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During a recent re-watch of Avatar: The Way of Water (the sequel to the original 2009 film), I noticed again that one of the main characters refers to their rifles as “ARs.” Given that the first film is set around 150 years in the future and four light-years from Earth, that seemed suspect. After all, the guns of 1873 (150 years the other direction) were quite different that those used by our military today. The U.S. Army had just adopted the Colt Single Action Army and the Springfield 1873 “Trapdoor” rifle.

So, I thought, wouldn’t the rifles used in the 2150s be just as different? After all, the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise (set about the same time as Avatar) features “phase pistols” that fire particle beams much like the phasers in other Star Trek series. Why wouldn’t they be using ray guns by 2153-2168?

Trying to figure out why they chose to keep a rifle similar to what we have now in the 21st century took me down quite a rabbit hole, and at the bottom I actually gained a lot of respect for the film’s production designers.

The easy way to do almost any gun job in Hollywood would be to just make something gun-looking that goes bang. Few viewers are nerdy enough to notice, let alone wonder about the guns used in a sci-fi film, so it wouldn’t have really hurt the film much to skip over the details.

On the contrary, though, Avatar’s producers actually put some work into making a fairly complete and well thought-out design that resembles current trends in military rifles. The movie gun is even chambered in a real-world caliber that makes sense in context.

From watching the film it’s pretty obvious that it’s based on a short-stroke gas piston setup. At one point (19:20 into the film), we even see it in a partially taken-down state where we can see that it’s similar to the upcoming XM7 rifle (SIG MCX-SPEAR), which in turn follows the same basic design as the AR-18 that was made famous in The Troubles.

That makes a lot of sense because the military world is starting to move away from buffer tubes, direct impingement, and other elements of the AR-15 design, so it seems logical that the trend to continue.

Image Shutterstock

It’s also neat to see that Jake Sully replaces his stock with a Na’vi-inspired wood stock, giving it a different feel than the bad guys’ stock rifles.

But, we also have to keep in mind that the Na’vi (and the human hybrid versions that are either remotely controlled “avatars” or “recoms” that have human memories implanted) are a lot bigger than humans. So, any rifle designed for a giant’s hands and body is going to have to be pretty big. Because the blue aliens are so big and strong, and the animals on the moon are huge, they’re going to want a much bigger caliber than anything humans use.

Once again, the film’s designers could have just let people assume that it uses big bullets without having any kind of a backstory…but they didn’t. It’s not mentioned directly in the film, but information from behind the scenes has trickled out onto the internet, and they picked a real-world caliber for the Recom/Skel M69-AR rifle: the .50 SPOTTER or .50 BAT round.

Originally designed to fire tracers in support of the M40 106mm recoilless rifle, its ballistics were matched to that of the anti-tank gun. When fired from a spotting rifle mounted on the side or top of the main gun, it could let people firing it know whether they got it right before firing a louder and more expensive 106mm round (which would definitely invite return fire).

In the original Avatar film, Avatars used .50-caliber machine guns modified so they could hold them, but seemed to face many of the same challenges human soldiers faced with high-recoil battle rifles (controllability). So, the shorter and weaker .50 BAT is basically the equivalent idea of an assault rifle, but for giant blue aliens with big hands.

A human would really struggle firing a Remington M8C with a stock, but a big alien handles it like an AR-15 or AKM.

Again, they didn’t have to do all this, but instead they went deep and designed a realistic weapon for a very unrealistic situation. (It’s also great that it seems to piss off so many movie media types.) If more Hollywood films did that instead of just saying, “It’s a ray gun. We can make up the rules as we go along,” films would be a lot more accurate and consistent.



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  1. Star Trek was a little far fetched. I wouldn’t expect humans to be ‘beamed up’ to space ships anytime soon. It took 4000 years to go from short bronze sickle swords to steel longswords, I don’t expect the era of gunpowder to last less than 1000 years.

  2. As I understand it, James Cameron goes to extra lengths to make equipment as realistic as possible as in they could actually work in real life.
    The only thing he does not address as does other sci-fi movies or TV shows is the power issue. What kind of power source would be required to fire a phase pistol? A hand held nuclear reactor?

    • Unless someone comes up with some kind of micro cold fusion energy source or the like, I do not see kinetic energy weapons going away anytime soon. Even then, a man portable electro-mass-driver, aka rail gun, seems outside the possibility of reality in terms of weight and energy source.
      As our author noted, more and more military are going away from DI actions to the greatly superior short piston gas actions. I expect only 3rd world countries in the future will still use DI actions as the are significantly cheaper to produce.

    • “What kind of power source would be required to fire a phase pistol? A hand held nuclear reactor?”

