Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Penn & Teller's Magic Bullet

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.


freethoughtguy said...

Right or wrong, I stand in awe of your well thought-out theory. I saw the P&T Rio show a couple of months ago, as well as in 2002, when they did the same bullet trick. This one's had me stumped for a long time. No matter the "secret," P&T's legerdemain is legendary!

Lippard said...

I think you point out some pieces of the explanation, but your explanation is far too Rube Goldbergesque. I doubt there are any extra gun firings or bullets being dropped from above.

A number of bullet catch methods are described in Jim Steinmeyer's book, _The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, a/k/a Chung Ling Soo_. Robinson died from a bullet catch trick gone wrong (and Steinmeyer's book describes another magician killed from a bullet catch trick with a different method that also went wrong).

Ben said...

I bought you some books on your wish list. Hope you enjoy them. Consider it my tithe to the “religion” of atheism. Apparently God decided he doesn’t want my money any more.

Despite all the horrible things that happened to my mind during my apostasy and the wandering in the vast desert of mal-inquiry of apologetics and anti-apologetics…you were the first atheist I felt I could trust…someone that managed to get passed my suspicions about the secular web…generated by 8 years as a student of creationism and apologetics… You earned it. It was easy to tell. That meant a lot to me. God was never so kind. Keep it up. Maybe someday I'll be as awesome as you.


Unknown said...

Many years ago, I was told that bullet-catching was done by using fractional charges in the casing resulting in a slower muzzle velocity. Further, having the slug pass through the glass plate slowed it down even more, to the point where you could indeed catch it in your mouth -- heck you could probably catch it in your hand. I have no way to verify that, of course. Plus, your comment about the temperature of the casing and the slug is an important data point that I hadn't previously considered.

Steelman said...

I think your "bullet extraction while in the chamber, with wax wad to hold in the flash powder" explanation is probably the right one. The method of making teeth marks, and scoring from the rifling, on the bullet could even be engineered into the extraction tool itself, saving a backstage step. The transfer of the bullets could be accomplished through backstage (or combination of over and under stage helpers and sleight of hand).

Richard Carrier said...

Ben (Agnostics_R_Us): Thank you so much. You may not know how much I appreciate that. My wishlist at Amazon is always so large and yet I very much want everything on it but can't afford it (which is why it's on the list). So it's a really great boon to have someone be kind to me that way.

Lippard said...

Mikado: I've never heard of that method. Every bullet catch method I'm familiar with involves the bullet moving from one location to the other by hand, and firing blanks. Accidents have occurred when bullets weren't properly removed, when foreign objects were added to the barrel of the gun by a volunteer, when a volunteer substituted their own weapon, and so on.

Richard Carrier said...

Jim Lippard: It may be too Rube Goldbergesque (there may be simpler ways that elude me--in fact I think Steelman has one-upped me, see below). But they can't have done it the old fashioned way (which is already described on the Wikipedia entry that I linked to, so no need to go read the book). There are too many contrary clues, and the damage to the bullet would never be explicable, and I know Penn and Teller are smarter than that.

Mikado: Fractional charges are too dangerous, and too inconsistent, and would not shape the bullet the way mine was.

On the first point, all the historical deaths prove the point. Yet Penn specifically says on that radio interview I linked to that he is intent on never doing anything that can actually cause harm. On the second point, just watch the YouTube video: it is quite clear that Penn is a marksman and can maintain a steadier aim, but Teller...not so much. His aim swings out of Penn's mouth quite a bit, though still good enough to get a head shot (so he's no amateur), it's not good enough to ensure a mouth shot. So I don't think they are relying on Teller's aim. As to the last point, the butt end of my bullet is literally bowed in and deeply stipled, which requires a full blast behind it, while the front end is so heavily dented and scored in key places it must have struck something harder than copper, and with great force. Neither teeth nor glass plates would do that. And glass will certainly not slow a bullet to any noticeable degree.

In contrast, on the YouTube video notice how Teller leans back...and suddenly to the side--it sure looks like he is moving his head to catch a dropping bullet. It's much easier to move your head to catch something you can see, than to hope something you can't see will land in your mouth. Another clue: the glass plates both had only one hole in them. Had they really fired two bullets at each other, there would be two holes through each pane of glass, even if only an inch apart, a point I already noted in my blog. Even Penn's aim was not steady enough to guarantee an exactly diametric trajectory to Teller's bullet. But more importantly, that would kill the trick. If the bullets were on diametric trajectories, they would collide mid-stage. Indeed, the mere risk of that should argue against even trying it that way.

Finally, as you note, the bullet was cool. It must have passed through an extensive cooling medium. Like several feet of water. Unless it was never fired to begin with...

Steelman: You may be on to something. But the marks and indentations on my bullet can't have been made by any palmable hand tool. It would require torsional forces far greater than any human can accomplish without hand-operated levers or wheels, which require a mounted machine. However, that's possible as a backstage gimmick. I had briefly considered that at the time (even on stage) but it seemed impossible to me on inspecting the bullet. But now that I think twice...

This would be a simpler and safer way to do it: backstage, the bullets are mashed through a special press that "doctors" them up to look like they've passed through a gun. Then stage hands need merely drop the bullets into Penn and Teller's mouths (which are open before the shot, so it is unlikely, albeit not impossible, that the bullets are already in their mouths at that point--in contrast, the head-movement is too suspicious to me to think they aren't catching dropped bullets there and then).

This would, in fact, explain the indentations on the front of the bullet: in order to bow and score the faces of the bullet, it would have to be compressed between two violent forces, the rearward force would bow the butt end while the forward force would dent and score the front end. Since this would greatly simplify the trick, and I can't think of any way to rule it out, I think you are right--only that this mechanical dinking of the bullet had to have taken place off stage.

