This summer, we hit a sci-fi movie milestone. The original Alien, directed by Ridley Scott in 1979, turns 40.
Four decades ago, Scott made extraterrestrials scary again after their image had softened a bit in movies since the heyday of sci-fi creature features. In 1977, Steven Spielberg used cutting edge special effects to give viewers his vision of a benign race of alien explorers who visit Earth to make contact with humanity, though their intentions aren’t clear until the end of the movie.
Scott decided to take things in the complete opposite direction, while also using modern special effects with outstanding results. Instead of taking place on Earth, Alien was set in the distant future on a large space ship that works as an interstellar tug boat ferrying large amounts of cargo.
While on a return trip to Earth, the mostly blue-collar crew is awoken by the ship’s computer (called “Mother” and given a sort of ominous text-only personality like a more bureaucratic Hal 5000) when a distress signal is detected in deep space from an uninhabited planet named LV-426. The rest, as they say, is history.
GUNS of Alien (1979)
If you ask people if there are any guns in Alien, they’ll probably say no, and then amend that when they remember the harpoon gun Ripley uses at the end. But…there actually were some weapons on the Nostromo.
Their presence is greatly downplayed in the theatrical cut of the movie, but they are a bit more visible in the Director’s Cut of Alien, released on the movie’s 20th anniversary in 1999.
Before the expeditionary crew heads out to the surface of LV-426 to investigate the derelict ship that drew them in with its distress beacon, Dallas (Skerritt) tells the crew to break out the weapons, which we see in the photos above.
The laser pistol is based on a Swiss Rexim-Favor submachine gun cut down to pistol size. A smaller version was made from a Webley Junior Mk II air pistol. We never see the arms used, so how do we know they’re laser guns? Thanks to the novelization of the movie, of course. That’s when someone writes a novel based on the movie and its script. These inexpensive paperbacks were a lot more popular before the advent of home video, but they are still sometimes produced today.
The adult actors used the Rexim-Favor based guns when they are in full-sized spacesuits, exploring the wreck— whereas the Webleys were used when the scenes were shot with children in scaled down spacesuits to make the props look larger.
We never see the laser pistols fired, but they are visible in holsters on the crew’s spacesuits and Kane (Hurt) is seen holding one in the Director’s Cut. Why the crew only arms themselves with flamethrowers and not the pistols while battling the Alien aboard the Nostromo is a mystery, but one could conclude that the laser pistols are too powerful and would blast a hole right through the Xenomorph along with the hull of the ship.
The crew’s primary weapons against the Xenomorph are self-contained flamethrowers that are cobbled together by Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and we see Dallas, Ripley, and Parker used them at different times.
In a scene that was previously deleted but re-inserted for the 2003 Director’s Cut, Ripley uses the flamethrower to incinerate an alien nest that was being built. We also see Dallas has been cocooned and prepared for impregnation like the settlers we see in the sequel Aliens.
The flamethrowers appear to have binary fuel tanks, or a fuel tank and another filled with either compressed air or a gas.
When Ripley is cornered by the Xenomorph in the escape pod after destroying the Nostromo, she finds a pistol-like harpoon gun in the locker with the space suit she climbs in. We’re calling it a harpoon gun, but it was likely a compressed-gas powered grappling gun for launching a tether on a space walk, especially since it was stored with the suit.
After opening the airlock in the pod, she uses the gun to knock the Xenomorph out of the door and into the void of space.
GUNS of Aliens (1986)
When James Cameron made a sequel to one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, he had a lot to live up to. So instead of trying to make something that was like the original, he went in a completely different direction and made what he knew how to make best at the time: a visually stunning action movie.
Whereas Alien used claustrophobia, isolation, and darkness to up the tension felt by a small crew being hunted by a horrifying alien creature aboard a space ship surrounded by light years of emptiness—the sequel ups the ante in every respect…instead of one alien, there are dozens, and a queen alien that tops them all—instead of a small crew of blue-collar workers, the humans are a cadre of well trained and well armed Space Marines.
While it’s wholly different from the original, it is regarded as equal if not better than the first film by many fans. It also established a lot of the mechanics and mythos of the Xenomorphs that were only hinted at in Alien. And Cameron being Cameron, he paid a lot of attention to the fictional guns in the movie, which were all real guns underneath the Hollywood.
As with the original, find a Blu Ray that includes the Director’s Cut of Aliens and watch it if you haven’t seen the movie in a while. Cameron was forced to cut some great material for a shorter run time as the film was seen and promoted more like an action movie. The once deleted scenes fit very well in the movie and provide a much more complete story and help fill in a few tiny plot holes as well.
We also get to see the cool Space Marines’ automated Sentry Guns, which fans were first introduced to in video games before the deleted scenes were added back in.
