Directing and cinematography tips: LOCK AND LOAD! Using armourers and firearms on set.

(Excerpt taken from my forthcoming film book "Making Your First Blockbuster" due for release early 2019 by Michael Wiese Productions.)

One event that still haunts me to this day is the time I could have ended up in a 10' x 8' cell.

I was 18 and we’d just wrapped a day of running around some empty warehouse for our action movie blasting our blank firing pistols at each other. On the way home my buddy asks me for petrol money for driving us around everywhere. “Sure!” I said, “Pull over and let me go to this cash machine.” I jumped out, but the machine was out of order so I ran into the nearby bank instead. I waited in line and got my cash over the counter before running out and jumping back in the waiting car outside. It was then that it happened . . . The blank-firing gun that I had had strapped around my chest under my jacket all day in its holster fell out and on to the passenger seat. My heart stopped for what felt like an eternity. I had a flash of what might have happened if it had fell out as I ran into the bank! How would I explain to the armed police officers, security guards, and judge that although I did want the money in the bank, it was in fact mine, and I wasn’t actually robbing the joint? Having it attached to my body all day I had just gotten used to it being there and hadn't stored it away in its case after shooting... tut tut.

The correct and proper way of using and storing blank-firing firearms during and after a shoot will now be discussed...

Now we’re really getting to the fun stuff; but also the most dangerous. Get this next part wrong and you could find yourself either arrested or in prison! So make sure you pay extra attention. This is another area where you will need to bring in expert professionals to help work with you. Okay, enough warnings, let’s talk firearms.

If you are using any sort of firearm or weapon on set, legally you must employ the services of a registered firearms dealer or armourer. The supply of those weapons, replica, or imitations firearms must be via the firearms dealer or a licensed supplier too. When filming with armourers in the USA, research each locations requirements, as they do vary from state to state (and sometimes from city to city). Each individual state conforms to federal guidelines and are allowed to create additional regulations as they see fit. In the United Kingdom, the Firearms Act of 1968 reads: It is an offence for any person to have in their possession a firearm, shotgun, or ammunition without holding a valid firearm or shotgun certificate or certificate of registration and complying with its terms and conditions. Section 12 of the Firearms Act allows filmmakers to hold them in their possession when a supervising film armourer is present, however.

In a nutshell, if you are using firearms, you need an armourer on set. They are highly skilled professionals and can offer more than just the firearms themselves. They make sure the cast and crew are safe, and that the actors use the weapons consistent with their character or role. They can break down the script and offer suggestions to make the action more realistic too. They can liaise with the prop department to make sure any prop versions of the weapons being used are also the same as the replica or blank-firing firearms they provide.

There are three different types of guns used in films:

1. Real ones that have been converted to fire blanks (a cartridge or casing containing gunpowder but no bullet). To use this type of firearm in the U.K., the armourer must have two licenses: “A Registered Firearms Dealers License” (RFD), and in order to handle “banned weapons,” also “The Home Office authority to Possess Prohibited Weapons” (known as the Section 5 license in the U.K.). This would include handguns, machine guns, etc. In the state of California, USA, for example, the equivalent is an Entertainment Firearms Permit, or EFP, that must be issued in order for firearms to be rented/used by prop masters in the film & TV industry.

2. Rubber guns. These are used for stunt work or when not being fired. If an actor or stunt person is falling, running, or throwing, or anytime where it could be dangerous to have the real thing in hand, a rubber version is a much safer option. They’re sealed and molded with no moving parts and these can be great for characters that might even be just holding the gun on screen.

3. Replica/deactivated guns. This would include airsoft/BB versions or guns that can no longer be fired. The film unit is only allowed to be in possession of these guns for the duration of the shoot and no longer.

As listed above, besides using blank-firing guns, sourcing BB or airsoft versions also offer a realistic replica weapon replacement. Both BB guns and airsoft versions are primarily used for target practice and training but have also been used extensively for film and TV work. Both systems use either CO2 or gas propulsion when firing their small BB steel or plastic pellets. Of course you don’t need to actually fire the pellets when filming as you’re just after the appearance of firing. For the most realistic replica weapons, airsoft look more like the real thing, and if possible find one with a blowback action, where the top slide moves back simulating the blowback recoil. Blowback makes things look very real especially if you’re adding shells and muzzle flashes in post-production via visual effects.

There are many hazards that can come from using blank-firing firearms on set. First off, you have the noise. Blanks, used to simulate noise and shell casings being ejected, are loud, especially if the weapon used is a semi- or full automatic, and the noise will echo for a while in an enclosed space. Earplugs are used in these instances. Debris and discharge is also something to be aware of, as are flying objects like spent cartridges ejected from the top of the gun and gases emitted from the shell casings can cause fires and injuries likes cuts and burns. Blanks can even be fatal. An armourer can pull the plug on a scene if they deem it to be unsafe.

When filming, if the actor holding the gun has to aim or fire it at another actor in the scene, the armourer will make a visual mark using tape or similar on the wall behind the character under threat. This gives the actor with the gun something to aim at so they are never actually pointing the gun directly at the other actor although it will look like it is on camera. The target is made for consistency rather than just picking a particular point in the background, as in later takes the actor’s concentration could wander and accidentally begin to aim towards the other actor.

The scene is rehearsed with the guns empty of any blank ammunition for safety. Before shooting, cast and crew are fitted with earplugs, as the sound of blanks being fired can be up to 160 db. Any cast or crew not required can also leave the set. A drape or riot shield is also placed over or near the camera to protect the camera operator and assistants. Optical flats (clear filters) are also placed in the matte box to protect the lens from any debris. After any final checks from the hair and make-up team, the armourer loads the gun before handing it to the actor. When a gun is ready to be used, the armorer will say “weapons hot” to the actor and surrounding cast and crew. This let’s everyone know that the gun is able to fire when the trigger is pulled. Once cut has been called, the armourer is the first person back on set to take the gun off the actor and make it safe and reload if necessary. The armourer shows or “proves” it to the actor visually letting them see the gun is now empty. When it’s not being used between takes the gun is either locked away or stored safely with the top slide portion of the gun in its locked position and with the magazine removed. (Not strapped to your chest trying to be cool...)

It is the responsibility of the producer to ensure the production has all the right permissions and certificates for whatever is required from the professionals hired, and from the police and local film office. A risk assessment will need to be carried out and kept on set detailing hazards, procedures, and what controls are in place. The police can’t take chances with reports from members of the public about guns or other weapons out in the open. You know it’s a toy gun, but the old lady who lives down the street doesn’t. If she sees it from a distance, then you might be getting a call from the boys in blue, and equally if a member of the public hears a blank being fired they may call the police who will then have to respond. By keeping the police informed you can prevent possible misunderstandings. In the U.K., if filming in a public area, the police will have to be notified and the producer can secure a Film Weapon CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) reference number and a point of contact within the force. If anything goes wrong or the police inadvertently turn up to set, you can produce your certificates and reference numbers. The CAD number is forwarded to the police switchboard team, so if they get a call from a concerned member of the public, they can see that at the address the sighting has been reported, there is a known film crew present with the proper CAD number assigned. They will still have to show up on set, but more to confirm you are indeed filming and not committing actual crimes. Different police forces will impose different security restrictions on productions both in terms of transportation of weapons and their use on location. The Met in London, for example, has its own film unit dedicated to helping filmmakers.

So, many filmmakers have guns and weapons of all sorts in their films and some follow the rules listed above and some don't, as I testified to on my early shoots. I'm not going to tell you what do to with your own shoots but the correct ways of doing things have been listed above and it's up to you as to whether you follow them or not. Now get shooting!

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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