The Violent Accidental Death of Brandon Lee: The Smith and Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum

Brandon Lee, son of the famed martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, was shot on the set of the darkly gothic film The Crow.

Brandon Lee was born in February of 1965 in the shadow of greatness. The only son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee and his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, Brandon also had a younger sister named Shannon. Linda met Bruce when she was still a teenager and the martial arts instructor gave a demonstration at her high school. She eventually became one of his kung fu students herself.

Brandon Lee grew up in the shadow of his legendary father Bruce.

By the time Brandon was born his father was already an international movie star. Brandon trained with his dad when he was young, learning the rudiments of Bruce Lee’s signature Jeet Kune Do style of fighting. Some theorize that it was Jeet Kune Do, the art of “fighting without fighting,” that led to today’s Mixed Martial Arts. However, when Brandon was eight his father died unexpectedly.

Bruce Lee almost singlehandedly brought martial arts into the Western mainstream.

The untimely death of Bruce Lee has been surrounded by controversy and intrigue. Lee was utterly dedicated to his profession, even going so far as to have the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed so as to make himself more photogenic on set. A compulsive professional-grade athlete, Lee pushed his body to remarkable limits.

Bruce Lee died at the height of his fame, an apparent paragon of health.

In May of 1973, Bruce Lee was admitted to a Hong Kong hospital with a headache and seizures. He was found to have cerebral edema that was successfully treated with mannitol. Lee recovered, but the following month took a preparation called Equagesic for a headache while reviewing a movie script with colleagues. Equagesic is a proprietary combination of aspirin and the painkiller meprobamate. Lee retired for a nap but never regained consciousness. He was 32 at the time of his death. His son Brandon was 8.

Chronic hyperthermia likely played a part in Bruce Lee’s untimely demise.

The cause of Bruce Lee’s death was determined to have been a reaction to the meprobamate in the Equagesic. Conspiracy theorists have attributed the man’s demise to Triad gangsters or a family curse. Medical specialists have suspected that regular steroid use for a back injury as well as chronic overheating during workouts likely contributed as well.

Like Father, Like Son

Brandon Lee accompanied his dad onto movie sets when he was young.

Though Bruce Lee died when Brandon was young, the child had already logged a fair amount of time on movie sets and developed a taste for the craft. After his dad died Brandon continued his martial arts training underneath the tutelage of Dan Inosanto, his father’s senior student. Though he walked away from the martial arts during a rebellious period in his teen years, Brandon eventually returned to the pursuit and became quite accomplished in his own right.

Like most aspiring actors, Brandon Lee started slow.

Brandon Lee always aspired to serious dramatic roles. He trained in acting at Emerson College and the Lee Strasburg Theatre and Film Institute. Like most burgeoning actors, however, Brandon willingly pursued low hanging fruit early in his career.

Everybody’s got to start someplace. Laser Mission was an early Brandon Lee low budget epic just chock full of cheese.

Brandon parlayed his family reputation into a supporting role in Kung Fu: The Movie, a made-for-TV film with David Carradine. He later played the lead in the subsequent TV movie Kung Fu: The Next Generation. These roles led to several low-budget action flicks including one 1989 classic titled Laser Mission. Laser Mission was a ludicrous action-adventure direct-to-video effort that featured an aging Ernest Borgnine as a laser specialist and an evil Russian officer named, interestingly enough, Colonel Kalishnakov. Despite the catchy title, the movie included surprisingly few lasers, but it did turn a modest profit.

The Crow was to be Brandon Lee’s breakout role into mainstream popular film.

All this ultimately led to Brandon’s breakout role as Eric Draven in the comic book-inspired superhero movie The Crow in 1992. The Crow was a dark and nihilistic tale that orbited around a murdered rock musician who is resurrected by a spectral crow to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancé. The Crow inspired a vigorous cult following and spawned three sequels as well as a TV show of its own.

The Crow is profoundly violent and absolutely awash in gunplay. This is Brandon Lee on set holding the gun that ultimately killed him in his right hand.

