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Lessons Learned

Gun Prop Lessons learned the Hard Way
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Hedda Gabler Firearms by Sean McArdle

Part 1 

This week we are opening our production of Hedda Gabler at Long Wharf, with Martha Plimpton playing our Hedda. In addition to my responsibilities as props carpenter, I played the role of Weapons Master for the show. To give people a better idea of what handling stage firearms is like in a regional theatre, the next few weeks will see a series of articles about my process in providing weapons and instruction for this production. 

For those unfamiliar with the play, Hedda provides a tricky challenge. There are two separate gun shots; one in which Hedda fires her gun across the stage at another actor, and the final shot, where she puts a gun to her temple and blows her head off. There are several ways to perform these shots, which of course depend upon the artistic vision of the director. It was my job as Weapons Master to make sure that the director's blocking didn't put any actors in danger. 

My first task was to decide, with the director, scene designer, and props manager, what guns should be used. The guns in the show are a set of dueling pistols that were owned by Hedda's father. If the production were done true to period (around 1890, I believe), then you would probably choose percussion cap pistols from the mid 1800's. For our production, which had no distinct time period or setting, historical accuracy wasn't absolutely necessary. The director gave me the following description for what he wanted: heavy, masculine looking guns, with a black or gunmetal blue finish. The guns also needed to be loaded on stage. With these criteria, we decided upon a pair of Colt Peacemakers. 

To find the guns, I first went to Centre Firearms in New York City. Centre is a big rental house that carries non-firing replicas, blank firing replicas, and real weapons that have been converted to fire only blanks. They had a pair of converted peacemaker's that would have worked, but because of liability and shipping issues, we decided not to go with them.

Because they were real guns (though converted) I couldn't just drive to New York and pick them up. In order to rent guns in NYC, you must have a New York driver's license. And even if I had one, it is illegal to take them across the state line into Connecticut. It's legal to have them in CT, but not legal to carry them across the border. We could have them shipped, but not directly to the theatre. We would have had to ship them to a licensed gun shop. In order to pick them up, I would need to have a CT pistol permit, fill out paperwork for each weapon, and pay a fee (about $35 each). This is all because at one point in their lives, the weapons were capable of firing real ammunition. Because of all of this paperwork, and the liability of the weapons, we decided to go another route.

The moral of the story: know your local gun laws and follow them to the letter! Before you attempt to use any kind of firearms on stage, make sure you have all of the information available regarding the laws that apply to your situation. You must check federal, state, and city laws and ordinances. If you do something that is in violation of these laws, you can find yourself in a lot of trouble.

To do a quick review from the last issue, I recently had the responsibility of being the weapons master for our production of Hedda Gabler at Long Wharf. To give people a better idea of what stage firearms are like in a regional theatre, this series of articles is about what my process was in providing weapons and instruction for this production. Part 1 was about the requirements of the show and the problems I ran into when trying to rent a pair of Colt peacemaker revolvers from Centre Firearms in NYC.

Since the guns from Centre were too problematic for us to rent, I needed to look elsewhere. I ended up finding a pair of reproduction Colt peacemakers from Collector's Armory. CA has a nice selection of blank firing repros that aren't terribly expensive. Because they are not real guns, they don't have the same legal restrictions on them. We were able to order them over the phone and have them shipped immediately. But even with reproductions, you need to be careful of the rules regarding shipping. Connecticut doesn't allow shipping of replica modern weapons (produced after 1900). The peacemakers were made in the mid 1800's, so they could be shipped to CT. Again, watch those regulations!

Upon receiving the weapons, the first thing I did was take them apart and give them a thorough inspection. This is the first thing you should do when buying or renting a firearm. I verified that the barrel was completely blocked, inspected the action of the hammer and trigger, and removed the cylinder to examine the chambers. What I found there surprised and alarmed me.

In almost all of the chambers there were metal burrs left over from the casting process. A couple of the chambers were completely blocked by metal! Though the chambers had obstructions, this didn't prevent a shell from being loaded. Needless to say this was a really bad situation. If the gun were loaded and fired in its present condition, two things could possibly happen:  

  1. The metal burrs would be expelled from the sides of the weapon by the force of the firing blank. The danger zones of these weapons are 90 degrees to either side of the gun, perpendicular to the barrel. Because the barrel is completely blocked, the force of the explosion is expelled out the sides of the gun. Anyone in the danger zone could be hit by small pieces of metal shrapnel, traveling a the velocity of a fired bullet.
  2. In the case of the obstructed cylinders, the force of the firing blank might be contained by the metal blockage. The explosive force would have nowhere to go. If this happened, the gun could explode, because it has effectively become a pipe bomb. Now maybe the metal wasn't thick enough to contain the blast, but I wasn't anxious to test that theory.

To remedy the problem, I immediately removed the foreign material with a small metal file. It took some effort, because there was a substantial amount of metal in some chambers. After completely cleaning the loose metal out the chambers I felt that the gun was safe to fire. The next thing I did was give Collector's Armory a call. I wanted to make sure that they were warned of the problem right away, because an inexperienced person could really get hurt if they tried to fire a gun like the ones I purchased. I talked directly with their customer service person, and she was very receptive and helpful. They had been made aware of the problem the day before, but until I called hadn't realized how serious the problem really was.

They were under the impression that it was just paint blocking the chambers. She assured me that they were in the process of inspecting all of the weapons that they had received from their supplier and cleaning out the blockages in the chambers.

