The Guns of RoboCop
The bullet-riddled cyberpunk sci-fi classic with a dark, twisted sense of humor turns 30 this week.
A number of memorable, lasting action movies were released in the summer of 1987, which means they’re hitting the big 3-0 this year. Last month we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Predator with a look at the guns used in that action/sci-fi classic. This month, a very different film celebrates the same anniversary.
In July, 1987, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop hit multiplexes across the U.S. and became an immediate success, despite the cast being comprised of unknowns and character actors. It launched a number of film careers and went on to spawn two sequels, a slew of merchandise, a live-action TV show, two animated TV series, a TV mini-series, video games for various systems, a bunch of comic book adaptations and crossovers, and a largely regrettable CG-heavy, PG-13 remake—but the original, as is often the case, will always be the best and often ends up on Best Action movie lists.
Today, RoboCop feels both like a time capsule and like an extremely clever bit of futurist sci-fi. The movie is set in that near future movies from the 1980s loved to depict: a time when the cars are pretty much the same but just a little different, the clothes haven’t really changed much, but technology and guns have.
The action movie milestone turns 30 this year. As Hollywood works on a new sequel, check out the 80s hardware from the original.
The setting is a crime-paralyzed Detroit in the near future, now run by a monstrous corporation (OCP) rather than a municipal government. OCP hopes to revive the city by demolishing the worst, most devastated areas that house most of the gangs, and build something new in its place. But first, the criminal element has to be rooted out so construction can begin safely—at least that’s OCP’s goal on the surface.
One company executive, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), pushes a fully automated robot peacekeeper as a solution, it has some…problems with its initial test that proves its a long way from street-ready.
Instead, the company goes with the younger Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrar) experimental project. It requires the use of a human body, and since OCP owns the police force and so many cops are being killed in Detroit, Morton decides to wait for the right cop to be killed in the line of duty. Soon after, a perfect candidate arises in Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who is horribly mangled by a gang of vicious criminals and declared dead by doctors.
Morton drafts what remains of Murphy into the RoboCop program without his family’s knowledge, who go on believing he is dead. We’re led to assume this is because of some insidious clause in Murphy’s OCP police contract, or it was plain illegal.
When Murphy wakes up, he has been transformed into a cyborg, with all his limbs and most of his torso replaced by machinery. His brain is also part computer now and his personality has been erased. Of course, there’s no stopping the human mind, and memories of his old life and his family eventually resurface, allowing Murphy to rediscover his humanity and take revenge on the men that took his life.
In this midst of all that, this is also a movie about media influence, gentrification, corruption, authoritarianism, greed, privatization, capitalism, identity, dystopia, and…and some really cool guns.
From the trailer above, it’s clear the movie was marketed as kind of a ripoff of The Terminator (1984), possibly using the same spin of “this time the badass cyborg is a good guy” before James Cameron did the same with Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991. The trailer for RoboCop even uses the score from The Terminator (a fairly common practice for trailers when a movie’s final score wasn’t yet finished, especially 30 years ago).
But what audiences got was a pointed critique of capitalism and corporate greed with a bunch of bad language, tons of blanks fired, a slew of excessively bloody squibs, and a certain dark, lilting sense of humor that could only come from an 80s movie and director Paul Verhoeven’s quirky mind.
A perfect example are the “future” TV spots and commercials that help tell the story, provide exposition, and give a sense of the emotional attitude of the place where the story is set—and they’re kind of haunting:
Something else Verhoeven had an eye for is firearms, and how to make them look futuristic without overdoing it.
A lot of movies attempt this by adding stuff to guns, be it large plastic overmolded cases to change the firearm’s shape, or by adding unnecessary scopes, lasers, and other accessories. While that’s pretty much what RoboCop does too, it’s done in a purposeful, minimalist way that is bolstered by the choosing of guns that were cutting edge and futuristic looking already.
RoboCop’s Auto 9
When the recently booted up RoboCop is first brought back to his old precinct, one of the first things he does is head to the shooting range, where he breaks out his signature weapon, an automatic handgun that appears to fire in three-round bursts and never, ever runs out of ammo.
As an added bit of coolness, Robo keeps the long pistol in a skeletonized holster that retracts into a cavity in his leg where two armor plates separate. Even though the stop-motion doesn’t look so great today, it’s still an awesome concept, and shows visually how not human he is.
The Auto-9 is actually a Beretta 93R machine pistol that has been heavily modified. The 93R itself is a full-auto capable version of the Beretta 92FS that was produced in the 1970s for military and police use. The R in the model name stands for “raffica” which in Italian means “volley, flurry, or burst.” Since the Beretta 92 had only been adopted by the U.S. Army two years earlier, it was still a new gun objectively, and this variant was even more unusual.
The 9mm pistol operates similarly to the 92 series but has a selector switch that allows the shooter to choose from semi-auto and 3-round burst firing modes, although it has been modified to fire in full auto for some movies.
