The Guns of Lethal Weapon

1987, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in publicity shot for Lethal Weapon. --- Image by © Aaron Rapoport/Corbis
1987, Los Angeles, California, USA — Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in publicity shot for Lethal Weapon. — Image by © Aaron Rapoport/Corbis

 

One’s a traditional blue steel service revolver chambered in .357 Magnum. One’s aluminum framed 9mm Luger semi-automatic imported from Italy. One served American law enforcement faithfully for over fifty years, one emerged from the most contentious and controversial selection competition for a sidearm in history. Together with a supporting cast straight out of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) armory, they square off against an array of firearms that define 1980s action movies. These are the guns of Lethal Weapon and its sequels.

Lethal Weapon

1987’s Lethal Weapon was not the first buddy cop action comedy, and having influenced a wave of imitations and spoofs, it certainly wasn’t the last. But the chemistry and rapid-fire banter between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover (as Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh) promote it from a merely good movie to iconic status.

The sidearms chosen for the leads, while both authentic options from the contemporary LAPD armory, appropriately mirror the differences between the characters. Murtaugh, the careful, cautious family man, is well represented by his Smith & Wesson Model 19. The younger, reckless maverick Riggs carries the new and yet to be proven Beretta 92F. Although Riggs and Murtaugh use alternate weapons as the movies progress, their original pistols play leading roles right to the conclusion of the series.

Beretta 92FS
Beretta 92FS

 

Developed in the early 1950s under the guidance of legendary shooter, writer and lawman Bill Jordan, Murtaugh’s Smith & Wesson Model 19 was a smaller, more friendly alternative to the big N-frame .357 Magnum that Smith & Wesson introduced in 1935. Debuting as the “Combat Magnum” in 1955, the four-inch K-frame .357 was renamed the Model 19 in 1957 and remained in production with only minor changes until 1999. Enormously popular with law enforcement and some military units across the world, the Model 19 became synonymous with police duty handgun, even after semi-automatics had become the norm in police holsters.

Murtaugh’s 19 differs from the LAPD issued model with a custom ported barrel, a red front sight insert and black rubber grips. Murtaugh carries his wheelgun in a couple different holsters, but mostly a tan leather crossdraw rig. We get our first good look at the 19 in the dramatic scene where Murtaugh dares Riggs to shoot himself with it, nearly winning the bet.

Smith & Wesson Model 19
Smith & Wesson Model 19

 

The Beretta 92 initially won the U.S. Army’s service pistol competition in 1980 as the 92S, but legal challenges and retests delayed official adoption until 1985, when a series of minor updates warranted a revised designation to 92F. Borrowing the Walther P38’s falling locking block, the 92 series is one of the few successful autoloader designs that does not use the Browning tilt-barrel locking system. The LAPD and the Connecticut Highway Patrol were the first major domestic users of the Beretta, and Lethal Weapon was one of two big screen debuts for the gun in 1987, which also appeared in Bruce Willis’ hands in Die Hard, another genre defining action comedy.

In contrast to the sensible Murtaugh, Riggs doesn’t use a holster to carry his pistol through all four movies, choosing instead to tuck it into his belt either up front or in the small of his back. Riggs draws and shoots his Beretta early and often, downing his foes with volume of fire, as opposed to Murtaugh’s carefully aimed single shots, demonstrated in the impromptu qualification range shooting competition. In a scene cut from the theatrical release but available on the director’s cut DVD, Riggs ends a school shooting by verbally challenging the attacker to come into view, then emptying his Beretta into the bad guy before performing a slide lock reload.

Beretta Jetfire 950
Beretta Jetfire 950

 

In the first movie, the mercenary ex-military henchmen of heroin kingpin General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) are armed with what has become the traditional arsenal of cinematic bad guys. Early on we see Riggs and Murtaugh threatened with Remington 870s in both full police trim and the cut down round handled “Witness Protection” model. During the confrontation in the desert, Murtaugh faces an entire army of evildoers armed with Uzis, the Colt XM177 variant of the M16, Heckler & Koch MP5A3s and a diminutive Beretta Jetfire 950 .25 ACP that the unnervingly focused Mr Joshua (a svelte and sober Gary Busey) uses to wound Murtaugh.

Another H&K makes its appearance in that scene when Riggs announces his presence behind a PSG-1, a heavily accurized and modified G3 in 7.62 NATO. Famously advertised as the world’s most accurate semi-automatic sniper rifle system, H&K claimed that the rifle could shoot to the intrinsic accuracy of the ammunition loaded into it. Unavailable new to civilians after the 1989 import ban, used PSG-1s can trade for up to 150% of their original price.

After our heroes escape with Murtaugh’s daughter from the nightclub torture chamber, they engage in a thrilling running gun battle on the rainy streets of Los Angeles with scavenged MP5A3s against McAllister’s henchmen, also armed with H&K MP5A3s. Despite having scopes mounted and telescoping stocks, nobody seems to use either. Murtaugh repeats his neck stretching performance and accurately drills General McAllister’s driver in the forehead with a single shot from his Model 19 to terminate his escape. The movie concludes with a bare knuckled brawl between Riggs and Joshua on Murtaugh’s lawn, but the gunplay is what defines the film.

