This article and the accompanying video are intended for educational purposes for costumers and cosplayers. This is not intended to be a firearms safety course, nor legal advice. Use common sense, thanks.
Why a firearms props tutorial?
In a single con weekend, I heard from security about a SWAT team being called because of a cosplayer’s weapon, I watched cosplayers violate every firearms safety rule at once (which could have caused any onlooker to react), and I saw otherwise-excellent photos spoiled by the subject’s obvious lack of training with his weapons.
Prop weapons of all kinds are ridiculously common in cosplay, and most cosplayers don’t give them a second thought. But handling a prop firearm well will not only make your character more convincing, but will keep others comfortable and may avoid legal trouble!
There have been several incidents in which law enforcement was called because of a cosplayer’s prop or behavior, and some cons have responded by banning realistic weapons entirely. But it’s possible to be safe and respectful with your weapon props — hence this overview on how to stay safe, stay legal, and look much better in your photoshoot!
Props & The Public
So you’ve got your guns at the con, and they’re realistic weapons rather than neon-colored space ray guns. Now you’re ready to head down the street to the local McDonald’s. What do you do with your props?
It’s safe to assume that you’re carrying your props openly, in your hand or in a visible holster, belt, or sling — after all, it’s a part of your costume and you want it to be seen. But you’re leaving the con, where costumes and props are the norm, so people are going to interpret your weapon in local, non-convention context.
Some states have legal open carry (with or without permit). This means that anyone who sees your gun prop may reasonably assume it’s a real gun which you are legally carrying. It’s legal, so this may not seem to be a problem, except that the moment you reach for or lift that gun, an observer may reasonably assume you are engaging deadly force.
Other states have no legal open carry (other than law enforcement). If someone sees your visible gun prop, they may reasonably assume you are a criminal, actively breaking the law.
Or it can be unspecified; at the time of this writing, my home state (Indiana) has not legally defined open carry. It’s a grey area, and at minimum a realistic gun prop is going to draw double-takes and suspicion.
In addition, most states have specific laws regarding legal carry, as to whether you’re allowed into a restaurant or bar and where you may sit in one, etc. If you sit at the wrong table with a realistic gun prop, you might well be asking for trouble.
What about just dropping the gun into a pocket? Probably this won’t be enough; there’s a reason concealed carry holsters are necessary and expensive, and costume prop guns are rarely the tiny, concealable type. Your prop is not likely to stay in place, and as soon as it peeks over the pocket top and into view, you’re now in the same position — or worse, as concealed carry without a permit may be illegal even where open carry is legal. A reasonable person may still call police, and though you might get off without charges, you’ve created a lot of hassle for yourself and others.
And you might not get off without charges. Remember that a fake weapon which a reasonable person might assume is real is considered legally a real weapon. You can be charged with assault or other weapons violations. (I was foreperson of a jury which convicted a carjacker who used a fake gun. It doesn’t matter if the gun is fake, if people are scared.)
In addition, if the sight of the (real or fake) weapon causes alarm, you may be subject to disorderly conduct charges.
So yes, you can certainly face charges for a non-working prop gun. Don’t risk it. Unless your guns are obviously fake (“space blaster” or other non-realistic design), it’s a good idea to bury them in a bag or leave them in the car or hotel. Don’t alarm any member of the public.
Handling Fake Guns Safely
There are four rules to handling a firearm safely, and you have to break at least two of the four in order to hurt someone. It’s a really good idea to know these — even for fake weapons.
1) Always handle all guns as if always loaded.
We always consider every gun to be loaded and handle it appropriately. Never do anything with an unloaded gun that you wouldn’t do with a loaded gun.
For realistic prop guns, this means we handle them like guns, not like toys, anywhere others can see us.
(Seriously. I had someone point a prop gun at my face, idly snapping the trigger, not even aware of what she was doing. I gently took it away from the cosplayer-friend because all my safety training was making me crazy-uncomfortable, but that could have resulted in an assault charge if the cosplayer had done it to someone willing to press charges. Don’t do anything with a fake gun that could be considered a threat or reckless.)
2) Never point the muzzle at anything you aren’t willing to destroy.
This rule can also be phrased as, “Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction”
— and unless you’re on a practice range with a safe backstop, that usually means pointed toward the ground. You never want to point a firearm (even briefly) at other people, pets, or property.
Obviously this is going to be difficult to follow while getting good costume photos, especially at crowded conventions, but don’t worry
— we’ll cover that in a minute!
3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made the decision to pull it.
This is a tough one because most movies, television, comics, manga, anime, etc. get it wrong, and so most untrained people’s default action is to place their finger on the trigger. After all, a gun’s grip is designed to make it easy for your index finger to fit on the trigger! But “indexing,” or keeping the trigger (index) finger braced against the frame or trigger guard instead of on the trigger, is the correct way to hold a firearm whenever you are not actively firing at a target.