M41A Pulse Rifle
Perhaps one of the most famous sci-fi firearms of all time, the Marines of the United States Colonial Marine Corps (USCM) use the M41A Pulse Rifle as their standard issue firearm. It gets a bit of description in the dialog as well and is described as a futuristic, compact assault weapon with a 99-round magazine of 10mm caseless armor-piercing ammunition.
Beneath the barrel, it also features a 30mm pump action grenade launcher.
On the side, the rifle has an LED readout displaying the number of rounds remaining in the magazine, a feature that gets quite a few close-ups as Ripley runs out of ammo in the third act, and something we’ve all wanted on a gun ever since.
The futuristic gun is actually built on a WWII-era M1A1 Thompson submachine gun fitted with a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun to serve as the “grenade launcher” augmented with the distinctive heat shield and foregrip of a Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun.
According to imfdb.org, only one Pulse Rifle on the set had a functioning shotgun unit attached.
The Pulse Rifle has a custom-made aluminum shell concealing its parts. And although the guns appear to be painted a shade of olive green throughout the movie, they were actually painted brown, but appeared green under the predominantly blue on-set lights. This is why it’s also difficult for fans to recreate the exact color of the paint on the Marines’ body armor.
After the movie wrapped, all but one of the Pulse Rifles (the “hero” gun with the functioning shotgun unit) were broken down. The surviving rifle was used as a set piece in Alien 3 years later.
In the final act of the film, Ripley uses some heavy tape to fasten a Pulse Rifle to an M240 Flamethrower when she goes into the bowels of the colony to rescue Newt (Carrie Henn) from the alien queen. She also wears a vest with extra ammo and grenades.
The large contraption hangs from a thick sling on Ripley’s shoulder, and she uses the rifle, the grenade launcher, and the flamethrower to battle the queen and destroy her crop of face-hugger eggs while rescuing Newt.
Now a bit about the grenade launcher. While it may seem undersized, we do get a look at the “grenades” and they appear to be about the same size as a 12 gauge shotgun shell, and they also look a little like CO2 cartridges.
We also see that the grenades are multifunctional. They can be used in the launcher, or they can be used by hand. As we see in the air duct scene in the second act, the top can be popped off the grenade revealing a button that will start a delayed fuse when pressed.
We can assume that the grenade rounds are stored in a tubular magazine, as the launcher is built from a pump action shotgun…well, two pump action shotguns, the Remington 870 and SPAS 12.
We get a good close-up of Ripley grabbing a bunch of extra grenades as she’s gearing up to face off against the queen alien and taping her rifle to the flamethrower.
Two Marines in the squad, PFC J. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Pvt. M. Drake (Mark Rolston) use a heavy machine gun designated in the movie as the M56 Smart Gun (that comes from the pages of “Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual.”
Like all the guns in the movie, there were real guns underneath. The Smart Guns were built from WWII-era German MG42 machine guns with the grip and stock removed. The body-mounting apparatus was famously built from a Cinema Products Model III Steadicam harness with the arm attached on the left side, which was then bolted to the MG42,s rear sight bracket with a custom clamp.
The two rigs in the movie aren’t identical as they had to be modified a bit for the very differently sized actors. Some futuristic embellishments on the Smart Guns were constructed from motorcycle parts, most notably the handlebars from a 1976 Husqvarna Maguar 360 used for the linage to the gun’s actual trigger. The movie gun’s trigger is the motorcycle grip and a brake lever mounted in a clutch perch.
A 1981 Kawasaki KZ750 control panel is used for the front controls, and the foot pegs from a Kawasaki AR-125 were used to decorate the barrel shroud.
The in-movie guns are full auto and rapid fire, with large star-shaped muzzle blasts and an odd sound to the shots that’s almost like they’re going through a suppressor.
The MG42s use blanks in a belt, just like they always do, but the canister of ammo is hidden from view on the inside of the gun. At one point, the Marines are ordered to unload their weapons and we see Vasquez remove a cylindrical module that connects two cables to “clear and lock” her gun. According to supporting materials, this is a DV-9 battery unit that can be disconnected to prevent the gun from firing.
Vasquez and Drake then replace the battery with extras they have on them. It’s unclear what the actual ammunition source for the guns is, but if the Pulse Rifle can hold 100 rounds of caseless ammo in its small magazine, then its conceivable a large amount of ammo could be fed from somewhere on the rig.
Part of the Smart Gun weapon system is an eyepiece worn by both Vasquez and Drake on a headset hardwired to the gun rig that serves as the gun’s targeting system. It’s obviously just a prop, but in the movie, it displayed various filters like night vision or UV modes as well as an actual targeting reticle.
The prop was based on the Beyerdynamic HM 650 headset and the FLIR eyepieces used by US AH-64 Apache helicopter pilots. The scope from a G1 Megatron Transformers toy was used in the prop construction.
