Did These Movies Use the Wrong Gun?

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The difference between a good and bad war movie can come down to the small details. While acting and story are as important as any other genre, in the case of historic war films the accuracy of equipment — especially the guns — can help make for a more convincing and more compelling experience for the viewer. Today viewers expect more, and in many cases, filmmakers can “fake it” to “make it” thanks to CGI when it comes to massive battle sequences. But the small details, like the firearms, can still stand out.

Some of these movies you’ve probably seen, others not. But, did they use the right guns in them? Images: IMFDB

However, over the years filmmakers have had to go with what was available. In some cases the firearms used were from the wrong era — a point previously explored on The Armory Life — but in other cases it was really a matter of what was available at the time.

Here is a round-up of some of the notable, and perhaps not so notable, stands-in for military small arms in movies.

Guns of the Axis

During the Second World War, a series of propaganda films were produced by the West, but it was virtually impossible for weapons from the Axis powers to be used at the time. As a result American and other firearms stood in. Sometimes little effort was made to “disguise” that fact — notably in the 1942 film Guadalcanal Diary, where an M1928 Thompson was crudely mounted on a tripod!

M1928 Thompson in Guadalcanal Diary
An American M1928 Thompson is mounted on an M1917 .30 Caliber tripod to represent a Japanese machine gun in the film Guadalcanal Diary. Image: IMFDB

The same film has the Imperial Japanese Army soldiers (IJA) armed with the airplane version of the Lewis Gun. Interestingly, the Imperial Japanese Navy Land Forces did use a licensed version of the Lewis Gun that was designated the Type 92. However, it had a much larger drum and was used on a flexible mount, but in this case it was a close stand-in.

Lewis Gun in Guadalcanal Diary
A Lewis Gun is mounted to another tripod in Guadalcanal Diary to stand in for a Japanese machine gun. Image: IMFDB

German-born director Fritz Lang, who is most famous for his science-fiction epic Metropolis, fled Nazi Germany and during World War II made the first film to chronicle Operation Anthropoid about the assassination of Reich’s Protector Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust. Made in 1943, just a year after Heydrich was killed in Prague, the film Hangmen Also Die! featured over-the-top characters, but the production went to reasonable lengths to make the German weapons look correct. This included Thompson submachine guns dressed up to resemble the MP40.

Thompson SMG stands in for an MP40 in Hangmen Also Die
The filmmakers in Hangmen Also Die attempted to make a Thompson submachine gun look like the German MP40. Image: IMFDB

At the time the of the film’s production, the American military had only engaged the Germans in North Africa, and it would be another year until the D-Day landings. However, it is worth noting that the Soviet Union produced a number of films — beginning with the 1942 release We Will Come Back (Sekretar raykoma) — which actually featured captured German equipment.

German MP40 in We Will Come Back film
While American films wouldn’t use real German MP40s until after the war, the Soviet film We Will Come Back featured the weapon in 1942. Image: IMFDB

Commie Guns in the Movies

During the Cold War it was actually impossible for western armorers, the person who supplies firearms used in movies and television, to obtain Soviet Bloc weapons. If you were to watch the 1968 film The Green Berets, you’d notice there isn’t a single AK-47 in the film — despite the fact that it was widely supplied to the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Vietcong.

AK-47 in Maksim Perepelitsa
The AK-47 made its big screen debut in the 1955 film Maksim Perepelitsa, a Russian comedy that was released a year before the world would see the weapon in the Budapest Uprising. Image: IMFDB

The AK-47 actually had its film debut in the 1955 Soviet-made comedy Maksim Perepelitsa, which tells the story a young man (the title character) who tells wild tales and later is drafted into the Red Army. It is notable in that the AK-47 appeared in the film a year before most Western observers saw it in use during Budapest Uprising. It wasn’t until 1977 that an AK-47 was seen in a western film when it appeared in the Israeli-made Operation Thunderbolt, and 1978 until Kirk Douglas became the first American actor to use an AK-47 on screen in the movie The Fury.

Kirk Douglas with an AK-47 in The Fury
Kirk Douglas has the distinction of being the first American actor to use an AK-47 in the 1978 film The Fury. Image: IMFDB

It has been reported that the armorers who supplied the AK-47s for such films as Operation Thunderbolt and The Fury, as well as Delta Force (1985)and Iron Eagle (1986) were based in Israel and used firearms captured in the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

That is why until the 1990’s real AK-47s were still seldom seen in many other American-made films. Even during the wave of Vietnam War films that came out in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, stand-ins were used — and those primarily consisted of the Chinese Norinco Type 56, which can be seen in The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Uncommon Valor (1982) and even the James Bond film Octopussy (1983).

