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M-41A ‘Aliens’ pulse rifle

A movie icon is born

“I’d like to introduce you to a close personal friend of mine. M-41A pulse-rifle. 10 millimeter, with over and under 30 millimeter…pump-action grenade launcher”.

So Corporal Hicks tells Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986). In reality, of course, that weapon doesn’t exist yet, and this prop ‘rifle’ disguises a .45 calibre M1 Thompson sub-machine gun with parts from a SPAS-12 shotgun.

Director James Cameron personally designed the M-41A and much of the military equipment in ‘Aliens’.  The job of realising this futuristic but realistic-looking military rifle was given to British armourer Simon Atherton.

Cameron chose a World War Two Thompson sub-machine gun as the basis for the rifle. The sleek MP5 sub-machine gun he originally wanted didn’t have an impressive enough muzzle flash. Added to the Thompson were parts of two shotguns, a heat-shield and pump grip from a SPAS-12. A custom housing made by a car body manufacturer was fitted over the top along with a few custom parts. The wonderfully dramatic ammunition counter was only fitted to a few guns. This is a heavy gun and so a number of lightweight solid ‘stunt’ guns were also made. This was no doubt a relief to the actors who had to carry it.

On the few examples with a working ‘grenade launcher’, a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun was concealed inside the other parts though our example doesn’t have this.

Green plastic metal gun

The sequels

After Aliens, all but one of the pulse rifles were disassembled. Our M-41A pulse rifle was was rebuilt and sprayed black when it re-appeared in Alien 3 (1992). The sequel called for two more pulse rifles to equip the Weyland-Yutani operatives who appear at the end of the movie. Prior to sale, it was resprayed a more recognisable colour. The original paint, which we believe is still there under the later coats, was more of a brown colour. It has sustained wear and tear over the years, but its ‘beat up’ appearance was how Cameron envisioned it. He asked for the props to be deliberately bashed up in order to look like real military service weapons. This suited his intended aesthetic, a sort of ‘Vietnam in space’, and the tale of military might defeated by the primal horror of the alien.

Detail of the rifle's pump action

A more detailed history

Listen to Jonathan Ferguson explain more of the history of this remarkable piece of film history in the following video.

In October 2019 the Pulse Rifle joined many of our other popular culture objects in our ‘Make: Believe’ display in the Self-defence gallery in the museum in Leeds. Here we were able to display genuine examples of the various guns used to create the M41A, so that you can see how it all comes together to create one of sci-fi’s most legendary weapons. We also acquired and displayed with the rifle an original cinema poster depicting Ripley with newt and her taped-together Pulse Rifle and flamethrower as seen in the climactic rescue scene at the end of the film.

As co-curator of the display and the person responsible for collecting the M41A back in 2015, it’s my personal favourite object; the perfect mix of prop design and firearms history, used by numerous iconic characters throughout one of my all-time favourite films. It’s also rare for a movie prop, as although it features so heavily, is meant to be a standard issue weapon ‘in-universe’, and filming always requires multiple examples – our Pulse Rifle is one of only seven known examples (not including resin stunt versions). For me, although we have two blasters from the Star Wars movies and every fan has their favourite, the Pulse Rifle will always be the ultimate in sci-fi weaponry.

Get a closer look at this piece of silver screen history on our Collections Online website where you can zoom in on the images.

Heritage Lottery FundThis object was acquired with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Royal Armouries ‘Collecting Cultures’ project.

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