Chris said...

hhhmmmm, I disagree with everyone, I think you've all forgotten that it could have been magic. Yup, good old fashioned sorcery.

Chris said...

ok fine, probably not magic, but there was a trick at the beginning of the show that made me think of the bullet switch. Teller comes out wearing a cement block on his head, Penn steals some glasses from an audience member, then breaks the cement block on Teller's head revealing him wearing the audience member's glasses. A good switch in that situation is putting the glasses in Penn's pocket (which he did), then running down his leg to under the stage, which a bullet could easily have done. So magic pockets and a hole in the stage is my theory. The stage when I saw the show looked to have suspicious creases.

Lippard said...

I think Steelman is close, and your offstage "special press" is probably correct. But if indeed there's a bullet that needs to be extracted from the chamber (I doubt it--it's probably a blank), it's not the marked bullet. I suspect the bullets switched sides of the stage very early, before the guns were loaded--in the YouTube video, watch Penn's left hand just before 2:00. The cartridge which has a picture drawn on it is separate from the bullet with the initials.

I'm still skeptical that any bullets are dropped into their mouths.

Lippard said...

"But they can't have done it the old fashioned way (which is already described on the Wikipedia entry that I linked to, so no need to go read the book)."

There is no single old-fashioned way--as I mentioned, the Steinmeyer book describes several methods. The Wikipedia description gives a partial description of Chung Ling Soo's method, in which the original bullets are loaded into the rifles, but the rifles do not fire them, instead firing blanks from a second barrel. This method failed and resulted in his death as a result of failure to properly maintain his rifles.

As for "no need to read" Steinmeyer's book--it's a fantastic book, which I highly recommend, along with Steinmeyer's _Hiding the Elephant_. Both are fascinating histories of specific periods of magic performance and interesting individuals. (BTW, if you've seen "The Prestige," which contains references to Chung Ling Soo, Steinmeyer's _The Glorious Deception_ is a far better story, which doesn't suffer from the holes and implausibilities of the movie.)

Richard Carrier said...

Thanks Jim, cool stuff to know all around!

But I still don't believe the bullet would have crossed the stage before loading. Since it had to be doctored up behind stage anyway, there would be no need to cross the stage with it so early in the Act. It needs to be off the stage at that point.

But sure, as I said originally, this may happen before loading, when the bullets are switched between marking the bullet and the casing (if that's the way they did it, rather than a post-loading extraction).

Dan Maksim said...

Just stumbled upon your blog... it's a nice one! I'll have to pick up one of your books sometime.

My theory for how the rifling/deformation on the bullet is done: Once the rounds (with the initials on the bullet, not on the casing) are in the hands of an offstage assistant, they are fired via a silenced gun in a padded room. If these rounds were specially packed with a small amount of powder, it would not only make the gunshot easier to muffle, but also the temperature of the bullet would be lower after exiting the barrel and thus cool off more quickly, making it safe for later insertion into the mouth. (Can anyone with more firearms experience than I chime in on whether or not this would be feasible?)

At any rate, I think everyone's overthinking the gimmick for how the bullet gets into their mouths. Not only would dropping the bullet down from above the stage be very risky for a live act, but Penn & Teller have done this trick at a variety of theatres, not just their "home field" one in Vegas. Having the bullets drop from above would be impracticle at many venues. A more likely technique is this:


It seems rather easy for the bullets, complete with ballistic markings, to be slipped into the collars of the bulletproof vests. In the youtube video it appears they're resting AGAINST the downstage curtain in a dimly lit area, making it easy to plant the bullet on the vests via a hole in the backdrop. When the vest slips over the head, the bullet slips into the mouth.

I saw this trick performed at the DeAnza theatre in Cupertino, CA when I was about 14 years old. (I'm 24 now, so ~1997.) At the time I was attending a VERY right-wing, orthadox private Catholic school and being raised in a very traditional family. I wanted to grow up to be a magician myself, so I was super amped up that I got to meet Penn & Teller in the lobby after the show. Not having anything on-hand for them to sign, I passed them a dollar bill. I got Teller to sign it, and when I went for Penn's autograph, he entertainingly tried to palm my dough before signing it himself.


However, just before handing the bill back, he smiled amicably and lightheartedly added "Hold on, let me make sure to cross out the 'GOD'..." and flipped the bill over, scribbling thusly:


As I said I was 14 at the time and fervently religious. As I walked back to the parking lot with my dad, who thankfully didn't witness the currency-defacing, I was shellshocked. Just... completely thrown for a loop. I couldn't believe that someone just make such light of outright blasphemy! I mean, here was this *adult* who just offended the religious sensibilities of a 14 year-old kid! I believe it was the first time in my life that someone had dared violate that "Never criticize religion" taboo that seems to exist everywhere.

There is a movement on YouTube which has been getting a lot of press lately- the Rational Response Squad's "Blasphemy Challenge". The idea is that that the first step to freeing people from the confines of religious thinking is to break that taboo.

Today, 10 years after that magic show, I'm a much wiser athiest and a skeptic. I don't believe I started questioning my faith until age 18 or so, but occasionally I think back on that taboo-shattering experience and wonder... could that have been the first chink in the armor-plating of the big heavy blast-door that once cordoned off the section of my brain responsible for critical thinking?

Well, it probably had more to do with overcoming the overwhelming guilt I'd later feel about getting hot & heavy with my first girlfriend... but it's an entertaining thought. =]

Dan Maksim said...

One other suggestion- the first thing that sprang to mind when I saw the show to explain the shattering glass was that a live round is actually penetrating the glass. While I understand this would be dangerous and a huge liability, play along with me and imagine this scenario:

The rounds being fired are rubber bullets (keep in mind that when the casing is being signed, you only see the casing, not the bullet) which travel at a very low velocity. After penetrating the glass, they drop to a velocity low enough that they are non-lethal, and are caught in the bulletproof vest. This may explain the irregular shape of the bullet-hole in the glass that you observed- it's caused by a low-velocity rubber bullet, not a live jacketed magnum round. (Also, it might explain the need for the bullet-proof vests... ever wonder why you need a protective vest on if you're aiming for a headshot? =] Except to insert the bullet in your mouth when you don the thing, of course...)

