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In October 2019 we opened our Make: Believe display of popular culture arms and armour. Two of the star exhibits are a pair of “blasters” created by film armourers from 1950s vintage Sterling submachine guns for the original Star Wars film franchise; the ‘E-11’ as issued to Imperial Stormtroopers and captured by our heroes in A New Hope, and the Rebel equivalent, the ‘DH-17’.

two blasters from the Star Wars movies

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster (left) and ‘EH-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster (right)

The E-11 in particular is an iconic sci-fi/fantasy weapon yet is little more than a British Mark 4 ‘Sterling’ submachine gun of the 1950s (L2A2 in military service). This was produced by Sterling Armaments, based in Dagenham in Essex, from a 1944 design by George Patchett. Initially it was dubbed the ‘Patchett Machine Carbine’.

Sterling machine gun and magazine

Centrefire automatic submachine gun – Sterling Mk.4 (L2A3) commercial model (made 1956). PR.9153

On the face of it this was an odd choice; the Sterling was still in military service in 1977 (it was used in the Falklands War five years later), and anyone with a military background would have spotted it immediately. But Star Wars was a low-budget production, and director George Lucas and production designer Roger Christian were shooting for a grittier, more ‘lived-in’ aesthetic. The movie may have been inspired by Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon, but dressed-up real-world firearms fit the Star Wars universe better than shiny ray guns. They would have heft and would jolt when fired, thanks to firing blank ammunition. Still, the blasters had to look different. The production turned to UK film armourers Bapty & Co, who showed them various options. The Sterling was selected and modified with ‘found object’ additions including a Second World War American tank sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q!) and a counter box from industrial machinery. The distinctive curved magazine of the Sterling was also cut down to hold only a few rounds. This successfully altered the silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

E11 blaster with stock extended

Submachine gun – Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper E-11 blaster (1976). XII.11981. Stock is extended for camparison with Sterling MK.4 shown above.

Our DH-17 is a more mysterious piece, as it does not match any screen-used configuration. The DH-17 started life as a pistol, used by Rebel forces in the opening scenes of Star Wars (1977). This took inspiration from the Sterling, but was a much more compact weapon, doing away with the magazine housing and replacing the vented heat-shield with a silver-coloured nozzle. In place of the stubby tank optic of the E-11, a Singlepoint reflex sight was fitted. Only the rear end of a Sterling was used, along with the trigger group, which was moved to create the proportions of a large, scoped pistol. The prototype was then moulded in rubber to create the final, non-firing prop. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the design was modified to allow for a more dramatic blank firing version, retaining more of the Sterling’s receiver and creating essentially a Rebel version of the E-11. Our DH-17 was most likely made for use in Return of the Jedi before production moved to North America. Our blasters would both have been used as E-11s in Star Wars (1977) before being stripped of their extra parts for use as normal Sterlings in other productions, used again in The Empire Strikes Back, and then stripped once again. These two were restored in the late 1990s to the configuration seen here and were loaned back to LucasFilm in 2014 (at which point the resin counter box was added to the E-11).

close up of the star wars Imperial Stormtrooper blaster pistol

Submachine gun – Star Wars DH-17 rebel trooper blaster (1976) XII.11982.

They were used as design reference for the creation of the new F-11D First Order Stormtrooper blaster introduced in The Force Awakens (2015) and, to a lesser extent, the EL-16 used by the Resistance. The F-11D takes a lot of design cues from the E-11 and is intended to be a more modern derivative of the same weapon. The EL-16 is somewhat more removed from its inspiration but is nonetheless a further beefed-up take on DH-17, this time based upon an Heckler and Koch G36 .

automatic rifle

Centrefire automatic rifle – Heckler and Koch G36 (made 1998) PR.13207

triang toys

The outbreak of war in 1939 required manufacturing companies to stop making peacetime goods like children’s toys and start churning out deadly weapons and ammunition. One of these firms was Lines Brothers, based in Merton in south-west London. Lines Bros was better known under its tradename ‘Tri-ang’, named for the three sides of a triangle and the three founding brothers Walter, William and Arthur Lines. Some readers will remember the ‘Tri-ang’ range of colourful sheet metal toy cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Successive generations grew up playing with these toys from their launch in 1919 until well after 1971 when the company ceased trading. Today the toys are collectors’ items.

By 1939 Lines had one of the largest and most modern factories in the world, which made it a prime candidate to be repurposed by the British government for war work. Lines started taking on contracts for small arms ammunition, artillery shell fuzes, and parts for weapons. In 1941 Walter Lines offered to do more than just make parts of weapons. As well as a capable factory, Lines’ company were specialists in making things out of ‘pressed’ sheets of steel. Walter proposed a new version of the Sten submachine gun that made extensive use of sheet steel. Lines himself redesigned the already cheap Sten to suit the machinery and processes used in his factory, reducing manufacturing time down to just 5 ½ hours per gun. The War Office approved the design as the Sten Mark III. This differed from the better-known Mark II in several ways. Its sheet metal body was longer, extending out along the barrel and replacing the separate hand guard of the Mark II. The sheet metal construction resulted in a long distinctive rib along the top of the gun where the two ends of the sheet were welded together. The Mk. II magazine housing, designed to rotate for storage, was replaced by a simpler welded-on version. Because the barrel was permanently welded into the body, the barrel could not be replaced when it wore out – this was a truly disposable gun and so less cost-effective in the long run. The gun could also no longer be fitted with a bayonet, although these were rarely used anyway.