The handgun is also fitted with a folding vertical foregrip under the barrel to provide stability and muzzle control when firing. A folding steel buttstock can be added to the heel of the grip for more control. One of the reasons the pistol wasn’t more widely adopted was it’s rather high rate of fire: 1,100 rpm, which made it a little hard to control for non-cyborgs.
The Auto 9 adds quite a bit of material to the front of the 93R. The frame under the barrel is extended and forms a narrow but tall shroud that amounts to a big match weight and compensator. The shroud wraps around an extended barrel, which includes the original six ports from the 93R’s ported barrel near the muzzle. The shroud features cuts that match the ports allowing the gases to escape and it also includes a tall ramp front sight on a small shotgun-like rib. If you look at the gun from the muzzle, the shroud is shaped a bit like a casket.
The tall front sight is complimented by a large custom rear sight mounted to the slide. Custom grip panels were also added that form a sort of magwell wrap and eliminate the lanyard ring.
The gun’s fictional stats say it takes an impossible 50-round magazine, which is nearly flush with the grip frame, according to imfdb.org.
Robo uses the Auto 9 frequently throughout the film and to great effect, and only seems to fire it in burst mode. His digital targeting system makes him supernaturally accurate, even when he has to recalibrate himself after being damaged in the third act.
Pistols of the Non-Robo Cops
HKs and SIGs
When it comes to the regular uniform Detroit police officers in the movie, most of them carry the Heckler & Koch P9s pistol as their primary sidearm. It was likely chosen for it’s ergonomic, futuristic shape (especially for 1987) and the fact that it didn’t have a distinctive external hammer like the Auto 9. More heavily armed cops carry a bevy of shotguns, but not many rifles.
We first get a good look at the HK near the top of the film when Murphy and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) are in pursuit of a panel truck full of armed robbery suspects, who start shooting at their cruiser after throwing their wounded companion at the windshield.
In response, Murphy asks for Lewis’ sidearm and begins firing two pistols at the truck, hers and his own, which is a different handgun.
In an earlier scene, we see that Murphy chooses to carry a different pistol than the rest of the department, whether he is permitted to or not.
Soon after he and Lewis first meet, Murphy shows her his spinning holstering trick that he picked up from his son’s favorite TV show, TJ Laser, and we see he carries a SIG Sauer P226 9mm handgun.
This is a big deal, because it’s the first movie to ever feature the now widely popular SIG P226 and show it being fired. The gun was briefly seen in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) but was not shown firing.
As previously mentioned, during the chase scene, Lewis hands Murphy her gun, which is an HK just like the rest of the police, however, as you can see in the photo above, when they corner the suspects in an abandoned factory, Lewis is suddenly carrying the same P226 as Murphy.
This appears to be a continuity error, as we don’t see Lewis wield her sidearm again in the film—but it would have been a cool little nod to her partner if she started carrying a P226, or even the same P226, after Murphy was supposedly killed, but alas.
The Bad Guy Guns
RoboCop had some of the grimiest, nastiest, meanest gang of sociopathic killer bad guys of any cop movie, futuristic or otherwise, and they were led by Clarence Boddicker, played by the incomparable Kurtwood Smith, in a role that cemented his face and bald head in many a future That 70s Show fans.
An Early Desert Eagle
The film’s armorer gave Boddicker a fairly impressive go-to firearm: an IMI Desert Eagle Mark I. Boddicker actually uses two Desert Eagles in the movie—most of the time, he carries an Eagle chambered in .357 Magnum with an elongated, threaded barrel, which we see fitted with a triangular shaped suppressor that matches the lines of the DE’s slide in a number of scenes, notably the chilling encounter with Morton in his home.
In the climactic factory scene at the end of the movie, you can see the pistol’s extended barrel and threads, something not usually depicted as necessary for attaching a suppressor in movies.
Boddicker also uses a standard-barrel Desert Eagle during the drug warehouse shootout.
An interesting tidbit: the Desert Eagle was originally supposed to be RoboCop’s pistol, but when the hero’s costume was finished, the gun looked way too small in his robot hand, so the modified Beretta was chosen instead.
That’s not the only problem the size of the RoboCop suit caused. During pre-production, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in talks for the starring role and a suit was apparently designed for him—but the effects team soon realized that to accommodate Arnold’s large physique, the thick plastic suit would have to be comically huge (anyone remember that Mr. Freeze getup he wore in Batman and Robin?). Arnold eventually dropped out, and the team instead sought a thin, narrow-framed actor that would allow the bulky suit to look more like robotic parts of his body than big hunks of plastic.
