How Actors Should Handle Prop Guns on Set

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Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

Have you ever been on a film or television set and heard the prop master shout, “Gun on set”? Even though it might just be a rubber replica, prop guns are always handled with the utmost care. In my last column, I interviewed Rebecca Kenyon, the prop master of my current TV project. I’ve always been surprised that a prop master handles firearms, so I decided to talk to her about the intricacies of actors handling prop guns. In these cases, an armorer is often called in. 

“A licensed armorer is someone with the proper credentials to handle weapons and ensure the safety of everyone on set,” Kenyon explains. “They are used for any specific weapons or firearms handling, and are licensed and proficient with many varieties.” Armorers collaborate with the director and props department to help them make choices that are best suited for those scenes.

So what is the protocol on set when a scene calls for a gun? “It differs on a case-by-case basis, but the essentials are mostly the same,” Kenyon says. For one, guns should always be brought to set in a secured, lockable compartment by either an armorer or an employee of the props department. Whether you need an armorer “depends on the local laws and restrictions, as well as the comfort and knowledge of the prop master.” But if there are any special skills or licenses needed for the gun, an armorer is necessary. Kenyon thinks it’s a good idea for most productions to bring an armorer into the fold, “because the prop master doesn’t always get to be around on set,” she says. “There are plans to be made, meetings, shopping, ordering, and always a lot of paperwork.”

I was really surprised at the steps the prop master follows, even when bringing a rubber replica gun on set. “The guns should be carried to set and shown to the first assistant director. Then, the gun is offered to be shown as fully empty and safe to any other members of the crew. The prop master or armorer calls, ‘Rubber gun on set!’ Rubber, foam, and resin guns are all used to achieve the look of the firearm without the real thing,” she says. Then they announce, “Cold weapon on set!” to confirm that the firearm is empty. 

Additional steps are taken with the actors. “The gun is then presented to all actors in the scene—especially the one who holds the weapon and anyone it may be pointed at.” This is the protocol for a nonfiring weapon on set. “All guns used are modified to fire blanks only. In the case of [the] firing of a blank in the scene, the armorer will observe the rehearsals and determine the concerns and needs of the director to help accomplish the scene safely,” Kenyon says.

READ: 4 Stunt Professionals Share Their Advice
for Staying Safe on Set

Remember: These extra steps may seem excessive for what’s ultimately a prop, but it’s all for the actors’ safety. In 1984, 26-year-old actor Jon-Erik Hexum was filming a series called “Cover Up.” Growing increasingly frustrated with delays to filming, he began playing with the prop gun and spinning the barrel, which had one blank round inside, simulating a game of Russian roulette. Placing the gun to his temple, he pulled the trigger, discharging the blank’s wad of paper, which shattered a piece of his skull. He ultimately died from his injuries.

For scenes that require an actor to actually shoot a gun, you can’t be careful enough. Kenyon explains, “Actors are always spoken to before participating in gunfire. We will usually ask if the actor has any training or experience with weapons, and I encourage everyone to be as honest as possible…. Often, we do practice or test-fire with anyone who would like it. We want everyone to be as safe and comfortable as possible.”

This story originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Marci Liroff
Known for her work in film and television, producer, casting director, and intimacy coordinator Marci Liroff has worked with some of the most successful directors in the world. Liroff is also an acting coach, and her three-night Audition Bootcamp has empowered actors to view the audition process in a new light.
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