So that was my first thought, although close examination of footage might yield some telltale movement on the vest during impact if this is what was happening. Another likely scenario is this:

The lasersights are calibrated (mis-calibrated?) such that the rubber bullet will actually land several feet to the side of the target. When the guns are fired the rubber bullet lands offstage into a bulletproof curtain.

There is a piece of evidence which seems to suggest that this is happening. Watch the youtube clip- at 7:52 you will see the moment just before the big money shot. Look closely and you will see that the red dot of Penn's lasersight is slightly visible on the very center of the glass pane. However, when he fires a moment later, the bullethole appears on the pane several inches to the left. If you follow that trajectory, the (rubber?) round would strike far to the left of Teller's head and land safely (into the bulletproof curtain?) on stage left.

Anyway, that's the explanation that seems to fit what I observed on the youtube video- the bullet has already gotten into the mouth when the vest is slipped on, and the fired round is a rubber shot at low velocity that sails far to the side of the target and lands safely offstage.

Also- just noticed I couldn't embed images in my previous comment. Sorry! I went to all the effort too. =P

Anonymous said...

Hey Richard, enjoyed the post. Your explanation is the best I've heard. I think it's either what you've described or some variation of it. Regardless, it's interesting to read how you worked through it in your mind. BTW, it's "sleight of hand," not "slight of hand."

Unknown said...

Well, I don't actually know how this trick is done so I feel free to speculate.

I think the key to the trick is actually the bullet proof vests--and I don't mean that in the way you might think.

A big part of the trick is the fact that they appear to have caught the bullets in their mouths and that they never hold their hands to their mouths. Seems impossible unless you remember that they retrieve their vest from the side of the stage and don their vests over their heads. It seems highly probable that this is how they get the bullet into their mouths. One could have an assistant plant the bullet in the vests from off stage.

Another part of the trick is the big show about signing the bullet and the case. But is the bullet visible when you are signing the case or is it covered by the magician's hand? If I were to make a similar illusion, I'd make a big show of you signing the bullet, then use a distraction or leight of hand to switch cartridges and then have you sign the case of a blank while the magician hold the cartridge, concealing the bullet. This way your signed brass remains in the gun and there is opportunity to pass off the cartridge with the signed bullet off stage for processing to extract it from the case and extrude it through some rifling.

Between the vest trick and the switching cartridges you have a way of doing most of the trick.

The broken glass? I've no idea but the holders always seemed suspiciously large and I've always wondered if they had a sound activated mechanical striker to make the hole.

So, I can say a way you could do the trick as I saw it performed but I don't know how they actually do it or about the nuances of the version that you saw may be different.

Unknown said...

Richard wrote, "If I'm right, I stand in awe."

It is a great illusion. I'm in awe regardless of how it is done.

Lippard said...

Lennox, Gerard: I think you're right about the vests being the mechanism to transport the bullets into their mouths. I suspect the bullet swap occurs between 3:00 and 3:15 in the YouTube video, when they make the seemingly unnecessary (or, at least, unnecessary at that point, unless it serves some additional purpose) step of going down to the stage to move the stands for the glass out prior to unveiling and loading the guns.

Richard Carrier said...

Lennox: Can anyone with more firearms experience than I chime in on whether or not this would be feasible?

Feasible, but unnecessary. A rigged bullet press would be quicker, cheaper, safer, and still quieter than using silencers and ballistic tanks.

About the vest-pass idea, I was tempted by that, and saw it suggested elsewhere on the web, and I should say it is still a possibility. But donning vests is no more odd than donning helmets and goggles, which yet would have no reason--other than all that precaution looks cool and adds drama (and creates the false impression that real bullets are involved). Also, after they don the vests, Penn still talks without distortion and both have their mouths fully open and lit up. All this would not make hiding bullets in their mouths impossible, but it would be challenging.

In contrast, the difference in rate of feigned "blow back" of their heads between the two venues suspiciously corresponds to the difference in height of the fly galleries, while on the video Teller's head and upper back has an unusual pitch to the left that looks suspiciously like relocating his mouth to catch a bullet that fell slightly off mark. Yes, they do this at many different venues, but all magic shows adjust to the venue--has anyone seen them do it under an open sky?

I admit it could be either, but I still lean for the drop.

Dan Maksim: [the rubber bullets] drop to a velocity low enough that they are non-lethal, and are caught in the bulletproof vest.

This can't have worked. Any strike against a vest would be heard and seen, even if you lightly tossed a rubber ball at it by hand. Then the bullet would be heard bouncing off the stage. In fact, this would be even more pronounced with a rubber bullet, which would always bounce (real bullets often lodge in or stick to a vest, but only at dangerous velocities, and even then still make a visible impact). It also is too risky, since the glass plates will have an unpredictable refractory effect on any projectile passing through them, which will actually be the greater the slower the projectile, so the actual destination can too easily be someplace unplanned. This would, in the end, be riskier and more elaborate than my bullet drop.

The clincher is the fact that the glass plates each had only one hole in them. If any real projectiles were passed between them, they would each make a hole in each pane, and there would be two holes in each pane.

As for misaligning lasersights, I doubt that would be possible without being so egregious as to be visible, and again you have the problem of silently catching even a rubber bullet offstage. But the deal breaker for me is that Penn is too responsible a gun user. On the Rio stage I had complete possession of the weapon and manhandled it considerably, quite freely as he insisted I do, as did my colleague. Penn would surely know that this would create a nightly risk of misaligning the sight, and that risk alone would rule out trying it.

