Mr. Authenticity

In 1980, Phil Spangenberger stood with his horse “Jeb Stuart” for a 15-second exposure by a photographer who made his way across the nation in a horse and wagon, making his living by taking tintypes and developing them in the wagon, while customers waited. Many who saw the photo for the first time believed it was a 19th-century photo. According to Phil, Jeb Stuart swished his tail, adding a bit of authentic flavor to the image. The saddle is a restored original 1880s Sam Stagg-rigged stock saddle with brass-bound Ox Bow stirrups. The headstall uses an original globe grazing bit—one of the most popular styles with 1880s cowboys, as it allowed the horse to get its mouth close to the grass to graze while wearing the bit. Phil’s bib-front shirt was made by his company, Red River. The rifle in the California horn loop on the saddle is a Shiloh .45-70 Sharps, and the six gun is a 4 ¾-inch barreled, Colt 1873 Single Action (circa 1880s) in .44-40 chambering. Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

Many fans of Westerns, especially the True West maniacs, are guilty of picking them apart for the anachronisms all too often found in such films. I recall having a conversation about the 1969 flick Little Big Man, with a friend who raved on about it, and I answered that although I enjoyed the film, there were several period errors in it. By the time I’d picked it apart, he commented, “Gee, I thought I liked it until I talked to you!”

For the past 40-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to put in my two cents on a number of movies, television shows and live theater, striving to give Westerns a more authentic look. For my humble efforts, I’ve been honored with Hollywood’s “Cowboy Oscar,” the prestigious Golden Boot Award for achievements in film and live Western entertainment. I’ve also earned the nickname one of “Hollywood’s Hired Guns,” and have been told that the gunleather my Red River company supplied to various prop houses was largely responsible for starting the trend of seeing more authentic holsters and belts on the screen. While serving as a technical or historical advisor/consultant, I’ve learned that one can only advise as to what is correct—not dictate! Producers and directors have the final word, and they are often quick to remind the expert that the production is a dramatic story, not a documentary. Nonetheless, I have done my best to add to the realism of every production.

 

For years before Spangenberger worked professionally in the motion picture industry, he performed as a gun-spinning roughrider in Wild West shows in countries around the world and volunteered his time working with friends in the L.A. area who produced small Western films. Here’s 32-year-old Phil doing a running rescue pickup on a “Producer’s Showcase” sample horse opera, in which he portrayed a bank robber with his compadre, actor Bill O’Hagen. Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

Hollywood Calls

Although I’d produced and performed in live Wild West shows in the U.S. and abroad, and worked on small independent films for years, my career with Hollywood movies and TV started around 1979, when a call came in from my friends at Stembridge Gun Rentals, then located on the Paramount movie lot. My relationship with them had begun years before, when I obtained firearms from them for use in the Wild West shows I performed in around the globe.

When I was the black powder editor at Guns & Ammo Magazine (G&A), Syd Stembridge called and asked if I could help prop man Bud Shelton select some authentic firearms for Charlton Heston’s then-latest movie The Mountain Men (1980). Bud had purchased several commercially produced, so-called “Hawken” muzzle loading rifles, but they were too modern looking with their polyurethane coated stocks, short blued barrels and brass furniture. Unfortunately, Shelton said he’d already purchased them and had to use them. When I suggested that I knew an artisan who could give them a proper 1830s look, he agreed to have them “uglified.” The guns were sent to my longtime pal Frank Costanza, who within about ten days, transformed these modern-looking smokepoles into what looked like well-used, cut-down, tack-decorated with rawhide repairs, frontier-era Plains rifles—the real deals!

 

Serving as a gun coach and technical consultant on major motion pictures like Hidalgo sometimes involves giving actors a brief gun-handling lesson for a specific scene. While on the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show set in Southern California, Phil gave a quick lesson in spinning a Peacemaker Colt to character actor J.K. Simmons for his portrayal of Colonel Cody. Courtesy Touchstone Pictures

 

Everyone was so pleased with how authentic these guns now looked, that I was asked to train Heston in the use of muzzleloaders. Jumping at the chance to meet and work with one of my favorite actors, this black powder enthusiast was soon found on a reserved firing line at Angeles Shooting Range, in northeast L.A., showing the man who portrayed Moses, El Cid, Andrew Jackson and so many other historical icons, how to manage my Green River Rifle Works Hawken and a caplock pistol. As an added bonus, Director Richard Lang invited me to be a mountain man extra in the movie’s rendezvous sequence, and eventually, I wound up traveling to the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, location for about 10 days to do some additional coaching and background work with a passel of muzzle-loading amigo extras. My involvement became a lead story in G&A, and a featured spot on ABC-TV’s The American Sportsman. Incidentally, much credit for the overall authentic look and feel of that fur-trade era movie goes to friend and renowned Western artist, Jerry Crandall, and his wife, Judy, who were technical consultants and were present during filming.