If anyone else has recently purchased firearms from Collector's Armory (or anyone else for that matter) please make sure that you inspect them thoroughly before attempting to fire them! If you do find a problem, drop me a line and I will give you the number for the customer service representative. All this being said, I would still recommend doing business with Collector's Armory. You can find decent replicas that (hopefully) won't break your budget.

But be warned! Always give new firearms a thorough inspection before test firing them. Don't blindly trust your supplier! The health and safety of you and those around you could be at risk. Take every precaution you can think of to make the use of your firearms as safe as possible.

This article is the third in a series of articles documenting the process that I went through as the weapons master for the current production of Hedda Gabler at the Long Wharf Theatre. The first two parts of the article dealt with establishing the needs of the production and choosing and procuring the firearms.

After confirming that the guns we had chosen were safe we next needed to establish what strength of blanks to use. The production is in LWT's Stage II, the smaller black box space, so sound is a real issue. We needed to choose a blank that wasn't so strong that it hurt the ears of the audience or the actors, but still sounded believable.

At Long Wharf we like to get our blanks from Centre Firearms in NYC. Their blanks are very dependable (almost no misfires) and their prices aren't too stiff. Collector's Armory (where we got the guns) also sells blanks, and we purchased some blanks from them as well when we ordered the pistols. So we got some of each to test them in the space. The CA blanks were half loads, and sound-wise were almost too loud. So we got some quarter loads from CF, thinking they would be quieter. But it turns out they were actually louder, even though they were quarter loads. It's a good thing to know that there is no actual standard when it comes to the strength of blanks. Different companies measure the amount of powder that goes into the shells in different ways. So in our case, one company's 1/4 load was louder that the other's ½ load. We decided to use the Collector's Armory 1/2 loads.

It's always a good idea to test the weapons to see where the danger zones are. You want to establish where the force of the explosion is being expelled so that you know where an actor shouldn't be standing. Testing the weapons is a simple procedure. Hang up a piece of newsprint from something so that it hangs free and has nothing on either side of it. Then fire the gun while pointing it directly at the piece of paper, first from about 4' away, and then at point blank range. This will show you what, if any, of the force of the blast is being expelled from the front of the gun (i.e. towards the intended target, something you really don't want). In the case of these guns there was almost no effect on the paper, because the barrel is completely blocked. Next, put up a fresh piece of paper and hold the gun parallel to the paper when firing. Follow the same procedure as before, firing from 4', then at point blank range. Be sure to test the blast from either side of the gun (to the left and right of the body of the gun). You may find that more of the blast comes from one side than the other.

These guns put a noticeable blast pattern into the paper in the parallel position. It didn't blow a hole through the paper (which often happens), but it showed that a substantial amount of force and burning powder was expelled out of either side of the guns. Knowing this, I was able to safely establish where an actor could stand on stage and be in a minimum of danger from the blast.

This test is something that everyone should do before a gun is used on stage. Without knowing where the danger zones are for a weapon, you could put actors, stagehands and yourself at great risk of injury. It can also be a good idea to do this test in front of the actors, run crew, and anyone else who comes in contact with the weapons. By doing the paper test in front of them, you'll give them a graphic illustration of the dangers inherent in using the weapons and respect for them. In this case, a little fear is healthy. It can prevent the tendency of some actors to treat the guns as a toy that they can goof around with. Cowboy antics with stage firearms get people killed. Just ask Jon Erik Hexum.


Friendly Fire by Dennis Potter

As the technical manager of a mid-sized community theatre, one of my duties is to review all proposed special effects for safety. About a year ago I was presented with a situation that reminded me to expect the unexpected.

A local organization that provides an educational alternative for “at-risk” high school students rented our theatre to present an anti-gang theme play created by their students for presentation to other local high school students. The director of the group called me to ask permission to use a pistol in a fight scene. After a brief conversation about rules regarding firearms, I asked him to drop by with the gun so I could check it out.

The director arrived the day before their load-in and proudly presented me with a shoe box. I opened the box to find a fully functional, fully loaded .45 semi-automatic pistol. He had also conveniently brought along the blanks they would be using, mixed loose in the shoe box with more live ammunition! I politely reminded him that for approval, all stage guns were required to have a solid barrel or no firing pin and live ammunition was never allowed in the theatre. I told him that this gun was not acceptable unless the firing pin was removed, and to never mix live and blank ammunition. He apologized for the live rounds and said the gun wasn’t his and he couldn’t get permission from the owner for the modification. Considering the director’s proven inability to obtain a safe stage prop, I suggested they use a small starter pistol we had. The director wanted the look of a larger gun, so we settled on a full-sized toy gun painted black, with sound effects through the P.A. system. They brought the prop gun for their first rehearsal, ran the sound cue and it all worked out fine. My job was done… or so I thought.

During the afternoon of the second rehearsal I got a call from our office receptionist. A police officer was in the office telling us to evacuate the building due to a SWAT situation. I went to the stage to round everyone up and we discovered that two of the cast members were missing. They were last seen 20 minutes ago heading to our loading dock. I carefully opened the back door to an amazing sight—multiple police cruisers, eight SWAT Team officers, the business end of way too many M-16s and the missing cast members spread-eagle on the pavement.

The two actors had taken the toy gun from the prop table and gone out behind the building to rehearse their fight scene choreography, which must have been a bit too realistic for someone in the building across the street. They both could have been shot over a toy squirt gun. We sent their stage manager back for retraining and amended our rules about prop weapons: “They are to be locked up at all times when not actually on-stage.”

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