Today, most Hollywood films use blank guns or non-firing replicas for safety. Even when using blanks, however, accidents, and even fatalities, have occurred. What must it have been like when live ammunition was common? Let's examine the history of blank ammo and live ammo in film and look into the accidents and deaths that have resulted from movie gun fights.

Fun fact: A patent for a blank cartridge specifically for movie production was issued to the Peters Cartridge Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1931.

Blank Ammo vs. Live Ammo

While blanks have been in existence as long as there have been cartridges, it was often easier, and more realistic, for movie companies to use real firearms with live ammunition. This was especially the case with semi-automatic and automatic weapons. To show proper cycling, recoil, and other elements of realism, it was commonplace to use live ammunition. Cost played a part, as well. In the early days, there were just a few providers of blank guns, and they each used proprietary blanks, making it difficult to mix and match types of firearms.

One firearm model in particular, the Government Model Colt 1911 .45, used cartridges that were too difficult to crimp for blanks, until recently. So, when early movies called for the 1911, it was either used with live ammunition, or another firearm was substituted. One such movie was Sergeant York, where instead of the .45 actually used in battle, the director had Gary Cooper, playing Alvin York, use a Lugar. In the 1940 movie, The Fighting 69th, a Model 1902 Colt was substituted for the 1911.

For Hollywood Westerns, it was the development of the “5-in-1” blank cartridge that simplified the use of blanks. This blank was designed to be used in three different revolvers and two different caliber rifles, without modification. This solved the logistical nightmare, reduced costs, and made safety on the set easier to maintain.

Since the 1980s, it has become the responsibility of the weapons master, also called the armorer or weapons coordinator, to keep weapons props under control before and after scenes are shot.

Blank Gun Fight Consequences

Surprisingly, some recorded deaths on film sets involve blank guns. Brandon Lee, while filming The Crow, was shot when a prop gun was not properly checked before being used in a scene. Unknown to anyone, a dummy cartridge was left lodged in the barrel of the gun from a previous scene. The .44 Magnum was loaded with blanks and was fired at Lee. The discharge from the blank propelled the lodged cartridge from the gun, striking Lee in the stomach. He died after six hours of surgery.

Another death was the result of improper handling of a blank gun prop. Jon-Erik Hexum was playing with the prop between scenes, placed it to his head, and fired. The wadding from the blank cartridge slammed into his skull, causing brain hemorrhaging. He was declared brain dead six days later.

In 2015, in a Wild West reenactment in Tombstone, AZ, an actor and a bystander were injured when live ammo was accidently used instead of blanks in a shoot-out.

Live Ammo Incidents

In 1920s and 1930s, the studios making James Cagney movies used live ammunition because blanks were too expensive at the time. After nearly being hit in 1932's Taxi, however, Cagney refused to be shot at with live ammo in any more of his films. In a later film, Angels with Dirty Faces, refusing to be filmed with live machine gun fire turned out to be live saving. When the shots were added afterwards, a ricochet struck where Cagney's head would have been in the scene.

Despite most movies using blanks for safety reasons today, several recent films have used live ammunition. A critically acclaimed Russian movie of 1985, Come and See, told the story of the Nazi invasion of modern-day Belarus. No trained actors were used, the uniforms were, for the most part, original World War II uniforms, and live ammunition was used for many scenes instead of blanks. The lead of the movie later said there were scenes where bullets were flying as close as four inches above his head.

Another modern day film that chose realism and live ammunition instead of blanks was the U.S. made 2012 movie, Act of Valor. The stars were real Navy SEALs and a number of scenes used live fire. The intent was to show an authentic depiction of SEALs in action. Because it was shot with Canon 5D IIs, relatively inexpensive compared to traditional film cameras, cameras could be strapped to vehicles being strafed with live ammo to get real action shots.

The dangers of amateurs using live ammo were illustrated during the filming of a Deadpool fan series. Having used a real gun in earlier scenes, it was thought the gun was unloaded. It wasn't, and one of the actors was accidently shot in the leg.