Prop Gun
Shutterstock / Dzm1try

Many martial artists have been following the incident, investigation, and the ongoing ugly litigation of the tragic Rust movie set shooting that resulted in one death and one injury by the hand of actor Alec Baldwin on at 1:51 p.m. on October 22, 2021. The reason for paying close attention to this incident is that many martial arts schools around the world include firearms training in their curriculum, something I recommended to Black Belt Magazine readers going back to 1999, at various levels: non-firing replicas (such as rubber, plastic, or wooden training guns for take-aways), paintball guns and airsoft guns for realistic scenarios, and real firearms on a live-fire gun range for self-defense. However, along with the use of any firearm for self-defense training, be non-firing ones or the real thing, comes specific safety protocols that must be followed, or else you can end up being the next "Rust story."

Before I give you the debriefing on the “Rust” tragedy, which will serve as a case study for you on how to avoid making similar mistakes, if firearms of any kind are part of your self-defense training, I'll first provide you with my firearms background, which will qualify me to address this issue. This is important because it will serve as a model as to what kind of background an armorer in the movie industry should have, and yet was apparently lacking with the low budget ($6-7 million) production of “Rust.”

I am currently a National Rifle Association (NRA) pistol instructor and chief range safety officer (RSO), meaning that I can teach and certify safety officers for live-fire ranges. I was a certified RSO with the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton for small arms (pistol, shotgun, fully automatic rifles, sniper rifles, and fragmentation hand grenades). I have also been an official live-fire firearms instructor for dozens of law enforcement, corrections, probation & parole agencies, and military units to include the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marshal Service, Argentinean G.O.E., Brazilian GATE, Helsinki Police Department, German counterterrorist team GSG9, Navaho Nation S.W.A.T., and the list goes on. The list is even longer for non-firing firearms courses that I have taught to professionals (small unit tactics, defensive tactics, and combatives). Although I have never been an armorer on a movie set, I have been a range safety officer using actual blank-firing movie prop firearms loaned to the military for scenario training. After all, Hollywood is only two hours north of Marine Base Camp Pendleton.

I've also appeared in a couple of movies, and thanks to my student and good friend Butch Pierson, a world-renowned Hollywood direct of photography who recently retired, I've been on several movie sets with him during filming. Also, when Black Belt Magazine was producing my first video series, "Reality-Based Personal Protection", I had all kinds of replica and live-fire firearms at the studio and on the live-fire range, and not one safety violation. In fact, I was the very first martial artist in Black Belt Magazine history that appeared on the front cover with a firearm in the January 2002 issue. Actually, it was two pistols. One in my hand at a low ready position, and the other in a holster on my tactical vest. Of course, I've taught thousands of civilian martial artists in 20 countries about guns since most of my self-defense courses include some sort of gun training. Finally, my last firearms course I taught was, let’s see, yesterday, to a security team.

At the time of the writing of this article here’s what we know so far about the “Rust” shooting, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department in New Mexico, which is the agency conducting the investigation. Actor Alec Baldwin, playing the role of a Western outlaw, was rehearsing a scene inside of a church where he was sitting on a wooden church pew. The scene required the use of an antique-era appropriate prop gun, which had just been retrieved from the “gun cart” located outside of the church. Although it had been placed there by the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, it was Assistant Director Dave Halls who took the gun off the prop cart, went inside the church, and handed it to Alec Baldwin who was instructed to cross draw the Colt .45, swing it around, and point it directly at the camera lens. Behind the camera was Director of Photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and standing next to her was director Joel Souza.

Alec Baldwin, having been told that it was a “cold gun,” meaning a prop gun unable to fire a bullet or even blanks, drew the gun, pointed it towards the camera for the close-up angle, and then an unexpected “loud pop” was heard. Instantly Ms. Hutchins grabbed her midsection and stumbled backwards, and Mr. Souza was bleeding from his shoulder. Both were rushed to the hospital, and Ms. Hutchins died when she arrived.

In a news briefing given a few days later District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies stated that the prop was actually “a legit gun,” and that “there were an enormous amount of bullets on this set.”

