Star Wars: The excitement awakens

Written by Curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson.

Excitement for The Force Awakens is high here at the Armouries, so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the fictional arms and armour on display in the footage we’ve seen so far…

‘Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?’

Like the rest of the production design for the new movies, the weapons and armour are heavily inspired by the original trilogy, but with a modern twist. The most obvious change is to the armour worn by the new ‘First Order’ Stormtroopers, Snowtroopers, and the new flamethrower-equipped ‘Flametroopers’. The armour resembles the classic white 1977 design, but with a fresh-looking, more streamlined design. Though there is a lot of continuity between the prequel Clone Troopers, the original trilogy Stormtroopers, and the new version, this is more than just a logical progression or enhancement of the old designs. The designers have actually gone back further. Interestingly, just like the new X-Wing fighter, the new armour is closely based on the original 1970s concept art by Ralph McQuarrie;

imageRalph McQuarrie’s beautiful concept art for the Stormtrooper.

The design of the body and limb defences in this artwork is particularly close to the new Stormtrooper armour; note the shape of the pauldrons (shoulder defences) especially. The helmets of the different trooper types created for the film are all riffs on McQuarrie’s original helmet design, with a bit of the old movie style thrown in. Unlike the concept art however, Stormtroopers do not appear to have taken to wielding lightsabers! Like modern ballistic or riot armour, the hard plates are attached to a black undersuit. This is an idea taken from the films, as the concept art seems to show white underneath and between the armour plates. Given the total lack of protection from blaster bolts that Stormtrooper armour appears to afford in the films, my personal theory is that the Stormtrooper armour actually is a combination environment suit/riot armour. Note that the artwork shows trooper equipped with large shields. Mind you, if it is riot armour, it didn’t work too well against those Ewoks in ‘Jedi’! Returning to the helmet, the faceplate has interesting psychological implications in terms of dehumanising and anonymising the wearer. Clearly it would also intimidate the local population and the enemy. Real-life military forces tend to avoid covering their faces unless engaged in covert or special operations. Riot police and military forces involved in riots do frequently use masks or face shields, however, largely for practical reasons (fire, thrown objects etc). Interestingly, real-world designers have come up with Stormtrooper-style facial armour for modern ballistic helmets, and some have even been tried by military forces;

See link: The ‘Helmet Electronics and Display System-Upgradeable Protection’ or ‘HEaDS-UP’, made by a company called Revision and trialled by the US Army in 2013/14. http://news.discovery.com/tech/gear-and-gadgets/army-tests-cutting-edge-halo-like-helmets-131025.htm

Overall, this retro aesthetic reflects the very conscious efforts to re-connect the new movies to their roots and help us all forget about those prequels (with apologies to any fans of those who may be reading)!

‘An elegant weapon… for a more civilized age’

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without lightsabres, and of course we’ve seen two from the new film. Luke Skywalker’s sabre, originally of course his father Anakin’s, is a major plot point and looks like it sees some use as well. It was built using a metal Graflex camera flash tube, adorned with various found objects and of course a blue energy ‘blade’ created using optical special effects. The other sabre belongs to new villain Kylo Ren, and has caused some fan controversy by sporting two miniature energy blades at the hilt, similar to the cross on a medieval sword. It’s hard to see how this would be of much practical use, as any blade contact is likely to be with the emitter portion of the ‘cross’, which would surely be sliced off! Still, it’s something new and together with the distinctively ‘angry’ jagged look to the blade, marks Kylo Ren out as something new and different to the Sith we’ve seen previously. Given the samurai movie inspiration for the lightsabre and the Jedi/Sith, I wouldn’t be surprised at some stage to see a ‘tanto’ (knife) sized weapon at some point. It would certainly add a new dimension to the fight choreography. By the way, Star Wars was not the first to feature a ‘laser sword’, as an early draft of the script called it. The idea probably originated in a 1933 sci-fi story in ‘Weird Tales’ magazine called ‘Kaldar, Planet of Antares’ and written by Edmond Hamilton.

New villain Kylo Ren and his unusual lightsabre

New villain Kylo Ren and his unusual lightsabre

‘Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no substitute for a good blaster at your side’

I work with our firearms collection, so I have a particular interest in the new blaster guns. These too are a throwback to the original movies. Notably, Han Solo’s iconic ‘DL-44’ blaster pistol makes a return. As many fans will know, this was a modified Mauser C96, one of the first semi-automatic pistol designs and the first to see commercial success (over one million were made). Fans spend a great deal of time and money replicating the props of the movies, and blasters are no exception. A handful of live firing prop replicas have even been built in the United States. Strangely, as IMFDB.com points out, the new props are modified replica ‘Schnellfeuer’ machine pistols rather than the true C96. This was presumably done because replicas of the Schnellfeuer are more easily available. Fans love ‘in-universe’ explanations, and if I were to try my hand at one, I’d say this is a replacement for Han’s original (which changes in detail between movies anyway).

