Movie Weapons Expert on ‘Rust’ Tragedy: On-Set Safety Must Be ‘Flawless’

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“You have to put in the time and the protocols,” Robb Hunter of Preferred Arms Theatrical Weapons says

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Questions continue to swirl around the horrific shooting accident that occurred Thursday on the New Mexico set of the Alec Baldwin Western “Rust,” when the film’s cinematographer, 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins, was killed and director Joel Souza seriously injured in an accidental shooting.

The prop gun was fired by Baldwin in an incident that is under investigation by local law enforcement. In this Q&A with TheWrap, Robb Hunter, fight director for Preferred Arms Theatrical Weapons company, said “gun wranglers” — professionally known as armorers — should always be on set to prevent the unthinkable and that weapons safety should never be compromised.

We’ve heard the phrases “prop guns” and “real guns” repeatedly in the past 24 hours. What’s the difference?

Prop guns and real guns are two very broad definitions we don’t typically use. A prop gun can’t fire anything, blanks or otherwise. These are broken down into dummy guns, which are just a gun-shaped object that is usually made out of one material, that you can drop, it’s kind of like a gun that you can use as a stunt piece, and the functional replicas, where are the action works, you can cock the gun, you can act like you are loading it,  loading but but you cannot fire anything.

Then we get into the theatrical blank guns, or the commercially available blank guns — those are made only to ever fire blanks. They actually can’t fit a cartridge that has a bullet. And they very often have blocked or partially blocked barrels. 

And then we get into what are called practicals, what people call “real” guns. Those used to be a lot more common on sets where there weren’t laws or protocols, back in the good old days, and those were often just guns that someone had, what we call a real gun – or a practical gun because you should treat all guns as if they are real – and they would use blanks. That’s less and less common because of the danger involved, for one thing, and then there’s kind of a subset of that which is a practical firearm that has been modified by a gunsmith. A licensed gunsmith can modify a practical gun so it won’t fire any type of projectile or any kind of cartridge that only fires blanks.

Robb Hunter/Courtesy Preferred Arms

We are also hearing the term “misfire” for what happened. What does that mean?

Misfires in guns onstage are relatively common, but usually it’s because you get a dud round that doesn’t go off. Guns don’t often go off and shoot by themselves, I don’t know where I stand on blaming it on the gun, but certainly that for all humans involved that’s the safest thing to say right now before we start blaming people for things. They are certainly not going to jump out and say that the director, the star, whoever, shot somebody. There is no responsible way to say that.

I would say something did come out of the gun, if that gun was pointed at another person, that should not have happened. I am a theatrical firearms instructor, we never point the gun, even if it’s a dummy gun that’s painted blue and can’t do anything. We just train people never to place the muzzle of the gun pointed in the direction where it can shoot someone.  That way when you do have a situation where something happens and something comes out of it, it won’t kill someone. A lot of times we forget that it not only means crew and bystanders, audience members for sure, there should be no direct line to that. It sounds like that might have been one safety that might have been overlooked.

Eventually in the scene, however, whatever type of gun is used, it gets pointed at the intended “victim”, right?

The way that should work is, if the gun is not in the shoot during the action, it should be in the hands of the gun wrangler, or the armorer, somebody should be holding onto that gun, ready to hand it to the actor at the last possible minute. And so the actor should be confident that the gun wrangler, the expert in charge, has handed them a weapon that will perform safely and as they were instructed. Nothing prevents an actor from messing up or from  breaking safety protocols, however.

On on our website, there’s a whole section where you can rent blank guns. But I always tell people If you can use a sound effect, if you can use a special effect, if you can use anything other than use a blank gun, use that…(if you must use a blank gun for desired effect) you have to put in the time and the protocols to make sure that the safety is flawless every time.

Brian Welk contributed to this report