Posts Tagged ‘blank’

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

June 26, 2016

I’ve been following Indy Neidell’s brilliant video series ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, and a recent post on that channel prompted me to write this. In the video, one of Indy’s viewers asks about firing squads and how the shooters were selected, how they coped with taking part in such a traumatic event etc. In his answer, Indy quotes from Victor Silvester’s autobiography, ‘Dancing Is My Life’ (1958):

 

‘The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.’

 

Grim stuff. My own interest was piqued by the oblique reference to the practice of having one rifle loaded with blank (a cartridge with a powder charge but no bullet, or a bullet that will break up on firing – used for military training). This has understandably been condemned as a myth, on the basis that it just doesn’t seem plausible. Guns recoil, and (then) modern military rifles recoil very stoutly. A blank cartridge, having no bullet and therefore building up no pressure on firing, gives no recoil at all. As such, any firing squad member who was issued a blank would know immediately upon firing that he had been the ‘lucky’ one and need face no moral qualms about taking aim at a fellow soldier and human being. Additionally, every other firer would immediately know that they had fired a live round, and so unless they had deliberately ‘aimed off’ so as not to strike the victim, would know that they had caused or at least contributed directly to his death.

 

However, this is not reason enough to dismiss the practice as a myth. Why? Quite simply because regardless of the practicalities, we know that blanks were used in firing squads. There are many examples, but I have a note of a very relevant one from a First World War veteran whose testimony appeared on the BBC’s own ‘The Great War’ documentary. This man, tasked with shooting deserters with his SMLE rifle, reported that:

 

‘…some were loaded with ball, others with blank…one knew by the recoil if it had been loaded with ball or not.’

 

Rifleman Henry Williamson, London Rifle Brigade, published in “Voices of the Great War” (p.89, another reference reported on Arrse) tell us that:

 

“We didn’t know what the rifles were loaded with, some were loaded with ball others with blank. Then we had the order to fire and pulled the triggers, we knew by the recoil if it was loaded with ball or not.”

 

Not all sources report blanks, and as we’ve seen some state otherwise. However, later in the 20th century it had become formal doctrine for both UK and US forces. Both of the references below were found by posters at the arrse.co.uk forum:

 

US:
13. The officer charged with execution will…(g) Cause eight rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than three and nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.
US Army procedure for executions, 1947.

 

UK:

(c iii) Mean-while the DAPM will change the places of the rifles, unload two of them and reload them with live rounds which have had the bullets removed from them or with blank ammunition. The DAPM will carry the rounds in question.

-Military Provost Manual 1963, Chapter XXVIII, Section 4, 704

 

This source also makes clear that the firers were not to handle or inspect the rifles allocated to them. Clearly the intent was that they should not discover, nor should other shooters be able to determine (without confabulation) which of them had been given the blank.

So we have plenty of evidence that blank rounds were used by different militaries and in different periods, despite the obvious fact that any soldier would realise he’d fired a blank. What gives? The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the psychology of killing. Consider why up to twelve men were used to execute a prisoner. Only one shooter is needed to kill a man, in fact an officer was always on hand to deliver the coup de grace, as Silvester himself reports. So why so many firers? Plausible deniability for the men. Even without a blank, each man could tell himself that his shot had not been the fatal one, or that even if he had not been there, the prisoner would still have died. In fact, it’s an incentive to fire precisely on the order given, so as not to shoot early or late, and consequently become aware of the effect of your individual shot on the unfortunate target.

 

I’m not saying that this worked exactly; clearly Silvester suffered greatly from his involvement in these squads. But it allowed something of a coping mechanism for the horrible task at hand. If we then at least claim that one rifle was loaded with blank, that gives each shooter an additional way to rationalise their participation, and may even function as an incentive to willingly take part. If there is a 1 in 12 chance that your shot definitely won’t kill anyone, you’re more likely not to desert yourself, foment further mutiny, or to fire in a disorderly and therefore unseemly fashion.

 

This is not mere supposition on my part. In a 1943 (22 Nov, p.6) issue of LIFE magazine, Captain William Hastings of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote on the ‘myth’ of the firing squad blank. However, he makes clear that the only myth here is that the shooter might not know whether he had fired a live round or not. He confirms the issue of blank cartridges:

 

‘The story on the German spy execution (LIFE, Nov.1) by a French firing squad gave credence to a popular myth that members of a firing squad do not know whether they fire a blank or live cartridge. A man firing a blank knows full well that it is a blank since there is no recoil. He can, however, later claim that he fired a blank regardless of whether his rifle was loaded with ball or blank ammunition, as long as it is generally known that some of the rifles contained blank cartridges’.

 

As Wikipedia puts it;

 

‘This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot–for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “conscience round”.’

 

A version of this practice dates back to the American Civil War, when the single weapon might be charged with powder only, or up to half might be so loaded:

 

‘Only half of the guns were loaded, but no man among the executioners knew whether or not his was a blank charge’.

-‘The life of Johnny Reb, the common soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley, 1943, p.228.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 2010, in the U.S. state of Utah, whose standing practice is as follows:

 

‘On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member has a blank charge in his weapon but no member knows which member is designated to receive this blank charge.’

 

Again we see the reasoning behind the issue of a blank cartridge, as well as emphasis on the importance of firing simultaneously. This is meant to be a group effort in which no one individual is wholly responsible.