Second World War Sten gun without magazine

Centrefire automatic submachine gun – Sten Mk.III (about 1943-1944) Late pattern model, British. PR.7575

The new Sten was put into production in Spring 1942, and an initial contract of 500,000 guns was completed on time only by employing three shifts of workers on 24 hour per day production. As they did in other arms factories, many women worked in the critical roles of welding and final hand assembly of the guns, whilst men with prior manufacturing experience (and in a reserved occupation) tended to set up and operate the machine tools that made the individual components. Another 500,000 gun contract was won from the government as a result. Unfortunately the adaptation to stamped steel was not without problems. This was hardly surprising given the record time in which Lines were turning out a product that they had never before made. Still, a delicate balance of cost, speed, and effectiveness was being attempted, and more defects were found with Mark IIIs than the Mark II. As the need for guns was easing, with production of Mk. II guns now sufficient in other factories, the decision was taken to cut the second contract short. Minimising the chance of additional reliability problems in the field (the Mark II was hardly the most dependable gun as it was), Mark IIIs were prioritised for issue to the Home Guard. In Home Guard service the guns would be shielded from the sand, mud and hard service of frontline combat. Despite this, Mk. III guns did see widespread foreign service, and were also dropped to partisan fighters in Europe. When production ceased in Autumn 1943, an astonishing 876,886 had been made at Merton. Walter Lines and his company had made a significant contribution to the nation’s defence – just as they did to its collective childhood.

You can see an example of the Mark III Sten alongside its tinplate toy forerunner in our permanent War Gallery display ‘Firefight: Second World War’.

In the world of arms and armour, the objects featured in contemporary popular culture are often underrepresented. Much of the public perception of arms and armour is coloured by the cultural mainstream, yet manyf museums have been slow to appreciate and preserve the wonderful things made for films, games and other media. For many, popular culture is the primary means of exposure to such objects and for museums, this area is key to developing a successful future events programme.

Captain Nemo’s Steampunk Submachine Guns

The movie firearms in the collection are all products of the famous Bapty & Co prop house who have been providing weapons, armour and other props for stage, film, television and music videos since 1919.

First up are two guns from the 2002 fantasy action film ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘, loosely based on the ground-breaking graphic novel series by Alan Moore. For the brilliant and infamous Captain Nemo, Bapty were tasked with creating a number of retro-futuristic ‘Steampunk’ sub-machine guns inspired by decorative styles of the Indian subcontinent. Like many of the other firearms featured in the movie, weapons of this type did not exist in the real world of 1899. The sub-machine gun did not appear in military use until 1918.

Chrome 'steam-punk' submachine gun

Prop submachine gun from the 2003 movie ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. (XII.11937)

The resulting silver and white guns matched elements of Nemo’s Nautilus vessel and also his large 1930s-style touring car. In order to have functioning guns that would fire blanks for the cameras, British-designed Second World War Sten guns were dressed up after this fashion. The guns and magazines were substantially disguised with wood, plastic, and paint, and even the tubular metal stocks were altered to hide the real-world heritage of these wacky weapons. Our example (XII.11937) was made at Long Branch in Canada, but Chinese markings show that it was supplied to China during the Second World War to aid in the fight against Japan. Sometime later, it returned to the UK and may well have appeared in an earlier production in its wartime form, as houses like Bapty lend and re-use weapons regularly.

Chrome 'steam-punk' pistol

Prop pistol used in the movie by Captain Nemo and some of his crew. (XII.11938)

For Captain Nemo himself, a Russian Tokarev TT33 pistol (XII.11938) was similarly dressed up to match the other guns and disguise its Cold War heritage. The weapon’s slide was shrouded with a cylindrical moulding similar to that used on the sub-machine gun, and an unusual turret feature was affixed where the rear sight would normally be. The magazine was cosmetically extended to look like those on the Stens, and capped with a conical stud, inspired by the real-world ‘skull crushers’. This weapon was unique to Nemo, although, in common with other movie props, four examples were made in case of reliability problems or damage that might be sustained during filming. This does mean that the Royal Armouries is lucky to have one of only four guns made.

Whatever some may think of the movie itself, which had a famously troubled production (it was Sean Connery’s last) and met with a frosty reception from critics and fans, these guns are great examples of the propmaker’s art. They are also fully intact, live-firing movie guns that cannot be found in any other UK museum, and precious few overseas, since the vast majority of firearms used in film and TV are deactivated prior to sale. The Sten is complete with its threaded barrel restrictor used to generate sufficient internal pressure to operate the working parts of the gun. Without these adaptors most movie guns cannot function since there is no bullet to build up pressure. The pistol is also modified with a restrictor, and a further internal modification to allow it to operate normally on camera.

M41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle

Pulse rifle from the film 'Aliens'

M-41A Pulse Rifle made for the film ‘Aliens’ (XII.11846)

For me as a firearms specialist, the star of our collection so far is the M41A ‘Pulse Rifle’ (XII.11846) from one of my favourite films, ‘Aliens‘ (1986), rebuilt and used in ‘Alien3‘ (1992). This was another Bapty-made piece, produced by Simon Atherton (who opened his own prop house called ‘Zorg Ltd‘ in 1997) to a design by ‘Aliens’ director James Cameron. You can read more about this piece in my other post: ‘Collecting Cultures: M-41A ‘Aliens’ Pulse Rifle’.

The pulse rifle has become one of the most iconic movie weapons of all time for its realistic, gritty ‘used and abused’ look. Together with the famous Blade Runner ‘blaster’ pistol and the Smart Gun also seen in Aliens, it showed that sci-fi guns did not have to shoot animated laser bolts and go ‘pew’. Given the pace of technological development in the field, it seems likely that if weapons are taken into space, they will resemble the Pulse Rifle more than the laser weapons of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Buck Rogers’. But that is probably a topic for a future post.

