John Bowring [ARMORER]



MATRIX: How long have you been a film Armorer?

JOHN: The first thing I did was an episode of the MacLeod TV series in 1975 when it was shot here in Australia; that was while I was still an apprentice. Back in those days, gun shops in Australia used to provide most of the weapons for films. I’ve done more and more film since then, and probably changed direction a little bit in 1984 when I started doing effects on Mad Max 3 [Beyond Thunderdome].

MATRIX: Was becoming a film and TV Armorer your original objective?

JOHN: I originally set out to become a gunsmith, and found that in Australia there was no such thing as a qualified gunsmith. So I managed, with a lot of luck, to convince the Apprenticeship Commission to allow me to be an apprentice to an Austrian. In Australia, an apprenticeship is normally a minimum of four years. It is associated with trades where you form an apprenticeship and learn on the job, as well as doing technical training. They allowed me to do this, on the grounds that I could find a qualified gunsmith to teach me, so I teamed up with an Austrian trained gunsmith. In those days the best school was the Ferlach Gunsmithing School, they recognized his qualifications, so I became Australia’s first apprentice gunsmith. Since then, no one else has ever managed to do it, so that made me the first and, to this day, the last Australian qualified gunsmith there’s ever been. I started working in 1973 and finished my apprenticeship at the beginning of ‘78.

MATRIX: When you worked on MacLeod, were you still under the apprenticeship?

JOHN: In ‘78 I started my own gunsmithing business; gunsmithing was what I was planning to do, but bit by bit more television shows and small films would come to us and say they wanted something a little bit different. With my background in gunsmithing, and I was also qualified as a fitter machinist welder, I started building more and more unusual things. Mad Max 3 came to me because they wanted me to build all the unusual weapons for the film. After that I went on to design and make the knife for Crocodile Dundee. We’ve been doing special effects since 1984 as well.

MATRIX: Did you end up making the weapons as well on Mad Max 3?

JOHN: I made some of them, particularly the Special Effects weapons.

MATRIX: Why did you ultimately decide to allow yourself to fall into film?

JOHN: To some extent that happened by accident because, as I said, my original intent was to be a gunsmith, not to be a film Armorer. Guns as a recreational pass time have become less and less popular, they are definitely suffering from an image problem, and film became more and more a place where I could find work, and I had films chasing me to do their work. The challenge of designing and making something like the Crocodile Dundee knife, was something I found very interesting.

The Special Effects side of things started to pick up as well, so I started to do a lot for television commercials, and the variety of that really interested me. So I just basically let the gunsmithing side of things disappear, and it progressed from there.

MATRIX: Do you do both Special Effects and Armory when you take on a job?

JOHN: Generally speaking, on a larger film it is too much to do both and to supervise them properly, so if it’s a large film we’ll take one or the other. On smaller jobs it’s quite possible that we’ll run both of them, and they do mix together reasonably well, particularly if it is a show with a lot of bullet hits and a lot of weapons related effects. There are a lot of shows we do effects for that have no weapons in them at all.

MATRIX: What are some of the films your weapons have been used on?

JOHN: The Thin Red Line, The Quiet American, some of them have also been used in a television series called Changi, and will almost certainly be used in an up and coming feature, The Great Raid.

MATRIX: How did you come to have this arsenal of weapons?

JOHN: Some of them we purchase, some of them we have in stock, and then once you have a stock, the films tend to overlap, particularly with period pieces. They overlap from film to film, because once you’ve done a Second World War period Pacific film, then a lot of the weapons will relate to the next Second World War Pacific campaign.

MATRIX: Is it difficult to find period weapons?

JOHN: It’s quite hard now to find weapons of that period; modern weapons are much easier because they’re still in manufacture. Twenty years ago, these weapons sold for next to nothing because they were surplus and no one wanted them. Nowadays they’re very valuable – they’re collectable antiques – so it has become very hard to put large numbers of them together for films. And also, people are less inclined to use them on films where they will get damaged doing battle scenes; whereas once they had no value, so no one cared.

MATRIX: Do you collaborate with other companies if you or they need more weapons?

JOHN: There are other people who we collaborate with, some in Sydney, some in other States – there are some in Queensland and some in Victoria – and between us all we can come up with quite a number of weapons. On a really large feature, more weapons are normally needed.

