There’s a door in the middle of the trendy SoHo neighborhood of New York City. It bears no logos, no signs, and no company name above the frame – only the numbers for the street address. The company logo hangs nearby, but the generic design offers no information about what actually goes on inside. It’s so inconspicuous that you’d walk right past it if you didn’t know to look for it, but if you take a few seconds to notice the high security door and the multiple cameras pointed at it you might realize that there’s something worth seeing on the other side. Unbeknownst to the thousands of people that walk by it every day, this is the home of one of the biggest firearms collections in New York City and the people who know the most about them. This is the home of The Specialists . . .
New York City has an interesting problem when it comes to guns. The Mayor hates them, but the movies and TV shows that are filmed there every year need them to tell their story. Back in the 1970s, Rick Washburn arrived in New York City looking to launch his acting career but found an industry desperately in need of a company to produce and supply firearms as props. Seeing the writing on the wall as another aspiring actor in a city full of aspiring actors, Rick started The Specialists to fill that need for prop guns.
Walking up the stairs into the office, the décor sheds its initial covert style and shows its true colors. There’s a suit of armor standing in the doorway, with a wall of framed pictures of firearms from the collection. In the center is a TV with a slideshow of the various firearms related options available for rent, from flintlock pistols to full auto machine guns and even prop explosives. It feels like a restaurant hanging their menu outside for prospective clients to see.
I walk up to the reception desk, but before I have a chance to say hello my contact greets me. I’d emailed them earlier in the year looking to do something gun related while home for the holidays, and they readily agreed to let me poke around a bit. Steve greets me and leads me upstairs, past a locked safe door built into the wall, and upstairs to the office where Ryder Washburn (Rick’s son and VP of the company) is waiting. All through the office the employees are dressed like they would be at any other SoHo business, fashionable and well groomed. It feels more like an art studio than anything else, except the portraits are by H&K or FNH instead of the artist of the day.
Ryder looks like someone plucked a blacksmith out of the middle ages and dropped him at a desk in front of a computer. He doesn’t quite fit the new age mold of the rest of the office, instead he’s more your typical gun guy; big, burly and no-nonsense. Steve drops me at the desk and walks away, and Ryder stares at me like he expects me to start asking questions. Ryder doesn’t realize that I suck at interviewing people.
I start with the obvious: how did so many guns end up in the heart of NYC? Did your dad just start buying them, or… He nods at the first answer. “My dad saw the need for a prop shop that has guns, and so he just started buying them.” That must be difficult with all the laws, no? “Well, it was different in the 1970s. There were fewer laws, and it was easier to bring things into the city. There weren’t no laws, it was still a pain, but easier than now.”
Speaking of current laws, I ask if the SAFE Act has had any impact on their business. Ryder rolls his eyes. “I hate it when people ask me about the SAFE Act. Most people haven’t even read it; they just hear things on the internet and assume the worst. But they ask me all the time. We’re licensed as a manufacturer, so most of the rules don’t apply – they only apply to the end user. We can still get things just fine.” I ask him about standard capacity magazines, since the SAFE Act limits magazine capacity to seven rounds and that might be an issue in an action sequence. He chuckles. “I can tell you’re from Texas, you said ‘standard capacity.’ Anyway, we use blanks in our guns and blanks are technically pyrotechnics and not ammunition. The law says we can only load seven live rounds, it doesn’t say anything about pyro.”
So, if you’re OK to own these things, how do the guns make it onto the set? “If the production company has a person who’s licensed to own whatever it is we’re renting them, then they come here and we transfer it to them for however long they need.” Like, full transfer? With a 4473 and everything? “Yep, doesn’t matter if it’s only a rental, the guns leave the premises so the ATF needs a 4473. If the production company doesn’t have someone licensed then we send one of our employees as a custodian. They pick up the gun, bring it to the set and then come straight back. The gun never leaves their sight.” Even if they’re blank guns they still need a 4473? “With the ATF, if it was once a gun it’s always a gun.”
