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;
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.
‘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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!