With most of the movie in the can and only three days of filming remaining on the schedule, Lee was set to shoot an early scene in the narrative. In this sequence, Lee’s character stumbles in on a group of thugs ravaging his girlfriend and is shot with a revolver. A negligent preparation of the big bore handgun used in the scene resulted in the discharge of a live round that killed the up and coming actor at age 28.

The Accident

Here we see Michael Massee, the actor who inadvertently triggered the fateful shot, with the gun in question. Massee was haunted by the event and ultimately died in 2016 at age 64.

The .44 Magnum revolver that was used to kill Brandon Lee had been employed for closeup scenes earlier in the day. The detail of the shots necessitated the use of dummy rounds so that the chambers would appear to be filled with live cartridges. .44 Magnum dummy rounds were not available, so the prop crew had taken live .44 cartridges, pulled the projectiles, discarded the powder, and replaced the bullets. Without thinking they left the primers intact, however.

The power from a primer alone is frequently just enough to foment devastating consequences. As a committed lifelong shooter, I have experienced several squib loads.

At some point during the course of filming one of these empty cartridges was fired. The force of the primer alone was adequate to drive the bullet into the bore but not expel it from the gun. This created a classic squib load. The occluded bore was overlooked by the film crew, and the gun was loaded with theatrical blanks for the subsequent scene.

Even when propelled by a theatrical blank, the .44-caliber bullet from the Smith and Wesson Model 629 was profoundly powerful.

During the final filming, the handgun was discharged on set at a range of about fifteen feet. The force of the blank round expelled the bullet remaining in the bore from the previous misadventure. This bullet struck Lee in the abdomen with nearly the same energy as a live round. An explosive squib hidden inside a bag of groceries he was carrying went off as planned, masking his true injury. Brandon underwent six hours of emergency surgery but ultimately succumbed to his wound after purportedly receiving sixty units of blood in the operating theater.

The Gun

The stainless steel Smith and Wesson Model 629 is a powerful classic wheelgun.

Introduced in 1978, the Smith and Wesson Model 629 was the stainless steel version of the previous Model 29 .44 Magnum. The Model 29 was first developed as the S&W N-frame in 1955 and featured seven different barrel lengths. The Model 29 designation was standardized in 1957.

The .44 Magnum is a mule of a pistol round.

The .44 Magnum round was the brainchild of ballistic legend Elmer Keith. Keith had been experimenting with the .44 Special cartridge in an effort at creating a platform for handgun hunters wanting to pursue dangerous game. At the time of its introduction, the Model 29 was indeed the most powerful production handgun in the world.

Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry singlehandedly put the S&W Model 29 on the map.

The Model 29 amassed a modest following among hunters and a few Law Enforcement Officers. In 1971 the movie Dirty Harry hit the big screen, and gun shops could not keep the massive pistols in stock. A fun fact is that Clint Eastwood only got this iconic role after John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, and Steve McQueen passed on it.

With full-power loads, I am man enough to admit that I don’t find the Model 29 .44 Magnum particularly recreational.

My Model 29 features a 6.5-inch barrel like the original Dirty Harry gun. When loaded with full-power .44 Magnum loads I don’t much care for it. The gun is more than adequately powerful to drop a whitetail or any two-legged miscreant but does sport some prodigious recoil. When stoked with lower-powered .44 Special rounds, however, the Model 29 is a joy on the range. The Model 29 is a legendarily accurate wheelgun.

Denouement

It is intriguing to ponder where Brandon Lee’s career might have taken him had he not been accidentally killed at such a young age.

The untimely deaths of Bruce and Brandon Lee formed the basis for one of the most curious family legends in Hollywood history. While Laser Mission will not win an Academy Award any time soon, The Crow, though remarkably dark, was a solid action flick. Brandon Lee had the potential to become a remarkably successful movie star in his own right.

The parallels between Brandon Lee and Heath Ledger are uncanny.   

When reviewing The Crow in anticipation of this project I was struck by the similarities between Brandon Lee’s character and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Both men were exceptional actors who brought remarkable depth to these two complicated parts. That they both died unexpectedly at age 28 was just strange.

The Crow was ultimately quite successful despite its obvious production challenges.

