun, you don't want that gun jamming. And since blanks are different from regular bullets, guns that are solid in the real world can kinda suck for movie work. Take the Glock: "Glocks can always be problematic with blanks, where Berettas aren't. They're the gun that probably has the least problem ... The Glock is a reliable firearm with real ammunition, and a lot of guns -- it's not just the Glock -- are just going to work better with blanks than others. And a lot of it is due to the blank adapting process."

Mike says the AK-47 and AR (which you'd use to stand in for an M-16) are very reliable with blanks. The worst might be the Desert Eagle, because of how god damn big it is. The slide is very heavy, and the small amount of powder in a blank can't effectively make it cycle. So it jams a bunch, and Mike or someone like him dies a little inside whenever a director wants to shoot a scene like this:

5 Secrets You Learn When You're A Gun Consultant For Movies
Columbia Pictures

It's like the perfect storm of Stuff Not To Do.

The Movies That Get Guns Right Might Surprise You

We all know Hollywood takes extensive liberties with guns, but that's strange, because realism doesn't always mean boring. For example, Mike actually praised the Rambo films, particularly the ridiculously over-the-top fourth installment: "The Rambo films were all done practically, there's practical gunfire and practical effects ... Rambo is terrific. It's intense, but it's what would really happen when somebody uses a 50-caliber gun on ."

Heat is also infamous for its big shootout scene, and Mike backs that up too: "To me, Heat is very, very well done, but you had a director there who is extremely experienced and knows who he wants in terms of gun work. They had a weapon advisor, Andy McNab, an SAS man who knows how guns work ... All the hits on the cars, there is no CG in Heat, and it shows. You feel like you're in the middle of a real-life gun battle in there."

Hollywood has taken to CGI muzzle flashes lately, an increasing bane of the industry: "They're never going to look as good as the real thing, a CGI muzzle flash is a CGI muzzle flash ... if you're on a set and the gun is in an average, normal environment ... the best thing to use is blanks ... it's still the best thing out there."

Mike thinks that realism in gunfights is important, and not only for pedantic reasons: " makes it look like a video game. It glorifies this close-quarters violence as being very easy ... there's nothing glorious about it ... it doesn't portray the horror of being in a real gunfight."

Yes, Mike has been in some real gunfights: "It is a horrific thing ... killing anyone is a horrific thing, there is no glory in it ... it is a horrific thing, being in a gunfight. When I'm training people for a film, and choreographing the gun battles for a movie, I want them to look realistic -- as opposed to making them look like a video game."

Mike's not out to harangue violent movies, though. After all, he provides movies with guns for a living. But he is worried that the scores of bloodless PG-13 gunfights might trivialize reality a bit: "That, to me, is a big thing. I mean, a man has to have a reason to use a gun ... And it is fantasy, that's true, but that's what perpetuates the anti-gun media and the anti-gun people. Y'know, if we show the horrors of war, or the horrors of a criminal activity, fighting a cartel or whatever, things that go down by the border, we're showing the horrific things that go on where it is necessary to carry a gun to protect one's family. I think that's something that is important to show in a movie."

Make your own movie with this hyper-realistic gun prop.

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