A cowboy has his six shooter, Robin Hood has his bow, and Flash Gordon has a ray-gun. Each accessory perfectly suits the character and the setting. Yet when it came time to design the prop blasters for the Star Wars galaxy, director George Lucas and the production crew took an unexpected approach. Rather than create futuristic new blasters like other space movies, they started with historical relics from right here on Earth.
The word “blaster” has its roots in early twentieth century science fiction. Author Nictzin Dyalhis first called a small energy weapon a “blastor” in a 1925 issue of Weird Tales, a pulp magazine featuring stories from various authors. As war was boiling over in Europe, the term blaster caught favor with author Henry Kuttner, and his short story in the pulp magazine, Thrilling Wonder Stories. By war’s end, authors Alfred G. Kuehn and Owen Fox Jerome also told stories of characters wielding blasters.
Although the word blaster was a fairly common convention by the middle of the century, the look and design for Star Wars blasters was entirely unconventional. Lucas describes this style himself, saying in an interview before the film was completed, “I’m trying to make props that don’t stand out. I’m trying to make everything look very natural, a casual almost I’ve-seen-this-before look.”
The aesthetic for Star Wars blasters set it apart from other science fiction. George Lucas’ friend Edward Summer remembers his conversation with George Lucas in an interview with J.W. Rizler: “I remember having discussions about ray-guns too, because my friend Michael Sullivan, my cinematographer, used to design ray-guns. I remember bringing George pictures of those ray-guns, which were very much in the Buck Rogers mold. George said, ‘No, no, we have a different look for the guns,’ and I recall subsequently being at Fox and looking through the photos taken on set and of those long rifles that looked like flintlocks. It was intriguing, because it took a different direction than conventional, retro science fiction.”
Roger Christian was one of the earliest crewmembers working on Star Wars, as a set dresser at Lee Studios in late 1975. He used a Mauser pistol, some detail parts, and some super glue to make the film’s first blaster. He recalls in Star Wars: The Blueprints, “I invited George over to come see, and said, ‘Look, this is what I was thinking of doing, using real objects — and the bonus is they can fire and we get a flash, and we get all of that stuff on the set.’ George just loved it and started to work with me.”
Filling the galaxy with blasters took more than just one pistol though. The crew had the daunting task of creating blasters for many characters. “I took George to all the fun places,” said production designer John Barry. “We went to one of the big weapon-hire companies that had endless rows of arms and armor… George and the dresser, Roger Christian, and I got together a lot on those things. Rather than have your slick streamlined ray guns, we took actual World War II machine guns and cannibalized one into another.”
The list of World War II-era weapons used in the films is a long one. From German MG-34s to the hefty Lewis Gun, the base for many Star Wars blasters is an off the shelf prop weapon. Some, like the MG-34, receive little modification except a small detail box and some fins on the barrel. Others are modified to accept various sites and scopes, often of World War II vintage.
While there are variations on Han Solo’s famous blaster, it’s a perfect example of this design approach in action. Solo’s blaster is essentially an antique Mauser pistol fitted with a scope and custom mount. The barrel is modified with a flash hider from a German M-81 machine gun. A few other details are added to the base of the blaster, serving no particular purpose but to make the blaster look more interesting.
Those final random bits are a key part of the Star Wars aesthetic. The pieces, ranging from parts of model kits to cabinet track, are known simply as “greeblies.” Frank Burton, head of the property department for The Empire Strikes Back, explained in a vintage interview, “If we can’t give a name for something we call it a ‘greebly’”. Burton went on, “Greebly is a word George Lucas coined on Star Wars for something you can’t otherwise define.”
When you break it down, designing a Star Wars blaster seems so simple: a real-world relic, some vintage scopes, and a few greeblies to finish it off. Yet despite the simplicity, this practical design choice was a huge part of what makes the Star Wars galaxy feel both whimsical and real. It’s just one of the many ways that pieces of World War II find their way into the Star Wars galaxy!
Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the new book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to Marvel.com and runDisney. You can follow him on Twitter @ColeHorton.