According to the Los Angeles Times story titled ‘Rust’ crew describes on-set gun safety issues and misfires days before the shooting, written by Meg James and Amy Kaufman, “safety protocols standard in the industry, including gun inspections, were not strictly followed.” The story also mentioned that there were “three accidental discharges” prior to the homicide, and that conditions were “super unsafe.”

Months after the Sheriff’s initial investigation of the shooting incident a lot of contradictory statements surfaced. Lisa Torraco, Assistant Director Dave Hall’s attorney, said that her client did not grab the gun off the gun cart and hand it to Alec Baldwin. Eight days after the shooting armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed released a statement saying that “the whole production set became unsafe,” because she had to work two positions (prop assistant and armorer), which prevented her from focusing full-time as the film’s armorer. She then hired former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Bowles as her attorney, and on December 7, 2021, he told ABC News, “She had two duties: prop duties and armor duties. She had spun the cylinder, she had given it to Halls, she had shown him each of the six rounds. Halls was going to take custody of that weapon. He was inside the church then; Hannah was outside the church having to do her prop duties.” Then on January 12, 2022, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed filed a lawsuit against Seth Kenney, the owner of PDQ Arm & Prop, accusing him of providing a mix of dummy and live rounds to the set that created the “dangerous condition.” In response to that accusation, Seth Kenney told ABC News, “It’s not a possibility that they (the live rounds) came from PDQ or from myself personally.” Adding to the controversy, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed’s father, Thell Reed, a world champion live ammo quick draw artist and armorer for a number of films who taught his daughter the profession, was quoted that he believes that the “Rust” incident was “sabotage.” Someone had purposely inserted a live round into the prop gun. Actor Alec Baldwin also spoke with ABC News, and he added, “I let go of the hammer – bang, the gun goes off. I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never. Never. That was the training I had. You don’t point a gun at someone and pull the trigger.”

I’m not going to speculate exactly how this shooting occurred, because contradictory statements have been made by both the involved parties and some witnesses, but there are some things that can be learned from this incident for both Hollywood and martial artists alike who use any type of firearms in their training videos or hands-on training, be it rubber or plastic training guns to practice disarm techniques, airsoft guns that shoot a 6mm plastic projectile, replicas that fire blanks, or even real firearms on a live-fire range.

1. Treat all firearms, even if they solid rubber, plastic, or wood, as if they were the real thing, and by this, I mean that they are to be considered loaded. If I, a self-defense instructor, catch anyone of my students playing or goofing around with such a training gun, or even a training knife for that matter, I instantly bring the violation to everyone’s attention and I punish the violator immediately (usually in the form of push-ups or some other physical exercise). Over the years I’ve seen students and instructors alike twirl the training gun, scratch their heads with the muzzle, or even point the weapon at others when instructions are being given.

2. If airsoft guns are to be used, even before these firearms are touched, everyone must put on the minimum safety equipment of wrap-around eye protection. A 6 mm projectile flying at 1 Jule or more can put out an eye.

3. If airsoft guns are being used, then the proper loading or clearing procedures must be strictly followed using a gun clearing trap, which is something you can make yourself. It just so happens that before the “Rust” shooting incident I wrote the article You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out! Using a gun clearing trap is almost the same safety protocols on a live-fire range using a real metal gun clearing trap that can trap a real bullet fired. I don’t know if the “Rust” movie’s armorer had a bullet clearing trap or not on the “gun cart” or nearby, but it should be standard equipment on any movie set, even with airsoft guns.

4. Always have a Range Safety Officer (RSO) supervising the training if any training gun can fire a non-lethal projectile; even it’s a Nerf gun (again, treat every training gun like the real thing). A Nerf gun dart can still injure the eye if it’s not protected. The instructor and the RSO can be one and the same, but it’s much better to have a second person focusing entirely on safety, thereby freeing up the instructor to teach. This brings us to an important point. Every self-defense instructor using airsoft guns or paintball guns should become a certified RSO, and most definitely if you’re using blanks or teaching people protection with a gun on a live-fire range. That said, anyone in the class should be able to call a “CEASE FIRE!” if they see a safety violation. Safety is everybody’s business.

5. If someone is injured or killed during training, the people you most definitely don’t talk to is the media. At least not until after all litigation has been concluded. When the police arrive to investigate the incident the only questions you are required to answer are those about your identity: your name, where you work, where you live, et cetera. Any questions about the incident you have the right to say, “I want to speak to my attorney,” even if you don’t have an attorney on retainer at the time you said it, and you keep your mouth shut. Remember that “anything you say can be used against you.”

