How can prop guns be deadly? What to know after fatal shooting on Alec Baldwin movie set

Mike Stunson
The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
Filmmaker Halyna Hutchins attends the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Official Kickoff Party Hosted By SundanceTV during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at SundanceTV HQ on Jan. 19, 2018 in Park City, Utah. (Sonia Recchia/Getty Images/TNS)

The Alec Baldwin-involved fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set has reignited talk of prop gun safety, while the film world mourns the death of the 42-year-old cinematographer.

Hutchins, who was killed Thursday when Baldwin discharged a prop gun on the set of “Rust,” is not the first person to die from a stand-in firearm. Others, including the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, were also killed in prop gun accidents.

No charges have been filed following the shooting on the “Rust” set. Joel Souza, the film’s director, was also injured in the incident.

More:Hollywood ‘in shock’ after Alec Baldwin fatally shoots director of photography with prop firearm

More:Hollywood ‘in shock’ after Alec Baldwin fatally shoots director of photography with prop firearm

What are prop guns?

The term prop gun refers to guns used for entertainment purposes. Some are fake guns that only produce smoke, while others are real guns used as props, The Wrap reported. The gun Baldwin was handling contained blanks, according to NBC News.

When real guns are used as props, they are usually loaded with blank cartridges instead of bullets, The Independent reported. In blanks, metal bullets are replaced with wadded up paper or cotton, which are typically not harmful when shot, Gizmodo said in a 2013 article.

A distraught Alec Baldwin lingers in the parking lot outside the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office in Santa Fe, N.M., after he was questioned about a shooting on the set of the film "Rust" on the outskirts of Santa Fe, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza, officials said. (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP)

A blank contains the same parts as a bullet, but without the projectile at the tip.

“Theoretically, when you pull the trigger, you’ll get the bang, recoil, muzzle flash and an ejected shell, without the deadly supersonic bullet ending whatever you pointed the gun at,” The Wrap reported.

Firing blanks is not without some danger, however. The explosion of gunpowder and hot gas from a prop gun “can seriously injure someone” if a person is too close to the shooter, Dave Brown said in a 2019 article in the American Cinematographer.

To create the illusion of a real gun being fired, prop gun blanks often have more gunpowder than that of regular bullets, according to Gizmodo.

Safety using prop guns

A 2014 case report by Turkish researchers says pressure at the tip of blanks “may provide the energy necessary for penetrating the skin, and thus may lead to life-threatening injuries, especially when fired at a close range.”

It’s why movie crews use extreme caution when handling prop guns. The guns are supplied to the crew by an armorer and strict protocols are in place when they are used, Australian filmmakers wrote in The Conversation.

This aerial video image provided by KOAT 7 News, shows Santa Fe County Sheriff's Officers responding to the scene of a fatal accidental shooting at a Bonanza Creek, Ranch movie set near Santa Fe, N.M. Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. Authorities say a woman has been killed and a man injured Thursday after they were shot by a prop firearm at a movie set outside Santa Fe. The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office says a 42-year-old woman was airlifted to a hospital, where she died, while a 42-year-old man was getting emergency care at another hospital. (KOAT 7 News via AP)

“Everything on set around a gun must be treated with an abundance of caution.,” the filmmakers said. “The weapon with the blank was never fired at anyone, all cast and crew are briefed multiple times about safety. The police are always notified, as are any neighbors adjacent to the filming location.”

Typically, prop guns are fired “slightly to the side of another actor” to avoid the person in front of the gun being injured, Brown said. Safe distancing for crew members is also vital when handling prop guns, the cinematographer said.

“Black-ish” actor Liz Jenkins said safety protocols on shows she was in involving guns “were so intense they ALMOST seemed excessive.” She added, “There has to be a better way.”

Reaction to Hutchins’ death

The fatal shooting of Hutchins led to increased talk Thursday night and Friday morning of the use of prop guns and whether they should be allowed on sets.

Actor Joe Manganiello, who starred in “Archenemy” in which Hutchins was a part of the crew, said Wednesday he was “in shock” over her death.

“I can’t believe this could happen in this day and age... gunfire from a pop gun that could kill a family member?” he said. “What a horrible tragedy.”

Rachel Morrison, the director of photographer on “Black Panther,” questioned why blanks are still used “when it costs like 50 cents to add gunfire in post (production).”

“Crew should never be unsafe on set and when they are there is always a clearly definable reason why,” said actor and director Alex Winter.

James Gunn, director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Suicide Squad,” added that his “greatest fear is that someone will be fatally hurt on one” of his sets.

History of gun deaths on film sets

Hutchins’ death reminded some of the 1993 fatal shooting of Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of Bruce Lee.

He was killed when “a small explosive charge used to simulate gunfire went off inside a grocery bag during filming” of the movie “The Crow,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

An autopsy report later revealed he was struck in his spine by a .44-caliber bullet, the Los Angeles Times reported. Crew members ran out of fake bullets and improperly manufactured their own with live ammunition, a lawsuit alleged.

“No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period,” said Sharon Lee, who operates a Twitter page on behalf of her brother, Brandon Lee.

In 1984, Jon-Erik Hexum was killed by the force of a blank projectile when he fired a gun on the set of the CBS series “Cover Up,” Entertainment Weekly reported.

“The actor... had been napping during delays in filming. After learning there would be still more delays, Hexum held the gun to his head, reportedly joking, ”Can you believe this crap?” and pulled the trigger,” according to Entertainment Weekly.