The 12 Greatest Myths about Firearms on Film Sets
What actors and filmmakers need to know about filming with firearms

There are lots of myths involving firearms safety on film sets. Let’s compare some common myths with the actual reality of firearms on film sets.

Blanks
Myth #1: “Blanks are harmless.”
Reality: At close range, blanks can be extremely dangerous. This is why firearms on film sets must always be handled by qualified experts and not just anyone who happens to have a licence. It takes experience, training and knowledge to understand the dangerous ranges of blanks and how to work with them safely and quickly.

Myth #2: “Okay then. Blanks are too dangerous for filmmakers to use.”
Reality: Not at all. When handled properly and directly supervised at all times by qualified experts, firearms are no more dangerous than any other prop on set. Blanks look better on camera, help actors feel their characters and adds an element of realism impossible to achieve any other way. Blanks can be quick, safe and inexpensive in comparison to trying to do the same effects in post production. Unless you have a lot of money for visual effects in post, computer-generated gunshots often look fake. Plus, actors absolutely HATE trying to act real with a ‘toy’ gun in their hand.

Myth #3: “My uncle owns guns or my buddy is a cop. I can get them to handle the firearms.”
Reality: Firearms are no place for amateurs. Movie firearms require specialized handling and safety procedures, and even something as simple as replica firearms have certain legal requirements on supervision, transportation, storage and notification. Filmmakers always have a legal obligation to protect the safety of their cast, crew and bystanders, no matter the size of their budget. The use of amateurs and doubling up crew positions have seriously injured actors in the past. This should never happen, whether it is a big television production or just you and two friends in your back yard.

Myth #4: “So all I need to do is keep people a safe distance away when firing blanks.”
Reality: There is NO safe distance in front of a blank. There are only SAFER distances. Granted, a mile away might be safe; a foot away is not safe. It is the distances in between that become critical to understand the many different factors that go into how safe it can be to shoot a particular scene. Blanks fire explosive bursts of burning gases plus flakes of burnt and unburnt gunpowder out the barrel with a great deal of explosive force. This force dissipates rapidly with distance but every firearm has a different dangerous range. This is why firearms safety specialists spend a great deal of their time testing and learning about the characteristics of every firearm before it is used on set.

Myth#5: “I read a safety rule that one should always use the lowest power blank possible.”
Reality: Not true! Blanks can sometimes be supplied in 1/4, 1/2 or full power loads. In some cases, however, it is more dangerous to use lower powered loads than full power. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms must be specially modified to fire blanks, and the action will only cycle properly with loads designed for them. If lower power loads are used, the firearms may jam. This can be extremely dangerous because a jammed firearm can still go off at any moment.

Myth #6: “But aren’t 1/4 loads less power than 1/2 loads or full loads?”
Reality: Not always. The terms “1/4 load” “1/2 load” and “full load” are essentially meaningless unless you are using them to compare the same manufacturer's loads in the same firearm. The power of a blank depends directly on how much gunpowder is in it and inversely on the square of the distance away from the muzzle. Also, all firearms have differing characteristics. Some have an open barrel, some use a restrictor plate and some have baffled barrels. There is no way to predict the hazard simply by the designation on the box. A 1/2 power .45 calibre blank can be more powerful than a full power 9mm blank. A 1/4 load shotgun blank is greater than a full power handgun blank, and rifle blanks can be 10 times more hazardous than the most powerful handgun blank.

Myth #7: “Then it is always safer to be farther away.”
Reality: Distance is your friend. It is better to increase the distance between a firearm and an actor than it is to decrease the power. In rare cases, however, it can be safer to be REALLY close. It is all about control. If actors are six feet apart, it is difficult to control and there is no way to rely on the actor always hitting their mark perfectly in order to keep people safe. This is why blanks are almost never fired toward another person on a film set. Even at farther distances, debris can hit someone in the eye. (Eye protection is one of our biggest concerns.) But an experienced expert can work inches away, given enough face and body protection on an actor. Firearms Safety Coordinators are not only there for safety and authenticity; they know many ways to deliver the scene the way the filmmaker wants - safely, inexpensively and quickly.

Due to the nature of blanks and their explosive force out a firearm’s barrel, distance of the gunshot to the cast and crew will always be more critical than the power of the blank. This is because the hazard of blanks increases EXPONENTIALLY with a decrease in distance. This can be illustrated by BROWN’S LAW on the hazards of blanks in film firearms:

Browns Law graphic


Myth #8:
“I have heard of ‘non-guns’ that fire a muzzle flash electronically. They must be safer because they can be fired directly at actors.”
Reality: They are rarely used because they are expensive, don't look real and can be unreliable. They still require an expert to handle them and there are certain safety procedures that must be followed. They are also slow to rig. We avoid non-guns as much as possible.


Firearms
Myth #9: “We don't need a firearms safety specialist on the set if we are not using real firearms.”
Reality: In many jurisdictions, replica firearms are prohibited devices and their use can be as regulated as real firearms. For example the average person in Canada cannot sell, manufacture or import replica firearms. (Yes, even painting a clear plastic airsoft gun constitutes “manufacturing” a prohibited device.) Plus, there are numerous safety issues using toys painted to look real. They need proper supervision, actors must be briefed to not point them at anyone unless required for the scene and they must never leave the immediate vicinity of the film set. Film crews have also experienced highly dangerous situations when mistaken for real armed assailants. Firearms, real or fake, must ALWAYS be treated with respect.

Myth #10: “Expertise costs money. I can save money and just not tell anyone.”
Reality: Lack of money is no excuse for getting people hurt. Plus, sneaking around “guerrilla” style should never be done with anything that even looks like a gun. It takes years to build solid relationships with regulating authorities. All it takes is one second for an irresponsible filmmaker to destroy those relationships, not to mention putting cast, crew, citizens, bystanders and the police themselves at extreme risk when the police respond at high speed to what they think is a real gun call.

Accidents
Myth #11: “Brandon Lee died on the film set of “The Crow” because: a) a real cartridge was loaded into a firearm, or b) he was hit by the wad, or c) the Lee family is cursed.”
Reality: Brandon Lee died because of a series of contributing factors that started when a production company tried to save a few dollars by sending the weapons specialist home early, and turning over firearms supervision to an inexperienced props assistant. Brandon Lee's mother sued the production for negligence and ultimately received a settlement, but all the money in the world will not bring back a promising young actor who died because of easily preventable mistakes.

(For more about the circumstances that lead to the death of Brandon Lee, check out
this web page.)

Safety
Myth #12: “Okay, you've convinced me that qualified experts are important, but actors don't need to know anything about firearms safety. The experts take care of that.”
Reality: Actors should be knowledgeable about their safety and fully aware of the precautions used to keep them safe because the reality is that if something goes wrong, they will be the first ones hurt. Knowledge is power, and actors should know enough to ask the right questions.

If someone is hurt on a film or theatre set, it was not usually a single mistake that caused it but rather a series of contributing factors. It is the seemingly ‘simple’ scenes that can lead to serious incidents. When a gun comes out (or anything that even looks like a gun) actors need to be able to look around and see a qualified person right beside them to answer their questions and ensure their safety. This is no place for cutting corners or using amateurs.