Not only is running around with your finger on the trigger a major safety violation, it’s also a dead giveaway that you don’t know how to handle your weapon properly, and so it hurts your costume photos. (No one likes a supposed badass who actually doesn’t know what s/he’s doing.)
4) Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.
This is less critical for cosplayers, because you won’t even have a target, much less fire at it. But it’s a good rule to know — bullets can pass through walls, vehicles, or human bodies, and you can easily hurt someone beyond your target if you’re not paying close attention to your surroundings.
Cosplayers break all four of these rules, sometimes all at once! This is not only forming very bad safety habits, it’s very disturbing to anyone watching. If I (as another cosplayer) am watching, I am bothered but I know you’re just ignorant; if another person who isn’t positive that the gun is fake is watching, you have just made yourself an immediate threat to everyone in the area. Again, police can be called, and if any kind of disturbance happened as a result of your sloppy handling, you can be charged with disorderly conduct.
Does it really matter? I think so. A quick Google search for “police shoot toy gun” turns up over 3 million hits on news stories; this one (the top result in today’s search) features a man in costume napping in a hotel, which might be any cosplayer!
Even if your gun is completely fake, obey the Four Rules to keep others comfortable and yourself safe!
Staging Battles & Photos
Again, consider what the public sees, especially non-congoers. Doing a photoshoot in a public space? Make the staging really obvious — have someone hold off-camera flashes or a camera bag for your photographer, or ask a couple of friends to stand in an obviously relaxed manner nearby. You want anyone who happens to glance toward the person with a gun to instantly see that no one nearby is concerned, and oh, there’s a woman with a big camera! It must be some sort of publicity thing.
Don’t shout, make any verbal threats, let anyone act out fear (other than an obviously staged pose between flashes and relaxed friends), and try to follow Rule #2 by pointing the gun into space or at a blank wall rather than at a friend or photographer. (More on posing below!) If you are going to do a video scene, stage it wellout of the public eye, where no one can mistake what’s going on.
Why be so careful? Again, we don’t want anyone calling the cops — but we also want to avoid any appearance of an immediate threat. Depending on where you are in the country, between 1 in 20 and 1 in 10 citizens is legally licensed to carry a concealed weapon, in addition to off-duty or plainclothes police, security, etc. I have seen some cosplayers brandish weapons and behave in ways which might appear to be a real and immediate threat — and that could cause someone to draw their own weapon, and that’s not something we want to induce! At bare minimum, the paperwork is laborious; at worst, the untrained cosplayer accidentally swings his prop toward the shouting Good Samaritan or cop, and now he’s threatening the guy with the real gun. The good citizen will probably feel terrible after learning that his self-defense shot wasn’t necessary, that the weapon was just a prop, but that doesn’t take back the bullet.
Again, see all the news stories which came up involving police shootings and toy guns. Don’t be a statistic.
Wow, that sounded all heavy and stuff. Is it possible to take do photoshoots with prop guns? Of course it is! Just use common sense and make sure it’s very, very obvious that it’s a fun photoshoot.
Make Your Photos Better!
As mentioned above, failure to handle a gun safely is a solid indicator that you’re not trained to handle a gun competently. The temptation to have your finger on the trigger in every shot may be strong, but anyone knowledgeable will recognize your error. Make yourself look better by handling your prop as if it were the real thing!
Here are some easy ways to improve your cosplay photos:
Grip: Many cosplayers grip the weapon too low and too loosely, which would result in poor weapon control during recoil. Grip it high and tightly. If your prop firearm is based on a semiautomatic, don’t cross your thumbs behind the slide! (This is very dangerous, as the slide can dislocate or remove your thumb.) Instead, use the fingers of your non-dominant hand to support the grip of your dominant hand, and tuck your non-dominant thumb flat under the dominant thumb. (See photo of Alena as Nathan Drake, at left, for safe thumb position.) Index your trigger finger along the frame of the gun.
Firearm position: There’s a lot of chatter about low-ready and high-ready positions; either can be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. Make sure both you and your gun are shown to best advantage in the shot. You can also choose the classic Hollywood gun-by-character’s-face closeup, because after all, this is cosplay, not combat! Just make sure you keep your finger indexed on the frame, and off the trigger.
Firing posture: If you want a “firing” shot, go ahead and touch the trigger — but make sure the rest of your body is in an active firing posture, and that (especially if in an area visible to the public) your firearm is not pointed toward another person. There are several classic stances; pick the one most suitable to your character, or go ahead and use the crazy-unrealistic-but-oh-so-anime-cool signature move — it’ll look even better with a proper grip and sighting!
And remember, this is about showing off your costume and props, so go ahead and jazz it up for your photoshoot. Make it as awesome as possible, now that you’re doing it safely and competently!
Refer to the video below for specific advice and visual aids.