TFB Exclusive: Tour Of ISS Props – Cave Of Wonders

    Last September The Firearm Blog got a behind the scenes look at how an episode of Hollywood Weapons was made. Larry Zanoff, one of the co-stars of the show, is the lead armorer at Independent Studio Services (ISS) Props. While we were in town, Larry gave us a tour of ISS Props’ cave of wonders. A firearm collection that is north of 16,000 pieces.

    Inside ISS

    ISS has been a family run business since 1977. The current president and CEO is Gregg Bilson Jr.

    Our tour started with a walk through their entire facility. Certain areas and projects of ISS were not allowed to be photographed due to the companies they were working for. But I can tell you we saw some cool stuff.

    We were able to photograph other areas of their facility. The photos below are of their massive warehouse full of props for rental. The weapons you see in here are not firearms they are just props.

    These G36s are merely rubber dummies. They are not firearms.

    ISS has all the gear you could want for staging your own military or war-themed epic.

    ISS is not just a place for firearm and firearm-related props. They strive to be a one-stop shop. Here is an assortment of tricycles and bicycles.

    Interestingly, film and TV (other than news) do not use real license plates on screen. This is due to privacy issues. So they have a large collection of fake plates for film crews to use on set. There is one category of prop that ISS is not involved in – motor vehicles. While they certainly work with car companies on projects like adding guns to said cars, ISS has chosen not to bother housing and maintaining cars or trucks. It is a simple matter of logistics. Cars don’t do well sitting around waiting for a project also you have issues with getting period accurate cars. Combine the fact that they are large and require constant maintenance. It is a logistical nightmare and kudos to the people who are involved with maintaining fleets of vehicles for movies.

    This is their home goods room.

    Since ISS is close to Hollywood and Burbank, they have maintained a very good relationship with TV channels and production studios. So they acquire vintage cameras as props for use in period films where you may see a TV news camera in a scene.

    ISS A Full Service Prop House

    ISS is not just a place to rent cool props. They are a full-service prop house. They custom tailor their prop selection to best match a film’s script. They can offer recommendations and set up packages of props for whatever project you are working on. For example, based on the script, people like Larry Zanoff will go through a script of an action movie and pick out what guns would be best for a scene. In some cases, you may not need an actual firearm. In that case, they have a room full of rubber guns. When I say “room” it is more like a warehouse. The level of detail put into their rubber guns is pretty spectacular. They have various levels of detail and in some cases are good enough to be seen up close on camera. Rubber guns are used for background actors or extras. Or in some cases, the actor is doing something physical other than shooting a gun so they do not need to risk harming the actor or anyone else with a real firearm.

    Typically they have a show and tell with the production team. ISS will make a selection of sample guns that suit the script. This is where the director often chooses guns based on looks rather than function or historical accuracy. ISS employees will bring this up with the director just so the director knows that he or she may have a gun in their movie that is inaccurate. In many cases, they will make a different choice or the director will simply say “I am making entertainment not a documentary so historical accuracy is not a priority”. Then all is fine. ISS did their part and the director is happy.

    Below are pictures I took of the various rubber dummy guns I saw.

    All of these dummies were molded off a real firearm. I’m curious where they got that QBZ from? Possibly a Norinco semi-auto?

    These FN SCARs are pretty realistic looking even at this distance.

    The P90 on top may be an airsoft replica. 

    None of these are real firearms!!

    The rubber room also has a whole variety of accessories molded and cast in rubber.

    I would think airsoft replicas would be cheaper and look better than a rubber recast but they are plastic and in some cases, you may need a rubber dummy so you don’t hurt an actor.

    As a fan of SureFire weapon lights, I was intrigued by these rubber recasts.

    ISS Is An FFL

    There is some misconception that companies like ISS are given a free pass for having firearms for Hollywood. This is not the case. While some countries like Canada and the UK do have special firearms licenses for entertainment purposes, the ATF treats ISS just like any other FFL.


    This is their Western Room

    In here they keep all of their black powder guns. And the twin Anderson Gun Craft Gatling gun replicas.

    All of the firearms in ISS are converted to fire blanks however some are kept live or in some cases are easily converted to fire live ammo. Live ammo is used in controlled post-production scenarios like sound recording.

    Below is a 100 rd test done with live ammo for a particular movie that rented the Gatling gun. They needed to know what the bullets hitting wood sounded like. So at a controlled range, they went out and shot the Gatling gun with live ammo to record what the gun sounded like and more importantly what the bullet impacts on wood sounded like. The grouping was so good that ISS kept the target and made it a centerpiece in their Western Room.


    ISS Armorers Are Your Production’s Best Friends

    The armorers at ISS are not just gun nerds. They are HUGE gun nerds. However, being an armorer is not as simple as being able to tear down and build an AR-15. You have to be multi-talented. You could be working on converting a full auto SIG MPX and then have to convert a vintage Colt Python or some other valuable firearm. They need people who are well versed in all manner of firearms. While some have their own specialties they need to be flexible and knowledgeable. A guy who only knows modern weapons is not very helpful when a big production company comes in and wants to make Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Below is the gunsmith room where they fix or convert firearms for movies.

    Often in movies, you see some sort of firearm faux pas and we are eager to blame the property master or armorer. However, the armorers and property masters strive for firearm accuracy as much as any of us do. The problem is often a disconnect with the production company. Productions are often not made in sequential order. So in some cases, you may have a B Team go get additional footage or a CG company tasked to add things that shouldn’t be there all for the sake of the story. This could happen months later after the guns have been returned to ISS and they are working on a new production.

    Logistics is something one does not think about regarding prop weapons. Especially prop firearms. A licensed representative, meaning someone on the FFL, has to accompany firearms when they are on set. They can not let the firearm outside of their domain of control. This may lead the production to hire multiple armorers or find such creative solutions as the armorer being put in wardrobe so he is always in control of the firearm.

