I just got back from vacation and have one great story to tell. Everything went well, my sister's wedding, my talk in Vegas, our trip to Hoover Dam, and so on. But most unexpected was my appearance on stage during the Penn & Teller show as a participant in their famous "Magic Bullet" trick. I'll tell you all about that in a bit.
However, I must pause on another oddity. Though it never touched us, our weekend in Vegas was plagued by a bizarre series of disasters, including a spectacular suicide off the thousand-foot-tall Stratosphere, a plane crash on the Las Vegas strip, a boxing champion's death by motorcycle moronity only a few miles away, and two bombings, one a probable case of arson on the seedy side of town and the other a murder at the Luxor. What the hell, did we walk into an episode of CSI or something!? Or is Vegas always like this?
Anyway, my wife and I, and my sister and her new husband, all went to see Penn & Teller's magic show at the Rio. We all love their cable show Bullshit, and Penn is one of the few celebrities who isn't shy about his atheism and actually supports our movement, so this was the only event in Vegas we thought was worth dropping a ton of cash to see. We were right. Cool stuff. And funny. I also got to meet them after the show. They were so great with fans. Teller was awfully quiet so I didn't say much, just got a signature. But I introduced myself to Penn as Richard Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness without God, and he said he was a big fan. Because of the press of the crowd I didn't have time to ask what he meant by that, but I assume he read my book or possibly some of my stuff online. We had no working camera, so sadly I have no photo for you. But the image to the left is the adcard I had them sign.
I won't give away the rest of the show, though there are several impressive things in it, indeed amazing things when you think about the fact that this is live, on stage, right before your eyes. It's not showy magic, like Copperfield's spectacles, but funnier and simpler and all the more impressive for it. The grand finale of these was the quite astonishing "magic bullet" trick. This had us all stumped, especially since I was called up to verify everything, so I can vouch for the fact that they weren't using audience plants (Penn obviously hadn't recognized me and didn't know who I was until after the show).
I'll describe this trick as I and the audience saw it. Then I'll tell you how I think it was done. But I'll give you a spoiler warning before I do the latter, in case you're the sort who thinks knowing the secret "ruins" it or something. That way you can stop reading there, and go on being amazed, or even go see the show yourself and try to figure it out on your own.
In Penn's 2006 radio interview with Chriss Angel they discuss together the question of exposing how tricks are done. Some magicians get pissed. Some don't mind. And sometimes it's a little of one and a little of the other. But I have my own philosophy about this, and my values come from my own worldview. I already remark in my book how knowing why things are beautiful doesn't take away their beauty, and I also say something on what I think makes the difference between high and low art. Everything I say there applies to all art, of any kind. And this is an example of a rather unusual category of art: the magic trick.
I'm never disappointed by learning how a trick is done, because I find human genius far more beautiful than superficial mystery. As you'll see, this magic bullet is a case in point: my wife and I are even more impressed now knowing how it was probably done, than we were when just gawking at the spectacle itself. As mere "magic" it's a zowy "oooh! aaah!" event, but as a "trick" it's a monument to human genius, discipline, and ingenuity. The magic is amusing. But the trick is awesome.
So, just as the masses often fail to see what's beautiful in great art because they don't know what to look for or how they would appreciate it or how it betters them and their lives to be around it, thus instead they flock to awful pop tripe (much of the music and movie industries, not to mention the clothing industry, are all testaments to that), magic breaks down the same way: to see beauty in a magic trick, you can try to find it in the superficial dazzle, or you can find it in the human skill and genius lying beneath. Like all great art, magic that exhibits the remarkable knowledge, discipline, and craftsmanship of man is truly beautiful. And this hidden beauty can only be seen in a trick when you understand how it was done. Of course, the performance of the trick is still half the art of it. Magic is, after all, theatre. And I certainly appreciate the art of that as well.
Okay. Now to the trick. I'll say in advance that I've certainly not figured it all out or gotten everything right, but I'm pretty sure I've sussed it in outline. Though it took me several days of pondering. Because this one was a major stumper. Here's what we saw happen...
Penn asked the audience for volunteers who had experience with firearms. They had already brought up several volunteers for other tricks in the show before this, but this would be their last and most spectacular marvel of the evening. Hardly anyone was raising their hand. I had the experience he was asking for, so I thought "what the hell" and raised my hand. I was sitting beside my wife, Jen, near the aisle in the fourth row. Penn, still on stage, asked me where I had my experience with firearms from and I shouted out, "the United States Coast Guard!" (I was a qualified marksman with the handgun and rifle, a skill I maintain to this day). He found another volunteer from the U.S. Air Force, and called us both up to the stage.
