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Guns and Gear of CBS SEAL Team

When CBS announced it was debuting a new military show in September of 2017, the firearms world, for the most part, yawned. Conditioned to low expectations through previous iterations of Hollywood dreck, the first season flew under the radar of most, ourselves included; then, it started gaining steam. Currently in its fourth season, what sets it apart is attention to detail in the little things, and while it might not get everything dead to rights, there’s enough Gucci kit in CBS SEAL Team to keep the most die-hard gear queer interested. 

Even the best equipment isn’t enough to overcome deficiencies of shoddy gun handling and piss-poor tactics, and it’s obvious from some of the fight scenes that input from guys who have been there and done that was sought and more importantly, listened to. How did this almost-unheard of situation come about? In order to address the question, we sat down with one of the show’s cast, who also has a significant role behind the camera. Justin Melnick plays the character of Brock Reynolds, who is
usually upstaged by his Malinois, Dita.

cbs seal team

Never work with children or animals … Melnick is used to playing second fiddle to his dog, who has a bigger Instagram following than he does. Follow her @ditathehairmissile.

RECOIL: How did you get involved with the show?

Justin Melnick: I knew Mark Owen (see RECOIL Issue 18) from when he was still in the military, and he brought in Tyler Grey as a technical consultant. I started getting calls from both of them to bring Dita down to New Orleans (from California) to work on a pilot for a TV show, so I figured it would be a great training opportunity to get instruction from a bunch of former special operations guys on things like CQB and working out of Blackhawks. Before I left, I got a call from Tyler asking me to round up all my spare gear out of my place in NYC and overnight it to the set, so I hopped on a plane that day, got to New York around 3 in the afternoon and put together about 700 pounds of gear for pick up at 6 p.m. Then turned around, went back to L.A., loaded up the dog, and drove to New Orleans.

Seems like a lot of work. Why didn’t they just rent gear from a prop house like everyone else?

JM: If you look at some of the great movies we all love, like Sicario for example. The plot, writing, and acting are all first-rate, but if you look at the gear, it’s stuff that real guys don’t use. So we scrapped all of the gear rentals for the pilot and used my equipment. It’s a one-in-a-million shot that a pilot gets made, and it’s another one in a million that the pilot goes to a series, so we didn’t want to screw it up with CBS SEAL Team.

CBS Seal Team Sig Rattler

Although the SIG Rattler isn’t standard issue for NSW units, it was developed for other tier-one outfits, so the show gets a pass on its use.

How did you get to have 700 pounds of kit in an apartment in NYC?

JM: At the time I was working part-time as a police officer in Indiana and had a consultancy business, which worked to bridge the gap between police and military units and civilian manufacturers. That side of my life started out by working for Caleb Crye (of Crye Precision). Caleb found me when I was working as a combat photographer and had done about seven years chasing conflicts around the world. At the time I had no money and was literally living in some dude’s garage in L.A. because I met this actress right before I went to Afghanistan, fell in love and then came back to, well, nothing. I had no idea what I was going to do at that point, and Caleb saw something in me. That dude saved my life.

Sig Rattler up close

Long story short, I wound up introducing police departments around the country to Crye Precision gear and equipping their SWAT units with uniforms and plate carriers. 

So you’re brought in to supply gear for the show, how did you wind up in front of the camera? 

JM: Originally, Dita was supposed to be the team leader Sonny’s dog, and I was supposed to just do a couple of stand-ins when she was on set. But then the show runner said, “Hey, why don’t you just be the dog handler?” I replied, “Err, sir, doesn’t that mean I’ll have to do acting and stuff?” And he just replied, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.” 

What’s the decision-making process when it comes to selecting equipment for the show?

JM: Traditionally, in Hollywood, you have a prop master who handles all the props and a wardrobe master who handles all the wardrobe. Almost none of the existing structure has access to the gear we use on the show, and I have to thank all the contacts I made in the firearms industry for supporting us. The problem we have is that anyone who reads RECOIL probably knows about the gear, and knows what the lead times involved are, and how hard it is to just get hold of. We don’t ever want to take equipment out of the hands of people who are using it for real, so we get in line like everyone else. 

CBS SEAL Team grappling hook launcher

The Henriksen compact grappling hook launcher allows the operator to send a hook over a ship’s railing for some old-timey pirate action with a new twist. Powered by compressed air, the user can select power levels to ensure the hook lands where they want it, and can be filled from a standard SCUBA tank.

When the show kicked off, I had a big show-and-tell with the prop masters at CBS and asked them to get all of the actors kitted out in gear that tier-one units were using at the time, so all the Crye uniforms, plate carriers, HK 416s, SureFire suppressors, Viking Tactics slings — and it took six months to fill that order, so for the first four episodes, they were using my personal gear.

grappling hook ascender

That sounds like a lot of stuff.

