The Bullet Catch

As Penn and Teller do it, maybe.

The Effect: A round (that is, a bullet and attached shell casing) is examined, marked on both shell and bullet by two audience members, and loaded into a 357 Magnum revolver. The camera follows closely enough to see that the round is not substituted and that the other chambers in the revolver are empty.

The bullet catcher dons a bullet-proof vest. At no time is there any contact or intermediate contact between the shooter and the catcher. The gun is then aimed with a laser sight and fired through a pane of glass at the open mouth of the catcher. The catcher removes the bullet from between his teeth, the shooter removes the spent shell from the gun, and the audience member verifies that the markings on the slug and shell are those written on it before being fired.

Impossible, right? Want to know how it’s done?

~ While you decide, I’ll tell you why I can in all good conscience tell you this secret, and how it will not break the magician’s code. I’ll also tell you why that code is largely irrelevant and who it really protects. If you insist on learning the secret now, go back to Bullet Catch – How? If the whole subject bores or bothers you, just go back to the home page. ~

The first exposure of magical secrets was a 16th-century book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft. The reason given for its publication and circulation among the general population was that it would show that the things for which people were being killed and tortured as witches and satanists were really simple tricks with simple explanations. As a means of preventing the death and torture of innocents it was a bust. As a means of introducing people to performance magic it was a wild success, and the art of magic has flourished ever since.

Since the publication of Discoverie, the only real secrets in magic have been the ones that the inventor took to his grave, never having told anyone. There are believed to be a few dozen of these, and all of them have been reverse-engineered. Everything else eventually wound up in a book like Discoverie, was published in little pamphlets and available from magic stores, was given away by clowns at parties, was printed in comic books or as a regular column in newspapers, was included as a premium in cigarette or bubblegum package, was printed on cereal boxes, or was made into a television special featuring a masked magician or someone with marginal performance ability. There are no secrets.

Penn & Teller themselves say, people don’t want to know the secrets. When people ask how a trick is done, what they really want is confirmation that you embody the entertainment and mystery that they have just experienced. “How did you DO that?!” is a compliment, not a question.

Indeed, if you tell them the secret they will be disappointed and, literally, disillusioned. If you insist on telling them in great detail, their eyes glaze over and they go away as quickly as possible. If you tell them the name of the trick and where it can be purchased, they won’t (as in absolutely will not) go out and buy it. If you give them the gimmick that does the trick they will put it away as a souvenir or give it to their kids to play with.

Most people have no interest in the secrets of magic, and will quickly forget what they are told because it is not relevant to their lives. For those few who do remember, the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for the enjoyment of any theater requires temporarily ignoring the secrets that one does know. It makes no difference whether those secrets are the details of blue-screen and digital editing or the secrets of sleights and misdirection.

Of course some people will pay attention, buy the trick, and learn how to do it themselves. These people are, by definition, magicians. They may never actually perform a trick for an audience, but they are still magicians.

But there are some who learn secrets just to expose them. I suggest that this is simply an expression of resentment of an entertainer’s ability to hold the attention of an audience. Exposing secrets is a way of heckling entertainers who happen to be magicians, and a means of focusing the attention of an audience on oneself. This kind of attention-grabbing is just one more management problem that a good entertainer must learn to deal with. It’s a requirement of the job.

Now there are a lot of magicians who strongly believe that telling secrets is harmful to the profession. I believe they are mistaken, and I’ve given my reasons why.

Nevertheless, they feel that way. Vendors of magic tricks also feel that giving away secrets is harmful: to them. They have a point. Most young magicians spend several thousand dollars on tricks they will never use, before they really understand that it isn’t the trick, it’s the presentation that makes a magician. A good magician takes pride in the ability to perform, entertain, and mystify, regardless of whether the audience knows how a trick is done. Indeed, the greatest magicians delight in performing before other magicians, who of course know how everything is done. With few exceptions these are the only venues where magicians ever get standing ovations.

Performing magicians, if they are good, are not particularly bothered by exposure. Does anyone really not know how Copperfield flies? That the linking rings are gimmicked? Good magicians are not even bothered by the bozo who insists (just loudly enough to be heard for three rows) that he knows how it’s done and here’s the real secret. It doesn’t matter if he is right or wrong, he has interrupted the act and moved the focus of attention. The good magician just smiles pointedly, shakes his head slightly, and goes on with the show. A better magician presents a show that so completely captures everyone’s interest that interruptions never seem to happen.

The only issue left is whether you feel that knowing a secret will spoil your enjoyment of a good show. So go to Bullet Catch – How? and read the secret. Or forget the whole thing and just hit the back arrow.

Really, it’s okay either way.


© 1998 Eric Bagai