Get a closer look at these pieces of silver screen history and other Collecting Cultures objects on our Collections Online website where you can see images in deep zoom.

75 years since the Normandy landings and D-day we take a look at the weapons carried by soldiers on both sides.

British infantry section on Gold, Juno and Sword beach, 6 June 1944

These are the weapons which would have been carried by a British infantry section which landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches on D-day. Allied armies including the Canadians and Polish also used British equipment.

A section was the smallest unit of the army: 8-10 men who fought together and worked as a team. Their main firepower was the highly accurate Bren light machine gun. Each section had one Bren gun and everybody helped carry ammunition to keep it in action.

The section leader, a corporal, carried a Sten submachine gun and everybody else used the Enfield No. 4 rifle. Even some training manuals implied that the rifle was for personal protection, but it was an accurate and reliable weapon of war.

To give the section increased firepower against tanks or fortified positions, they could carry the platoon PIAT anti-tank launcher. This could also be fired against infantry – with devastating effect. Everybody was trained to use the Bren and PIAT, as keeping these weapons in the fight was vital to British tactics.

Sten Mk. III – PR.7575
Bren Mk. I – PR.6948
Enfield No. 4 Mk. I rifle – PR.5899 (this is a nice sectioned rifle, sectioning being used for instructional purposes to show soldiers what the inside of their weapons looked like)
PIAT Mk. I – PR.1551

German infantry gruppe defending the Atlantic Wall, 6 June 1944

These are the weapons which would have been used by a German infantry gruppe defending the Atlantic Wall on D-day.

The gruppe was the German infantry section. Comprised of 10 men, this was the smallest unit of military organisation. Its members lived, trained and fought together. Most of their firepower came from the MG 42 – a versatile weapon which could be fitted to a variety of bipods, tripods and anti-aircraft mountings to engage different targets. One man fired the machine gun but was assisted by two men who helped carry and load the ammunition. These men carried pistols, either Lugers or Walther P38s, for their own defence.

The section leader carried the iconic MP 40 submachine gun. Both these weapons were popular with Allied troops who sometimes made use of German weapons they found on the battlefields.

The rest of the gruppe were riflemen. By the time of D-day, they would have been equipped with a combination of the Kar98K bolt action rifle, the Gewehr 43 self-loading rifle and possibly the Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle.

British intelligence reported that every German gruppe had one sniper rifle, but it is difficult to be certain if this was true.

MP 40 – PR.13314
MG 42 – PR.79
Walther P38 – PR.10741
Kar98K – PR.6438
Gewehr 43 (with telescopic sight) – PR.6661
Sturmgewehr 44 – PR.5364

British Airborne section behind enemy lines, 5-6 June 1944

The night before D-day, British and American airborne soldiers dropped by parachute or landed by glider behind enemy lines. Their mission was to secure strategic objectives, such as bridges, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing the beaches.

The Airborne section consisted of 8-10 fighting men, just like its infantry equivalent. However, they were frequently much better armed. They carried at least one Sten submachine gun and one Bren light machine gun, possibly drawing more from company stocks prior to entering combat.

They used the same Enfield No. 4 rifle as the infantry, but it was commonplace for Airborne forces to give one sniper rifle to each section. In the regular infantry, telescopic rifles were reserved for well-trained specialist snipers who operated with more independence.

Airborne forces also carried a variety of pistols. One of the most common and popular was the American Colt 1911.

A special lightweight version of Britain’s 2 inch mortar was designed for Airborne soldiers. This could fire high explosive bombs, but was often used to create a smokescreen to cover the section’s assault.

Sten Mk. V – PR.7342
Bren Mk. I – PR.6948
.45 Colt 1911 – XII.3661
Enfield No. 4 Mk. I rifle – PR.5899
Enfield No. 4(T) – PR.5947
2 inch mortar Mk. VII* – PR.172

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no substitute for a good blaster at your side…”
Han Solo – ‘Star Wars A New Hope’ (1977)

In May, we announced the launch of a £20K+ crowdfunding campaign to add two iconic weapons from a galaxy far, far away to the Royal Armouries collection. With your help, we hope to display two of the iconic blaster pistols used in the original ‘Star Wars’ films – an Imperial Stormtrooper ‘E-11’ and Rebel trooper ‘DH-17’.

This pair of ‘blasters’, created by film armourers Bapty & Co. from 1950s vintage Sterling submachine guns for the original ‘Star Wars’ film franchise,  will be displayed at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

In this post, we delve into the galaxy of ‘Star Wars’ blasters and take a closer look at some of the real-life weapons that inspired them.

‘E-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster

One of the most iconic designs in the ‘Star Wars’ universe is the blaster used by the Imperial Stormtroopers. Look familiar? This was actually the Sterling Mk.4 submachine gun, or L2A2 in British Army speak. Still a service weapon at the time of production, the firearm was modified with additions including a WW2 German machine gun sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q) and a photocopier part. The distinctive curved magazine of the ‘Sterling’ was also cut down to hold only a few rounds, to alter the fairly well-known silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

side view of the 'Star Wars' Imperial blaster

‘EH-11’ Imperial Stormtrooper blaster

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

Another example of a weapon modelled on real gun design is the DH-17, a close-combat blaster pistol which, in the ‘Star Wars’ universe, was used by Rebel Alliance soldiers in starship combat. The DH-17 blaster was made using the same Sterling L2A3 sub-machine gun that was used for the E-11 blaster, only this time the prop was fitted with a different barrel component and modified scope. In ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, the DH-17 blaster props were modified from real Sterling machine guns and they were able to fire blanks.

close up of the star wars 'Rebel' blaster pistol

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

close up of the Star Wars Rebel blaster DH-17

‘DH-17’ Rebel blaster

A less obvious example of a real-world gun adapted for the movie is the blaster pistol issued to some Stormtroopers and dubbed ‘Sonn-Blas SE-44C Blaster Pistol’. Just as before, this too is based upon a real gun – a Glock pistol fitted with a carbine chassis system to change its appearance (the Glock being a rather well-known movie gun). The movie ‘Dredd’ also used this approach to create the ‘Lawgiver’ pistol.

