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M-41A ‘Aliens’ pulse rifle

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.

Heritage Lottery FundThis object was acquired as part of the Royal Armouries’ Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ project. It’s an ongoing project, but I think this will always be one of our star pieces; I don’t think it gets much more iconic than this. There are only six of these ‘hero’ props surviving, and ours is the only one in a museum collection.

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

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