Alec Baldwin shooting: How movie prop guns work, and how they can still fire life-threatening shots

Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’s tragic death on set of ‘Rust’ has led to questions over use of firearms on film sets

Maanya Sachdeva
Wednesday 27 October 2021 17:59 BST
Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun fatally wounding film’s cinematographer
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Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of the film Rust, after a prop gun was fired by Alec Baldwin.

The actor was filming the forthcoming Western at Bonanza Creek Ranch, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, when the tragedy occurred.

Rust’s director, Joel Souza, was also injured in the incident, and has now left hospital after receiving emergency care.

In a statement dated 21 October, the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Hutchins succumbed to her injuries at the University of New Mexico hospital.

The incident has triggered widespread debate on the use of firearms on film sets and whether they should be permanently replaced with rubber and airsoft guns instead.

Prop guns include both real guns as well as toy guns or defunct weapons. The former are typically used to add an element of authenticity to close-up shots, as pointed out by firearms expert Cameron Brown in an article for American Cinematography magazine.

These are usually loaded with blanks or blank cartridges, not bullets. A cartridge is essentially one unit of ammunition that is fed into the barrel of a gun and is made up of four basic components — the casing or shell that holds the other components together, propellant material or gunpowder placed inside the shell, a primer or an explosive compound that ignites the gun powder, and finally the bullet or projectile that is fired from the barrel.

When the gun’s firing pin hits the primer and ignites the gunpowder, it causes an explosion of extremely hot gasses that sends the bullet flying out of the barrel. The shell is then ejected and falls to the floor.

A blank cartridge contains all the components except for the projectile. Instead, the tip is sealed with things like paper wadding or wax.

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However, prop guns loaded with blank cartridges can still cause significant damage to any one within shooting range. This is because firing a blank still causes the explosion of gases, recoil, muzzle flash, and an ejected casing.

Additionally, the paper or wax stuffing can also potentially be fatally dangerous — like in the case of actor Jon-Erik Hexum.

While filming a CBS show in 1984, Hexum loaded a prop gun with a blank round and spun the cylinder actor, as though he was playing a game of Russian roulette, and put it to his head. When he pulled the trigger, the blank’s wad at the tip of the cartridge hit his head and, while it didn’t penetrate through, the impact fractured his skull.

He died six days later.

After news of the shooting broke, #BrandonLee began trending on Twitter. Users recalled that action superstar Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon died in 1993 after he was shot by a prop gun firing blanks on the set of the movie The Crow.

In Lee’s case, the gun was improperly loaded. A cartridge with the projectile tip had become stuck and when the blank round was fired, it pushed the live round out. He died at the age of 28.

The circumstances surrounding Ms Hutchins’s death, however, remain unclear at this time. Police confirmed an investigation is “open and active.”

On Wednesday, 27 October, Sheriff Adan Mendoza held the first press conference on the case and said his office has not ruled out the possibility of multiple charges in the shooting - including for the actor himself.

“The investigation will continue, and if the sheriff’s office determines during our investigation a crime has occurred and probable cause exists, an arrest or arrests will be made and charges will be filed,” he said.

Asked about the possibility that Baldwin will face charges, Mr Mendoza said: “No one has been ruled out” and noted: “He was the person who fired the weapon.”

The sheriff said about 500 rounds of ammunition have been collected from the set, including the projectile which passed through Ms Hutchins before striking Mr Souza in the shoulder.

“I won’t comment further on how they got there,” Mr Mendoza said of the ammunition. “This investigation is active, so I won’t comment on how they got there, but we suspect that they are there. That will be determined when testing is done by the crime lab in reference to whether or not they are officially live rounds or not.”

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