However, when he fires a moment later, the bullethole appears on the pane several inches to the left.

Unfortunately, as Galileo would say, the same effect is explained by every other theory so it can't be offered in evidence of this one. Since I propose that where the glass breaks bears no relationship at all to where their guns are pointing, observing such a misalignment doesn't help us tell what the cause of this was.

Infidelis Maximus: Thanks for the correction! I emended the original.

Gerard: You're a bit behind--we've already covered your points in comments above!

Unknown said...

"Gerard: You're a bit behind--we've already covered your points in comments above!"

Indeed, I did skim the posts before posting but I didn't catch every thing that was said. My mistake.

That being said, catching bullets dropped in their mouths is just asking for trouble and there is no reason for such a Rube Goldberg approach when a reliable and easy method is clearly available in the vests. Your attachment to the idea seems to outweigh its merits. Although it is conceivable they could do it that way I think you may over estimate the difficulty of sleight of hand magicians to conceal items in their mouths and still talk.

Anonymous said...

Richard, glad you found the "sleight of hand" comment useful. Unfortunately, your post is still, ahem, slightly off. It's "slight impact," not "sleight impact." :-)

Richard Carrier said...

Gerard: The only thing that really leans me in favor of the drop is the curious difference in "reaction" behavior at both venues, which has no readier explanation. But in general, I confess either tactic would be equally impressive. There is trouble enough to ask all around!

Infidelis Maximus: D'oop! Fixed. Thanks again!

Iphtashu Fitz said...

When I was a kid my parents were good friends of a woman who worked at the Palace Theater in Stamford, CT. As a result both they and I volunteered as ushers a number of times, and we got to see the occasional rehearsal or setup of a show. Once when Penn & Teller performed there we saw part of a runthrough of the bullet catch. While the glass was being set it place it shattered. No gunshots, no wires, nothing. My guess is that the glass they use is highly stressed when it's manufactured. If it's properly stressed then just the shockwave of a blank shot would be enough to shatter the glass.

Richard Carrier said...

Iphtashu Fitz said... My guess is that the glass they use is highly stressed when it's manufactured. If it's properly stressed then just the shockwave of a blank shot would be enough to shatter the glass.

This would require the glass to be stressed only at a specific point (since holes are left where bullets would have passed through; the plate doesn't just crumble), but that might be possible. Cases where the glass cracks beyond the hole (as has occasionally happened in their trick, though even then the intended hole is visible) could just be sympathetic fracturing from a stress point.

That would simplify that end of the problem. I don't know how to invisibly stress glass (e.g. wouldn't freezing it with liquid nitrogen leave an obvious spot of chemically altered glass?), but there is a lot I don't know about what's possible here. Thanks for the idea!

Lippard said...

Banachek, who devised the basic method of Penn & Teller's magic bullet, discusses the effect here (PDF).

Richard Carrier said...

Damn. Banachek is evasive. Not that I'm surprised. But thanks for the link!

It's hard to tell what his method was. He also implies P&T aren't really using his method but only developed theirs by using his as a stepping stone, so that makes it even harder to infer anything.

But for other fans reading all this, here are some key clues in Banachek's account:

(1) Banachek's method involved having the gun fixed in a vice, and the spectator pulls the trigger. That rules out extracting the bullet from the gun after loading (that would be essentially impossible without it being obvious to any attentive viewer).

(2) He makes clear how insistent P&T were that the trick was absolutely safe. So there can't be any element of risk in however it's done (so I doubt anything was actually fired out of the guns). But he had to assure them it was safe and they consulted FBI experts to be extra-sure. So there was some question. Might this mean the bullets go automatically from ballistic tanks into their mouths, using an apparatus like a funnel? I can see why one would have questions about the safety of that, though the physics is full-proof, since the resistance of water as a medium is a physical constant (something an FBI expert would certainly know).

(3) He got the idea when he was in a "fishing supply store" (where all the required components, apparently, could be bought...excepting, perhaps, guns and loaders and other standard firearm equipment).

(4) He had the spectator who marked the bullet "stand to his left" during the catch, while the spectator who marked the casing pulled the trigger from an assigned position "marked with footprints." Possibly none of this means anything, but these are curious details to mention.

(5) P&T wanted to take his gun along with the rest of the props when he passed the trick on to them. This might have simply been a convenience, or it may indicate the gun was rigged in some fashion.

(6) "the method for the marking and observing the bullet go into the gun and the breaking of the glass was mine" but the rest was P&T innovation. This indicates there is something hinky about the marking and observing and breaking.

(7) He makes a point of the fact that P&T never put their hands to their mouths. This might imply the vest-pass is the means of transfer (as a commenter suggested above and I comment on as possible in response), unless Banachek is hinting at the marvel of a drop (per my original theory).

(8) He says all but outright that they do not "catch the bullet that is fired from the gun" (meaning the on-stage guns), so that method is out, as I have already said.

Still nothing conclusive.

Jane said...

Prestressed glass is extremely likely, since they use it in another one of their tricks called the "Devil's Coke Bottle." You can see it on Youtube as well.

I enjoyed your analysis of the trick very much. Though I've seen the trick live, my lack of gun know-how prevented me from being chosen to participate.

Clayton said...

i think you will find this video innformative.

Richard Carrier said...

Thanks, Clayton. But the trick I saw was a little different than the one shown in this video, so there are still unsolved questions.

First, this video makes a big deal about the third leg of the glass-plate stands being under a curtain. When I was in the trick, the stands were entirely out in the open. I could have walked completely around them if I wanted. I assume those stands could have dropped the head-marked bullet below the stage (through some special concealed hole in the stage floor), if it was done the same way this video alleges. But...

