Experts weigh in on the risks of using a prop gun on film, theater sets

From weapons masters to safety training to blanks, there are ways to make the prop's use safer, but it can still be very dangerous.

Posted: Oct 22, 2021 5:26 PM
Updated: Oct 22, 2021 6:31 PM

After Alec Baldwin was involved in a gun incident on a movie set that killed one person and injured another, WAAY 31 searched for answers from local experts on how a movie prop could be a dangerous weapon. 

In most film and theater productions, a firearm is converted to fire what's called "blanks," but the general manager of Bullet and Barrel, Louis Southard, said firing blanks can still be very dangerous. 

"The gas jet that leaves the firearm can cause fatal harm," said Southard. 

Typically, actors on a movie set get training similar to when you go to a gun range. There are four safety rules that Southard said most people know about when handling any type of firearm. 

The first is to keep the firearm unloaded until ready to use. Another rule of thumb: Point the firearm in a safe direction. Third, know your target and what's behind it, and finally, keep your finger off the trigger. 

"We treat every firearm like it's loaded, because as long as a firearm is pointed in the right direction, that's the best way to avoid an accident like this," said Southard. 

But that might not always be possible, such as for a film scene in which the actor is supposed to look like he's shooting at the camera. So why do movies and the theater even use real guns if the harm is there?

"A cap gun is great inside a 300-seat indoor theater, but you want that concussive, almost-firework bang, so we opted to use shotguns with blank shotgun shells," Melissa Birdie Jones said of her work as production manager at Huntsville Theatre. 

Jones is a former "weapons master." On every film or theatre set, there is someone handling the weapon to better avoid dramatic or tragic incidents. 

"They're basically the caretaker and safety officer for all firearms on set," said Jones. 

A weapons master has a procedure to follow when giving a prop gun to an actor on set.  

"It goes to the actor when they're about to walk onstage," Jones said. "They do a chamber check where you show them, 'Here it is, I've loaded it for you.' You hand it to them, they go onstage, they do their bit, they fire the gun and bring it back to do another chamber check with the weapons master and hand it off."

An incident on the set of "Rust" may not change the ways guns are used in films, but it may be a reminder of the risks at hand. 

"I'm sure after the debrief happens for this, it will come out that some of these rules weren't followed," said Southard. 

A similar case happened in 1993. Bruce Lee's son was killed by an accidental shooting on the set of "The Crow."

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