YouTube/Paul Scollon

Guns From Movies: John Carpenter's "The Thing"

This 1980s horror/sci-fi classic only includes a few carefully selected firearms, and a surprising number of flamethrowers.

John Carpenter's "The Thing" is one of the best horror movies ever made, playing on inherent real world fears of isolation, distrust, paranoia, and the fear of being consumed by something—in this case, it's a really horrific otherworldly monster that turns everyone around you into potential bad guys.

"The Thing" came about just as a crop of soon-to-be legendary Hollywood special effects artists of the '80s were really perfecting their craft. It ended up resulting in some practical effects that still retain their gross-out factor almost 40 years later, even in closeup shots. That's something that can't be said for most CG effects created 20 years later.

The film was received with lukewarm sales at the box office, and a lot of negative criticism from film critics, who thought it was anti-authoritarian and that the special effects were over the top and too gross.

Many people presume this is a remake of a Howard Hawks film from 1951, "The Thing From Another World," which is partly true. It was pretty cool for the time, even though the special effects are purely comedic to a modern audience.

The plot follows a group of U.S. Air Force personnel and scientists based in a remote arctic outpost who discover a crashed flying saucer and a humanoid extra-terrestrial body frozen in the ice nearby. They bring the body in a block of ice back to their outpost for study, but it melts, and the creature inside comes back to life for the first time in likely thousands of years.

John Carpenter's movie, which he wrote with Bill Lancaster and John W. Campbell Jr., is sort of a remake and a sequel to that 1951 film at the same time. It blends elements of science fiction horror and action movies with the allure of a good mystery and some really dark fatalism.

Events from the older movie are part of the story, including the block of ice and the crashed spaceship, but it is revealed to have happened to a Norwegian science team, with the aftermath experienced by the characters in the new story.

The alien is a shapeshifting monster that can take the shape of virtually anything. There are no typical action heroes to be found, just a bunch of scared dudes in the snow fighting a monster. The action sequences are often gross, and come in surprising bursts after periods of relative calm, raising the overall tension.

Those tense, horror movie elements make sense, considering John Carpenter made his name in the horror genre with "Halloween" in 1978. He had another success with the dark and dystopian "Escape From New York" (1981), which also starred Kurt Russell. The duo once again teamed up for "Big Trouble in Little China"in 1986, another cult classic.

Getting Into the Guns of 'The Thing'

"The Thing" opens with a dog running across a vast expanse of snow in Antarctica, pursued by two Norwegian men in a helicopter, one of whom is attempting to shoot the dog with a Heckler & Koch HK93A2 rifle fitted with a scope and a 40-round magazine. Though we don't know it at the time, the dog is the alien creature, trying to get to a nearby American scientific outpost to find new hosts.

From that point on, the movie shares a lot of traits with a mystery, while incorporating heavy sci-fi and horror film elements. The filmmakers highlight the isolation of the location by having a storm rage through most of the movie.

Kurt Russell plays MacReady, the outpost's helicopter pilot and general badass. He's sort of a caretaker too, who has his own elevated lookout cabin where he likes to drink scotch and lose at chess to an ancient-looking computer.

Though there aren't many firearms at the outpost, and no semi-automatic guns, there is a small locker with a few Ithaca 37 shotguns in it, one of which MacReady uses on several occasions.

The only person who is normally armed at all times is the station commander, Garry (Donald Moffat), who is also an Air Force officer, in a nod to the original. Garry's handgun is a Colt Trooper Mk III revolver carried in a leather holster and gunbelt. He uses it to shoot the Norwegian with the rifle as he runs from the accidentally destroyed helicopter toward the crew after the dog makes contact with them.

While the Colt Trooper was never issued by the U.S. military, revolvers were still in service when the movie was made, as the armed forced hadn't yet stopped using them, along with the M1911A1, before switching to the M9 pistol (the mil-spec version of the Beretta 92FS pistol).

About halfway through the movie, MacReady takes the Colt and carries it with him for the rest of the film.

The only other gun at the outpost is a 3rd Generation Colt Detective Special that Blair (Wilford Brimley) keeps in his desk drawer.


Much like "Alien" (1979), the weapon used most frequently against the alien creature is the flamethrower, which seems to be most effective. Luckily, the outpost has a few of them. I always wondered why they had so many, and reconciled that they would be useful at an arctic outpost to melt ice when it builds up on equipment and buildings.

Most of the characters use real life military M2A1-7 liquid-fueled flamethrowers, which are rarely seen in movies, simply because they are fairly dangerous for actors to use. Palmer (Keith David) uses a different, propane-powered commercial flamethrower normally used for burning weeds.

Perhaps the grim ending and the very un-Hollywood structure of the movie is why it wasn't initially well received, but those are, after all, some of the most important requisites for a movie destined to be a cult classic.

An Attempted Revival

In the early 2000s, Hollywood decided to capitalize on the movie's cult status by releasing a prequel  that spells out the story of the Norwegian base and the team who originally discovered and digs up the alien, even though we learned everything we needed to know about it from the 1982 movie. The release was accompanied by a video game that was moderately well received.

The movie, however, was filled with typical stereotypical characters and predictable story beats typical of action movies with a few horror elements thrown in, but the CG wasn't great, and if you saw the Carpenter movie, you knew everyone was going to die, so there was no real suspense.