Do you like guns? How about movies? How about guns IN movies? If you answered “yes” to the last question, it’s very likely you have witnessed the skills of Larry Zanoff. Zanoff’s work as manager of the weapons department for California-based Independent Studio Services (ISS) can be seen in a lot of big-hit films, including Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). You might best recognize Zanoff from the TV series Hollywood Weapons. ISS also provides substantial behind-the-scenes work training actors, providing and manufacturing prop guns, and offering technical advice for just about anything weapons-related. In fact, ISS provides approximately 70 percent of all weapons (whether original guns, recreated pieces or even completely made-up fantasy firearms) that are seen in TV and movies. So if you’ve ever watched a superhero film, an action flick, a police drama or a detective show, you’ve probably experienced ISS’ handiwork.
Zanoff is also regularly seen in front of the camera on the Outdoor Channel’s original series Hollywood Weapons. Part training and part myth-busting, Hollywood Weapons features some of the most unique firearms and some of the most thrilling action scenes from the small and big screens. But despite having one of the most intriguing jobs in the world, Zanoff is doing something he never imagined would happen: He’s making an impact.
A little more than two years ago, I found myself watching an interesting new TV show called Hollywood Weapons with my husband. We were quite intrigued. There were movie clips from some of the best action flicks ever filmed. There were explosions. There were lots and lots of guns. And there were several people using guns correctly and demonstrating firearms safety … wait, what?
After watching countless episodes of atrocious firearms mistakes and cringe-worthy gun-handling errors (along with making fun of inaccurate gun sounds, fingers constantly on triggers, impossible one-handed headshots and guns that never move with recoil), my husband and I were shocked — and relieved — to be viewing something that was actually correct, safe and — dare I say — gun-friendly.
If you don’t already know the show of which I speak, hosts Larry Zanoff and Terry Schappert take on some pretty detailed and somewhat insane challenges. They do this in an attempt to recreate some of Hollywood’s most iconic action scenes, factually and scientifically breaking down the stunts in an attempt to prove whether it would be possible to pull off such feats in the real world.
Needless to say, I became a big fan of Hollywood Weapons and a big fan of Larry Zanoff. And I wanted to share the work Zanoff is doing — not just the really cool stuff on the show but also the really cool stuff going on behind the scenes of the show that’s all about getting behind the scenes of your favorite movies.
There seems to be an odd relationship between the gun industry and the film industry — some would even call it hypocrisy. But Zanoff has truly discovered an intersection between the two worlds and has been able to demonstrate and celebrate the normalcy and the positivity of safe and responsible firearms ownership. And through his work, he’s making a difference within an industry that often tends to be either too violent or too flippant with guns.
Zanoff is often referred to as the “Willy Wonka of Weapons.” Why? He knows a lot about firearms. He has access to just about every weapon imaginable. He gets to play with a lot of really cool guns on a daily basis. And, for many, his job is one that people could only dream about: working with directors to help select, prepare and modify guns before bringing them to a set; training actors to use the prop guns correctly; and assisting with weapons-related choreography. He also enforces the film industry’s strict safety regulations. In many ways, he’s kind of like Hollywood’s chief range safety officer.
Zanoff has been around guns for nearly all his life. His introduction to and his immersion in the firearms industry actually got a very early start thanks, in large part, to his dad. As the son of a defense-industry engineer who was also an avid shooter, Zanoff showed an aptitude for disassembling, cleaning and shooting his father’s firearms by age 6. Raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Haifa, Israel, Zanoff spent four and a half years in the Israeli military before returning to the United States. He earned a degree in law enforcement and the administration of justice from Cabrillo College in Aptos, California. He went on to work for the Santa Cruz Police Department and later in private security. He also studied gunsmithing and firearms technology at Lassen Community College in Susanville, California.
In the late 1990s, the film industry realized a growing need for a competent gunsmith who also had knowledge and experience with military-grade weaponry. Zanoff’s professional experience, military service and overall knowledge made him the ideal candidate. This led to custom weapons manufacturing, behind-the-scenes armory work and, later, speaking about different guns for the television program Gun Stories. All of this led to his co-hosting Hollywood Weapons, which is now heading into its fourth season.
