“Star Wars” fans have a lot to be excited about these days. For those of us who grew up with well-worn copies of the original trilogy on the VHS shelf (or maybe even saw them at the theater), and then survived through the six-year-long build-up to the aching disappointment of the prequel trilogy, J.J. Abrams’ impending “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is a chance at redemption. It’s a chance to see fresh films with the characters we know and love and to be introduced to a host of new inhabitants of a galaxy far, far away that will carry us into the next decade.
In the meantime, fans will continue to talk about the original trilogy, as we’ve done for 30-odd years or so, and take a look at--what else?--the guns of Star Wars.
Oddly enough, “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” feature a good amount of not only existing firearms, but also some historic WWI and WWII vintage pieces. They’re all modified. Lucas apparently thought that taking any old gun, cutting down the barrel and stock, and putting a scope on top made it a space gun. Most are barely recognizable, but many were left fully operational and actually fired blanks on screen. Doing so made it easier for the actors to react to shooting their blasters while filming, and for the special-effects guys to come along later and add the red or green blasts over the muzzle flashes.
It’s interesting to see how many weapons of war, which are antiques by today’s standards and were pretty close to it in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the movies were made, were designed to look futuristic by subtracting a few pieces and adding some aesthetic touches. And since the studio filming for the first movie was done in England, there aren’t any American arms in the mix, which actually made the blasters less familiar to U.S. movie audiences.
Rumors are that the weapons in the new “Star Wars” films (the first of which will hit theaters in December 2015) are all created for the screen from scratch, and several are based on weapons from the original trilogy. Apparently the guns from the original trilogy continue to inspire. Here they are:
Han Solo's Blaster
One of the most famous and recognizable weapons from the “Star Wars” universe is the BlasTech DL-44 blaster pistol, otherwise known as Han Solo’s blaster. Luke Skywalker carries a similar one in “Empire Strikes Back.” The blaster is a dressed up Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” pistol. The blaster version has a scope offset on the right side, and a conical muzzle device added, as well as a few embellishments to the frame and magazine well.
Everyone’s favorite Scruffy Nerfherder actually carried different versions of the blaster through the original three movies. In “Empire,” the barrel was shortened and the muzzle device was shaped differently and colored silver. The scope was also shortened and changed in shape. For “Return of the Jedi,” the muzzle device and scope were changed again, although slightly. Throughout all three films, the Mauser’s distinctive wooden handle that gave the gun its nickname remained unchanged. You can make a replica, too if you’d like.
Stormtrooper E-11 Blaster Rifle
Perhaps the most often-seen weapon in the trilogy, the E-11 blaster carried by Imperial Stormtroopers were actually made from British Sterling L2A3 submachine guns, and not much was changed. A shroud was added to cover the barrel vents, a dummy scope was perched atop the receiver, and an extremely shortened magazine was added, which can be seen protruding from the left side of the normally positioned magazine well.
The blaster rifles are always seen with the Sterling’s stock folded beneath the weapon. In “New Hope” and “Empire,” there are several instances where you can see blank casings being ejected from the Sterlings. For “Return of the Jedi,” the E11s were made from non-firing Sterling replicas and no blanks were used during filming.
The Sterling replaced the British Sten in 1953, even though the Sterling was invented 10 years earlier. Chambered in 9mm and firing 550 rounds per minute with its distinctive side-feeding magazine, the Sterling stayed in service until 1994 when it was phased out by the L85A1 assault rifle.
The Cinnabon-haired space princess that has deservedly haunted many a geek’s dreams hit the screen as Leia Organa when she was only 21. The most famous image of her from “A New Hope” is undoubtedly the shot with her long-barreled Defender Sporting Blaster that she uses to fight off Stormtroopers before being captured at the beginning of the first film. She uses a similar blaster again on Endor in “Return of the Jedi,” but with a shorter barrel.
The long, thin appearance of the small-caliber Russian Vostok Margolin .22LR Target Pistol lent itself well to a sleek, alien blaster that looked natural when wielded by someone of Carrie Fisher’s stature. The real gun is a simple blowback pistol with a fixed barrel, which makes it conducive to target shooting. Today, it’s highly sought by collectors—not gun collectors, “Star Wars” collectors.
Boba Fett’s Blaster
The universe’s coolest bounty hunter, Boba Fett, had the coolest gun in the series. His short blaster with a full stock looked menacing and as if it had been cut down in the dim light of a space freighter’s cargo hold. I always thought it looked like some kind of outer-space version of a sawed-off shotgun--only this one didn’t start as an actual gun at all, but as a Webley & Scott No.1 Mark 1 37mm flare gun.
Some embellishments are added to the smooth barrel, and the muzzle is plugged to give it a blaster look. A scope is also mounted to the top, albeit backwards. It’s the same blaster Luke cuts in half with his lightsaber before sending Boba Fett to a gruesome death in the belly of the Sarlac in “Return of the Jedi.”
Fans of Mandalorian armor need not mourn, however. Reports say the next “Star Wars” anthology film (that’s what Disney is calling the upcoming supplemental films that don’t fall in with the new trilogy) will focus on the origin story of Boba Fett and reveal that he didn’t actually die in that pit. Maybe we’ll get to see how he got his blaster, which is still just as cool now that we know it’s a flare gun.
