Above: Director Steve Barker filming a firefight on the set of Outpost II
I have written this from the my own perspective, which is that of a fight director based in the UK. Laws change throughout the world but the advice given here, I also hope is of interest to international readers. When I refer to the VCR bill, I am talking about the UK’s Violent Crimes Reduction Act which came into effect in 2006. For the purposes of this breakdown, weapons will be broken down into six main categories. I’ve tried to write this for both theatre and film professionals, but I do realise that there is a great deal of difference between the two mediums.
Weapons in active use within production should be operated under the supervision of an armorer and/ or fight director. By active I mean fired or in the case of swords, clashed.
Firearms are defined as devices that discharge explosive gasses (blanks), pellets by compressed air (air pistols, rifles etc) or other forms of projectile, including shotgun pellets, bullets, musket balls, etc. Use of firearms must always be under the instruction of an armorer. NB it is my understanding that Theatrical Firearms or blank firers that vent the explosion from the muzzle are classed as firearms.
THEATRICAL FIREARMS (Blank Firers)
A theatrical firearm is a device designed to look and act largely like a firearm, but which discharges only blanks, and does not fire any form of projectile. The explosion triggered inside a theatrical firearm is pushed out not through the end of the barrel, but instead from the top, side or bottom of the device. I’d recommend that someone proficient in their use instruct any actor asked to fire a theatrical firearm, and by that I mean the fight director or an armorer.
You do not need a license for a theatrical firearm but to all intents and purposes they should be treated in the same manner as a real firearm. They look and act very similarly to the real thing and are very dangerous if used incorrectly. As per the UK VCR Act you now need good reason to have one. ie For theatrical use.
In my experience theatrical firearms are extremely unreliable. The venting also means that for film at least they do not discharge in a realistic fashion.
A deactivated firearm is a firearm which has been altered so that it is no longer capable of discharging a projectile or igniting a charge. In the UK all deactivated weapons must have a proof house certificate. They are completely deactivated and are classed as non guns. As with blank firers the UK’s VCR bill states that you need good reason to have one.
A reproduction gun (repro) is a realistic replica of a firearm. It may have moving parts or be a cast that does not move. It has the look and many characteristics of a gun, and is made in 1:1 scale (Full size). Toy guns may be regarded as reproduction/ replica guns. Airsoft weapons that are not charged with gas or electricity or which have had their mechanisms removed could be classed as repros. They turn up a lot on set these days as they are such good copies.
FIREARMS (as described above) can be obtained for use in production:
From registered firearms dealers and armourers or through holders of firearms certificates or shotgun licences.
From government agencies. (Police, Armed Forces.)
At authorised shooting clubs at which the event is filmed or takes place.
The reality of the situation is that if you are using a firearm in a film production, you must hire an armorer. Their job is to work within the media industry and take care of firearms safety. Pay them to do so.
What hazards are associated with firearms?
Flying objects/ projectiles
Delayed firing or misfires
Inhalation of smoke
Causing onlookers fear, or distress*
*This last point should not be taken lightly, as it can lead to serious charges and possibly court proceedings.
What about blanks?
It is worth noting that blanks are dangerous in the extreme. Blanks can set fire to costumes, scenery etc and are likely to blind. BRANDON LEE was killed whilst shooting the movie THE CROW by a blank primer firing.When a firearm discharges a blank, it also discharges some of the wadding which has kept it in place and much of the dirt build up from inside the barrel. The Globe theatre was burned down by a blank from a canon that set fire to the roof.
I have seen a curtain catch fire from the explosion created by a theatrical firearm. Blanks in real firearms require a lot of additional effort to maintain their use safely and efficiently. That is why an armorer must be present.
Where weapons are required in production risk assessment must be undertaken. After a risk assessment has been completed, precautions should be taken as necessary. When an armourer or fight director is employed that person should contribute to the assessment and endorse it or indeed write their own. The significant findings should be communicated to all members of the production.
Where firearms are employed, an assessment must be made of the possibility of exposure to noise above the peak action level. This must be done by a competent person.
In addition to this:
An armourer must be present whenever a firearm, arrow, projectile or missile is required to be discharged. A FIGHT DIRECTOR IS NOT AN ARMOURER.
It is my understandinmg that UK armourers must be approved by the BBC. When working abroad, stringent checks should be made to assure the competency and reliability of the person involved. Or… bring an armorer with you.
Appropriate training is required in the safe use of all types of weapon. Training should be provided to the actors, presenters etc. by the armourer.
Blank ammunition should not be discharged without first checking your company’s (or insurance company’s) safety guidelines.
Firearms should not be discharged or even revealed in public (That is, out with a theatre or known performance area) without first contacting the police.*
If a misfire occurs do not move in front of the muzzle as there could be a delay in firing caused by a slow burn, lasting two seconds or more. In the event of a misfire always check with the person in charge of the firearm.
Cast and Crew must be kept out of the line of fire. Including with blanks. NB With theatrical firearms the line of fire may be to the sides, top or bottom of the device!!!
Ear protection must be used where risk assessment has identified a risk of hearing damage. Artistes in shot can use proprietary ear plugs of flesh colour, matched by the make up designer. Other persons at risk should use ear defenders.
Never over rule advice from the armourer, or other weapons specialists
The storage of firearms is the responsibility of the person in legal possession of the the weapon(s) and not the production. This may be an armourer, police officer, member of the armed forces etc.
If a weapon is lost or stolen, the local police must be informed immediately. Persons must not be permitted to leave the site until the weapon is recovered or the police arrive.
In theatres, loaded firearms should not be left on the props table overnight (or at all ideally!) but be unloaded and locked away in a secure area. They should only be loaded prior to the show, and removed immediately after their final appearance on stage. It is worth remembering that Harold Lloyd lost several fingers after a prop exploded in his hand. He had picked the prop off the props table to examine it.
The transport of firearms is the responsibility of the armourer. Theatrical firearms should be treated as the real thing however. In the UK there are few laws regarding the transport of theatrical firearms other than that they should be covered/ hidden at all times. It is illegal however to carry them loaded and easily accessible, such as in a pocket. Blanks should be carried in a separate container from the firearm.
When travelling abroad, theatrical firearms should be either:
Left in the UK and alternate firearms hired in the country of production. This happened with Han Solo’s blaster for example in the Star Wars movies.
Transported ONLY through consultation with the airline, airports and appropriate authorities involved. This is a lengthy process and their easiest option is to say no.
Many countries have differing laws for theatrical firearms, so check this out prior to the tour, shoot etc. e.g. Some US states require that weapons be dismantled when in transport and their parts carried in two or three separate areas, and not beside the ammunition.
* Armed response officers will respond to public phone calls, if they are not aware of your production schedule. Call the armed response unit prior to filming, and again on the day of filming or other appropriate time. If the armed response unit arrive unexpectedly, lay all weapons on the ground immediately.
Weapon Hire and Care
The hire of firearms is only possible as described in above. Before hiring a replica however, consider these points. Period of use? / will it be required to fire? / do I require a holster? / should I use a theatrical firearm or a replica, will the gun shots be required “live” or can we add them in post production?Blank firers should always be cleaned and tested before use. Avoid dry firing them as this can jar the mechanism and as they are made usually of a poor quality mechanism this in itself can damage them. Instead load with a spent shell. Keep them well oiled.
Do not be afraid to ask any questions of the supplier!