AK-47s featured in Octopussy
In the James Bond film Octopussy, as Soviet AK-47s were unavailable these men were armed with the Chinese Norinco Type 56. Image: IMFDB

The 1984 film Red Dawn, which saw a Soviet invasion of the United States stopped by teenage Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Lea Thompson, was notable for attempting to depict Soviet equipment and small arms.

An Egyptian MISR standing in as an AK-47 in Red Dawn
In 1984’s Red Dawn, that is an Egyptian Maadi MISR commercially released semi-automatic — not an AK-47 or AKM. Image: IMFDB

Egyptian Maadi MISR commercially released rifles stand in for the AK-47 while a Valmet M78 was mocked up to resemble the Soviet RPK light machine gun. Impressively, the armorers also dressed up an M60 as a DShK heavy machine gun!

A Valmet RPK in Red Dawn
Jennifer Grey is seen firing a convincing look RPK in Red Dawn that is actually a dressed up Valmet M78. Image: IMFDB

More recently stand-in guns were used because of what was available and this is certainly true of the 2005 film Lord of War. While Nicholas Cage begins the film with a monologue on the merits of the AK-47, in a key scene set in the Ukraine his character looks over a stockpile of thousands of Kalashnikovs. However, the scene was filmed in the Czech Republic and the weapons are actually the similar looking Sa vz. 58 assault rifles. According to director Andrew Niccol, the guns were real and rented from a real arms dealer as it was reportedly cheaper to rent 3,000 real guns than to rent 3,000 blank converted props or to find non-firing versions.

Lord of War features the Czech Sa vz. 58
In the film Lord of War, when Nicholas Cage goes to buy thousands of AK-47s the actual weapons are the similar looking Czech-made Sa vz. 58. Image: IMFDB

Soviet Stand-Ins

Just as it can be difficult for western filmmakers to obtain Communist Bloc small arms, Soviet filmmakers faced a similar problem. Some efforts were made to mock-up firearms, but in other cases little was done to disguise what appears on screen.

The Green Wagon features a DP-27 as a Lewis Gun
Made in 1959, The Green Wagon was a Soviet epic about the Russian Civil War. A DP-27 was unconvincingly made to look like a Lewis Gun. Image: IMFDB

In the 1959 production The Green Wagon (Zelyonyy Furgon), a Soviet adventure movie set in 1920 in Odessa during the final years of the Russian Civil War, a Degtyaryov DP-27 (known as a DP-28 in the west) was quite crudely modified to resemble a Lewis Gun — a weapon that was supplied to the White Forces. While little was done other than to add a faux barrel shroud, it is still notable that the filmmakers took the effort to dress up the weapon. It is also worth noting that the American film Porkchop Hill, about the famous battle in the Korean War, was made same year and in that film a Lewis Gun was mocked up to resemble a DP-27!

Porkchop Hill features a Lewis Gun standing in for a DP-27
In 1959’s Porkchop Hill about the Korean War, a Lewis Gun was mocked up to look like the Soviet-designed DP-27. Image: IMFDB

In the four-part Soviet/East German/Polish production The Shield and the Sword (Shchit i mech), released in 1968, AKM assault rifles stood in for the German StG44 in a few scenes, even when real StG44s were also used. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to fill out the extras with a variety of small arms — and it takes an eagle eye to spot the AKM.

The Shield and the Sword shows AK-47s instead of StG44s
In the Soviet/East German/Polish production The Shield and the Sword, German soldiers can be seen armed with the AK-47 instead of the StG44. Image: IMFDB

The Soviet film I Serve at the Border (Ya sluzhu na granites) from 1974 features plenty of AKM assault rifles, but as it was set at a non-specified border outpost the main characters encounter “Western border guards” armed with M16A1s. As the Soviet filmmakers couldn’t obtain actual M16s, those in the film were visually modified StG44s.

I Serve at the Border movie features an StG44 mocked up as an M16
The Soviet film I Serve at the Border had World War II-era German StG44 assault rifles mocked up to look like the American M16. Image: IMFDB

Conclusion

Think you know your guns? Would you have caught all of these yourself when watching these movies? Today, trying to spot these stand-ins can allow the films to be viewed in a whole new way. Visit the forum link below to let us know your thoughts as well as any other “wrong” movie guns you might have spotted in your favorite movies.

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