 

Spangenberger was brought on board The Mountain Men to teach iconic star Charlton Heston how to load and fire muzzle-loaders for this 1980 feature. Here, he and Heston (right) stand by with Phil’s Green River Rifle Works Hawken, while filming in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, during an on-location gun coaching scene from ABC-TV’s American Sportsman. Photo by Michael Levasheff, Courtesy Guns & Ammo Magazine.

 

While I worked at G&A, calls would come in from Stembridge, and various film producers, seeking firearms information. I suggested to the The Long Riders (1980) prop people that one or more of the James-Younger gang use Smith & Wesson) Schofields, since they were known to have carried them. Stacy Keach’s Frank James character packs one in the film. Another time I suggested the use of the Auto Mag pistol, and connected the filmmakers with Harry Sanford, then president of the Auto Mag Corp., so they could acquire two (made from leftover parts) for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry 1983 action thriller, Sudden Impact. I’m particularly proud of having played a small part in the Australian Western Quigley Down Under (1990), by suggesting they use the 1874 Sharps (rather than a percussion breechloading rifle, that could not produce any believable accuracy at 1,200-plus yards) and put the producers in touch with Shiloh Rifle Mfg. Co., in Big Timber, Montana. (See the full story in the April 2021 issue of True West.)

This photo, reminiscent of a period image of frontier troopers in the field, shows Spangenberger (fourth from right, standing) on location in Hot Springs, South Dakota, with part of the 150 dismounted cavalry and artillerymen under Phil’s command. They were used as background players for the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee sequence in the Touchstone Pictures movie Hidalgo. Spangenberger trained 50 of them in dismounted drill, and the manual of arms for the 1873 Springfield Trapdoor carbines, for the hit film. Photo by Jim Hatzell

 

During the initial meeting with people from Disney’s Tall Tale, Spangenberger was told Patrick Swayze’s “Pecos Bill” character should carry a brace of six guns that would not look familiar to the average Western fan, but should be something that Swayze could handle with ease and twirl like a pro. Phil selected Merwin, Hulbert & Co. large frame, double-action revolvers for Swayze, who proved very adept with them, using those six-shooters in the movie. Swayze is shown here with costar Nick Stahl. This is one of the few times, and possibly the first time, these six-gun models were featured in a major motion picture. Courtesy Walt Disney

 

Spangenberger (center) has enjoyed playing small parts in a number of Westerns, including in the action-packed DVD horse opera Vengeance Trail, in which he portrayed an outlaw with real-life pals (l.-r.) Jeff Wall and Larry Brady. Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

On-Set With Firearms

Sadly, a couple of tragic incidents in Hollywood led to more work in film for me. After a couple of unfortunate gun mishandling accidents that caused the death of two young popular actors, I received a call from a studio prop man who was giving a two–day seminar on firearms safety. He had his classes divided into specific genres—military, law enforcement, full auto and more. I was brought aboard to host the class on guns for the Western/Period. I did so while dressed in an Old West frock coat outfit, accompanied by my wife, Linda, who appeared in a Victorian bustled day dress, to show the many places in 19th-century garments a woman could hide weapons. After my firearms handling and safety discussion, I performed a fancy gun handling and blank shooting demonstration a la Wild Bill Hickok.

 

When working on smaller projects, Phil often found himself choreographing scenes with directors and cinematographers—especially action scenes involving guns and horses. This shot reveals a typical example of Phil coordinating an action sequence with mounted Indian buffalo hunters for the History Channel’s Wild West Tech episode, “Hunting Tech.” Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

At the conclusion of the class, I was approached about working with Mel Gibson for his 1994 production of Maverick. After a successful audition with the film’s production people, including Mic Rodgers, stunt coordinator, and Gibson’s stunt double, I soon found myself in Mel’s production offices. I must say that Mel, and most of the big names I’ve worked with were a joy to be around. Mel in particular, was a quick and eager learner, whose on-screen fast and fancy gun-handling with an 1873 Colt Peacemaker proved to be an excellent calling card for me for years afterward. Also helpful was the fact that our initial one-hour session was videotaped and a few moments of my gun coaching with Mel made it to a televised “Making of Maverick” special.