Han Solo’s iconic ‘DL-44’ blaster pistol also draws on a familiar firearm design. As many fans will know, this was a modified Mauser C96, one of the first semi-automatic pistol designs and the first to see commercial success (over one million were made).

Fans spend a great deal of time and money replicating the props of the movies, and blasters are no exception. A handful of live firing prop replicas have even been built in the United States. Strangely, as points out, the new props are modified replica ‘Schnellfeuer’ machine pistols rather than the true C96. This was presumably done because replicas of the Schnellfeuer are more easily available.

We need your help

The ‘blasters’ used in the ‘Star Wars’ movie franchise are among the most iconic weapons in popular culture. The unique opportunity we have to acquire two of these original movie prop weapons will help us to continue telling the story of the development and impact of arms and armour on the history, people and cultures of Britain, the world and beyond.

Man half in shadow holding a star wars blaster across his chest

Royal Armouries curator, Jonathan Ferguson, holding the ‘DH-17’ rebel blaster

Our expert curators believe both props were assembled for use in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980), and it is likely that the base guns themselves were also used in ‘A New Hope’ (1977).

They will go on permanent display in autumn 2019 at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, as part of our ‘Collecting Cultures‘ exhibition about the role of arms and armour in popular culture.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this project has already resulted in the acquisition of a ‘pulse rifle’ from ‘Aliens’, a collection of remarkable swords made by Peter Lyon, swordsmith to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ motion picture trilogy, and even a ‘Vampire killing kit’.

So you see, ancient weapons really are a great match for a good blaster.

“May the force be with you”

Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, uncovers an interesting history behind this AK-47.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova or AK and its variants are found today in every active conflict zone. Strictly speaking, ‘AK-47’ was just a prototype.

It is arguably the most important firearm in the world, taking the place of the Mauser bolt-action rifle. It is certainly the most numerous. At a minimum there are 75 million examples in existence; nearly seven times as many as its nearest rival, the AR-15.

It has made its lead designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a globally recognised name. Although the type entered Russian military service in 1949, the Cold War ensured that it did not make its combat debut until in the Vietnam War, having been supplied to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) by Russia and China.

AK-47 with wooden furniture and the inscription "G.P. Dillon 1/7" scratched into the butt.

Centrefire automatic rifle – Kalashnikov (PR.5428)

An Interesting History

This particular AK (a ‘Type 2’ according to unofficial classification) was captured during that very conflict by U.S. Army Captain (now retired Colonel) Gregory P. Dillon, almost exactly 42 years ago. Dillon was ‘S-3’ (Operations Officer) of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Cavalry Regiment within the 1st Cavalry Division.

The regiment was also known as ‘1-7 Air Cavalry’ or just ‘1-7 CAV‘ for short. The 7th Cavalry had been formed as a traditional cavalry regiment after the American Civil War, but by the Vietnam era had traded horses for Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, better known as ‘Hueys’ (a corruption of its ‘UH’ designation, meaning ‘Utility Helicopter’).

The new air cavalry concept would allow infantry to move rapidly around the battlefield wherever they were most needed, and also to provide its own close air support with machine guns and rockets. You’ve seen this depicted in popular culture, most famously in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, and most recently in the period fantasy movie Kong: Skull Island. Like its mounted forebears, the air cavalry’s intended roles were armed reconnaissance and raiding operations. However, units in Vietnam saw service in many of the major combat operations of the war, including the one that recovered this early AK. The story that follows comes from Col. Dillon himself.

In January 1966, the division was sent into the Bong Son plain, where Dillon’s unit was able to wipe out an entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA) brigade. Bong Son took place two months after the famous Battle of Ia Drang, in which Dillon also took part. That incident was immortalised in the book ‘We Were Soldiers Once….and Young’, which in turn was dramatised as ‘We Were Soldiers’ (2002). In the movie, the part of Dillon was played by ‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm, that of Moore by Mel Gibson. Whilst clearing enemy bunkers and searching them for weapons and useful intelligence, Dillon found and disarmed the NVA brigade’s executive officer. The officer had been armed with this rifle and a pistol. Dillon took the rifle as a memento and gave the pistol to Colonel Moore, his battalion commander.

Later, all captured AK rifles were ordered to be handed in to equip a special operation by ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnamese army ) troops. Dillon cut his name into the stock in order that no-one else (particularly, no-one not actually there at the battle) could claim to have collected it. He later saw the weapon in a newspaper article about ARVN HQ (which he has been kind enough to share with us). This was the last he heard of his war trophy until he was contacted by a US Army officer acting on my behalf.
stock of AK-47, with G.P.DILLON carved into the wooden butt.
I had shown the rifle to a student work placement from the University of Bristol (now working in the defence industry) who with the help of a friend was able to identify Col. Dillon as the original owner. I discovered that the weapon had been transferred to the British government as an example of current enemy equipment, being transferred to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room reference collection in 1971.

The Royal Armouries was fortunate enough to receive this entire collection in 2005, greatly improving our collection of 20th-century firearms and accessories. The rifle is numbered PR.5248 (‘PR’ for ‘Pattern Room’). Col. Dillon was amazed to hear that his rifle was being preserved in a British museum, but has sadly not been able to travel to the UK to see his rifle. However, thanks to the efforts of my friend Miles Vining, he has been interviewed and his stories captured for posterity. You can hear him tell this story and others in these two YouTube videos:

For a more detailed look at this rifle and other items in the Royal Armouries collection, visit our Collections Online. 

