How the Hell Do Guns Work on 'Westworld'?

evan rachel wood on westworld hbo
John P. Johnson/HBO
John P. Johnson/HBO

This post contains spoilers through the Season 2 premiere of Westworld. Head to Westworld World for reviews, theories, and deep dives.

Withholding key info is a common theme on Westworld. Think about the Man in Black, Arnoldthat one bird -- it's been a long, weird list. Though such coyness is usually more of a strength than a detriment (show don't tell!), something continues to puzzle us to an almost frustrating degree: the guns.

Are the weapons real? How do the bullets work? What happens if a guest shoots at another guest? With the Delos automata abandoning their narrative loops, firing pistols, and killing guests at will, we figured now's the time to pick through dialogue, interviews, show lore, and fan theories to get to the bottom of this enduring mystery.

peter benjamin in westworld movie

Background: here's how guns worked in theWestworld movie

Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have said their Westworld reboot is a "playful" homage, not a direct sequel, to Michael Crichton's 1973 movie, meaning shout-outs to the source material abound. Fittingly, the weapons in both have the same intended effect -- kill robots, don't kill humans -- but they function differently.

In the film, guns aren't supposed to fire when pointed at humans. As James Brolin's Logan-esque character explains, "The gun has a sensing device. It won't fire at anything with a high body temperature -- only something cold, like a machine." The guns in HBO's Westworld are more complex.

ed harris on hbo westworld
John P. Johnson/HBO

Humans can get shot

Key moments that set up the theme park's inscrutable firearm rules:

• In the premiere, the Man in Black shrugs off Teddy's hail of bullets.
• In Episode 2, Talulah Riley's robo-character tells William the pistols guests choose are "real enough, but you can't kill anyone you're not supposed to."
• In Episode 3, a bandit's shell sends William spinning to the ground. "I thought you said we couldn't get shot!" he says to Logan. "You can't get killed," Logan replies, adding that it "wouldn't be much of a game if they can't shoot back." 
• In the Season 1 finale and Season 2 premiere, the harmless bullets begin to yield bloodshed. ("What about the fucking guns?" Charlotte asks Bernard in the Season 2 premiere, referring to the surprise killing spree. "Ford must have altered the system," Bernard says, "coded it to read all of us as hosts.")

What this tells us: 1) Westworld's guns are confusing to new and old park visitors alike; 2) they can be programmed to damage different targets in different ways. How? In 2016, speaking at a TCA panel, Nolan revealed that the bullets, and the way they're fired, are the key. "In the original films, the guns won't operate on guests, [but] we felt the guests would want to have a more visceral experience," he explained. "So when they're shot, it has an impact. They're called 'simunitions,' [aka non-lethal training ammunition]. There's a bit of an impact, a bit of a sting, so it's not entirely consequence-free for the guests."

Also, if you asked Discover Westworld's Aeden about the guns during Season 1, the Siri-like bot would respond: "Humans can be shot, but you are under no serious risk of injury or death; our guns feature low-velocity technology which feels closer to paintballs than bullets. You will either get better at ducking or grow accustomed to the impact." That last part might explain why newbs like William fall to the ground, whereas when he becomes the seasoned vet, the Man in Black, he can take hits like a champ. 


Human death is possible

For much of Season 1, viewers wondered if, and how, the hosts would be able to kill using the guns in the park. An important clue, left hiding in Discover Westworld's weirdly specific Terms of Service, foreshadowed certain doom and provided a little explanation: "Gun ammunition contains proprietary safeguards related to bullet velocity, and tampering with gun safety features or ammunition automatically transfers liability to you and absolves Delos, Inc., of any injury or death that may occur as a result." Translation: Changing those "proprietary safeguards," as Bernard referenced in the Season 2 premiere, would likely entail a change in velocity, making the simunition fire more like bullets than paintballs. In other words: Human death is very possible.

rodrigo santoro on hbo westworld
John P. Johnson/HBO

Gun usage is governed by security and programming

Or, it's supposed to be. Recall the scene near the end of the series premiere, when Hector and Armistice started a bloodbath in Sweetwater. Stubbs called for all the bandits' firearms to jam (including those used by the guests traveling with Hector): Just like that, the firefight stopped. It also appeared that certain characters used to be programmed not to shoot. When Teddy took Dolores out for target practice in Episode 3, for example, she picked up the gun, but she wasn't able to pull the trigger. Her old code prevented her. 

real gun on hbo westworld

There are real guns in the park

The discussion of guns in Westworld inevitably leads to two other important questions: Are there normal guns in the park? And how do non-firearm weapons work?

To that first point, the short answer is yes. Stubbs and his team are carrying legit FN P90s (detailed list of all the show's guns here) as a security precaution. ("QA are in the mix," Simon Quarterman, the actor who plays Lee Sizemore, confirmed during a recent Thrillist interview. The P90s they've got "can kill everything.") The red paint job, seen in the close-up image above, likely signifies "real gun" for park employees. It's also probably safe to assume that the weapons Maling and her associates wield are real.

As for melee items: In Crichton's Westworld, robots were programmed to put up a worthy fight before ultimately losing. (Obviously, that changed when things went haywire. Remember: Medieval World's malfunctioning Black Knight fatally stabbed a guest with a sword.) Meaning, the non-firearm weapons weren't safeguarded; it was all in the automatas' code.

Similarly, in HBO's Westworld, the hosts are programmed to hurt you just the right amount. (Don't expect dull blades or styrofoam blunt objects.) After watching the Season 2 premiere, it's clear the melee weapons are very much real and lethal. The Good Samaritan reflex, which is supposed to prevent all hosts from inflicting bodily harm, is the only safeguard in place, and if it's deactivated or altered, you're SOL. 

ingrid bolso berdal on hbo westworld
John P. Johnson/HBO

Unanswered questions and leading theories

While Nolan, Discover Westworld, and characters on the show have dropped breadcrumbs that start to explain the gun tech, none has explained it thoroughly. Unanswered questions and mind-boggling scenarios persist: How do the bullets distinguish between hosts and guests? What about guest-on-guest crime? How would a ricocheting slug affect an unintended human target? Or how about lead blasting its way through an obstacle? (Remember how the Man in Black shot right through that host's cover in Las Mudas? What if a human was on the other end?) Also, how do the bullets "kill" the hosts? Do they actually injure the hosts? Or does a gunshot wound just signal them to go offline?

Some popular theories:

Perhaps all the unanswered questions aren't a bad thing. As Redditor Spock_Nipples exclaimed recently, "Who cares? It's fictional proprietary technology. Call it a smart nanotechnology 'bullet' propelled by an electromagnetic force from a weapon that looks, sounds, and feels like a firearm, but isn't. Just go with it. You aren't meant to understand it on an engineering level, you're just supposed to get that it's smart, fictional future tech that operates as observed." Or, perhaps Westworld hasn't fully answered the questions, because it hasn't had a good reason to do so. Yet

Stay tuned. This post has been updated throughout. We'll continue to update it as more information becomes available.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment, and he thinks Michael Crichton's guns made more sense. Find him on Twitter @srkfitzgerald.