 

After presenting a Western firearms safety class to motion picture prop personnel, Spangenberger was hired to coach Mel Gibson in fast and fancy handling of an 1873 Colt Peacemaker, for his hit oater Maverick. Gibson was a quick and eager learner whose gun work on-screen proved to be an excellent calling card for Phil for years afterward. This studio still shows the three leads, Mel Gibson, James Garner and Jodie Foster. Courtesy Rob Word’s “A Word on Westerns” Archives

 

Boomtime

The mid-1990s was a booming time (pun intended) for Westerns, and I was kept quite busy. This latest rage with trail dust sagas brought the opportunity to work with Rob Lowe for Frank & Jesse (1994), Armand Assante’s 1994 HBO oater Blind Justice, as well as Lightning Jack with Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan (1994), and with Patrick Swayze and Catherine O’Hara in that same year’s Tall Tale.

 

While a staff writer/editor at Guns & Ammo Magazine, Phil received frequent phone calls requesting firearms information for movies. He offered suggestions that filmmakers used to add authentic touches to their productions. He recommended to the prop people on The Long Riders (1980) that one or more of the James-Younger gang use Smith & Wesson Schofields, since the gang was known to have carried them. Stacy Keach’s Frank James character (above, front right) packs one in the film, as seen in this studio still photo. Courtesy MGM

 

As the cowboy craze receded, film work still came my way as an on-camera “talking head” historical interviewee and/or behind the scenes as a consultant, and sometimes wrangling horses (including my own), on a host of History Channel series—the popular Tales of the Gun, Modern Marvels and others. While I was working on the cable network shows, along with hand doubling actors for trick gun scenes (including twirling a pair of power drills for a scene in TV’s Parker Lewis Can’t Lose), calls came in for more “A” pictures. Coaching Will Smith in some fancy gun work for 1999’s Wild Wild West, and a one-day flintlock-loading stint with Mel Gibson again for The Patriot (2000), produced more opportunities to add my two cents’ worth of authenticity to movies. For that Mel Gibson epic, I spent several sessions getting Heath Ledger and a 12-year-old Trevor Morgan to where Heath could load and fire a Brown Bess flintlock musket at the same rate as a British soldier of the 1770s (three shots per minute), while little Trevor, who was but a few inches taller than Miss Bess, fired his trio in 70 seconds flat!

 

For Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War-era epic The Patriot, Phil gave actor Heath Ledger extensive training in how to load and fire a Brown Bess musket (using blank paper cartridges), a Kentucky rifle (loading from a horn at his side), and flintlock pistols. Ledger was an eager student and told Phil that he enjoyed his time at the range with these period firearms. Courtesy Columbia Pictures

 

Safety First

When training or working on set with actors, we took special care while loading and handling any gun. We wouldn’t hand the actor any loaded firearm until the moment before “action” was called and filming commenced. We instructed actors to treat any gun as loaded, never aim directly at anyone, and to point any firearm at an angle slightly off to the side of their make-believe adversary in a safe direction (camera angles can adjust to give the desired look). Firearms safety was always our utmost concern, and we’ve never had any accidents with guns. 

While working on various projects, my goal was to add little bits of realism, not only in the type of guns used for the different eras in Westerns, but also gunleather, period costuming and other areas that depict the film’s timeframe more accurately. In November 2002 I was on location in South Dakota, schooling 50 of 150 cavalryman extras assigned to me in the dismounted drill and manual of arms (with trapdoor Springfield carbines), circa 1890, for the Touchstone Pictures movie, Hidalgo (released in 2004). Director Joe Johnston teased me, saying I had my own army, since I had formed all of the troopers into squads of 25 men each, for ease of management. He laughed, but said he appreciated that I had them under control and not wandering around aimlessly. Fortunately, I had friend Jim Hatzell, a technical consultant himself on many Westerns, act as second in charge, along with some military veterans who pitched in, as our “regiment” marched informally to the “front” when troopers were called for on-camera shots.

