Since the earliest days of Hollywood, audiences have been fascinated with the portrayal of guns in movies. You can hardly find a classic action movie poster without the hero holding a gun. Trailers will have lots of choreographed gunplay, bright muzzle flashes, and over-the-top muzzle blast added by the sound editor.
Despite the typically poor gun handling skills by actors (fingers always on the trigger, pointing or gesturing at innocent people with their handguns, muzzling everyone), this is typically only noticed by people who actually own and shoot guns. And despite a seemingly never-ending supply of bad/incorrect/annoying gun mistakes in movies, it doesn’t really seem to impact the success or failure of the film at all. The majority of viewers are ignorant of how firearms actually work, and those who understand the mechanics are usually able to suspend their disbelief and just enjoy the movie.
However, sometimes it gets to the point that firearms enthusiasts, or any other viewers who appreciate a dose of realism in film portrayals of firearm use, will get so annoyed by the Hollywood gun errors that it can impact their viewing experience. Here are some of our top picks for annoying firearms mistakes in Hollywood movies.
In Hollywood movies, people typically only reload when it’s cinematically convenient to do so, or when there’s a pause in the action for the hero to say something cool or the villain to taunt the hero while reloading. The occurrences of this are too numerous to count, just like the infinitely replenished magazines these heroes ostensibly have in their guns.
Sometimes this is more intentional than it may seem. In the opening moments of the final shootout from Open Range, for example, Charley (Kevin Costner) fires at least 16 rapid-fire shots from his single-action Colt six-shot revolver without reloading. As he initiates the shootout, he fires at least four aimed shots, killing the gunslinger/hired assassin, wounding the villain Baxter, and then “fans” the revolver’s hammer with his off-hand and fires 11-12 additional shots (depending on how you interpret the audio) into another bad guy in about 5 seconds, without changing weapons or reloading. Costner admitted in an interview that he had always wanted to film a scene where he fans a six-gun and shoots far more than a realistic amount of shots, and that this scene was indeed very enjoyable to make. So it could be said that this intentional Hollywood gun mistake was an homage to the popular Westerns of the 1950s and 60s.
Whether you like it or find it annoying, it does detract from an otherwise fairly realistic movie as far as gunplay. But we guess cowboys will be cowboys.
2. Racking Pump Shotguns Repeatedly
This is the hallmark of a really bad action movie, made by ignorant people for ignorant people. For some reason directors think the action/sound of a pump shotgun being racked is extremely cool… and indeed it is. However, when the bad guy (or good guy, but usually a bad guy) keeps racking the pump action over and over (without firing) for emphasis or as a threat, a person who understands how shotguns work will wonder what the point is, other than to empty your shotgun of its relatively low ammunition capacity. An 8-year-old viewer might think “Cool!” but the rest of us just roll our eyes.
3. Guns Clicking Repeatedly When Empty
This one is extremely common, even in movies that are otherwise pretty accurate in their portrayal of firearms use. You can probably imagine more than one scene where a hero or heroine is shooting a semi-automatic handgun and the slide locks to the rear as the magazine runs empty, but the actor keeps pulling the trigger trying to fire the gun and it goes “Click! Click! Clickety-click!” like in the final showdown from Baby Driver, in which the clicks are edited to be in time with the music on the soundtrack (language warning).
There are of course almost zero semi-auto handguns that make much noise at all if you press the trigger with the slide locked back, but that doesn’t stop the director and foley editor from having their way. It’s as if they feel the audience is too dumb to realize the gun is empty if the slide locks to the rear, the actor attempts to fire, fails, and then looks at the gun in dismay.
4. Accurate Hipfire
This is common enough in 1980s-era action flicks that some people in the gun community refer to it as “1980s hipfire.” Hipfire is when you fire a long gun (usually a submachine gun or machine gun) from the hip, Rambo style. This is almost never done in a real-life tactical situation. While a good guy might be portrayed as being quite accurate shooting from the hip, generally bad guys just “spray and pray,” which is actually a more accurate portrayal of full-auto fire from the hip. Some people can get quite good at it with a lot of practice, but the average person would not be able to hit much of anything using hipfire.
5. RPGs That You Can See And Hear Flying
In movies, even highly regarded movies like Clear and Present Danger and Black Hawk Down, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) inevitably make a whooshing sound, and fly like a bottle rocket in slow motion. You can see them in flight during the battle, and someone will often scream “RPG!!” in time for everyone to get down before the RPG impacts. In reality, RPGs sound like a large gun or cannon going off when fired, and the projectiles fly at around 300 meters per second (~670 mph) which is very close to the speed of sound. This is faster than a bullet fired from a .45 ACP pistol, and you certainly can’t see those flying at you, nor have time to tell everyone to get down before they impact.
6. People Flying Backward When Shot
This is usually reserved for characters shot with shotguns, which have developed the reputation in Hollywood for nearly unbelievable power. When people are shot with a shotgun (or sometimes a .50 caliber rifle) in movies, they often fly several feet backward, maybe out of a window or doorway, across an alley, or through a wall. This is completely unrealistic, as anyone with a basic understanding of physics will understand (particularly Newton’s third law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). If a gun was powerful enough to blow a bad guy 5 feet backward, the person firing the shot would also be blown 5 feet backward at the same speed. Still, it looks cool.
