The 1980s was the decade for action movies. A lot of people say that First Blood marks the beginning of the modern action movie. Sure, there were movies with a lot of action made before that — lots of war movies and westerns for sure, not to mention disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and the like.
But the ’80s action movie was different. The run-times were short, usually around 90 minutes, and other than a few breaks for exposition, they were wall-to-wall action with simple dialog and simple premises that were set up and let run wild.
To fill all that action, these movies needed guns. Lots of guns.
Some cutting-edge weapons of the day became the darlings of Hollywood, showing up constantly. Other movies opted to sandwich existing firearms together to make all-new prop guns of varying functionality. Here are some of the coolest to ever hit the screen.
M41A Pulse Rifle: Aliens (1986)
James Cameron followed up Ridley Scott’s deliberately paced, suspenseful sci-fi horror epic from 1979 with an action-packed thrill ride of a sequel that saw Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) face off against a whole colony of xenomorphs, and this time, she has a platoon of U.S. Colonial Marines (USCM) to back her up, with the appropriate hardware.
In the first movie, they couldn’t use any weapons other than flamethrowers because they were on a spaceship, and guns tend to put holes in things, and holes are really bad for spaceships. But the sequel is set mostly on the same alien planet where Ripley’s crew found the facehugger eggs in the first movie, so there are plenty of guns.
The most memorable is undoubtedly the fictional standard issue rifle for the USCM: the M41A Pulse Rifle. We get a good breakdown of the gun in the movie when Hicks (Michael Biehn) shows Ripley how to use one.
In the movie, the gun fires 10mm caseless armor-piercing ammunition from a magazine with a 99-round capacity, with the ammo count displayed on an LED side panel in distinctive red numbers. We can assume it’s not a 100-round mag because they only had two numbers on the panel.
Additionally, there is a pump-action 30mm grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. Its shells looks like suspiciously like dressed up 12-gauge shotgun shells, and there’s a good reason.
The prop guns for the movie were anything but futuristic. They were built on WWII-era M1A1 Thompson submachine guns. The grenade launcher was made from a cut-down pump-action 12 gauge shotgun with the distinctive heatshield and foregrip of the Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun added to it. Only one M41A Pulse Rifle had a functioning shotgun.
A custom aluminum shell brought all these pieces together and hid some of the Thompson’s more distinctive features, but once you know what’s under there, you can’t unsee it — but it doesn’t make you want one any less, either.
MP5 Submachine Gun
The MP5, in its various configurations, is arguably the most recognizable submachine gun in the world. While it was pretty much in every movie that featured a SWAT team or a large group of armed bad guys in the 1990s, you started seeing the MP5 everywhere in ’80s movies.
Sometimes they were what the bad guys were outfitted with, sometimes they were the hero’s gun. The terrorists in Die Hard (1988) were armed with MP5s, and consequently, so was John McClane (Bruce Willis) after he took out a few of them.
The gun made appearances in Lethal Weapon (1987) and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), with Mel Gibson using one in both; it also showed up in two James Bond movies in the ’80s, both with Timothy Dalton playing 007: The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989).
Arnold Schwarzenegger also rocked an MP5 in Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986)and The Running Man (1987). Several of Arnold’s teammates carry MP5s in Predator (1987), either as a primary or back-up weapon. Sylvester Stallone even used one in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), though he only has it for a short time and never fires it.
The bad guys used MP5s in Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987), and, of course, the MP5 is everywhere in Navy SEALs, which, even though it was released in 1990, it’s still an ’80s action movie at heart.
Something that’s fun to spot is when a movie’s armorer was able to use genuine MP5s, or if they converted semi-auto guns to full-auto to stand in for MP5s. There’s a really easy way to tell. Actual MP5s have a lever-type magazine release right in front of the trigger guard — the semi-auto version has a push-button magazine release and the noticeable lever release will be absent.
SPAS-12 Shotgun: The Terminator (1984)
The SPAS-12 was, and still is, a favorite of Hollywood armorers. Even though the gun has been out of production for 20 years, it still shows up in movies and on TV shows. The 12 gauge shotgun, which could be fired in semi-auto or pump-action modes, had extremely distinctive looks — especially with its cool top-folding stock — but was still easily recognizable to audiences as a shotgun.
It was designed with the two modes so police and military personnel could run lower-powered breeching rounds and less-lethal ammunition with the pump, while still having the advantages of semi-auto fire when using full-powered buckshot rounds.
That same versatility makes it well suited for films and TV, as the pump-action mode allows it to cycle low-powered blanks easily, which can cause problems in semi-auto shoguns. Plus, it’s just plain intimidating on screen.
While the shotgun was used in a whole bunch of movies from 1990 onward, it made some notable appearances in the ’80s in The Hitcher, Robocop, and Beverly Hills Cop 2, but it’s most famous ‘80s roles came in The Terminator (1984).
The SPAS-12 is one of the guns the titular character, played by a young Schwarzenegger, takes from the gun shop in the first act to build his arsenal. It’s the last gun he asks the clerk to take off the rack for him, before shooting him with it.
The Terminator later uses the shotgun with the stock removed, along with an old-school AR-18, to attack the police station as part of his quest to assassinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). While you usually see the SPAS-12 used as a pump gun in movies, the Terminator uses it in semi-auto mode, as he often fires it one handed, the other holding the AR-18, which is also stockless. This is possible because, well, the Terminator is an ultra-strong cyborg — and Arnold was really big back then. Just watch him use full-size M16A1s like pistols in Commando and that’s all the proof you’ll need.
