A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happens when a gun fires blanks?

October 26, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

Please explain what "blanks" are, as in "the gun was firing blanks," as opposed to live bullets. Specifically, what is a blank? An empty bullet? Are the mechanics involved when firing a blank different from what's involved when firing a live bullet? I seem to recall that a famous comedian accidentally killed himself by firing a blank into his head--he erroneously assumed that, because the gun was loaded with blanks, he would not be injured. What was it that actually killed him?

First let's define our terms. What most people call bullets are properly called cartridges, which consist of several parts:

  • A shell or casing of metal;
  • A bullet, the metal projectile that flies through the air;
  • A primer, a small charge that ignites when struck by the gun's firing pin; and 
  • Gunpowder, which is ignited by the primer, generating the rapidly expanding gases that propel the bullet down the barrel of the firearm.

Two types of prop cartridges are used in movies and television. The first are dummy cartridges, which look like real cartridges but contain no powder or propellant. For safety reasons a dummy cartridge not only contains no live primer, it typically has the primer removed entirely, so there's no chance of an accidental firing. Dummies are primarily used for close-up shots, where the idea is to show a realistic-appearing cartridge complete with bullet.

The second type of prop cartridge is what you're thinking of, generally called blanks. Blanks contain primer and powder, but have only a piece of paper wadding as their bullet or projectile--just enough to keep the powder in place. The wadding is light and typically presents little danger to anyone beyond a few feet. Blanks contain as much gunpowder as a normal round--sometimes more to create a more impressive flash and report. To make even more noise, some blanks have their metal casing crimped on the end to hold the paper securely and allow pressure to build. (These types of blanks look different from most cartridges, but do resemble hunting cartridges known as "bird shot" or "shotshell" rounds, which are essentially shot-containing cartridges designed to be fired in a rifle or handgun. So never assume that a cartridge is a blank unless you are a trained firearms expert, know where the ammunition came from, and know exactly what you're doing.)

Blanks can be dangerous under some circumstances. For one thing, the exploding gunpowder produces a focused blast of air and gas that can leave the barrel of the weapon with great force--think of it as a small, directional bomb going off. Though the blast disperses quickly in the open air, at close range there can be a lot of destructive energy.

The unfortunate showbiz personality you're thinking of is probably Jon-Erik Hexum, a star of the early 1980s series "Cover Up." For reasons that have never been made clear, on October 18, 1984, the 26-year-old Hexum took a .44 Magnum revolver loaded with blanks, pressed the barrel to his head, and fired a single shot. When Dirty Harry Callahan extolled the power of the .44 Magnum, he wasn't exaggerating--as the owner of a .44 Magnum myself, I can attest that the recoil and concussion from firing it are impressive. In the case of Mr. Hexum, the force of the blast alone shattered his skull and badly injured his brain, killing him shortly thereafter.

The Teeming Millions may remember the bizarre death of rising action star Brandon Lee--the result of another accident, this one involving both blanks and dummy cartridges. A firearm was first loaded with a dummy cartridge with a real bullet on the end of it. For reasons never fully clarified the projectile remained behind in the firearm when the dummy cartridge was removed. Then a blank cartridge was inserted for a scene where Lee was to be shot. When the gun was fired the explosion from the blank cartridge propelled the bullet from the dummy cartridge forward, with tragic consequences. Some call this scenario unlikely, proposing instead that a live round was fired by mistake. Although this contention has never been proven, it's at least a possibility since live ammunition reportedly was present on the set in addition to the blanks and dummy cartridges, in violation of safety procedures.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that any and all firearms are potentially deadly, even if loaded with blanks or dummy cartridges. Until the trigger is pulled, you really don't know what's going to happen.

References:

Star magazine, October 30, 1984

"Behind the Death of Brandon Lee--How small mistakes can lead to a big tragedy on a film set," by Dave Brown, tactical firearms editor, Blue Line law enforcement magazine

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