      Or even a backpack PS is something you don’t want to be near your body, if it can charge rapidly, it can discharge the same. Naval vessels will be the worst. You have to armor the crap out of your energy supply, once that compartment gets pierced, the entire ship will likely detonate with a thunderclap…

      • Neutrinos are the future.
        One half gram of neutrinos are equivalent to a 458.3 megaton atomic blomb to the seventh power.
        If you could use neutrinos in a submarine it would fly.
        Screw you Chinks Sterling motor, I got your boson hanging.

        • Neutrinos? Fooey! It’ll be hadronic photons.
          Non-zero mass at the speed of light. Heads up!

        • “If you could use neutrinos in a submarine it would fly.”

          The nuclear reactors in nuke submarines manufacture neutrinos by the trillions every second…

  3. The first ‘Avatar’ sucked so badly, I had *zero* interest in any of the follow-ups.

    I couldn’t stand the environmental preaching. Entertain me, don’t insult me with your preaching… 🙁

    • …. no shit, after the first movie they now want us to believe it even possible for ANY life forms to exist here in the 2150s ?
      Never made it through the entire film though, so maybe some miracle took place ?

    • All basically stolen from the animated “FernGully: the Last Rainforest”. Mix in some “Aliens” and Poul Anderson’s sci-fi story “Call Me Joe” and the 1st “Avatar” is what pours out of the blender.

  4. There are excellent reasons why even with advanced technology, handheld infantry weapons would fire projectiles rather than laser beams. Laser beams spread out do to diffraction. The angle of defraction is inversely proportional to the diameter of the optical system. Defraction limits the performance and resolution of telescopes and rifle optics.

    Any laser rifle or pistol small enough to be handheld is likely to have significant beam spread that would in turn limit energy density on target and hence effectiveness. A rifle based on an electromagnetic accelerator might be far more effective.

  5. The first movie was the most well-polished turd I’ve ever seen. Zero interest in it or anything else related to it. The James Cameron who gave us Aliens and Terminator 1 and 2 has been dead for a long time, and whatever left-wing soy creature that is currently wearing his skin can absolutely go lick a chode.

  6. Never watched the 1st avatar flick all the way through. I don’t “get” it’s popularity. My son is trying to convince me to watch #2. Only if I get to fall asleep in front of the boobtube🙄😀

  7. Avatars are religious symbols. This has nothing to do with guns, games, icons for online software, or blue people in movies.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Avatar movie, and still enjoy it every time I watch it. I am at a loss as to how anyone who truly understands and respects essential liberty (and would be willing to defend it) cannot, at the very least, find some value in Avatar.

    I have not seen the second movie.

    • I didn’t enjoy it for the same reason I’m not enthralled by a set of jingling keys: I’m an adult with an attention span. Don’t try to read some conservative message into this left-coast crap; James Cameron hates you, and he’s made several movies since the last century ended to prove that.

      • An honorable, percipient “adult” (regardless of attention span) would recognize that essential liberty is not limited only to those deemed to be “pleasing” or “complementary” to the aims and goals of one specific group. Freedom belongs to every individual- whether one happens to “like” them or not.

        The antithesis of freedom is when one (or a group) employs illegitimate force in order to coerce another to capitulate their own freedom, against their will, for the sole benefit of an oppressor. Doing so is manifestly evil.

        And if someone cannot recognize (or worse- chooses to disavow) the true face of tyranny as exposed in the first Avatar movie- just go look in a mirror… corporal evil will be revealed to you.

        It’s astounding (and disheartening) to see so many lacking in the most fundamental understanding of essential liberty- ESPECIALLY on a firearms forum where one would expect folks to have a much healthier respect for freedom…

  9. good news:
    in 2150
    the ak is considered an ancient museum piece
    just like it should be now

  10. These movies were dumb. I cheered out loud when the humans destroyed the big tree, and all the giant blue Santa Cruz hippies were wailing and crying. Contrary to what everyone thinks, the humans were the good guys in both films …

  11. Gizmodo article seems to be calling out Mr. Cameron’s hypocrisy on guns rather than being pissed off at the guns in the movie.

  12. Military decisions are usually made by committee or department dictator.
    Neither usually produces the best result.
    Bribes of some sort are probably involved too, in most cases.

  13. And here I was thinking it was as simple as the AR will be the B-52 of the gun world. (Assuming the 1911 pistol hasn’t already secured that slot.)

    • …. they HAVE secured both spots. Okay, so B-52 plus 1911 equals B-1963 – squared equals 3,853,369 – round that to nearest million equals 4 million, square root of that equals 2000…
      So according to Govt specs, the new weps system shall be known as the B-2000 and will cost $3,853,369 per copy.
      See how easy that was ?

      • Seems about right, a 4 million dollar gun system. Gee, I always wondered how they spent “development” budgets.

  14. I wonder what the production company was going for with that two letter logo with a vertical line between the letter.

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