References/Further Reading

Chivers, C.J., The Gun, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
Iannimico, Frank, AK-47: The Grim Reaper, (Henderson: Chipotle, 2013).
Moore, Harold G. & Galloway, Joseph L., We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, (London: Corgi, 2002).

With Halloween just around the corner, we brush up on the art of zombie slaying with Royal Armouries’ Curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson.

Centrefire repeating shotgun

Centrefire repeating shotgun (PR.8711)

Is this the ideal zombie weapon? Well, not really…

It wasn’t the intention of the late George Romero, a progenitor of modern zombie culture best known for his zombie apocalypse films, but a lot of us seem to enjoy the killing of zombies. Relentlessly aggressive and violent, with little trace of humanity left and even some comedic value, zombies have become a sort of cultural stress toy. They’re still a threat en masse, but we’ve gone from running away from them to hunting them and even fantasising about the zombie apocalypse in some cases.

The evolution of zombies

The original zombies of folklore were mindless servants to a Voodoo (Vodou) slavemaster; something to be pitied, not killed. Just the idea of being the zombie was scary enough.

In Haitian folklore, they had to be fed salt to ‘die’ or be removed from the influence of the human magician (bokor) controlling them – in which case they might revolt against him as they so often do in the movies – though they stay zombified.

When Hollywood borrowed the zombie myth for its movies, the threat had to be more active and so the zombie slaves were weaponised as a creeping mass of grasping hands (no biting until Romero adapted aspects of vampire lore). To stop them you had to stop the human magician controlling them.

In White Zombie (1932) gunfire fails to even slow them down, just as in later movies. Later, the zombie became a self-contained threat; the bokor reflected in the mad scientist trope, or absent entirely. But they retained their resilience, either because they’re the walking dead, or because some virus or other has augmented them in some way (and yes, living zombies are still zombies.).

The movies of George Romero crystallised their ability to take a licking and keep on ticking with the classic quote ‘…remove the head, or destroy the brain’. So, ethical issues of zombie rights aside, what is the best defence against zombies (for the sake of argument, Romero’s version)?

The practicalities of firearms use

Whatever their political views, I think most people assume that the most effective weapon in a fantasy scenario like a zombie apocalypse will be a gun. Why wouldn’t it be? Well, mainly because zombies (mostly) can’t shoot back. Guns are used in real-world wars, civil conflicts, law enforcement and self-defence situations because both sides have access to them, can use them, maintain them, and ‘feed’ them with ammunition.

When you’re facing countless numbers of the unarmed undead, they actually make very little sense unless you’re also defending yourself from the living (which is another kettle of fish). You’re going to run out of ammunition very quickly, and keeping even a simple firearm operational over a period of years takes skill. Finding ammunition of the correct type that’s in good enough condition to use and not cause a stoppage is another problem.

Think more ‘Mad Max’ than ‘Dawn of the Dead’; even if you find a spare shotgun cartridge, it might not go off, depending on how it’s been stored and how many years out you are from the end of the world. Zombies add another level of difficulty; actually hitting the head. The history of conflict and law enforcement shows that headshots are extremely difficult to pull off, especially whilst the shooter and the target are both moving. Pistols make matters much, much worse.

Historically, cavalry would fire their pistols at contact range to ensure a hit. With zombies in groups, getting close would be a really bad idea. So our zombie fighter would need a shoulder-fired weapon like a rifle or shotgun if he/she insists on a gun. These, and especially any ammo you might scare up, add weight to your personal burden, as soldiers understand all too well. Finally, they typically make a lot of noise, which may be an issue if you’d rather not attract the attention of several thousand hungry corpses.

This Chinese mace (about 1350) may be more like it…


Chinese Mace with wooden shaft covered with ray-skin (XXVIC.82)

So perhaps guns aren’t ideal for the living dead. Other options fall under what we at the museum call ‘edged’ and ‘impact’ weapons, commonly referred to as ‘melee weapons’ (a result of role-playing games).

Some of the longer edged weapons like swords or machetes are a much better choice than firearms. ‘Blades don’t need reloading’ as aficionados like to point out. This is quite true. However, what they do need is a lot of skill to use effectively. They also do require maintenance, especially swords, which rely upon their blade and edge profile to effectively cut.

Most historical edged weapons (the ones that have survived) would have seen relatively little battlefield use by comparison with the lifetime of daily cutting and slicing that the typical zompocalypse scenario would demand. This is where a more robust edged weapon or even an edged tool like a machete, or better yet an axe like Rick’s hatchet would be a better choice.

Also, despite what we see in ‘The Walking Dead’, human skulls are not made of jam (or jelly, if you’re reading in the US). The human cranium has evolved to be extremely thick where they need to be and are also sloped all the way around. You simply can’t push a knife into a head (thankfully.), rotting or otherwise. Studies of historical wounding consistently show that it was possible to survive cutting head wounds, even before modern medicine was available.

They might take a human being out of the fight, but a zombie isn’t even going to notice. You could perhaps blind them, or remove their jaw, or cut off a grasping hand or two. But so much for ‘destroying the brain’. Even ‘removing the head’ is (without getting too gruesome) extremely difficult to pull off. Then of course in the present day, there’s the problem of finding a suitably strong reproduction or antique weapon to actually use.

