The bullet catch is a conjuring illusion in which a magician appears to catch a bullet fired directly at him or her—often in his or her mouth, sometimes in his or her hand or caught with other items such as a dinner plate. The bullet catch may also be referred to as the bullet trick, or occasionally the gun trick.
The 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 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 his 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, on a plate or even on the tip of a sword. The guns that Penn and Teller use in their effect are fitted with laser sights to add to the suspense and drama of the trick, and present the bullet still between their teeth, before removing it from their mouth.
As is often the case with other magic illusions, there is no single way the bullet catch is performed. The method a magician may use will vary from performer to performer. The gun or the bullet is rigged in some way: the simplest form of the bullet catch, the gun is made to fire blanks. The target through which the "bullet" passes is set to destruct using a squib. All the performer must do is keep the bullet in his or her mouth until ready to produce it.
If the gun is to be loaded in front of the audience, a wax bullet is loaded into the firearm. The spray of liquid wax from the barrel of the gun is enough to break the pane of glass. The magician uses misdirection to exchange the marked bullet with one made of wax and place the marked bullet into his or her mouth. There are also electronic guns, which will simulate the sound, smoke, and flash of a firing, but not actually affect the bullet. Another method when loading in front of the audience or by an audience member is to have a small magnet attached to the ramrod; the magnet then removes the bullet immediately after loading. When the magician takes the stick, he or she removes the bullet, and holds it in his or her mouth until producing it. In that case, the gun is always modified and only simulates firing a shot. This technique is virtually obsolete, given that modern firearms do not use a ramrod. Another method was to use a real gun and bullet, and have the shooter intentionally miss the magician. This procedure led to most early deaths from this trick and has since been abandoned.
In cases where the bullet is marked by an audience member, the marked bullet is then transferred to the magician through sleight-of-hand, or a similar bullet is duplicated by an off-stage assistant and transferred to the magician.
Chung Ling Soo (the stage name of the American magician William Ellsworth Robinson) was killed while performing this trick, due to an equipment malfunction. The gun used for the trick was set up to discharge a blank in the ramrod tube below the barrel. However the gun malfunctioned and the bullet that had been loaded into the main barrel was accidentally fired into Soo's lung.