I was curious about how the gun selection was done. “Most of the time it’s dictated by the script. We have contacts that tell us what the police departments and militaries are using, so if the character is on the FBI Hostage Rescue Team we can find out what they’re using and send it out.” What if they don’t know what gun to use? Do you give them guidance? “Production companies usually hire a consultant or an armorer to take care of all the guns, and while we would like to be hired in that role as well sometimes they already have a guy. But we can help.”
There’s one scene in The Hurt Locker where the characters are clearly loading spent cartridges into a Barrett rifle – to any gun guy it’s like nails on a chalkboard. I mention it, and Ryder chuckles. “Sometimes people will call us up and say ‘we’ll take that gun, and that scope’ and we provide them and they mount them themselves… backwards. We would like to be hired as consultants, but…”
If the gun is dictated by the script it’s one thing, but when I ask about science fiction and making guns from scratch Ryder gets more excited. “Usually we come up with a few ideas, show them to the client, and then make some more based of their choice, then eventually a full scale mock-up, and finally we make the guns. Unless they call up the night before the shoot and ask for a laser gun, then we do the best we can.” I mention that it must be pretty hard to come up with something new every time, since you can’t re-use something as iconic as the Moonraker laser for every film. “With gun guys, you tell them ‘this is the gun from James Bond’ and they get excited. But with film makers, they want their guns to be unique. They want to be the movie the gun is known for.”
One of his employees comes up and drops something off at his desk, presumably a project that he had been working on. They talk for a minute about how one material was working better than another, and then he goes back to work. I asked Ryder how he found these employees, especially since SoHo isn’t exactly rife with gun shops and shooting ranges. “I recruit them from all over. Their interests usually start with a specific gun or time period and blossom from there.”
At this point I ask to see some of the guns, so we head back downstairs and through the safe door into a two story gun room. Floor to ceiling this place has guns on every inch of the walls and on the floor as well. It takes me a second to remember that I’m in the heart of New York City, in SoHo. I ask Ryder about which guns were the hardest to procure, and he smiles as he tells me it’s a Welrod. “When we first started out, someone needed a Welrod for a shoot and we didn’t have one. So we had to make one. We grabbed all the drawings and pictures we could, and we made something that looked and functioned exactly like a Welrod. The magazine worked, the action worked, but the barrel wasn’t bored completely through. It’s not hard to make a suppressed single shot handgun look good on camera. After that was over we bought a bunch of Welrods, but we still have it.”
I ask him how he gets his hands on the guns, and his response was “we buy most of them. We have to tear them down and re-work them to use blanks, but most are original.” He looks up at the rack of guns and points to the wheel lock guns on the top shelf. “As far as things we’ve had to make, those wheel lock guns are one. You can buy one – if you walk into a museum and hand them millions of dollars. But these look just as good, and you can use them. They really work.”
One of his other employees had been eating lunch in the room as we walked in (as I would every single day if I worked there) and he chimed in as well. “One of my favorites we’ve made is that Oswald gun.” He points to a scoped Carcano rifle on the top level. “I’ve seen other films, especially with the 50th anniversary [of the assassination of Kennedy], and some of their Oswald guns are terrible. The wrong rifle, the wrong sling… We made our sling the same way Oswald did, with a modified leather holster. It’s identical to the real one.”
Given the number of custom made guns and the abuse their stuff gets, I mentioned that it must take a lot of work to keep them running. “We have four gunsmiths on staff” Ryder replied. “And when I say gunsmiths, I mean they can make the gun from scratch. We like to buy replacement parts when we can, since a firing pin costs five dollars and if you make the part the material alone could be five dollars before you factor in how long it takes to machine the part. But we have thousands of guns, often dozens of copies of the same gun, that have been in over 600 films and TV shows. Keeping the guns running takes all of the gunsmiths’ time.”
Standing in the middle of all these guns, I feel compelled to ask Ryder which one is his favorite. “For what?” He responds. “No one ever has a good answer for that. It depends on what you’re going to be doing.” Kevin Brittingham gave me that exact same line a couple months back – I should have learned my lesson.
By now I felt that I had taken up way too much of their day, and I figured it was time to say goodbye. As I walked back out the unmarked door and onto the SoHo street, it was like walking back out onto another planet. But it was nice knowing that even in the heart of New York City, there are a group of gun nerds with really cool toys doing awesome things.