JM: It was. If you look at one character on CBS SEAL Team, each dude has three vests set up identically, three helmets, 10 pairs of gloves, three pairs of shoes, and five uniforms for continuity. If we’re doing a sequence where someone gets shot or blown up and they’re a principal character, there can be up to 10 setups for that person depending on how you’re shooting it, because you’ll have to cut the uniform and put blood on it. And there’s probably going to be a few takes of it, so being able to foresee and plan for that is the genius of what these people do for a living.

CBS Seal Team ascender

There’s occasionally an Easter egg on screen when it comes to stuff the actors are wearing or carrying. How do those get into the show?

JM: A lot of what I was doing before I got involved was testing and evaluation, getting prototypes into the hands of guys who could run them and give feedback before we went into production. Take for example the Crye SPC (plate carrier) — we had those in the show a year before it was released, and the internet was going crazy because no one could figure out what it was. It looked like a JPC, but the mag pouches were a little different, and we spent a year running that in CBS SEAL Team and giving feedback so that Caleb could decide what he wanted to do with the vest. We’ve done that with around 10 different companies, before they get pushed out to the real operators who then give their evaluations. There’s nothing worse than baking a cake and not getting a chance to taste test it before you serve it.

CBS SEAL Team gear

Some of the equipment on screen definitely isn’t part of DEVGRU’s inventory. How do you make the decision to include it as part of the story?

JM: That’s a great question. When you get to a unit at that level, you’ve got money to buy what you need for the job in hand, so you’re not restricted to contract stuff. So whether you’re Delta or you’re SEAL Team 6, you can get whatever you need for your team if it’s going to help you complete your mission. What I’m looking for the show is the next generation of PPE or gear that can protect the warfighter because it’s a great place to showcase it, the fans love it, and we can give feedback based on the experiences of our guys who have used similar gear in real life. 

Dita training course

As we’re depicting guys who have made the commitment to risk their lives for this country, it’s important for us to use gear that’s as realistic as possible. Our prop master figured out a way to use unencrypted 152s and 158s, but sometimes we’d be filming near an airport or in an oil refinery and just like in real life, the comms don’t work. So we sourced the Persistence Systems comms, which is used by some special operations units and gives much better results in those situations. Their capabilities are pretty incredible with voice and data transmission through crazy-thick concrete walls, so any time we can give the actors equipment that is close to real life and puts them better into character, the better the show turns out.

dita obstacle course

In order to keep both Dita and her new colleague Pepper up to speed, Melnick built an agility course modelled on the SOCOM dog manual, which he offers to local law enforcement K9 teams.

Out of the current cast and crew, how many have had prior military experience?

JM: One of the best things about CBS SEAL Team is that they’ve really gone above and beyond in helping veterans. We have veterans in every department from executive producers, to writers, producers, consultants, actors, stunt players, hair and makeup artists, electricians, transportation. We’ve employed hundreds of veterans — any opportunity we can to help out and give a vet a chance to work we’ll take it — and that’s way above my pay grade, I don’t make those choices but our leadership does. I’m proud to be part of it and that’s why I love working for them.

What about giving back?
One of the greatest things about working on this show is how active the cast are about working with and participating in veteran charities and doing stuff for Gold Star families. We actively support the Word of Honor foundation, C4 foundation, and do a lot of work with the USO.

dita CBS SEAL Team

Although Dita is currently semi-retired, she still trains regularly with agility and bite work. Having been on the receiving end of a hair missile launch, we’re confident that Melnick’s kids are well protected.

Why did you make the decision to retire Dita?

JM: Well, Dita’s an incredible dog, truly a one in a million. One day, we went to go to work on set for CBS SEAL Team and put on her harness, and she just didn’t want to put it on. While we humans can dissociate ourselves from what goes on set — we understand it’s just acting — for her, it’s real. Every gunfight we get into is five takes, so that’s like getting ambushed five times, for three days a week, for three years — that’s more than any special operations dog will ever see in a lifetime. Our special effects guys do a great job of simulating reality that with gunfights and explosions, she just got to the point where she just didn’t love it anymore. Now, I love my job and I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do what I do, but I’d walk away from it tomorrow if it meant putting my dog at risk. She means more to me than anything apart from my wife and children. Thankfully, the writers and producers felt the same way, so she got to retire gracefully, and now she spends her days hanging out at home with the kids.

Where’s home?

JM: I live with my wife, two kids and a third on the way in the hills of Santa Ynez, which is the closest place to America you can find in the state of California. 

[Editor's Note: Photos by Nick Betts.]

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One response to “Guns and Gear of CBS SEAL Team”

  1. John says:

    Sorry, won’t watch that show since the lead actor, David Boreanaz, is rabidly anti-gun.

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