In the wake of the tragic events on the set of Rust, team PB thought it best write a short blog to highlight the difference between theatrical firearms, live rounds, blank rounds and SBR UTM (silent blank rounds ultimate training munitions)
Theatrical firearms (prop gun)
The term “prop gun” or Theatrical firearm includes a variety of weapons, including nonfunctioning or nonpractical weapons, like cap guns, BB guns, top venting blanks and fake guns constructed of wood, plastic or rubber. Soft and hard rubber are primarily used by stunt performer’s when carrying out hard demanding falls.
The term also can mean real weapons modified to fire only blank cartridges, in the UK we call them section 5 firearms or practical weapons and if fired at close range they can cause serious injuries and potentially kill if not closely monitored by proficient firearms professionals.
How theatrical weapons work
When filming with semi- and fully automatic weapons like the AK47 or M4 that are gas-operated, which means the combustion gas from firing a round is what reloads the weapon, the barrel typically has a mechanism called a “restrictor.”
Restrictors function similarly to the blank-firing adapters (BFAs) used in the military which are deliberately coloured Yellow or Red for identification, except for the film world where the device is internal, rather than attached to the exterior of the muzzle.
Theatrical weapons have the restrictor down the barrel to conceal the fact that it is a blank firing weapon.
Devices like BFAs or restrictors do two things: they help prevent debris from escaping from the barrel through the muzzle when a blank round is fired and they help the weapon chamber another round by preventing the combustion gases from fully escaping the barrel.
But weapons that are not gas-operated, like revolvers, bolt operated rifles and muskets don’t require a restrictor to help chamber another round. Which means there is no physical barrier between the blank round fired and whatever the weapon is pointed at.
The image below demonstrates the amount of flash from a futuristic weapon which was actually a Colt revolver with plastic mouldings built around. Note the amount of flash.
A live round or cartridge is ammunition fed into the barrel of a fully functioning weapon that comprises of several parts:
- The casing (sometimes called a shell)
- Propellant material (gunpowder) inside the shell
- The percussion cap or percussion primer on the bottom of the cartridge. (Where the firing pin strikes)
- The actual projectile (bullet) itself
The bullet is the part of the cartridge that flies out of the gun towards the target.
Blanks are shell casings loaded with gunpowder. They lack the deadly bullet point, which is usually replaced with cotton or paper wadding.
When blanks are discharged, they create the sound of gunfire, and the gunpowder combusts, causing a muzzle flash. The force of firing a section 5 firearms provides the actor with real recoil and case ejection.
SBR UTM (silent blank rounds ultimate training munitions)
UTM’s Silent Blank Rounds (SBR) cycles the firearm, which provides realistic recoil and weapon function, including bolt or slide lock-back, yet with no noise or projectile.
With the silent blank rounds the piston is solid, when it’s driven forward the gas can’t escape, so the cartridge is silent with no flash. This action allows the cycling of the firearm in an enclosed space without concerns around noise or injury.
UTM’s pistol conversions prevent a live round from fully seating inside the barrel so incapable of firing a live round
Their blank weapon conversions for rifles feature an off-set firing pin, enabling the weapon to only shoot UTM’s rim-fire blank training ammunition.
Silent Blank rounds are ideal for close-up shots to the body or camera and can be fired directly at the head without any danger to the actor.
Live rounds are to never be on set at any stage.
The use of firearms on set is subject to stringent safety standards. Specialists such as BAPTY.co.uk who provide weapons for use on film sets and advise on their safe use.
Before weapons leave the armoury they’re test fired, cleaned and inspected. The weapon serial numbers are sent to the police authority who over sees all theatrical weapons used in the UK film and TV indindustry.
Every weapon on set must be accounted for and it is the armourers responsibility to know every weapon be it non practical or practical while on set.
When on set and not required the practical weapons are concealed and constantly manned by the armourer until required.
Before being issued weapons a safety brief and training is provided highlighting important features of the weapon and the importance of trigger and muzzle discipline.
A demonstration of the danger a blank round can do is provided by firing a blank round into an orange or apple to provide a visual demonstration on the effects to skin.
Before shooting a scene, rehearsals are mostly carried out ‘dry’ which means no blanks are loaded in the weapon.
Ear and eye protection will be offered to crew within the set area and the armourers will ensure saftey distances for firing in close proximity are observed along with limiting the chances of hot ejected cases bouncing back to hit the actors.
Once ready to shoot the armourer will show weapons are clear to the actor and show him the blank rounds before being loaded.
Once the working parts are released forward and a round is chambered the safety catch is applied and the armourer will announce ‘Weapons Hot’ to everyone on set.
If at any time the armourer observes something they feel is not safe before and during the shoot they will step in and stop everything until any safety issue is resolved.
If a weapon misfires during the shoot the actor is instructed to simply play out the action until the director shouts cut then simply raise their hand and with the weapons barrel pointing towards the floor and the armourers will clear and inspect the weapon.
If the weapon needs to be fired off for safety reasons, such as a black powder musket or test fired, the armourer will notify all cast and crew by shouting ‘ fire in the hole’ before firing in a safe direction.
Cast, stunts and extras are all instructed on the importance of not playing with weapons during breaks, leaving a weapon unattended or walking off set without handing it back to the armourer.
Once filming has finished all weapons are accounted for and serials checked against their lists before being packed up and taken back to a secure location, cleaned ready for the next day.
Most productions will invest and provide weapons and tactics training to everyone participating in the action scenes involving weapons.
Military Technical Advisers along with armourers will assess and train for what is required in the script to a high standard and preferably two to three days before the action is to take place.
Anyone deemed unsafe or not confident around weapons will be issued a non firing weapon.
Bootcamps ensures everyone is fully briefed and confident in weapon handling and safety protocols beforehand which then only requires a ‘remind and revise’ before going on set.
Theatrical firearms courses
I have touched on such courses in the past and frequently asked if I run my own course.
I run production financed training for the specific roles required for the production who hire my services to train cast, stunts and supporting artists who are paid to learn for the required role.
There are numerous courses out there some good some over hyped and some very bad. Some lay claim being on their course will ensure you are picked for action roles over those who have not.
Some issue certificates as proof of attendance which are waved under an armourer and advisers nose to demand or stake claim to forgoing any training and being picked first to fire weapons.
Such claims are solely a sales pitch and untrue.
The following hurdles only apply.
1. The Director choses the look he requires.
2. The Armourer and the military advisor will assess and decide who is safe and able to fire a blank weapon on set.
3. Armourers weapons and procedures may be different to what your course provider taught you.
Allways remember. The armourers weapons so its their rules.
Such courses are a ‘nice to have’ and will help you better understand weapon safety but they will not turn you into an overnight expert nor will they bag you your big break. Skill fade will factor in once you leave a course no matter how long it lasts.
No firearms courses are recognised by any governing body or production. No armourer or military advisor will accept firearms certificates or even previous military qualifications as an insurance of safety on set.
To end this blog, armorers and military advisors teach and allways remind you the “three golden rules” of weapon handling, and it’s the same on a range as it is on a film or set.
1. You always treat a weapon be it real or plastic as if it’s loaded.
2. You never point a gun at another person.
3. You always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re absolutely ready to fire.
PB Military Technical Adviser for film and tv Ltd