Second, I was the one who put the bullet in the gun, all the way from my hand, without him touching the cartridge (at that time). So I could see quite clearly that the same cartridge was marked on the head and case, which means there can't have been a pre-loading switch as this video otherwise plausibly suggests. Though that's probably how they did it there, it can't be how they did it in Vegas. It's been a while, so I can't remember if somehow he could have tricked me into not noticing a switch at that point, but that seems unlikely, and would have been too risky.

Since I completely loaded the bullet into the gun (i.e. he wasn't holding the bullet half way into the chamber for me like in this video), he would have to have been counting on me not checking the head of the bullet, which would surely be a doomed tactic--since someone, eventually, would do that, even if I did not, ruining the trick. I can't remember for certain, but think I did check (in fact, I seem to recall him asking me to, but I can't be sure, so maybe there was some fancy misdirection here I don't remember--if anyone goes to the Vegas show, watch this bit carefully and let me know how this is handled).

Third, this video doesn't fully explain one of the key problems: how the stagehands "scuffed up" the bullet heads. Though rolling them in gunpowder for the smell makes sense, the bullet I got was deeply raked and scored. They would have to have used some sort of machine (like a modified bullet press) that scores the bullet so it resembles having gone through a gun. However, I do believe that's possible, and maybe even likely (as I've mentioned in comments before).

Fourth, the Vegas stage was wide open. I don't think stagehands could have gotten to the vests unnoticed. I think there would have to have been some more sophisticated way to get the bulletheads into those vests (if such was the tactic, as has been suggested already in comments above). Although there was a point when a back curtain was raised, and I don't remember how far back the vests were sitting before that, so maybe they did it the same way.

Finally, whether a paper mache bullet would indeed survive the barrel and blast and break the glass and safely disintegrate without leaving debris on the stage (for me to notice when I went back up) or floating in the air and reflecting stage light (for all to see), all that I can't say, since I have no experience with such technology. But I'd say it's maybe 80% plausible.

Bo said...

Bullet switcharoo:

At 0:35, while the audience member Mike is holding the bullet he chose, Penn takes a bullet into his right hand from his pocket and keeps his fist rolled up around it. Teller does the same at 0:50. Their right fists never unroll after this point and until they switch the bullets.

After Penn shows the audience the initials at 1:40 (while his right fist is still rolled up),
the bullet in his right hand appears in place of the initialed bullet while he drops it into his left pocket with his left hand at the same time as he pulls out the markers at 1:55. Watch closely!

We never see the bullet with the initials again, until the bullet is in his mouth. Even when Penn shows the drawing of the stick-man at 2:29, he is concealing the tip end of the bullet, where the initials should be. Also, when Penn is describing the bullet as "signed on the tip" at 3:20, the tip is in between his fingers and not visible. Additionally, when Mike is pushing the bullet into the gun at 4:10, the initialed tip is not visible. Teller does everything exactly the same, except he used the pockets on his pants.

Notice that Penn takes off his jacket at 5:00 and throws it off-stage. Remember what's in his jacket pocket? Of course, it's the bullet! Now the assistants can grab it and do their dirty work so they can drop the machined bullet into his mouth. The stage manager's cue -ears- is probably their signal that the machining is complete and the assistants are in position. Also, I'm not sure how Teller gets the bullet backstage, since he's not wearing a jacket.

Just like Penn says, "we never said we would change the shells, " that's because they were the other bullets (possibly blanks?). Glass was probably stressed.

Another interesting bit to notice is how he sneakily reaches for his vest at 5:08 without actually taking it right then. Instead he reaches for his goggles. Maybe something going on there with the vest? Maybe it wasn't dropped into his mouth?

Another interesting bit at the end is that Penn doesn't ask Brett to smell his bullet for gunpowder.

Richard Carrier said...

Again, the Vegas show was different, as I noted. Among those differences, I certainly was asked to smell the bullet for gunpowder (and still have the bullet).

Jason said...

I'm surprised by the fact that nobody has postulated that the cameras on stage might have played a part - at least in creating the holes in the glass perhaps?

I'm also curious if when they bang on the glass when they move the stands if maybe they're misdirecting somehow - either sending the bullet down through a channel in the post (to a backstage person) or something else. I think the capture an actual fired bullet in a water tank is key. The covering of the tip while they draw the pictures on the casing in the youtube video seems too deliberate.

shep82 said...

They did this trick on British tv many years ago but due to Britain having strict gun laws they had to do the trick with catapults and lyma beans. I remember there was no glass involved in the trick.

The show was called The Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller and if you can find the torrent watching it might help you see the things they do the same but in a different context.

Unknown said...

I saw the Penn and Teller trick last week at the Rio. Given the fast hands and deception these guys do on a regular basis is seems most likely they pull the cartridge out of the gun as soon as it is signed. At one point they walk back to the stage with their backs to the audience. Then, I theorize, they move it off stage, in the jacket as suggested earlier, or a hole in the floor, where someone else either fires them or puts them through a press. Firing seems to be the fastest way since the primer would be fired and they would get a ready made smell and burn patterns.

By the time they start putting on the vests etc (which are at the edge of the stage and easily reachable by stage hands), both guns are empty and Penn has Teller's fired bullet and Penn's spent casing (vice - versa for Teller). The now fired bullet gets stored in the mouth, I don't think there is any difficulty with this. Penn even gives an explanation for his distorted speech "My mike is in my glasses, so the goggles make me sound funny." Maybe when everyone is distracted by the sound and movement of the firing they put the spent casing back in the guns. The muzzle flash probably comes from a mechanism in the giant laser site.

This whole description relies on sleight of hand and access from one side of the stage to the other, over, under or behind.

Nice site, thanks for putting it together.

Richard Carrier said...

Jason said... I'm surprised by the fact that nobody has postulated that the cameras on stage might have played a part - at least in creating the holes in the glass perhaps?

