A horrific tragedy occurred Thursday on the New Mexico set of the upcoming western, “Rust,” when the film’s cinematographer, 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins, was killed, and director Joel Souza gravely injured in an accidental shooting. A prop gun apparently malfunctioned when it was fired by star Alec Baldwin, an event that is still under investigation by local law enforcement.
As is often the case after such events, there’s a lot of confusion about what, exactly happened. If a gun was filled with blanks, how on earth could someone be killed? How can a “prop” gun be deadly. Was a crime committed?
We’ll attempt to answer those questions here. Of course, we must also stress that the details of the tragedy on the “Rust” set are far from complete and it will be days, if not weeks before, we know the full story.
First, it’s important to understand what the term “prop gun” means in this context. People tend to assume it refers to non-functional weapons of the sort used in theatrical performances, or toy guns that fire caps to produce smoke. And while it’s true that those are also prop guns, the term also applies to real guns that are used as props.
The reason a production would use a real gun is simple: Verisimilitude. As firearms instructor Dave Brown wrote for American Cinematographer magazine in 2019, real firearms add authenticity to close-up shots in particular. Anyone who’s ever held a gun can confirm that a real gun looks, weighs and handles different from an inert prop.
But, Brown noted, they also require experts on set to make sure they’re properly handled at all times. That’s because a gun is still a gun, regardless of what’s in it. And that brings us to how a gun loaded with blanks can kill someone.
The term “blank’ is a shorthand version of the full term, blank cartridge. Notice I said cartridge and not bullet. A cartridge is a unit of ammunition fed into the barrel of a gun comprised of several parts: The casing (sometimes called a shell); propellant material (gunpowder) inside the shell; a primer on the bottom of the cartridge; and at the tip of the cartridge, the actual projectile (bullet) itself. Here’s an example, courtesy of Hunter-Ed.com:
When you pull the trigger, the firing pin strikes the primer, igniting the gunpowder, causing an explosion of superhot gasses that propels the bullet out of the barrel. The shell casing is then expelled from the gun as a new cartridge is loaded into the chamber.
A blank is a cartridge that has all of that except for the projectile at the tip. Instead the tip is crimped or otherwise sealed with paper wadding or wax to hold in the gunpowder. Which means, 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.
But, remember when we mentioned muzzle flash and superheated gas? That is still very much being expelled from the gun. And bullet or no bullet, that means anything near the end of that barrel is in danger. In fact there’s a surprisingly realistic example of this in 2019’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.” During the standoff at the end, Jesse fires a gun from inside his coat pocket, and it causes his coat to catch on fire:
Just that alone would do serious damage to someone if they were close enough to the barrel.
But there’s also the wadding used to hold the gunpowder in place instead of the bullet. That gets expelled when you pull the trigger. And while it’s just paper or wax, if you’re close enough to it, it can do serious damage, such as what happened in the death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984.
Hexum was on the set of the CBS TV show “Cover Up,” and he got bored during a long delay in filming. As a joke, he loaded his revolver with a blank round, spun the cylinder as if he was playing Russian roulette, and put the gun to his head. He pulled the trigger, unaware that this was extremely dangerous, and the blank’s wad impacted his head. It wasn’t strong enough to penetrate his body, but the impact fractured his skull and sent bone fragments into his brain. He died 6 days later.
Tragedy can also strike if the prop gun is improperly loaded, which is what happened to Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in 1993. He was on the set of his film, “The Crow,” shooting a scene that made use of a prop gun that was mishandled. A cartridge with a projectile tip had unknowingly become stuck, and when a blank round was loaded and fired, it pushed the live round out, fatally wounding him. He died hours later, just 28 years old.
And of course, if someone makes the mistake of loading a live round, then the gun is now just a normal, deadly weapon.
As for the question of criminal responsibility, that’s for law enforcement to investigate, and it will definitely be some time before we know anything about the “Rust” tragedy. But it must be noted that in the vast majority of cases, the person who pulled the trigger wasn’t at fault. They were handed a prop and assured it would function normally — and it didn’t.
Mistakes don’t have to happen because of incompetence or malice. Even tiny miscalculations can result in a potentially dangerous situation. Which is why it’s important that productions have competent experts overseeing all aspects of firearms use on film and TV sets.