Despite what many directors, producers and actors in Hollywood have to say about guns, even they grudgingly have to recognize, that without firearms, there’d probably be no motion picture industry—or at least one limited to drawing room melodramas or polite comedies of manners.
Right from the inception of the movie business, films and guns have gone together. “Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 shot in the Wild West of East Orange, New Jersey is full of fancy gunplay, as have been thousands of films ever since.
Just about every type of handgun from wheellocks to space-age blasters have graced the silver screen. Auto pistols, being the state of the art and visually interesting, have been seen in pictures as early as the 1910s—with one exception—the Colt .45 Government Model. To be sure it has been featured in some early flicks, but compared to other self-loaders, such as the Luger, it’s a Johnny-come-lately.
This is particularly interesting, because it was one of the most popular and widely disseminated auto pistols of the first half of the 20th century. So what’s the deal? Why has it been pretty much shunned until the last 20 years? There’s every indication that filmmakers wanted to feature the Government Model and used originals and stand-ins whenever they could—though there were limitations, as we’ll see. In many cases what you think you saw really wasn’t the case at all—but then, I guess that’s the “magic” of movies.
Movie armorers were early-on trying to figure out how to make autos work properly with blanks. As you might imagine the problem is many times more difficult than using a blank in a revolver or bolt action or single shot rifle or shotgun. Autos by their very nature can be cranky things, relying upon proper bullet shapes, case lengths, pressures and magazines to make them function.
In the fledgling cinema, clever prop men figured out how to make some auto pistols operate with blanks. Of course it depended upon the gun, but basics usually involved fooling with the locking systems and putting a constrictor in the barrel so that the blank would generate enough pressure to work the action.
There has long been the misconception that Government Models were difficult to blank up, and it has only been in recent years that someone figured out how to make them work reliably. Not so.
According to Mike Gibbons, former owner of Gibbons, Limited, once one of the largest current suppliers of firearms to the motion picture industry, a 1911 was no harder to modify than was a 9mm or other caliber. The reason they were not used widely in early films actually was because of the blanks themselves. Until the last few years there was no brass available that would allow a .45 blank to be made with a full crimp—a feature that was critical for proper feeding. One alternative involved using standard .45 ACP brass with card wads, but there were chambering problems, and wads have a tendency to gum up the works of an auto. Some loaders even tried to trim down .30-06 brass, but the cases were just too thick to effect a good crimp.
Back in the old days, there were three major Hollywood firearms suppliers, Stembridge Gun Rentals , Ellis Mercantile and The Hand Prop Room. All had their own particular style of blank, and very often an Ellis blank would not work in a Stembridge gun, or vice-versa—magnifying an already difficult situation.
With all this said, what did movie makers do when the script or historical verisimilitude called for a .45? There were a number of innovative solutions. The first, and easiest, was just to substitute another type of auto for a Government Model. Perhaps the most blatant case was in the 1940 Gary Cooper biopic “Sergeant York.” In his diary the real World War I Medal of Honor winner, Sergeant Alvin C. York, specifically mentioned using his “.45 Colts [sic] automatic pistol,” as well as his rifle when he single-handedly captured 132 Germans. Despite the fact that the real Alvin York was on the set to make sure his story was told properly (and for the most part, it’s pretty much right on, according to York’s son, Andrew) Director Howard Hawks (or the prop man) probably figured a .45 was more trouble than it was worth, so he substituted a Luger. As well, members of York’s squad are shown carrying 1903 Springfields, when apparently soldiers of the 82nd were actually issued with 1917 “Enfields.” Another interesting case of substitution occurred in “The Fighting 69th” (1940) where we see actor George Brent fighting the Huns with a Model 1902 Colt, which to be fair, at least looks more like a Government Model than does a Luger.
One of the best solutions to the .45 problem involved substituting 9mm Star autos (9mm Colt Government Models weren’t available until 1972–Commanders appeared in 1949). They looked like Government Models and could be easily blanked. One prime example of a Star standing in for a Colt, is in Sam Peckinpah’s 1968 film “The Wild Bunch,” where good/bad guy Pike Bishop (William Holden) levels his Star at assorted Texas townspeople and Mexican revolutionaries.
Now we don’t want to give the impression that Government Models were never used in early films. Perhaps the highest profile .45s were seen in the 1940 version of “The Maltese Falcon” where Sam Spade/Humphrey Bogart disarms gunsel Wilmer Cook/Elisha Cook, Jr., by pulling a brace of commercial .45s out of his overcoat side pockets. If you watch the scene carefully, you can see where the butts are already poking out of the top of Cook’s coat (not a great way to carry them surreptitiously!) so that Bogart could more easily pull them free. Here, director John Huston could take full advantage of the .45 look without any pesky blank problems as the guns were never fired, even though they appeared in a couple of scenes.
Non-firing .45s also appeared in other films, such as “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) where, (among other scenes) one is brandished by actor Barney Phillips during a drill to repel boarders.
Also, don’t get the idea that .45s were never fired in movies prior to the 1980s. A good example of one actually being touched off occurs in “Out of the Past (1947) where Kirk Douglas’ henchman Joe Stephanos, played by Paul Valentine, tries to pick off Robert Mitchum using his Government Model before being pulled to his death from a cliff by Mitchum’s pal Dickie Moore. The saving grace here was that the gun only had to be fired one time, so proper cycling wasn’t really a consideration.
In some early films, when a Government Model was actually required to be seen cycling on-camera, the guns were actually fired with live ammunition. A good example is the great James Cagney movie, “G Men,” where more than one character is seen shooting a .45, live. Needless to say safety issues, not to mention the inherent dangers of giving an actor a loaded handgun, made this a very iffy proposition. This practice was not much employed.
Gibbons credits the current widespread use of Government Models to innovator Joe Swanson, who finally came up with good .45 blanks that could be used in all types of .45 autos.
In short order the big repeaters were seen all over the silver screen, in such blockbusters at “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” where Arnold Swartzenegger carries a fancy stainless steel longslide and the most recent version of “Titanic” where Billy Zane’s evil factotum David Warner sports a pair of beautiful engraved, nickel-plated early 1911s. Interestingly enough I was contacted prior to the filming of the movie and asked whether or not it would have been possible for anyone on board the Titanic to have Government Models. As the first guns were coming off the line just about the time the Titanic sunk, I opined that it as highly unlikely, and suggested substituting 1902s. My advice was apparently given slight regard, though, as the .45s were eventually used—and I must admit that cinematically they are spectacular and really work well, even though they are not historically correct.
Other recent efforts, such as “Collateral,” “Cradle to Grave,” “Tears of the Sun,” “V.I.P.,” “Day of the Dead 2,” etc., etc., etc. are only a few of the many films to make prominent use of the old Government Model.
Anyway, it’s now plain to see the old Hollywood proscription against 1911s has finally been lifted and you can expect to see even more Government Models and Government Model variations from now on. Probably in the history of the cinema, it has never taken any performer so long to achieve stardom—but given the .45 auto’s illustrious career in the real world of military, law enforcement and civilian use, its certainly well deserved.