What Is a Prop Gun, How Can It Kill? Alec Baldwin Discharges Firearm, Killing Crew Member

A cinematographer was killed and a director injured in an accident involving a prop gun fired by Alec Baldwin on Thursday.

Halyna Hutchins, 42, was killed, and director Joel Souza injured, when a prop gun fired by Baldwin malfunctioned during the filming of upcoming western Rust, New Mexico police said.

The prop gun was filled with blanks but discharged in an incident that is still being investigated by authorities, Newsweek previously reported.

A prop gun loaded with a blank cartridge still has the potential to harm or even kill due to the fact that while it does away with a bullet, the gunpowder remains with its associated explosive power.

The Wrap reported that, as is often the case when incidents like this occur, there is still confusion about what actually went wrong. They explained that while the term "prop gun" can often refer to a non-functional weapon like used in a theatre performance or even a child's cap gun, the term also encompasses a real gun used as a prop.

In a 2019 article for American Cinematographer, firearms training specialist and coach Dave Brown explained why real guns filled with blanks are often used in film production.

Brown, who during his 25-year career working in Hollywood has overseen movies like Capote, Curse of Chucky, and Nobody, said: "The reason is simple: We want the scene to look as real as possible. We want the story and characters to be believable.

"Blanks help contribute to the authenticity of a scene in ways that cannot be achieved in any other manner. If the cinematographer is there to paint a story with light and framing, firearms experts are there to enhance a story with drama and excitement."

Brown adds that the use of a real firearm on a movie set requires the presence of a well-trained, experienced, and calm gun safety expert to ensure guns are correctly handled. That is because, as this incident shows, a gun loaded with blanks can still be lethal.

To see why this is Mental Floss examined the difference between a bullet and a blank. Technically, the proper name for a blank is a blank cartridge.

A cartridge is a shell placed in a gun that contains gunpowder or explosive gas at its base, and in a live cartridge, a bullet at its tip. A bullet is a metal projectile that flies forward when a gun's trigger is pulled and the firing hammer strikes the base of the cartridge igniting the gunpowder, launching the bullet.

A blank does away with this metal projectile altogether. Instead, the shell that usually houses the bullet is crimped over or covered with soft wadding, often paper, plastic felt, or cotton.

What a blank doesn't do away with is the gunpowder in the back of the metal shell. This means that when the trigger is pulled on a gun containing a blank, a convincing gunshot noise is heard, and a muzzle flash is seen because gunpowder is still being ignited. There just isn't a projectile emerging from the barrel of the gun.

Yet, this doesn't mean blanks can't hurt or kill someone.

In fact, Mental Floss goes on to explain that some blanks can actually be loaded with more gunpowder than a live cartridge, giving them more explosive power with no projectile to launch.

"Blanks aren't toys," firearms dealer Bob Lesmeister told the website. "You have to remember that the force of the exploding gas is great enough to fire a bullet."

And this isn't the first case of a blank killing someone during the production of a film or TV show. In 1984, Jon-Erik Hexum, lead actor of the CBS show Cover-Up was engaging in horseplay in between takes while filming the crime drama show.

Entertainment Weekly reported that, in response to filming delays, he placed the barrel of a prop Magnum 44 he had been provided to his temple said "Can you believe this crap?" before pulling the trigger.

The blast from the blank fractured the actor's skull and drove a bone fragment around the size of a quarter into his brain. Hexum was rushed to the Beverly Hills Medical Center, where he passed away after eight hours of surgery.

Hexum's mother Gretha Hexum later won an out-of-court settlement with Twentieth Century Fox Television and Glenn Larson Productions regarding the actor's death.

Perhaps the most infamous death involving prop firearms on the set of a movie was that of Brandon Lee. The actor, son of Bruce Lee, was killed in 1993 while filming an adaptation of comic book The Crow.

An article on History.com said following an investigation, it was discovered the gun that killed Lee had been loaded with dummy cartridges for the filming of a close-up scene. These cartridges should have been removed and replaced with blanks before it was fired.

The police found that as this happened, a tip of a cartridge, the bullet element, broke away and was left in the gun. This meant the loaded blank had enough explosive power to launch a bullet into Lee's abdomen.

Following the accidental shooting on the set of Rust, cinematographer Hutchens was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital by helicopter, where she died as a result of her injuries.

Director Souza was taken to Christus St. Vincent's hospital and has now been released according to a Twitter post by actor Frances Fisher. The filming location of Rust has been closed as an investigation into the incident continues.

Alec baldwin
An image of actor Alec Baldwin at Hamptons International Film Festival on October 07, 2021. While filming, the actor has involved in a incident in which a prop gun killed one person and injured another. Mark Sagliocco/getty