Cpl. Hicks’ Shotgun
There is one old-school firearm in the mix, and that’s Cpl. Dwayne Hicks’ (Michael Biehn) custom 12 gauge pump action shotgun.
The shotgun Hicks keeps as a backup gun in a back scabbard on his body armor is built from a hunting variant of the Ithaca 37. The receiver is engraved with a duck hunting scene meaning at some point Hicks came across an old hunting shotgun and chopped it down himself.
The barrel has been cut down nearly flush with the mag tube and on the other end the gun has been modified with an MP40 submachine gun pistol grip, making it look more like an Ithaca 37 Stakeout.
When the Marines are ordered to unload their high-powered caseless ammo weapons because of their proximity to the base’s nuclear reactor, Hicks draws his shotgun and says he likes to keep it for “close encounters.”
This was most likely a little jab at the Spielberg extraterrestrial movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
In a memorable scene, as they’re being chased by the alien horde, Hicks sticks the barrel of the shotgun in an alien’s mouth and yells, “Eat this!” before blowing its head apart. Predictably, the alien’s acid blood destroys the shotgun while burning Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton) and we never see it again.
One of the other weapons in the Space Marine arsenal is the M240 Flamethrower. It’s carried by select members of the squad in addition to their primary weapons.
As you can probably see from the carry handle especially, the flamethrowers were built from parts from M16 rifles with the handguard from M203 grenade launchers. The upper assembly of an M16A1 was used and cut in two parts, the half with the carry handle is facing forward, while the other half with the ejection port is turned backwards.
The prop flamethrowers that actually shot flame were rare in a Hollywood production because they are some of the only movie props to use military-spec liquid-fueled flamethrowers as opposed to the more common and safer gas-powered models usually used on movie sets. You can clearly see they are liquid flamethrowers when Ripley attacks the alien nest.
The Heckler & Koch VP70 acts as the Space Marines service pistol. Though it doesn’t get a lot of screen time, we see it prominently in a few scenes. When the Marines are ordered to unload their primary weapons in the nest, those without flamethrowers draw their pistols (save for Hicks, who draws his shotgun). Just before the aliens attack, we see Cpl. Frost (Ricco Ross) prominently with his VP70.
Later, when an alien sneaks up on Cpl. Ferro in the drop ship causing it to crash, she attempts to draw her pistol from its holster, but doesn’t have time.
We see Lt. Gorman with a pistol as his only weapon as the group retreats through the airshafts from the alien attack when they come through the drop ceiling and the floor to get through the barricades they built.
Additionally, when Bishop (Lance Henricksen) crawls into the access pipe to shimmy his away cross the base to the antenna they need to remote pilot the other drop ship for a rescue, Vasquez hands him a VP70 who declines and passes it to Ripley. The armorers say they chose the VP70 for its futuristic appearance and relative obscurity, especially in the U.S. at the time.
Vazquez’s Smith & Wesson Model 39
Hicks isn’t the only one carrying an old-school firearm as a backup gun. PFC Vasquez has an ivory-gripped Smith & Wesson Model 39 in a chest holster. It can be prominently seen in a number of scenes because of its white grips, and she notably uses it to kill an alien up close while moving through the vents.
In doing so, her foot is badly wounded from the creature’s acidic blood and she has to be dragged farther by Lt. Gorman, before they are corned by aliens and elect to detonate a grenade in their hands rather than be taken by the aliens.
The Model 39 has been around since 1954 when it was developed for U.S. Army pistol trials. It went to the civilian market the next year after the Army project was abandoned and it was the first of S&W’s first generation semi-auto pistols.
However, it is referred to in supplemental materials as the M4A3 and it was supposed to be a 10mm cased-ammo pistol with a 12-round magazine that had been recently replaced by the VP70—which still makes it old school from Vazquez’s perspective.
Automated Sentry Guns
As I mentioned before, there are several sequences that are added to the extended Director’s Cut of the movie that were trimmed for time. While the Marines are behind their barricade, before the aliens decide to attack through the ceiling and the floor, they come at the area head-on.
As another line of defense, the Marines set up sentry turrets in the hallways leading to their command positions. They are full-auto machine guns with a large ammo capacity that are capable of acquiring and firing on any movie targets it sees.
The guns are monitored by the Marines on a tablet computer device and they watch as the ammo counts decrease far more rapidly than they should. The aliens halt their attack just before the last gun runs dry.
This gave the whole sequence a bit more tension and really added to the feeling that the Marines were surrounded and under siege by the aliens, who intelligently probed and tested their defenses.
The UA57-C Remote Automated Sentry System is built on German MG42 machine guns, just like the Smart Guns were. The ammo drums on the side are from a WWI German Spandau Maxim MG08/15 machine gun, which led to them being misidentified often.