This was the major drawback with my previous recommendation of a medieval/Renaissance-era bill; the simple staff weapon with a steel axe/spike head. That was my choice for a zombie apocalypse weapon from our collection. If we’re talking the ‘best’ full stop, then we have to consider the impact weapon; anything from a beautifully crafted medieval flanged mace, to a simple 2×4.


A 16th-century English bill (VII.1493)

Grab a lump of wood of your choice, and (to borrow from a different genre) ‘swing away’. Of course, handling and durability are concerns, but you can always just stop by the local sporting goods shop to grab another Shaun of the Dead-style cricket bat.

On paper, weapons like this seem to fit the bill. But would they really do the job? And how do other weapons stack up against zombies instead of their intended targets?

Visit our collections online to explore more potential weapons for dispatching the undead

As we eagerly anticipate the sequel of the science fiction cult classic ‘Blade Runner‘ (1981), we reacquaint ourselves with its iconic ‘blaster pistol’ with our Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson.

Known to aficionados as the ‘PKD’ (Steyr Pflager Katsumata Series-D Blaster or the ‘LAPD 2019’) the ‘Blade Runner’ blaster was designed and crafted for Harrison Ford’s weary future detective/enforcer Rick Deckard in the celebrated science fiction movie ‘Blade Runner’.

After decades of fanciful directed energy weapons (lasers, phasers, and energy-based ‘blasters’), it was the first of a series of more realistic, gritty movie firearms; guns that looked like they were from the future, but were actually an extrapolation from existing firearms technology and didn’t depend on as-yet undreamt-of power sources.

As an aside, we are a LONG way away from effective, portable directed energy weapons, let alone weapons capable of creating quantum singularities; batteries are just one problem in this respect. Modern cartridge firearms are just too efficient, reliable and cost-effective to be replaced anytime soon.

The actual ‘Blade Runner’ blaster prop was an ingenious disguise for a modern firearm; the relatively mundane ‘Bulldog’ .44 Special revolver from US company Charter Arms. This gave the blaster its chunky, slightly retro lines and enabled it to fire blanks similar to weapons used in ‘Star Wars’. Here though, no laser bolts would be animated in post-production; the prop would operate on screen much like a real revolver.

Five-shot revolver

Charter Arms Bulldog revolver. (PR.13778)

To take things into the near future, however, the ‘Bulldog’ was married to a bolt-action Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher Model SL (in .222 Remington, the predecessor of NATO’s current 5.56x45mm cartridge). In practical terms this combination made no sense; the rifle had no barrel (indeed, no chamber to accept a cartridge) and so the distinctive turned-down bolt handle on the side of the finished blaster had no real-world function. The rifle’s magazine was mounted below the barrel of the host revolver, so there was no way to feed cartridges to the upper ‘barrel’ either, even though the pistol’s two triggers reinforce the idea that this is a double-barrelled weapon. A plastic clamshell covers the revolver’s cylinder to further persuade the viewer that this is a totally new type of weapon. However, this means that there is no on-screen way to reload the thing either.

Some lurid transparent amber-coloured grips and some pointless sci-fi red and green LEDs complete the look. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m really not; it’s just interesting to peek behind the ‘movie magic’ curtain sometimes. In fact, these design choices were made for precisely these reasons; even students of arms and armour were stumped by the blaster at first sight. Interestingly, production designer Syd Mead (who also worked on ‘Aliens’ and ‘Star Trek’, among other franchises) originally penned a very futuristic ‘black hole gun’ that looked absolutely nothing like a modern firearm.

It clearly fills the role in terms of Hollywood detective and sci-fi movie tropes but remains mysterious and futuristic. Does it still fire bullets, or some special kinetic projectile that we can’t imagine? Is it a miniature railgun, with the ammunition stored in the Steyr’s magazine (with its glowing red lights)? Or is it really a directed energy weapon? Most viewers won’t care, but those of us that do see the weapon as almost as a character in its own right, akin to King Arthur’s Excalibur. This is certainly true of former MythBuster Adam Savage, who embarked on his own personal quest to perfectly recreate the blaster for his own collection.

An icon in movie history

The iconic status of the blaster is curious in a way. As in the case of the so-called ‘Han Solo’ blaster from ‘Star Wars’, the LAPD 2019 was very clearly used by more than just the one character and was intended to be an absolutely mundane, standard-issue weapon, not some special heroic weapon like ‘Excalibur’ or ‘Vera’ from ‘Firefly’. It’s the use of the weapon as part of the narrative that makes it somehow special, unique, and sought after by fans.

This month sees the release of the much-anticipated ‘Blade Runner: 2049‘, directed by Denis Villeneuve. It remains to be seen whether the movie, or the updated police service pistol wielded by Ryan Gosling, will be a success, but the design is a fairly radical departure from the classic look, with a stout barrel shroud, prominent trigger guard, and carbon fibre-look grip.

It will very likely not contain a real firearm but may have a recoil weight inside to provide feedback for the actor and reference for CGI muzzle flash instead of using blank ammunition (as the new ‘Star Wars’ movies have approached their blasters). I’m looking forward to seeing it in action in any case; the trailer looks great.

Here at the Royal Armouries, we are building a collection of screen-used and other movie props under a Heritage Lottery funded project called Collecting Cultures. Unfortunately, only one ‘hero’ prop is known of and even rubber ‘stunt’ versions are scarce. We will probably never be able to acquire one for the national collection of arms and armour, but who knows? After all, we did manage to get a Pulse Rifle from the film ‘Aliens’ (1986)

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson, gives us a peek at just some of the fascinating research that has gone into his article: ‘Trusty Bess’: the Definitive Origins and History of the term ‘Brown Bess’

‘Twas then I thought on trusty Bess;
Who, tho’ I knew she was but poor,
I always found a faithful Whore.’
-’Fecit Recantatio Versum’ by Thomas Brown (1730)

The smoothbore muzzle-loading musket, whether fitted with matchlock, flintlock or percussion lock, was the infantry soldier’s main weapon for three centuries. Many people today know the British version as ‘Brown Bess’, but where did this name come from? Academics and enthusiasts have debated this question for nearly 200 years, but as it turns out, the field of linguistics already had the answer, and it lay within the field of social history. Discovering this for myself, I decided to research and publish the definitive account of Bess. This blog post summarises my key findings.