Rebel Soldiers’ BlasTech A280
In “Empire,” many of the soldiers fighting for the Rebel Alliance, especially in the battle on Hoth, carried BlasTech A295 blaster rifles. These were non-firing weapons made from casts of WWII-era German Sturmgewehr 44 rifles. Gamers know this rifle well--it was the overpowered, full-auto rifle in a score of WWII games, though the actual weapon was put into production too late in the war to be distributed to German troops in any significant numbers. The STG44 is a selective-fire weapon considered to be the first assault rifle; it saw the heaviest use on the Eastern Front and was considered a formidable, though complicated, weapon.
You can see Rebel soldiers using similar blasters in “Return of the Jedi” on Endor, but they are actually BlasTech A280s, which were made from casts of M16s.
Imperial Sandtroopers’ Big Guns
On Luke’s home planet of Tantooine, we got a look at Imperial Sandtroopers for the first time. They’re basically Stormtroopers with more gear and an orange or grey shoulder cover to denote rank. They carry the fierce-looking T-21 Light Repeating Blaster. This is another real-life gun hardly changed for the movies; it was actually a WWI-era British Lewis Machine Gun. For the big screen, the Lewis’ integrated bi-pod and attachment point is removed, and some ribbing is added to the air-cooling shroud near the muzzle and by the receiver on the grip. The pan-shaped magazine is removed and replaced with a horizontal carry/firing support handle.
Though invented by an American in 1911, the Lewis was introduced by the Brits in WWI in .303 caliber and saw service with various armed forces through the Korean War. It was also produced by Savage Arms, chambered in .30-06. Often used as an aircraft machine gun in the First World War, it’s usually seen in this role with the cooling shroud on the barrel removed. For the film, the distinctive shrouds were left in place.
DLT-19 Heavy Blaster Rifle
This is the standard heavy weapon of Imperial Stormtroopers, though it isn’t featured too often or prominently. The prop people didn’t really do much to conceal what these blasters really are: another German weapon from WWII, the MG34 General Purpose Machine Gun. Almost nothing was changed, except a portion of the original barrel shroud is covered; the wood stocks are painted black, and Stormtroopers carry them with no drum magazine attached. It certainly seems like it’s better suited to spout lasers than spit out 7.92 x 57mm Mauser rounds at 900 rounds per minute, thought that’s just what it does.
Jawa Ion Blaster
The awesome-sounding little scavengers are all eyes and cloaks, but they’re armed with some intimidating big-barreled blasters. Though you don’t get too many lengthy looks at the body of these in the movies, the blasters carried by the scavenging Jawas in “A New Hope” are actually British Lee-Enfield No.1 MkIII bolt-action rifles with the barrel and forend cut off and the stock cut down. If you look closely, you can see the bolt handle protruding on the right side of the gun. The big muzzle is most of what you see in the film, which is actually a grenade launcher cup added to the shortened barrel.
The SE-14C Blaster Pistol
Remember that “handsome” pair of dudes who hassled young Luke at the bar and pulled a blaster on him and Obi-Wan? When Kenobi cut off the arm holding that blaster, it was the first time we got to see a lightsaber in action. The blaster the unfortunate Ponda Baba (yes, he had a name) carried is an SE-14C blaster pistol, which began as a Swiss Rexim-Favor Mk5 submachine gun.
For the film, the stock and most of the barrel were removed along with the magazine, and a scope was added. Only about 5,000 of these overly complex 9mm submachine guns were built between 1955 and 1957 before the Swiss company that made them, Rexim, went bankrupt, which makes it more surprising that one ended up in the Star Wars prop room.
Bonus: The Lightsaber
It isn’t a gun, but the lightsaber—the most iconic Star Wars weapon—has its roots in real-world hardware too. There were four lightsabers in the original trilogy: Vader’s red lightsaber, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s blue lightsaber, Luke’s blue lightsaber that was once his father’s, and Luke’s green lightsaber that he constructed after losing his blue one—along with his hand—in “Empire.”
If you ever played with an old metal flashlight as a kid, pretending to be Lord Vader or Jedi Luke, you actually weren’t far off. The hilts for Vader and Luke’s original lightsabers are actually the handles of camera flash guns. Luke’s was a 3-cell Graflex flashgun with very few modifications. Vader’s was the same, but colored differently. These are from the days when film cameras needed a lot of bright light to create a photograph, and had detachable handles full of batteries with large flash bulbs screwed into them. It’s obvious camera tech has outpaced firearms tech by a parsec or two.
Obi-Wan’s lightsaber handle was made from a Rolls-Royce Derwent Mk. 8/mk.9 jet engine balance pipe. The blades of all the stunt lightsabers, which were later covered with colored special effects, were WWII-era, white German tank antennas.
UPDATE 3/27/17: Mark Hamill recently posted this early publicity photo of himself as Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars: A New Hope holding an extremely long prop rifle that was apparently mounted to the side of Luke's landspeeder in the movie, but was never detached or used on screen.
Hamill's post: "Mounted on side of Landspeeder (never used) Made SURE of getting pics for posterity & proof of #ReasonToAdmireMe #38: Longest Gun in Galaxy"