 

For the Western Frank & Jesse, Phil and his wife, Linda, worked closely with actor Rob Lowe. Phil worked in the afternoons with Rob, teaching him safe and fancy six-gun handling, while Linda gave Lowe horseback riding lessons earlier in the day. This studio still shows Rob holding an 1860 Army Colt and Bill Paxton in a tense scene. Courtesy Trimark Pictures

 

Movie Magic

Working in movies has been fun, and some of the most rewarding experiences were working with small production crews, as we did for shows like the History Channel’s highly popular Wild West Tech series, which ran for three years (2003-’05). On an independent, non-union project, one often wears many hats, and historical advice is generally appreciated by all. Having played a part in many of the episodes filmed for that series, either as a consultant, an on-camera interviewee, an actor, assistant director, wrangler, or just helping out in a number of ways, I had some of the most fun and worked on shows I am quite proud of. On these productions, I had the opportunity to work closely with my pal Al Frisch of Hollywood Guns & Props, and together we feel we definitely affected the overall look of those programs. We were able to use period-correct firearms, saddles and tack, costuming—even casting many of the character actors in those colorful shows. Eventually, we had our own stock company of players for these and other projects we were involved with, including the History Channel’s Conquerors, and Texas Rangers, the Discovery Channel’s Unsolved History, American Heroes network’s Secrets of the Arsenal, and others.

 

Among Spangenberger’s work in the film industry has been firing live ammunition in everything from black powder antiques to modern full-auto weapons, for authentic live-fire sound effects. For the movie Geronimo: An American Legend, he shot black powder cartridge guns from his personal collection. These included a Colt .45 Single Action, an 1873 .44-40 Winchester, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .45-70 Sharps rifle, to duplicate the genuine gunfire sound for the scene in which Wes Studi, in the title role, fired a Sharps at a trooper drinking from a jug. Courtesy Columbia Pictures

 

Of all the “movie magic” tricks we used to add realistic touches to a show, one bit of creativity that stands out in this Westerner’s mind was for a sequence about buffalo hunting. It was a scene where Frisch and I set up a hide hunting camp with two men skinning an animal on camera. However, because of the difficulty in obtaining a real animal carcass, we created a “dummy” critter, using a taxidermy buffalo head and shoulder mount, a tanned hide and several boxes and blankets stuffed up underneath. Once we rounded the hide off, giving it the appearance of a dead buff, it was filmed from the animal’s hide side, while the skinners worked on the stomach side with hands and skinning knives bloodied. Even from a couple of feet away, it looked like they were actually skinning a buffalo! That’s just one example of the extra effort we put forth to give a film authenticity. On any project I’ve been involved in, my goal has always been to make it look authentic. I sincerely hope the audience feels we’ve succeeded.

Phil Spangenberger is a longtime Old West historian, professional gun writer, world-traveled Wild West mounted showman, Hollywood gun coach, technical consultant and character actor. He has written for Guns & Ammo Magazine and is True West’s Firearms Editor.

Spangenberger served as Will Smith’s (above) gun coach for several sessions before production started on Wild Wild West. Once filming began, Phil spent time working with Smith on the various stage sets on both the Sony (formerly MGM) and Warner Bros. lots. Photo Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

Phil, who also worked as a background player in the saloon sequence, as one of the six gun-totin’ drinkers, with a “ceegar chompin’” lady of the evening. Photo Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

Spangenberger has worked on a number of films besides Westerns, including crime, fantasy and mystery films. For 2015’s fantasy action film Blunt Force Trauma, about an underground dueling culture, he trained Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) in the art of fast draw. Courtesy Author’s Collection

 

Spangenberger was brought on board to train the American Outlaws oater’s James-Younger gang members in the use of 1860s-era Colt and Remington six guns (converted to use cartridge blank ammo for filming purposes), including a week on location in Dripping Springs, Texas, at a “Cowboy Boot Camp,” where the stars went through extended training in gun-handling, horseback riding and other Western skills needed for the movie. Here (l.to r.) Scott Caan, Colin Farrell and Gabriel Macht brandish their pistols in a scene from this 2001 flick. Courtesy Warner Bros.

 

Red River Frontier Outfitters, a company Spangenberger created and ran for decades, supplied authentic Old West custom gunleather and costuming to the films Tombstone, Unforgiven, Wyatt Earp, Maverick and American Outlaws, to name a few, along with costuming for Universal Studios Western stunt shows. Red River gunleather was worn by Gary Busey and Willie Nelson in Barbarosa. Courtesy Universal Pictures

 

Gun coaching many of Hollywood’s top stars—including Tom Berenger, seen here receiving training —has provided Spangenberger with an inside look at the making of movie magic and the talented craftspeople who bring authenticity to their productions. Kelly Farrah (Gettysburg, Last of the Mohicans), prop man for the Curtis-Lowe Production Avenging Angel, supplied interesting period firearms, including the rarely seen S&W American revolver Spangenberger is holding. Courtesy Author’s Collection

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