False etymologies

Origins for words or phrases that are incorrect or made up are known as ‘false etymologies’. ‘Brown Bess’ has attracted her fair share over the years. Perhaps the most widespread is the idea that ‘Brown’ referred to a ‘browned’ barrel. Browning or bluing involves putting a protective coating on a gun barrel. In reality, the musket barrel was not browned until at least 1808. The word ‘brown’ does refer to the wooden stock of the weapon, but that is only the literal meaning – more on the metaphorical meaning later. The name is not a corruption of Germanic ‘Braun Büchse’ – Büchse meaning ‘gun’ – and certainly doesn’t derive from the ‘bus’ in ‘arquebus’, an earlier, less powerful firearm than the musket. ‘Brown Bess’ also has nothing to do with Queen Elizabeth I, nor, as in a lesser-known claim, to her gun founder Thomas Brown.

A long barrelled flintlock musket

The 1777 Short Land Pattern musket (XII.3091). One of many patterns worthy of the name ‘Brown Bess’

Trusty Bess

The key to this puzzle does lie in female nicknames, just not with good Queen Bess. ‘Bess’ was very common nickname for ‘Elizabeth’ across British society, but it was primarily one of the lower classes. Like ‘Nan’ for Anne and ‘Moll’ for Mary, ‘Bess’ was a generic and sometimes derogatory name, a bit like ‘Sheila’ in modern Australian English. It became an indicator of a low social and moral status, used to describe everyone from honest but lowly peasants to slaves, to ‘wanton’ women and sex workers, or those suffering from mental ill health.

The metaphorical meaning of ‘brown’ was something mundane or ordinary beyond just its colour, as some today might call a plate of samey, boring food ‘very brown’. The old English bill, a basic agricultural tool turned weapon of war, was known as ‘a brown bill’, and this carried over to the ‘brown musket’. This distinguished the ordinary weapon of the infantry from a fine officer’s fusil – a light musket – or a civilian sporting gun. It was rough, it was heavy, it was crude, but it got the job done and didn’t let you down.
The final piece of the puzzle is that the same meaning of ‘brown’ was also used for animals, and for people. ‘Brown Bess’ could be the name of a cow, or for a low-status woman. In this respect it was like the word ‘drab’; a thing could be ‘drab’, but so could a woman. The two words combined reinforced the message; ‘Bess’ might suggest that a woman was not necessarily a ‘lady’, but ‘Brown Bess’ was definitely not a girl that a respectable young man would take home to mother.
All of this is summed up very well in an essay published in 1720 by Whig polemicist Thomas Gordon:

‘They may think it hard to pay an honest Porter half a Crown, to lug about a brown Musquet for them when the Trained Bands march; but, let me tell them, they give a much greater Gratuity to a certain Sort of Swissers that come from Covent-Garden, And carry Arms in their Stead, on another Occasion.’

This is confusing to modern eyes, but Gordon is saying that some men are reluctant to pay taxes for another man to take their place in the militia – ‘trained bands’ – defending his town, but the same men are happy to send a lot more money to pimps, who he compares to ‘Swissers’ or mercenary soldiers, from Covent Garden – a well-known area for prostitution. The musket is directly compared to the low-status woman, here a sex worker; these men won’t ‘lug about a brown musquet’, but they will gladly ‘carry’ the pimps ‘arms’ or sex workers for them. The only thing missing here is ‘Bess’, but we know from Gordon Williams’ book ‘A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature’ that low-class women were being called ‘Brown Bess’ as early as the late 16th Century, and well into the 18th century.

The musket was thus cast as the soldier’s metaphorical wife, or sometimes as the mistress or prostitute that he would find on campaign. Brown Bess might be nothing remarkable, but ‘she’ was what a man needed. As military man John Shipp put it in his memoirs;

‘It is his best and dearest friend in time of need; his pillow on which he rests his weary head; it is his constant companion day and night ; it defends his name and honour against the encroachment of his enemies ; it is his dependance ; it warms his cold chilly bosom ; he is wedded to it in honour – bound to it by love – rivetted [sic] to it by long tried attachment. It is his great and sure peace-maker between him and his foes ; they seldom quarrel, save when she misses fire, but which is not intentional, but from the cold damps of night, and the silvery dews of morn, or the drenching rain. It is more – it is his shield that will ward off the impending blow of his foe’.

This curious relationship between man and gun has a long history of which ‘Brown Bess’ is only part. There isn’t space to cover this, but film buffs will recognise the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film ‘Full Metal Jacket’ where conscript soldiers are taught that their days of chasing girls are over and that they are now ‘married to this piece. This weapon of iron and wood’ (meaning their M14 service rifle). Female names for weapons are commonplace, from the medieval siege gun ‘Mons Meg’ to ‘Lebel Ma’m’selle’, a First World War nickname for the French Lebel rifle.

A long history

For many years the earliest written use of the name was thought to be this entry in Francis Grose’s famous dictionary of slang, first published in 1785: ‘Brown Bess. A soldier’s firelock. To hug Brown Bess; to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier‘.

