What You Need to Know Before Putting Weapons in Your Film

How to handle weapons safely on film and TV sets
'Rambo: First Blood Part II'Credit: Tri-Star Pictures
It's important to keep everyone safe on set when weapons are involved, which is why weapons masters as vital to the film industry. 

Who said your indie movie has to be a quiet and understated character study? If blood, guts, and glory is more your style, then go for it. Do keep in mind that if you’re going to use weapons in your story, then you better plan on hiring a weapons master to keep your cast and crew safe. 

We work in a place of movie magic. In that world, weapons are often used to tell action-packed stories from the sword-wielding medieval period to modern-day gun violence.

Weapons are still dangerous, even if they are props. There is a right way to handle weapons and a wrong way. That is where a weapons master becomes essential to production. 

Let’s go over what a weapons master is, what they do, and how to keep a set safe while working with weapons on set. 

How to use weapons safely on film and TV sets
'Game of Thrones'Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

What Is a Weapons Master? 

Weapons masters in film and TV are a relatively new position in the industry. Until the 1980s, prop masters were responsible for weapons. In the last few decades, prop teams started bringing in specialists with deep knowledge of the use and history of weapons to oversee everything weapons-related. 

A weapons master, or armorer, is the person on film or TV sets who ensures the safety of the cast and crew when weapons are present and used. They often will read the script and build a list of weapons that make sense for the production's theme and era, all while helping the director safely achieve their vision.

Every time a weapon is used during production, the weapons master will be there on set to prep and hand the weapon to the actor or stuntman when directed. They should be the only ones to handle the prop between and after takes. 

The weapons master has to consider the practicality as well as character appropriateness during the process like a prop master. Weapons master Tommy Dunne, who worked on Game of Thrones, told LACS Life that he had to think about the characters when it came to designing the swords for the show.

“The Lannisters were rich, so their world is flamboyant, but you’re also then dealing with the likes of the Starks, who are homey and down to earth, grounded and traditional,” Dunne said. 

Why Are Weapons Masters Necessary?

It is almost silly to think that weapon masters are not necessary on set, yet producers often don’t think about weapon masters until it’s almost too late in pre-production.  

As most everyone knows, there have been a few tragic accidents on film sets, from the death of Brandon Lee on The Crow to the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on Rust. Weapons, whether they are props or real, are dangerous on set and should only be handled by a professional who knows and understands how to use weapons.  

Gerry Wright, a weapons master for film and TV, said to Film Independent that if you are going to do a film with weapons, then you should have a knowledgeable professional on set. This means making sure your budget allows for you to have that knowledgeable professional on set.  

Weapons masters will lead safety meetings to ensure that everyone on set is aware of the weapon's presence, how to act around the weapons, and how to use the weapon.

How to Become a Weapons Master

Weapons masters are highly skilled experts in their fields. There is no formal training path for a weapons master. Prior experience in security or military work is common, as is stunt work. While learning on set is a great way to develop skills and experience, you have to have a foundation first. 

To become a weapons master, internships and apprenticeships with Master Armorers are necessary. 

Working with Master Armorers will give you the exposure and experience you need with a wide variety of weapons, defensive armor, and equipment to properly serve on big productions and become a weapons master yourself. 

It’s also important to have a deep knowledge of weapons and the history of weapons. Many weapons masters are skilled in a specific weapon or genre. Find what type of weapon and history interests you the most, and learn as much as you can about it through extensive research. 

How to handle weapons safely on film and TV sets
'Django Unchained'Credit: The Weinstein Company

How Much Do Weapons Masters Make? 

It’s hard to nail down an actual salary of a weapons master since earnings are dependent on experience, location, and the size of the productions they work on. Weapons master Mike Tristano tells Backstage that “because there are so few [amorers] and having one set is a requirement for weapons being present, many can dictate their pay.” 

Based on budgets and union tiers, the wage of a weapons master can fluctuate from $200 per day to $500 per eight or 10-hour day. 

