The Guns of Predator
As Hollywood continues to churn out sequels and reboots, check out the 80s hardware from the original action/sci-fi classic from 1987.
The 1987 film Predator is a strange entry in the 80’s action movie canon. It starts off as a pretty basic, hyper-violent over the top military movie about a team of larger than life special forces commandos on a mission to find a likely kidnapped cabinet minister who vanished after a helicopter crash in the jungles of South America.
Over the next hour and a half, it becomes one of the most intense and spectacular science fiction action movies ever made with an ensemble cast overflowing with gym-toned muscle and attitude, with an ending that elevated Arnold Schwarzenegger from a bodybuilder-turned sci-fi and fantasy movie star to a genuine Hollywood hero. An utterly unforgettable score from Alan Silvestri only helped cement the films place in the hearts of everyone who was a movie fan in the VHS era.
It also came along during a strange time for movie guns. The United States hadn’t been involved in a sustained engagement since Vietnam, and many of the military movies coming out of Hollywood were serious war dramas like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and The Deer Hunter, along with outliers like First Blood casting a somber tone with run of the mill, period-accurate guns (for the most part). More light-hearted “peacetime” movies, if you will, like Officer and a Gentlemen and Stripes focused on military life, often on a base, but lacked any real action. By the mid-1980s, the landscape for new or innovative firearms was wide open to the rising muscles-and-square-jawed-action-hero flicks.
The sequel to First Blood in 1985 made John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) a household name with an image of the character holding a machine gun or RPG launcher slapped on everything from toys to lunch boxes and Arnold’s Commando came soon after, setting the bar for the super-soldier action flick. It also expanded the scope of what action movies could be. At the same time, some franchises were already becoming a bit played out, sending production companies looking for fresh ideas, no matter how bizarre. Such circumstances inevitably lead to some creative genre-blending.
As the story goes, when Rocky IV came out in 1985, in which the titular character takes on a giant Russian boxer, a joke started circulating in Hollywood that if there were a fifth movie, Rocky would have to fight an alien because there are no opponents left. Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were inspired by the hyperbolic idea, and came up with a script called Hunter, in which a Rocky/Rambo like character went up against an otherworldly adversary. It was soon picked up by Joel Silver at 20th Century Fox who hired John McTiernan to direct.
The script had the basic idea of what would become Predator. The rest of the movie is something of a happy accident. Casting such a hodgepodge of actors and non-actors as an elite rescue team of commandos should never have worked, but it did, remarkably well.
While some cast members like Arnold, Carl Weathers, and Bill Duke had a good amount of movie experience under their belts (Duke had starred in Commando a couple years prior with Arnold), the rest of the cast consisted of Jesse Ventura, a former pro wrestler, Vietnam vet and former Navy SEAL; Sonny Landham, who had started off in porn and typically played a bad guy in low-budget fare and horror movies; and a couple unknowns, including Richard Chaves, another Vietnam veteran. The production was so shaky in the beginning that Silver hired writer Shane Black, who he’d worked with on Lethal Weapon, to play one of the team members so he could do emergency re-writes from the set if necessary.
But the biggest problem was the villain. The original concept had the alien hunter as a sort of humanoid, big-eyed insect-like creature with a big, awkward head, that relied heavily on a harpoon gun as its main weapon.
The producers originally hired then-unknown actor and future action star Jean-Claude Van Damme to play the creature, and had him hopping around in the jungle covered in a red monster suit (so they could add the “invisibility” shimmer effect later) for a number of weeks. The suit was awkward and Van Damme had trouble making the creature appear agile, especially since he couldn’t really see anything. Once they got the actual suit on camera, it was so ridiculous looking, according to McTiernan in the Making of featurette, that he shot two scenes with it and then sent it back to the studio saying something had to change.
Creature effects master Stan Winston was brought in to redesign the Predator at the urging of Arnold, who had worked with Winston on The Terminator, directed by James Cameron.