When not working at the largest rental armory in the film and television industry or creating his script-to-screen weapons magic, Zanoff also provides firearms safety classes and weapons training to law enforcement, military and other government agencies. He also made some time to talk to me.
ALCAZAR: “Are you free to say what you’re working on right now?”
ZANOFF: “I’m actually driving in the car to scout a secret location for Season 4 of Hollywood Weapons.”
ALCAZAR: “What’s the best part of working on the show?”
ZANOFF: “The fans are, bar none, the best part of all of this. Hearing from people and seeing their enthusiasm for the show … it’s just amazing. I’ve seen things beyond my imagination, as far as what the impact of the show has been. I’ve had people come up to me at different functions and say, ‘I use your show to help teach my kid how to shoot safely on a range.’ They’re really paying attention. And, you know, we’ve kind of put together this perfect nexus of people who may not have been firearms enthusiasts, but they like television and film, and they watch [Hollywood Weapons] because of that … and then they walk away from every episode learning something about firearms that they didn’t know before. Then we get the professional firearms enthusiasts who never realized the safety and creativity that goes into making a film with guns.”
ALCAZAR: “What inspired you to become part of Hollywood Weapons?”
ZANOFF: “[The creators] approached me specifically to highlight the behind-the-scenes work that we do every day in Hollywood, as far as being an on-set armorer and part of the serious, professional crews that work on all these different feature films. I wanted people to realize that even in a motion picture, in the big shoot ‘em up where someone is swinging on a rope ladder shooting guns from a helicopter, there is so much safety and prep that goes into what they see. I hope that in the behind-the-scenes snippets on our show people can see that it’s not just a bunch of weirdos in Hollywood. There are dedicated professionals.”
ALCAZAR: “I often see your hand on the host’s shoulder, watching him and watching the gun … is that acting?”
ZANOFF: “No. Obviously we have some things scripted [for the show], but there’s a lot of real conversations and natural reactions. I always express to people that when I go on set, I have butterflies in my stomach. Every single time. Doesn’t matter if it’s one gun or 50 guns. And I never really relax until everything is being packed up for the night, they got the shot they wanted, everybody got through safely and everything worked OK. I never become complacent. I’m always on top of everything. You can’t let your guard down for an instant. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the movies or in the real world … or if I’m instructing actors or colonels.”
ALCAZAR: “Obviously safety is paramount.”
ZANOFF: “Highlighting the behind-the-scenes safety aspect of the show is one of the main reasons I agreed to work on this project in the first place. Safety is a very important aspect of what we do. It’s always our No. 1 priority. In fact, when working on a movie set, I’ve had many an actor come to me afterwards and say, ‘Thank you so much for being here. I’m not a gun guy, but I felt really safe doing this with you here. I could tell you were watching me and the other crew and cast members.’ That means a lot to me, and it means I am doing my job correctly.”
ALCAZAR: “What do you do to keep up with your training?”
ZANOFF: “I don’t shoot as much recreationally anymore, so I swing Samurai swords and do Japanese archery for fun. But I do get to shoot on the job, and I take different types of classes. I have my concealed carry permit, and I have to requalify periodically for that. Beyond that, I’m an avid reader, and I have a big love for history.”
ALCAZAR: “You seem to have earned the name the ‘Willy Wonka of Weapons.’ Do you feel it’s fitting, or do you have a better moniker?”
ZANOFF: “Without getting too terribly mushy or sentimental, I will tell you, in all honesty, that when people come to me and try to label me as an ‘authority on guns,’ or they come to me for my opinion, it’s extremely humbling. I don’t really think of myself in that way. But I have done a lot of stuff, and I’ve gathered a lot of experience. The ‘Willy Wonka’ thing was kind of in jest, but he was an amazing expert and a pioneer. So I’ll take it.”
ALCAZAR: “What do you want to be known and remembered for?”
