A short history of handguns from 145,991 B.C. to 2260 A.D.

“All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”

Luc Besson

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Leslie Neilson and friends in Forbidden Planet (1956)

Movies and guns, they just seem to go together. Sometimes brilliantly, sometimes hilariously badly. And it’s even better when movie props designers provide us with a vision of handguns of the future (or even the distant past, sort of). Because these often look a lot like the handguns of the present, with random bits of hardware bits stuck on. While most visual elements of movies set in the future seem to get the sort of attention normally associated with brain surgery, handguns are often rather neglected. We get plausibly futuristic costumes, vehicles and cityscapes but law enforcement and military personnel from the future often seem to be stuck with anachronistic handguns.

So, here’s a look at some movie and television visions of the handguns we’ll be using in a few years. They’re presented chronologically, in the order of the dates in which the various movies are set. Not a comprehensive list of sci-fi movies featuring handguns by any means – just a run through some of the more notable ones from the last forty years or so. Not including Forbidden Planet (pictured above) – I just liked the picture. And the futuristic wooden ladder from the 23rd Century. Incidentally some of the details below contain spoilers, especially for Battlestar Galactica.

Where air or airsoft replicas of these pistols exist, I have provided brief details, but I haven’t included details of the many non-shooting replicas which are available.

145,991 B.C.

Battlestar Galactica (TV series, 2004 – 2009)

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The Gun: Colonial Warrior Handgun. OK, so now I have ruined the re-booted Battlestar Galactica TV series for anyone who hasn’t seen it and therefore doesn’t know that it is actually set in the distant past. Sorry. But really, you need to keep up…

Anyway, in Series 1 in 2004, the standard sidearm of colonial forces was the Warrior, an electronically fired, magnetic-assisted .36 magnum calibre handgun which fired a 170 grain, steel-cored bullet at close to 1400fps. Due to concerns about the stopping power of the .36 round, the Warrior also featured a single-shot, under-barrel 10mm rocket launcher as back-up.

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The Prop: The basis for this gun is a Smith & Wesson 686 revolver, with a small rocket launcher and other bits and pieces added to make it look a bit different. Not a bad looking pistol, though some folk claimed that it was a bit similar to the LAPD pistol used in Blade Runner. During filming it had to be completely dismantled each time it was re-loaded with blanks, so it was discarded in favour of a new pistol based on the FN Five-Seven in Series 2.

Replicas: Off World Manufacturing Co. (really!) made a 6mm, Super Charge Blaster, which is described as a replica of a weapon “used in a popular science fiction TV Series“. OK, we get it. This appears to be a gas powered, mainly plastic revolver with removable shells, but I don’t think it’s still in production and I have never actually seen one. I don’t know how you load the shells either.

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Picture from: http://www.airsoftgi.com/product_info.php?products_id=5576

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

SWHanBThe Gun: BlasTech Industries DL-44 heavy Blaster pistol. Sidearm of Han Solo, the DL-44 is an particle weapon which fires a pulsed bolt of energy. The DL-44 includes some nice features such as a vibration in the grip when there is only enough power left to fire five more shots and a capacitor which allows this relatively small pistol to fire with extreme power.

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The Prop: Based on a Mauser C-96, with additions including several parts from the Revell “Visible V-8 Engine” model kit (for example, the semi-circular bits stuck on the left of the magazine housing are piston halves from that kit) and an M19 azimuth telescope. But still, this is just so cool… Or at least it seemed that way back in 1977.

Replicas: I don’t know of any replicas of the DL-44, but there are a number of 4.5mm and 6mm Mauser C-96 (or M712) replicas around from Marushin, KJW and Umarex. All you need is to find a suitable old Revell model kit, and you can make your own. The picture below shows a fan-made conversion of a Marushin C-96.

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2019

Blade Runner (1982)

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The Gun: M2019 PKD Detective Special.  Unlike most movie guns, very little is known about the LAPD pistol used by Rik Deckard and his fellow Blade-Runners. Even the name was invented by fans after the movie appeared, standing for Pflager-Katsumata series D Blaster, or PK-D (PKD also being, not entirely un-coincidentally the initials of the author of the story on which Blade Runner is based, Philip K. Dick). However, it appears that in just five years, the LAPD will have switched to some form of energy weapon which is capable of firing at least four shots without reloading. The function of the LEDs and double trigger isn’t known. Beyond looking cool of course. When asked for more information about the pistol in an interview, Harrison Ford famously sighed and answered “Fuck, it’s just a movie…“.

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The Prop: The PK-D was constructed by combining the grip and parts of the frame of a Charter Arms .44 Special Police Bulldog revolver with the receiver and trigger from a Steyr Mannlicher .222 Model SL rifle and adding some LED lights. A great looking pistol even if it’s not readily apparent how it would actually work.

Replicas: A company called HWS produced a gas powered, 6mm “snub-nose” version of the M2019 for a while which even included working LEDs. I have never seen one, and these appear to be rarer than a very rare thing. Looks very nice, but it’s crying out for some wood grips.

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2028

Robocop (1987)

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The Gun: Auto 9 pistol. By 2028, it seems that Law enforcement personnel will have reverted to more conventional handguns. The Auto 9 pistol features an extended compensator, semi, full auto and three-round burst modes and has a handy 50 round magazine. It’s also capable of firing a range of different ammunition types including armour-piercing, flechette, high-explosive and even non-lethal rounds which incapacitate rather than kill (though how different types of round are selected from a single magazine isn’t explained).

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The Prop: It’s just a Beretta 93R with an extended fore end and compensator, a large magazine and an oversize rear sight. Not a huge amount of imagination here, though it looks interesting. It must have been difficult to twirl something this big round before re-holstering!

