‘I’d like to introduce you to a close personal friend of mine. M-41A pulse-rifle. 10 millimeter, with over and under 30 millimeter…pump-action grenade launcher’.
So Corporal Hicks tells Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986). In reality, of course, that weapon doesn’t exist yet, and this prop ‘rifle’ disguises a .45 calibre M1 Thompson sub-machine gun with parts from a SPAS-12 shotgun.
Like much of the military equipment in ‘Aliens’, the M-41A was personally designed by director James Cameron. As is usual in the movie world, the job of realising this futuristic but realistic-looking military rifle was passed to prop builders, in this case, British armourer Simon Atherton.
The sleek MP5 sub-machine gun originally chosen by Cameron to serve as the rifle’s base turned out not to have an impressive enough muzzle flash, and so the old World War Two Thompson sub-machine gun was chosen as the basis. To this, he attached parts of two shotguns, the heat-shield and pump grip of the SPAS-12, and on the few examples with a working ‘grenade launcher’, a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun, concealed inside the other parts – our example doesn’t have this. Over the top went a custom housing originally made by a car body manufacturer, and a few custom parts including the wonderfully dramatic ammunition counter, which was only fitted to a few guns. A number of lightweight solid ‘stunt’ guns were also made, no doubt to the relief of the actors as this is a heavy gun.
Our M-41A also appeared in Alien 3 (1992). After Aliens, all but one Pulse Rifle were disassembled. When the sequel called for two more ours was rebuilt and sprayed black to equip the Weyland-Yutani operatives who appear at the end of the movie. Prior to sale, it was resprayed a more recognisable colour, although the original paint, which we believe is still there under the later coats, was more of a brown colour. Although it has sustained wear and tear over the years, it had a ‘beat up’ appearance even when new, as Cameron asked for the props to be deliberately bashed up in order to look like real military service weapons. This suited his intended aesthetic, a sort of ‘Vietnam in space’, and the tale of military might defeated by the primal horror of the alien.
This object was acquired as part of the Royal Armouries’ Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ project. It’s an ongoing project, but I think this will always be one of our star pieces; I don’t think it gets much more iconic than this. We believe that there are only six of these ‘hero’ props surviving, and ours is the only one in a museum collection. In the coming years, we hope to collect and preserve more examples of movie history alongside the more traditional arms and armour that we’re known for, and of course to display them for our visitors.
Get a closer look at this piece of silver screen history on our Collections Online website where you can see images in deep zoom.