The year was 1996. Vince McMahon’s WWF was living in the past, while showing glimpses of an edgier, more promising future. WCW was making a killing with the New World Order gimmick. Roddy Piper had jumped ship to start a program with Hollywood Hogan. And in the UK & US music charts, we were enjoying ourselves with such classics as Robson & Jerome’s “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?”, and Los Del Rio’s Bayside Boys Remix version of the “Macarena”. Wow, I almost forgot they existed.
These upbeat songs are a far cry from what we’re detailing today. On an episode of Monday Night Raw on November 4th, the infamous “gun incident” took place. Realizing the product was floundering, the WWF needed to make the show more adult orientated. Bruce Prichard went to Vince McMahon with an idea, and while initially being hesitant, some convincing from WWF Magazine editor Vince Russo led to the chairman agreeing to go ahead. The WWF had never used a gun on television before, so it was breaking new ground.
Brian Pillman’s Gun Incident
Of course, it would be unwise to do so without informing the network first. Vince McMahon proceeded to take the angle to the USA Network executives. One major part which needed to be cut? Was Melanie Pillman’s involvement. Apparently, she was meant to take a bump of some kind when Austin invaded their home, but the executives disagreed. They felt it was already risky enough without involving violence against an innocent woman. This angle also coincided with the WWF airing an hour earlier from 8pm EST for the first time, as WCW Nitro started at that time and was affecting Raw’s viewership.
Throughout 1996, Stone Cold Steve Austin had yet to prove himself as a hot commodity. While some may claim his KOTR speech skyrocketed his career, it really didn’t. He spent much of of the year looking like he couldn’t pick up a win over a main event star. Luckily for Austin 3:16, Bret Hart decided to stick with the WWF (and not sign with WCW) and started a rivalry with him. Putting Austin over as the “Best Wrestler in the WWF”, it could be argued he wasn’t deserving of being labelled as such. But you know? It really did wonders for the Austin 3:16 character, as you can see in this segment.
What’s interesting about this is Vince McMahon’s use of the term “gunslinger”, along with Steve Austin telling Bret he would have to “kill him” to put an end to their business. Either way, it helped to solidify Stone Cold as a character to be taken seriously. Only a few days later on Superstars, after an interview with Pillman (who echoed Hitman’s catchphrase), Austin brutally attacked him and kayfabe injured his ankle with a steel chair. In reality, Pillman needed surgery on his ankle after he shattered it in April by crashing his Hummer H1 in to a tree. So when the gun incident came around? The cast for Brian’s ankle was legitimate.
Going in to the November 4th episode of Monday Night Raw, much of the show was pre-taped. The segments between Austin & Pillman however, were aired live. The reason for this, was because Vince wanted to give it a more realistic feel. Hearing about a WWF crew being at Pillman’s house, Austin decided to pop round for a visit. On the way there, Austin got on the phone to Dok Hendrix AKA Michael Hayes and told him (Pulp Fiction style) he’ll “strike down upon his (Pillman) ass with great vengeance and furious anger”. When they cut to Kevin Kelly, Pillman’s waiting for Austin with a gun. You can watch the full incident in the video below.
I’ve heard so much about this segment, but never got around to seeing it entirely. And really? It’s not all that bad .. I guess, but you can see how it resulted in some strong aftermath for the WWF and Vince McMahon. Despite the ratings spiking up to match WCW Nitro, there were more negatives outweighing the positives. First of all, the USA Network executives were absolutely livid at how “real” the angle seemed. On a family friendly entertainment program, the fact that many young children tuned out to watch WCW Nitro didn’t sit well. But what made them more irate? Was the use of an “F-Bomb” in the original airing. As Austin was being detained, Pillman responded by screaming:
“Let him go. I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch! Let him go! Get out of the way! Get out of the f**king way!”
This went completely against what the USA Network considered acceptable language, which made many of the executives want to drop Raw from their channel immediately. Not only that, but many concerned parents rang the USA Network to complain about the edgy content. Advertisers also expressed their concerns, as they didn’t want to be seen endorsing this type of content.
To put an end to the rising use of adult content in 1996, CEO Kay Koplovitz met with Vince McMahon to discuss the future of the show. She’d had enough of them pushing boundaries, and it was agreed they would tone it down. It didn’t last long however .. as the WWF went ahead with The Attitude Era and garnered better ratings with maturer content. But a gun incident at this stage? Was too much too soon, and Monday Night Raw came within a whisker of being forced off television at the worst possible moment.
And you know what? It could’ve been worse had Vince McMahon had his way. Originally, not only was Melanie supposed to be knocked over, but we were meant to see Pillman react by actually firing two gun shots at Austin, before the screen would turn black. Luckily this did not get the green light, otherwise the Monday Night Wars may never have happened. Instead, the gun shots were implied after the screen went black, but we didn’t get to see it being fired on-screen. What happened was already more than enough for the average viewer. Had they gone any further? The USA Network may have cancelled Raw altogether.
And there you have it. Many will have heard about the incident, but may be unaware of the facts surrounding it. Living in the UK, I’m not a big advocate of guns in general. Imagine if this angle was shot today after all the recent shootings? Raw would be 100% cancelled. The funny thing about the segment is USA executives were more upset about the F bomb than the fact a gun was involved. Either way, it’s hard to say what it accomplished. If anything, it sold Pillman as the “Loose Cannon”, while Austin came across as a fearless badass who isn’t afraid to invade a man’s home.
It’s certainly a moment in time which WWE will never want to relive. Even more so in this day and age .. when the product is targeted at families with young children. Glorifying the use of guns in any fashion would be completely irrational and damaging. So we end this by saying the Brian Pillman incident will go down as a moment we’ll never forget, while the WWE wishes it could do a “Men In Black” and erase it from history. Do you think it resulted in any positives? And would it be possible to repeat an angle like this in 2019? Also, would you like me to cover any other controversial moments in wrestling? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments, and thank you for reading!