By Robert Bruce
As most anyone who has experience with custom adapting semi- and fully-automatic small arms for blank firing will be quick to caution, “It ain’t easy.”
We spoke to some of the re-enactors who turned out for this year’s Tank Farm Open House about the trials, tribulations and often considerable expense involved. It quickly became apparent that a comprehensive look at the many technical challenges presented by a bewildering array of vintage weaponry would be far beyond the scope of this featurette.
So, what follows are a few photos to whet your appetite, snippets of conversation with “tricks of the trade” and some sources to get you started.
Military Issue BFAs
Aside from the obvious ease in which revolvers and bolt action rifles may be put to use, many semi and full auto military weapons have standard issue BFAs (blank firing adapters). These are devices that function with blank cartridges specifically manufactured for the purpose of safe and somewhat realistic tactical training.
Typically, these are external screw-on muzzle devices that restrict some of the propellant gas when firing in order to cycle the action. Examples include those for U.S. M1 Garands and .30 caliber Brownings that work splendidly with those distinctively stubby, government issue, red lacquer and cardboard-sealed blanks.
But these have several drawbacks including a conspicuous look that’s unacceptably phony to reenactment purists, and the nearly impossible task of finding long-obsolete GI blanks. Yes, they can be made to work with some of the newly manufactured crimped case blanks, but that’s not the real issue.
Long before there were enough reenactors to make it commercially viable to manufacture blank adapters that didn’t look like blank adapters, firms like Stembridge Gun Rentals in Hollywood were making their own for gangster and war movies.
These were typically machined in-house; made to hide inside barrels, compensators or flash hiders, and specially “tuned” to make Tommy Guns and the like function properly with custom loaded “hot” blanks.
It seems that GI blanks didn’t consistently produce enough flash for the film stock of the times so gun wranglers started rolling their own, adding flash powder and other things to the mixture. While these produced the spectacular flash that we have come to expect and demand, the resultant overpressure requires careful calculation of the gas restriction holes.
In Hollywood and everywhere else, it’s tricky to get the right combo of flash and reliable cycling of the mechanism without blowing the gun up. Hold that thought as you read on.
Serious re-enactors put a premium on looking right when they go into the field. Their uniforms, equipment and weapons have to be faithful to those of the soldiers being portrayed.
The sin of “farbyness” (a derogatory slang term in reenacting circles some contend is derived from inferior substitute items supplied to WW2 German soldiers and civilians by the I.G. Farben company and others) is to be avoided.
So the Hollywood BFA concept is near and dear to them for retrofitting real guns. To this end, today’s re-enactor community is supported by a surprisingly robust cottage industry of firms and individuals making hide-in-the-barrel devices and blanks to go with them.
Keeping in mind the absolute necessity for safety, it’s more than prudent to consult closely with your BFA maker and your blank supplier. Hole too big and blanks too weak and your gun’s a no-go. Hole too small and blanks too hot and your gun’s in pieces – some of which might be sticking in you or your buddies.
Blank Firing Replicas
NFA weapons – real live machine guns – are very, very expensive and there’s natural squeamishness about the kinds of machine shop mutilations that must be inflicted in many cases for blank adapting.
So consider the alternative provided by some clever replica makers offering subguns and the like that are relatively cheap and completely legal without all that government paperwork.
Gas Gun Kits
The last alternative we’ll explore here comes in the form of contraptions dispensing measured doses of oxygen-propane mixture that are electrically fired. Done right, they produce satisfyingly sustained bursts of flash and report that come close to real machine gun firing.
These have the advantages of being relatively inexpensive to build or purchase, they’re cheap to operate, and they rig up nicely to affordable non-gun replicas.
On the minus side is the farbyness of rubber hoses, battery boxes and twin “ammo” tanks. Not to mention the trickiness of getting the whole rig to work like it’s supposed to instead of producing the equivalent of faint farts.
Now, if you want to hit the woods or demonstration field for some safe and reasonably realistic battle reenacting, check out these sources. But before you start buying stuff to modify your guns, get plugged into a few of the bulletin boards and other forums. There, some RKIs (reasonably knowledgeable individuals) have already posted solutions to lots of vexing problems and just might be willing to point you in the right direction.
BFAs, Barrels, Etc.
Guiette Manufacturing, Inc.
Gun Parts Corp.
Atlantic Wall Blanks
Motion Picture Blanks
Boland Production Supply
Blank Firing Replicas
Collector’s Armoury, Ltd.
Replicas and Models, Inc.
Int’l Repo-Depot, Inc.
Bismark Guns and Artillery
Rolling Thunder Pyrotechnic Corp.
Firefox Enterprises, Inc
Z11 Pyro Supply
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V17N2 (June 2013)|