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Guns in popular culture

In the world of arms and armour, the objects featured in contemporary popular culture are often underrepresented. Much of the public perception of arms and armour is coloured by the cultural mainstream, yet manyf museums have been slow to appreciate and preserve the wonderful things made for films, games and other media. For many, popular culture is the primary means of exposure to such objects and for museums, this area is key to developing a successful future events programme.

Captain Nemo’s Steampunk Submachine Guns

The movie firearms in the collection are all products of the famous Bapty & Co prop house who have been providing weapons, armour and other props for stage, film, television and music videos since 1919.

First up are two guns from the 2002 fantasy action film ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘, loosely based on the ground-breaking graphic novel series by Alan Moore. For the brilliant and infamous Captain Nemo, Bapty were tasked with creating a number of retro-futuristic ‘Steampunk’ sub-machine guns inspired by decorative styles of the Indian subcontinent. Like many of the other firearms featured in the movie, weapons of this type did not exist in the real world of 1899. The sub-machine gun did not appear in military use until 1918.

The resulting silver and white guns matched elements of Nemo’s Nautilus vessel and also his large 1930s-style touring car. In order to have functioning guns that would fire blanks for the cameras, British-designed Second World War Sten guns were dressed up after this fashion. The guns and magazines were substantially disguised with wood, plastic, and paint, and even the tubular metal stocks were altered to hide the real-world heritage of these wacky weapons. Our example (XII.11937) was made at Long Branch in Canada, but Chinese markings show that it was supplied to China during the Second World War to aid in the fight against Japan. Sometime later, it returned to the UK and may well have appeared in an earlier production in its wartime form, as houses like Bapty lend and re-use weapons regularly.

For Captain Nemo himself, a Russian Tokarev TT33 pistol (XII.11938) was similarly dressed up to match the other guns and disguise its Cold War heritage. The weapon’s slide was shrouded with a cylindrical moulding similar to that used on the sub-machine gun, and an unusual turret feature was affixed where the rear sight would normally be. The magazine was cosmetically extended to look like those on the Stens, and capped with a conical stud, inspired by the real-world ‘skull crushers’. This weapon was unique to Nemo, although, in common with other movie props, four examples were made in case of reliability problems or damage that might be sustained during filming. This does mean that the Royal Armouries is lucky to have one of only four guns made.

Whatever some may think of the movie itself, which had a famously troubled production (it was Sean Connery’s last) and met with a frosty reception from critics and fans, these guns are great examples of the propmaker’s art. They are also fully intact, live-firing movie guns that cannot be found in any other UK museum, and precious few overseas, since the vast majority of firearms used in film and TV are deactivated prior to sale. The Sten is complete with its threaded barrel restrictor used to generate sufficient internal pressure to operate the working parts of the gun. Without these adaptors most movie guns cannot function since there is no bullet to build up pressure. The pistol is also modified with a restrictor, and a further internal modification to allow it to operate normally on camera.

M41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle

For me as a firearms specialist, the star of our collection so far is the M41A ‘Pulse Rifle’ (XII.11846) from one of my favourite films, ‘Aliens‘ (1986), rebuilt and used in ‘Alien3‘ (1992). This was another Bapty-made piece, produced by Simon Atherton (who opened his own prop house called ‘Zorg Ltd‘ in 1997) to a design by ‘Aliens’ director James Cameron. You can read more about this piece in my other post: ‘Collecting Cultures: M-41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle’.

The pulse rifle has become one of the most iconic movie weapons of all time for its realistic, gritty ‘used and abused’ look. Together with the famous Blade Runner ‘blaster’ pistol and the Smart Gun also seen in Aliens, it showed that sci-fi guns did not have to shoot animated laser bolts and go ‘pew’. Given the pace of technological development in the field, it seems likely that if weapons are taken into space, they will resemble the Pulse Rifle more than the laser weapons of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Buck Rogers’. But that is probably a topic for a future post.

Get a closer look at these pieces of silver screen history and other Collecting Cultures objects on our Collections Online website where you can see images in deep zoom.

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