Secrets of the Bullet-Catching Trick Revealed!

A magician stands before a firing squad. Audience members are invited to inspect the bullets and make sure they are real. The bullets are marked to guard against a switch. Then, as the magician looks on from the stage, an assistant takes the bullets to the waiting soldiers on an ordinary china plate. While they load their guns, the assistant brings the empty plate to the magician, who holds it up as if the fragile china was a shield against a hail of bullets. Ready—aim—FIRE! The smoke clears, and the magician steps forward, displaying the marked bullets smoking on the plate. Ta-da!

How was it done?

As every magician knows, any trick can be performed many different ways. Addie and Alexander’s version of the Bullet Catching Trick relied on sleight of hand. When the assistant carries the bullets to the soldiers, he (or she) switches them for blanks. While the soldiers load their guns, the assistant quickly takes the real bullets backstage, drops them in a pan with gunpowder, and lights a match. The gunpowder explodes, leaving the bullets smoking as if they’d been fired from a gun. Under cover of handing the magician the empty plate, the assistant slips the magician the still-warm bullets. Ready—aim—FIRE! And the magician steps forward. Ta-da!

Why was this trick so dangerous? One reason is that it’s easy to make a mistake, especially under the pressure of performing in front of an audience. Sleight of hand is tricky, and the fake bullets had to look and feel just like the real bullets, or the soldiers would have caught the switch. Over the years, a number of magicians died when the assistant failed to switch all the real bullets for blanks.

One magician accidentally killed his young son doing a version of this trick; another killed his wife. In 1880, a traveling magician named Raoul Curran arrived in Deadwood, a notoriously violent Wild West town. He performed the trick successfully. Then a man in the audience leapt to his feet, pulled out a gun, shouted, “Catch THIS!” and shot him dead.

Today, magicians would not take the risk that Addie did by using a real gun. Instead, they use “electronic-bang” guns. These realistic-looking fake guns can be loaded with real bullets, but they can’t be fired. When the trigger is pulled, an electronic signal makes the gun go BANG.

At least, that is one way to do it. Remember, every trick can be performed in different ways! So if you see a magic show and think you know exactly how it’s done… don’t be so sure.

Anything But Ordinary Addie - cover
Anything But Ordinary Addie - cover