The bullet catch is an illusion in which a magician appears to catch a bullet fired directly at him – often in his mouth, sometimes in his hand. The bullet catch may also be referred to as the bullet trick, or occasionally the gun trick.
The bullet catch is arguably one of the most dangerous and daring illusions that a magician can attempt, even when performed in a controlled situation. Legends surround the trick, claiming that more than twelve magicians have been killed while performing it.
PerformanceThe trick usually involves a gun which is loaded and operated by someone with a knowledge of firearms to demonstrate that no deception is being used. In most instances, the bullet is marked by an audience member so that it can be identified later. Great efforts are usually made to show that the person firing the gun does not come in contact with the person catching the bullet. When magicians Penn and Teller perform the bullet catch, in which each simultaneously catches a bullet shot by the other, a line is drawn down the center of the stage, demonstrating that neither will cross to the other side.
The gun is then sometimes fired through a target (usually a pane of glass, which shatters) to demonstrate that the gun has actually fired a bullet and the catcher didn't just hide a bullet in their mouth or hand all along. The performer catching the bullet usually collapses, apparently as a result of performing such a feat, and then rises to produce the bullet which is most often spat onto a plate or tray.
Historical accounts of the bullet catch describe the bullet being caught in a handkerchief, in a bottle, or even on the tip of a sword.
HistoryOne of the earliest documentations of the bullet catch appeared in the book Threats of God's Judgments by Reverend Thomas Beard in 1631. Fifty years earlier in France, a magician by the name of Coullew of Lorraine had been successfully performing the bullet catch, demonstrating that he could catch bullets in his hand. (This early performer was clubbed to death with his own gun by an angry assistant in 1613.) Throughout the 1700s, variations of the bullet catch were developed by a number of street performers.
In his 1785 book, Natural Magic or Physical Amusements Revealed, Philip Astley wrote that he himself had invented the trick in 1762. However, two books published in 1761 mentioned the bullet catch as described by Reverend Beard: The Conjuror Unmasked by Thomas Denton, and La Magie blanche dévoilée by Henri Decremps (the former an English translation of the French text). In fact, Astley's publication plagiarized much of its material from Descremps, including a similar cover illustration, but altered the material to depict conjurers in a more positive light.
Around 1840, Scottish magician John Henry Anderson began demonstrating the gun trick in theatres throughout Britain. Anderson toured in the United States and Australia, thus bringing the bullet catch into mainstream magic illusions. At least four of Anderson's rivals adapted and imitated his trick in their own performances.
Thomas Frost in his 1876 book The Lives of the Conjurors wrote of two separate performers in the 1820s named Torrini De Grisy and De Linsky who were responsible for the deaths of their son and wife, respectively. In 1869, a performer by the name of Dr. Epstein was killed when the tip of the wand he was using to ram the charge into the gun broke off inside and was subsequently launched at him when the gun was fired.
The best documented instance of a performer being killed while performing the gun trick is the case of Chung Ling Soo who was shot dead by a malfunctioning firearm in London in 1918. This event ended the popularity of the bullet catch trick for nearly 70 years. Harry Houdini wrote a historical account of the illusion and considered adding it to his repertoire but is said to have been afraid to actually perform it.
American mentalist Theodore Annemann successfully presented a dramatic outdoor version of the bullet catch throughout his career in the 1930s until his death in 1942.
In 1934, Australian magician Maurice Rooklyn survived being hit in the shoulder by a bullet while performing the bullet catch. After this event, he wore a chainmail vest under his shirt for safety. When he was later hit in the scalp by another bullet, he decided to completely remove the trick from his repertoire. 
Also in the 1950s, German magician Ralf Bialla started to perform the bullet catch, for a fee of 2,000 DM a performance. He wore bullet-proof glasses, strong gloves on his hands with which he covered parts of his face, and his front teeth were made of steel. A .22 rifle was fired, and the bullet had to go through three glass panes before Bialla caught it with his teeth. He was seriously wounded nine times, but survived. He was portrayed in the 1972 documentary film "Wer schießt auf Ralf Bialla?". In 1975, he died by falling off a cliff, supposedly because of constant dizziness caused by the injuries.
In 1980, a little-known magician named Carl Skenes attempted what is the only "verified" performance of the bullet-catch (which is arguable because of Ralf Bialla's performance) using a .22 rifle firing actual bullets. Skenes wore a tooth-guard mouthpiece, and then placed a steel box into his mouth. A sharpshooter, and on some occasions his wife, then fired the bullet into the dime-sized opening at the front of the box. Skenes first performed this stunt in 1980 on the television show That's Incredible, and later performed it on similar shows in Puerto Rico, Japan, and Venezuela. He used no gimmicks in his performance. The .22 rifle was mounted onto a number of gun stands to keep it steady, and the protective gear and target box he placed into his mouth were put in as part of the performance.