The producers of The Crow originally planned to scrap the project after its star’s untimely death. However, with the permission and encouragement of Lee’s surviving family members, they shot the final scenes using Lee’s stunt double and early CGI technology. The movie cost $23 million to produce and ultimately grossed more than twice that.

Brandon Lee was killed in the prime of life.

Brandon Lee was engaged to Eliza Hutton at the time of his death. They had planned to be married on April 17, 1993, some two weeks after he was unexpectedly killed. Lee placed the following passage from Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky on his wedding invitations–

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”

Bruce and Brandon Lee were ultimately buried side by side in Seattle.

Brandon Lee was buried alongside his father at the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. This passage from Bowles’ book was engraved on his tombstone.

A horrible on-set accident during the filming of the dark action horror film The Crow ultimately snuffed the career of a promising young actor.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • RC9 June 2, 2020, 12:00 pm

    What I found confounding about thus incident, aside from the tragic negligence accounted above, was that the gun itself even had the capability to pass a real bullet. I work in film and have worked with armorers, and a professional cinematic prop gun that fires has a degree of blockage in the barrel that serves multiple purposes. One, to create a degree of of back pressure so that the blank round can reliably cycle the slide and chamber another round, but also what I always assumed would impede an actual projectile even if it allowed burning gasses to escape for effect. I think in some cases the chamber itself has some sort of blockage that doesn’t allow a real round to chamber fully.

    This was a revolver, however….so maybe since back pressure wasn’t a concern and the cylinder needed to be able to show rounds, it was for all intents and purposes a fully functioning firearm if loaded with real bullets. If so, that shouldn’t have been so. Something else should have been prepared and done to prevent the possibility of live rounds or squibs to exit the barrel like this, as with the semi-auto ones. Maybe it was hastily done and they just used a real one for convenience. Or maybe there was something in the barrel, but it was blown out along wit the squib load….which as Andrew pointed out should have been discovered through inspection prior to loading the heavy blanks anyway. Sad and senseless negligence.

  • Walleye June 1, 2020, 4:21 pm

    Why were none of the prop masters ever charged with manslaughter?
    That’s the very definition of manslaughter: in North Carolina where his death occurred.
    North Carolina General Statutes § 14-18:
    “A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter if he or she: Kills another living human being by a culpably negligent act or omission.”

  • Gloria tchidad June 1, 2020, 3:22 pm

    Why when people do things and want to get away with it they call it accident, only God knows and he have the last say.!!!!!!

  • Slim June 1, 2020, 12:28 pm

    Same article just maybe a different author and just around six months later than the last time you or someone else went over this same story. I’d say thirty year old news is thirty year old news! How about something relevant to today’s life?!

  • Andrew June 1, 2020, 12:16 pm

    The bullet was lodged in the bore.

    This is where calling this an accident falls apart. Because it’s pure negligence.

    “Overlooked by the film crew”

    In order to put in the blanks, the “dummy rounds” had to be removed.

    The prop handler opens the cylinder, pops out the dummy rounds and doesn’t notice that one of the shells is missing a bullet? So, what? He shrugs his shoulders and loads the blanks???

    He should have IMMEDIATELY tried to deduce what happened with the missing bullet and if he had two brain cells, part of that process would be looking down the barrel.

    But we know he didn’t. Because Lee is dead.

    Calling it an “accident” is offensive. The court ruling it an accident is offensive.

    Pure negligence. A man is dead and no one is held accountable.

  • Billy Bob June 1, 2020, 11:17 am

    I watched ” Rapid Fire ” in Mexico City, the best place on the planet to watch new films. If you dont want to sit in a theater you can always buy a boot legged copy within minutes of any movies first showing. Rapid Fire was great and I imagined a very successful movie career for the kid. It really hit me to hear of his death within a year. I have chosen to never watch ” The Crow “. I dont really know why, some silly superstition. I dont belong to the cult that worships celebrity but he kid seemed to have been something very special. Who knows, he could have had an impressive and beneficial impact in some way. I dont know why I’ve felt that. I did see him as being special, very special. BTW I love how his dad was portrayed in Tarantino’s Hollywood movie.

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