Armory exhibit explores history of guns in film

Date: 4/23/2015

SPRINGFIELD – That pistol brandished by our hero, that rifle used to defend the good guys – are they historically accurate in our favorite action film?  A new exhibit at the Springfield Armory Museum will begin to answer if the guns used in the movies are authentic or even real.

The exhibit opens on April 18 and there will be a reception for it on April 25 at 6 p.m.

Gavin Gardner, chief of Resources and Maintenance and Alex Mackenzie, curator, explained how a gun manufactured at the Armory became a standard for adaptation to meet the needs of the movie.

A trapdoor rifle that was a military workhorse until the start of the 20th century was available in large and cheap quantities once it had been replaced. Prop masters for movies altered them by cutting and painting and adding decorative details for movies, the two men explained.

On many of the altered weapons the Armory’s engraved image was still visible.

They showed an altered trapdoor that was used in the classic 1939 movie “Gunga Din.” The stock has been altered, as well as a fake firing mechanism added. The extra who used the gun, Gene Kearney, scratched his name on the wooden stock.

They then showed the same trapdoor rifle now substantially changed for the movie 1951 film “Distant Drums.” Starring Gary Cooper, the film depicts conflicts between white settlers and the Seminole in Florida. The gun has an exotic look to it and was probably used by a background extra.

Mackenzie said the prop houses would take the guns back and use them again and again. The completely unauthentic looking gun used in “Distant Drums” may have been originally altered for a film set in the Middle East, he said.

The display will also feature a gun used in John Wayne’s 1960 production of “The Alamo.” It is a Kentucky Rifle once more using the late 19th century trapdoor rifle as its base. Seen next to a real Kentucky Rifle it’s easy to spot the prop version. The intricate detailing on stock of the real Kentucky Rifle is a giveaway to the fact it is the real thing.

Some guns seen in films are not even made of wood and metal. A .44 caliberThe Outlaw Josey Wales Colt Walker revolver from 1847 is clearly the inspiration for a plastic and rubber version used in the 1976 Clint Eastwood film “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” There are substantial differences, not the least of which is the weight. The prop weighs a matter of ounces, while the real revolver almost takes two hands to hoist. Mackenzie added the real revolver probably wasn’t even carried in a holster.

Mackenzie noted the actual gun, which is from the museum’s collection, has a real Western pedigree, though. It was made for Texas Ranger Capt. Samuel Walker.

Other weapons on display will be a Krag-Jorgenson Rifle, the kind used in the film “The Wind and the Lion” (1975), a rifle from 1903 that was depicted in “Sgt. York” (1941) and a 1903 A3 Rifle that was seen in “The Wild Bunch" (1969).

Gardner said the museum was seeking ways to increase attendance and draw people to it who may not be interested in the history of guns. He noted that when speaking with the staff of the National Rifle Association Museum they had had great success with an exhibit about guns in the movies.

Mackenzie said more contemporary filmmakers seem to be willing to be more authentic about weaponry.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot better,” he said and noted that “Saving Private Ryan,” for instance, used weapons that were right for the conflict the film presented.

The weapon that was causing the most excitement between Gardner and Mackenzie was one that for which they were still waiting: the M-1 rifle used by Roy Scheider in the conclusion of “Jaws.”

The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 30.