Jen was freaking out. I think she was worried I'd be gunned down in some bizarre news-making accident. Hell, the way we'd seen that weekend had been going in Vegas, I can't blame her. But really, what are the odds? So I went up. Penn had us say our names and chatted a bit. We each went up to a different side of the stage, which at this point had been divided by a large yellow sash. On my side was Penn. On the other was Teller, along with the active duty airforce guy. Penn instructed us never to cross the sash to the other side, and said neither would they. And I am certain they never did.
Then Penn and Teller drew enormous .357 magnum revolvers (more specifically, Colt Pythons, as seen above--though a somewhat different model, it's close enough to get the picture), complete with laser sights, and Penn started talking about their specs. They handed us the guns and asked us to inspect them as much as we wanted to confirm they were real. As best I could tell, they were. I had complete possession of the weapon and could handle it and look it over. The action worked, the rest of the mechanics were correct and working, the weight was right, and so on. Although from such a brief sight inspection it would never be possible to rule everything out, I'm pretty sure they were in fact real guns and probably had not been tampered with in any way. I confirmed this to the audience, as did my air force compatriot on the other side of the stage.
Next Penn and Teller showed us each an ammo sleeve full of bullets and asked us to choose one of those bullets, and confirm as best as we could that the bullet was real. Again, that's not entirely possible with a mere sight inspection, but I confirmed everything I could: I shook it to confirm it contained powder, I tried to remove the bullet from the casing and found it as secure as it should have been, I tested the weight, confirmed the primer was intact, and made sure the bullet was real by tapping and hefting it, etc. It had a full parabolic copper jacket, but though hollow points are usually the load of choice for magnum revolvers, parabolics in this case were required to wow the crowd, since they are easier to write on and they don't easily mushroom, which would destroy what we wrote, making it impossible to "confirm" the trick.
To the left are images of a typical .357 magnum round. A jacketed version, of the sort they were using, looks more like a 9mm parabellum, also shown here, to the right of the hollow points.
Penn and Teller then each gave us a selection of colored pens and asked us to choose one. I chose blue. Penn then told us to write our initials on the bullet. My initials only covered about a third of the radius, so he asked me to keep writing whatever I wanted, all the way around. Altogether I wrote RCCIXI, but I was very nervous and shaking like crazy, plus writing on a small, parabolically rounded metal surface, so it came out a bit wobbly, but still clearly recognizable. In fact, I think all this made backstage forgery essentially impossible, as well as any kind of tape transfer, as I'll explain later.
Then Penn and Teller had us choose another pen. I chose to stick with the one I had. Penn asked us to draw something on the casing, anything we wanted, and to tell the audience what it was. My colleague chose to draw a smiley face. I chose to draw a flower. I already suck as an artist, but with my shaking hand and the curvature of the metal cylinder the flower I drew was a bit wonky, just like my writing on the bullet.
Then Penn asked us to load the round we had just marked up, bullet and casing together, into the corresponding revolver. In my case, it was Penn's revolver, held in his hand, wheel extended so I could put the bullet into any chamber I chose. He then locked the wheel in place, explaining to the audience and seeking assurance from me that he had to position the round exactly one chamber in advance of the barrel, which is indeed correct for a revolver--unless you've cocked it before loading, which would not be a safe procedure, especially in a crowded theatre.
So far so good. Now Penn said for insurance and safety reasons we had to be off the stage for the actual trick. Although no doubt that's true, I know there was a more important reason to have experienced gunmen off the stage at that point, but I'm not gonna spoil anything yet. They had special front row seats for us to occupy until after the trick, when we would come back on stage to confirm what happened. As we were seated, he explained to the audience that the guns are pretty damned loud (oh, yes, believe me, a .357 magnum is indeed damned loud). So he said he would announce when they are about to fire so everyone could plug their ears. Meanwhile, he and Teller put their guns down and donned bullet proof goggles, helmets and vests. And the backstage curtain rose, showing that the yellow sash that was dividing the stage extended back and all the way up into the rafters.