MATRIX: What else is done in your workshop here in Sydney?

JOHN: This workshop is quite a conglomeration of bits and pieces because we do Special Effects, and we also make weapons, stunt weapons, and replica weapons. For THE MATRIX sequels we have made plastic pistols, some of which are hard, some of which are flexible for different uses for stunt work, or for just dressing out holsters so we don’t need to worry about them on set. We cast guns specially weighted for Carrie-Anne [Moss, Trinity] to practice gun handling with. They’re colored orange so, under New South Wales law, they’re not a prohibited pistol.

We cast plastic weapons for Keanu [Reeves, Neo] for the first film in the lobby sequence and the elevator sequence, where they needed lightweight weapons. We made a very faithful cast of a [Heckler & Koch] MP5K, but it weighs about 150-200 grams, so Keanu could carry them quite easily without worrying about the weight. We also made a heavy version of the same thing, so it had a bit of weight if it gets dropped on the ground.

We’ve cast a [Heckler & Koch] G36, a German assault rifle used in the second film, so an original magazine will fit in and look very realistic, and the fore end comes off. We also have all sorts of other molds for making bits and pieces, from hand grenades to soft knives. For the first film we did a number of soft knives for the roof top scene.

MATRIX: Besides casting weapons, do you actually build the firing mechanisms etc?

JOHN: We do a lot of different bits and pieces here for non-firing weapons, and we can also modify parts for firing weapons. We have parts for the G36, so if we wanted to make a different styled fore end, or make a weapon look somewhat different, we can do a master, make a mold, and give it a slightly different look, making it a little harder to identify. For the first film we made the Mouse guns, which have fully functional mechanisms.

MATRIX: Is all the molding is done in your workshop?

JOHN: Yes. We started out doing all our own molding because we found it was too hard to get other people to do it because you need a permit just to have the molded item. Therefore it was much easier just to mold everything ourselves, and then we had control too. We found, working on set, we had much more knowledge of how things were going to be used than Model Makers did, and consequently we had better ideas on how to make things durable or soft enough in the right places to do the job.


MATRIX: How are your guns labeled?

JOHN: These tags are a legal requirement for us, and we laminate them so they don’t get damaged. Under our New South Wales State law, we need to have our Book Number, our Registration Numbers for the weapon, the Serial Number for the weapon, the type of weapon, and we put the police category classification as well. We also have a barcode so that when we book the weapons out and book them back in, we can do it with a bar code scanner. If we take 100 weapons on set, it takes a long time to go through and check them all in and out.

MATRIX: Are you the owner of all the guns in this one safe?

JOHN: Yes, all the guns in this safe belong to me, virtually all the ones in that safe and most of the others. There are four safes here with the weapons from Rock Galotti [Weapons Coordinator] in America.

MATRIX: How many safes do you have here?

JOHN: There are at least 13 here. These are high security safes, each one of those weighs over two tons, is torch proof, and has a lot of other mechanisms. They’re key and tumbler locked, and if you try to cut in through the front face, then you shatter a glass plate or you heat a thermal sensor, and then you can’t even open it with the key and the combination. The building itself has walls that are 600 millimeters [23.5 inches] thick solid, and it’s all back to base alarmed and movement sensored, plus all the perimeter is sensored – shock sensors, sound sensors – the security of the weapons is taken very seriously.

MATRIX: Do you have protection around individual weapons?

JOHN: Yes, I did a bulk purchase on bags because we needed something to keep the weapons from getting knocked around, and to make them easier to transport on set. Depending on the day on this film, we may take as few as four, or we may take as many as 150 guns to set.

MATRIX: Are there different laws pertaining to different guns?

JOHN: There are different levels of security necessary for different types of weapons. Pistols and automatic weapons have higher security than just bolt action rifles. The bolt action rifles are kept in the building, but the laws pertaining to their security require only that they have a lockable cabinet to keep them in. We have some Second World War and First World War weapons, and some even earlier than that. None of these are appearing in THE MATRIX.


MATRIX: Can you remember the first time anyone mentioned THE MATRIX to you?

