The Greatest Guns That Never Were
December 31st, 2020
8 minute read
Lots of movies have realistic guns in them, but some — either because they want to or because the plot demands it — have to create guns that don’t exist. While we usually see this most often in the science fiction and fantasy genres, plenty of action movies have also included guns that don’t really exist, or ones with fantastical capabilities that only exist on the silver screen — for now. Here’s a round-up of some of the most memorable movie prop guns I’ve seen over the years.
Aliens Pulse Rifle and Smartgun
The USCMC M41A Pulse Rifle. This is one of the most famous fantasy guns from any movie ever, but like so many great prop guns, it’s actually a real firearm underneath, and actually a really old one, even when Aliens was released in 1986.
The M41A Pulse Rifle is carried by the United States Colonial Marine Corps as their standard-issue weapon. The movie gun is a rifle with a 99-round magazine that fires 10mm caseless armor-piercing ammunition with a pump-action 30mm grenade launcher mounted under the barrel.
Beneath the custom aluminum prop shell is, surprisingly, a WWII-era M1A1 Thompson submachine gun serving as the main gun. The “grenade launcher” is a chopped-down pump shotgun with the heat shield and foregrip of a Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun attached to it. But we all know the coolest part was the double-digit LED readout that provided a remaining ammo count.
There’s another gun in this movie that’s epically cool: the M56 Smartgun carried by two Marines, PFC Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Pvt. Drake (Mark Rolston), which serve as machine guns for the platoon. The heavy guns are meant to have assisted targeting technology that uses a targeting eyepiece that’s linked to the gun’s robotic harness.
The guns were built, again, from a WWII relic, in this case, a German MG42 machine gun with the grip and stock removed. The robotic harness is actually a Steadicam harness and arm with some bits and pieces attached and then attached to the MG42’s rear sight bracket with a custom clamp. The MG42 was dressed up for the role with motorcycle parts, including handlebars and a brake lever mounted in a clutch perch which were used for the gun’s new trigger. The eyepieces are simple props, but the whole idea was based on the FLIR eyepieces used by US AH64 Apache helicopter pilots.
Handheld Minigun from Predator, Scrooged, and T2
This beast of full-auto firepower was one of the most amazing guns to come out of action movies in the 1980s, and it helped make the classic move Predator even more memorable. Technically this was a real gun, but it could never have been used in the way depicted in the film. The gun, called Ol’ Painless by the team of commandos in Predator, is a heavily modified General Electric M134 Minigun in 7.62 NATO, a high volume, multi-barrel machine gun that is usually mounted to helicopters and planes. In the movie, Blain (Jesse Ventura) and Mac (Bill Duke) fire the gun from the hip.
Pieces were added to the gun to make it look like it could be used this way, like the handguard from an M60 machine gun so there was something for the actor to hold with their left hand, a upside down pistol grip with a prop trigger, and a custom y-frame with an M60-style carry handle. The gun feeds from an ammunition box attached to ALICE straps to create a backpack.
In reality, the recoil from this gun with full loads would drive an actor backwards through the jungle. Even with blanks and the rate of fire turned down from 6,000 RPM to 1,250 RPM, a large support frame had to be built for the actor to lean his back against and the gun could only be fired for a few seconds at a time. Plus, the M134 is electrically powered, so whenever it was fired on screen, there were a bunch of power cables running through the actor’s clothes and out of frame hooked up to big batteries and it was actually triggered by someone off-screen — but man it looked cool!
The same exact gun was later briefly used by Lee Majors, playing himself, in Scrooged. It was again used by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who never go to fire it in Predator, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, though some changes to the prop parts were made.
Han Solo’s Blaster
It’s one of the most iconic prop weapons in all of science fiction history, but underneath, it’s actually a real firearm. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) carries his signature blaster in all three of the original Star Wars movies (A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)) and the first movie in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015).
Officially known as the DL-44 blaster pistol, we see a young Han, played by Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), get the blaster from Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). We also learn that the DL-44 could be fitted with a stock and an extended barrel for use as a sniper rifle, which explains that seemingly vestigial WWI-era German 3X sniper scope mounted on it.
