A deadly shooting on a New Mexico film set involving actor Alec Baldwin has raised a number of questions about safety procedures during film production. For one film expert, the tragedy underscores the importance of training and oversight during sequences involving firearms.
“With the sets I work on, I work with very large crowds, up to 500 people,” Paul Biddiss, a former British Army paratrooper turned-military advisor, told Task & Purpose. “Weapons safety is always going to be paramount when you’re working with any sort of weapon.”
Baldwin, a producer and the star of the western film “Rust,” fired a prop gun while filming at Bonanza Creek Ranch, in Santa Fe County, around 1:50 p.m. on Thursday, killing Halyna Hutchins, 42, the film’s director of photography, and injuring director Joel Souza, 48.
“This investigation remains open and active,” the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement. “No charges have been filed in regard to this incident. Witnesses continue to be interviewed by detectives.”
The New York Times reported on Friday that the shooting took place during a scene that was either being actively filmed or was rehearsed.
Such incidents are rare in the film industry due to extensive safety protocols typically followed during film sequences involving firearms, and has resulted in a flurry of discussion about safety measures on set when firearms are used.
To get a better sense of those safety protocols, Task & Purpose spoke with Biddiss, who served 24 years in the British Army before segueing to a career as a military advisor in film and television. Biddiss has worked on numerous action, and firearms-heavy projects, from the World War I epic “1917” to the crime caper “Wrath of Man” and “Fury,” which followed a tank crew in World War II.
While some sets use prop weapons that don’t fire anything at all, many of the weapons used are actual firearms that have been modified to fire only blanks, Biddiss said. Blank ammunition has all the components of a normal round, except for the projectile, and the shell casing is crimped at the round’s tip.
But even though a weapon can only fire blanks, they can still be dangerous, and so film crews take extensive steps to ensure safety protocols are adhered to.
“Although they’re blanks, there are still bits and pieces that will come out — sparks and bits of dust that will fly out, and some pressure,” Bidess said. “A blank can actually do you a huge amount of damage. If it was pressed right up against your head, it could probably kill you.”
When filming with semi- and fully automatic weapons that are gas-operated, meaning the combustion gas from firing a round is what reloads the weapon, the barrel typically has a mechanism called a “restrictor.” Restrictors function similarly to the blank-firing adapters (BFAs) used in the military, except that the device is internal, rather than attached to the exterior of the muzzle.
“They have it down the barrel to conceal that there’s an actual restrictor,” said Biddiss. “That helps to recycle the rounds so you’ve got the automatic effect and the recoil and everything else.”
Devices like BFAs or restrictors do two things: they help prevent debris from escaping the barrel through the muzzle when a blank round is fired; and they help the weapon chamber another round by preventing the combustion gases from escaping the barrel.
But weapons that are not gas-operated, like revolvers, don’t require a restrictor to help chamber another round. Which means that there is no physical barrier between the blank round fired and whatever the weapon is pointed at.
“So there’s always more safety measures on those because you need to make sure that the barrels are completely cleared because they don’t need restrictors in them, because obviously you actually recock the weapon and reload another round in yourself,” Biddiss said.
In March 1993, actor Brandon Lee, son of renowned martial artist Bruce Lee, died in a firearms incident on the set of “The Crow.” During filming, a prop gun — a revolver — had been loaded with dummy rounds for a close-up shot. Dummy rounds have “the casing and it’s got the bullet inside, but it doesn’t have the gunpowder and the percussion cap has already been fired off, so there’s nothing inside that,” Biddiss said.
After filming the sequence that firearm was used again to fire blanks. But one one of the projectiles from the dummy rounds had come loose and gotten lodged in the chamber, Biddiss said.
“What they didn’t do, is they didn’t look at each prop round that came out of that weapon because one of the rounds was missing the actual lead bullet,” Biddiss said. “And that lead bullet, for whatever reason, had managed to wedge itself into the chamber of that weapon.”
When the trigger was pulled, the pressure from the blank propelled the projectile from the dummy round out of the weapon. “Effectively that was like a live round,” Biddiss said.
“The same can happen if, for whatever reason, an actor has just put the barrel into dirt and there’s a stone … and it only has to be a very small stone that’s managed to get into the barrel and it’s not been checked, or someone didn’t see it,” he continued. “Then he fires a blank: that little stone will act as a projectile.”
Film sets for major effects-driven features like war dramas can sometimes involve an army of extras. “Saving Private Ryan,” for example, required 1,000 extras for its opening D-Day landing sequence — in addition to the core cast of characters — all armed with rifles and charging across the camera’s view doing mock battle. If poorly executed, it could result in a chaotic and potentially dangerous situation, which is why many films follow a strict set of guidelines, Biddiss said.
“I train guys in the safe use of weapons and trigger discipline, muzzle discipline, never pointing the weapon in jest, always making sure they know the state of their weapon. All those things,” Biddiss said. “And I do that with actors, I do it with stunts, and that’s one of the processes.”
In many ways, preparing for a firefight on screen is similar to training on the range in the military: Weapons are carefully inspected to ensure the chamber is clear prior to being issued; rounds are allocated and counted; weapons handling and muzzle awareness are enforced; and weapons are cleared and inspected prior to being handed back in and cleaned.
It’s also become par for the course for war films, in particular, to put the cast through a very compressed version of boot camp, during which time they’re trained by the film’s military advisors on weapons handling.
In addition to military technical advisors, film crews typically have armorers on hand to oversee the production’s weapons and provide oversight during sequences that require the use of firearms.
According to Insider, the armorer for “Rust” was among the witnesses interviewed by police in their investigation into Thursday’s shooting on set at Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Prior to filming a scene that involves the use of blanks, the cast will typically do a dry rehearsal, during which time the film’s armorers will observe and make recommendations.
“The armorers are there to make sure that everything is safe: that people are a safe distance when firing a blank in close proximity to another person,” he said. “He’s like the range safety officer.”
“It’s a time consuming process and sometimes directors can [say] ‘oh Christ, come on, hurry up, hurry up,’ but I’ve always known armorers to turn around and go ‘I don’t really care about your time schedule, I need to make sure everything’s safe,’” he added.
Of Thursday’s shooting incident, Biddiss cautioned against speculation about what happened until the investigation is complete, saying that “If there’s lessons to be learned by everybody, then there’s lessons to be learned. I’d like to think that the whole industry, globally, will take those lessons on board.”
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