7. Huge Fireballs/Muzzle Flashes
Movie armorers often use blanks with enhanced-flash powders, or propane guns that don’t actually function like real firearms, but simply make a big flash for the camera. This makes guns look “flashier” (pun intended), and it also helps the sound editor line up the sound of the shots with the exaggerated muzzle flashes.
In real life, most handguns, military-type rifles, and machine guns, particularly when fired during the daytime, don’t have any noticeable muzzle flash at all, and defensive ammunition is often loaded with low-flash gunpowder. Muzzle devices such as flash hiders are very effective at reducing or eliminating muzzle flash, and the suppressors commonly used by special forces are similarly effective at greatly reducing visible muzzle signature. Which brings us to our next Hollywood no-no.
8. The Impossibly Silent Silencer
In movies, silencers are so quiet that you can shoot a gun and the people in the next room won’t hear anything… and in laughable cases maybe even the person walking next to you through the subway. In real life, silencers or suppressors can reduce the extremely loud muzzle blast of rifles and handguns down to where it’s below OSHA’s 140 dB “hearing safe threshold,” but often not by much, and most manufacturers will recommend still wearing hearing protection if you’re shooting supersonic ammunition and/or shoot frequently. Some suppressed firearms shooting subsonic ammunition can be fairly quiet, but you can still certainly hear the shot as well as the impact of the bullet (if it hits anything solid).
9. Every Movie Gun Fires If It's Dropped
If someone drops a loaded gun in a movie, chances are, it’s going to go off. While there are some antique firearms that may have a better chance of firing when dropped in a certain way, modern firearms all have “drop safeties” incorporated into the design that makes it mechanically impossible for them to fire unless the trigger is pressed.
10. All Cover Is Bulletproof
If you dive behind a couch or an old-west watering trough in a movie, you can rest assured that you’re safe from any incoming bullets. The same with kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, drywall, furniture, and car doors and fenders. In a movie, you can only be shot if you poke your head out or the bad guy shoots under the car or La-Z-Boy. The reality is that rifles will pretty much go through anything short of the engine block of a car, and many handguns will also easily penetrate car bodywork, most common household objects, and certainly things like couches and recliners.
Best / most accurate gunplay in movies
So now that we’ve covered our top-ten list of the worst gun mistakes, it’s time for some kudos. There are some films that are known for being more accurate regarding gunplay than is typical in Hollywood, where the filmmakers strive for authenticity that holds up to professional scrutiny. Here are a few of the top movies for “accurate” firearm mechanics and handling.
Michael Mann is a stickler for authenticity, and he hires firearms advisors and makes his actors train extensively with weapons before shooting any scenes involving their use. Heat, particularly the bank robbery/shootout, is highly regarded for its realistic gunplay (super-flashy muzzles notwithstanding). Mann hired ex-SAS operatives to train the actors, and it shows. According to Business Insider, “Legend has it that Val Kilmer took to the training so well that the shot of him laying down fire in multiple directions and reloading his weapon (without the scene cutting) has been shown at Fort Bragg as a part of training for American Green Berets. Marines training at MCRD San Diego have also been shown this firefight from Heat as a depiction of how to effectively retreat under fire.”
John Wick (film series: 2014-ongoing)
Many of the muzzle flashes, gunshot sounds, and blood spattering of John Wick’s multiple rampages are added in post-production, but a lot of the mechanics of shooting, including reloading when necessary, was carefully choreographed by firearms trainers working with Keanu Reeves, who trained extremely hard with both real live firearms and movie guns until his movements and actions were second-nature. It pays off in the action sequences. A good example is the catacombs shootout sequence from John Wick: Chapter 2. He maintains muzzle awareness, reloads when necessary, transitions from his long guns to his handgun and back when appropriate, and generally tears it up in a spectacular, but ultimately believable fashion.
Clint Eastwood’s groundbreaking masterpiece “dark Western” is filled with accurate portrayals of firearm use, including William Munny’s deteriorating skill with a handgun as he ages. Will also has trouble hitting his target with a rifle during one scene, and characters express concern about running out of ammunition. There is a realistic misfire of a shotgun during the climactic scene, as well as people getting rattled, shooting too quickly, and missing their targets during the gunfight.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Jerry Bruckheimer isn’t known for super-realistic gunplay, but luckily on this project he was the producer, and Ridley Scott directed. In Black Hawk Down, soldiers handle their weapons like pros, shoot mostly in semi-auto mode (like real soldiers), are deafened by muzzle blast, and miss their targets if they don’t aim properly. There are lots of super-slow RPGs (see #5 above), but otherwise this movie gets it mostly right.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Peter Berg made his Lone Survivor actors train with specialists for weeks until they looked and acted like a SEAL team in their weapons handling and manipulations. They also fire their rifles in semi-automatic mode (like real soldiers), need to reload frequently, and eventually run out of ammunition. It’s a heartbreaking story and the realism is enhanced by the excellent firearms handling. There are some super-quiet suppressor shots and at least one trigger click when empty, but otherwise this is a pretty good film for gunfighting realism.
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