As any firearms enthusiast/cineaste knows, as moves evolve thematically and technologically, fashions in cars, costumes, hairstyle and guns often follow suit.
Of necessity, the early days of films saw a large variety of different arms, but like today, ended up relying on a few stalwarts which, because of their ease of use, adaptability and actor-friendly characteristics, saw more action than many of the others. Except in a few films, such as Arizona (1940), where the director insisted on using percussion rifles, shotguns and handguns because cartridge guns were so much easier to manage and more reliable, they were often substituted for earlier arms. I can think of at least a half-dozen or so longarms and handguns that stand head and shoulders above the rest and were movie mainstays from the silent era right up to the 1960s. Here's the casting call, and just why they were so popular.
Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless
This highly popular little .32/.380 auto pistol was a favorite of gangsters, gunsels, private dicks, threatened damsels and just about anybody else who wanted a sleek, easy-to-handle pocket piece. From the silent days well into the 1950s, if a civilian auto pistol was needed, more often than not the 1903 was the chosen gun. Of the large-frame autos, it seems the Luger was a hot item with Huns, Nazis and other menaces. The 1911 sometimes made an appearance, but because decent blanks weren't available for it until relatively recently, its appearances were sadly limited.
Colt Police Positive/Smith & Wesson M&P
Especially during the heyday of gangster films, one or the other of these two double-action classics were seen in the hands of bootleggers, police officers, gumshoes and just about anyone else who need a generic-looking double-action .38. Ubiquitous is too inadequate a word for this twosome. As they were probably the most popular handguns of their day, here is a true case of art imitating life.
Colt Single Action Army
This one's a no-brainer. The Colt SAA
, like the Trapdoor, is versatile enough to be employed in a number of different scenarios. It too saw service in Birth of a Nation
and has been the most popular cowboy gun ever. Interestingly enough, many of the early silent western stars, such as Tom Mix and William S. Hart seemed to favor double actions — most often Colt New Services or S&W Hand Ejectors, but ultimately the Peacemaker took over and became the iconic movie gun that it is. SAAs chambered for .38-40, .44-40 or .45 Colt could handle five-in-one blanks with aplomb. Too, the piece could be modified with a simple web beneath the barrel, turning it into an ersatz Civil War Remington. Early on, original Colts were used, but now Italian replicas have pretty much taken over — even ones with incorrect brass trigger guards (this drives me nuts — guess I should get a life!).
Like the Trapdoor Springfield, the bolt-action Krag-Jorgensen has subbed for a number of lookalike service rifles, most notably (with a dummy below-the-action box magazine added), the British Long-Lee Enfield. Seen in such films as Cavalcade (1933) and Gunga Din (1939), the Krag did its part in cinematically dispatching any number of Queen Victoria's enemies. Like the Springfield, the Krag could also be modified, and so altered was seen in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), among others. Charles Chaplin even carried a Krag as a Doughboy in WWI in Shoulder Arms (1918). The Germans toting Dutch Beaumonts!
Winchester Model 92
To be sure, occasionally a Model 73 Winchester
chambered in .38-40 or .44-40 (and some non-firing stand-ins in other calibers) would be seen on the early movie screen, but it was the Model 92 that really had the most face time. To most of the movie-going public, 'a Winchester is a Winchester, ' so it could be used in a variety of periods and settings. Some were modified to look like Henrys and were used in Civil War flicks. Others had their levers modified into large loops for spinning. These, popularized by John Wayne most notably in Stagecoach
(1939), actually first saw use in some early live-action Wild West shows. With the emergence of replica Model 1873s, the popularity of the 92 has waned — but in its day it was a real star.
The .45-70 'Trapdoor ' Springfield
has probably seen more use in films than just about any other firearm, with the possible exception of the Colt Single Action Army. There are several reasons for this. First off, the gun looked so close enough to a Civil War or Crimean War muzzleloader that it could easily be substituted. It had the advantage of being so easily loaded from the breech with blanks that even in such early epics as Birth of a Nation
(1915), The Four Feathers
(1929 ), Charge of the Light Brigade
(1936) and Gone With the Wind
(1939), it was used even when proper rifle-muskets were available in abundance. Of course the gun was era-correct in post-Civil War westerns, so no problem there. Also, the Trapdoor could easily be converted to a faux flintlock musket, jezail or pirate pistol simply by replacing the original hammer with a dummy flintlock cock and adding whatever embellishments the art director deemed proper.