Super Assault Rifle: Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988)
The Missing in Action film series is a strange one. The first two movies were shot back to back and were intended to be released in sequential order, the first film telling the story of Col. James Braddock (Chuck Norris) and his capture as a POW during the Vietnam War, and eventual escape.
The second film was supposed to tell the story of Braddock returning to the POW camp where he was held during the war to rescue captives still held there. But, the movies weren’t made by the same production team. What was supposed to be the first movie came out crappier than what was supposed to be the second, so Canon simply reversed the order, releasing Missing in Action in 1984, with Braddock returning to the camp in the 1980s and his initial time as a captive shown in brief flashbacks. Then Missing in Action 2: The Beginning was released as a prequel in 1985.
I always thought the producers got a look at the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II while it was in production, and pushed the sequel out first because it had such a similar plot. The third Braddock movie came in 1988 and the hero even borrowed some of Rambo’s aesthetics, choosing to go into the jungle in all-black fatigues with a really ginormous firearm.
Braddock carries an insane gun during his assault on the camp where his 12-year-old son is being held near the end of the movie. When gearing up, he visits a weapon cache he stashed and grabs the over-the-top firearm, which is a G3A4 battle rifle with a six-round rotary grenade launcher mounted under the barrel and a spring-loaded bayonet at the muzzle. Naturally, it is only ever fired from the hip. I guess we can give it a realism point since Braddock actually uses a sling to heft some of its weight, and he even reloads the rifle … once.
That revolving grenade launcher is a thing of fiction and is actually a customized AN/M5 Pyrotechnic Discharger. If it looks familiar, it’s the exact same rotary launcher used by Poncho in Predator released a year prior, though he used it as a standalone firearm.
M60 Machine Gun
The M60, or as troops fighting in the Vietnam War called it, “The Pig”, is a ubiquitous firearm in any military movie from that period, but in the ’80s, shortened versions of the belt-fed machine gun became the awesome gun du jour for action movies that wanted to make a statement about firepower.
The trend undoubtedly began when John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) used a full-size M60 to tear up a town in First Blood (1982). In 1985, the sequel came along and Rambo again used an M60, but this time, the shortened, improved M60E3 with its distinctive silhouette and vertical foregrip. Rambo, firing the M60E3 one handed with a belt of ammo wrapped around his other arm and explosions all around him is one of the iconic images of the ’80s.
That same year, Arnold used an M60E3 in his one-man-army movie, Commando, though the gun looks a bit smaller against his frame.
At the time, the E3 was brand new, having just been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps. It would be the last iteration of the M60 to see wide service, as it was largely replaced by the M240. Mac (Bill Duke) also carries an M60E3 as his primary weapon in Predator.
The original M60 was a veritable ’80s movie star, showing up in The Exterminator (1980), First Blood (1981), Uncommon Valor (1983), Blue Thunder (1983), Octopussy (1983), Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), Red Dawn (1984), Missing in Action (1984), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Die Hard (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Casualties of War (1989), and others.
Handheld Minigun: Predator (1987)
Predator begins with a team of commandos fast-roping into a South American jungle on what they believe to be a rescue mission. Of course, each man is armed, but with a variety of weapons, but we aren’t introduced to the squad’s most badass gun until they discover the mysteriously mutilated bodies of another special forces team strung up in the jungle.
That’s when Mac (Bill Duke) declares to Blain (Jesse Ventura) that it’s time to “let Ol’ Painless out of the bag.” Ol’ Painless is a handheld rotary barrel machine gun capable of cutting down a swath of jungle all on its own while feeding from a backpack-style ammo box.
This gun was just shockingly awesome when this movie came out, and was like nothing anyone had ever seen. The fact that it could never have really functioned didn’t matter at all.
The gun is actually a heavily modified M134 Minigun, which is usually mounted on some kind of vehicle like a helicopter. To make it into something that could be carried by an actor, the handguard from an M60 machine gun was installed backward beneath the rotating barrels. A rear inverted pistol grip was added with a trigger, which is attached to the gun via a custom Y-shaped frame with an M60-style carry handle mounted on the recoil absorbers.
Normally, an M134 fires at a blistering 6,000 RPM. For the movie, this was turned down to 1,250 RPM, so the cameras could actually capture if firing instead of only getting a blur, and so it didn’t launch the actors backward into the jungle.
Also, the real gun is electrically powered, meaning the set-up, as shown in the movie, couldn’t possible work. When an actor fired it on screen, the gun was hooked up to a bunch of batteries off camera, with a power cable running up the actor’s pant leg to the gun. It was also controlled by a technician off-screen — the trigger didn’t actually work.
While Arnold didn’t get a chance to shoot the beast in this movie, he got behind the trigger of the same gun when it was used in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), though the M60 forend was removed in favor of a chainsaw type top grip — which is appropriate, as Venture said using the gun was like “shooting a chainsaw.”
For a holiday treat, you can see Lee Majors in Scrooged, playing himself and using what appears to be the same exact Minigun from Predator to defend Santa’s workshop from terrorists in the movie-within-a-movie The Night the Reindeer Died.
So there you have it, a round-up of some of the 1980s’ coolest movie guns. Which one is your favorite? Did we forget one? Be sure to click the forum link below to comment.
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