M4A1 Thompson Rifle
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- Last updated: 04/02/2017
Every science fiction franchise has its own unique weapon, and no fan worth their salt will forget the Star Trek Phaser, Rick Deckard’s Blaster in ‘Blade Runner’, or indeed another Blaster used by Han Solo. With the exception of the Phaser though, many film props were created by ‘futurising’ existing firearm models, and in my mind one of the most iconic movie weapons ever to blaze its way onto the big screen was the M41A Pulse Rifle, the long arm of choice for the US Colonial Marines in the Oscar-winning Aliens.
The ‘M41A Pulse Rifle’ was a fictional firearm created especially for the 1986 movie. As described and seen in the film, the rifle fired 10x24mm, explosive tip, caseless, light armour-piercing rounds from a 99-round magazine, although this was commonly downloaded to 95 to prevent stoppages according to ‘experts’. An LED readout on the right side indicated the number of rounds remaining in the magazine. In addition, the Pulse Rifle was fitted with an underslung pump-action, four shot, 30mm grenade launcher and a sliding metal stock.
One of the ‘Aliens’ fan forums gives the information: “The Armat M41A Pulse Rifle is an American-made pulse-action assault rifle chambered for 10x 24mm Caseless ammunition. It was notably employed by the United States Colonial Marine Corps and the United States Army as their primary infantry weapon during the late 22nd century. Through its use with the USCM, it saw regular use in various engagements with the Xenomorph and Yautja species.” The props, which were built from sketches by Aliens director James Cameron, were realised by Simon Atherton, head of British film armourers Bapty & Co. and consisted of an M1A1 Thompson for the main gun and a cut-down Remington 870 as the grenade launcher, which was mounted underneath the Thompson’s barrel and covered with the forend, shroud, and the pump handle from a Franchi SPAS-12 fitted to the 870’s action. The Pulse Rifles were originally going to be based on the Heckler & Koch MP5A3 submachine gun, using the weapon’s 1970s-style straight magazine. However, Cameron wanted the rifles to produce large, impressive muzzle flashes on screen, and this was not possible with the MP5’s 9mm round. Atherton instead suggested using the M1A1 Thompson, as its larger .45-calibre round could produce the desired effect.
Many of the custom-made metal parts used to dress up the weapons, including the ventilated barrel shroud, telescoping stock and the adapted SPAS-12 pump, were machined at Bapty’s shop. The weapon was finished with a futuristic, custom-made aluminium shell finished with ‘Brown Bess’ paint (the guns often appear olive green in ‘Aliens’ due to set lighting). Several practical weapons capable of firing blanks were constructed for the production, although only one ‘hero’ prop had a functioning shotgun unit.
Following the completion of filming on Aliens, all but the hero-weapon were scrapped. The surviving hero-weapon subsequently went on to appear in Alien 3 several years later, where it was once again fired on screen by Weyland-Yutani Commandos. In Alien 3, the rifle was painted black, but green furniture has since been accepted as the standard finish and has been replicated in virtually every copy of the weapon.
“We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!” So spoke the character Hudson, as the Colonial Marines headed to meet their worst nightmares, clutching his M41A ready for battle. I’ve always been an absolutely huge fan of the movie as it melds together hardcore science fiction with some first rate military action, and in my heart I’ve yearned for a replica of the pulse rifle, but could just never justify the cost of either a custom build or a kit.
G&P produced a superb 16 part kit of the pieces needed to transform an airsoft Thompson into a functioning M41A, including the round counter, 6063 aluminium alloy shroud, and an ABS body. It was quoted as being ‘easy to install’ but anyone who ever had a crack at assembling one will tell you that this was far from the case. Costing the best part of £400 also meant that the kit was darned expensive, and that was even before you bought the donor Thompson to go inside it!
I remember seeing a complete with Thompson, fully assembled version of the G&P kit going up for sale on the Fire Support website but at £649 this was just too much to spend on something that in all fairness would just become a ‘wall hanger’, so I parked my desire to own an M41A, thinking that this was one dream that would remain unobtainable. You can therefore imagine my delight when I checked the ‘Just In’ page on their website one morning and discovered the ‘SW11’ or ‘Snow Wolf M41A Alien Pulse Rifle’!