Lethal Weapon 2

The second Lethal Weapon movie hit theaters in 1989 and brought Murtaugh and Riggs back to shut down a gang of sinister South African drug smugglers. While Riggs relies on his Beretta 92FS for this installment, Murtaugh’s 19 is joined by a Smith & Wesson 5906 stainless steel 9mm in a leather shoulder rig. The “Third Generation” family of Smith & Wesson automatics was a successful attempt to regain market share from Beretta. Introduced in 1989 and approved for LAPD use shortly after, Lethal Weapon 2 was one of the 5906’s first big screen roles. The 5906 is also seen in the hands of other LAPD detectives in the movie, including a pre-Breaking Bad Dean Norris as Tim Cavanaugh.

The South African drug gang is immediately seen bearing the stubby H&K MP5Ks, as well as the MP5A3s seen in the first movie. The lead henchman also makes use out of a suppressed H&K P9S, a suppressed SIG-Sauer P225, and finally a blued Walther PPK until he is crushed by Riggs under a falling cargo container. We also briefly see a Walther P5 used by another henchman shortly before he is messily decapitated by a flying surfboard.

Easily the oldest firearm in the series is the Mauser C96 Bolo used by the ringleader, Arjen Rudd (with a passable Afrikaans accent by Englishman Joss Ackland) during the gunfight aboard a cargo ship. Chambered in the bottlenecked 7.63x25mm Mauser, the C96 was available in fully automatic versions as well as optionally using a detachable shoulder stock, anticipating full-auto subcaliber personal defense weapons like the FN P90 and H&K MP7 by almost a hundred years.

Ithaca M37 SHOTGUN
Ithaca M37 SHOTGUN

 

Lethal Weapon 3

In 1992, the cast was brought back for another sequel, adding Rene Russo as an Internal Affairs cop, and future romantic interest, Lorna Cole. Like Riggs, she mostly uses the Beretta 92FS, but is also seen with an Ithaca 37 shotgun while observing Murtaugh vigorously violate a suspect’s rights.

The villain, cop turned illegal arms dealer Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson), is first seen with a stainless suppressed Walther PPK, but soon upgrades to a blued Smith & Wesson Model 29 in .44 Magnum.

His right hand henchman uses a Beretta 85FS, the single stack version of the .380 ACP Beretta Model 84. Other members of Travis’ gang are equipped with the ubiquitous H&K MP5k, MP5A3 and in the construction site shootout that wraps up the movie, at least one Ruger AC556.

The Cobray M11/9, identifiable by its longer receiver and chambered in 9mm Luger, stands in for the infamous MAC-10 and is first used by a gang-banger trying to kill Murtaugh, who shoots and kills the teenager. Distraught over killing one of his son’s friends, Murtaugh uses the weapon’s history to track down and kill Travis, who sold it to the teenager.

Lethal Weapon 4

Six years passed between 3 and Lethal Weapon 4, and while it didn’t recapture the electric rapport between the leads, nor the hugely profitable box office, nor the rave reviews of its predecessors, the action sequences and dazzling martial arts of Jet Li’s American film debut as Chinese Triad gang enforcer Wah Sing Ku make it watchable.

HK P9S
HK P9S

 

Once again Murtaugh and Riggs show up with their iconic sidearms, but Riggs’ Beretta now sports a set of Crimson Trace LaserGrips. Used both to dramatically emphasize the threat of pointing a pistol at a subject, and for a hilariously improbable piece of trick shooting early in the movie, Lethal Weapon 4 aided the commercial success of LaserGrips much like Lethal Weapon popularized the Beretta 92 itself.

The film opens with Murtaugh and Riggs responding to a call of a “human tank,” clad head to toe in body armor and wreaking havoc with a flamethrower and a modified Olympic Arms OA-93 AR-15 pistol. The OA-93 was one of the first commercially available AR-15 pistol types, apart from custom one-offs. In order to get the pistol to function in full-auto, a small buffer tube extension was added to accommodate a heavier M16-type bolt carrier.

Another Hollywood improbability, which inspired an urban legend that to this day refuses to die, is Wah Sing Ku deftly stripping the slide assembly off of Riggs’ 92FS during a three-way standoff in Murtaugh’s living room. Internet rumors of L.A. gang members using this method to disarm LAPD officers spread like wildfire, to the point of Beretta making available a revised takedown lever with no lip that requires a tool to operate. However, a close examination of the scene reveals that the lighting fast disassembly was enabled by the Beretta’s takedown lever already being lowered. To this date, no verified instances of Beretta 92s being offensively disassembled have surfaced.

Chris Rock is introduced as Detective Lee Butters, and is seen with an all stainless Colt Gold Cup National Match 1911A1. Token Asian-American Detective Ng (Calvin Jung) is also seen with a stainless pistol, a Beretta 92FS Inox.

Thanks to the Chinese origins of the villains, we are treated to a variety of unusual and rarely seen small arms straight from the People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese Triad gang are mostly armed with Norinco copies of the Makarov PM, the Type 59. We also see a plethora of AK variants in the climactic shootout on the docks, including Norinco Type 56s, Chinese AKMs, and Romanian AIMS with wire folding stocks, one of which Riggs uses to finally dispatch Wah Sing Ku underwater.

Despite interest from the studio and producers Joel Silver and Richard Donner in a fifth installment, both Gibson and Glover have demurred. A script treatment of a series reboot was announced in 2011, but no further news has surfaced. Even if Hollywood doesn’t retool the franchise for a new audience, the Lethal Weapon movies have aged well as a landmark of action cinema and a favorite of firearms enthusiasts.

By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the December 2013 issue of GunUp the Magazine.

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