There were also glass plates on small poles, face-high, one each, which Penn and Teller positioned about ten feet in front of themselves. They got behind these, on opposite sides of the stage, and pointed their laser sights at each other so the bullets, when fired, would pass through both glass plates and into each other's mouths. Penn announced they were about to fire. Everyone plugged their ears. BOOM! Penn and Teller's guns fired with magnificent gun flare and chest-thumping sound. Their heads reeled back from the impact. Then they showed the audience: lo and behold, they had caught the bullets in their teeth!
We were immediately called back up to the stage. I was now asked to walk to the edge of the yellow sash to catch the bullet from Teller's mouth. My air force partner did the same, catching the bullet from Penn's mouth. I can assure you my bullet was in and fell out of Teller's mouth. No doubt about it. They asked us to check the bullets and confirm they were ours. They were. Damn if I hadn't seen it, but Penn had actually fired my bullet right across the stage into Teller's mouth! And vice versa.
Woooooah, dudes, you're like totally blowing our minds!
Now Penn and Teller brought the glass plates up to the front of the stage so we could see they had bullet holes in them. The one on my (Penn's) side had actually shattered almost in half, but the rest of the bullet "hole" which had caused it to shatter was still visible. The glass was otherwise cracked as one might expect if something had violently passed through it. And I could see even from my side of the stage that the plate on Teller's side was also cracked up and had a nice bullet hole clean through it. The glass was also completely unstained and crystal clear: there was no stipling from paraffin or smoke or any other byproducts of blanks or explosives. Sure enough, it looked as if bullets had been fired through both glass plates.
Now Penn and Teller opened the chambers of their revolvers and asked us to remove the casing (which, unlike an automatic, remains in the gun after being fired). We did. They asked us to confirm each casing was ours. It was. Mine was still in Penn's gun, and vice versa, yet the bullet attached to it had crossed the stage into Teller's mouth, and vice versa. Like I said, minds are being blown.
Okay. Now for the big finish...
After we caught the bullets from their respective mouths, Penn asked us: Has your bullet been fired through a gun? Yes, it had. It had ballistic scoring from the rifling of the revolver barrel, stipling and indentation from the impact of gunpowder on its base, and several slight impact deformities on its forward slope, as if it had actually been caught and scraped to a halt in someone's superhuman teeth. All these marks crossed and in some cases even mashed my writing. There is no doubt the actual bullet I had written on had actually been fired by a gun. Indeed, even if the writing had been forged (though I'm certain it wasn't), beyond any doubt the bullet had still been fired after any writing was placed on it. So there is no way this marked bullet could have been prepared in advance.
Likewise, when we withdrew the casings from their revolver chambers, Penn asked us: Has your casing been fired? Yes, it had. The primer was impacted, the smell of gunpowder coming from the scorched interior was clear enough, and there were even traces of unburned powder still inside it. And since I took it out of the chamber myself, while Penn still held the same gun he had fired, it definitely came from Penn's gun. There is no doubt the actual casing I had written on had actually been fired in his gun.
So. My bullet had been fired and crossed the stage, leaving its fired casing behind right where it should be. And yet apart from the bullets having supposedly been fired across, no person or thing ever crossed the stage, which was open for everyone to see. The sash was about an arm's length in width, and neither Penn nor Teller nor anyone or anything else even came close to crossing it. Until, of course, they bent over it to drop the bullets in our hands, but even then they were nowhere near each other. And I watched the whole time: the bullet that fell into my hand was the bullet in Teller's mouth. And when I was up there, there were certainly no mirrors or anything hinky like that, and I doubt any were sneaked on and off the stage in the interim.
And that was it. Thank you very much. Please be seated. They let us keep the bullet and casing, and that's what I'm holding up in the webcam shots above.
How the frackin' hell did they do that!?
You can watch a video of the whole trick performed by Penn and Teller at a completely different venue on YouTube. But the version we saw was a lot better, since they didn't have the bullets examined and marked while in the audience, but stayed far apart from each other on a clearly-divided stage, and had us come up to the them, so the whole thing was more clearly organized. No one could claim any switch was made in any moment of confusion. There was more care taken to show each step and there were more jokes, too. Overall, what we saw was even more impressive and entertaining.
