Hollywood And Firearms: What the Movie Industry Gets Wrong About Guns

Oh, where to begin??? Hollywood gets a lot of things wrong about a lot of things. But weapons? That’s a special category in and of itself, and they manage to butcher it with a flair. Grab some popcorn, because we’re going to check out some weapons on the big screen.

Exaggerated Power!

We’ve all seen actors blown backward 15 feet after being shot with Hollywood weapons. They fly precariously through the air in their death throes, sometimes careening through a plate glass window or other obstacles, arms and legs akimbo.

I hate to burst the bubble here, but simple physics will not allow this. You see, for the recipient to fly backward, or even be knocked backward at all, the shooter would also suffer the same effects. Most of us have heard that there is an “equal and opposite reaction” in physics. Specifically, Newton’s Law.

A person’s reaction to being hit by a projectile(s) might drop that person, or they could lose their balance and stumble backward. But they will not fly backward if shot by any standard shoulder-fired weapon. Perhaps if hit by something like a recoilless rifle, they might fly backward. But that’s an artillery piece.

Not long ago, I had the unique opportunity to speak with Zack Ward, who played Scut Farkus (the bully) in “A Christmas Story.” We were chewing the fat about some of his roles in various movies throughout his career. He’s an extremely down-to-earth, fun fellow to talk with.

Jim Davis with Zack Ward.
Zack Ward bullying the author at a meet and greet. It was fun discussing the Hollywood tricks used to exaggerate the effects of firearms. (Photo: author’s collection)

He was telling me about one of his characters being shot (I think with a shotgun, if my memory serves me). He explained how they arranged for him to fly backward when being shot. “They hook you up with this harness, it goes across your chest and even around your groin. Then there’s a line that’s attached on your back and there’s several guys who pull back hard on the line, which causes you to fly through the air.”

I had heard about this arrangement before but had never talked with anyone who had experienced and used it. Zack continued, “They told me to tuck my chin straight down to my chest when they pulled and I flew backward. Well, I had my head bent to one side. It gave me a case of whiplash, and I walked around on the set for a couple days with my neck killing me!”

Lack of Recoil

Directly on the flip side of exaggerated power is the utter lack of recoil. Heroes firing full-auto with no muzzle rise is commonplace. One that comes to mind is the hand-held minigun wielded by Jesse Ventura in “Predator.” I acknowledge that Jesse was a big boy in that film, but let’s face it, at 6,000 rounds per minute (that’s 100 rounds per second), that 7.62mm weapon would have flown out of his hands in real life.

Jesse Ventura with a minigun. how Hollywood gets guns wrong
Jesse Ventura is a strong fella. But he’s not THAT strong! The actual recoil of a real minigun would make it unmanageable in such a role. (Photo: Quora)

Other times, people can be seen unleashing a 30-round burst (or 150 rounds, depending on the fantasy) from an M-16 or other automatic rifle while experiencing no muzzle rise.

Limitless Magazine Capacity

Not only do magazines seem to have unlimited ammunition, but also the cylinders on many revolvers. Weapons just continue to fire forever, it seems, in the world of Hollywood.

Sometimes for fun, I’ll count the number of rounds fired by handguns. Especially “6-shot” revolvers that happen to fire nine, 10, and 13 rounds. Or when I see a 7-shot 1911 that seems to be firing from a 30-round magazine. And yet the shooter never needs to reload.

Then there are the submachine guns and assault rifles firing full auto. Sure, when they fire a couple of bursts, it’s normal. Then a few more. Before I know it, I’m telling myself, “Hey, that guy should have reloaded about five bursts ago.”

Hannibal Smith of the A-Team.
Hannibal Smith with the ever-present stainless factory folder Ruger Mini-14 that never ran out of bullets. And, no bad guys were ever hit, either. (Photo: GunDigest.com)

On the other hand, some things they don’t fire in bursts, but rather long periods where the trigger is mashed down and flames spew from the muzzle for several seconds at a time. Yet we see nary a magazine change!

I’m still trying to find a weapon that appears to have a standard magazine, and yet fires over a hundred rounds without having to perform a magazine change. Evidently, those in Hollywood have special connections that I could not even hope for. Then again, that’s why they get paid the big bucks.

Massive Muzzle Blast

Brilliant muzzle flashes seem to be the order of the day in Hollywood weapons. Blanks that cause these bright muzzle flashes are often used to make the weapons appear to be more dazzling and deadly. Frequently, automatic weapons exhibit these exaggerated muzzle flashes that often reach out a couple of feet and are bright enough to light up a room.

The bank robbery gun battle in “Heat” is a good example of wicked muzzle flashes. However, I’m not going to pick on that movie too much because there was some realistic gunplay involved. The director hired a former SAS trooper to train the actors, and he did a good job. We actually see (gasp) magazine changes happening during that firefight, which is a rarity! In fact, Val Kilmer performs a righteous mag change while maintaining fire in two directions.