This has led some to claim that ‘Brown Bess’ is historically incorrect in the early 18th century. An earlier reference was found in the American ‘Connecticut Courant’ newspaper issue of April 2, 1771, which was actually reprinted from British papers of earlier that year. This reported remarks made by Hannah Snell, famous for having successfully posed as a man and served as a soldier in the British army. Snell said: ‘…but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders and march through Germany as I have done.

an 18th century woman dressed as a man in a tricorn hat

Hannah Snell, a woman who passed as a male soldier.
Credit: Wellcome Library

In the course of my research, I was able to push things back even further and unearthed several previously unpublished examples. I will give the two earliest here. In 2010, archivist Avril Pedley found in the British Library a letter written by John Grose, a young British clerk in the service of the East India Company. In this letter, dated October 17, 1763, Grose reported being issued with a ‘Coat, Pair of Breeches and musket (alias Brown Bess)’ upon joining the local militia. There is a possible even earlier instance appears in an anonymous biography entitled ‘The Adventures of a Kidnapped Orphan’. It describes events that would have taken place during the 1750s but was not actually published until 1767. Of the titular ‘orphan’, the author wrote that ‘he began to handle Brown Bess with tolerable dexterity’.

The other interesting conclusion that I came to in this research is that those of us who study, collect, or re-enact with muskets have been far too restrictive in our use of ‘Brown Bess’. People who know their antique firearms tend to reserve the name for the ‘Long’ and ‘Short’ Land Pattern muskets that entered service from 1730, and some include the Board of Ordnance India Pattern introduced in 1793. In actual historical usage, however, the name applied just as much to the New Land flintlock musket of 1802 and also to percussion muskets, notably the Pattern 1842, which many today would never think to call ‘Brown Bess’. As the percussion rifle-musket became common in the mid-19th century, the name became derogatory; ‘Brown Bess’ was the obsolete old war horse being replaced by the latest cutting edge mass-produced rifle technology.

So there you are. Far from being an obscure name, ‘Brown Bess’ was simply an extension of an existing slang term for a common woman or sex worker. It reflected the soldier’s relationship with his personal weapon. We also now know that we can call any flintlock or percussion smoothbore musket in British service ‘Brown Bess’, just as our ancestors did.

For a chance to see ‘Brown Bess’ up close visit our Collections Online service.
If you’re interested in learning more about Jonathan’s research into the origins of ‘Brown Bess’ you can purchase his article from the Taylor & Francis website.

A movie icon is born

“I’d like to introduce you to a close personal friend of mine. M-41A pulse-rifle. 10 millimeter, with over and under 30 millimeter…pump-action grenade launcher”.

So Corporal Hicks tells Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986). In reality, of course, that weapon doesn’t exist yet, and this prop ‘rifle’ disguises a .45 calibre M1 Thompson sub-machine gun with parts from a SPAS-12 shotgun.

Director James Cameron personally designed the M-41A and much of the military equipment in ‘Aliens’.  The job of realising this futuristic but realistic-looking military rifle was given to British armourer Simon Atherton.

Cameron chose a World War Two Thompson sub-machine gun as the basis for the rifle. The sleek MP5 sub-machine gun he originally wanted didn’t have an impressive enough muzzle flash. Added to the Thompson were parts of two shotguns, a heat-shield and pump grip from a SPAS-12. A custom housing made by a car body manufacturer was fitted over the top along with a few custom parts. The wonderfully dramatic ammunition counter was only fitted to a few guns. This is a heavy gun and so a number of lightweight solid ‘stunt’ guns were also made. This was no doubt a relief to the actors who had to carry it.

On the few examples with a working ‘grenade launcher’, a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun was concealed inside the other parts though our example doesn’t have this.

Green plastic metal gun

The sequels

After Aliens, all but one of the pulse rifles were disassembled. Our M-41A pulse rifle was was rebuilt and sprayed black when it re-appeared in Alien 3 (1992). The sequel called for two more pulse rifles to equip the Weyland-Yutani operatives who appear at the end of the movie. Prior to sale, it was resprayed a more recognisable colour. The original paint, which we believe is still there under the later coats, was more of a brown colour. It has sustained wear and tear over the years, but its ‘beat up’ appearance was how Cameron envisioned it. He asked for the props to be deliberately bashed up in order to look like real military service weapons. This suited his intended aesthetic, a sort of ‘Vietnam in space’, and the tale of military might defeated by the primal horror of the alien.

Detail of the rifle's pump action

A more detailed history

Listen to Jonathan Ferguson explain more of the history of this remarkable piece of film history in the following video.

In October 2019 the Pulse Rifle joined many of our other popular culture objects in our ‘Make: Believe’ display in the Self-defence gallery in the museum in Leeds. Here we were able to display genuine examples of the various guns used to create the M41A, so that you can see how it all comes together to create one of sci-fi’s most legendary weapons. We also acquired and displayed with the rifle an original cinema poster depicting Ripley with newt and her taped-together Pulse Rifle and flamethrower as seen in the climactic rescue scene at the end of the film.

As co-curator of the display and the person responsible for collecting the M41A back in 2015, it’s my personal favourite object; the perfect mix of prop design and firearms history, used by numerous iconic characters throughout one of my all-time favourite films. It’s also rare for a movie prop, as although it features so heavily, is meant to be a standard issue weapon ‘in-universe’, and filming always requires multiple examples – our Pulse Rifle is one of only seven known examples (not including resin stunt versions). For me, although we have two blasters from the Star Wars movies and every fan has their favourite, the Pulse Rifle will always be the ultimate in sci-fi weaponry.

Get a closer look at this piece of silver screen history on our Collections Online website where you can zoom in on the images.

Heritage Lottery FundThis object was acquired with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Royal Armouries ‘Collecting Cultures’ project.