Rumour has it that Chinese manufacturer Snow Wolf came into being as its own company after some changes a few years back at STAR airsoft; whether this is true or not I can’t confirm, but what I can tell you is that they make some really interesting historical replicas like the PPSh and the M1938 sub-machine gun. I’ve tried both of these models and they function very well indeed, so given that they obviously like to work on older styles, the fact that they’ve created something based around a Thompson is not a huge leap to make.
I’ll start off by saying that the M41A is not a replica for those of small stature as it is big, and at 3.2-kilos reasonably heavy; you’d certainly want a sling on it if you were going to carry it all day! First out of the simple box is a very thorough handling and instruction manual, and this almost looks to be printed from the construction CD that came with the G&P kit; it’s full colour and the pictures give a step by step guide to building the entire rifle from scratch!
I defy any Aliens fan not to get a large and immediate smile on their face as soon as they lift the M41A from its packaging, as it just feels brilliant; the green plastic furniture is nice and solid, whilst the metalwork gives if a real heft. If you’ve ever used a Thompson, you’ll recognise that straight away, as the cocking handle and the hop-up adjustment are exactly where you’d find them on a WWII vintage replica. Ditto for the twin safety, fire control, and magazine release catch; these are on the left-hand side of the gun above the re-moulded pistol grip. The underslung grenade launcher is sadly non-functional due to the fact that this is where a stick battery lives, and this is changed by simply rotating the muzzle plate of the launcher; I did manage to ease in an 11.1 LiPo stick, but more on that later. You can rack the action of the launcher, and one nice touch is that Snow Wolf have arranged it so that a dummy shell is revealed when you do.
Loading the M41A is actually quite tricky until you get the hang of it, as essentially the 190 BB short Thompson magazine hides itself away in the green housing of the body furniture; Thompsons are quite tricky to load up as standard, as the rails into which the rear ribs of the magazine sit are quite high up in the slim body. With these rails completely obscured it takes a bit of fiddling to get the magazine seated, but when it is, it’s not going anywhere, and it disappears from view entirely once you re-attach the green outer floorplate. This of course means that you can only use short Thompson mags, which are sadly getting harder to come by.
With a battery inserted in the launcher shroud, and a full magazine of .20g BBs, it was time to get the beast chrono’d and John at Fire Support had pre-warned me that the M41A came out of the box ‘hot’. He was not joking! When I fired the first BB through the chrono it returned a reading of 1.93-Joule/457fps! This is not a replica that you can skirmish with straight from the box, but Fire Support does offer to downgrade the power for an additional small fee. Although the power was high I have to report that it was very, very consistent, and the rate of fire on the 11.1V LiPo was superb. And when it comes to rate of fire there’s yet another clever little bit of tech that is sure to please; just like the real movie rifle, on the right of the magazine housing, powered by a separate 9V battery housed in the magazine compartment, is a functioning round counter! Starting at 95, the counter clocks down every time you fire a BB until you reach 00; although you can carry on firing until you empty the 190BB magazine, the counter will not reset until you replace the spent magazine with a loaded one.
The metal skeleton sliding stock looks positively utilitarian, but sets to three positions solidly. Strangely the M41A has no sights whatsoever, and you aim it simply by looking down the channel in the top of the carry handle; surprisingly the rifle is actually quite accurate and even with this rudimentary style of aiming I was able to hit my sandbag targets at 30-meters once I’d got the hop set correctly. If the Snow Wolf were mine though, I would certainly fix some simple iron sights into the channel to rectify the omission.
Overall I love the M41A, but then as a confirmed Colonial Marine ‘fanboy’, I was always going to. In reality, there are a few creaks and wobbles that need attending to, and the question of over-power cannot be left unanswered. I believe that this is still a replica that you would own for its uniqueness rather than for its skirmishing prowess, as a relatively low capacity, hard to change magazine could really give you grief in-game. The launcher tube does feel a little fragile, but only time would tell on that. If I’m sounding negative here, and being overly hard on the M41A it’s because I wanted it to be perfect and it’s not quite. All the problems though are pretty minor and easily and inexpensively solved, so do I still want one for myself? Darn right I do, it’s a fully assembled BB spitting M41A Pulse Rifle and this one only costs £299 – “Game over, man! Game over!” – Private Hudson
Thanks as always to my friends at www.fire-support.co.uk for providing the test sample. Please do visit their website to check out the other models on offer from Snow Wolf, along with all the other great brands Fire Support stock.
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