Replicas: KSC used to make a gas blowback 6mm version of the Auto 9. With full and semi-auto modes, a 38 round magazine and a length of almost fifteen inches, this was a large and hefty replica. It’s also a good visual replica of the movie prop, but it has been out of production for many years now. If you find one, grab it.

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2154

Avatar (2009)

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The Gun: SN-9 WASP Revolver. The SN-9 revolver fires up to six 9mm hypervelocity rounds and includes a gyroscopically stabilised aiming system. It includes mounts for a light and an optical sight with infra-red and movement sensing capabilities. It has no hammer tang, so can only be fired in double action. Unusually for a revolver, it is a select fire weapon with two-round burst mode in addition to semi-auto.

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The Prop: This is based on a Ruger GP100 .357 Magnum revolver with additional alloy housings used as a barrel shroud and mounted above and below the barrel to represent the sight and flashlight. Yet another revolver from the future. Sigh.

Replicas: None known.

2179

Aliens (1986)

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The gun: H&K VP70 pistol. The polymer framed Heckler and Koch VP70 pistol was a pretty futuristic design when it was released in 1970, but who would have guessed that it would still be in use over 200 years later as the principal sidearm of the Colonial Marines? Mind you, the selection process used by the Colonial Marines for the adoption of new weapons must be almost as complex as that operated by the US Army, given that background information for the movie suggests that they have only recently adopted this pistol in 2179.

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The prop: This is just a standard Heckler & Koch VP70. No modifications, no nothing. Which is either a testament to how futuristic it looked in 1986 or a guide to how little effort the props guys put into this one. Or perhaps they had just spent too much time and effort designing the very wonderful M41A Pulse Rifle?

Replicas: LS Works and UHC produced 6mm, gas blowback replicas of the VP70. Both are pretty decent visual replicas (and the UHC version includes a detachable stock) but neither are particularly great shooters and I’m not certain if either is still in production.

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LS Works VP70

2260

Star Trek: The Original Series (1966 – 1969)

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The Gun: Hand Phaser. By 2260, personnel of the United Federation of planets will be using a directed energy weapon. The Phaser uses plasma, passed through a phaser emitter to produce a directed beam of Nadion particles. The beam can be widened or narrowed by the user and can be set to stun, kill or disintegrate living creatures though it can also be set to perform other useful tasks including cutting through inert material such as metal and rock.

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Not many people realise that in addition to “Stun” and “Disintegrate“, the Federation Phaser pistol also has a “Personal Grooming” setting which allows it to be used for the removal of excess nose-hair. Here, an understandably nervous Captain James T. Kirk is about to demonstrate the correct procedure…

The Prop: Now, that’s more like it! The Phaser doesn’t look anything like a conventional firearm, but it’s recognisably a hand-held weapon. And it still looks really cool! How come a television prop from the 1960s manages to do what so many bigger budget productions have failed to manage since?

Replicas: None known. Shame!

2517

Firefly (2002 – 2003)

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The Gun: Moses Brothers Self-Defense Engine Frontier Model B. Five hundred years on and handguns will have reverted to a more conventional look. The weapon carried by Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly was also his sidearm during the Unification war. It’s one of a series of handguns produced by Moses Brothers and functions both as a Gauss/Collgun energy weapon and a conventional semi-automatic firearm. It fires Gaus Quadload ammunition powered by a hefty battery inside the grip, but can be switched instantly to fire using a conventional hammer based cartridge system.

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The Prop: This is a Taurus Model 85 revolver almost completely covered in a brass casing which makes it look rather different. Despite looking a lot like a revolver, it is claimed to be a semi-auto pistol as well as an energy weapon. The appearance of this pistol deliberately references the Volcanic Repeating pistol used in the US Civil War, supporting the many echoes of the Wild West/Post Civil War America in the series.

Replicas: None known.

Conclusion

So, there you are, almost 150,000 years of handgun development and they’ll still end up looking a lot like elderly revolvers. Probably. Movies provide striking and memorable visions of the future, but when you look at the Hollywood and television vision of handguns of the future (or technically the past, but it’s still basically the future, OK?), the most striking thing is the lack of imagination displayed. Most prop handguns are recognisably existing guns with bits and pieces stuck on to make them look “futuristic“. Han Solo’s iconic blaster pistol may look cool, but it’s still just a Mauser C96 with some bits of an old Revel kit stuck on it. The LAPD pistol in Blade Runner is parts of a rifle and a pistol joined together with no thought as to how it might actually work. The pistol in Aliens is simply an H&K VP70 with no effort to make it look different at all. And how many other movies set in the future have you seen where Glocks, 1911s and versions of the Beretta 92/93 are the main handguns used?

Does this really matter other than to gun nerds? I’d suggest that it does. If you are trying to depict the future, the artefacts and hardware are an intrinsic part of the way in which characters behave and interact. Of all the movie handguns here, only the Phaser from Star Trek and perhaps the WASP revolver from Avatar try to represent something genuinely different. The Phaser doesn’t resemble any existing firearm and with its ability to be used in a non-lethal mode, reflects nicely the ethos of the Federation. The very lethal caseless sabot ammunition proposed in Avatar suggests that someone actually thought about how weapons might have changed in one hundred and forty years time (though I’m still not convinced about burst mode in a revolver). When you look at how handguns have changed even in the last forty years, it does seem likely that in one or two hundred years, pistols may look and function very differently indeed and that may affect how law enforcement and military personnel behave. So, come on guys, if you’re going to show us a handgun from the future, what about a bit of thought and originality?

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Related pages:

The five best gun movies

Replicas in movies and television

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