Guns, swords, spears? Call him


Simon Atherton

Armorer and weapons master

Latest assignment: Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”

Other credits: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers” and “Troy”

This gunsmith for hire: It’s a hybrid [job] really. An armorer can be the gentleman who brings a weapon to the set that day and shows the actor how to use it and make sure it’s safe. But I have kind of taken it one stage further. We design weapons. We just don’t supply a weapon. I have kind of used my trade -- I trained as a gunsmith -- and I kind of built on that to create weapons that have a different look. So instead of just supplying standard weapons we supply specialist weapons. So in “Kingdom of Heaven” we supplied the weapon-related armory -- swords, shields, spears, crossbows, bows, catapults -- anything you would physically fight [with]. On some occasions, if a weapon is an integral part of the armor, like if there is a sword coming out of a gauntlet, we would make that. On “The Mummy” we made a few gauntlets where a few spikes came out.

Ridley’s on the line: The first thing that happens on a Ridley Scott film is that you get the phone call from Ridley and he’ll say “Come and meet me.” He will give you a kind of brief and explain what he wants to do. And he’ll give you the script. The first thing I’ll ask him is “How long [do I have?],” because it is usually pretty fast. On “Kingdom of Heaven” I think it was four months from the call to us shooting. When you get the call from Ridley you drop everything. Or you try to drop anything. But it’s very much fun.


The sword thing: The first thing I do is read the script and break it down, because the next phone call I’ll get is from the producer saying “How much does it cost?” So I do a full breakdown of the battles and the first person I’ll want to speak to is the first assistant director and say, “What is your biggest number [of extras]?’ and then we work back. If they say we are going to have 600 people in this battle per side, I know I have got to make 900 weapons to cover all the breakages. You are going to lose a percentage on each battle, and if a battle is going to run after 10 days, you are going to lose a lot of equipment. When I first did “Braveheart” I was a bit naive because that was the first big kind of sword film I had done and I didn’t really account for breakages, so we were constantly working through the night to keep things going.

The creation: We design the weapons exactly around the character. As you get the feedback from casting as to who the actor is going to be, that influences what I will give it. I have a great collection of books and I also usually go to the museums so you get a feel for the period. The problem is that what is in museums are items that people have looked after and were never fought with and were found in burial sites. You got to think this guy has been buried in his best suit and he has been buried with his best sword. It is probably not the sword he walked through life with or his fighting sword. After bringing all of those things together -- the actor, the script, the museum research -- then I usually play. Each sword I make I have got to have a kind of passion for it. I think in most things I make I have to please myself first. I have to like it. If I like it I can sell it

Weapons count: There are thousands of swords in “Kingdom of Heaven” and even more spears. What I have learned over the years is that there is no point in wasting money on giving big crowds swords and daggers; you need to give them spears. As you go further back [with the rows of troops] you wants shields and spears, things you can see. I think we made 15,000 spears. And we were making arrows forever. The arrows are one of the hardest things; the feathers are tied on by hand. The feathers are cut by machine, but you will only get one flight out of each feather. We use goose feathers.

Staffing: When we are at full speed, we get up to a team of 20 in manufacturing.

A sword would take a minimum of a week to make so we have to use modern machinery. We use modern lathes and milling machines, and we set them on computer machines.

Learning the trade: I was 16. And I wasn’t doing that well, I suppose, academically. I felt like I was struggling and someone offered me an apprenticeship [as a gunsmith].


I was an apprentice six years to a gunsmith; then you become a journeyman where you go out and apply your trade at other gunsmith shops. And then you become a freeman where you join a guild, and eventually if you are good enough you become a master. A year ago, I became a freeman.

I finished my apprenticeship and then I went fishing for a few years. Then I went to work at a museum [in Cornwall]. The guys there said there was a company, and the museum had just done a film called “A Bridge Too Far.” The guys at the museum said there was a company that supplied all the guns for the film and they gave me the address for the company in London. I got an interview and was offered a job and I worked for them for 15 years. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was my first movie. I worked on all the weapons, and I have a part in it. We were in Tunisia and they ran out of extras that looked European, so they cast the crew as Germans.

Age: 47

Union or guild: The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers

Residence: Princes Risborough, England

Salary: It is a good living. But you must be passionate in what you do. You have to make the weapon to the best of your ability and not just think, “Oh, it’s a film prop.” You get as much back as you put into [it].

-- Susan King