When John McClane or Clarice Starling or James Bond fires a gun, there’s a reason smoke rises and the actor’s hand blows back. Usually, they are firing a real gun with real gunpowder. But the weapon is loaded with a “blank,” a kind of ammunition that has been rigged not to fire.
This is usually safe, which is why film professionals were shocked at the news of a fatal accident Thursday: Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the New Mexico set of a western called Rust, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.
Despite the high prevalence of guns in TV and movies, incidents like this are very rare. The most famous precedent is the death of Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, while filming The Crow in 1993. But shooting any firearm (even one just filled with blanks) carries some risk, and to keep everyone safe, Hollywood productions usually hire armorers, or “gun wranglers,” to provide and oversee firearms on the set, though it’s not required by law.
It is not certain if a gun wrangler was on the set of Rust. A union for film industry craftspeople characterized the production as an independent feature done outside with a New Mexico crew. Reportedly, the film’s producers clashed with camera operators over working conditions and brought in non-union crews in the days before the shooting.
VICE spoke to two gun wranglers—Jon Funk of British Columbia’s Mantis Armourer and Mike Tristano, a Los Angeles-based gun wrangler and faux weapons supplier—to understand gun safety on film sets and what would have to go wrong for something like yesterday’s accident to occur.
How do blanks work?
To understand how an actor can fire a gun on set without that weapon actually releasing a bullet, it helps to familiarize oneself with the anatomy of a cartridge, or a round ammunition. It consists of: a projectile, or bullet; a propellant: the gunpowder or chemical explosive that launches the projectile; a primer: a primary explosive that ignites the propellant at the pull of a trigger; and a casing: the structures that holds all of this together and is usually ejected to the ground upon firing.
A blank is a round where the projectile has been removed, or “crimped,” so the cartridge doesn’t leave the gun. “They make a lot of noise and a little smoke and it looks like a bullet has been fired,” said Funk. “They have an effect that Hollywood asks for because it looks authentic.” Even the casing comes off.
In fact, Funk said, studios are so enamored with blanks that they have been hesitant to embrace other methods, like creating the shooting effect digitally in post-production or loading guns with Simunition, a kind of training ammo that breaks apart after discharge.
Most often, the “prop guns” on a film set are actual guns with a barrel that has been altered so that only blanks fit in them. Putting in live ammo is not even a possibility, but this adaption is only possible for automatic or semi-automatic guns—not for manually operated revolvers, which are precisely the sort of guns that usually appear in Westerns or period pieces.
“On a Western, it was probably some kind of single-action revolver with a black-powder blank,” said Tristano, whose company rents out everything from rubber replicas of medieval battle axes to suicide bomber vests with replica explosives. The antique or antique-resembling rifles used in Westerns are also typically filled with a “low-level blank,” said Tristano: a blank with less gun powder so the noise doesn’t scare horses.
Who is in charge of gun safety on a film set?
It depends on the set, said Tristano and Funk. The first assistant director is usually in charge of the day-to-day operations on a set. A prop master might be in charge of all props.
It’s not a legal requirement, but productions that make extensive use of firearms will usually have an armorer or “gun wrangler,” a gun safety professional who oversees guns and any scene involving them.
What safety protocols are in place during filming?
To prepare a gun for filming, Tristano said, he or one of his staff will load the blanks themselves. When he enters the set with the firearm, the first assistant director will announce to the cast and crew that a “hot gun” is on the set.
“I hand the gun to the actor or actress, and I don’t leave the set until he or she has handed it back to me,” said Tristano. After a director says “cut,” he takes it back, unloads it and inspects it.
Even though only loaded with blanks, a “hot gun” is typically not allowed on the set until the precise scene in which the character shoots it. Parts of the action shot in the lead-up to that moment—such as when characters are drawing or pointing or holding their weapons— are done with “cold” guns, which are unloaded.
When the gun is finally fired, actors are instructed to point it away from people. “No [hot] gun is ever pointed at a crew member or cast member or animal,” said Tristano.
Could a blank kill someone?
Although they don’t involve firing an actual bullet, blanks do create a blast that can harm people close to them. In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed himself by putting a gun loaded with blanks to his head and pulling the trigger while goofing around on the set of the shortly lived CBS spy series Cover Up. A bit of wadding—like paper or cotton—had been lodged inside the blank to create more flame out of the gun, and was propelled into his skull. This, Funk said, is one of the main safety concerns when it comes to shooting blanks: If something gets into the barrel of the gun, it can be ejected when an actor fires it.
Funk said he once supplied a blank-loaded AR-15 to a production and saw an actress dig the barrel into the dirt, which could have lodged debris into it. He then saw her point it in the direction of a camera. “I jumped into the scene to put a stop to it,” he said. “It was the only time I yelled ‘cut.’”
How could the incident with Baldwin have happened?
Funk and Tristano were both baffled by the shooting on the set of Rust. They don’t understand why Baldwin would have been pointing a gun in the direction of Hutchins or Souza—and said that it’s difficult to imagine a blank blast so powerful that it could have killed someone, unless they were standing a few feet from the gun.
An email from a Los Angeles chapter International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees appears to confirm this is what happened, though reports have varied and neither police nor the film’s producers have commented.
He said live rounds are almost never on a set. “I have no idea why someone would bring those to a film set,” Tristano added. “Even in scenes when you see an actor load a gun, those are dummies, created by the props department.”
He is particularly surprised by the incident because he once handed a gun to Alec Baldwin on a film set, during production for the 1999 movie Thick as Thieves. “He was safe, conscious, and he listens,” Tristano said. “He was a pleasure to work with, and I never worried about him compromising safety.”