From Val Kilmer’s legendary reload in “Heat” to Tom Cruise’s well-executed Mozambique Drill in “Collateral,” prop guns have long been used on film and TV sets. Prop firearms add a sense of realistic danger to a production, but they must be used with the proper procedure to prevent harm. Keep reading to learn about prop guns and how to handle them on set.
Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life” Courtesy Kyle Kaplan/Sony Pictures
A prop gun is used to mimic the appearance and behavior of a real gun in film, TV, and theatrical performances. If you’re wondering whether a prop gun is real gun, the answer is yes—most of the time. Prop guns generally fall into one of two categories:
- Actual guns: Real guns used on set fire blanks, or cartridges that contain a primer and gunpowder and create a muzzle flash but do not shoot a projectile. Some models of real guns used as props must be modified to fire blanks. Others, such as revolvers, need no modifications to fire blanks.
- Replica guns: Replicas can be made from metal, resin, plastic, or rubber. These prop guns cannot hold or fire any type of round. Some replicas are nearly identical to real guns in the way they work, cycle, load a magazine, and spin the cylinder—but they will not chamber or fire a bullet or blank. Rubber guns are most often used for stunts or when a gun is to be dropped. Plastic and other solid prop guns can be used for background action or to dress into a holster. For a more realistic appearance for revolvers, inert dummy rounds, made with a brass case and bullet (projectile) without primer or gunpowder, are often dressed into the cylinder.
Prop guns should be loaded by the armorer, also known as the gun wrangler, prop master, assistant prop master, or other property department person authorized by the prop master. Prop masters oversee every object that might be considered a prop in the script, and armorers are specialists in charge of firearms on set. Prop master Rebecca Kenyon says that armorer duties include selecting prop guns, handling them on set, and ensuring that they are being used safely.
Brandon Lee in “The Crow” Courtesy Miramax
Dummy rounds are inert prop cartridges usually made from real brass casings and lead or copper projectiles. They may have holes drilled in the sides of the brass case or may have a metal bb inside that rattles to indicate they are inert. They do not contain gunpowder or a primer and have no chance of firing. Dummy rounds are typically dressed into a western gun belt or ammunition magazine for a close up shot.
Prop guns are only dangerous when not handled correctly. “Using blank firing guns is a safe process,” says Dutch Merrick, an armorer and propmaster who served as president of I.A.T.S.E. Local 44, Hollywood Property Craftspersons. He also founded and teaches classes at Prop Gun Safety, a prop gun training workshop for actors and production craftspersons. The extensive training provided by these workshops encourages prop gun safety.
Prop Gun Accidents
Three infamous on-set fatalities may have been linked to a lack of prop weapons handling training, including Brandon Lee’s death during filming of “The Crow” in 1993 and Jon-Erik Hexum’s death on the set of “Cover Up” in 1984. In 2021, Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun while filming “Rust” that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza. The incident led to widespread speculation about the safety of prop guns on set. A subsequent investigation by the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau found that the gun had been loaded with live rounds. The film’s weapons expert, Seth Kenney, later revealed that the live rounds had the same logo as the dummy rounds and blanks that the production had been using.
That kind of mixup “has never happened in the history of Hollywood, that I know of,” Merrick says.
Prop Gun Safety Tips
To prevent similar issues going forward, he recommends:
- Production team training: “There were a dozen or more procedural failings in order for that chain of events to happen,” Merrick contends. “Any one check along those lines would have prevented the issue.”
- Actor training: Merrick notes that in the first take of the “Rust” shooting, Baldwin appears to have had his finger on the trigger the entire time he was holding the gun. For safe prop gun use, actors should only touch the trigger at the moment they’re supposed to shoot. Further, Baldwin pointed the gun towards the monitor and camera, where Hutchins was standing. On a normally-run set, this should have been noticed. The on-camera-monitor would simply be flipped over to the other side of the camera so that nobody would be in the line of fire.
- Written inventory process: Inventorying every prop gun, blank, and dummy round upon receipt would prevent dummy rounds from being mixed with live rounds. “One of my recommendations is to institute a written inventory process for how we inventory guns, dummies, and blanks, inspecting every single dummy round to ensure that they’re not real,” says Merrick.
- Division of responsibility: The 1st Assistant Director is designated as the chief safety officer on set. They are also in charge of time management, meaning that their set of responsibilities—and attention—may be conflicted. Having a different crew member in charge of enforcing overall safety and keeping the cast and crew free from harm would allow the Assistant Director to focus on making the schedule and completing the day’s work.
Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Courtesy Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures
The answer lies in the displacement of energy. Directly at the muzzle of the gun, blank rounds have the energy of a real cartridge; that energy dissipates exponentially as it travels away from the barrel.
Although the chances are minimal, there is always potential for misfire or misplaced fire when a production uses firing guns as props. Gunpowder ignites and creates high pressure gas when the trigger is pulled, meaning that anything or anyone in close range may be at risk.
“The Harder They Fall” Courtesy Netflix
Clear communication is the most important factor when handling prop guns on set. “Actors are always spoken to before participating in gunfire,” Kenyon said. “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.”
Although there are no definitive guidelines for prop weapons in the film industry, the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Committee publishes safety regulations about not aiming prop guns at people, wearing protective shields, and always having an authorized Property craft person on hand when handling prop guns. The Actors’ Equity Association also creates guidelines specifically for actors. Here are their safety tips for using firearms:
- Treat all prop guns as if they are real.
- Treat all guns as if they are loaded.
- Unless you are actually performing or rehearsing, the property master must secure all firearms.
- The property master or armorer should carefully train you in the safe use of any firearm you must handle. Be honest if you have no knowledge about guns. Do not overstate your qualifications.
- Follow all instructions given by the qualified instructor.
- Never engage in horseplay with any firearms or other weapons. Do not let others handle the gun issued to you for any reason.
- All loading of firearms must be done by the property master, armorer, or experienced persons working under their direct supervision.
- Never point a firearm at anyone including yourself. Always cheat the shot by aiming to the right or left of the target character. If asked to point and shoot directly at a living target, consult with the property master or armorer for the prescribed safety procedures.
- If you are the intended target of a gunshot, make sure that the person firing in your direction has followed all these safety procedures.
- If you are required to wear exploding blood squibs, make sure there is a bulletproof vest or other solid protection between you and the blast packet
- Use protective shields for all offstage cast within close proximity to any shots fired.
- Appropriate ear protection should be offered to the cast members and crew.
- Check the firearm every time you take possession of it. Before each use, make sure the gun has previously been test-fired offstage. and then ask to test-fire it yourself. Watch the prop master check the cylinders and barrel to be sure no foreign object or dummy bullet has become lodged inside.
- Blanks can be dangerous. Even though they do not fire bullets out of the gun barrel, they still have a powerful blast that can maim or kill.
- Never attempt to adjust, modify, or repair a firearm yourself. If a weapon jams or malfunctions, corrections shall be made only by a qualified person. Notify a prop person or Armorer immediately.
- When a scene is completed, the property master shall unload and take possession of the firearms. All weapons must be cleaned, checked, and inventoried by the prop department after each performance.
- Live ammunition may not be brought into the theater or onto a studio lot.
- If you are in a production where gunshots are to be fired and there is no qualified property master, go to the nearest phone and call Actors’ Equity Association. A union representative will make sure proper procedures are followed.
- State and federal safety laws must be honored at all times.
- If any of the above safety tips conflict with the instructions given by a qualified instructor, abide by the instructions from the qualified instructor. If you are still not sure, contact your Equity Business Representative.
Zoe Saldaña and Ryan Reynolds in “The Adam Project” Courtesy Doane Gregory/Netflix
Following the Baldwin shooting incident, some industry professionals advocated for an end to prop gun use. Actor and producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pledged that his production company would stop using firing guns; actor and filmmaker Olivia Wilde signed a petition to ban the use of real firearms on film production sets; filmmaker Craig Zobel tweeted that firing guns should be outlawed on set. Those wishing to end to prop gun use name alternatives including:
- Suspension of disbelief: Realism has become an integral part of movie magic; however, most of performance history involves ignoring the divide between fiction and reality. If audiences can accept less-than-realistic gun use, actors filming gun scenes may not require prop guns.
- Computer-generated imagery: CGI specialists can splice together images and elements of muzzle flashes, shell casings, and sounds to create realistic gunfire.
- Replica guns: Although replica guns might bring to mind the classic “BANG” flag prank toy gun, technological advancements have narrowed the divide between the appearance of replica and real guns. For example, Copenhagen Industries has created a simulated firearm that only uses propane and oxygen to create a small muzzle flash—no bullets, dummy rounds, or blanks necessary.
Still, “prop guns are not going away,” advises Merrick, adding that prop weaponry is “a safe craft and we do it every day. And have been for more than a hundred years.” It’s up to everyone on set to handle prop guns with the consideration and care they would give to real guns.