Blank-Firing Guns

On October 2, 2010, David Birrell was appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar Warehouse in London.  During a performance, one of the blank-firing guns used apparently had a problem, and Birell sustained an injury to his right eye. He may lose his sight in it. According to a spokeswoman for the theater, “It appears that during the duel scene in ‘Passion,’ David Birrell’s licensed replica stage gun misfired causing some debris to enter his eye.” Further sources claim it was actually an antique flintlock gun.

Accidents happen. Equipment malfunctions. Because blank-firing guns are so inherently dangerous, it is vital that even more attention is spent on following all the best practices of safety with them. I would go so far as to say that prop masters should not handle them: pyrotechnicians should handle the loading and handling of blank ammunition, experienced handlers should be in charge of selecting and maintaining the weapons, and skilled fight choreographs should block the scenes in which they are used. Of course, a prop master can also be a licensed pyrotechnician or be qualified to handle weapons (at the higher levels, many are); I am not saying being a prop master precludes one from using blank-firing guns, I am saying the title of “prop master” is not the sole prerequisite.

On April 15, 2010, Darrell D’Silva, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company was rehearsing a scene with a prop gun. He accidentally shot himself in the hand. It was during tech rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra. He underwent surgery and returned to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Apparently when it was handed to him, he thought it was unloaded. It took a big chunk off of his finger and blood spurted everywhere. Here is an incident where the accident came not from bad or malfunctioning equipment, but from bad communication. The actor was not told the gun was loaded, but more importantly, he disobeyed the cardinal rule of stage guns: treat every gun like it is a loaded weapon. An actor should never pull a trigger on a gun until the fight director commands him to.

November 15, 2008. Tucker Thayler, a 15 year old student at Desert Hills High School kills himself with a gun intended to be used as a sound effect for their production of Oklahoma. Apparently it was a real pistol with blanks. Apparently it was allowed as long as a parent was there to fire the gun. And I’m not sure how some schools still allow actual working firearms to be brought on campus. In most municipalities, you need a pyrotechnics license to fire blank ammunition for theatrical purposes; it is different than a standard gun license. After all, there are any number of firecracker and fireworks that average folk can use in their backyards legally in certain parts of the country, but once you want to fire them off inside a crowded theatre, the rules become much more stringent; the same is true of blank-firing guns.

Having a license means you have used blank ammunition before, the government trusts you to use blank ammunition in accordance with all safety standards and laws, and you are held liable for any accidents that may occur because of your negligence. If your area does not require licensing, you should still act as though it does and follow the same guidelines. Anyone handling or discharging blank ammunition should be familiar with it and know all the standard practices. Just because you can run out and buy it and “see what it does” does not mean that is in any way safe.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was filming a scene in The Crow. One of the thugs had a gun loaded with blanks to shoot at him. Because the blanks used were not correct and the gun was tampered with (stories are mixed), the gun had enough primer to push the cartridge out. Lee was hit in the abdomen and the bullet lodged in his spine. Several hours later, he died at the age of 28. A lot of the analysis of this tragedy points out that the thug should not have been aiming his gun directly at Lee. This goes back to the need for a qualified fight director; it’s not enough to know how to acquire and setup blank ammunition. Once also needs to know how to choreograph the scenes in a way to maximize safety.

On October 12, 1984, Jon-Eric Hexum was filming a scene in “Cover Up”, his first big role. He had a prop .44 Magnum loaded with blanks, and apparently was unaware that it could still expel paper wadding. Bored during a delayed scene, he began playing with his gun. It was loaded with 2 blanks and 3 empty cartridges. He held it to his head, quipped, “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me”, and pulled the trigger. The paper wadding hit hard enough to dislodge a quarter-size piece of his skull and push it into his brain. Six days later he was pronounced dead from the massive bleeding in his brain. This event is just screaming with its lack of safety protocols. Why was an actor left with a loaded pistol for such a long time when it was not needed? Why was he unaware that it was loaded, or that blank ammunition at point-blank range can be just as lethal? And whether it was loaded or not, he should not have pointed it at his head; he broke the cardinal rule where one treats every gun like it is a loaded weapon.

I, for one, find it absurd that one would want to put so many people in potential danger (by using blank-firing ammunition) for, essentially, a sound effect. I mean, do we drop stage weights from the grid to the stage where actors are because we like the sound it makes? Why is that ridiculous, but igniting gun powder is acceptable? Regardless of your beliefs, you will probably face the situation of dealing with blank-firing guns at some point in your career as a prop master. When one is faced with the situation of having to use them, all the appropriate safety precautions should be followed to the letter.

6 thoughts on “Blank-Firing Guns”

  1. Thanks- I always appreciate your updates on this subject. The cautions regarding proper procedures and/or use of professional level experts can never be overemphasized. There are always new ears that need to hear it, and there is a shocking amount of misinformation floating around that uneducated people take as gospel.

