Local prop gun armorer explains how real guns should be kept safe on set

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A Bakersfield man has regrettably found himself thrust into the spotlight as an expert analyst on movie firearms: prop guns.

Armorer Larry Zanoff was not working on the Alec Baldwin film “Rust,” but he knows enough about the use of guns and Western-genre movies to enlighten those who are asking how a tragedy like that could have happened.

The death of film cinematographer Halyna Hutchins has brought the job of the armorer, the person who handles the guns, to the foreground. Curiosity and speculation about Zanoff’s job has had his phone ringing off the hook as movie professionals try to process the film-set tragedy in New Mexico.

Zanoff, who moved to Bakersfield in 1991 to work for Calico Light Weapons Systems, a manufacturer of firearms now located, under new ownership, in Nevada, is the assistant manager at Independent Studio Services rental armory. ISS, one of the world’s largest prop houses, supplies prop guns and other movie props to the film industry.

ISS props have turned up in everything from the smallest commercials to major motion pictures like “Django Unchained” and the Marvel superhero franchise, as well as TV shows like “CSI” and “NCIS.”

“For example, we might have a rubber gun, a replica gun, and then a real version of the gun that we utilize four firing blanks, and we interchange those different props depending upon the scene that is required in the particular film,” Zanoff said. “Of course firearms are a controlled item, and we maintain what’s called dominion and control over these firearms at all times.”

“They’re either in a locked box or they’re in our hands or the actor’s hands,” Zanoff added. “Those are the only possibilities for that firearm.”

Zanoff procures, inspects, handles, and sometimes hands off prop guns on film sets.

“When you see certain scenes in film or television, and you see gunfire going off, a good professional armorer is literally right outside the frame,” he said. “Like if you moved the camera six inches, you’d see them standing right there, next to the actor, maintaining control and safety over the firearms, the actors, the crew, themselves, so there are no mishaps.”

Zanoff, who developed much of his expertise with firearms decades ago as a soldier in the Israeli army, said it’s almost inconceivable that a gun containing a live round found its way onto the set of the Alec Baldwin Western, much less placed in the hands of an actor rehearsing a scene.

“Is there any reason to have live cartridges on a television/film set? The answer is no,” he said. “Our own industry guidelines, safety bulletin number one, clearly states that there is no reason to ever have live ammunition on set. Obviously safety is the reason for that, and so that is the guideline that we’re supposed to follow.”

Zanoff said he has never had an oversight even remotely like what occurred on the set of “Rust.” He added he won’t speculate on how a hot gun with a live round might have gotten into an actor’s hands or who might have been to blame.

He said, let the investigators do their jobs. But he noted this tragedy is almost without precedent.

“It’s extremely rare to have mishaps like this,” he said. “The industry is full of some very dedicated professionals. But as long as you hire the right people, and they’re filling the right positions and everything, this kind of thing very rarely happens, if at all.”

Zanoff said he does not think the tragedy that happened on the set of “Rust” will change the way guns are handled on film sets, but he does hope all of the attention on the job of the film armorer will bring intense focus on the need for strict adherence to gun safety protocols in the industry.

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