ben simmons film firearm expert
What is a prop gun? This film industry firearms expert explains
02:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Dave Brown is a firearms safety specialist and professional instructor based in Winnipeg Canada. Brown has trained military units, government agencies and police officers on safety and advanced firearms handling skills, has worked with hundreds of actors on film and theatre sets, and helped write the online training course on firearms safety for theatre and film technicians across North America. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

I don’t love guns. But as a firearms safety specialist, they are the tools of my profession. I respect them, and I teach others to respect them too. After 30 years of working with firearms in the film industry, I’ve learned one very important lesson: When handled responsibly, firearms are as safe as any other prop on a film set.

Dave Brown

The difference is firearms require the undivided attention of an experienced expert. There is zero tolerance for error. If actors make a mistake on set, they get another take. If the weapons handler makes a mistake, it could end a life.

A recent tragic event has really brought that home. In my experience, an investigation will determine what happened in this case. The tragedies I’ve learned about are the result not of including firearms on a film set but of a cavalier attitude towards safety. There’s no room for disregard of safety protocols in a production. The only cowboys in the film industry should be up on the screen.

On a safe production, each firearm is meticulously inspected every time it changes hands. It means every take of every angle of every scene; the same prop gun could be checked and re-checked dozens upon dozens of times in a single day. Live ammunition, without question, is never allowed on set. Aside from the actors during a scene, the firearms specialist is the only person who handles the weapons and the only person who can open them for full inspection by cast and crew.

This person is commonly referred to as the Firearms Safety Coordinator, a title I’ve held many times. Other productions may use the term Armorer or Key Weapons Handler. But it doesn’t matter what we are called; it matters why we are there.

It’s not just about keeping the cast and crew safe when there are firearms present on set. We make sure people know the weapon itself is safe to use. Once we inspect a firearm to make sure it is empty and ready to handle, we show it to both the actor who is going to work with it and any other cast members who may have the empty firearm pointed at them. On film sets, the person most responsible for safety is usually the First Assistant Director, and as a result they will also inspect the firearm – a task the director, producer, camera operator or cinematographer may oversee, too.

Every single person on set – cast or crew – has the right to inspect a prop gun. But the specialist is the only person who will hand the firearm to an actor for use, and the specialist is the same person who receives it back when the talent is done.

It’s also standard protocol for a firearm to be empty for the majority of takes. It is only when the camera needs to capture a gunshot a firearm is loaded with blanks, which are special cartridges designed to rapidly burn gunpowder out the front of a firearm’s barrel. The hole at the end of the barrel is known as the muzzle, and because a blank contains no projectile but an excess amount of gunpowder, the brief ignition creates a muzzle flash which helps sell a realistic shooting scene.

Prop guns are seen at Independent Studio Services in California on October 22, 2021.

Blanks, however, are always loaded into a prop gun at the last possible instant. Before that, a safety meeting is called with all cast and crew to explain proper procedures, and eye and ear protection is issued where required. Due to the pressure from the explosion and the particles of burnt and unburnt gunpowder expelled out the barrel, blanks can also be very dangerous at short range, a hazard which diminishes with distance. This is why blanks can be relatively safe to use on film sets – if proper procedures are followed.

But when a gun’s muzzle flash can be simulated with a computer, and replica guns can be substituted in place of real weapons, why use blanks and prop guns at all? The reason is storytelling. When used properly, prop guns enhance the story and make the action more realistic. They have the right size and weight, and when loaded with blanks they also have the sound, recoil and realistic ejection of empty casings that are difficult, time-consuming and costly to simulate.

While computer-generated muzzle flashes are being used more often, there is still a place for blanks when they can be fired safely and responsibly by experts who know what they are doing. Safety with firearms has little to do with budget, and everything to do with attitude. I have worked on student films where the firearms are taken just as seriously as a $50 million Hollywood production.

When I first started in the film industry, there weren’t any books or online videos to consult on the best rules for on-set firearms safety. I helped establish what I consider to be high standards in safety, and with the professionalism of my fellow firearms specialists, plus the care we bring to the craft and the love we have for the art of filmmaking, hundreds of thousands of films have been completed without incident. I learned from day one, a firearms specialist is not on set to work with guns; we are there to work with people.

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    Stories will still need to be told, and sometimes firearms are the props that help move the story forward. This can all be done without any harm to cast or crew, but only with a careful system of multiple safety checks observed by multiple people and done multiple times a day. This system may seem tedious or redundant to outsiders, but it serves to create an environment where a one-in-a-million error becomes a zero-in-a-million possibility.

    This professionalism helps the cast and crew concentrate on their work and not worry about their safety with firearms. The presence of prop guns should not put people on edge.

    Our goal is to always have an environment where a calm and professional weapons handler can stroll onto a film set, and cast and crew think, “Nice. It’s going to be a safe day.”