    I hold up those same examples when I lecture on the subject, and emphasize that the failures were multi-tiered. Often an unwitting actor is the victim when they don’t know enough to raise an alarm to the right people.

    At the end of my sessions I charge the actors with the power and the responsibility to stop what they’re doing and even to walk away if they find themselves in an unsafe situation until it gets resolved.

  2. Many factors cause more deaths and injury on a regular basis in the theatre than blank-firing guns. Is it just the word “gun” that propels the fear? What to we prohibit next? Pyro? Swords and knives? Overhead rigging? Consumption of real food?

  3. I’m not sure what is causing death on a “regular” basis in theatre.
    I think it’s silly to do comparisons in safety. Should we discount the correct safety procedures for guns because other elements are more dangerous? One wouldn’t tell people to stop wearing seat belts because you’re more likely to die of cancer.
    What this all comes down to is risk versus reward. It’s what nearly everything in theatre comes down to. Is the reward worth the risk? Most scenery and costumes are very low risk and very high reward, so we barely consider their safety; wearing a shirt is not very likely to hurt you. When it comes to more dangerous elements, the risk and reward need to be considered more diligently. Swords and knives can be extremely dangerous without the proper precautions. If you are doing a sword-fight scene, you need to make sure that the weapons you are using are stage-combat worthy, and not the decorative swords you get out of a mail-order catalog, and that an experienced fight director is choreographing the movement. The same is true of the other elements you mention: pyro requires licenses and permits in most areas, as do overhead rigging, and consumption of real food necessitates all sorts of preparation and precautions.
    If you have an experienced fight director and combat-worthy swords, then you have minimized the risk in that situation as much as possible, and the reward can be quite stunning. In the case of blank-firing guns, what I am arguing is that in most cases they are used merely for a sound effect. In other words, you are igniting gun powder and expelling potentially lethal wads of paper and metal because of the sound it makes. It seems like an awful lot of risk for a reward which can be just as easily produced by a speaker, or even smacking pieces of wood together.
    I’m not calling for the prohibition of blank-firing guns, just asking that we question what they give us in exchange for the danger they create. I don’t think it is the word “gun” that propels this fear, but the deaths of actual human beings which I referenced in my post. And I certainly don’t think it is some sort of path to prohibition of all dangerous things in theatre, as though if we start prohibiting blank-firing guns we will eventually prohibit consumption of real food. Theatre is not just an art, but for the technicians involved, it is an occupation, and as with any occupation, it is vital that the best safety practices are followed. One should not be so cavalier in matters of safety.

  4. Most incidence of badly handled props do not occur at a “professional level.” When I was a teenage actor in Wyoming I held a real gun to my head loaded with real spent cartridges. Pretty stupid? Yeah. But I was kid in a gun-friendly state without access to the wider world of stagecraft. The key to prevention here, it seems to me, isn’t making the message clearer or more palatable… it’s making it ubiquitous.

  5. Interesting article. I am a professional armorer for the film industry and the emphasis on safety and blank firing weapons can never be stressed enough. The two examples you cite in your article related tot he film industry were the incidents that lead directly to most productions having a set armorer on staff when there is gun play involved in the filming. In the case of Brandon Lee, several of the primary rules regarding handling weapons on set were ignored. The first was the use of live primers in the dummy rounds. One of the excuses I heard made by the property master was that they were rushed to produce dummy loads for the handgun utilized, which in my book is no excuse. A live primer has enough power to unseat the bullet in a round and lodge it in the barrel of any firearm regardless of caliber. The second failure was the fact that the weapon handler did not check the barrel for an obstruction prior to loading the gun with the blank loads. A simple, 2 second look down the barrel prior to the first take would have averted this tragedy. I check for barrel obstructions religiously between every take.

    In the case of Jon-Eric Hexum, the chain of failures that led to his death are obvious. The gun was left loaded, unsupervised in the hands of an actor and obviously, there had been no safety briefing onset covering the handling or use of firearms. One of my primary points of emphasis in my safety speech is to never pick up or handle any firearm you find on set and notify me or one of my assistants immediately that you have discovered a stray firearm on the set. In the years I have been doing this, I have never had a weapon go unaccounted for on set, but I still emphasis this point on every shoot I work on.

    One thing I would love to see come into our industry is a class in every film/drama school, actor/crew workshop seminar, etc that is dedicated to the safe handling and use of stage weapons taught by a professional set/stage armorer. The number of actors and crew members out there that have absolutely zero knowledge of even the basic safety elements of firearms in general is pretty shocking and most of my work is done down here in Texas. A simple one to two hour course of instruction would give actors and crew at least a basic knowledge of firearm safety and familiarization with the dangers present in utilizing blank firing weapons on set or on stage.

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