Oddly enough, while on a plane sitting next to Cameron on the way to Japan, Winston was sketching concept ideas for the creature and Cameron told him he’d always wanted to see a creature with big mandibles, which became the cornerstone of the Predator’s now iconic look. Van Damme was let go and 7’2″ stunt actor Kevin Peter Hall was brought in to play the creature, which was given the backstory of descending from a race of hunters who travel from world to world, seeking the most dangerous game they can find on each planet, and then taking trophies. Dutch and his team are it for Earth.
To avoid huge reshoot costs, many of the shots of the Predator with it’s shimmer camo effect activated are of the old stand-in suit, which is why the head shape doesn’t quite match the final creature.
So, as the original film turns 30 today and Hollywood prepares yet another sequel, let see what kind of 1980s hardware these badasses used to take down the ugliest alien ever. And yes, the team members do have full names (mostly thanks to the novelization).
Maj. Alan “Dutch” Schaeffer
Slab-Sided M16 with M203 Grenade Launcher, IMI Desert Eagle Mark I, Bushcraft Bow and Arrow
Dutch (Schwarzenegger) keeps it simple. His primary weapon is an AR-15/SP1 or an M16 slab-sided rifle fitted with an M16A1 birdcage flash suppressor to appear like later versions of the platform. It’s pretty unlikely that the guns in the movie are genuine M16s, but rather early AR-15s that have been converted to full-auto for the film. We can see his rifle, and Billy’s rifle, are not later models because there is no magazine fencing around the magwell and there is no forward assist or shell deflector, hence the “slab-side” moniker.
As cool as it looks, the paint-chipped M203 grenade launcher on Dutch’s gun is actually fake and is attached with a perforated forend used to secure such launchers to M16-style rifles before the days of Picatinny rails and free-floating handguards.
In several cases, the blank adapter can clearly be seen inside the muzzle of the rifle, meaning it was a real firearm converted to fire blanks. The adapter helps the rifle’s gas system cycle with the low pressure created by blank rounds. Dutch’s rifle includes a fixed A-shaped front sight, an M16A2 style carry handle with rear peep sight, and a fixed stock.
As for other weapons, Dutch carries a Desert Eagle Mark I pistol in a hip holster (which he never uses), a survival knife on his belt, a large machete-type blade on his leg, and a number of M67 hand grenades.
In fact, Billy, Dutch, Mac, Poncho and Hawkins are all carrying IMI Desert Eagle Mark I in various holsters, yet none of them ever use their handguns on screen. Dutch appears to lose his during the waterfall jump.
By the end of the film, Dutch is the only commando left to face the alien hunter. After the last of his team is killed, Dutch washes up on a riverbank after sliding down a cliff into a river and going over a waterfall. He discovers he’s covered in mud, which confuses the alien’s thermal vision, shortly after he discovers he’s lost his pistol during his journey down the waterfall to escape the Predator.
Though he has escaped for the time being, all he has left are a couple 30mm rounds for the M203 grenade launcher, which is also long gone, and his survival knife.
It turns out to be enough. He uses what he has to make a recurve bow out of bundled springy branches. He creates a few normal arrows, but modifies one of his grenade rounds to serve as an exploding arrowhead. He uses the special arrow to wound the alien after luring him into a trap. He also uses the other grenade to create an explosive spear, and uses the propellant from the shells to make an improvised flashbang to scramble the Predator’s night/heat vision.
Col. George Dillon
MP5A3 Submachine Gun, M1911A1
Every 1980s movie had to have a no-good government spook involved at some point, and Predator’s two-faced CIA agent is Dillon (Carl Weathers), a former comrade in arms for Dutch who got into intelligence work while Dutch decided to keep his boots on the ground.
The commandos make it a running joke that Dillon is out of practice when it comes to the field. Even his gear is old school. He wears Vietnam-style OD green fatigues that have clearly been well-faded, while the rest of the team wears more modern (for the time) Woodland camo gear. While the team members who carry pistols choose Desert Eagle Mark I’s, Dillon has an older M1911A1 in his holster. He’s also out of practice when it comes to moving silently through the jungle, nearly giving the team away with his clumsiness.
