Saturday, October 23, 2021

Alec Baldwin, "prop guns" and what film set tragedies mean for military hobbyists

It may be a sign of the times that the recent tragic shooting on the set of Rust became politicized within minutes of the story going public. Details are sketchy, but what is known is that Alec Baldwin, who is starring in as well as producing this Western period piece, aimed a firearm towards a camera behind which the director of cinematography and director were located. The firearm discharged - what was discharged, be it wadding, debris, or an actual bullet isn't certain at this time - and Halyna Hutchins, the cinematography director, was mortally injured and died on the way to hospital while Joel Souza, the director, was injured.

There is no doubt it was an unintended action, one which should never have happened. While the lives of Hutchins' family have been changed forever, it is safe to assume that Baldwin's has as well. Baldwin was reportedly and obviously distraught. 

Commentary on social media was full of conjecture, not aided by the media's use of language. Constant references to a "prop gun" haven't helped. What does this all mean, in particular for legitimate firearms owners and those who use them in film work or military reenactment?

Prop Gun

The media keeps referring to the "prop gun" that Baldwin was using on the film set. Is this an accurate categorization?

Australia's ABC News provides this useful summary:

My own involvement in motion pictures goes back to 1993 and the filming of Legends of the Fall. The stuntmen on the set had rubber rifles which they carried when filming scenes needing them to do stunts (usually death flips off of air ramps). The rubber rifles ensured no one would be hurt when they went flying, which was intended to look dramatic on the screen. These were no doubt "prop guns."

The rest of the extras, myself included, had real, working rifles. They were treated as such; signed out and tracked by the movie staff, and tightly controlled. Blank ammunition was given out only minutes before a scene was to be filmed, after careful inspection. Below is a photo of the extras depicting Canadian soldiers doing a test firing of their rifles with blank ammunition on the trench set. Film crew are standing safely behind the firing line.

I honestly don't know if the motion picture industry has a specific technical definition of "prop gun" but the use of the term by the media is obscuring the fact that what are being used are actual firearms. Which are inherently dangerous if not treated with respect.


Another question commonly cropping up in the comments sections is why "real guns" have to be used. "Why can't they just get guns that don't shoot anything but blanks?"

Such a thing exists, called a BFONG (Blank Fire Only Non Gun) in the United States. They don't appear to be much of a solution to the issue of using real guns on movie sets. They would be expensive to produce, especially given the low demand for them, and the high number of firearm models that would need to be replicated to satisfy film-makers. The Internet Movie Firearms Database gives an idea of just how many different types of firearms have been used in film. It is a detail as important as the kind of automobiles you see in the background. The wrong type will kill verisimilitude, and while film-makers in the past have shown a willingness to ignore this level of detail, modern audiences are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in their expectations. 

Vintage firearms like the Lee Enfield rifles we used on Legends of the Fall were produced in the millions to satisfy the needs of an industrial war effort in a global conflict. It is far cheaper to find these vintage firearms than it would be to tool a factory for a limited run of BFONGs. And if simple safety controls are instituted on a film set, there should be no difference in the degree of safety.

And the use of guns that fire only blanks is no guarantee of safety in itself, either.


Firearm safety is one of the first things taught in the military, and even soldiers whose job is to pull the trigger on enemy soldiers have it instilled into them that the cardinal firearm safety rules are to be obeyed at all times - treat it as loaded, don't point at anything you don't want injured or killed, don't rest your finger on the trigger and be aware of what surrounds your target.

Blank cartridges are used in firearms to simulate the firing of real ammunition, for military/police training, film work, or public displays. Blank cartridges are usually of a similar design to regular firearm ammunition, with the exception that they have no projectile (bullet). They do have enough powder to both make a loud noise, as well as supply gas/explosive force to work the action of semi-automatic or automatic weapons.

Even blanks have the power to kill, something vividly described to those of us on Southern Alberta Militia District Battle School basic training course 8803 in the spring of 1988. Warrant Officer Bruce Waterhouse assembled us on our first day in the field, took the blank firing attachment (BFA) off his FN rifle, and pointed the muzzle at an apple retrieved from the day's rations. He fired one blank cartridge which obliterated the apple. It was a vivid description of what could go wrong - so vivid I remember it to this day.

Sadly, the film industry's moment of clarity came with the death of  Jon-Erik Hexum, who was killed after pantomiming a game of Russian Roulette with an on-set firearm loaded with a blank cartridge. The death of Brandon Lee has also become a learning tool for motion picture crews and reenactment groups in their safety training. 

In other words, the dangers of using blank ammunition are no secret and have been known to film-makers all along. Any comments about why the Rust event happened will be speculation until an investigation is completed. I can only predict that it will reveal safety protocols, long a part of motion picture work, will be shown to have been violated.


It is unfortunate for Mr. Baldwin that his passion for issues, and willingness to make public commentary on his views, have apparently left little sympathy for him among many commentators. One comment standing out is that "if he had received NRA training this wouldn't have happened."  Possibly, but we don't know what controls were in place on the set. Other comments are ridiculous on the face of it and obviously politically motivated, such as the notion that Baldwin should be tried for murder. (I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me you would have to prove intent, in other words, that Baldwin wanted to kill members of his own crew. If such evidence comes to light, maybe, but I'm sure anyone making that suggestion at this stage has no such evidence.)