I have no idea what you could possibly mean.

The other things you suggest have been suggested here already.

Shep82 said... They did this trick on British tv many years ago but due to Britain having strict gun laws they had to do the trick with catapults and lyma beans.

You must not be describing it well, because what you are saying doesn't even sound like a trick. Even I can shoot a lima bean into someone's mouth with a catapult ten feet away. How is that magic? The "trick" is only a trick because there is no way the shell casings can remain on the shooter's side but the bullet end up in the receiver's mouth without firing the gun (or so the trick is posed), and because bullets fired from guns are lethal. Neither element would be present in a hurled lima bean trick, so I fail to see how that would be a trick.

Ejanota said... ...most likely they pull the cartridge out of the gun as soon as it is signed.

That can't have happened in my case: I inserted the cartridge and closed the cylinder. Unless there was some amazing misdirection there, I don't see how they could have gotten the cartridge out (at that point) without my noticing.

At one point they walk back to the stage with their backs to the audience. Then, I theorize, they move it off stage, in the jacket as suggested earlier, or a hole in the floor, where someone else either fires them or puts them through a press. Firing seems to be the fastest way since the primer would be fired and they would get a ready made smell and burn patterns.

As I've remarked in this thread earlier, something along these lines may be possible, but they must have switched the bullets before I signed the casing, which seems unlikely (it would be too easily exposed by a participant who knows to check, which by now would be a real risk). In addition, firing in the scenario you describe would have to be done with a very effective silencer or in a superbly sound-proofed room (which is possible), otherwise we on the stage would hear it.

By the time they start putting on the vests etc (which are at the edge of the stage and easily reachable by stage hands), both guns are empty and Penn has Teller's fired bullet and Penn's spent casing (vice - versa for Teller).

You can't mean the guns are literally empty--they must at that point contain the signed casings, and obviously a charge of gunpowder. There is no possible way "when everyone is distracted by the sound and movement of the firing they put the spent casing back in the guns." Of that I am entirely certain. We observed them constantly and closely the whole while.

The now fired bullet gets stored in the mouth, I don't think there is any difficulty with this. Penn even gives an explanation for his distorted speech "My mike is in my glasses, so the goggles make me sound funny."

That may be a good clue. Did he say that at Rio? I'm suspecting more and more that the vest-pass is what happens. I don't remember this comment in the show I saw, but I can't recall if he didn't say it either.

The muzzle flash probably comes from a mechanism in the giant laser site.

That would be too obvious. You can easily see where the flash is coming from. Though the sound could be produced off-stage (esp. since we were taken off-stage for the actual firing), the flash could not. But there are countless ways to produce a harmless muzzle flash (e.g. I never checked the barrel was clear).

Unknown said...

Listen to Penn starting at 8:17 in the youtube video. His voice is barely distorted while holding the bullet in his teeth. Talking normally with it in his cheek would have been trivial.

Unknown said...

I think there is something leaving the gun barrel that actually breaks the glass, but I am not gun expert. Is there a load that could break the glass but be harmless to Penn and Teller based on their distance and positioning? Perhaps sand or water?

This is what led me to that conclusion:

First, Banachek's original trick used a scope, and Penn and Teller changed it to a laser sight. This implies that the sighting is important rather than just a visual effect, so the misaligned sight seems likely. The sight could be misaligned internally so that it would be impossible to detect in a visual inspection with the laser turned off.

Second, it seems unlikely that Banachek had access to the prestressed or doctored glass necessary to cause a break with no impact. Maybe someone with more specific knowledge could weigh in on this, but as I understand it, the Devil's Coke Bottle seems to be a technological innovation that required quite a bit of research. It also requires at least a small amount of physical contact to break, and the break is not instantaneous, as is required by the trick.

Third, this explains the use of the goggles. They are a reasonable precaution against small bits of sand or glass. Note that the glass sheet nearest to each performer would shield them from high energy particles moving in a straight line from the other gun or the hole in the other glass sheet. Only low energy particles on a relatively slow ballistic path could get to them. By reacting quickly and closing their mouths, they make sure those particles can't get it their mouths. This may also explain why they sometimes seem to move their heads oddly after the shot. Rather that trying to catch something in his mouth, perhaps teller simply got stung by a tiny particle and jerked his head in response.

Richard Carrier said...

Scoffee said... Listen to Penn starting at 8:17 in the youtube video. ... Talking normally with it in his cheek would have been trivial.

I have no doubt. But as noted several times earlier in this thread, I noted several significant differences between the way the trick was carried off in the YouTube video, and the way it was carried off on stage in Vegas. Hence theories that fit the video might not fit what I saw.

I think there is something leaving the gun barrel that actually breaks the glass, but I am not gun expert. Is there a load that could break the glass but be harmless to Penn and Teller based on their distance and positioning? Perhaps sand or water?

Sand would be visible both on impact and after I stepped back on stage. Water would be visible, too (the glass would be wet, or the vapor would still be airborn). Paraffin from a blank would likewise leave speckling. You would need something that would disintegrate on impacting the glass without leaving any mist, debris, residue or detritus, yet still break the glass. Logically possible, but I don't know of any such substance.

This implies that the sighting is important rather than just a visual effect, so the misaligned sight seems likely.

Actually, both could be just visual effects designed to draw the audience's attention and impress and occupy their minds. I doubt they need the sights. The risk of my handling the weapon causing a misalignment (as any shooter knows, a constant risk) is too great. P&T are too competent to allow any risk like that.

Rather that trying to catch something in his mouth, perhaps teller simply got stung by a tiny particle and jerked his head in response.

Not in my case. Their head move was slow and methodical, not anything like what you have in mind. Indeed, I still find it odd that the rate of their head movements is proportional to the height of the stage (i.e. the Vegas stage was much higher than the YouTube example, and their heads moved back much slower in Vegas; coincidence?).