Dillon’s primary weapon is supposed to be an HK MP5A3 submachine gun. Like many movie guns of the era, the MP5s are actually HK94A3 semi-automatic firearms that were originally made with 16-inch barrels for sale on the civilian market. The movie’s armorers chopped them down and converted them to full-auto to stand in for MP5s. A couple differences you can spot: the MP5 has a lever behind the magwell that releases the magazine, similar to an AK-47, while the guns in Predator lack the paddle magazine release and instead have a button-style mag release. There are also three lugs missing from the barrel, which would be present on an MP5.
While several other members of the team carry the chopped MP5A3s, it is Dillon’s only gun other than his 1911A1, which stays holstered. In his final scene, Dillon is armed with two of the submachine guns, but not for very long.
Sgt. Mac Eliot
M60E3 Machine Gun, IMI Desert Eagle Mark I, Machete, Minigun
Mac (Bill Duke) is definitely one of the group’s heavies. While he also carries an MP5 submachine gun and a Desert Eagle Mark I, in a Cordura shoulder holster, his primary weapon is a M60E3 light machine gun. The model is a shortened version of “The Pig” that made it’s debut in the U.S Military in the Vietnam War designed to be fired by one man from the hip. It has a foregrip and uses belted .308 Win. ammo fed from a 100-round ammo box Mac carries on a strap. The inclusion of this gun might be a nod to Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which the M60E3 was the main character’s signature weapon.
While Mac carries the M60E3 for most of the movie, it runs out of ammo in the massive ammo dump after Blain’s death. That’s when Mac picks up Blain’s minigun and blasts through the rest of the ammo in the pack, cutting down more than a few trees in the process, but more on that cannon later.
By the time Mac meets his end, he strips off most of his gear, which Dillon finds later, and crawls into the jungle to avenge his slain best friend, Blain, with the last belt of ammo trailing from his M60.
Sgt. Jorge “Poncho” Ramirez
MP5A3 Sub Gun, Custom Rotary Grenade Launcher, IMI Desert Eagle Mark I
While we’re not exactly sure what Poncho’s (Richard Chaves, another Vietnam vet) specialty is (possibly demolition), he’s definitely one of the most well armed members of the team.
Poncho’s main weapon is kept on his back in the event of a major engagement: a customized 37mm grenade launcher. According to imfdb.org, the launcher was created by the film’s armorers from a Heckler & Koch HK94 (namely the stock and grip) and parts from an AN-M5 aircraft pyrotechnic discharger (a giant flare gun).
What came out looks like a snub-nosed grenade launcher from hell with a revolving ammo cylinder.
Poncho: “You’re hit. You’re bleedin’, man.”
Blain: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
Poncho: “Oh. Ok.” –fires four grenades almost straight up into the air at a guard tower– “You got time to duck?”
The launcher does some major damage in the jungle base assault, but Poncho expends the rest of his grenades during the ammo dump after Blain is killed, never getting to actually use it against the alien.
When moving through the jungle and not in a sustained engagement, Poncho carries an MP5A3 like many other members of his team, and like those members, he doesn’t seem to have any pouches for MP5 magazines…hmmmmm.
Sgt. Blain Cooper
Custom GE M134 Minigun, MP5A3 Sub Gun
It takes a lot to be the swaggering macho man in this cast, but that’s Jesse “The Body” Ventura in spades as the tobacco-spitting, huge-gun-toting Blain. He’s physically the largest member of the team, so naturally, he has to have the biggest gun…and it actually has a name.
When the team first inserts into the jungle by helicopter via fast-rope, Blain is armed with an MP5A3, an Aussie-style brimmed hat, and an MTV t-shirt under his web gear—but there’s a huge pack on his back. We find out what’s in it after the team finds the bodies of Col. Jim Harper and his men.
