Almost as soon as there were movies, there were Westerns. Usually listed as the first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery was a twelve-minute movie filmed in 1903. Its iconic last scene shows one of the robbers aiming his six-shooter directly at the camera and then repeatedly firing the gun directly into the face of the startled viewer. A similar scene was used to conclude Goodfellas, and Tombstone, and the last episode of Breaking Bad.
Actually, if you watch the ending (and the movie can be found on YouTube) you will notice that the actor tries—unsuccessfully—to fire his six-shooter seven times. Evidently, the movie industry had not yet perfected the movie gun that never needs reloading.
This was not the first Western subject ever filmed, however. Edison had already filmed blacksmiths, Sioux Indians, and both Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley firing their guns. Almost immediately, there were problems with movies and firearms.
Firearms manufactured exclusively for the motion picture industry did not yet exist. Today, there are non-firing replicas, rubber guns, guns that operate by burning propane, and futuristic devices so strange looking that the audience has to be told that they represent weapons. These replicas frequently cause their own problems. Rubber guns bounce when dropped, and there is at least one episode of the Netflix series Bloodlines where the villain pushes his gun so violently against the head of the hero that the barrel is clearly bent!
Unfortunately, if you know this, it changes your perception of the movies a little. In Die Hard, the Beretta Bruce Willis is using isn’t even remotely real. And there are no "lethal weapons" of any sort in Lethal Weapon. Strangest of all is that four-shot rocket launcher that Arnold Schwarzenegger uses in Commando: It’s actually a flamethrower from the Vietnam War. I’m at a complete loss to explain why the director felt the need to do that and can only guess that, maybe, he thought that anyone stupid enough to pay to see what may well be the worst movie ever made would be too stupid to know the difference between a flamethrower and a rocket launcher. (And for the record, I only saw it on cable. Leave me alone...I had major surgery!)
There is an oft-told (which means it is also probably apocryphal) story about the origin of the Star Trek phasers. The studio was highly sensitive to the possibility of violating industry standards (While endless numbers of villains could be shot, there could be no depiction of blood, or graphic gun violence on television during what was then called the "Family Hour"). Gene Roddenberry solved this problem by equipping his "space cowboys" with ray guns that simply made the victims vanish (or sometimes merely stunned them—the Star Trek equivalent of shooting the gun out of the villains' hands).
In the early days of filming westerns, the firearm supply problem was solved simply by using real guns. Although they were supposedly loaded with "safe" blanks, accidents were frequent. It is surprising how often people injure themselves with “harmless” blanks. A blank round is a cartridge that does not contain a projectile. It does, however, still contain gunpowder so that when fired, the blank’s powder is still ignited, there is still a loud report, the gunpowder still produces a bright flash, and depending on the type of powder used in the blank, it still produces a large cloud of smoke. The only thing that is missing is the projectile—the actual bullet.
This does not mean a blank cartridge is harmless by any stretch of the imagination. The explosive force of the gas exiting the barrel of the gun is still dangerous and potentially fatal. The most famous example of this was the death of Jon-Erik Hexum on the set of the CBS television show Cover Up. Between takes, Hexum playfully put the muzzle of a revolver to his head and said, “Let’s see if I get myself with this one.” He then pulled the trigger. The force of the fired blank drove a quarter-inch piece of his skull deep into his brain, killing him.
Years ago, I worked at a living history museum here in New Mexico. Annually, there would be a reenactment of a local Civil War battle, featuring people who were dressed in period costumes and who were also equipped with replica guns. And each year, I would refuse to be on the property while such foolishness was afoot. All one of the costumed soldiers would have had to do would have been to lean on his musket—muzzle down—and inadvertently pick up a stone, thus transforming a movie prop into a deadly weapon. For a variety of reasons, I absolutely refuse to be the last Texan killed in the Civil War.
