Taran Butler, Shooting Instructor to the Stars

Taran Butler is an artist in the sport of shooting. He is a master with any firearm and never fails to impress onlookers. Check out his videos, in which he does things like clear a plate rack from the hip in less than two seconds.

Butler is very well known in competition circles as one of the top shooters on the national circuit, and has 13 national championship titles. Chances are, if you have shot against him in a 3-gun or USPSA match, you lost. I know I have.

He has also built a name for himself with his company, Taran Tactical Innovations, which employs more than 20 people. They modify guns for competition and make accessories for shooting. In a very short amount of time, TTI has become the go-to company for all things competition shooting. The TTI tricked-out Benelli shotguns and Glock handguns are in high demand with competition shooters. TTI guns and gear will also be featured in several upcoming A-list movies.

From left: Competition shooter, trainer, and stunt double Amy Jane; Keanu Reeves; model Nikki Gray; shooting champion Tori Nonaka; Taran Butler.

You may have seen Butler on the Impossible Shots television series, or as a technical advisor on the Top Shot. He also sponsors a huge number of competitive shooters. But what you probably don’t know is that the reason some of the top Hollywood stars look like they know what they are doing with guns on camera is because Butler taught them what he calls a “tactical and adapted stunt style.”

Most Hollywood shooting trainers have military or police backgrounds, and they teach from that perspective. Butler is a competition shooter who brings that aggressive approach—shooting very fast and hitting the targets—to what he teaches. (As one well known shooter is reported to have told an IDPA rules stickler who was berating him for shooting too fast, “speed is a tactic too.”) Speed also looks good on the screen.

You may have seen this viral video of Keanu Reeves tearing up a shooting range with a rifle, pistol and shotgun.

It even made Fox News. You’ll hear Butler, off-camera, giving range commands to Reeves, who was training for his new movie. (Butler is bound by a promise to not say what the movie is, and he kept his confidence when I asked.)

The Tom Cruise Connection

I asked Butler how this star-training line of work came about. “I guess it all started around 2004, when a friend of mine invited me to check out Tom Cruise training for Collateral,” He told me. “I got to meet everybody, including director Michael Mann, which was kinda cool. That led later to the movie Miami Vice. Mick Gould was the trainer on both movies and he is a very nice guy with a background in the British Special Forces. They came up to my place with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx to do some training here. That got my foot in the door.

Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004) firing a Heckler & Koch USP45 pistol. Notice his eyes are open and he's not flinching during the shot, a sign of some good training.

“They wound up flying me out for their next movie, Public Enemy, with Johnny Depp,” said Butler. “They had me help with loading with the Winchester Model 1901 lever action 10 gauge shotgun. They wanted to load three rounds very fast. I worked with Stephen Lang for a week out in Wisconsin Dells. I was bummed that they cut a lot of the loading sequence out of the movie, but you can’t expect everything to be on the screen.

Butler trained Stephen Lang how to load and operate the sawed-off Winchester Model 1901 he's seen firing here in Public Enemies (2009).

“Michael Mann and I talked about getting the coolest gun for Crockett for Miami Vice, and he ended up with the Strayer Voight Infinity TIKI 1911,” Butler said. (That pistol, by the way, sold for about six grand back then and was a perfect choice for a character that was a high rolling undercover cop.) “That resulted in the high-cap, compensated .45 ACP Infinity guns being used on Heroes and later in Heroes Reborn.”

The Strayer Voight Infinity TIKI 1911 carried by Crockett (Colin Farrell) for the film version of Miami Vice (2006).

A Gun Range for Hollywood

“My shooting range is kinda becoming the go-to place for Hollywood,” said Butler. “I work a lot with other trainers here as well. For example, Harry Humphries was training actors for the movie 13 Hours, and they came last year. They did all the military-style training, and then they brought the actors here for my spin on how to do it. We call it cross-pollinating, so the actors get the best of both worlds.

Johnny Depp posing with Butler during a break in a training session.

“Johnny Depp came up on his own dime to learn shooting. He was a good shooter already, and I just added some of my style to tweak what he already knew. Hunter S. Thompson had given him a .454 Casull, and we had some fun shooting that big handgun.

“Chris Hemsworth came here to train for Red Dawn. I helped Aaron Eckhart for Battle for Los Angeles. More recently I am branching out more and more on my own. There are a lot of other projects going on, and it’s growing every day. A lot of them are in production now and I can’t talk about them until the movies launch,” Butler said.

Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp with the .454 Casull revolver the author gave him.

Butler has also worked with Max Martini and Michelle Rodriguez. He’s now working with the cast of the new series Training Day, including Katrina Law and Bill Paxton, as well as the cast of the new show Criminal Minds Beyond Borders.

Nikki Gray, competition shooter Jessica Hook, and Tori Nonaka pose with Scott Eastwood during a break in training.

A Competition-Based Approach

“What I am trying to do is bring a different element to Hollywood,” Butler said. “There are a lot of good trainers out there, mostly military-oriented trainers. I am just trying to bring what I do to it and bring a different style of action. I want to bring a little more speed into it, more of the 3-gun competition style of shooting that we do.”

One scene that all competitive shooters know is from the first season of television’s Miami Vice, when competition shooter Jim Zubiena, who is playing a hit man, draws from an appendix holster and fires a Mozambique drill with blinding speed.

(For Zubiena's clip, go to the 0:51 mark in the video below, or watch the beginning for a bit about Tom Cruise's firearms training for the film Collateral (2004) and James Caan's gun work in Thief (1981).)

Zubiena became the firearms instructor for the series. He told Butler that Don Johnson was a natural when it came to shooting.

Natural Born Shooters

I asked Butler about any actors he knows who could also be called “naturals.”

“Josh Duhamel who comes out a lot is good,” said Butler. Also Jack Osbourne, who is a gun guy. Keanu is a natural. He does a lot of martial arts training, and that helps with shooting. Hayden Panettiere from the show Heroes, and now on Nashville, is really a natural,” Butler told me. “She is tiny and you wouldn’t think her hand would even fit around the gun, but she is just unbelievably fast and accurate.

Keanu Reeves and Butler with UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie.

“Royce Gracie, the UFC fighter, is very good. So is Cung Lee, another UFC fighter and actor. John Krasinski, the star of 13 hours, is very good. Chris Cooper is a shooter and a good guy. Another really good shooter is Common, from Hell on Wheels. He has been here three times and he is a really cool guy and a great shooter. Steve Howey, who plays Kevin on Shameless, comes here to shoot and has gone to a few matches with me.”

I asked if actors tend to learn shooting quicker than most others. “Most actors listen well and learn fast,” Butler said. “They have learned how to take instruction, and it translates well into learning to shoot.”

Butler poses with Hip-hop artist and actor Common (left) and Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray.

But are they difficult to work with?

No, Butler said. “Most of them have been really great people and they are here to learn. I had Pierce Brosnan out here with another trainer and I just had to fix his grip. He used the cup and saucer grip in all his Bond movies. I walked up and said, ‘I just gotta do this’ and I explained why it’s wrong. In his next movie, November Man, he had a proper grip on his handgun.”

Butler has taught many other actors how to shoot as well. The next time you are watching a show and the actor actually looks like a shooter who knows what he’s doing with a gun, Butler may well have had something to do with it.

(Top) Pierce Brosnan in a publicity still for Goldeneye (1995), his first James Bond movie. He used a two-handed cup and saucer grip through all his Bond movies. After Butler corrected this for him, his grip was much different (bottom) in his next film, November Man (2014).