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

How to avoid mistakes, keep people safe and get the scenes you need safely, legally and within budget

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

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 own a gun. It takes experience, training and knowledge to understand the dangerous ranges of all the blanks and how to work with them safely and quickly.

Myth #2: “Blanks are too dangerous for the average filmmaker 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 the set. Blanks look much better on camera, help actors to really feel their characters and adds an element of realism that is 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. Computer-generated gunshots almost always look fake. Plus, good actors absolutely HATE having to act with a ‘toy’ gun in their hand.

Myth #3: “My uncle owns guns and my buddy is a cop. I can get one of them to handle the firearms.”
Reality: Sorry, but laws apply to everyone. Movie firearms require specialized knowledge about handling and safety procedures. When handling replicas, firearms - loaded or not - or firing blanks, filmmakers have a legal obligation to protect the safety of their cast, crew and bystanders, whether they are paid to be there or not. This applies just as much to a filmmaker in their backyard with a couple of friends as to a majour Hollywood production.

Myth #4: “But I heard that 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 force. This force dissipates rapidly with distance but every individual firearm can have a different dangerous range. This is why firearms safety specialists spend a great deal of their time learning about the characteristics of every firearm before it is used on set.

Myth#5: “I read a safety rule that states 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 are 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 can jam. This can be extremely dangerous because a jammed firearm is still loaded.

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: Yes, 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 easily illustrated by BROWN’S LAW:

Browns Law graphic


Myth #8:
“I have heard of ‘non-guns’ that fire a muzzle flash electronically. They must be safer to use because they can be fired directly at actors.”
Reality: They are rarely used today because they are expensive, don't look very real and can be unreliable because they use a tiny explosive charge up the barrel to simulate a muzzle flash. They still require sufficient safety protection. An expert firearms handler can use blanks to give the director a gunshot that is just as safe and looks far better than most of the so-called non-guns currently on the market. We avoid them 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 almost as regulated as the real firearms they simulate. For example the average person in Canada cannot manufacture or import replica firearms. (Yes, even painting a clear plastic airsoft gun constitutes “manufacturing” a prohibited device.) Plus, there ARE safety issues, even if a production is just using toys painted to look real. They need legal 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 by cutting a few corners and not telling 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, and 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 a busy props assistant. Brandon Lee's mother sued the production for negligence and ultimately received a majour 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 their 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; actors need to know enough to ask the right questions.

When someone is hurt on a film 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.