Prop guns refer to a variety of firearms used in cinema. So what exactly happened to cause a fatal shooting on the set of Rust last week?

On the 21st October, the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot when the actor Alec Baldwin discharged a prop gun on the set of the new Western film, Rust. Hollywood and the filmmaking industry has since been reeling. The director Joel Souza was also injured in the incident, but has been discharged from hospital after treatment.

There are often questions surrounding unexpected tragedies, but this incident has shaken the industry significantly. With so many safety measures in place regarding prop guns and firearms on film sets, how did this happen?

What Is a Prop Gun?

A prop gun could refer to a plastic toy gun, or it could refer to a live weapon that shoots blanks.

A real gun appears more authentic in films, which is often why they’re used. Blanks still give the sound and look of a bullet being fired, but instead no projectile is discharged from the weapon.

Fatal incidents with prop guns have occurred in the past. The events which took place in Santa Fe last week reminded people of the prop gun accident involving Brandon Lee. In 1993, whilst filming The Crow, a prop gun which had a dummy round in it was fired at Lee, which killed him.

What happened on the set of Rust is still being investigated. However, court submissions have shown that an assistant director, David Halls, handed Baldwin a gun containing a live round. Halls has stated he was unaware of this, announcing it as being unloaded by shouting, “cold gun!”

Are Prop Guns Safe?

With special effects and video editing so advanced, incidents such as these beg the question, “why are prop guns necessary?” Even with blanks, they have proven to be dangerous and life-threatening. Although incidents like this are rare, you would be forgiven for wondering just how safe using a prop gun is.

There are strict procedures and rules around using prop firearms, with lots of safety precautions in place and checks meticulously carried out. What seems clear, is that there was a considerable level of neglect on the set of Rust, enabling the incident to occur.

Dutch Merrick, an experienced prop master, has spoken on the incident. He explained that trained armourers teach the “three golden rules” of handling prop guns.

“You always treat a gun as if it’s loaded. You never point a gun at another person, and you always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re absolutely ready to fire. In a scene like happened in New Mexico, I can’t speak to all of it until the investigation comes through. But what’s evident is that a gun was pointed at a person and the trigger was pulled. And there was somehow a live round involved in the filming, which should never happen.”

Merrick also detailed how live ammunition should never make its way onto a trailer, let alone an active film set. Ordinarily, if a gun is fired towards a camera, there would be a minimised number of crew behind the camera. Anyone in the line of fire would be wearing protective gear like goggles and masks, as well as being stood behind a perspex screen.

This is perhaps why this case of two people being hurt, one fatally, in the same shooting is so baffling.