Fightin' Iron: Rent-A-Gun?

Creating and/or maintaining movie guns is a complex business, and some prop houses are virtual wizards of weaponry.

posted on March 20, 2023
movie guns

Whether it’s the AK from “Red Dawn,” the Beretta 92FS from “Die Hard” or even Han Solo’s DL-44 Heavy Blaster from “Star Wars,” prop houses maintain an impressive inventory of firearms for the motion-picture industry.

In the summer of 1988, I had just started a new job. Right in the middle of Hollywood, it was with a new and larger gun magazine than my former employer. But, it involved a move into a high-speed city rather than the laid-back environs of a beach town. Since I was getting ahead in a new profession, I was more than happy to tolerate the changes. The move meant new challenges, brand-new opportunities and many new people to meet. One of the most interesting was a guy who had great experience in the “gunzine wars,” as well as with guns in general. He’s still at it, and is still the best all-around “old-gun” guy you would ever want to meet: Garry James. As a long-time Hollywood resident, James was also familiar with the making of movies and particularly knowledgeable with the portrayal of guns in the movies.

I was really interested when he offered to take me along when he made a trip to a place where most of the movie guns lived. Hidden in a complex of scruffy-looking buildings in a suburb, there was a collection of several thousand guns. They existed for no other reason than to be filmed for realism’s sake in making a motion picture. As early as the 1920s, Southern California was the heart of the movie business. For just about all of that time, Stembridge Gun Rentals had been renting appropriate guns from its collection to moviemakers. I had a grand tour of the facilities and refrained from asking dumb questions like “How much would it cost for a week with this 1921 Thompson?”

Stembridge may have been renting guns since the ’20s, but only to those bearing the most impeccable of credentials. There were thousands of guns—including many, many machine guns—in those safes and extreme security measures were ordered and practiced. The company offered a ready supply of guns to the industry, which did not have to maintain an armory of its own. Much of the collection was purchased at a time when the guns were much cheaper. Throughout the company’s long history, it kept detailed records, which led to many stories about which gun was used in what film.

An oft-repeated tale from Stembridge archives came from the industry practice of so-called “re-makes” of the same movie. Charlie Chaplin made a 1920s film in which he played a World War I French soldier. He was armed with a Stembridge-owned Lebel rifle. When they set about making a 1980 film starring Robert Downey Jr., the production company went back to Stembridge and checked out the same exact firearm. It had not been used in a long time.

While the gun-rental business was the reason the company was founded, it was not the only thing that kept the lights on. At the time of my visit, there were a number of technicians at work benches in one corner. They were loading ammunition—blank ammunition. On movie sets where different kinds of fight scenes are being filmed, it is not practical to use live ammunition. More often than not, Stembridge guns fired Stembridge blanks loaded to produce a certain amount of noise. This is a tricky procedure, since the audience who sees and hears the final product cannot tolerate the actual sound of a .30-caliber machine gun. Guys known as Foley artists dubbed toned-down machine-gun noises onto the soundtrack.

This brings up another problem that used to bedevil movie directors in search of realism. When a particular movie portrayed, say, the battle of the Little Big Horn, there was no problem using blanks in the Colt SAAs and Trapdoor Springfields. But, if you were trying to make the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre come to life (briefly) with a pair of Thompson submachine guns, the blanks won’t cycle the action. You have to use the art of “blanking” to make any automatic or semi-auto firearm function as normal with blank ammunition. Usually, this means constricting the bore of the gun enough that the pressure generated by the projectile-less cartridge cycles the action. Depending on the nature of the gun, this modification can be difficult to reverse.

Stembridge was in business to serve the needs of the motion-picture industry. From time to time, its gunsmiths built special one-of-kind guns for specific roles. This includes the Colt Official Police that was dummied up to look like a hand-made revolver for Bing Crosby in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and the C96 Mauser for Harrison Ford’s hero, Han Solo, in “Star Wars.” That is all fun to see and handle, but the one-of-a-kind pseudo-guns don’t hold as much interest as the same actual gun you saw in the hands of your favorite star.

At the Stembridge facility on that long-ago day, I handled Paladin’s SAA revolver and the over-and-under derringer that went behind his belt buckle. They even let me turn the crank on the same Gatling that John Wayne used in “Rooster Cogburn.” Still, my favorite was the water-cooled 1917 Browning machine gun from the final scene of Sam Peckinpah’s film, “The Wild Bunch.”

Eventually, the assets were sold off. Other contractors began to provide the same services. How often do you see a motion picture where the actors are equipped with Lebel rifles? Is there room for another remake of “Sergeant York,” requiring an ’03 Springfield?   Will those famous Stembridge 1921 and 1928 Thompsons ever cough out another long burst that the Foley artists gentle down so folks can enjoy their popcorn?

Fun, yes—history even. But not fightin’ iron.


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