A third Desert Eagle Mark I was also used in the film in the OCP board room. This pistol is a highly polished chrome version that apparently is just left out in the office like some kind of paperweight. It’s worth noting that, at the time, a fancy gun in an office would have been depicted as a nickel-plated revolver or Walther PPK or maybe a chromed out, engraved 1911—but using the visibly huge Desert Eagle reminded us this is supposed to be the future in a very subtle way. Even audience members who don’t know the exact difference, know that it’s different.
The same chrome Desert Eagle is later picked up again at the end of the movie (still just laying around the office) by Jones as he attempts to take the CEO hostage, thought it ultimately does him no good.
Sterling Mk 6
During RoboCop’s first night on duty, he deals with a number of “crimes in progress” including this guy who robs a liquor store with a submachine gun. Well, it looks like a sub-gun, but it’s actually a Sterling Mark 6 Semiautomatic Carbine that was sold on the civilian market and was imported for commercialy sale into the U.S. during the 1980s, henche the 16-inch barrel. It was banned from import after 1989 by the so-called Congressional Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2009.
In an intersting bit of physics-bending, RoboCop marches through the Sterling’s bullets, showing off his armor, reaches out, and simply bends the Sterling’s extended barrel in half. Of course, this would require that the crook holding the gun be strong enough to bend steel as well, but it sure did look cool.
Uzi Submachine Gun
The next crime in progress involves this deranged ex civil servant named Miller (Mark Carlton) who takes a bunch of people hostage in City Hall with an old-school Uzi submachine gun, as he yells a lot of crazy demands to police below. RoboCop shows up on the scene and uses his thermal vision to come up on the other side of a wall from Miller inside the building. After reaching through the wall and dragging Miller away from the hostages, Robo launches him through a window, ending the standoff.
Compensated Ingram MAC-10
A little later, RoboCop responds to a crime in progress that marks the beginning of the film’s next act. As he drives up to a report of an armed man robbing a gas station, Robo sees Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane) threatening the attendant with a customized MAC-10 machine pistol.
Seeing Emil’s face triggers deep memories of Murphy’s execution at his and his compatriots’ hands, helping him realize who he really is and rediscover the human part of him.
This takes a little time to process, so while he saved the attendant from whatever fate was to befall him, Emil fires a few useless shots from his MAC-10 at RoboCop’s armor before igniting the gas pumps with a cigarette and makes his escape.
Notable Odds n’ Ends
Mossberg 500 Bullpup
During the civil-servant hostage scene, we see a couple police officers on the ground with some shotguns that almost look like fake props, but they’re not. They’re actually Mossberg 500 Bullpup shotguns. Mossberg introduced the bullpup stock for the 500 series shotguns in 1985. It was available as both a kit to convert existing M500s or as a complete shotgun.
It’s futuristic appearance led to it being features in a bunch of movies in the late 80s and 90s like this one, The Running Man, Predator2 and others.
The police also use the bullpup shotguns during the parking garage scene when the whole force opens fire on RoboCop
When we first meet Boddicker, he doesn’t have his Desert Eagle on hand, but instead carried a Mossberg 5500 semi-auto shotgun during the van chase and the first factory scene.
The shotgun has been modfied with a shortened barrel and added heat shield. It also features the telescoping stock from a Daewoo K1A. This is the shotgun Boddicker uses in the most brutal scene of the movie to sever Murphy’s right hand.
The Cobra Assault Cannon (Barrett M82)
In the film’s final act, with the police force on strike and the city descending in to chaos, Boddicker and his goods get their hands on some high-end hardware, including a numbers of the fictional Cobra Assault Cannons—fictional experimental military weapons being developed by OCP.
The real gun under there is and early verison of the Barrett M82 long-range .50 BMG rifle, which have been augmented with plastic housings over the receivers, and fitted with monstrous electronic scopes.
According to imfdb.org, the scopes were originally intended to display computer-generated targeting information, but the film’s budget couldn’t handle the extra effects work.
The Cobras are depicted as firing some kind of high-exposive incendiary rounds that detonate on impact. One round is enough to destroy a car or storefront as Boddicker proves by firing it at Joe Cox’s (Jesse D. Goins) recently stolen 6000 SUX sports car.
The guns prove to not be enough to defeat RoboCop and Lewis during the final battle at the steel mill. Though badly wounded, Lewis uses one of the cannons to kill Leon Nash (Ray Wise) during the shootout before Robo finally deals with Boddicker.
RoboCop then takes the same cannon used by Lewis to OCP headquarters and uses it to unceremoniously destroy the ED-209 robot guarding the entrance.
While the sequels, TV show, and eventual remake weren’t all that great, the original RoboCop is a high-water mark for the sci-fi and action genres as well for 1980s originality in film. The concept is fairly ludicrous and it could have come out as a cheap Terminator knock-off, but in the right hands, with the right tone, and the right cast and effects, it became a bullet-riddled masterpiece with a dark, twisted sense of humor that has made it a cult classic that will undoubtedly endure.