Matt said...

I say don't look up, look down. When they tap the glass with the casing-doodled bullets, I think they're dropping the initialed-slug bullets below stage. When they put on their goggles and helmets, they drop a dummy slug into their mouth, which we see immediately after they shoot. The initialed slugs are shot back up into the glass-holding stands, where P&T retrieve the bullets when they rotate the stands 90-degrees for the audience to see the holes the glass. From that point until the initialed slugs are removed from their mouths, they each have two slugs in their mouth. I assume the dummy slug is smooth, so they can tell the difference between it and the actual slug, just in case.

Matt said...

Also, I think the laser sights are more than lasers - I think they remotely trigger the guns below stage. Even with a theatre full of echoes, if the timing was left to humans, I don't think it would be reliable.

Unknown said...

I am surprised that nobody has even thought of the extreme liabiliy they would have if they were to hand a gun to a random person and have them load it. No insurance company would allow this to happen and TRUST ME they are insured.

That right there implies that the bullet head is in a round that has no gun powder in it. as for the smell of bullet, nobody smells the bullet before hand so you dont know that the smell is "fresh" a live round would have some heat to it so the likely hood that the round was actually fired at any point during the act is highly unlikely.

more-so the bullet is not in any way deformed. this means that the round wasnt fired into the vest because even with minimal gun powder, the bullet would likely flatten to some extent.

the bullet did exhibit "riffling" which leads me to believe that there is a string being used. the developer of the trick notes that the glass wasnt gimicked, but i suspect that having a pully line through a small hole pulling the bullet would fall under ungimicked.

essentially the bullet would attach via a rare earth magnet (strong) and be pulled through the baller of each gun to the opposite performer. it would go through the glass making the hole and end up somewhere where they would be able to easily get it in their mouth. having the bullet be pulled through the barrel at high speed would give the same rifling effect while at the same time keep the trick safe.

Unknown said...

also keep in mind that using sights and letting people touch the guns would be a liability as well. the trick is completely safe so that means the risk of someone tweaking a sight would be too much.

Richard Carrier said...

Matt, the scenario of using the glass stands as conduits for exchanging bullets between a below-stage handler would be conceivable on the Vegas stage, but I'm not so sure it would work on the stage in the YouTube Video. However, that could well be why the trick appears to be done differently at each venue.

As to insurance, they can certainly get insured for having people who claim to be trained handle a loaded weapon on stage. It would only be much cheaper to assure the insurance company that the rounds won't be live. So the argument is not from impossibility, but from financial sense. But since they don't even have to have firing pins in the guns, there are other ways to do the trick on the cheap besides using a dead round (note that in Vegas I was asked to shake the bullet to confirm it had powder inside--that might not have been gunpowder, but the question then becomes what it was and where it went).

They still have to get the bullets out of the casings and smoke the inside of those casings with burnt gunpowder. On the Vegas stage I'm not sure how they could have done that. But on the YouTube video it's relatively clear that they just removed the bullet surreptitiously by hand (and used a pre-fired casing, which they load into the gun, fooling the viewer into thinking the bullet is still attached to it).

As to heat, my original theory had the round fired into a ballistic tank. The round would be almost immediately cooled by that (ballistic tanks are filled with water). Swapping bullets through the neck of the glass stand would also require some means of cooling the fired bullet. The advantage of your (first) theory is that the below-stage shooters would have ample time to cool and transport the bullet into the delivery system. But then, what was with the slow head-tilt at Vegas? Double-bluff? :-)

Transferring bullets across stage magnetically with a string, however, is completely impossible. It would never work, and even if they could get it to work, everyone would see it. Your first suggestion is far more plausible and may be correct.

Unknown said...

Great post! After watching the YouTube video I immediately thought they were dropping the bullet down the tubing supporting the glass. It looks like Teller is taking his hand out of pocket as he walks up to the glass, and Penn takes a long time to position the glass justtt right after bringing it forward on the stage. I'm guessing this is where it's sliding down the tubing below stage. Down there they could have a simple pneumatic device that drives the bullet through a real rifled barrel to scuff it up. Someone else mentioned that they grab the stands again to rotate them to show the audience and this is where they could be getting the bullets back. I'll have to watch this part again to see for myself...

Has anyone thought that perhaps there is a person off-stage firing a rubber bullet through the glass at the same time P&T fire? It comes from, for example, the right of Penn and exits the stage to the right of Teller, missing them both easily, but both are wearing vests just in case.

brawler839 said...

I like your post, although I'd have to disagree with the fact that multiple guns were being fired. I do think that their guns probably didn't fire any bullets, but your bullets would have been practically destroyed if fired by any gun into any substance. Bullets have a large tendency to break apart even hitting the softest of materials at the speed in which they are fired. More likely the bullets were pushed though a barrel and the smell of gun powered is easily replicated by a stage hand. They then would have ample time to switch bullets as they dawn their "gear". The gear is most likely a misdirect and might even be a way to transport the bullets. Putting on this gear would be an easy way to slip something into your mouth.

If the bullets are forged, somehow I don't think the vast majority of audience members would be able to notice fine details of their bullets, especially given the weird surface to write on. However, it is much easier to make a bullet that can be disassembled and swapped quietly, that is manipulated to seem as though it was fired, then anything else.

Unknown said...

eliminate the impossible is the key to figuring out magic tricks on video. i have figured out may illusions this way... Once you rule out the impossible, the solution just leaps out at you.

If they dont cross the line, they MUST give the bullet to someone else
bullet tips are palmed, which is easy to see, teller's bullet goes in left pocket (you can see about 4 frames of this in the video. Penn gets his in the left suit pocket when reaching for the markers (you can follow this very easy also).

so if the tips are gone, it would be impossible to view the entire bullet after this, and you never do. Their fingers cover the 'tips' while the casing signing and insertion into the gun.

