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The guns of Red Dawn 30 years later

The cast of 1984's "Red Dawn" in a publicity photo. Note that mix of high school garb and the weapons they later use.
The cast of 1984's "Red Dawn" in a publicity photo. Note that mix of high school garb and the weapons they later use.
MGM/UA

This years marks the 30th Anniversary of the Cold War classic “Red Dawn.” The story of a group of high school students fighting a guerilla war against Communist troops first invaded theaters on August 10, 1984.

This Maadi AK was converted to full-auto and used in the 1984 movie Red Dawn.
NRA National Firearms Museum

The movie was co-written and directed by John Milius, a Hollywood veteran known for bringing his love of firearms to his work. Before “Red Dawn” Milius created a pop-culture icon when he armed Clint Eastwood with a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum in the first Dirty Harry movie. In fact, Milius asked for, and received, a high end shotgun as payment for co-writing the first script.

For “Red Dawn” Milius made sure the weaponry appeared as realistic as possible. Stembridge Gun Rentals, “Hollywood’s armory” since the 1920’s, provided the firearms for the production. These included both standard and fully automatic firearms.

The movie’s story is mainly told through the eyes of a group of high school students led by Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) and his older, out of high school, brother, Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze). The two escape an attack on their school by Soviet paratroopers and escape into the mountains with a few additional students. Later they are joined by two sisters, Erica and Toni Mason, played by 80’s stars Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey. United States Air Force Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) provides much needed tactical assistance when he joins the group after his F-15 Eagle is shot down in a 5 on 1 dogfight (he got 4).

The small group is initially armed with standard hunting and sporting weapons. Jed has two rifles in his truck (which are never seen used) and an Ivory handled Colt Single Action Army Revolver he inherited from his Grandfather. (This gun was actually owned by Milius). The group quickly obtain additional weapons from the gun store owned by the father of one of the boys, Robert Morris (C. Thomas Howell). These include a scoped Ruger Model 77 bolt-action rifle (later used as a sniper rifle), a Marlin Model 336C lever-action rifle and a Winchester Model 1912 12 Gauge shotgun (which later becomes a Remington 870 shotgun in a continuity error). The Remington 870 is cut down by Robert in one scene and remains in that configuration for the rest of the film. When Col. Tanner joins the group he originally has a S&W Model 15 and is later seen with a military 1911A1 pistol.

The most numerous firearms seen on screen are versions of the standard Soviet AKM (modernized AK-47) used by Cuban and Soviet forces and captured and used by the movie’s heroes after they form the “Wolverines” resistance group.

Because actual Soviet AKM’s were not available the armorers had to create them. The early 1980’s gun culture was different and semi-auto AK clones were not common at the time. The only guns readily available on the commercial market were the Egyptian Maadi and Finnish Valmet models. These were standard stamped receiver AKM variants in legal semi-auto only configuration. Since the movie’s production predated the 1989 ban on imported “assault weapons” these could be legally imported in their original configuration at that time. And, since this also pre-dated the 1986 ban on the manufacture and registration of new machine guns for civilian ownership, they could be legally converted to full-auto fire with ATF approval and registration.

According to Long Mountain Outfitters, the company that liquidated the Stembridge Gun Rentals collection in 1998, 32 Maadi’s were converted to machine guns while an additional 21 were kept in semi-auto configuration. The work was done by Pearl Manufacturing, an ATF licensed Class 2 (MG) manufacturer. The guns were also adapted for blank fire with internal blank adapters and “roughed up” cosmetically to look more used on screen. Two of the MAADI’s were “notched” to serve as “Robert’s gun” as that character was shown marking his kills with a knife on his rifle stock.

In addition to the Maadi’s, two Finnish Valmet M78’s were converted to machine guns and used as stand in’s for the Soviet RPK light machine gun. One of these guns is used by the Soviet paratrooper who shoots the teacher after landing at the school in one of the film’s first scenes. A third Valmet 78 was kept in semi-auto configuration and used in some scenes. The Valmets are seen with both 30 round magazines and larger capacity drum magazines.

Some of the Maadi’s were outfitted with red/orange Bakelite magazines, skeleton stocks, and a modified muzzle brake to serve as more advanced AKS-74’s. These weapons were used by the Soviet paratroopers who attack the school and later by the Spetsnaz team that attempts to hunt the group in the mountains.

As the film progresses an accidental encounter with a small number of off-duty Soviet troops leads the group to engage in active guerilla activity against the occupying forces. The enemy troops are made up of Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan soldiers armed with a variety of weapons. In addition to the Maadi and Valmet AKM’s mentioned earlier, the enemy forces also use FN FAL rifles, Tokarev TT-33 pistols and at least one CZ-75 and Walther PPK. (The PPK was likely used as a substitute for the Makarov pistol. While Makarov pistols are common in U.S. now, at that time they were still the standard sidearm of the U.S.S.R and several satellite states and were very rare in the U.S.)

One of the most distinctive weapons in the film is the Finnish Jatimatic submachine gun used by Soviet Colonel Strelnikov as he hunts the boys. This 9mm subgun features a diverted recoil system with the barrel out of the plane of the receiver. This unusual configuration is designed to reduce muzzle climb by both reducing felt recoil and directing whatever recoil does exist straight back against the shoulder. This gun was only manufactured from 1983 to 1986 and loaned to the movie’s production company by the manufacturer.

Two types of Soviet heavy machine guns were created by modifying the standard U.S. 7.62mm M60 machine gun. The M60 mockup of the 12.7mm DShK machine gun was used both mounted on fake Soviet T-72 tanks and used dismounted by Lea Thompson’s character, Erica, in various ambushes. The 7.62x54mm Soviet Goryunov SGM machine gun, also made from a U.S. M60, is seen both in Soviet vehicles and is also used dismounted by Robert in an ambush.

The military hardware shown doesn’t stop with small arms. The creators went so far as to mock up Soviet Mi-24 Hind gunships from French Aerospatiale Puma helicopters, Soviet T-72 tanks and ZSU-23 AA vehicles and even a M1 Abrams.

After “Red Dawn” most of the guns and vehicle mockups were used in other films and TV productions throughout the 80’s and 90’s including Rambo II, and Rambo III, Heartbreak Ridge, Magnum P.I. MacGuyver, and Airwolf.

When Stembridge Gun Rentals went out of business in 1998 many of the firearms, especially the machine guns, were liquidated by Long Mountain Outfitters, owned by noted machine gun authority Dan Shea. Before the sale Long Mountain Outfitters documented the specific serial numbers of the semi and full auto Maadi and Valmet firearms used in the movie. As a result those collectors fortunate enough to own a “Red Dawn” gun know its place in cinematic history. For the rest of us we can see them onscreen and remember a time when a ragtag bunch of high school freedom fighters fighting a Soviet invasion seemed like a plausible movie plot.

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Note: The article has been edited to remove an incorrect reference to the number of firearms used in the movie to correct the name and nationality of one of the characters.

Special thanks the NRA National Firearms Museum and the Internet Movie Firearms Database