There will be an investigation and the justice system will decide what path to pursue. New information is coming to light by the minute, and what happened will be determined in the fullness of time. For those rooting for Mr. Baldwin's severe punishment, I would point out that cases of negligence (which is surely what this is, though who's is yet to be seen) seem not to engender heavy repurcussions. One need only look at the death of Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Le on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie and in particular the legal battle that followed. The manslaughter charges that were brought on several key members of the production staff, who had urged dangerous and unsafe working conditions, never stuck.

Baldwin has been outspoken on firearms rights, joining a group known as the NoRA (No Rifle Association), whose mandate is to enhance protections from gun violence. The NoRA website presents some clear policy goals which seems to focus on gun violence (and by inference gun crime). It might be fair to say that legitimate firearm owners share many of the same goals as the NoRA, though probably differ dramatically in their opinions of how to get there.

Baldwin, however, has built a reputation for making over the top political statements for dramatic effect. In 1998 he joked during President Clinton's impeachment trial that "If we were in another country ... we would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and kill their wives and their children. We would kill their families, for what they're doing to this country." Hyde at the time was a Republican senator who spoke out in favour of impeachment. Baldwin's enthusiastic portrayal of President Trump as a criminal and stupid man on Saturday Night Live in more recent years has further alienated him from a large portion of the American public.

Nonetheless, it's disheartening to see comments about how Baldwin "deserves" what happened, or that this is somehow "karma" for his vocal liberal views. If one truly believes in karma, it makes no sense to think karma would kill an innocent cinematographer in order to punish Baldwin. Firearm rights advocates would do well not to make such disgusting comments. I have to believe Baldwin will be suffering in some way as a result of this tragedy for the rest of his life as certainly as Ms. Hutchins' family will.

What Does This Mean For Military Reenactors?

This event should not have an impact on military reenactors since the dangers of using blank ammunition are already well known. Groups should already have rigorous safety procedures in place. The group I belong to, the First Special Service Force Living History Association in Alberta, has a vigorous safety program which includes taking an annual course regarding on-set and firearm safety from a card-carrying motion picture armourer. This is in addition to the requirements of firearms owners in Canada to take basic gun safety courses to be able to possess firearms.

Sadly, safety often becomes a priority only in the wake of a tragedy, or a near miss. The following is from the safety manual of the World War II Living History Association, describing the impetus for the publication of an extensive safety manual in 1993:

At the LHA sponsored 1992 World War II & Motor Vehicle Rally I observed a “soldier” (who was not a member of any of the organized units in attendance) hand a loaded semi-automatic pistol to a child of about ten years of age. The youngster was not accompanied by an adult, but quickly wheeled about to show his family what he was holding. In so doing he leveled the muzzle at live people at a distance of no more than three feet. Had the gun discharged serious injury would have resulted, even with blank ammunition. The person who had handed the gun to this child finally guided him in a safer direction at which time he allowed the boy to fire the pistol without benefit of any instruction. The owner of the pistol, at my insistence then removed the gun from the boy’s possession and actually had the weapon pointed at himself at one point in doing so.

It is trite to suggest that it only takes one bad event to change your group forever, but it is also true. It doesn't have to be a tragedy in your own group to spur change. 

  • Make safety a priority if you haven't already - and in actions, not words. Have an annual certification of some kind with basic firearms safety. Do it yourself, or require members to take a local hunter's course, motion picture safety course, etc. Someone in your area is teaching this stuff. Seek them out and make learning it mandatory for your group.
  • Walk the talk - once you're certified, pay attention to the little indiscretions that come up and take them seriously. Our local group had a member raise several red flags which we all willfully ignored. It started with the small stuff like muzzle awareness. Asking him not to point his rifle at other members while casually sitting in camp was met with resentment. It escalated, to the firing of pyrotechnics into an enemy encampment, to firing blanks directly over the head of someone seated on the ground in front of him without warning. We should have acted more strongly than we did, but we assumed because he was a "good guy" who entertained us with stories and camaraderie that it would fix itself. It didn't. The last straw was when he showed up early to an event, alone, armed with bear bangers and set four sections of farm property ablaze. Our "good guy" lied about what happened and threatened to sue when he was temporarily suspended from the unit. His suspension was then made permanent. No one was hurt, but several buildings and vehicles were scorched and our relationship with the property owner, where we hosted our events, was obviously damaged. We consider ourselves lucky it wasn't worse. What we learned - I hope - was that small problems can easily become much larger and more serious ones if you let a culture of permissiveness arise around safety infractions.
  • Re-enactment (and film work) is inherently dangerous when firearms are involved. Use language that reinforces this reality. They aren't "prop guns" they are firearms. "Accidental discharges" aren't accidents - they are "negligent discharges." Take responsibility, and insist that all your members do. True "accidents" are rare. "Negligence" is far more common in human endeavours. Recognize this.
The use of common sense, reinforced by mandatory protocols, will prevent fatal and other life-changing mistakes from happening. But only if all the members are committed to doing so. Hold each other accountable.

My Final Word

This tragic event, which should never have happened, has already set off a firestorm of discussion which has been hopelessly confused by basic misunderstandings of basic concepts and language. Perhaps it is an opportunity to provide some permanent clarity. As a start I would suggest banning use of the term "prop gun" to describe a functioning firearm, particularly if it causes complacency. Complacency is the true enemy of safety. 

Speaking a common, accurate language is vital to safe work and play spaces. The film Conspiracy has a character that professes his belief that words can be very deceptive:

"(Practicing law) has made me distrustful of language.

A gun means what it says."

Regardless, I would add, of whether you call it a prop or not.

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