All that's left is to get the bullet's switched by some one.
When going up to the glass, hands go into the pockets again and they pass them against the backdrop when reaching for the gun stands. backdrop has a busy pattern to it. the hands are doing some suspicious here though I dont quite see the handoff, but Teller always has the same mannereisms whcn palming/misdirecting, and his reactions here are telltale to me (as in other videos).
Once the bullet is backstage, there are a number of ways to get the barrel marks/smell They pass back to the backdrop to pick up the vest and helmet. it's impossible to get the bullet in their mouth without something passing by there mouth (the dropping from the stage fly is waaay to risky, they get paid way to much to be risky). The helmet passes by their mouth once on the way up to their head, and this looks very smooth. Not sure if the bullet is palmed from the vest or helmet, or is in the helmet itself when going up to the head (still to risky to me). I can get an M&M in my mouth putting a cap on just as smooth. If you think about it, the helmet aint going to protect them anyway. The rest is as explained earlier.

Richard Carrier said...

Rob said... Has anyone thought that perhaps there is a person off-stage firing a rubber bullet through the glass at the same time P&T fire? It comes from, for example, the right of Penn and exits the stage to the right of Teller, missing them both easily, but both are wearing vests just in case.

That would be unnecessarily dangerous (liability insurance again would be needlessly exorbitant--these guys are in business to make money, not spend it), and technically too risky. Such bullets could too easily be seen by the audience--bouncing around, falling, impacting objects behind the glass, etc., and the force they would require would entail they would impact somewhere, after passing through the glass, with a very loud noise--in fact, it's statistically inevitable this would have happened many times by now and thus the trick would have been exposed; and knowing that risk, they wouldn't ever take it.

Richard Carrier said...

Pretzelsofwar said...

Bullets have a large tendency to break apart even hitting the softest of materials at the speed in which they are fired.

Not in a ballistic tank. That's why forensic experts can get rifling photographs off pristine bullets fired from actual guns.

Nevertheless, non-firing techniques are entirely possible as you suggest, it's just that time and delivery become an issue. And noise is prohibitive for some methods, e.g. pneumatic guns are loud as hell, and have a longer report than gunpowder (so can't have been used backstage at either venue).

Again, the problem with the gear-switch method is that this can't have been done at the Vegas venue I was at (for the reasons I explain in the main blog), unless my memory is wrong (which is possible, but IMO not innately probable on this point). So please read my original post. The details of the YouTube video are notably different, so an explanation for what happened there, won't work for the trick done in Vegas.

If the bullets are forged, somehow I don't think the vast majority of audience members would be able to notice fine details of their bullets, especially given the weird surface to write on.

Statistics is a bitch, though. And magicians know it. Vast majority won't cut it. If even one person catches on, the jig is up, and they've wasted all the money they spent buying the patent. Thus, they need a trick that they can be confident no audience member will ever call them on on stage (so, e.g., if they anticipate running the trick with 100 audience participants over the entire lifetime of running the trick, the odds of discovery per occasion must be less than 1 in 100,000 to ensure a probability of discovery of less than 1 in 1000 over the lifetime of the trick, and even 1 in 1000 is not very secure).

Richard Carrier said...

Kevin said... so if the tips are gone, it would be impossible to view the entire bullet after this, and you never do.

But I did. In Vegas. That's my point. I put the bullet into the chamber myself. That's not what happens in the YouTube video. Thus, the trick I saw was much more sophisticated. Hence your solution won't work for the Vegas edition. It works great for the YouTube version. But alas, that's not what's going on in Vegas.

Unknown said...

interesting. I did find another video where they showed the full bullet going into the chamber. It was shown from the back, you could see the tip but I couldn't make out any markings on the bullet tip. Can you remember vividly exactly how you loaded the bullet? Did Penn/Teller ever let go of the bullet until the tip was in the chamber and the casing was shown?

If you are 100% positive that was indeed your bullet tip going into the chamber, then maybe something else is up. I'm pretty sure that some palming/misdirection is going on at the points I mentioned.

I still vote for the trick is done with simple misdirection

Richard Carrier said...

As I describe in my blog (based on notes I wrote down the same day), I marked the bullet in both places and put it in the chamber myself, at all times I had control of the bullet and could see my markings on both tip and casing as it went into the gun (which at that time he was holding). And I watched him click the chamber closed in front of me.

Definitely a different trick.

Unless my memory is wrong, which is possible, as I know how easily memory can be altered. I give it 99%, not 100%, that he never had his hands on the bullet. But even if a switch occurred like on the video version, that would have been risky as I definitely did put the whole bullet into the gun (and thus could easily have checked my markings on the tip).

Unknown said...

Ok, maybe something else is going on here. I found 3 versions of the trick on the web, and in each one, the places where I wanted to watch the complete footage of the bullet from signing to gun is edited always in the same place. Also where they get the closest to the vest and backdrop is always cut up a bit. These are professional videos and I'm sure these versions have been closely scrutinized and approved by both Penn and Teller.

Actually, the constraints put on this trick are so tight that only a few rational explanations remain. I still say the bullet tip is in good hands before they ever head down to the stage. All 3 videos have them holding the bullet by the tip, thus hiding the tip. If palming the tip isn't how the trick is done, then I would be sharing that bullet with everyone, sticking it right into the camera, passing it around etc.
They could be removing the tip while it is in the gun, but i think it is a typical misdirection trick.
But I still would not bet my paycheck that I am right.

I've seen people actually see the magician put a ball in their hand only to have it mysteriously disappear. I've seen a magician remove my friend's watch without him knowing it. He later told me he never felt anyone touch him at all.

Close up misdirection is the most convincing of all I think

Richard Carrier said...

I agree.