The Misadventures of Quinxy truths, lies, and everything in between!

10Aug/1515

Penn & Teller Bullet Catch Revealed

bullet_catch_1One of magician act Penn & Teller's favorite tricks is their Bullet Catch trick, you can see them perform their Bullet Catch on their Fool Us show (for as long as it lasts on YouTube).

After seeing some people inaccurately explain the trick I figured I'd post my belief of how the trick is done.

The trick is simple in design, two audience members come on stage, one for each magician to work with.  Each audience member uniquely signs the jacket and projectile of a bullet and those bullets are supposedly fired by each magician across the stage to the other magician, with the bullet miraculously being caught in their teeth.  The bullets and jackets are inspected by the audience members and the projectiles appear to have indeed crossed the stage.  The trick is performed with the magicians' careful to explain that none of the participants nor any props ever cross the stage, making the firing of the guns appear the only method by which the bullets could be transferred.

But, it's a magic trick, so of course not everything is as it seems...

Now, revealing secrets of a magic trick might be a douche-y thing to do.  I'm of mixed opinions.  When a magician has put a tremendous amount of time and effort constructing a trick it seems rather cruel to have an audience, particularly in the age of infinite instant replays, deconstruct it.  But, a) the bullet catch is a very old trick (beginning as early as the 1600s) and b) Penn & Teller's career has often involved divulging tricks and discussing publicly how tricks are performed.  So it seems like discussing a trick of theirs is fair game.

Signed Projectile Never in the Gun

After inserting the bullets Penn & Teller let the members of the audience confirm that it is their bullet in the gun.  But the magicians control the view.  Look at the placement of the bullet, it is inserted far enough into the chamber that the view of the projectile is obscured.  It is obscured because the signed projectile is no longer in the jacket, having been palmed and then secreted away.  The jacket, the powder, and a wax projectile remains (a bit of wax is what breaks the glass).

bullet_catch_2

Projectile Passed to Stage Hand

Getting the projectile to the other side is the central feat of the trick.  And the first thing to note is that after Penn & Teller have loaded the guns they go and manipulate the bullet backstops.   The backstops are positioned against the wall and at such an angle, this obscures the magicians' hands for a moment and would allow stage hands to take something from the magicians' hands without being observed.

bullet_catch_3

bullet_catch_4

The stage hands would then have ~16 seconds to run around from one side to the other and place the bullet such that the other magician could access it.

Along the way the stage hand would need to force the bullet through a manual contraption which adds the rifling grooves to the bullet (which Penn & Teller show the audience) and perhaps gets dusted with freshly burnt gun powder for added effect.

How the Bullet Gets into their Mouths

The bullet proof vests that Penn & Teller wear are initially hanging from the edge of the stage wall, again a very suggestive location, since a stage hand could easily access (part of) the vests without being observed by the audience.  I believe that once the stand hand makes it to the other side he/she secures the bullet to inside top of the vest via a magnet (the bullet having been modified to have a steel core).

bullet_catch_6

When Penn & Teller put the vests on over their head their mouths are obscured, and I believe they collect the bullets with their mouths and tuck them into their cheeks.  Penn is talking while this is happening so clearly he does it very deftly, pausing in his speech in a purely normal manner as though between words.

bullet_catch_7

And voila, the bullet has been transferred and the rest of the trick is relatively simple.  A bullet with a wax projectile is fired with less than the normal amount of powder it breaks the glass pane the magicians have placed between them and the magicians relocate the projectile from the cheeks to their teeth.

 

Alternative theories I've read suggest that stage hands watching TV monitors reproduce the markings of the audience members, but I think Penn & Teller are a more sophisticated than that, and the method described above would allow the projectile to actually travel from one side to the other unseen.

Personally I think this is one of their weaker tricks, so I've been surprised to hear them describe it in such laudatory terms.  Perhaps I have a bias against the trick because they really play up the greatly exaggerated danger aspect and that feels a bit cheap to me.

^ Quinxy

Comments (15) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Close but no cigar. The extreme camera closeup is for the benefit of a backstage assistant who duplicates the initials onto a pair of previously fired bullets. Then they have all the time in the world to load the copies onto the backs of the backstops. P&T switch the initialed cartridges for wax cartridges right after showing the initials. Notice how they always hold the cartridges by the tips to hide the wax. Then the spectators make their drawings on the cases. When loading the gun, Penn says “I want you to see your initials” but doesn’t show them! He goes right on to emphasize the case drawing. P&T retrieve the copied bullets when they pull out the backstops and pop them into their mouths, as you correctly surmise, while donning their gear. The glass panes (actually brittle candy glass) are a little upstage and not in a straight line with P&T. The laser sights are mis-aimed so that when the dot is on the mouth, the gun is pointed at the glass. The wax bullets easily penetrate and fly into the wings.

  2. How do they get the wax projectiles into the guns?

  3. P&T Fan, why are you so convinced that a stage hand copies the bullet markings? We seem to agree on everything else, so I’m just curious why you believe it has to be done as you describe and not as I describe? Have you seen some footage of it done where the approach I suggest wouldn’t work? All the footage I’ve seen would allow either approach to work.

  4. I have watched it a few times too. I think the real trick is the construction of the bullets (with a very precise ammount of powder to simply carry them over the panes of glass and actually land in each other’s mouths – like tossing a peanut to your friend. You can do it if you practice it and Penn said they worked on this trick for two years. look at the angle of the laser sights, look at the broken glass, notice the timing of calling “EARS!” & consider the Occam’s razor principle. This would require a lot of practice and preparation, but would make preforming the trick very simple: the tricky part is timing shooting the panes of glass with air-riffles from off stage.
    Thats how I would do it

  5. I would love it if you were right, but I think this is a situation where Occam’s razor can cut two ways, depending on perspective… to my mind the solution you propose, while more outwardly straightforward and thus superficially less involved, is actually far more complicated for the requirements it places on everything going exactly right. The humans are required to be much more skilled, the bullets and their charge much more exactly controlled, the risk of injury and/or death higher, etc. But hey, I hope you’re right.

  6. The guns are first identified as “Colt Python .357 Magnums,” and so they are. But the cartridges are not .357s. The bullets (projectiles) are in the cases and P&T are careful to let the audience see the guns and cartridges at all times. Wax would not survive the exit from the gun with the pressures and heat of powder, so it’s likely there is no powder in the cases. That means the projectiles are driven solely by the primers. How they do the trick is beyond me, but the bullets have the rifling tracks on them when taken from their mouths, and the cartridges are never taken from the guns. Either the velocity is so low that they actually catch them or P&T hit the guns on the back so that the undersized bullets drop through the barrel and are palmed and placed in their mouths. Then the primers are hit and that’s what makes the bang. But then how did they put the tracks on the bullets? Perhaps the new tracked bullets are placed in their vests and mouthed, but then how did the initials get on them? Watching with cameras is difficult because it’s easy to miss things.

  7. I think I know how the bullets are moved off stage. The bullet comes off the case and are palmed. When the volunteers inspect the guns the P&T hide the signed bullets inside the mics. When the volunteers leave the stage a stagehand takes the mics from them, removes the bullets, pushes it through a barrel and puts it into the opposite kevlar vest.

  8. I actually got to go on stage and be a participant in their Rio show!

    The bullets are definitely NOT reproduced by stage hands; my sloppy-ass triangle design was rife with distinctive touches from my own curious ‘penmanship’ ability and it was absolutely NOT reproduced. The bullet I got back was definitely the bullet I marked.

  9. I agree for the most part. The steps are:

    1. Remove bullet from shell
    2. Show audience member only shell being inserted into pistol
    3. Swap bullet with help of an assistant, hidden by stage backdrop or other prop depending on show
    4. Assistant also does “rifling”, and burnt gunpowder smell
    5. Assistant puts bullet in some piece of protective gear (vest, glasses, etc.)

    If you look at their ’96 television show, it appears to me that when going to the back to get the gear, the first thing that penn does is deposit something into the backdrop, no camera on Teller at the same time to see but he most likely does the same move.

    Yes, something like a wax projectile replaced the bullet, it might be plastic or something a little more durable than wax but only heavy enough to break the “glass” but not lethal.
    I also assume the laser sight is aimed about 15″ higher than the barrel at the distance between the two magicians so that the projectile would most likely hit them in the middle of their vest. So while we think they are aiming at the mouth, that is just misdirection. The eye protection is just extra safety for the worst case scenario, but the “bullet” is aimed nowhere near them.

  10. Questionable Impact I agree with all your steps 1-5.

    I do, however, think the glass is real, since it gets inspected, but it’s slightly off line of P&T, and it’s shot with aimed cannons. I think it’s highly unlikely that their handguns shoot anything but blanks. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cannons and both blanks are fired electronically when Penn yells “Ears!”, just so the timing is perfect.

    No need for this effect to put either P&T or the audience in any danger. I’m sure it’s safe and repeatable.

  11. Ok still a great trick but how come people have died doing the bullet trick houdini would nit fo it

  12. Bob, I’m no magician, and I haven’t read the Twelve Have Died book which likely completely covers the topic. So these are just my guesses. Magic is a trick, obviously. So, no professional magician’s dangerous trick can truly be dangerous if executed properly, and all need to have the proper safeguards and procedures to be executed properly all the time. If all those safeguards fails then they can still be dangerous. And it’s not just in magic, as we’ve seen actors like Brandon Lee have been killed shooting a movie scene where a gun gets carelessly switched or a chamber has something accidentally lodged in it no one notices. So, the trick is dangerous in the same sense that being “locked” in a bag in a “locked” box of water is dangerous, dangerous if someone intentionally or accidentally completely screws up or the equipment is seriously faulty, but not practically that dangerous in that magicians surely enjoy a long lifespan on average. As for Houdini, I found this link which had evidence that he may have indeed performed the bullet catch trick but that if he didn’t he may have been dissuaded by a friend who wrote to him, “There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will ‘job’ you.” And perhaps that was a concern, that someone could sabotage the equipment. Why that equipment would be more likely to be sabotaged than any of his other equipment he used to perform “death defying” tricks, I don’t know, perhaps because it’s harder for him at the last moment to double check a dummied bullet than a dummy lock or gimmicked bag. None of this is meant to take anything away from the magicians. Skydiving seems similarly dangerous without being dangerous. It is obviously dangerous if things go wrong, but the odds of them going deadly wrong are only 1 in 100,000 or something.

  13. Totally agree with your theory.. Juz one thing to add… The 2 gun “experts” are not random members of the audience, I am pretty sure they are in on the trick.

    Why do I say that….

    1. Both happen to be in the same area
    2. Both happen to have the initial words be picked up by a microphone
    3. Both seems to not know the people next to them as they turn to look at him as if he is part of the show, not someone they know personally

    When it comes to P&T, safety has always been paramount, they are always NEVER in danger, they have backups and backups to make sure things will always go according to plan.

  14. I think I have one amendment to how you believe this trick is done. There is a video of this trick someone has posted from their point of view using Goggle Glass. That video I feel shows these few seconds I am about to talk about the best out of Fool Us, and the 1996 one.

    Link to the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTrOBwCUIRk

    From the moment Penn has the guy sign the casing we never see the top of the bullet again as everyone here must know by now. How Penn and Teller hold the bullets when they sign the cases makes sense, but is a little odd and I feel this is when the top of the bullet is somehow removed.

    Then Penn walks over and gets the glass, this always struck me. Why talk about bullets, sign them and all that bullet stuff, then get the glass, then go back to showing the guns?

    When he walks over to the glass that moment (I think) is when the bullet is dropped down the stand where it rolls out behind the “wall” from the one leg of the stand that is tucked under the “wall” he later adjust. Both the Fool Us version and the Goggle Glass version has that one leg of the glass stand under the wall. Penn taps the glass as he makes this move to mask the sound of the bullet travel down the inside of the stand.

