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Home / Science / News /  What is a prop gun and how can it fire deadly shots

What is a prop gun and how can it fire deadly shots

Director of photography Halyna Hutchins (extreme right) on the set of 'Archenemy' was fatally shot by Alec Baldwin Thursday

Shooting involving Alec Baldwin prompts questions

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The discharge of a prop firearm by Alec Baldwin on the set of the film “Rust" on Thursday killed the production’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the director, Joel Souza, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.

The discharge of a prop firearm by Alec Baldwin on the set of the film “Rust" on Thursday killed the production’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the director, Joel Souza, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.

Detectives are investigating “how and what type of projectile was discharged," according to the sheriff’s office.

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Detectives are investigating “how and what type of projectile was discharged," according to the sheriff’s office.

Mr. Baldwin said in a statement issued Friday, “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family."

Such accidents are extremely rare on Hollywood sets. Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce and Linda Lee, suffered a fatal gunshot wound in 1993 while shooting the movie “The Crow."

What is a prop gun?

Prop firearms can take several forms, including nonfunctional weapons that don’t discharge and so-called airsoft guns, gas-powered replicas that can mimic the movement of real guns. Props also include real firearms that film crews load with blank cartridges for maximum authenticity in the way they look and sound on camera.

A blank is a cartridge that is fired in a working firearm. Blank cartridges don’t contain a projectile bullet; instead cartridges are loaded only with gunpowder to create a bang and a fiery flash at the end of the gun’s barrel, all meant to heighten the effect for viewers.

“Firearms are as safe as any other prop when used responsibly. But they require the undivided attention of an experienced expert at all times," said Dave Brown, a veteran firearm safety coordinator on Hollywood film sets.

If there are no bullets in blanks, how can a prop gun kill someone?

The firing of the gun generates an explosion of gases and debris that can cause injury at close range. Wadding materials used to cap the blank cartridge, such as paper or plastic, can also be expelled from the gun as debris that can cause injury. Cinema armorers, the prop experts who oversee weapons on sets, also make sure that gun barrels are clear of any debris such as a rock that could become a projectile.

In 1984, the explosive discharge from a gun loaded with blanks killed Jon-Erik Hexum days after the actor fired the weapon at his head on the set of the TV show “Cover Up," fracturing his skull.

What are other kind of prop ammunition is used on sets?

Joe Swanson—whose company, Motion Picture Blanks, in Kingman, Ariz., has manufactured movie ammunition for about 35 years—says he supplied the “Rust" production with blanks as well as dummy rounds. Dummy rounds contain no explosive ingredients and are used as stand-ins for real bullets on camera.

While blanks typically have a crimped tip that distinguishes them from live ammunition, dummy rounds have a nearly identical look and heft of real bullets.

As a safety measure, Mr. Swanson says he inserts a pellet inside each dummy round so that it will rattle. “You can’t really tell the difference unless you shake it," he says, adding that it’s typically the job of the on-set firearms safety coordinator and assistant director to do such safety checks.

Is live ammunition typically used on film sets?

No. In a list safety guidelines covering everything from helicopters to camera cranes, the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, an advisory group for film and TV crews, dedicates the first entry to firearms and ammunition: “‘Live ammunition’ is never to be used nor brought onto any studio lot or stage."

With equipment and props moving in and out of a fast-paced set, mix-ups aren’t out of the question, says Charley Coleman, an armorer based in Wilmington, N.C. He wasn’t involved in the “Rust" production but his jobs have included “Godzilla: King of the Monsters." “If there are live rounds on a truck or in a bag stored around the set, there is a chance those rounds will find their way into a gun," he says, speaking of productions in general.

What other safety norms are used to prevent gun accidents?

Armorers hold safety meetings, make announcements when a gun is present on set and conduct regular firearm checks with crew members.

If a weapon is shot in the direction of a camera in order to get a more dramatic angle, crews sometimes use shields, remote-controlled cameras, and other measures intended to keep staffers at a safe angle and distance, says Mr. Coleman.

Disagreements can emerge when safety protocols seem to clash with filmmakers’ other priorities. “We get into it with directors and actors a lot. It’s not that they want to do something unsafe. It’s that they’re unfamiliar with the craft," he says.

Is there a safer way to achieve these effects?

Yes. Simulated muzzle flashes can be added in postproduction using visual-effects techniques. However, many film and television productions still rely on blanks to create a more realistic effect.

 

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