Weapons masters are often represented by IATSE, which means that they are union members who are guaranteed mandatory minimum payments on union productions.  

It’s All About Budget

Like I said before—if you are going to do a movie with weapons, make sure you hire a weapons master to be set to handle the weapons and keep everyone safe. 

Make sure to factor in the cost of a weapons master when you are in conversations with producers and figuring out the budget for the project. There are weapon masters out there who specialize in working with small-budget indie filmmakers, tailoring their service to meet the needs of the filmmakers. 

At the end of the day, the safety of your cast and crew should always come first. It’s worth it to have a professional to assist in bringing the project to life. 

How to handle weapons safely on film and TV sets
'Game of Thrones'Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

5 Key Factors to Keep in Mind When Working with Weapons

Finding a weapons master that works best for your production can be tricky, but there are a few things to keep in mind when interviewing weapons masters. 

These tips are also great to think about when working with any type of weapon on set. Being clear about the intent of the weapons in the story and what purpose they serve will help the weapons master understand why the story is using the weapon in the first place. 

Here are some key factors to think about when working with a weapons master and weapons on set: 

  • Will the project be using blanks or put everything in during post? Wright said, “Blanks change everything in terms of safety issues on set; there is a discharge of flame and smoke, and more things come into play.” This will allow the weapons master to judge what the project will require in terms of finding weapons and properly preparing what they need to do before stepping onto the set.
  • Make sure the weapons master is licensed. A weapons master should have the proper license and permits to operate. In California, the state requires that the weapons master hold an Entertainment Firearms Permit (EEP). Each state is different, so check the rules and regulations to make sure no laws are being broken. 
  • Check to see if the weapons master is knowledgeable about the weapons being portrayed in the project. Weapons differ across periods, and it’s important that the weapons master is knowledgeable about weapon history and how to use those specific types of weapons. 
  • Know how much experience the weapons master has. Working with an experienced weapons master will not only ensure that the cast and crew are in safe hands, but that the weapons master understands how a set works. Little things can turn into big problems, and it’s best to work with someone who can minimize those little issues to continue the flow and keep everyone happy and safe. 
  • Remember that every actor learns differently. Everyone learns skills at a different pace than others, and the weapons master might have to change their teaching approach to help the actor learn. Weapons masters should figure out what style of training works best for each actor.

Advice for Weapon Safety in Film and TV

Real guns are no longer needed on film production sets. Visual effects are better than they have ever been, and CG guns can be created to replace props used in scenes. However, productions will still use real guns on set. So let's cover some necessary tips that every cast and crew member should know so they can safely work with weapons on a film or TV set.  

Even though there is a professional on set to help keep a safe environment, cast and crew members should be trained in gun safety in advance. Guns, even if they are prop guns, should never be pointed directly at anyone, especially in rehearsals and during the actual filming.

Camera trickery can be used to compensate for the angles. If pointing a gun at someone is necessary for a scene, use plexiglass to protect the camera operator and surrounding crew members.  

Live ammunition should never be on set.

Even if a gun is loaded with blanks, it is important to remember that blanks are not toys and can cause some serious damage. They involve gunpowder and paper wadding or wax, which is what provides a flame and spark that look good on camera.  

David Brown, a Canadian movie firearms safety coordinator, wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 2019, “Blanks help contribute to the authenticity of a scene in ways that cannot be achieved in any other manner. If the cinematographer is there to paint a story with light and framing, firearms experts are there to enhance a story with drama and excitement.”  

How to work with weapons safely on film and TV sets
'No Country for Old Men'Credit: Miramax Films

Remember that blanks are still dangerous if they are prepared incorrectly, and they can burn the actor's hand. This is why it is important to work with an experienced weapons master who will not make these mistakes and will keep the product safe.  

Accidents with weapons are rare on set, but that is because productions take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe. Becoming a weapons master isn’t an easy task, but they are necessary for productions to ensure that weapons are being handled with safety and consideration.  

If you are a weapons master or are training to become one, what tips or advice do you have for people who are wanting to break in? Give us your wisdom in the comments below!     

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