Ask A Reenactor: Yes, the Guns are Real
Part of the job description for reenactors is answering the multitude of questions that the public comes up with. Some questions are about history, some are about reenacting, but there are some questions that a reenactor is sure to answer at virtually any public event they attend. Quite possibly the most common question I get asked as a reenactor is:
“Is your gun real?”
99% of the time the answer is yes, yes it is.
The weapons that reenactors hold in their hands are almost guaranteed to be real weapons, capable of firing a real projectile. Not only that, but virtually all 20th century reenactors use original, wartime firearms, and many 19th century reenactors do as well. Most 18th century reenactors use carefully crafted replicas, but I’ve met a few folks who use original firearms for that period as well (mostly for display purposes).
Due to general public ignorance of gun laws, most of the folks who visit reenactments make the erroneous assumption that military firearms are illegal, and therefore assume that our weapons are fake. The fact of the matter is that most military firearms are quite legal to own without any paperwork whatsoever, and if you’re willing to going through the paperwork and fees to get a “Class 3” firearm permit, you can own just about anything. Reenactor’s weapons are, however, often the most expensive part of their equipment, with most weapons falling in the $600-$1000 range. Some firearms can cost as much as a new car, and Marc and I have a friend who owns a $35,000 German MG-42 machine gun from WWII.
A small portion of reenactor guns are not real. They are:
Blank-fire-only weapons: Blank-fire-only non-guns (called BFONGs) are guns that have been made specifically to only fire blanks and are incapable of firing a projectile. The ATF does not even consider these firearms, though they look and work just like the real thing and are still slightly dangerous. These are the only option for many reenactors in parts of the country or world with stringent gun laws. Many “open-bolt” weapons (such as Sten guns or PPSH-41s) that you see at reenactments are BFONGs due to the logistical nightmare of paperwork to legally own a real one.
Mockup (rubber or wooden) guns: These may be used on extremely rare occasions for weapons that are illegal or otherwise unobtainable. They are used for display purposes only. The MAT-49 Marc is holding in this picture is a wooden mockup. Mockups are considered a last resort, as they cannot be used at private, reenactor-only tactical events (since they cannot shoot) and they do not hold up to close scrutiny while on display at public living history events. Replica guns made for airsoft are also sometimes used in the same manner, but they are uncommon due to the same concerns as other mockups have.
Gas guns: So-called “gas guns” are firearms, typically machine guns, which have been modified to no longer fire a projectile, but have instead been gutted on the inside and have had a solenoid, spark plug, and two air regulators installed instead. Two hoses are attached to the gun – one for propane, one for oxygen. These gases, the regulators, the spark plug, and the solenoid are then carefully hooked up to the trigger of the gun in such a way that when the trigger is depressed, the gun appears to fire. What is actually happening is that a controlled series of explosions are occurring in the gun, modulated by the solenoid, which regulates the rate of fire. Marc and I own a WWI Maxim machine gun that has been converted to a gas gun, and it works wonderfully. Most gas guns are looked down upon in the hobby because they can be unreliable and most are not well made and don’t look or sound real, though some, like our Maxim, can fool even experts. To see a video of what a gas gun looks and sounds like, click here to see a video of Marc firing our Maxim gas gun (it is far, far louder than that video makes it sound).
A few bits about reenactors and their firearms:
When visiting a reenactment, it’s important to remember that the firearms that reenactors use are real and, even loaded with blanks, are dangerous. Never, ever touch a reenactor’s gun without their permission. Most will also request that they keep a hand on the weapon at all times while you handle it, for safety reasons. Many historical sites require this as a precaution, both to keep people from running off with our firearms and also to make sure that nobody loses fingers or an eye by doing something stupid.
During events, our weapons are loaded with “blanks” (like they use in the movies and on TV), which are still dangerous but contain no projectile. While most reenactors keep their reenacting weapons in a “blank-adapted” state, some only adapt them during events, and opt to leave them fully fireable the rest of the time. While I will talk more about blanks in another post, I will simply note here that it’s entirely possible to maim yourself pretty well with a blank, so always treat a weapon loaded with blanks as if it’s loaded with a live round.
Many reenactors take their period firearms to the shooting range, and some even use them to shoot competitively. Some reenactors are also collectors of historical firearms and have some very interesting and rare pieces in their collections. Those that shoot competitively and/or collect firearms often have two sets of guns: one set for use at reenactments, where they will likely be dirtied and potentially damaged, and another set that stays locked away except when in use at the range.