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to train Hollywood cameramen, stuntmen, and actors how to use various weapons; not on any movie sets, but at training facilities where these people have attended my courses. As such, it is my firm belief that any person handling weapons on a movie set should have professional training with the weapon they’ll be using, be it an impact weapon, edged weapon, or a firearm. If an actor is handed a prop gun, they should not just rely on the film’s “gun expert’s” word for it that the prop gun is “safe.” He or she should be able to check the condition of the weapon before acting with it.

I agree with what Shannon Lee, sister of Brandon Lee who was killed on the film set of “The Crow” in 1993 by a blank that propelled a projectile that was unknowingly lodged inside the barrel, that “with all the special effects that are possible and all of the technology, there is no reason to have a prop gun or a gun on a set that can fire a projectile of any sort.” As I mentioned before, even an airsoft gun can be dangerous. It is unacceptable to have a serious injury or death in making a film. As I always say to my beginning self-defense students, “We want realism, but not real injuries or death,” and that is only achieved with strict safety protocols and adhering to them.


Movie Set

Just shooting a simple movie scene can involve a dozen people around a single actor. This is how it’s possible for two people to be shot on the “Rust” movie set at the same time. I took this photo when I was on a Hollywood movie set to show what a filming environment is like.

gun range

When Black Belt Magazine was filming the series “Reality-Based Personal Protection” some of the scenes required actual shooting on a live-fire range. I, a sergeant with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at the time, oversaw the firearms safety, but because I was also being filmed, I made sure that I had a Range Safety Officer (RSO) on the set as well.

firearm stunt man

Myself with a Hollywood stuntman, one of my firearms students, posing on a live-fire range. This stuntman, on his own time and spending his own money, hired me so he’d be an expert with firearms for his job, even though the firearms he regularly used on movie sets did not fire projectiles, and that’s because he knew that even blanks can be deadly. Case in point, the tragic death of Brandon Lee in 1993 on the movie set “The Crow.”


Here I am with Shannon Emery Lee (sister of Brandon Lee) and Linda Lee Cadwell (mother of Brandon Lee) at the 2006 Black Belt Hall of Fame Awards where I was voted Self-Defense Instructor of the Year by the readers. Shannon Lee, who lost her brother to failed safety protocols of a prop gun, is now calling for film sets to have mandatory gun safety training and reducing the use of firearms as props.

gun simulation

I taught a firearms course to the instructors of the Helsinki Police Department and the Finnish Police Academy using FX Simunitions®. Shot from actual firearms, the projectile is a plastic bullet that breaks upon contact releasing a colored liquid. These training rounds can cause serious injury or death without proper safety protocols. In this photo the police officer fires at an “armed suspect” during a felony car stop scenario.

s.w.a.t realistic scenario

This photo was taken in 1990 when I first started running S.W.A.T. teams through realistic scenarios. The actor on the left is armed with a real firearm in his waist band that fired blanks. Several safety checks were conducted before the words, “Start the scenario!” were ever given.

terrorism self defense

This is a realistic scenario in my Terrorism Survival course that I taught in Surrey, Canada. The “terrorists” are firing 6 mm projectiles from airsoft guns at a “victim” who is trying to escape the attack. The same firearms safety protocols that are used on a live-fire range were used throughout this 8-hour course.

Black Belt Magazine Cover

After the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, and the global war on terrorism was declared, Black Belt Magazine selected me to be the first person in the magazine’s history to appear on the front cover holding a firearm, and that’s because they knew my extensive firearms background.

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11 Movies Every Martial Artist Must See

I recently finished writing The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s. In one section, I list my 20 favorite films of the '70s before and after I wrote the book. Why? Because after watching 600-plus movies during an eight-month stretch, my list had 14 changes. That got me thinking about what would constitute the 10 movies every martial artist must see and why—hence, this article. The 11 titles listed here—I couldn't narrow it down to 10—aren't the best martial arts films ever made or even my favorites. Rather, they were chosen for the impact they had on the genre, either by presenting new directions in fight choreography or by bolstering international appeal. Therefore, they're listed in order of release date, not in order of preference.