In real life, the guns for the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, were all WWI and WWII surplus European firearms, as the majority of the movie was shot in Europe and in the 1970s, surplus from the war was plentiful. The DL-44 started out as a Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” pistol. Filmmakers added a custom barrel sleeve, a scope mounted on the right side, and a muzzle device from an MG81 machine gun. Later versions of the blaster in other movies use the muzzle device from an M3 Grease Gun and from a fire extinguisher. Extra bits and pieces from model airplanes were also glued onto It to make it more sci-fi looking before getting a paint job.
EXTRA TRIVIA: The live-fire C96 used by Harrison Ford in New Hope was actually used on screen by Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967), in which it also had a scope.
Judge Dredd’s Lawgiver Pistol
In the comics, Judge Dredd, a lawman in a dystopian future Earth, along with the other Street Judges, carry the Lawgiver II pistol as their primary firearm. The gimmick behind the Lawgiver is that it can fire in a bunch of different modes, selected by voice commands.
In the first movie adaptation, Judge Dredd (1995), Sylvester Stallone plays the titular Judge, and the Lawgiver II is a 9mm handgun placed in a futuristic case outfitted with various lights and meters. In this movie, the different firing modes include rapid fire, armor piercing, grenade launcher, signal flare and a “double-whammy,” which fires two rounds simultaneously at separate targets. The gun also has a security feature that scans the user’s DNA, only allowing the Judge who owns it to use it. If anyone else picks it up, the gun electrocutes them — or something. They get all zappy and blue and die. It also tags each projectile it fires with the DNA signature of the user, something that becomes an important plot point.
In the second adaptation of the source material, Dredd (2012), the hero is played by Karl Urban. While the Lawgiver Mk. II has quite a different and more realistic look this time around, it retains the multiple firing modes and voice activation, but instead of simple light panels on the side, it includes a rather large digital display on the side of the gun that displays the firing mode, ammunition type and remaining ammunition. This time, the firing modes are rapid fire, armor piercing, incendiary rounds, stun, hot shot (superheated rounds that melt stuff), high explosive and silencer mode. The latter causes a built-in suppressor to deploy from the frame. Awesome.
Again, the guns are coded to an individual Judge’s DNA, but in this movie, if someone else tries to use the gun, it self-destructs instead of turning into a stun gun from hell.
Constantine’s Holy Shotgun
Constantine is one of the most criminally underrated comic book movies, and Keanu Reeves movies, perhaps of all time. Reeves plays John Constantine, a man who can see demons and knows everything there is to know about how the forces of darkness work here on Earth. Sometimes, things get intense, and the only recourse is a Holy Shotgun.
In the movie’s mythology, the big gun that John breaks out for the final act showdown is constructed of Holy Relics. It fires blessed gold rifled slugs and John mounts his “Dragon’s Breath” flamethrower beneath the barrel. It also features a rotary drum magazine that can be detached and swapped for a loaded one.
While it looks like it could be a rotary shotgun like the old school Armsel Striker 12 or the SWD StreetSweeper, it’s actually not built on any real guns. This one is a pure prop, but it’s a really cool one and a great way to dispatch pesky demons.
Ghostbusters’ Proton Pack
While this technically isn’t a “gun”, it’s something the good guys use to shoot danger rays at bad guys, so I say it counts.
In 1984, the world was introduced to a comedic foursome in New York City who made a business out of actually catching and incarcerating malicious ghosts — and the filmmakers figured out some really nifty scientific explanations for how they’re able to do that.
The Ghostbusters’ main tool is the Proton Pack. The business-end of the proton packs is the particle thrower, which is the handheld wand-looking blaster attached to the proton pack backpack. When I was a little kid, a regular old red backpack, an old rolling pin, a bit of rope, and a lot of tape served as my proton pack — and it was awesome.
The proton pack is actually a backpack-sized particle accelerator, just like the Large Hedron Collider, but miniaturized — which is why it has that circular part at the top. The thrower fires a stream of highly focused radially polarized protons to electrostatically trap the negatively charged energy of a ghost, essentially turning the proton stream into a lasso. When the stream is fired at things other than ghosts, it has a tendency to destroy them and set what remains on fire.
Like I said. Awesome.
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