Tommy Dunne was working as a welder when a friend hired him to make weapons for Braveheart. Nearly two decades later, as weapons master for Game of Thrones—which begins its fourth season on Sunday—he designs the show’s blades and bows, guiding them from sketches into the actors’ hands. He and a team of four artisans create hundreds of weapons per season, equipping everyone from the soldiers of Westeros and the men of the Night's Watch to the Khaleesi’s Dothraki warriors and the Wildings beyond the Wall. We asked him to share the tricks of his trade.
1. INSPIRATION COMES FROM HISTORY
“I look at different periods and different eras—Egyptian, monolithic,” Dunne says. His crossbows, longbows, composite bows, and ballistas are all modeled on real weapons. "We handmade a catapult for the Unsullied this year, which is quite a large item, and quite powerful," he says. "It’s two tons of oak, nine foot length by ten foot height, with wheels. We have a couple of ballistas, which again are of historical reference." He uses the web for research, of course, but relies heavily on his own library to get the scales just right.
2. MATERIALS, MEANWHILE, ARE MODERN
Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO
"Normally, we make a hero weapon, which is a little more presentable camera-wise—steel blade, brass crossguard, wooden handle, brass pommel, all that," Dunne says. "Obviously, we don’t fight with steel." Since actors can’t fight with actual steel swords, Dunne uses aircraft aluminum, which is strong but flexible. He also uses bamboo for training blades and rubber for weapons for extras or if the scene involves animals or stunts. "If the actor did fall or had to jump down quickly, there would be no injuries," he says. "We wouldn’t fight too much with rubber, unless there were stunts." The shields tend to be plastic—except the Unsullieds’. They get aluminum. "It varies in what we need," Dunne says. "We try to keep the shields strong, durable, lightweight, but flexible to a certain degree. We have to make sure they’ll withstand smashing together, but also, if someone falls over onto a shield, that they’re malleable and [the actor] won’t take as much of a hit."
Arrows, meanwhile, are basically the real thing. "Our arrows have rubber tips, but 99 percent of them have wooden shafts and copper ramming as well," Dunne says. "An arrow has a residual strength, so once you let go of that string on the bow, it creates a bend in the arrow itself. If you have weak wood, it will shatter straightaway."
3. THERE’S NO SLACKING WHEN IT COMES TO WEAPONS
Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO
Every weapon, whether it’s for a major character or a minor one, is made with the same exacting level of detail. Why? Dunne says that if there’s a particular extra you want to keep out of the camera’s eye because you slacked on his weapon, it’s pretty much a guarantee he’ll end up front and center. "The spears, the shields—if a camera touches it in any way, shape, or form, we have to make sure it looks its best," he says.
4. WEAR AND TEAR IS AN ART
You can’t expect characters to ride into their sixth epic battle of the season with weapons that look shiny and new—so Dunne makes sure to appropriately age and weather the props. "There’s nothing that would look brand spanking new or straight off the shelf—there would be areas that would be naturally worn from having your hand on the pommel or crossguard and that natural wear from constant use," he says. He might use sandpaper, stains, or dyes to make sure a buckle or blade shows its age.
5. WEAPONS ARE CUSTOM-MADE FOR THE ACTORS
In addition to considering a character's costume and backstory, Dunne has to take the actors’ proportions into account when designing their weapons. “You don’t want to make something that’s too small or too big or too weak for the actor,” he says. “The actors, they love us; we’ve had no complaints. There’s a lot of 'My weapon is cooler than your weapon.' The Mountain’s got such a big sword, and you get people going, ‘Why didn’t you make me that? Why can’t I have that?’ You’re not the Mountain! He’s a huge guy. Absolutely massive. It's one of those things."
6. JUST A FEW PEOPLE MAKE ALL OF THE SHOW'S WEAPONS
On Game of Thrones, there are always two units shooting at once, and Dunne has to make sure that each unit is equipped with all of the weapons it could possibly need. All those weapons add up. "It’s a hundred for this, a hundred for that," Dunne says. "We have 50 for the Night's Watch, and 50 for the Boltons. There are 200 Unsullied; the most we’ve had is 350 to 400. There are spears and shields and daggers for all these guys. We get some big numbers."
Still, Dunne's staff isn't huge. "We have between four to six people, probably an average of four people, in the workshop at any time: myself, a model maker, a blacksmith, a coordinator," he says. "You get used to it—you work in there 12 or 14 hours a day. It’s really hard to train people, because it’s quite a skilled profession." Dunne and his team make clay models of the weapons, then send them to the foundry. The foundry will create a small part of the weapon, Dunne says, and it's when that part comes back that the work really begins. "For example, deburring, recessing and drilling, shaping to fit the sword blade, polishing and applying antiquing fluid, aging and relinishing," he says. "So the foundry only plays a small part in the process depending what that part is." On some of the designs, 90 percent of the weapon is handmade and doesn't go to the foundry at all.
Dunne is looking ahead, too, to methods that are more high-tech. "With 3D printing, we can do it in one shot and then send the print to the foundry," he says. "It’s something I want to look into a little more this year."
7. YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO USE THE WEAPONS TO MAKE THEM
"If you have no knowledge about the weapon, you’re just making an item," Dunne says. "Everything is made in conjunction with knowing what the weapon does and how it should react and interact with other weaponry. It’s not just make something and then give it away and then suddenly you find that somebody has to fight with it." Dunne works closely with the fight coordinator to find out what's required of a weapon before he starts training an actor how to use it.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
Dunne tells us specifically what went into making some of the show's signature weapons.
ICE SWORDS: "The wight’s weapon—when they’re walking or on horseback with the White Walkers—is a bit more intricate because it’s an ice sword, but you don’t see much of them, really. These are clear resin swords that are oven-baked—it’s clear glass that looks like a shard of ice. It’s quite intricate."
NEEDLE: "In the case of Arya’s sword, Needle, we wanted to make it look like what it sounded like, and give a little bit of elegance, remembering that it was more for a girl and a child at the same time—a small item which is quite delicate and quite finite."
FLAMING ARROWS: "A normal arrow might be 32 inches, but for flaming arrows [like we used in Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater], we add another six to eight inches to a larger piece of wood. Then we put on a foam wad that is impregnated with a chemical mix and we burn it, so it’ll be blue, depending on the mix that the special effects team puts on them."