Filmmaking 101: Need Realistic Gun Props? Here’s How To Get Them

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

The ability to have a prop gun capable of realistic (but of course fake) firing, gives the actor the right ‘force feedback’ in order to have a convincing performance in a filmed gun fight. Where can get you a realistic prop gun that is both safe and looks legit on screen? One word… AIRSOFT. But is that the only option? Well it largely depends on the story you’re telling.

Before diving in, always remember, even with fake guns, SAFETY FIRST!

The cool thing about Airsoft guns is that they’re affordable and very realistic… the good ones are, anyway. According to their Rocketjump FilmSchool Thread on Airsoft guns as props, there are three kinds: Spring, CO2 and Electric.

Spring is the cheapest (around $20), but gets broken often. They’re good for extras, for props that you won’t be using for closeups.

There’s also Propane/CO2 and Electric cost up to $100, but ups the credibility factor with blowback. That’s where you see the slide of the gun move backwards like it was propelled from the bullet’s gas expulsion as it leaves the chamber. This also provides the necessary force feedback that the actor will be able to work with in order to provide a good performance. They’re also louder on the feedback, which can be good for sound cues.

Rifles can cost more. AEGs are the most realistic, in that they have good heft and offer the same force feedback. Look to spend about $200 for a good AEG rifle. But whatever gun you use, make sure swap out the more expensive guns you use for close ups, with a cheaper Airsoft gun for stunts so you don’t break them.

Airsoft guns are available just about anywhere, but eVike is a popular site for getting realistic airsoft guns, and they’re very supportive of the independent filmmaker. YouTuber Freddie Wong doesn’t do a gun fight on film without them. But eBay is also a good place to get a cheap airsoft gun. Just remember that the cheaper they are, the less abuse they can take.

Sometimes, though, you just can’t afford to buy Airsoft guns. Are you doomed? Not really. There are some pretty good toy guns out there, even some that simulate the blowback with springs for under $10. With those, you have to rely on your actor to sell the effect. But if they’re good, they can. But just remember, the cheaper they are, the more likely they’ll break. But with a good paint job, it can get your low budget project through on a dime.

When I look at these designs that Nerf comes up with it really makes me want to peel back the bright colors to see what it “should” have looked like. I use the paint and weathering to give the prop a history. It helps me to build a story to explain how the various wear happened. I think that adds to the sincerity of the piece. – Brian Johnson, Johnson Arms & Props

Image: Johnson Arms

But what if you’re making a Sci-Fi epic and airsoft guns aren’t going to fit? Well, the answer there is to modify Nerf guns! Seriously. I know a guy named Brian Johnson of Johnson Arms that has turned a toy hobby since he was a kid into a career. He modifies Nerf guns into everything from the battle rifles of Aliens to the the sniper rifles in Halo, and everything in between.

YouTube is filled with videos on how to modify Nerf and other toy guns to give them a science fiction like, realistic look. Then, you use CGI to fill in the laser or gun blasts. And a good tip is to brush your gun with some silver paint on the hard edges in order to make it look like it has some wear and tear. This also sells the effect that the toy or airsoft gun is actually well worn.

In fact, even if you use the Airsoft guns, doing some basic CGI work to get the muzzle flash coming out of your guns with smoke effects is going to be vital. The key is to create a realistic muzzle flare.

Freddie Wong suggests studying your favorite action movies on DVD frame by frame to judge how large the gun shot flares are and how the actors sell it with their performance. This will give you the data points you need to recreate a believable gun shot flare. But there are other details as well, including the glow that the muzzle flare will cast on the shooter’s face and hands, and also the smoke effects coming out of the barrel. So when it comes to creating a convincing gun shot effect, you really have to make sure it looks natural and realistic.

When it comes to muzzle flash, it’s all about the details

But the CGI muzzle flare is only half the battle. You also have to get some convincing gun sounds. The internet helps here as there are plenty of sound effects clips, many even for free, that you can download. Video CoPilot’s Action Essentials is also a good source, as is Film Riot‘s sound effects packages. And they’re on sale right now.

By law, airsoft and other replica or toy guns also come with a bright orange tip, so that they can’t be mistaken for real firearms. This is largely to help police identify them as such. It’s also why when you see toy firearms in the stores, they’re painted funky colors. The orange tips can be covered over with electrical tape. You can paint them, but then you run the risk of breaking the law. So try and covering them up and then shooting around that.

And the most important thing of all … notify the local law enforcement, and maybe even paper the neighborhood with notices about filming and using prop firearms so people understand what’s going on. Of course, you can’t guarantee that everyone will know you’re filming scenes with firearms, but if the police do get a call, at least they know ahead of time. But use your head and make sure everyone knows that you’re not using real guns. We at doddleNEWS have heard many stories over the years of police converging on a set and both cast and crew put in handcuffs (temporarily), even on private property, because someone saw what they thought were real guns.

So whether you use a $6 toy gun or a $300 Airsoft Rifle, or anything in between, always have one guy who’s your firearms wrangler. His job will be to control and manage your firearms props, making sure they are accounted for, well maintained, and in good working order, as well as taking your cast through how to shoot them. This has the added benefit of piece of mind, knowing that they will be there when you need them and work as they should.

Lastly, whatever you do. Do NOT use real guns. Remember the tragedy of Brandon Lee, who on the set of The Crow was killed with a real gun that had a real bullet stuck in the barrel that no one seemed to notice. A blank round was put in the gun, and ended up firing the real round (which was stuck in the barrel), and killed Lee.

Always consider guns, even airsoft guns, as real firearms. Respect them. SAFETY FIRST ALWAYS.

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.