ZANOFF: “I never imagined this when we started, but the impact the show has had on framing firearms ownership and gun-handling in a positive light has far exceeded anything I expected. As I mentioned, I study history as a hobby and on a semi-professional level, and in my knowledge, more things have been done for good with guns than for evil. Ultimately, a gun is just a tool, and it can be used for many different things, just like a hammer, a nail, a saw or even a pair of jumper cables. It shouldn’t be something that’s stigmatized or feared. Of course, one of the proudest moments for me is meeting people or getting a personal message or email from someone who is truly a professional gun person, like someone in law enforcement or a firearms instructor, and they praise the work we’re doing on the show. It’s like getting praise from your peers. For example, the Cody Museum, as part of its massive refurbishment, is actually using clips from Hollywood Weapons in its educational department. I know we’re talking on the phone right now, but I have to tell you, I’m actually blushing. All I ever wanted to do in my life was tinker with guns … and it’s pretty overwhelming when someone stops you and says thank you for your work.”
‘Texas Jack’ Has Got Your Back
If you’ve seen a Western film or documentary in the last 30 years, chances are that Peter Sherayko supplied the guns for it. For you Tombstone aficionados, Sherayko portrayed “Texas Jack” Vermillion, the buckskin-clad character with the “Wild Bill” Hickok hairdo who rode alongside Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and “Doc” Holliday (Val Kilmer) during the Earp Vendetta Ride. A Tombstone junkie myself, I caught wind that Sherayko had supplied all of the guns used for the film. He happens to be an actor and a gun person, which is a rare combination in Hollywood. Sherayko took some time to speak with me about Tombstone and his work despite being on set shooting a film in a Wyoming location with spotty cell service.
Sherayko (or, more accurately, “Texas Jack”) carried his favorite firearm in Tombstone: the Colt Single Action revolver. Actually, “Texas Jack” Vermillion carried two during the movie: one from 1892 and the other from 1889, both of which came from Sherayko’s collection. Sherman McMasters (Michael Rooker) sported an 1878 engraved and silver-plated Colt with pearl grips. Sherayko had purchased it at a gun show in Arizona the year before the film was shot.
“For the shotgun that I gave the five of us [Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Michael Rooker, Buck Taylor and himself] that were Wyatt Earp’s posse,” Sherayko noted, “I gave everybody a different shotgun — all period — with a different type of opening lever. Mine was a Whitney, pre-Remington. It was made in 1875 with a lift-lever. ‘Doc’ Holliday [Kilmer] had a side-lever. Turkey Creek [Taylor] had your standard top-lever gun. Of course, Kurt Russell, Wyatt Earp, had a three-trigger Stevens.”
Tombstone is the only Wyatt Earp film (of the 20 or so produced) in which the actor who portrayed the legendary lawman used the correct shotgun he carried in 1882.
“I had to search for that,” Sherayko declared, “and I found it by accident. It is the only one I ever had. The only one I ever bought. The only one I ever saw. You very seldom see those at a gun show. I never see them at a gun show, except I lucked out and saw this one. That’s why I hunt gun shows all the time.”
Sherayko has some 1,600 guns in his collection, ranging from 16th-century wheellocks to 19th-century carbines. The actor and gun collector travels to dozens of gun shows each year to search for new firearms to add to his collection and to use in films or documentaries he’s working on (or could work on).
“I like the hunt of going all around the country, going all around the West, going to little towns, and finding something,” Sherayko stated. “I’ll go to a gun show, and if I don’t bring something home from a gun show, it’s a terrible gun show.”
To say Sherayko is a voracious reader and researcher is an understatement. He backs up his vast firearms collection with decades of gun knowledge.
“I research everything,” he explained. “I have 5,000 books in my library. While I am out here in Wyoming, I went to four libraries so far and bought 14 books on different things in the area. I love traveling around the country and I love going to the libraries and a lot of the bookstores.”
For Sherayko, making sure the guns he uses in films are historically accurate is imperative to the industry. After seeing the wrong guns in period films for most of his life, he decided to act.
“[A]bout 30 years ago, I decided, all right, I am going to do something about it,” Sherayko said. “I’m going to put the right guns in, the right gun belts, the right saddles, the right clothing and make people see what it was actually like and how they were.”
Hence his company Caravan West Productions. Sherayko combines a rare passion for acting, gun collecting and researching the Old West. That’s why he is regarded as the best in the business.
“You want to do a period Western, you want to do it correct,” he declared, “come to me.”
— Frank Jastrzembski, Associate Editor