The Force Awakens: The Weapons Behind Star Wars.

IMG_3490-FWW-YEP-PhotocalIn light of the recent teaser trailer for the eagerly anticipated ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, our curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson, couldn’t resist inspecting the new trailer’s weapons for both changes and similarities to their alien predecessors. Below are his expert thoughts and ponderings of the weapons of Stars Wars both past and future.

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When George Lucas was looking for imaginary weapons to arm his heroes & villains in ‘Star Wars’, he had a relatively small budget to work with. Although he wanted his swords & guns to project pure energy; he turned to real-world technology to make his ideas a reality. His ‘lightsabers’ were built from camera flash tubes and various found objects including jet fighter parts, whilst the ‘blasters’ were modified from conventional firearms of the 1940s and 50s. These were plentiful in 1970s Britain, where much of production took place. Master propmakers Bapty & Co were engaged to turn these mundane weapons into futuristic (yet ancient!) plasma-firing wonders.

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A lightsabre and its camera components.

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Han Solo’s (modified) gun.

One of the most iconic designs in the Star Wars universe is the Imperial blaster used by the Stormtroopers. This was actually the Sterling Mk.4 submachine gun, or L2A2 in British Army parlance. Still a service weapon at the time of production, this was modified with additions including a WW2 German machine gun sight, black flanged ribs (actually plastic drawer runners from B&Q!) and a photocopier part. The distinctive curved magazine of the ‘Sterling’ was also cut down to hold only a few rounds, to alter the fairly well-known silhouette of the weapon and suggest a ‘power pack’ in place of a conventional box magazine.

Left: a Stormtrooper blaster. Right: a Sterling sub-machine gun from the Royal Armouries collection

Left: a Stormtrooper blaster. Right: a Sterling sub-machine gun from the Royal Armouries collection.

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The firing versions used blank rounds, which produce no real recoil, but the design of the Sterling meant that a big heavy metal bolt was cycling back and forth every time an actor pulled the trigger. This caused the gun to jump slightly, making the energy bolts that it ‘fired’ (a pre-CGI optical effect) appear more real. The heavy steel guns also made for convincing weighty props in the hands of the actors.

The prequel movies featured precursor blaster carbines in the hands of Battle Droids and later Clonetroopers, but these were bespoke designs quite far from the low budget yet iconic originals.

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When the new sequel movies were announced, fans wondered how much would change. As we now know, many of the classic vehicles and even the white armour of the Stormtroopers have received major facelifts, inspired by the original movie’s concept art by Ralph McQuarrie.

But as the teaser trailer for Episode VII shows, the classic blaster carbine has survived almost intact. Some components, like the end cap and folding stock (which, of course, Stormtroopers don’t know how to use!) are now white in colour, there’s a new optical sight, and for some reason the magazine appears on the wrong side – possibly a case of flipped film – or perhaps with no brass to eject, Imperial forces have moved the power source to the right hand side.

Screenshot from the new Star Wars Trailer 'The Force Awakens'

Screenshot from the new Star Wars Trailer ‘The Force Awakens’

There is a red glowing light; possibly a means of checking ammunition/power levels. But all the main features of the host weapon remain. Even if these upgraded blasters no longer fire blanks for that authentic look and feel, one of cinema’s most recognisable weapons is alive and well.

We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what other new, or old, Star Wars weapons will be making an appearance in the highly anticipated ‘The Force Awakens’.

Weird and Wonderful

Though it looks like something out of a video game with its twin bayonets, this is a real gun. It is the Sterling S11 sub-machine gun, designed in 1965 as a follow-up to the classic Sterling Mk.4/L2A3 of the 1950s (the latter of which doubled as the Stormtrooper’s blasters in ‘Star Wars’). It was meant to compete with the then-new and now famous Heckler & Koch MP5, and took a few design cues from the equally well-known Israeli Uzi.

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Due to falling sales of sub-machine guns in general and to reliability problems with the gun, only one example was ever made; ‘EXP 001′. This was presented to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room in 1989 and came to the Royal Armouries with the accession of that collection in 2005.

Why two bayonets? One is of the type fitted to the SLR rifle and the other for the previous Sterling SMG. We can’t be sure why the S11 was fitted for both; the trouble Sterling went to suggests that it was intended to give export customers a choice. We can be certain of one thing however; you would never have used both at the same time!

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms