Procedure: Traditionally this is done with a real gun and a gaffed round, the bullet having been replaced with a wax casting. The explosive charge in the shell may also be somewhat reduced. The explosion of the charge and propulsion of the wax bullet through the air effectively vaporizes the wax bullet within a short distance. (This is a good reason for not reducing the charge too much.)
The wax bullet can be made to look like lead by coating it with lamp black. Jean Robert-Houdin is said to have used this method. Several ways have been used to make a wax bullet look and also feel like the real thing by coating it with a thin shell of another material. One way is to make a candy coating, the color of lead, that hardens sufficiently to be mistaken for lead or metal. Any candy cookbook will explain how to make and color a hard-candy dip. Another technique is to coat the wax with acrylic craft paint.
But making your own gaffed rounds is as crazy as making your own flash paper: if you don't kill yourself you will probably maim or disfigure yourself. If you are lucky it will only be you that gets hurt. Taking the bullet from a real round is dangerous business. Replacing it with a wax replica is also not a task for amateurs. Better to talk to a magic dealer about purchasing professionally prepared fake rounds made to your specifications.
The sheet of glass breaks because of the impact of vaporized paraffin, and is a safety device as well in that it stops the paraffin from reaching the target. The glass is safety-, breakaway-, or sugar-glass, to prevent glass shards from being sprayed about the stage. Protective goggles and full body cover (long pants and long sleeve shirt, etc.), are a good idea, too.
P&T ask a volunteer to put his initials on the bullet. They ask another volunteer to initial the casing. The TV camera is close enough to see the initials on the bullet and casing. Backstage, the image of the initials is taped and frozen on a screen and used as a model for someone using a similar pen to make similar-looking initials on a mashed-up slug. When not on TV they simply read the initials out loud and a backstage staffer just fakes it with the right colored pen. Another way to pass the initials to your own bullet marker is to select your assistants in advance (or as part of the routine) and ask that each print or initial their names on a release form--which is then given to backstage staff.
The slug is passed to whoever is catching (at times P&T have switched roles, and they have even each shot and caught bullets simultaneously) when the bullet-proof vest is put on. Penn turns his back to the camera momentarily to get the vest, at which point the bullet is tossed into his mouth by the assistant or simply handed to him. He could also mouth it from a pouch inside the vest as he pulls the vest over his head (which is not the usual way such vests are put on, but that's how Penn does it).
When the slug and the empty casing are examined after the shooting, the volunteers are shown the slug and casing and asked "Are these your initials?" They are not asked "Are these the initials that you wrote on the bullet/casing?" which is why their responses are cut off after they say "yes" and before they can say "but that's not my handwriting . . ." And of course, the casing is the original.
When, as has happened, the glass does not break, P&T just ignore it.
That's it. Stunningly simple, eh?
Well, that was one of my first guesses, and it was based on a bit of historical research (not very hard to do--there are a number of books on the subject). But current performance insurance practices make this method much too expensive to do. Ask your insurance agent what it would cost to get one-time coverage for a "reduced-charge" or "wax-bullet" bullet catch.
A better and safer method of doing this is to use the electronic-bang guns sold by several Western Arts and Quickdraw suppliers. The gun looks identical to a real one but cannot fire a round, even though it can be loaded. When the trigger is pulled an electronic signal is sent to a small machine that makes the sound of a gun being fired. In this case the round would have a removable slug and only enough of an explosive charge to make realistic-looking smoke. The slug is removed and hidden and the shell is "fired." Here the pane of glass is electromechanically broken by the same means that produces the sound of gunfire. Producing the marked bullet in Penn's mouth is done the same way as before. This is the safest method possible, as there is never any chance of a real bullet, reduced load or otherwise, being fired. The requirements of venue insurers make me think this is probably closer to what P&T use than the traditional method.
Earlier methods of performing this trick are yet more dangerous than the traditional wax-bullet method I've outlined here. In particular, methods using ordinary crimped blanks, or reduced-charge lead-bullet rounds have been responsible for a number of deaths. False barrels and secret chambers have also been used, also resulting in occasional deaths.
This trick was first done using a ball and black powder handgun, such as an early dueling pistol. Shoulder-fired guns of the period were also used. The powder was diluted with a similar-looking nonvolatile substance to reduce the propulsive force on the bullet and the catch was not in the mouth, but on a plate. A metal plate painted to look like a ceramic dinner plate made the trick slightly more reasonable to perform and even offered the catcher some protection. So if the shooter was a reasonably good shot, and the powder sufficiently reduced, a musket ball could be caught on the plate. The problem (among a few other things that will easily spring to mind) is the difficulty of getting the charge right. Sometimes the ball never got to the plate. Sometimes it went through it.
At other times the shooter merely missed the target and the catcher spit a previously mouthed round onto the plate. The obvious problem here is that you have to be a good shot to aim in the general direction of the catcher and still miss him always.
Later a wax ball replaced the lead ball, but again the variability of the charge of black powder made this procedure only slightly less dangerous. It is possible to reduce the charge to the point where the wax ball is not vaporized, but still travels at lethal velocity. Modern propulsive charges and modern tools have made the trick much safer, but nothing using a real gun can be said to be truly safe. And then there are accidents.
Do Penn & Teller do it with electronic-bang guns? I think so, but I have no proof, of course. It could be done in several other ways, as I've shown, but this is the least complex, most direct, and probably the safest method. If there is a safer way to do this, please let me know so I can include it here.
If you do this act yourself, here are some things to consider. Always keep a trigger lock on the gun when not in use and put it in a lockable gun box. Penn & Teller use a gun box as part of their routine. And always lock up fake rounds in a separate safety box--bullets make an irresistible souvenir. A gun loaded with blanks is much more dangerous than a gun with real bullets, because the common assumption is that blanks are "safe." A surprising number of people have killed themselves or others by assuming that a gun loaded with blank rounds can safely be held to their own or someone else's head and fired. Inside of ten feet, a wax round or an ordinary blank round will turn flesh into hamburger and bone into tooth picks.
If you use anything but an electronic gun, clean the gun after every use, and regularly practice with the same gun used in the show, using live ammo on a pistol range. The smallest variation in the wax slug, its coating, or the charge, will have an immense effect on the velocity and solidity of what comes out of the gun when fired.
If you are mildly paranoid, use a method of marking rounds so that you can always distinguish a wax round from a real one. Train everyone on the staff to recognize this mark, and secure their promise of secrecy. Then use a second mark, but don't tell anyone what this mark is or even that there is a second mark. Better yet, if you are mildly paranoid, don't do this trick with anything but an electronic gun.
© 1998 Eric Bagai
page last revised 11/28/2002