“It’s time to take Ol’ Painless out of the bag.”
Ol’ Painless is a hand-held General Electric M134 Minigun that has been heavily modified. A normal M134 is mounted on a helicopter or a plane, but to make it theoretically tote-able by a single person, an M60 handguard assembly was installed backwards beneath the rotating barrels and a rear pistol grip was added. The grips are attached to the gun with a custom Y-frame with an M60-style carry handle mounted to the gun’s recoil absorbers on the bottom to give the support hand something to grab.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: while these days there are some handheld, high-volume, rotating-barrel machine guns out there, in the 1980s, there weren’t, and this electrically operated Frankenstein gun would have been utterly impractical on a battlefield of any kind—but it was just so damn cool when this movie came out that it set viewers imaginations on fire, and it was something nobody had seen before. It was so impactful, Arnold himself used the very same gun in a memorable scene from the monstrous hit Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
On-screen, the gun is powered by an electric cable hidden off-camera and fired custom blanks so that the recoil wouldn’t knock Ventura on his back. Additionally, the rate of fire was dropped from 6,000 RPM to 1,250 RPM to both ease the recoil and to save on ammo for filming. It also allowed the barrel rotation to be caught on film instead of looking like a blur.
Blain carries ammo for the big gun on his back in an M23 armament system ammo box and cover assembly attached to an ALICE pack frame, according to imfdb.org. A pack like this holds about 550 rounds when filled to capacity. At that rate of fire, the movie gun could have about 25 seconds of ammo on board.
If you pay close attention, there are some major continuity errors when it comes to Ol Painless. In scenes where the gun is fired, the ammo box is oriented correctly with the feed cute attached to the upper left corner of the box and oriented on the weapon so the window is facing upward. In scenes where the gun isn’t fired, the ammo box is positioned vertically with the chute turned upside down to hide the fact that the pack is empty (even dummy ammo would make it pretty heavy).
Also for non-firing scenes, the weapon is not hooked up to a power supply, as the pack only contained ammunition, not batteries, according to imfdb.org. This let Ventura move around freely. During the firing scenes, the batteries were just off camera and the weapon was shot so the cables would not be visible; the cables are trailed along the ground and then routed up the actor’s trouser leg and through their clothing to the gun.
The huge gun doesn’t do Blain or the team any good against the Predator. In fact, Blain is the second team member the alien takes out, never even giving him a chance to unleash Ol’ Painless, though it’s likely the cause of the alien’s only wound from the ammo dump.
Anna: “After the big man was killed, you must have wounded it. Its blood was on the leaves.”
Dutch: “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
Sgt. Billy Sole
Slab-Sided M16 with Underslung Mossberg 500 Shotgun, IMI Desert Eagle Mark I, Machete
If he has to be given a title, Billy (Sonny Landham) would be the mystical warrior spirit of the commando team. With an implied Native American ancestry, Billy is also the team’s tracker and navigator, able to look at a bunch of shell casings and matted grass and recreate what happened to the men who were attacked there the night before.
Billy’s hunches and feelings also have the implicit faith of leader, Dutch, who trusts Billy’s gut to guide them when there are no other answers. He also gets one of the best lines in the movie.
Poncho: “Billy. You been acting funny all day. What is it?”
Billy: “I’m scared, Poncho.”
Poncho: “Bullsh–. You ain’t afraid of no man.”
Billy: “There’s something out there. Waiting for us. And it ain’t no man. We’re all gonna die.”
When it comes to guns, Billy has tastes similar to Dutch and carries another slab-sided AR-15 rifle, but instead of having a fake M203 slung under the barrel, his rifle has a Mossberg 500 shotgun mounted there with the entire grip and stock removed.
It makes for an intimidating weapon, though it doesn’t get any real on-screen use. In once scene, when he runs out of ammo for the rifle, we see him fire one shot from the shotgun before the film quickly guts away. After the ammo dump in the jungle, he’s seen closing the breech of the shotgun, implying he’d been firing it, but we don’t see it.