    In the google glasses video I want to say you can see him with his left hand place something into the stand, it makes a noise, and then he starts tapping on the glass. Think he was a little late with the tapping that night…..

    This then gives the backstage dudes a good bit longer to work on the bullets and to get them over to the other side of the stage.

    Guessing a tech right behind the “wall” to get it from Penn/Teller could be a little more risky with being seen, also it would be a fast run to the other side of the stage in 15 seconds also having to gun powder it and everything at the same time would be really really hard.

    One last thing, I watched the 1996 version (different in a few small ways, Penn drops the top of the bullet behind the backdrop so no glass leg stuff on that one) but there is a great camera shot behind Penn that they go to 2 seconds before the guns fire. If you slow the video down right as the gun is fired by Penn you do see something come out of the gun (I believe) hit the glass and bounce off back towards Penn.

    I know there is a lot of debate if anything is actually fired out of the gun. I just cannot myself think of a way to get the timing down to trigger this off stage. Not that I know every way it could be done of course but also if it was triggered off stage it would have to be 100% wireless technology (not totally easy/reliable 25 years ago when they were doing this trick) Someone said it could go off with the sound of the gun, but what gun? Both guns are going to have roughly the same loudness (dB) on stage, at least in the 1996 video when Penn fires, his glass breaks….

    Just my thoughts on it all, who knows could be totally wrong, and we will never truly know….

  15. Hi everyone!

    I am into Penn & Teller ever since I first saw them – which was the day after new years eve, so I have been watching almost all three seasons of Fool Us in a good three days.
    And now I wondered about this trick as well. It kept me thinking real hard, which I love 😉
    Now that I have read a few of the comments here, I guess it is really good to observe with both videos.

    It is very obvious why they are both keeping the head of the bullet firmly covered by their fingers, not a glimpse of copper to see there as soon as they did the drawing on the casing. Not sure about the very moment they remove the tip from the bullet…

    For the easier part: In the google glass vid, you can absolutely see how Penn is sliding some trapdoor shut on the stand, and in the Fool Us video the stand really looks a little odd at that part, it is acutally a tiny bit thicker than the rest. Also in the Fool Us vid, Teller had his hand at the exact same spot of the stand. The whole audience is cut out of view to that by their bodies in front, so only the two persons on the stage might be able to see that but they are so nervous and excited they probably don’t, plus, they do it with great skill so if you’re not looking for it, you really don’t see it.

    Further, as it has been pointed out here before: Two of the three feet of the stand are marked with yellow and red/pink tape. In both videos the foot with the red/pink tape was underneath the wall. So this is very very sure the way they get the signed bullet tips off stage.

    Sure thing, it does not take a genius to notice that a bullet needs to actually look like it’s been fired through a gun. My guess would be, that backstage they have a specialist fire them with a silenced gun, into ballistic gel and then are cut out. Or they are just put through a gun barrel manually, idk how that works…
    In the Fool Us video, they have a pause of almost two minutes and fifteen seconds for all that to happen backstage.

    The moment they put the vests on should be the moment they take the bullets into their mouths, which were placed there by stage hands. This is a little harder for Penn as he’s talking and due to that probably has most eyes on him. They must have worked out a clever system that minimizes the risk of dropping the bullet or it being stuck to the vest.

    Also not sure how they manage to penetrate the glass… Maybe there is a second bullet tip hidden in that long casing? And that second bullet penetrates the glass (maybe some special glass too?) but is too weak to do any harm? If even possible this would mean specially crafted bullets, twelve on Penn and twelve on Teller for each performance, which probably is not cheap, but I have read that Teller himself once said: “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.” (link: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/teller-reveals-his-secrets-100744801/)

    As for the moment after the shot, a great little detail is the falling helmets, which make it easy for them to have the bullet in between their teeth. Teller does not yell EARS, so he’s got even more time to get it there, wich is why the camera first showed him, then Penn, but in the Fool Us vid you can see he is moving his jaw ever so slightly, as if moving something in his mouth.

    Thanks to everyone who posted here. 🙂


Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.