Did they forge my bullet and casing? In my work with manuscripts and papyri I've learned a lot about tracing the actual path of ink stains on parchment or papyrus, since identifying a letter often requires observation under a magnifying glass or 3D microscope tracing where ink crosses over itself, as well as hesitation marks and blobs, and changes in thickness and shape due to changing velocity and angle of the pen. To recreate my scribbles, down to all those changes in angle and velocity, with the exact same shakes and overlaps, even after days of effort, much less in a matter of minutes, would simply be impossible for any mortal, no matter how brilliant a forger. Indeed, this would have been more amazing than the bullet trick itself. They could just have the guy do it right there on stage and get gasps and applause! So no, I don't think that's how they did it. Although I do think forgery played a role in the trick, I won't say how until I've warned you I will.
I should also point out that we were given permanent markers, and the ink sunk into every pit and groove. Even jacketed bullets are not smoothe, nor are their casings. They look it, but close up you can see they have very tiny scores and pits from the manufacturing process. Thus, a tape transfer would also have been impossible, without the attempt being quite obvious. I did notice that the ink on the bullet was starting to wipe off after I retrieved it, but only a little and not enough to destroy the evidence. I don't think this had anything to do with the trick, nor was it because it had gotten wet from being in Teller's mouth (water would not affect permanent ink). It was simply an inevitable effect of the fact that now there was (and indeed there was) gun oil on the bullet, and oil messes with permanent ink. Both the chamber and barrel of any well-kept gun would be oiled, so there is no great mystery there.
However, by having us draw a picture on the casing instead of writing our initials like we did on the bullet, this did make it harder to remember exactly every stroke I made or how the picture should look, so forgery (and hence a switch) would have been more feasible for the casing. And with a revolver there is no way to tell if a casing has been fired before or after it was drawn on. But even still, a forger would have required incredible skill to fool me, given the particularly wonky flower I drew. I have a hard time believing it was forged in a matter of minutes, and an even harder time believing Penn and Teller would trust that this would work on every show.
Besides, there is a much easier way to do the trick, one that doesn't require paying heaping wadges of cash to a secret backstage forgery expert.
Spoiler Warning: Stop reading right here, right now...if you don't want to know how this trick was done. And don't read the comments either. Just walk away.
The clue that bugged me for days had already hit me immediately on stage: after the guns went off and I was called back up, when Penn opened the chamber of his revolver and told me to take out the cartridge, I hesitated and looked at him. A casing that had been fired only moments before would be hot. Possibly searing hot. Was he crazy? His look of confidence instinctively told me he would not be asking me to grab a casing out of the chamber with my bare hand unless he was sure I wouldn't get burned. There wasn't time to ponder this out, so I assumed I'd lost track of time and that it had been long enough since he fired for the chamber and brass to be safe to touch.
But even on that assumption, the brass would be warm. It would take several minutes for it to cool back to ambient temperature. I knew at once something was up when I ended my hesitation and took the casing out of the gun and found it completely cool to the touch. It wasn't even warm. Penn has quite a commanding presence, and words his questions carefully, so when he asked me if that cartridge had been fired, I answered yes (after all, it had) and he quickly moved on before I could think to opine for the audience, "Yeah, but it isn't warm. What's up with that?" Not that I would have. I'm not that big of a jerk.
As I was leaving the stage, with the bullet and casing he let me keep, it further occurred to me that the bullet wasn't warm either. How could both the casing and bullet have been fired through a gun only minutes before and already be cool to the touch? This was a clue, I was sure of it. But how did it explain anything? I admit I was stumped. And I'm still not sure. But here's what I think happened...
The Minor Bit: The Glass Plates. I'm not an explosives expert, but I think it's safe to assume there are squibs or special types of glass that can explode without leaving traces on the glass itself. Several websites suggest that the wax from a blank would shatter the glass or put a hole through it, but vaporized wax would be obvious, being plastered or stipled across the glass, and it wasn't. And in my opinion, anything that could smash a hole in glass at ten feet would be too dangerous to use on stage anyway.
Likewise, though there was nothing obviously on the glass before it exploded, since I don't know enough about what's possible here I can't say the glass wasn't simply rigged to explode the way it did, by some means not visible to the naked eye. What I can say is that the holes in the glass plates were too big to have been made by bullets. Even assuming that two bullets passed right next to each other, we would see two small holes, apart or overlapping, with some corresponding cracking and shattering, not one big hole, which in my estimation was larger than would be made even by a 12 gauge slug. I've seen bullet damage to glass, and you either get the total annihilation of the glass, or tiny holes, no bigger than the bullet itself, with a web of cracks radiating from that. I imagine this is because a bullet passes through the glass much too fast to pull any of the glass along with it. At any rate, on stage, that night, no matter how those holes were made, they weren't made with bullets.