Martial Arts Movie #1: Fist of Fury (1972)

After the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was a fractured country, its pieces handed out to Japan and various European powers. Japan played a villainous role in Chinese history from that point on. Even after the nation's defeat during World War II, the fear of economic backlash against the Chinese kept Hong Kong and the Republic of China mum about Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese.

Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury changed all that. His character defiantly defeated Japanese martial artists in 1909 Shanghai, when the city was under strict Japanese rule. Lee single-handedly crashed through that barrier of silence, giving the Chinese a sense of identity and pride. Although Story of Huang Feihong, Part 1 (1949) ushered in the second genre of Chinese movies known as gong fu pian ("kung fu film," in which heroes fought with realistic skills), Fist legitimized it and brought international prominence to Hong Kong's waning film industry.

Trivia: The scene in which Lee kicks eight attackers in the Japanese dojo is one unedited, wide-angle shot. It forever changed fight choreography.

Martial Arts Movie #2: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

In response to the popularity of the kung fu movies Jackie Chan made at Golden Harvest, rival studio Shaw Brothers countered by having filmmakers Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang create a new genre called guo shu pian. Although translated as "national art film," which implies that the national art is martial arts, guo shu films were designated as neo-hero movies because they focused on a new style of protagonist.

Directed by Liu and starring his adopted brother Gordon Liu Chia-hui as real-life hero Monk San De (one of the legendary "10 Tigers of Shaolin"), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin signaled the start of the guo shu film. It's also important because it was the first movie to unveil the secret training methods of the ancient Buddhist monastery.

Martial Arts Movie #3: The Shaolin Temple (1982)

The importance of this movie parallels the importance of its star. Jet Li was born during a time when intellectuals and philosophers were persecuted, when the government outlawed martial arts and even destroyed temples and executed monks who refused to enter re-education camps. Li broke down those walls and became Communist China's first actor to conquer Hollywood. He accomplished that feat by excelling in the cultural contraband of martial arts, philosophy and cinema.

The Shaolin Temple was China's first live-action kung fu movie since the 1949 Communist takeover. It inspired the masses to visit the real temple's remains and forced the paranoid government to warn the public that it was unnecessary to learn self-defense. It was also instrumental in introducing wushu to film fans worldwide.

Martial Arts Movie #4: Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain (1983)

With Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Western-trained, new-wave filmmaker Tsui Hark ushered in a fifth martial arts film genre that wasn't officially named until it had run its course. Coined by yours truly, the Fant-Asia genre combined elements of sex, fantasy, sci-fi and horror with high-flying, gravity-defying wire work, far-out sight gags and over-the-top martial arts choreography. The film's action director, Ching Siu-tung (the father of "wire fu"), dared to shoot the fight scenes at 18 frames per second as heroes zipped, flipped and flew at the speed of light amid explosions and magic weapons.

Martial Arts Movie #5: Duel to the Death (1983)

After the success of Zu, Ching Siu-tung directed Duel to the Death and proved that shooting old-fashioned sword fights at 18 frames per second didn't make the action look hokey; it made it sing with gleeful, steel-slashing bewitchment. The movie intelligently weaves in the traditions of the classic chivalrous swordsman traveling down his path of martyrdom with a quasi-modern, German expressionistic visual approach that combines the elemental filmmaking sensitivities of Tsui Hark with Michael Curtiz's swashbuckling style. What does all that mean? It's a helluva fun film to watch!

Martial Arts Movie #6: Police Story (1985)

As the kung fu and guo shu films started to lose their luster—due in part to Hong Kong's copycat mentality, in which the fights were becoming too repetitive—the 1980s witnessed the birth of the final two genres: Fant-Asia and the one defined by this movie. At the turn of the decade, Jackie Chan wanted to do something different, so he started to avoid period-piece films. His characters moved away from being practitioners of traditional kung fu and became more like extreme athletes, as seen in Dragon Lord (1982).

With his next film, Project A (1983), and more officially with Police Story, he created the wu da pian ("fight films using martial arts") genre. It combined athleticism, martial-arts-influenced battles and outrageous stunts wrapped in modern themes and settings. Furthermore, instead of using traditional kung fu movements, the battles incorporated more Western-style boxing with karate-like kicks. Just about every contemporary-themed martial arts movie shot since is a result of Chan's wu da style.

