Deconstructing the ‘Blade Runner’ Blaster

As we eagerly anticipate the sequel of the science fiction cult classic ‘Blade Runner’, we reacquaint ourselves with the iconic ‘Blaster pistol’ with our Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson

Known to aficionados as the ‘PKD’ (Steyr Pflager Katsumata Series-D Blaster or the ‘LAPD 2019’) the Blade Runner blaster was designed and crafted for Harrison Ford’s weary future detective/enforcer Rick Deckard in the celebrated science fiction movie ‘Blade Runner’ (1981).

After decades of fanciful directed energy weapons (lasers, phasers, and energy-based ‘blasters’), it was the first of a series of more realistic, gritty movie firearms; guns that looked like they were from the future, but were actually an extrapolation from existing firearms technology and didn’t depend on as-yet undreamt-of power sources.

As an aside, we are a LONG way away from effective, portable directed energy weapons, let alone weapons capable of creating quantum singularities; batteries are just one problem in this respect. Modern cartridge firearms are just too efficient, reliable and cost-effective to be replaced anytime soon.

The actual Blade Runner blaster prop was an ingenious disguise for a modern firearm; the relatively mundane ‘Bulldog’ .44 Special revolver from US company Charter Arms. This gave the blaster its chunky, slightly retro lines and enabled it to fire blanks similar to weapons used in ‘Star Wars’. Here though, no laser bolts would be animated in post-production; the prop would operate on screen much like a real revolver.

Charter Arms Bulldog revolver. (PR.13778)

To take things into the near future, however, the ‘Bulldog’ was married to a bolt-action Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher Model SL (in .222 Remington, the predecessor of NATO’s current 5.56x45mm cartridge). In practical terms this combination made no sense; the rifle had no barrel (indeed, no chamber to accept a cartridge!) and so the distinctive turned-down bolt handle on the side of the finished blaster had no real-world function. The rifle’s magazine was mounted below the barrel of the host revolver, so there was no way to feed cartridges to the upper ‘barrel’ either, even though the pistol’s two triggers reinforce the idea that this is a double-barrelled weapon. A plastic clamshell covers the revolver’s cylinder to further persuade the viewer that this is a totally new type of weapon. However, this means that there is no on-screen way to reload the thing either.

Some lurid transparent amber-coloured grips and some pointless sci-fi red and green LEDs complete the look. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m really not; it’s just interesting to peek behind the ‘movie magic’ curtain sometimes. In fact, these design choices were made for precisely these reasons; even students of arms and armour were stumped by the blaster at first sight. Interestingly, production designer Syd Mead (who also worked on ‘Aliens’ and ‘Star Trek’, among other franchises) originally penned a very futuristic ‘black hole gun’ that looked absolutely nothing like a modern firearm.

It clearly fills the role in terms of Hollywood detective and sci-fi movie tropes but remains mysterious and futuristic. Does it still fire bullets, or some special kinetic projectile that we can’t imagine? Is it a miniature railgun, with the ammunition stored in the Steyr’s magazine (with its glowing red lights)? Or is it really a directed energy weapon? Most viewers won’t care, but those of us that do see the weapon as almost as a character in its own right, akin to King Arthur’s Excalibur. This is certainly true of former MythBuster Adam Savage, who embarked on his own personal quest to perfectly recreate the blaster for his own collection.


An icon in movie history

The iconic status of the blaster is curious in a way. As in the case of the so-called ‘Han Solo’ blaster from ‘Star Wars’, the LAPD 2019 was very clearly used by more than just the one character and was intended to be an absolutely mundane, standard-issue weapon, not some special heroic weapon like ‘Excalibur’ or ‘Vera’ from Firefly. It’s the use of the weapon as part of the narrative that makes it somehow special, unique, and sought after by fans.

This month sees the release of the much-anticipated Blade Runner: 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve. It remains to be seen whether the movie, or the updated police service pistol wielded by Ryan Gosling, will be a success, but the design is a fairly radical departure from the classic look, with a stout barrel shroud, prominent trigger guard, and carbon fibre-look grip.

It will very likely not contain a real firearm but may have a recoil weight inside to provide feedback for the actor and reference for CGI muzzle flash instead of using blank ammunition (as the new ‘Star Wars’ movies have approached their blasters). I’m looking forward to seeing it in action in any case; the trailer looks great.

Here at the Royal Armouries, we are building a collection of screen-used and other movie props under a Heritage Lottery funded project called ‘Collecting Cultures’. Unfortunately, only one ‘hero’ prop is known of and even rubber ‘stunt’ versions are scarce. We will probably never be able to acquire one for the national collection of arms and armour, but who knows? After all, we did manage to get a Pulse Rifle from the film Aliens (1986)