Throughout the history of Community Theater, the topic of guns on stage has reared its head over and over again. Murder mysteries, thrillers, comedies, dramas, even musicals require this device as an integral part of the plot. Theaters have used all manner of devices to simulate gunfire on stage, from toy pistols and sound effects, starter pistols, blank firing guns and real guns using blanks. Here is the do's and don'ts of guns on stage, with an emphasis on safety and security.
Types of Guns for Use on the Stage
- Non-Firing Replica - This is the safest gun for use on stage. It looks and feels like a real gun, but cannot chamber a round and will not fire, lacking a firing pin. Relatively inexpensive, these guns are manufactured from original blueprints from less robust metals. They can be used when a gun needs to be displayed on stage but not fired. Safe as they are, non-firing replicas should still be treated as real guns and locked up when not in use.
- Blank-Firing Replica (Blank Gun) - This is a gun built specifically to chamber a blank round. A blank round is a shell that does not contain a projectile (bullet). Generally, these are built from blueprints matching real guns and then modified to chamber a blank round, usually 8mm, and ported so that the gasses from firing do not come out of the end of the barrel, but are shunted out the top or side. Treat them as if they were a real gun. These come in three basic types: the revolver and semi-automatic handgun styles, and the long gun.
- Revolver - This handgun has a cylinder that holds the blank rounds and rotates to bring them under the firing pin. Best for use on stage because of its simplicity and the fact that it does not eject spent shells.
- Semi-automatic - This handgun holds its blank rounds in a magazine in the grip and, when fired, uses a slide powered by expanding gases to chamber the next round. Unfortunately, this has the effect of ejecting the spent shell from the gun onto the stage or even into the audience. Care should be taken when using this type of gun on stage as the shells ejected will be hot.
- Long Gun - Generally speaking, this is a blank-firing replica of a western rifle, although other types of long guns are available. These are not often called for in plays. The same basic rules apply to these guns as apply to semi-automatic handguns, though long guns are typically hand operated, so there is some control over the ejection of a spent shell.
Real Guns - NO, NO, NO! These are not safe for use on stage unless they have been modified by a licensed gunsmith to chamber only blank rounds and have had their barrels plugged to prevent any gasses from escaping from the barrel. Even so, I do not recommend using this type of gun on stage. Buy or rent a properly functioning blank gun designed for stage use. They are worth the investment and, properly cared for, will last for many years. Federal laws and several dozen states strictly regulate who, where and why replica guns may be possessed. Your theatrical supply house can provide you with the facts.
Blank-firing replicas fire rounds containing only a primer and powder. A blank round looks very much like a spent shell from a real gun that may or may not be crimped at the end. Sometimes it has a piece of paper or cardstock inside that holds the powder in place. This ammunition comes in several different sizes: .22 caliber acorn, .22 caliber long, .32 caliber, .380 caliber, 8mm and 9mm. There are others, but these are most common. Most blank-firing replicas made specifically for use on stage use 8mm and 9mm, although the .32 and .380 are also popular revolver loads.
Nothing is more important than safety when using and storing stage guns. Some will remember the tragic death of Brandon Lee during the filming of the movie The Crow.
- According to newspaper and magazine accounts, the scene in question was staged early in the morning of March 31, 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina. The scene was the death of Lee's character, Eric Draven, at the hands of street thugs, and was a pivotal plot element to the movie. Lee was to walk in through a door carrying a bag of groceries. Actor Michael Massee, who played Funboy, fired a revolver loaded with blanks at Lee. To complete the illusion, a small explosive charge was to go off in the grocery bag. Unfortunately, a fragment of a dummy bullet, used earlier in close-up shots, was lodged in the barrel, and the blank charge propelled the fragment into Lee's side, fatally wounding him."
- Because of the nature of Community Theater, you have no need for the use of dummy bullets
kind of tough to do a close-up on stage. However, that doesn't change the safety rules that apply to the use of prop guns on stage.
- Treat every gun as if it is real and loaded.
- Don't ever point a Blank Gun directly at another person, even on stage. Aim and fire upstage of the target. The audience will never know the difference.
- Do not fire a Blank Gun within 2 feet of another person escaping gasses can injure them and the sound can cause hearing loss.
- Do not fire a Blank Gun while it is in contact with a person, even through clothing.
- Make sure that only one person (the "Gun Wrangler") has control of the Blank Guns until they go out on stage and that they are immediately returned to the same person following their appearance on stage. The Gun Wrangler must be a person with training in gun safety and be familiar with Blank Guns, their maintenance and cleaning.
- The Gun Wrangler should make sure each Blank Gun is inspected, cleaned and in good working order each time it goes to the prop table.
- The Gun Wrangler should be the person responsible for loading and unloading the Blank Guns, although all actors must be familiar with the workings of the Blank Guns. This is at odds with standard gun safety practices, but, because of the pressures of performing, I've found this to be a safer way of doing things. However, actors should always check (under the supervision of the "Wrangler") the Blank Gun before going out on stage and should be responsible for chambering the first round. In revolvers, the chamber under the hammer should always be empty. In semi-automatics, the slide is pulled back to charge the chamber.
- All Blank Gun are to be locked up when not actually needed.
- Blank Firing Guns should never be loaded until just before use.
- Each actor that uses a Blank Gun must be taught basic gun safety.
- Each actor must be familiar with the rules of the theater regarding the use and storage of stage guns.
Blank Guns and blank ammunition of all types should be locked up securely when not in use. The gun wrangler should be the only one with access to this storage. This does not mean the glove box or trunk of a car, or an unlocked Grip box sitting on the sidewalk.
The Prop House that you'll be renting from should be able to provide you with an instructor who can teach you and your actors with the skills necessary for safe and proper handling. It would be best if you arraign for all your crew to spend a day with the instructor and become familiar with every aspect of Blank Gun operations and procedures.
7. Sources for Replicas and Ammunition
You can go through your local theatrical supply house. Be sure to check your local and state laws regarding the use, storage and shipment of replica guns.