In 1988, magician Dorothy Dietrich performed the bullet catch in a performance at Resorts International for Donald Trump's tenth anniversary in Atlantic City. This was shown throughout the world on a TV special called "Just For The Record, The Best of Everything." She also performed it as a featured performer for a world wide yearly convention of The International Brotherhood of Magicians that was featured on Network TV's "Evening Magazine", and on another occasion for the television show "You Asked for It" with Rich Little as host. On another occasion she performed it for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on a show called "Autobus du Canada". She was the highest paid magician to ever appear on Canadian TV. She advertised that she was the first and only woman to perform the catching a bullet in her mouth, in a metal cup. Her presentation has been copied by several male performers. (In the 1850s, a young woman named Annie Vernone had performed the trick with her sister, and in the 1890s, Adelaide Herrmann, wife of The Great Herrmann, continued to perform her husband's routines after his death; however, they usually caught it in a plate held in front of them, and neither of them caught it in her mouth.) Dietrich advertised a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove that a bullet did not actually leave the rifle.
In 2006, the bullet catch trick was tested on the TV show MythBusters. The crew used a slaughtered pig's head to see if it were actually feasible for a human jaw to withstand the force of a bullet. Despite having stronger teeth than a human, the pig's teeth and jaw were badly damaged. After judging the trick "busted", the crew was challenged to design a precisely timed mechanical bullet catching rig. This device was only modestly successful at actually catching a bullet, and only after the "jaws" were switched from a human shaped metal jaw to a longer duckbill one with more surface area. Even with perfect timing aided by ultra-high speed photography, the bullet deteriorated into an almost unrecognizable mass of metal upon impact.
In a radio interview with Penn Jillette in February, 2006, magician Criss Angel indicated his unaired performance of the bullet catch was so believable that television network A&E barred it from airing. In Angel's performance, his musician friend Jonathan Davis appeared to fire a high-powered rifle into a titanium cup custom-made to fit into Criss' mouth.
- Coulew of Lorraine (France, early 1600s; clubbed to death with his own gun by an irate assistant in 1613)
- Kia Khan Khruse (England, shot by spectator in 1818, although his death from the shot has been refuted 
- De Linsky (Germany, killed his wife in 1820) †
- "Torrini" De Grisy (killed his son Giovanni in 1826) †
- Arnold Buck, known as "The Wizard of the West", was wounded at the Queen's Theatre on Tottenham Street in London. (1940)
- Annie Vernone (England, 1850s)
- John Henry Anderson (Britain, 1860s)
- Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (France, 1860s)
- Dr. Epstein (Paris, killed in 1869) †
- De Line (killed his son in 1890) †
- The Great Herrmann and, wife, Adelaide (United States, 1890s)
- Michael Hatal (United States, shot by audience member in 1899) †
- "Bosco" Blumenfeld (Switzerland, shot by audience member in 1906) †
- Edvin Lindberg (Germany, killed in 1905) †
- Chung Ling Soo (London, killed in 1918) †
- "The Black Wizard of the West" was supposedly killed in Deadwood, South Dakota (?). †
- H.T. Sartell died on a stage in Lynn, Massachusetts (?). †
- Sam Paul (Philadelphia, performed for Houdini, who complimented him on it, at a banquet given in his honor in 1922)
- Theodore Annemann (United States, 1930s)
- Jean Hugard (New Zealand, 1940s)
- Maurice Fogel (England, 1940s-1960s)
- Maurice Rooklyn (Australia, 1934 only, abandoned after two injuries)
- Ralf Bialla (Germany, 1950s - 1975), wounded nine times, starring in the documentary "Wer schießt auf Ralf Bialla?" (1972) by Hans-Dieter Grabe
- Carl Skenes (United States, 1980s)
- Dorothy Dietrich (United States, 1980s)
- Paul Daniels (England, 1980s)
- Steven "Banachek" Shaw (United States, 1980s)
- Val Valentino, with a gimmicked gun, as the Masked Magician in the movie "Breaking the Magicians' Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed"
- Joe Labero (Tunisia, 2000s)
- Penn & Teller (United States, 2000s)
- Criss Angel (United States, 2000s)
- Garrett "Jeffy" Stevenson (United States, 2000s)
- Matt the Knife (United States, 2000s)
- Brock Gill (United States, 2000s)
- David Blaine (United States 2008)
† died as a result or consequence of the trick
References and further reading
| This page incorporated content from Bullet Catch,
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- ↑ Great Illusionists by Edwin A. Dawes (1979)
- The Greatest Thing Ever by Ricky Smith, Conjuring Arts Research Center Bullet Catch Exhibit
- Twelve Have Died: Bullet Catching -- The Story & Secrets by Ben Robinson(1986)
- Poundstone, William. Biggest Secrets. ISBN 0-688-13792-X
- Randi, James. Conjuring. ISBN 0-312-09771-9
- Ayres, Mick. "Carl Skenes: Biting the Bullet" in The Linking Ring (November 2000).
- Severn, Bill. The Guide to Magic as a Hobby.
- Dorothy Dietrich's Bullet Catch
- Penn & Teller's Double Bullet Catch
- Injury During Bullet Catch
- Bullet Catch Bob by Ben Robinson
- FURTHER HISTORY OF BULLET CATCHING by Ben Robinson, originally published in Magicol, #91, May, 1989.
- Catching a Bullet in the Teeth by Orville Meyer, Genii 1942 December (Annemann's version invented by Orville)
- 18th Century Bullet Catching (from Natural Magic by Philip Astley - 1785) in M-U-M, Vol. 43, no. 10, March 1954, page 428.
See this page as a MindMap