JOHN: The first time anyone mentioned THE MATRIX to us, we were working on The Thin Red Line, and the then Art Director handed me a script saying, you should have a look at this, this is the script for THE MATRIX. Our script turned out to be script number 15 – someone asked us later how we ever managed to get a script with such a low number on it! So we had heard about THE MATRIX, and seen the storyboards and the script very early in the piece, as far as Australian crew was concerned. That was because of our company’s talents for weaponry – it was a very weapon orientated film.

MATRIX: When you read the script, what was your first reaction to the story line?

JOHN: I was pretty amazed. I must admit I wondered how they were going to make some of these things happen. The script refers to Bullet Time, and ‘til we finally got the storyboards, we weren’t quite sure what they meant by Bullet Time. At that stage I’d never seen any of the frozen motion type of technique, so it was hard to comprehend just what the Brothers were up to. Once I got to meet the Wachowskis, I realized that they really knew what they were after, and from there on in it was just a job of trying to get them what they needed.

MATRIX: What did you provide for the first film?

JOHN: The first film was very gun intensive. At that time it was very, very slow and hard to get weapons into Australia, and they wanted a lot of very new weapons that were not generally available; we had a situation where we were a little short on [Heckler & Koch] MP5s and Uzis that they would have liked, as well as other modern weapons. So for the sequels we’ve searched some of the factories very early in the piece, and lined up weapons so they could have them available.
In the first film the hardest piece to get hold of, people would think, would be the mini gun for the helicopter, but we had used that in Australia before. I had a relationship with Stembridge [Gun Rentals, California] where I could rent it and bring it into Australia, so I knew what to expect and that everything would run smoothly. It is very hard to move guns around the world – you need a certain amount of lead time – if something goes wrong with the paperwork everything locks up and just stops.

MATRIX: How involved were you with the set dressing of the weaponry?

JOHN: We built the mount for the gun that went in the helicopter, and we set up the belt feed and everything that’s all part of the gun. We advised on what would be necessary and how it could be operated. We then supervised the safe firing of the weapon, trained the actor in how to use it, and set the safety parameters as to how close it could be to the building. With that gun there was quite a limitation because it was firing into a glass wall, and the glass wall was being shattered. Because there’s quite a heavy muzzle blast, we had to be careful that glass wasn’t thrown back into the faces of the actors inside the room. That gun fired three thousand rounds a minute – it was set at half pace – it’s capable of firing six thousand. The absolute closest we wanted the muzzle of the gun was five meters, and we kept it to eight.

MATRIX: Was it actually shooting live rounds?

JOHN: They were live rounds, they were blanks. People think that blanks are absolutely safe, but the gas coming out of the muzzle is coming out at supersonic speed, and up close that’s every bit as dangerous and damaging as a bullet. It’s only after you get a number of feet away with a gun like that, that you could tell the wound from the blank or the wound from the bullet, because the bullet would be insignificant to the blast damage.

MATRIX: What other memorable moments were there on the first film?

JOHN: There were a number of scenes that were really interesting. One that we put a lot of work into was the Rooftop scene, where there’s the gun that Trinity shoots the Agent in the head with. We tried a number of different techniques, and were prepared for a number of different ways to fire that weapon, depending on what scenario the Brothers went with. If it had been further away from the head, we had a type of electronic blank that would flash in the real gun. If they went right up close to the head, we had a weapon with a very low powered blank, so that no muzzle blast came out the front of the gun at all.

We used both those techniques in the film. In that situation we went with the blanked off gun, but later on where Keanu gets shot by Hugo in the hallway, shot up close, we used the electronic blank system so that it was still safe, but we could get a registering flash for the film.

And of course there’s always the Government Lobby scene. When it came to the shootout in the lobby we had intended to build very special weapons, but basically the money and the time ran out. The first film was very, very tight budgeted as far as the firearms were concerned. We produced a prototype weapon for the lobby scene, but they decided they would go with M16s and shotguns for budgetary reasons.

MATRIX: Did you create the knives used in the original film?

JOHN: Yes, a few knives were used in the first MATRIX. Up on the rooftop, the brothers wanted a knife with a compass in the back for the marines to use. We had a sequence where a knife had to be thrown, so we made a polyurethane knife with stiffener in it, redesigned the handle of a knife that already existed, put a saw back in it, then put the compasses in there.

