WHAT'S NEW - Use of Weapons on Productions

Rust Weapons Accident

Last Thursday, after being told the Western-style revolver was “cold” – safe to fire – Rust actor and producer Alec Baldwin shot in the direction of his camera crew, killing director of photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injuring director Joel Souza, 48. This tragedy occurred during the filming of the forthcoming Western at Bonanza Creek Ranch, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Hutchins’ fatal shooting followed previous gun-related deaths and injuries on movie sets.

Actor Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, died in March 1993 after he was shot in the abdomen while filming a scene of “The Crow.” Lee was killed by a makeshift bullet that remained in a gun from a previous scene. The US safety regulator Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the production $84,000 for violations after the actor’s death, but the fine was later reduced to $55,000.

In 2005, OSHA fined Greystone Television and Films $650 after a crewmember was shot in the thigh, elbow and hand. It turned out that balloon-breaking birdshot rounds were in the same box as the blanks that were supposed to be used in rifles. 

In 1984, the actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette on the set of the television series “Cover Up”. Mr. Hexum, 26, had loaded three empty cartridges and two gunpowder-filled blanks into a high-powered handgun before firing the gun, according to a detective on the case.  Mr. Hexum sustained a fractured skull and underwent five hours of surgery. He died several days later. The police ruled the shooting an accident.

As the latest police investigation unfolds, much remains unknown about the Rust accident: if there was a live bullet in the gun, how did it get there? Why wasn't it discovered before Baldwin used the gun? And why was Baldwin not aiming it away from the crew? These questions apart, the incident has initiated a widespread debate on the use of firearms on film sets and television shows. 

So here is our reminder about how firearms are regulated and how they should be employed on productions.

When are weapons used on productions?

A variety of weapons such as firearms, replica weapons, deactivated weapons, knives, swords, crossbows, martial art weapons etc, are regularly used for filming purposes on productions.  When used, they are typically under the control of a competent armourer (or weapons master in the US), but productions can also come into contact with weapons when filming at gun clubs, shooting ranges, military bases etc – in these cases the weapons are used under strictly controlled conditions.  There may also be situations where productions such as news, current affairs, documentary type productions come into contact with weapons that are not in controlled situations.

What can go wrong and how?

As the Rust incident clearly illustrates, the most extreme type of hazard is being shot by accidental or non-accidental discharge. But there are also a raft of other common serious hazards associated with use of weapons such as, for example, blast injury caused by burning gases; unburned propellant; wadding and debris discharged from the barrel; flying objects – e.g. spent cartridge ejection can travel for several metres and can be hot; flying arrows; hearing impairment – noise from both blank and live rounds can be very high (often in excess of 100dB(A)), penetration/puncture wounds/cuts/abrasions from sharp weapons; bruises/concussion/fractures caused by moving parts of weapons; physical exertion; mis-perception by members of the public that a real life scenario is taking place resulting in armed police response if the filming had not been notified to the police; public distress/panic if weapons are seen in public locations; weapons may be lost or stolen; shock or trauma from causing or witnessing accidental injury to others and more besides.

What are the legal requirements and how are weapons on set regulated?

Outside the UK, the specific regulation varies depending on where the filming is taking place. For example in the US, many US states have different gun laws but leave it to the industry to follow the rules as set down by the studios and unions. 

In the UK, the use and possession of firearms, replicas and deactivated weapons in productions is covered by a number of pieces of legislation: firstly, the Firearms Acts (particularly FA 1968) - it is an offence for any person to have in their possession a firearm, shotgun or ammunition without holding a valid firearm or shotgun certificate or certificate of registration and complying with its terms and conditions. The Firearms Act 1968 (as amended) sets out strict terms and conditions that must be followed to allow actors who do not have a firearms certificate to hold and use firearms in rehearsal, performance or production. There is also the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 - Part 2 of the VCR Act amends firearms law to tackle the misuse of imitation firearms and air weapons. It also controls the acquisition of primers for metallic ammunition to help prevent criminal misuse, and contains measures relating to knives and other weapons. The Act increases penalties for some offences, for instance having an imitation firearm or knife in a public place without a reasonable excuse, and it creates new offences to tackle gun and knife crime, including using someone to mind a weapon. 

From a health and safety perspective, there are general requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974  and accompanying Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Essentially, these require a suitable and sufficient assessment to be carried out by employers (or self-employed people) to assess the risk to employees and others who may be affected by their activities, and determine the control measures necessary to avoid risk or reduce it to acceptable levels.

Who is responsible for the weapons on set?