A Mauser C96 pistol being loaded with 7.63x25mm ammunition from a ten round stripper clip. Once the rounds have been loaded, the metal strip is removed and the bolt closes.

A Mauser C96 pistol being loaded with 7.63x25mm ammunition from a ten round stripper clip. Once the rounds have been loaded, the metal strip is removed and the bolt closes.

The next most famous blaster is probably the Imperial ‘Blastech’ E-11 blaster carbine (aka the ‘Stormtrooper blaster’). ‘In-universe’, this is still in use 30 years on, though now designated the ‘Sonn-Blas F-11D’. Given the outline plot of the movie, it seems likely that this reflects manufacture of an updated E-11 design by factories controlled by the First Order, rather than whoever is running the Galactic government at this point. It seems that the old Imperial blaster maker ‘Blastech’ is now back under Republic/Resistance control. This has happened many times in our real world too, most obviously the many copies (licenced and illicit) of the original Kalashnikov AK rifle, made by different manufacturers and given different designations. Even more appropriately perhaps (given the inspiration for the Empire and First Order), when resources were tight for the Nazis in the Second World War, they looked to the British Sten submachine gun to create a weapon that would be cheaper and quicker to produce than their existing designs. This German Sten also altered a few details including the magazine housing (to take the German MP.40 magazine) and it too was redesignated, becoming the Vorgrimler MP.3008. I doubt the Star Wars designers were aware of this parallel, but it’s an interesting example of art imitating life.

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Sterling L2A3 (Mark IV) submachine gun with stock folded. The 32 round magazine is below. For the Star Wars movies, magazines were cut down to only 5 rounds to make the guns look less like contemporary firearms. This meant that the armourers had to keep a large number of shortened magazines on hand in order to frequently resupply the actors and extras with blank ammunition.

The original E-11 was built on the British Sterling Mark IV submachine gun of the 1950s, and the new gun hasn’t changed much. A new sight and details like white highlights have been added. Most obviously, the magazine housing of the Sterling has been flipped to the right hand side. This would make reloading rather awkward, but as blasters don’t seem to need reloading, this is obviously not a worry! The ‘70s props actually fired blank rounds, but the new versions are no longer live-firing, so we will be seeing CGI laser blasts only and no recoil from the guns themselves. This is a bit of a shame, because although there’s no reason for directed energy weapons to recoil like a traditional firearm, it did lend a bit of physicality to action scenes in the old movies.

Storm Trooper

A promotional image of a First Order Stormtrooper with F-11D blaster. He also has a holstered SA-44C pistol (see below).

Image from: http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/File:SWTFA_stormtrooper_promo.jpg

Continuing the Star Wars tradition of using real guns as a reference, the unique E/F-11 variant carried by Captain Phasma (the chrome-armoured Stormtrooper officer) is fitted with an extending butt-stock originally designed by US firearms accessory company ATI. This is curious, as the Sterling SMG is already fitted with an under-folding shoulder stock. Perhaps if the troopers in the original movies had used the stock, they wouldn’t have missed quite as often!

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Captain Phasma with her ‘tricked out’ F-11D blaster. In the real world, Special Operations Forces do frequently use standard issue weapons accessorised and customised to their preference. Royal or presidential bodyguard units also tend to carry modified weapons, sometimes chrome-plated. Phasma’s chromed armour and cloak definitely suggest some sort of elite status.

Image from: http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/File:SW7_603.jpg

A less obvious example of a real-world gun adapted for the movie is the blaster pistol issued to some Stormtroopers and dubbed ‘Sonn-Blas SE-44C Blaster Pistol’. Just as before, this too is based upon a real gun – a Glock pistol fitted with a carbine chassis system to change its appearance (the Glock being a rather well-known movie gun). The movie ‘Dredd’ also used this approach to create the ‘Lawgiver’ pistol.

There are several other interesting new designs listed there already, including a new Republic (or ‘Resistance’) blaster rifle. If you’d like to read more about these and the other firearms of The Force Awakens (and for that matter the other movies), the excellent Internet Movie Firearms Database already has a section on them (in fact I used it as my main reference for this post). The Episodes VII-IX section is small at the moment but will no doubt be expanded after the movie is released worldwide.

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Image from:  http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Star_Wars#Sequel_Trilogy_.28Episodes_VII.2C_VIII.2C_and_IX.29

One day we hope to acquire a piece of Star Wars weaponry or armour for the national collection. Our ‘Collecting Cultures’ project has already resulted in the acquisition of a Pulse Rifle from ‘Aliens’. We also have a very interesting object in the collection with a Star Wars connection, which you might have seen on the ‘Quizeum’ TV programme recently. If not, we’ll be blogging about it soon. For now though, that’s all from me, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t sign off with the appropriate quote…

May The Force be with you!

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.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens

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.

Stormtrooper_Corps

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.

battle_droids

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