If this sounds like a remote possibility to you, I would point out this is exactly how Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, died while filming The Crow. A prop pistol was loaded with a combination of non-firing cartridges and blanks. Somehow, the bullet from one of the non-firing cartridges became dislodged and stuck in the barrel. When one of the blanks was fired, the stuck bullet struck the actor in abdomen. Lee died of internal bleeding twelve hours later.
In more modern movies, the guns rarely actually fire any kind of missile. In some cases, the firearms are either carefully manufactured from plastic and rubber, or they are real guns that are so heavily modified that even experts have trouble recognizing the resultant firearm. On the television show Firefly, Malcolm Reynold's gun started out as a standard Taurus revolver that had enough plastic pieces glued to it that it looked more like something out of the American Civil War than a modern firearm.
This amount of modification is nothing compared to what was done to create the firearm Harrison Ford carried in Bladerunner. A Charter Arms revolver had the trigger assembly from a rifle attached to it, in order to create a pistol with one barrel, two triggers, and a bolt action. For visual impact, a half-dozen LED lights were also added, with the resulting conglomeration being called the "LAPD 2019 Blaster". If someone had ever actually tried to fire this weird collection of parts, I wouldn't want to be within a mile of it.
What a contrast to the early days of cowboy movies, when movie directors just grabbed a bewildering array of real, though aging, weapons—usually with little regard for the historical accuracy of the time of the weapon's manufacture. (In The Rifleman, although Lucas McCain was living in New Mexico in 1881, he somehow had acquired an 1892 Winchester .44-40!). While these old firearms were probably cheap to purchase, it was a nightmare both logistically and in terms of safety. Could a .45 Long Colt round be used safely in a .45-70 rifle? And how many different versions of blank rounds did you need on hand if you were using guns chambered for .44-40, .44 Special, and .44 Mag?
The answer was the creation of the 5-in-1 blank: a single blank round that could be safely used in .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Long Colt revolvers as well as .38-40 and .44-40 Winchester rifles. This eliminated a lot of confusion and made using these actual firearms safer for everyone on the set. There were still a few small problems, of course. The rounds were way too loud, and the recoil from the rounds was difficult for some actors to use.
The solution has been to manufacture the 5-in1 blanks with varying amounts of gunpowder. The rounds with only a quarter of the normal amount of gunpowder are normally used while shooting indoors or around horses. Later, in editing, the gun's report can be changed to make the sound more realistic. Blanks loaded with half the amount of gunpowder can be used safely outdoors and have very little recoil, while fully loaded blanks give a realistic—and painful—loud report and provide a realistic recoil. Another special version is manufactured with black powder instead of the more modern smokeless powder and is the version used by the director if he wants a large cloud of dense smoke.
On the set where they filmed the television series Wyatt Earp, the late Hugh O'Brian insisted on full loads for the sake of realism. Since just about the only other accurate thing on this show was the spelling of the lawman's name, in retrospect, it seems a trivial matter, especially when you consider that O'Brian went almost completely deaf after 6 seasons.
Note. This is something they never show in movies: If you go to the local gun range, after only a few rounds are fired, you'll notice that everyone is talking very loudly. This is because even with good ear protection, guns are extremely noisy and after even a single gunshot, your ears are ringing. And that's if you are firing outside. If you fire a gun indoors, or inside a car, I can guarantee you that thirty-seconds later you will not be having a quiet conversation with anyone.
Over the years, the 5-in-1 blank round was modified several times. First, the round was changed so it would not work in a .38-40, but despite the fact that the round would now only fit in 4 different firearms, the name was not changed. Then the casing was changed slightly so the round would fit in .44 Special and .44 Magnum pistols and rifles. Thus, by now, the usually plastic-cased round should be called the "Eight-in-One", but to this day, Hollywood continues to use the same old name for the sake of convenience.
So, if you are watching a Western tonight, and it was filmed any time after the actors started talking, you can ignore the rounds the cowboy has stuffed in his gun belt. No matter how macho and steely-eyed the hero is, his gun probably is filled with a plastic cartridge with only a small pinch of gunpowder.