In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, Magnum produced 1,960 pistols, compared with 969 the year before. Magnum Research is a private company and doesn't disclose sales figures, but in March reported annual sales of $8 million, which included sales of Desert Eagle pistols, rifles, revolvers and accessories.
"What's happened is that a gun that was designed as a [target] and/or hunting gun has been embraced by the movie industry and turned into a bad-guy star gun," says Rick Washburn, whose New York City company, Weapons Specialists Limited, is one of the country's largest prop houses specializing in weapons.
"Here's a gun that has very little practical usage," says Washburn. "It's too big and heavy. There's not much of a market for handgun hunting. So I would say the success of that particular weapon owes almost everything to the movies."
In a 1994 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Magnum Research chairman and CEO John Risdall was portrayed as aggressively courting prop suppliers at the annual SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show, the gun industry's biggest annual convention. But during a recent telephone interview, Risdall downplayed his pursuit of Hollywood.
Asked whether the Desert Eagle owes its success to the movies, Risdall responded: "Yes and no. The gun all by itself works. It does what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to shoot bullets when you want them." Risdall identified the three top uses of the Desert Eagle as "hunting, self- protection and just going to the range and having lots of fun."
As far as courting the prop houses, "Obviously we don't tell them to get lost," Risdall said. "At a certain level, your product is at a point in the social consciousness where people recognize what it is. And the movies give us an opportunity, as do the TV shows, to get to that point."
No doubt, guns provided free to prop houses have a better chance of scoring screen time than a gun that the prop house had to buy.
Take the stainless steel Colt Gold Cup .45 semi-automatic pistol, which Van Damme will use in the coming movie "Inferno." Los Angeles-based Ellis Props & Graphics, a general prop house with an armory of more than 4,000 weapons, acquired the pistol when the company's new owners, Dan Pearlman and Bob Wolf, started attending firearm trade shows.
"We looked selectively, and where it was appropriate, with the more marketing-savvy companies that understood the value of what we were proposing, we managed to acquire certain showcase-type weapons" free of charge, Pearlman says. "Basically we were trying to acquire some selective pieces we could help promote for them, and at the same time give them some luster and something to promote to their dealers and distributors."
Good economic sense
Rick Washburn has provided guns to hundreds of movies -- including "Belly," "Ransom," "Men in Black," "Eraser" and "Die Hard 3." He is currently the weapons coordinator for "Universal Soldier, the Sequel," a futuristic action thriller starring Van Damme and being filmed in Texas.
For prop houses like his Weapons Specialists Limited, Washburn says, placing a gun that was acquired for free is just a matter of good economic sense.
"I remember at one point I couldn't get a single thing [free] from Colt," he recalls. "I must have gone 10 years without placing a Colt unless I absolutely had to. If someone specifically asked for it, I'd provide it. But I had a responsibility to people like Smith & Wesson and Glock, who had actively participated in good faith with us, to use their product."
Whether companies are co- operative with prop houses "really depends on the CEO or the vice president of advertising and marketing, and how they view advertising," Washburn explains. For instance, he says that "with changes in the CEO the doors were opened" at Colt.
"Sturm, Ruger, Glock and Magnum Research are always very cooperative," he says. "Smith & Wesson took a long time, but they finally came around; Colt and Sig-Sauer are still wishy-washy, they can't quite make up their minds. Remington is of the mind that, 'If you want it, buy it, it's a Remington.' Beretta and Heckler & Koch are completely like that."
Syd Stembridge, president of Los Angeles-based Stembridge Gun Rentals Inc., the country's largest and oldest weapons house, says that "some companies are more aggressive than others" when it comes to making their guns available.
"Some guys in the hierarchy don't care much about it, some of them do," he says. "And it depends on the star. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to use a new Smith & Wesson in his next movie, they'd probably let us use it without paying for it. In most cases, they wouldn't do that with a lesser-known."