Nothing captures the public’s imagination like a life and death challenge and I am often asked: What are the
most dangerous tricks to perform? The candidates are obvious. Effects involving fire, blades, explosions
and guns, or escaping under extreme conditions can be guaranteed to cause palpitations amongst members
of the entertainment insurance community. Although any work involving small children and/or live animals
can also be an extremely risky venture.
As far as risk assessment goes research provides a clear winner. Tricks involving firearms are definitely
the most dangerous for the performer. Logic dictates that it is no more difficult to perform slight of hand
with bullets than with coins or cards. Surely the construction of a modified gun is no more challenging to
the magical apparatus engineer than a guillotine required to chop turnips in half but never sever a neck. It
wouldn’t reveal any great secrets to say that pyrotechnics, fire eating and making spectacular escapes all
require as much nerve and more skill than gun tricks. Despite this, accidents involving all these are few
and far between.
So if gun tricks are the most dangerous why do magicians still perform them? It is precisely for that same
reason. It is true that modern day magicians are actually a highly risk adverse group and leave nothing to
chance in their performances. Most would think long and hard before including a gun trick in their act. On
the other hand, gun effects are dramatic and grip the emotions of an audience. There really is the chance,
no matter how small, that something will go tragically wrong and the spectators know it! All magicians
know that gun effects provoke a huge audience reaction and build their reputations with the paying public.
The temptation is always there to improve the method and have a go!
Bullet catching has always been a popular magic stunt and performers began doing this with their bare
hands or teeth almost as soon as firearms were invented. We know this because in the fifteenth century it
was prudent for magicians to lodge a record of their secret methods with the appropriate religious
authorities as the alternative was to risk being burnt as a witch.
In the 1960s I used to watch my parents, Derek and Doris Lawrence, perform every week a comedy
version of the bullet catch where my mother was the bullet catcher. She played the part of a very
mischievous assistant trying to sabotage the act behind Derek’s back. In the finale sequence of the act
Doris appeared to eat the goldfish that Derek had produced at the end of a fishing line cast over the
audience and carefully lowered into a goldfish bowl. Derek appeared to lose his temper and fired a revolver
in her direction. After staggering for a moment in the grand manner characteristic of all ‘B Movies’ Doris
stood up and dropped the bullet from her mouth onto a plate…..followed a second later by half a dozen
teeth. Then turning to the auditorium she would smile broadly with huge blacked out gaps in her dentistry
and bring the house down! All this was very funny but a little disturbing for a ten year old. No wonder I
turned out the way I did!
The current Las Vegas headline magicians, Penn and Teller, always seek to push the boundaries of magical
entertainment and have developed a double bullet catch effect. Two bullets marked by audience members
are loaded into two revolvers that Penn and Teller then take, aim and fire at each other across the crowded
theatre. Each then spits the marked bullet loaded on the other side of the room into the other’s gun onto a
plate to a standing ovation. As you would expect, Penn and Teller play their bullet catch for all the black
humour they can muster.
A later invention that arrived with the development of revolvers, repeaters and magazine loading guns was
the Russian Roulette plot. I was privileged to be in the live audience as Hans Moretti, the famous German
showman and illusionist, painted a target on his forehead and stood next to a shooting gallery full of plates.
He had just passed a mixture of live and blank rounds to an independent gun expert to be loaded
blindfolded and at random into the magazine of a rifle. He then concentrated on trying to predict what sort
of round was in the breach. If he thought it was a live bullet he instructed the marksman to select a target
on the shooting gallery and fire at it smashing the plate. If he thought it was a blank he instructed him to
aim at the target on his forehead. The last round he predicted to be a blank but at the very last moment
changed his mind, rushed over to take the rifle himself, and fired it at the gallery to smash the remaining
plate. For me, this was an unforgettable moment of pure theatre and almost unbearable tension.
That was in the late 1970s and since then no top performers seriously featured a gun effect until Derren
Browne. On October 3rd 2003 the master mentalist caused a storm of protest when he played Russian
Roulette in a broadcast live to the nation on Channel 4. The stunt was performed at a secret location on
Jersey to avoid problems with mainland Britain’s strict firearm laws. Derren used one live round and a six
chambered revolver. The man who loaded the gun and spun the chambers was chosen from 12000
volunteers whittled down to five on the day. During the performance Derren aimed the gun at his own
head and pulled the trigger on the 3rd and 4th empty chambers. Then, apparently making a mistake, he
pointed the gun away from himself and pulled the trigger expecting the live round to fire. However, the
anti-climatic click revealed that Chamber 5 was also empty. Then, after meditating on the gun for a full
minute he turned the gun on himself for Chamber 6 before discharging the live round in Chamber 1 at a
target out of camera shot. Fortunately he was successful but the police criticised him heavily. They feared
a spate of less skilful ‘copy cat’ stunts with tragic outcomes. Derren Browne was unrepentant and simply
pointed to the TV ratings as justification. He later pointed out that these fears had proved groundless as
there were no such accidents in the wake of his performance.
The problem is that, no matter how fool-proof the secret methods, gun effects have still proven to be
extremely unlucky. Potential exponents would do well to remember the uncomfortable fact that, to date,
gun tricks have killed over 150 performers. This is many more than all other types of dangerous magic
stunt put together. These are only the recorded and verifiable deaths. There have been many other
recorded accidents which cannot easily be authenticated that it would be wrong to include in the statistics.
The master magician Harry Kellar, who mentored the great escapologist Harry Houdini, strongly warned
him away from gun magic. Houdini took his advice and never performed this type of trick. However,
when Houdini tried pass on this wisdom the advice was ignored until it was too late. He wrote to Chung
Ling Soo (William E. Robinson) to try and persuade him not to include the bullet catch in his stage show.
Chung Ling Soo did actually decide to stop performing his gun trick and even placed this decision on
record. Sadly, before he had a chance implement this, on March 24th 1918 Chung Ling Soo died in
hospital after he was shot in the chest on the stage of the London Wood Green Empire whilst performing
the bullet catch. Equipment failure had ended the glittering career of the greatest stage magician of his day.
Why has gun magic gone wrong so often in the past? Strangely enough equipment failure and human
error on the part of the performer has been relatively rare. The need to use volunteer helpers from the
audience has been by far the most dangerous part of the equation. Records show that performers have
often been killed by helpers who have not understood their instructions properly. Then there have been
spectators who have substituted their own bullets for the magician’s rounds during the performance.
There have also been many fatal accidents caused by audience members placing a variety of objects such
as buttons or coins into the gun barrel just before detonation. Some volunteers have simply decided to
substitute their own firearms during the trick. This was a particularly popular method of testing magicians
in the American West of the mid-1800s. So performers beware! There appears to be something about gun
magic that has caused a significant number of otherwise sane people to go to obsessive lengths to try to
prove that a magician is cheating whilst simultaneously ignoring the awful consequences should they
However, one of the first historic records from 1631 is both ironic and sadly amusing. Coullew of
Lorraine specialized in catching, in his bare hands, bullets fired from audience members’ pistols and
arquebuses. On one fateful occasion Coullew argued heatedly with one of his assistants. The servant
became murderously enraged and clearly decided that, because of Coullew’s special talent, discharging his
gun at him would not be very effective. Instead the assistant took the gun and hit the magician on the head
with such force that the blow killed Coullew of Lorraine outright! The first recorded casualty of gun
magic was killed by the gun but not the bullet!
How’s that for magician’s luck?
Up Close and Magic