    One thing an armorer does not want to be responsible for is holding up the production. This is why you often see multiple versions of the same prop weapon. This is partially due to the fact that guns can break down so having backups will allow you to keep filming. Armorers have to be quick thinkers and problem solvers. They also have to have a solid grasp of social skills. You have to find creative ways to say “No” to a Hollywood director and then give alternative solutions.

    Other things to consider is the logistics of shipping guns on set. In many cases, these are last minute requests and so they have to fly the guns to the location. But often the ammo is not allowed to accompany the guns. Well, guns don’t work without ammo and the ammo for the guns are tailor made.

    As I said, the majority of the guns are converted to shoot blanks. The conversion and the ammo are custom made for each other. It is not a simple task of just making the gun cycle. There are certain aspects one needs to consider regarding the camera. Muzzle flash, for example, is not captured well on camera. Often only 50% of the muzzle flash is captured on the screen so you need to make a blank that will produce massive fireballs if the scene requires muzzle flash to tell a story.

    Ultimately safety is paramount and it is the duty of the property master and armorer to make sure the guns are handled safely and used properly. But the budget will dictate what a production can afford.

    Famous Props

    Some props are well known for the movies they were in. They are just as much stars of the movie as the actors that held them. In most cases, the prop belongs to the production company but since they do not have their own FFL, ISS keeps them on site and stores them.

    Our Editor Tom R. is a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and the movie Serenity. So ISS brought out their Serenity guns. Below is the iconic pistol used by Nathan Fillion. Captain Mal’s pistol is actually a Taurus M85 inside.

    One of the most iconic weapons in Firefly is Jayne’s most favorite gun, Vera.

    Six men came to kill me one time. And the best of ’em carried this. It’s a Callahan full-bore auto-lock. Customized trigger, double cartridge thorough gauge. It is my very favorite gun … This is the best gun made by man. It has extreme sentimental value … I call her Vera.
    ―Jayne Cobb

    The gun was actually made for a lesser known movie called Showtime starring Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro.


    Later Larry shows Vera to James for a TFBTV video.

    My favorite prop was the modified ACR for Tom Cruise’s Oblivion.

    Probably one of the most iconic prop firearms is one of the original Dirty Harry revolvers used on screen. Due to the provenance behind the gun and its value as a prop, they do not rent this gun out along with other noteworthy firearms seen in movies. Just before our ISS Props tour, one of the fedoras used in Indiana Jones had just gone up for auction and fetched over half a million dollars. For a HAT!!! Just imagine if they auctioned off a Dirty Harry revolver?


    Inside the NFA Room And Antechamber

    Take a look at the photos below and be prepared to drool.

    Double-barreled 40mm launchers anyone?

    All the guns in this room are NFA. These pistols are converted to full auto.

    I have seen and shot a couple of Glock 18 pistols before but I have never seen a Gen 1 Glock 18 before.

    This interesting gun was made out of twin Feather Industries 9mm carbines. Each side ejects shells on their respective sides. It was made for Kurt Russell in Soldier but it was never used.

    Experimental Department Of Energy Colt 9mm SMG.

    Yes, that is a grenade launcher on a Keltec SU16.

    Hotchkiss Folding SMG

    This modified AK was used in Terminator Genisys.

    And of course, here is one of their handheld miniguns as seen in the Predator themed episode of Hollywood Weapons.

    It is deceptively small. Don’t let its small size fool you. It weighs a LOT. Like almost unwieldy heavy. Something around 70 pounds. Not something you would want to carry for extended periods of time.

    Modified Kriss Vectors.

    This is the gun Bradley Cooper used in American Sniper. Everything has been verified. Down to the Punisher skull painted on the lower receiver.

    Here is something that caught my eye. As an owner of an H&K MP5 briefcase, I am interested in other briefcase firearms. Above the MP5K briefcase is a rather rare briefcase for an H&K MP7.

    I was curious how it works so I took it down and opened it. Unlike the MP5K briefcase, the MP7 briefcase does not allow for the MP7 to be fired. Rather it is a fall away suitcase. This was made popular in the anime Ghost In the Shell back in 1995.

    The handle has a large rectangular button. You squeeze down with your palm and the briefcase opens and falls away from the suspended MP7. The arm you see below grabs and holds onto the MP7 by the side Picatinny rail.

    One of these M14s was used in Black Hawk Down.

    Aside from rubber dummies, ISS has a good relationship with SureFire so they have a large assortment of weapon lights. Some are worth a pretty penny.

    This is an SW01 “fatty” tailcap and is rather collectible since they were not made for very long.

    An original Laser Products weaponlight before they were called SureFire.

    This is the PKEF. It was a prototype light developed with DARPA. It eventually became the SureFire Kroma.

    And they have a bin full of them!!

    Need a functional optic? They have display cases full of them.

    ISS is a fantastic place and there are treasures tucked away in every crevice and corner. However, as I said, they are more than just a massive and jaw-dropping collection of cool stuff. They have staff that can help you make the best movie or TV show possible. They can help recommend certain props that would best match a scene. They are all mini historians and have a nearly encyclopedic level of knowledge about their collection. You can point to a gun and they could tell you what movie it was most likely in. Some they know better than others obviously while others that have been in multiple productions are tough to keep track of. But they have a digital database that keeps tabs on all of it. Just look up a serial number and you know what production it was used in.

    A huge thanks to Gregg Bilson, Hayden Bilson, Larry and all the people at ISS for allowing us to come and photograph inside ISS.

    Nicholas C

    Steadicam Gun Operator
    Night Vision & Thermal Aficionado
    Flashlight/Laser Enthusiast
    USPSA competitor

    Any questions please email him at [email protected]