Overall responsibility for health and safety rests with the employer, which normally means the production company. In the case of TV, it could also be the broadcaster. It is the producer who has overall control of the production and who must make sure that there are arrangements to coordinate safety; direct action sequences safely; exchange information with others including the person in control of the weapon (e.g. armourer/weapons master) and other contractors, premises managers, freelancers and the self-employed.  

The person in control of weapons in the production must be competent. The level of expertise required will depend on the weapon to be used and the circumstances. In the majority of cases, it is a weapons master or armorer who oversees all weapons that are used on a production. However it can also be a sword master, a fight director, stunt coordinator, props wrangler or stage manager.

What does this competent person need to do?

In practice, it can mean anything from selecting the correct items for a certain period in history, to taking care of the weapons on set and making sure they are being used safely and properly by actors and stunt people. It's a fairly new position in the history of film production, going back only to the 1980s. Before that, the prop master handled everything. Recently, it’s become more common to enlist specialists.

In the UK, the armourer is responsible for advising the production on the legal requirements of the relevant Firearms Acts and the safe use of weapons for the production. They should provide details of the hazards and risks of the weapon and how these will be controlled in a written risk assessment.  The armourer is also responsible for: 

  • the weapon - its security in transport, storage and use (e.g. in the case of Section 5 firearms the requirements are detailed in the Home Office Authority, which the armourer must have in their possession along with their Registered Firearms Dealers (RFD) certificate; 
  • the safe use of the weapon - they should provide an assessment of the risks and controls for the safe use of the weapons 
  • the competence of the people who will handle the weapon – e.g. ensuring training is provided to actors
  • safe areas and distances to be followed for the sequence so that no one is at risk from discharge
  • clear communication about the sequence and the safe arrangement of people and equipment – i.e. providing a briefing to all who may be affected
  • ensuring that the protective measures identified are fit for purpose and used - screens, protective clothing and ear defenders.

How does one becomes a weapons master or armourer?

There’s no formal path but it is common to have internships and apprenticeships or a background in stunt work, the military, police or security. In the US, weapons masters are required to abide by state and federal laws and hold proper operating permits. In the UK for example, someone holding licences or shotgun and firearm certificates does not qualify a person to be an armourer. The privileges of each licence will determine the limits on the firearm’s storage, transportation and use. The holders are only allowed to operate within their privileges of licence, e.g. at a shooting club or as part of an organised event. It is advised to speak to your First Option/ERM production consultant or our Advice Line to ascertain whether the ‘competent person’ is appropriate in your specific circumstances.

What do you need to safely use weapons on sets?

The type of controls that are needed to ensure safe use of the weapon and any ammunition being used will depend on when, where and how the sequence will be shot.  The following will focus on UK productions but the underlying principles will apply regardless of wherever you are planning to shoot. A full list of precautions and controls to employ are provided on our online A to Z resource which can be found here

What about News/Current Affairs/Documentary type productions?

Within these type of programmes it is possible to encounter firearms and other weapons in situations very different to those described above – they could be used maliciously against journalists/presenters/crew. The following guidance should be followed on these type of productions: 

  • Where there is a foreseeable risk of violence at the location e.g. riot, controversial door-step interviews, covert filming etc, senior manager sign off is required for any deployment.  Deployers must seek advice from First Option High Risk Team on the security measures to be taken.
  • If necessary, those deployed should be appropriately trained and experienced to handle such situations –  e.g. have completed a hostile environment course or similar
  • If caught unawares when a deadly weapon appears on location which could clearly present a threat to team members, staff must withdraw immediately by the quickest practical means, without stopping to collect any equipment or personal effects.  If withdrawing from the scene completely isn’t practical, take hard cover and hide. Deadly weapon includes any weapon capable of causing serious personal injury, including a firearm (even if it later turns out to be a replica), sword, machete, spear, petrol-bomb, etc. 
  • If the Police are present and preparing to respond to the threat, again, take cover or withdraw to a safe location immediately. Crowd dispersal or disarming techniques e.g. CS gas / water-cannon pose a significant risk of injury / ill-health. 
  • If the Police aren’t present, once in a safe location, summon them as quickly as possible without drawing attention to yourself.

Where can I read more information?

Links to forms/checklists/further guidance that may be applicable:

First Option A to Z – Weapons in Productions

First Option – Pre-vetted Armourers

First Option - Hostile Environments training

HSE Guidance - Management of firearms and weapons in film and TV productions ETIS 20

Home Office: Guide on Firearms Licensing Law

Metropolitan Police Film Unit Guidance - Using firearms and other weapons