It’s possible that firing the shotgun caused it to rip off its improvised mounts. The armorers were prophetic, however, as configurations of AR rifles with underslung shotguns have found a place in the tactical world, mostly for door breeching tasks, like the Master Key, a project that began in the 1980s.
When Billy faces the alien enemy alone to give Dutch more time to get to the chopper with Anna and the wounded Poncho, he tosses his rifle/shotgun away and stands with only his machete like an ancient warrior with a sword. It does him little good.
Sgt. Rick Hawkins
MP5A3 Submachine Gun, IMI Desert Eagle Mark I
Hawkins, as mentioned previously, was played by screenwriter Shane Black and definitely has the smallest amount of screen-time, next to Poncho.
As the team’s radio operator, he spends a lot of time crouched next to his comms gear behind his bifocals, trying to get someone on the horn. That’s when he isn’t trying to make Billy laugh with extremely crude, extremely bad jokes, or reading his Sgt. Rock comics.
If he’s remembered for anything, Hawkins is the first member of the team to be killed by the Predator. We get the feeling that he was beloved by the team and even protected a little, if mocked a bit for his nerdy tendencies. His mysterious and gruesome death coming first hits the team particularly hard and sets the tone for the grim survival struggle of the rest of the film. This is magnified by the fact that he’s killed while doing something kind, pleading with Anna to stop running from them so she doesn’t get hurt or killed, and his body is never found by his team, only a gutpile.
Shoulder-Mounted Plasma Cannon with HUD Targeting System, Wristblades, Self-Destruct Bomb, Thermal Vision, Highly Advanced IFAK
When it comes to weapons, the alien hunter (Kevin Peter Hall) keeps it rather simple. He prefers to use edged weapons, carrying a spear (which we don’t see very much) and using a set of retractable, razor-sharp blades attached to his wrist.
For distance attacks, the Predator relies on a shoulder cannon that is linked to a targeting system in his helmet and fires a bolt of energy that’s powerful enough to blast a hole clean through a human torso.
While the Predator was kind of thrown together on the spot by Stan Winston, the design went on to spawn a good amount of mythology in comic books and novels. In that material, we learn the shoulder cannon is called a “plasma caster.” (In comics, the Predator would go on to face a number of adversaries, like Batman and the Alien from the Ridley Scott / James Cameron films. That pairing led to a pair of movies in the early 2000s, Alien vs. Predator, and AVP: Requiem.)
Toward the end of the film, we see the Predator relying on the cannon more and more as he gets increasingly frustrated with Dutch’s unvonventional an unexpected tactics, which remove the hunter’s advantages bit by bit.
When the game of cat and mouse is over, and Dutch is pretty much beaten, the creature shows he has a code and honor that was only previously hinted at when he removes his weapon and targeting system so that he and Dutch might be on a more even playing field for their final, hand-to-hand fight. Unfortunately for the alien visitor, Dutch can be deceptive.
While there have been a number of films featuring the titular creature from Predator, non of the subsequent films were able to capture the magic of the original: that specific balance of action, horror, and sci-fi that allowed the movie to strike such a resonant chord with movie audiences of many ages to this very day. But that won’t stop Hollywood from trying.
In 2018, Shane Black, who played Hawkins in the original film, is coming back to the Predator universe in the role of writer and director to bring us The Predator with a capital T, which is supposed to be a direct sequel to the 1987 original, though it will not feature any of the surviving characters.
Only time will tell if the new sequel will be any good (UPDATE: It was not good. At all. Stay away.), but for now, we know that the musical version of Predator is absolutely fantastic:
So grab your old VCR out of the basement and cue up your well-worn copy recorded off your tube TV when it aired on Prism back in the 90s, or toss in the excellent-looking Blu Ray release of this three-decades-old classic, fire up the cassette of Long Tall Sally, and relive one of the best action movies ever.