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How can a “prop gun” kill someone?

You might be asking how a “prop gun” which should have been loaded with blank rounds could have killed the cinematographer of an upcoming film called “Rust.”
42-year-old Halyna Hutchins, was killed, and director Joel Souza gravely injured in an accidental shooting. A prop gun, filled with blanks, malfunctioned when it was fired by star Alec Baldwin, an event that is still under investigation by local law enforcement.

Yahoo News explains:

People tend to assume it refers to non-functional weapons of the sort used in theatrical performances, or toy guns that fire caps to produce smoke. And while it’s true that those are also prop guns, the term also applies to real guns that are used as props.

The reason a production would use a real gun is simple: Verisimilitude. As firearms instructor Dave Brown wrote for American Cinematographer magazine in 2019, real firearms add authenticity to close-up shots in particular. Anyone who’s ever held a gun can confirm that a real gun looks, weighs and handles different from an inert prop.

But, Brown noted, they also require experts on set to make sure they’re properly handled at all times. That’s because a gun is still a gun, regardless of what’s in it. And that brings us to how a gun loaded with blanks can kill someone.

The term “blank’ is a shorthand version of the full term, blank cartridge. Notice I said cartridge and not bullet. A cartridge is a unit of ammunition fed into the barrel of a gun comprised of several parts: The casing (sometimes called a shell); propellant material (gunpowder) inside the shell; a primer on the bottom of the cartridge; and at the tip of the cartridge, the actual projectile (bullet) itself.

This is far from the first time that a prop weapon has injured or even killed somebody on a movie to TV set.

But there’s also the wadding used to hold the gunpowder in place instead of the bullet. That gets expelled when you pull the trigger. And while it’s just paper or wax, if you’re close enough to it, it can do serious damage, such as what happened in the death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984. 

Tragedy can also strike if the prop gun is improperly loaded, which is what happened to Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in 1993. He was on the set of his film, “The Crow,” shooting a scene that made use of a prop gun that was mishandled. A cartridge with a projectile tip had unknowingly become stuck, and when a blank round was loaded and fired, it pushed the live round out, fatally wounding him. He died hours later, just 28 years old.

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