Aside from that, the actors are actually shown providing mutual support and taking turns bounding while the other covers their advance by firing while verbally communicating with each other. They functioned as a team. Again, these are aspects almost never seen in movies, and this accuracy is something that delights me when I watch it.

Robert DeNiro lays down fire in Heat.
Although there were some exaggerations (massive muzzle blast in daylight), the movie, Heat got a lot of details correct thanks to the director, who brought in a professional trainer. The actors shot, moved, and communicated like a real team. Photo courtesy of Empire.

Although this article is about what Hollywood gets wrong, I have to jump in and give props to another movie. “Blackhawk Down” gets the weapon handling right. The actors were put through a training course by professionals, and it shows on film in a believable manner. The horrible weapon-handling skills of the Somalis also shine through in a believable manner.

Okay, back to whining about the lack of realism in other films…

Wrong Military Weapons

I was watching the old series, “Combat,” with Vic Morrow this past weekend, and it had a German machinegun crew firing an American M2 .50 caliber machine gun. A few weeks ago in an episode, they used an American tank with German markings.

That’s the curse of being a history buff and a stickler for details.

Another example of a gross mistake is in “Battle of the Bulge” with Robert Mitchum and Henry Fonda. An American bazooka team is trying to knock out “German” tanks that happen to be American tanks that were re-purposed. Granted, tanks aren’t necessarily firearms, per se, but they are weapons.

American "German" tanks.
American tanks with German markings. Apparently, they went with what they had at the moment. (Photo: The Ace Black Movie Blog)

Incorrect details such as these can give sticklers apoplexy! Doesn’t Hollywood understand this? And yet here they are, playing with our emotions. Is nothing sacred?

Ammo is Heavy — In Real Life

If you’ve ever donned a chest rig or other ammunition vest, you realize that magazines full of ammo are heavy. An average AK-47 magazine weighs just under two pounds. One from an AR-15/M16 weighs right around a pound.

Many chest rigs can carry a half dozen AK mags, so just the magazines weigh around 24 pounds, not counting the rest of the gear stuffed into pouches. My AR chest rigs can carry eight or nine magazines, so it weighs around nine pounds just with the magazines.

Throw in support gear, water, grenades, etc. and we’re talking some serious weight. For a SAW gunner or GPMG machine gunner, that belted ammo weighs a ton because they’re carrying several hundred rounds!

And yet the actors jump around, light on their feet as if all that gear weighs nothing. Another Hollywood fallacy.

Full Auto Is Overused

Most soldiers and SWAT guys do not exclusively use fully automatic fire, instead opting for more accurate and ammo-conserving semi-automatic. For CQB, I was taught to engage with semi-auto using various methods, but the most prevalent was to put a couple rounds center mass into the target.

Not in the movies. They spray rounds from one end of the screen to another, causing all the bad guys to be hit and fall down. Never mind that this would overheat weapons and they’d eventually begin to malfunction. Not to mention the ammo supply would be gone in about two minutes.

Hip Shooting

What’s cooler than full auto? Why, full auto from the hip, of course!

Can it be done? Yes, in real life. If the target is a few yards away. And if you’ve practiced. However, in the movies, our hero will mow down 17 baddies who are 75 yards away, on full auto, from the hip.

Schwarzenneger hip-firing full auto - how Hollywood gets guns wrong
Here’s Arnold, rocking and rolling with a Valmet .308 rifle. Why bother using the sights when you can spray an endless supply of bullets from the hip? (Photo: Espinof)

Hey, I guess they practice more than I do. The movie that comes to mind with this is “Commando,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Back in the ’80s, I loved that movie! I’ll still watch it once in a blue moon if I’m flipping through the channels and it’s on. For some reason, it’s just a fun movie to watch. But the realism is just about a level zero with it, as the hero mows down legions of enemy soldiers while firing from the hip.

Trigger Clicks

Many modern firearms have a feature that locks the slide back after the magazine has run dry (if the magazine ever does happen to run dry). As a result, when the weapon is empty and the trigger is pulled, we would not hear a “click.” Except in Hollywood. Sometimes it’s not just one click, but several. We see it happen with M-16s, Glocks, and all manner of weapons.

It’s okay in something like a double-action revolver because it will click as many times as the trigger is pulled. But for most semi-autos that are dry, it’s a major faux pas.

In Conclusion

Well, there you have it, some of the pet peeves of how Hollywood gets guns wrong. I certainly did not cover them all, though.

Which brings me to my next question: What did I miss? What peeves you about weapons details in Hollywood? Let’s hear your comments!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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