There’s also another scene where a knife was thrown at Keanu and it sticks in the wall, where an old lady in the kitchen turns into an Agent. That knife had a light balsa core and sponge handle and a very fine hole all the way through it. It was quite hard to make it with the hole up the center, and I won’t say how. That flew down a wire and stuck into a balsa wood insert in the wall. And, of course, there’s a blunt one of the hero knife, which the old lady has. So if they wanted to do any close-ups, that was there for them to do close-ups on.

MATRIX: Were the weapons in the Construct Gun sequence real guns?

JOHN: There were a lot of dummy guns in there, and there were also a lot of real guns. For that scene we got special permission for the film to cast weapons in a very light foam, and then destroy them afterwards. We also got, from a number of different sources, as many weapons as we possibly could. We have a lot here, then we got a lot from a company in Victoria, a company in Queensland, and another company in New South Wales. We pooled all those resources to make up a number of racks of real weapons, then we interspersed them with stocks of our own very high resolution replicas so that, standing there on the rack, it was impossible to tell whether it was the real thing or a replica. That gave us a lot of numbers, and then visual effects multiplied the racks, but there were six racks physically there.


MATRIX: You mentioned earlier that you made the fully functional Mouse guns for the first film.

JOHN: We made the Mouse guns as fully operative 12 gauge machine guns, using an electric motor to drive them, a cam system to fire them, and a cylinder with a pistol grip in the center. As an added little touch, when we registered these, which we have to do, we gave them the serial numbers to equate to Larry and Andy, the names of the two Directors. The serial number for this one is L2779, so that’s Larry.

MATRIX: Are those guns being used at all in the sequels?

JOHN: No. They wanted to take them back to the US, but you can’t take fully automatic weapons back into America if they weren’t already there, so they had to stay here. They’re something we designed specially for the film, there’s never been anything like it: a cam operated, electrically driven 12 gauge shot gun, holding 25 rounds per cylinder.

JOHN: These guns were made to look different. Originally the Directors wanted two shotguns that were Street Sweeper style, which is a South African shotgun / flare gun. But you can’t operate Street Sweepers fully automatically, they’re semi automatic, you have to pull the trigger each time to fire them. They wanted them both to fire automatically as Mouse went down, so those criteria demanded that we come up with something fully automatic.

MATRIX: Did the Directors give you any direction in the design?

JOHN: Only that they liked the cylinder look of the Street Sweeper, so they were built up from that. They weren’t ever taken to any degree of finish, they needed to be anodized rather than painted, and those sorts of niceties don’t necessarily happen for film.


MATRIX: What are some of the differences between the sequels and the first film?

JOHN:The guns Trinity uses in this film are a different model than in the original film, where we gave her two Beretta 84 pistols, which were a smaller version of the pistols we gave to Neo in the first film. Then in the second film, they decided to go with the bigger pistol, but in a compact version. Berettas are not easy to get in America because they have a large capacity magazine, and America now has magazine capacity laws. I suspect the reason they steered away from this on the second MATRIX was because weapons of this style are not very easily obtained, only in the low capacity magazine.

MATRIX: How many bullets does a Beretta take?

JOHN: It takes 13. We’ve had to give Carrie-Anne a bit more training on this film, because she’s had to do more complex weapons acting in this than she did on the first film. We did one scene where she had to shoot someone’s arm, and that had to be very precise. It was in very close proximity, and when you get in close proximity the blank ammunition is as dangerous as real bullets. Once you get within a certain distance, the bullet becomes ineffectual compared to the high speed gas that’s coming out of the blank.

MATRIX: What is a safe distance?

JOHN: It depends on the weapon, but with a pistol like that, within about four to six inches it can be as dangerous as a live bullet.

MATRIX: And nothing is being projected other than gas?

JOHN: Yes, it’s just the gas, but that gas is strong enough to blow your flesh away and inject itself into your bloodstream.

MATRIX: Are the sequels going to be of the same quality as the original film?

JOHN: Yes, they certainly are. There are two films, and it is hard to think of them as two films: you read them together, so it’s hard to put a dividing line down the middle. There’s more of a dividing line between the first film, than the second and third. They’re different, they’re not exactly the same as the first film, and they’ve got some real surprises in them.

MATRIX: Thank you very much John.

Interview by REDPILL
January 2002