In 1971, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver in .44 Magnum was a hard sell, large and expensive. The company had in fact ceased production of this model due to a lack of sales. But any astute gun shop owner and movie fan at the time would have quickly purchased every Model 29 he could lay his hands on when the film Dirty Harry was released.
Clint Eastwood’s iconic portrayal of a rogue cop in San Francisco should have given a co-star credit to his 6.5-inch-barreled S&W Model 29, or as he put it in the film, “the most powerful handgun in the world.” The use and portrayal of the Model 29 as a crime-stopping hand cannon in this, and the two subsequent Dirty Harry films, created an incredible surge in demand. What few Model 29s were available started selling for as much as three times retail.
The firearms industry certainly took notice, and manufacturers eagerly continue the tradition of supplying firearms and gear to TV and film productions. It is essentially free advertising and better than any you could buy. Film and TV buffs notice what type of guns their heroes use and want the same thing, and when they show up in your shop, you want to make sure you have these items in stock. Nothing closes a sale faster than a customer seeing what he likes and immediately being able to touch it.
Of course, it is not always easy to tell what films or shows will become popular or what guns will be featured ahead of time. It is, however, unquestionable that movies and TV shows drive sales and, more recently, what people see as the latest and coolest tactical gear.
Films like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper feature specialized weapons used by American special operations forces that are not generally available to the public, but civilian versions of these guns and suppressors can stock your store shelves.
The popular television series The Walking Dead started out with survivors using rather pedestrian firearms, with the exception of Rick’s 6-inch stainless steel .357 Magnum Colt Python. In the most recent season, the band of zombie hunters has upped their game and is armed with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including AKs, SBRs, sniper ARs and H&Ks.
I spoke with Luis Rose of Sterling Arsenal, a tactical retail shop located in Northern Virginia in the Washington, D.C., area — which many outside the Beltway feel is ground zero for brainless zombie hoards — about how films and TV shows affect and drive his sales. He reminded me that it is not just fiction that drives sales but reality shows as well, like the popular marksmanship competition series Top Shot on the History Channel.
“Most of the shows on the Outdoor Channel do a great job of showcasing and promoting new products,” Rose said. “They provide good information and help to stimulate interest, but at times they seem more like infomercials.
“In contrast, shows like The Walking Dead incorporate interesting plots which insert the practical and situational application of firearms and other weapons and tools in often positive ways, connecting the viewer to that situation,” Rose added. “Customers at our shop often mention Walking Dead as well as films like Lone Survivor and Shooter.”
Sterling Arsenal also encourages its staff to mention TV and movie guns to help drive interest and sales.
“I will say to a customer: ‘Here’s an early 1970s Smith & Wesson model 29-2, just like the one Clint Eastwood used in the Dirty Harry,’ or ‘Here’s a Beretta M9 with threaded barrel and a silencer set up just like the one Carl has on Walking Dead,’ “ Rose explained.
“If a new firearm has been introduced on a popular show, I make sure we have a few of them at the shop,” Rose added.
Rose also uses movies and television shows to up-sell accessories and other services like red dots and customization.
“[I] will ask a customer: ‘Would you like a Trijicon ACOG and get your rifle Cerakoted, configured like on Lone Survivor?’ “ Rose said.
The shop also features a large screen TV where clips from popular films and TV shows are displayed featuring guns in the store. Tactical training DVDs, which are sold in the shop, can also help drive sales.
Of course, if weapons are being improperly handled or some director decides to play fast and loose with the actual capabilities of a firearm (think endless capacity magazines, revolvers that blow the doors off cars and shotguns that send bad guys flying through the air), this creates a false impression for the viewer, which gun shops sometimes have to address.
I spoke with several industry leaders who routinely work with Hollywood producers to find out what are the best gun movies out there.
“I was impressed with the all-around authenticity/feel of American Sniper, and they seemed to get the gear right. From a weapons and gear standpoint, I think Zero Dark Thirty really nailed it as well, same with Lone Survivor,” said SilencerCo’s Josh Waldron. “For tactical movement, it’s hard to beat the alley scene from Collateral with Tom Cruise. Say what you will about him, but that scene was spot on.”
John Hollister, SIG Sauer’s suppressor product manager, has worked extensively with TV and film producers and has his favorites as well.
“As a Gun Guy, for me one of the best gun movies is Way of the Gun. The gun handling is probably the best I have seen,” he says. “The best single gun scene for me would be the running gun battle in Heat. I’m also a big fan of Michael Mann’s direction in action movies. He generally goes out of his way to be technically correct.”