The Trickier Bit: The Casings. I originally thought they used a tool shoved up the chamber to extract the bullet after I had inserted it, and maybe they did. Though my wife and I can't work out exactly when, I am sure at some point, even if only for two seconds, Penn and Teller had the guns out of the audience's sight, for example by innocuously turning around. Though I could not remove the bullet from the casing, there is nothing preventing a special tool from doing so, especially if the bullet was rigged so it releases when quickly pushed, twisted and pulled. Such a tool could have been palmed and used in a matter of seconds without anyone noticing. Throughout the show Penn and Teller had proven this fact a dozen times over, demonstrating fantastic skill in sleight of hand.
One clue is that Penn made a point about the cartridge going in one chamber before the barrel, which is not in itself suspicious. But Pythons, like most modern revolvers, have cylinder chambers that are open to the front (unlike many earlier revolvers, as you might see in Westerns, which had chamber covers, a practical design feature in dusty or mucky environments). Though some Python models have that chamber partially blocked by the barrel, others do not (see below). Thus a bullet extracting tool could be inserted down the front of that chamber without swinging the chamber open or moving the wheel at all.
Once extracted, the bullet would have been tossed to an accomplice backstage. The curtain had been raised to show nothing was going on backstage, but in fact this made it much easier to toss a bullet to a hidden compatriot, in effect greatly multiplying the places they could hide to catch a tossed bullet. This would leave a bulletless casing in the gun, the very casing I had marked. Thus, the casing would never have to be switched or dinked with in any way. If packed with a thin wad of wax behind the bullet, then with the bullet gone the powder would stay in place and the cartridge could still be fired, with all the noise and flash expected, but no projectile.
But I'm not sure that's how it was done. I thought one of the important technical differences between the trick shown on YouTube and the trick I saw on stage at the Rio was that I held the bullet from the moment I examined it, marked it both times, and inserted it into the revolver, and I immediately watched them close the chamber, whereas in the YouTube video they are carrying the bullets around before they have them put in, and there are other messy moments where someone could accuse them of pulling something, all of which, you might think, would be ruled out by the way they did it at the Rio.
However, my memory is hazy here, and possibly wrong. After all, Penn truly is a god of misdirection. I honestly can't recall if he had the cartridge in his hand after I had marked the bullet, and then handed it back to me when I was told to mark the cylinder. The switch might already have been made at that point, now with a fake dissolving bullet--yes, marked with a forged inscription on the bullet end, but due to the circumstances I wasn't asked nor had time to check it, so it didn't have to be good enough to fool me on close inspection. I can't remember if that's how it went down at the Rio, but in the YouTube version this tactic is more obvious, since the bullets are kept hidden by Penn and Teller's fingers when the volunteers mark the casings (and thus, I suspect, the switch had already been made before then), and they are still kept hidden from the volunteers as they are inserted into the revolvers. However, in my case they had me choose the chamber and insert the bullet, which seems a riskier procedure. What if I had paused to look more closely at the bullet end?
There are pros and cons to either explanation. Those watching the video, and those in the audience at the performance I participated in, might raise an eyebrow at the fact that Penn makes a very vocal point of saying what color pen we chose. Even when I chose to stick with the pen I had, he said so out loud, which is certainly odd. I admit this looks like a signal to an accomplice backstage as to what color pen to use to forge a copy, perhaps by watching us write from a hidden camera. Possibly a camera in Penn's glasses, since he did inspect everything I did, closely and carefully. Now, I simply don't believe such a forgery is what I went home with. But it could have been used as a stopgap to conceal a switch. As long as I never got to look closely at the forged bullet, I could have been fooled.
But the other technique I mentioned is also a possibility, albeit a harder one to pull off, though less risky. So I don't know for sure. They also might use different tactics at different venues, so examining the YouTube version could be misleading. But even from prior probability we can be sure Penn and Teller do not have superhuman bullet-catching powers, therefore we can be equally sure there was a switch of either kind. Because we do know Penn and Teller have amazing, ass-kicking sleight of hand powers.
