The phrase “shooting blanks” has passed into colloquialism. But, literally speaking, what does it mean to shoot blanks? And why can people who get shot with blank ammunition still die? We’ll explain what blanks are, why they’re used, and why they can still kill you.
I’ve always heard of “blanks” being fired during movies and stage plays, and I’d always assumed that they were the equivalent of caps in cap guns. The first I learned any different was in a young adult mystery novel — sadly, its name escapes me — in which each member of a group of teenagers is blackmailed into unwittingly committing part of a murder. The first has to send a note asking the victim to be at a location at a certain time, the next to steal her father’s gun, the third to buy bullets, and so on. When the victim collapses, apparently dead, an angelic character appears and says that the bullet-buyer had replaced the bullets with blanks. The blanks had hurt the victim, since the gun was pressed right up against her chest when it was fired, but they didn’t kill her. I thought the book was overstating the effect of blanks — but it seems it was actually understating. Blanks are harmless at any real distance, but when pressed against someone’s head, they can and have killed.
To understand what blanks are, we have to look at how a “bullet” is constructed. In order to be effective, the bullet and gun have to contain something to make a spark to set the entire firing process in motion, a fuel source that will ignite quickly and create a lot of gas to shove the projectile out, and the actual flying projectile itself. In the old days, bullets would come in packages that would contain all of those things rattling around separately. Shooters would have to load all of them each before firing the gun. Now bullets have all of that in one package. A sleek outer casing (2) will contain the fuel (3) as well as the primer (4) which makes the spark. Meanwhile, the projectile (1), a heavy metal object, will sit at the top, providing a cap to keep the powder from coming out. As long as the gun isn’t pressed right up against someone, it’s the bullet alone that does the damage.
The bullet only does damage because it is made of a heavy, dense substance. This dense, heavy object easily keeps its momentum as it flies through the air, and can tunnel into human flesh. Replace the metal bullet with a piece of wadded up paper or cotton, as is done in blanks, and it generally does as much damage as a wadded up piece of paper ever can do. The farther the paper flies, the more it matches its own flimsy mass against the pressure of the air it’s trying to push through. It gets slower and slower, and can’t do any damage to flesh. Anywhere farther than a couple of feet out from a blank and you have nothing to fear — unless by some unlucky chance it happens to land directly in your eye.
Things get tragic when people attempt to put the guns right up to their bodies and fire. Because they’re used for show, and because the show has to be impressive, blanks are sometimes loaded with more gunpowder than regular bullets. The edges of the casing are also bent inwards, to hold the paper more securely and let more pressure build up as the gas pushes from behind. This massive amount of gas comes shooting out of the gun very fast. Once it’s out of the gun it expands in all directions and is harmless, but if a human skull is pressed directly to the barrel, the gas, and whatever is propelled in front of it, hits fast enough to shatter bone.
Sadly, this has happened quite a few times. In 1984, an actor on a television show knew that his gun was loaded with blanks and empty cartridges. He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger as a joke, and the bullet and gas exploded with so much force that it pushed a section of his skull into his brain. In October 2021, one person was killed and another wounded on a film set in New Mexico when a prop gun misfired. And there have been other deaths in film, and even stage plays.
Although blanks are primarily used to make a bang and a flash, they’re not just noisemakers. Any closer than a couple of feet, and they can be deadly.
Updated 10/27/2021, 5:40 p.m. ET: Added new image and mention of Oct. 2021 incident.