It certainly does the retail gun shop little good if the products featured on movies and TV that its customers want are not available. Manufacturers are aware of this and work hard to keep tactical retailers well supplied.
According to Waldron, “The incredible growth and demand for silencers has put us in a position of constant production. So we’re more or less running on all cylinders to meet orders from distributors.”
Firearms are far from the only gun product featured in TV and films, and accessories that make guns more effective and practical (and let’s face it, cooler as well) often play a supporting role. The suppressor market is increasing as awareness of legal ownership in the vast majority of states becomes more well-known, and thanks to their use in films like Zero Dark Thirty and TV shows like The Walking Dead.
According to Rose, Sterling Arsenal has witnessed a notable surge in interest.
“2014 was all about silencers. The Walking Dead did an excellent job incorporating silencers into the plot of the show over the past couple seasons,” Rose says. “Customers have come into the shop this past season and recognized the H&K MK23 and SilencerCo Osprey. I hear a lot of folks say, ‘hey, there’s Rick’s gun, can I get that?’ and of course we say yes.”
Joshua Waldron at SilencerCo is also excited about the state of the industry.
“We’ve gotten some pretty good airtime this season on AMC’s The Walking Dead. We’ve also been featured in NBC’s State of Affairs, and also some video games currently in development that will hopefully have SilencerCo products in prominent roles,” Waldron says.
His company has also used this in its marketing on social media and elsewhere.
“When you see the Osprey on the end of Rick’s gun in Walking Dead, and you know exactly what it is, and who made it,” Waldron says. “I’d say anytime someone sees our product on TV or in a movie it legitimizes both our company and the need for suppressed firearms.”
John Hollister at SIG Sauer provided other positive images of suppressors in film and TV, and he works closely with the industry to ensure a positive and accurate portrayal.
“I work with several of the prop houses that provide equipment for different movies to supply their needs, be it equipment or technical assistance,” Hollister said. “I have also worked with writers to get technical aspects of the equipment right.”
At the end of the day, a TV show or film is still a work of fiction or an artistic rendition of a real event.
“There are things done in movies to advance the story or help the audience relate to a plot point that might be less than technically correct,” said Hollister. “For the silencer side, there has long been a perception that if someone has a silencer, they must be a bad guy or up to no good. Today, with military and law enforcement using more and more silencers and educational efforts on the consumer side, we see more good guys in movies using silencers.”
Being a visual medium, films often take advantage of laser sights. One memorable use of lasers was in the film Predator, although that was not on a gun and I have yet to convince a manufacturer to develop a shoulder-mounted triple-beam laser.
Probably the most iconic weapon-mounted laser in film history was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top-mounted red laser on an AMT long slide stainless steel 1911 in The Terminator. I know it made me want to buy one.
Lasers, of course, have serious practical applications that extend far beyond Hollywood visual effects. For a gun shop, having a low-light area that features lasers can help close a sale, and if you really want to impress, try combining an infrared laser with night-vision scopes or goggles. This is what Luis Rose has done at Sterling Arsenal, where he allows customers to try both out.
Mike Faw at Crimson Trace declined to discuss the multiple TV and film projects in development with their products, but he did drop some hints.
“We have two blockbuster movies coming out this summer that will prominently show our products. Of course lasers were featured prominently in films like Zero Dark Thirty,” Faw said. “As people see laser sights in use in more and more films, they will be seen as less futuristic and more mainstream and available.”
To really impress customers, try using green lasers as well, which are far more visible to the human eye and work a lot better in daylight conditions. The beam is often strong enough to see, especially if you haven’t dusted the shop in a while. Green lasers are being featured in more films and TV shows as well.
Andy Scott, Director of Sales at Viridian Green Laser Sights, explained how his company maximizes its exposure when its products appear in TV or movies.
“We have been featured on CBS’s Numbers and other shows. When this happens, we get the info to our reps and top customers and also promote on it our website and other marketing efforts,” Scott says. “The great thing is that our products are so visible that producers often go above and beyond to make it look really neat.”
Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx used Viridian Green Lasers in the 2013 film White House Down to fight off terrorist and regain control of the White House. Tatum specifically used the powerful Viridian X5L.
The company issued a press release to capitalize on the film. Viridian President Brian Hedeen said at the time, “Our products have appeared in primetime network dramas, cable programs, and the popular video game Modern Warfare 2, but this is especially exciting exposure for us.”