Behind The Scenes With The Prop Master of AMC's 'Hell On Wheels'

Set in 1866, the new AMC TV series "Hell On Wheels" follows the town of Hell on Wheels (it moves, hence the name) as it travels with the construction of the transcontinental railroad across Nebraska. Tremendous effort went into capturing the look of the years immediately following the Civil War, to the point of building a period-correct train (see second video below), since there were none to be found anywhere.

It's no spoiler to tell you that, as a western, "Hell on Wheels" has a lot of guns and gunplay. Prop master Ken Willis and armorer Brian Kent worked hard to get the guns of the period right and make the gunfights look real. Willis, a veteran of many westerns, spoke to me about it by phone from his home in Alberta, where the series was filmed.

"This is set in an interesting time period for guns," he said. "The only cartridge gun we used was the 1866 Yellowboy. Everything else was a muzzleloader. Having to load all these old guns made everything take longer on the set, but blackpowder guns look great on camera because of the smoke."

Not content to find guns that were merely authentic, Willis, Kent and their crew went the extra step to find unusual guns that give the show added visual interest. For instance, the main character, Cullen Bohannon, is an ex-Confederate soldier. He carries a .36 caliber Griswold revolver, an unusual gun of which only 3,600 were ever made and very few survive today.

The revolvers were built in Griswoldville, Georgia, during the war until 1864 when the Union Army burned the factory during Sherman's March. Although Kent and Willis are usually able to supply guns for a production from their own collections of replicas, they had to make a Griswold. Since the Griswold itself was based on the 1851 Colt Navy, they put a round barrel on a Navy to match the Griswold's distinctive look. "You can't tell it's not a real Griswold," says Willis.

While the Griswold was written into the original script, Willis and Kent suggested some of the other guns used in the filming such as the six-barreled pepperbox revolver. "Colm Meaney plays a rich man," says Willis, "and the pepperbox just seemed to fit his character." The blunderbuss in the video above actually never made it onscreen. It was replaced with "Beauty" the ominous cut-down double-barreled shotgun.

On the set the guns were loaded with blackpowder (real blackpowder makes better smoke than substitutes like pyrodex) and the charges were tamped down with wadding made from a material similar to sofa stuffing that was teased apart so it burns up instantly instead of shooting hot debris on the set. Depending on how close actors will be to the muzzles, guns are loaded with quarter-, half- or full-powder charges. Blanks can cause fatal injury at close range, so safety is a top concern on the set.

"We make sure everyone keeps a safe distance for the charge we're using," says Willis. In the video, where they are filming the gunfight, you can hear someone ask Kent if the actors are at a safe distance. To protect cameras and cameramen when they film guns fired directly at the lens, the scene is shot through a 5/8" sheet of Plexiglas.

There's a spot early in the video where the crew test fires a blood capsule against an actor's forehead. "That gun was modified replica with a compressed air hose that shoots the blood capsule out," says Willis. "Because the shot is taken at such close range it wasn't safe to use any powder so we had to add the smoke digitally afterwards." In a scene in the series that doesn't appear on this video, a character is shot in the head with a pillow over his face. Willis says there was no digital trickery involved in that shot.

"We took a feather pillow and sewed a pocket inside that held a bullet-resistant vest. We put that over the actor's face and fired a blank at the pillow that was powerful enough to blow feathers all over while the vest protected him."

When guns are loaded with blanks they have very little recoil. Any "kick" you see is pure acting. "We'll take actors to the range sometime and have them shoot real rifles and pistols so they get a feel for recoil that they have to simulate," says Willis.

Although game formed part of the diet of crews building the transcontinental railroad, there aren't any hunting scenes in "Hell On Wheels." You will see deer hanging from meatpoles in some episodes, however. They aren't digital, and they aren't fake. They are...roadkill, provided by the Alberta Fish and Game Department. That's one last bit of TV magic explained. To see how it all comes together, check out "Hell On Wheels" premiering November 6 on AMC at 10/9c. For more information, visit www.amctv.com.