Why Hollywood films use real guns on set – a brief guide

The AMC television show Humans has had many shocking moments and one of them is the moment its charismatic star, Gemma Chan, shoots herself dead by firing a concealed firearm. This came about after…

Why Hollywood films use real guns on set – a brief guide

The AMC television show Humans has had many shocking moments and one of them is the moment its charismatic star, Gemma Chan, shoots herself dead by firing a concealed firearm. This came about after Gemma realised the moral and emotional limitations of just letting the stunt gun discharge the whole time without taking a single breath. She then gave the shot a second thought, returned to her seat in a moment of deadpan calm, and walked away.

In the lead-up to Agents of SHIELD, the Marvel TV series on which I cameo as Black Widow, the character uses a similar unorthodox approach when shot while in action. But for Agents of SHIELD, what is so shocking about bringing a gun to set when doing it onscreen? For the real world? In so many ways, the answer is simple: Here’s why films use real guns as props on set.

Hollywood firearms are part of the production and it’s simply not economically feasible for studios to hire police officers to fire a real gun

For films, the scope and scale of their shoots is huge. Producers set up multiple sets for multiple scenes in multiple places over the course of weeks or months, and having to carry out location security and crew deliveries is increasingly a non-negotiable cost of doing business. That’s why they hire professional actors, stuntmen and filming professionals and it’s why many think to hire a security officer to bring a gun into a scene as a prop.

My on-set security officer, Michael O’Hare, is contracted by Azzurri, the stand-in workers’ union. Michael was a father who was lost in an accidental shooting himself, and carries with him the knowledge that unfortunately, his loss was entirely preventable.

Hollywood firearms are part of the production and it’s simply not economically feasible for studios to hire police officers to fire a real gun on location. Once the gun has been borrowed from a more accessible source, it cannot be lawfully sold, and therefore must be destroyed by the production.

Another complication is that directors have a rights deal with the gun’s manufacturer. This authorises them to depict the actions of the weapon, and it’s not uncommon for stunts to be filmed with guns. Typically, the director has a relationship with the manufacturer and that may be the only way they would be able to loan the gun to the production.

Until very recently, every single imaginable type of weapon was featured on film. From sword fights to high-speed car chases, from gun battles to post-apocalyptic carnage, everything was on offer. Nowadays, films are a little more concerned with just one type of weapon: firearms.

Being asked to bring a gun on set is likely not the goal of the production, but the reality of the job for some on-set security officers. Guns are incredibly much-loved props and often a good omen for a major stunt set-piece. And no one wants to be the guy carrying out the stunt gun firing all night.

We might be more aware of the inevitability of a blank firing, but in the vast majority of cases there’s just no way they could execute the stunt safely. I once worked for a film company, where directors shot more than 200 bullets, live ammunition, with a mission to shoot whatever they wanted. No one could say no to this adrenalin-fuelled stunt because they would themselves be the first to fail.

Some actors will admit to using fake guns on set. They can use state-of-the-art replicas, and take a little bit of time to learn how to fire them properly. The problem with fake guns is that they are hard to tell apart from real ones, and as a result can present a safety risk.

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