Martial Arts Movie #7: Drunken Master II (1994)

Based on fight choreography, Drunken Master 2 is arguably the best martial arts movie ever made. At the time of its release, Fant-Asia films were at their peak, and other directors were switching to Jackie Chan's wu da style. Yet Chan returned to his kung fu roots to make a superior sequel. Filled with phenomenally fresh fights, it avoided the popular bobbing style of choreography used during Chan's kung fu film heyday. His martial skills flowed like a waterfall over smooth rocks.

The final 16 minutes are as mesmerizing and creative as they are relentless and exhausting. Chan showed Hollywood, which had claimed any fight that lasted more than two or three minutes was boring, that a long battle could be exciting without having to repeat the same movements over and over.

Martial Arts Movie #8: The Matrix (1999)

Although not a martial arts film, The Matrix was the first mainstream Western movie to successfully blend Hollywood's panache for visual effects with Hong Kong's stylized fight choreography to create what's still considered a phenomenon. Matrix is a visual spectacle. Its martial arts gags and imagery have been parodied ad infinitum, and the movie has become an integral part of 20th-century pop culture.

Trivia: Matrix inadvertently launched a ridiculous Hollywood trend. When the directors (the Wachowski brothers) approached Yuen Woo-ping to do the fights, he didn't want to. He hoped that by asking for an exorbitant fee, he would turn them away. It didn't work, however. Yuen then figured that by demanding that the main actors practice martial arts with him for four months, he'd be off the hook. Wrong again. Hollywood assumed that training actors for fighting roles was the standard.

Martial Arts Movie #9: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

To die-hard martial arts film fans, this movie was nothing new, but to the average American, Crouching Tiger was something never before encountered. Its twang of novelty resonated around the world as it became the first Chinese-language wu xia film to be widely accepted by Western audiences. Wu xia was the first genre of Chinese martial arts movie; its name translates as "martial chivalrous-hero film." Originating in Shanghai in the 1920s, such movies were saturated with classical tales, heroic stories and legends of superhuman swordsmen and magical feats.

Directed by Ang Lee and fight-directed by Yuen Woo-ping, Crouching Tiger blended Eastern physical grace and action with American elements of performance intensity and the subtleties and nuances of European cinema. The movie was Lee's homage to wu xia films, and it started a trend that brought international attention to similar motion pictures by other Chinese directors.

Martial Arts Movie #10: Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)

Just when you thought good martial arts movies were the sole domain of China and the United States, the film industry of Thailand received worldwide acclaim. Tony Jaa's Ong-Bak introduced a new and dangerous kind of fight choreography that combined wu da action with a stylized version of muay boran (the progenitor of muay Thai). The highlights of the movie are not only Jaa's bouts with his meth-crazed adversary but also Jaa's outrageous stunts: deadly knee-drop strikes, elbows of fury, far-out fire kicks and so on.

Jaa reminded us why we liked Jackie Chan's movies from the mid-1980s. More important, Jaa's efforts to showcase his nation's fighting arts inspired other countries—including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia—to follow suit.

Martial Arts Movie #11: Ip Man (2008)

Not since Drunken Master 2 has there been such a rip-roaring, old-school, kung fu movie. Ip Man arrived on the heels of those high-budget, high-production-value Chinese/American wu xia films shot in China using fancy wire work. It proved that traditional kung fu fight choreography reminiscent of the 1970s never goes out of vogue.

The kung fu is as real as the legitimate martial arts stars that perform the fights, which is no longer the case in most movies that feature actors who don't practice or practitioners who are more into gymnastics than traditional kung fu. Not once does Donnie Yen, who plays Bruce Lee's teacher Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), break wing chun form to execute unnecessarily flashy movements to appease viewers who regard wushu-style fights as the real thing.

(For the past 18 years, Dr. Craig D. Reid has worked as a writer and martial arts film critic. He estimates that he's watched more than 5,000 martial arts movies. He's practiced martial arts for 38 years, and since 1979, he's worked off and on as a fight choreographer in Hollywood and Asia. For more martial arts movie wisdom, check out his book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors).)

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