The Trickiest Bit: The Bullets. Okay, somehow, at some point, the bullets were switched or extracted, and then passed to backstage accomplices. If extracted, then they were swiftly reloaded into new casings using a common bullet press backstage. A skilled technician can reload a bullet into a readied casing with such a loading press in a hot second. But if, instead, the entire cartridges were switched, then they would be ready to fire as-is. In that case, my marked bullet was already backstage as I was marking a completely different casing with a forged bullet on stage. This would also mean backstage accomplices had already passed the forged bullets to Penn and Teller, unnoticed, while we were on stage, in the seconds between my writing on the bullet and then writing on the casing. That is not inconceivable, but it would be a remarkable feat well worthy of a whistle and a smile.
Either way, I'm sure our marked bullets were backstage before Penn and Teller fired their guns. These backstage cartridges were loaded into a second set of guns manned by accomplices above the stage in the fly gallery. So when Penn told everyone to hold their ears because they were about to fire, this was actually an announcement to the fly gallery assistants, so they could fire their guns at exactly the same time. The YouTube version has the announcement far in advance of the firing, and their guns going off at slightly different times, but the physical circumstances were different, and other cues were available to match up the trigger pulls on either side of the stage. As long as they got the timing right, it would be impossible, especially in a cavernous theatre, to tell the difference between two guns firing at the same time and four guns firing at the same time.
Impossible that is, except for an expert standing on the stage. Hence we could not be there. That's why we were escorted down for this bit. Had I been standing within ten feet of Penn, I could probably have told you additional guns were fired above me. In fact, I suspect the stage cartridges were loaded not with gunpowder, but flash powder, or at any rate some light explosive, so that they would not have made anywhere near the noise of a real gun. Which I would definitely have noticed. But off stage, with the echoing typical of a theatre, there was no way to tell the sound wasn't coming from Penn and Teller's guns, but from above them instead. So the illusion was complete.
I thought the off-stage gunmen would have fired their guns into ballistic tanks filled with water and quickly extracted the bullets, but there wasn't time, which is even more obvious in the YouTube version. I think they must have an apparatus, the off stage guns are precision mounted to fire into a ballistic tank and the bullets are thus slowed and then shunted into a drop shoot positioned precisely above their stage marks. Including my bullet. The one I had written on, and which had now been fired, passed through a gun's barrel, and perhaps struck the interior of a collection tank, dinking the bullet up just a bit. The reason this must have been done in the fly gallery is not only to get the right matching sound effect, but more importantly because there would be less than a second to extract the bullets from the collection tanks...and drop them into Penn and Teller's mouths.
That's right. When Penn and Teller fired their guns and they feigned "catching" the bullets, their heads arched back...at the Rio, slowly. Too slowly. Had they really caught bullets in their teeth, and hence if they were simulating this realistically, their heads would be yanked back and forward rapidly, exactly as you see they did at the YouTube venue. But at the Rio, I thought it was odd at the time, and especially so in hindsight, that their heads moved back and then forward...slowly. In both cases, their heads arched back all the way, far enough to be staring straight up into the fly gallery. The reason for the slow impact movement at the Rio is to give the bullets more time to drop down into their mouths, since the stage at the Rio had a much higher gallery.
Of course, the bullet I wrote on would have been loaded into a backstage gun on Teller's side of the stage, so the bullets had actually "crossed" to the other side of the stage before Penn and Teller's guns ever went off. This unseen crossover would have taken place below, beside, and above the stage. There had to have been at least two superbly trained assistants backstage to make the trick work.
So that's my theory. Incomplete and uncertain as it is, it does explain how the bullet I marked had clearly been fired through a gun and yet was cool to the touch. Having been fired into a ballistic tank, the bullet would have passed through water, thus cooling very rapidly (or it was never really fired through a gun at all--see blog comments). And this explains why the casing in the chamber was not even warm, much less hot. Since it was loaded only with flash powder or something equally low yield, the explosion that generated the flash for their guns was visually convincing but not powerful enough to heat the chamber or casing.
When I told Jen my theory, she was incredulous. "No way!" she said. "Do you know how hard it would be to drop the bullets into their mouths without missing?" It would be so easy to miss, and the whole game would be up. Indeed, I did know that. That's what makes the trick so damned impressive. The precision. The discipline. Not just the cleverness, which is also admirable, in several ways, if this is how the trick is done, but the professional skill and training that would be required to nail this trick every night, everyone working in concert, at remarkable speeds, tossing bullets back and forth with no one the wiser, firing and dropping bullets with deadpan accuracy, catching them without choking, and all the while going along with the stage act, keeping up the whole performance for the audience. That's more amazing than actually catching bullets in your teeth!
If I'm right, I stand in awe.