 

In the UK, capital punishment was finally fully abolished in 1998 (for the remaining capital crimes of treason and piracy at sea), and the last execution by firing squad was that of German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see the chair in which Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower, and the last to be executed in this way by British authorities (two U.S. servicemen were executed at a British site under U.S. jurisdiction the following year). There is no evidence to suggest that a blank cartridge was used in Jakobs’ case. Perhaps it was not thought necessary where British soldiers were executing an enemy spy? Nonetheless, the chair remains a stark reminder of former systems of justice in which prisoners might be shot dead for their crimes. In the case of First World War soldiers who decided that they could not face the horrors of war, that death would come at the hands of their comrades, perhaps even their friends. Blank cartridges were no myth, but their effectiveness remains difficult to assess. How can we possibly measure psychological trauma of this kind? The First World War was a conflict so horrific as to challenge even the most deeply rooted justifications for war, and levels of desertion or mutiny were high. From the perspective of those in authority therefore, firing squads were a brutal but effective way to keep soldiers in line and see the war through to its bloody conclusion in 1918.

Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever…

July 11, 2015
Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 - 1993

Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 – 1993

Dear Conspiracy Theorists,

Brandon Lee was killed by a bullet accidentally lodged in the barrel of a revolver that was subsequently propelled from the barrel by a blank cartridge.

Informal testing by a UK forensic provider (supporting the original professional and exhaustive efforts by the Wilmington Police Department) shows that, more often than not;

  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successfully propel that bullet from the barrel with lethal velocity.

Yours,

BS Historian

 

OK, that’s the short version for the casually interested and the hard-of-thinking. Here’s the full story. A few months ago I took part, along with a forensic scientist colleague, in tests and interviews for a documentary series on the subject of conspiracy theories. This aired last night in the UK as part of episode 5 of Channel 5’s series ‘Conspiracy’.

The subject was the tragic death of Brandon Lee, killed by a shot from a Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum revolver* on 31 March, 1993. I was, and remain, a very big fan of The Crow, and by extension of Lee, who made the role his own with tremendous presence, emotion, aggression, and physical ability. I have as much reason as anyone therefore to cry ‘coverup’. If I felt that the star of perhaps my favourite film had been murdered or negligently killed, I would be, as they say ‘all over it’. But in reality, I am convinced, as a firearms specialist, and knowing the impact that this incident had on best practice in the movie industry, that Lee’s death was a somewhat improbable accident that seems less improbable the more you learn about it.

I took part on the understanding that the programme would not be endorsing the conspiracy theories themselves. Channel 5 did us proud. The format of the series does allow the theorists roughly equal airtime, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions. As ever, that means conspiracy fans can come away with their ideas intact, or even enhanced by new nonsense, and sceptics will spot the BS right away. Whether members of the casual audience might end up falling for a given conspiracy theory, I can’t say, and it’s the risk of taking part in this sort of television. I felt, however, that it was important to get the ‘official story’ out there, as the subject I’d been asked about is one for which the ‘signal to noise ratio’ is pretty skewed in favour of at least a cover-up, if not outright conspiracy. And in the case of the Brandon Lee segment, I think it would be hard for any rational viewer to come away believing the Triad conspiracy.

Unlike most of the other participants, we were up against some conspiracist who chose to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisals by the Triads that he believes killed both Bruce and Brandon Lee. No evidence was offered for this at all, save that Bruce Lee was Chinese and allegedly refused to pay protection (or whatever) to the Triads – and that Brandon was his son. That was it. Quite who this shadowy figure was, I have no idea.

The actual conspiracy claims vary (as these things usually do). The most lurid involve either a supernatural curse (!) or planned murder by organised crime. The more plausible accuse the production crew of having accidentally used a weapon loaded with real, live ammunition, which would imply very direct negligence traceable to an individual crewmember (which is not what the investigations into the incident found). The official story also varies, but the core ingredients are always a sequence of mistakes by which a bullet is lodged in the revolver’s barrel, and a blank then fires it into Lee’s body. I would like to establish the definitive version of the story, but first, here’s the ‘received’ version, from Wikipedia;

 

‘In the scene in which Lee was accidentally shot, Lee’s character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped by thugs. Actor Michael Massee’s character fires a .44 Magnum revolver at Lee as he walks into the room. A previous scene using the same gun had called for inert dummy cartridges fitted with bullets (but no powder or percussion primer) to be loaded in the revolver for a close-up scene; for film scenes which utilize a revolver (where the bullets are visible from the front) and do not require the gun to actually be fired, dummy cartridges provide the realistic appearance of actual rounds. Instead of purchasing commercial dummy cartridges, the film’s prop crew created their own by pulling the bullets from live rounds, dumping the powder charge then reinserting the bullets. However, they unknowingly or unintentionally left the live percussion primer in place at the rear of the cartridge. At some point during filming the revolver was apparently discharged with one of these improperly-deactivated cartridges in the chamber, setting off the primer with enough force to drive the bullet partway into the barrel, where it became stuck (a condition known as a squib load). The prop crew either failed to notice this or failed to recognize the significance of this issue.

 

In the fatal scene, which called for the revolver to be actually fired at Lee from a distance of 3.6 – 4.5 meters (12–15 feet), the dummy cartridges were exchanged with blank rounds, which feature a live powder charge and primer, but no bullet, thus allowing the gun to be fired without the risk of an actual projectile. But since the bullet from the dummy round was already trapped in the barrel, this caused the .44 Magnum bullet to be fired out of the barrel with virtually the same force as if the gun had been loaded with a live round, and it struck Lee in the abdomen, mortally wounding him.’

 

To summarise, we have;

 

  1. Dummy cartridges made from live by second unit, one round left with primer unfired.
  2. This round fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  3. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  4. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  5. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.

 

In fact, the only book to be published on the making of the movie, written by journalist Bridget Baiss, tells a slightly different story, one that is supported by the only other TV treatment of the case, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ (series eight, episode 1, broadcast 20 Oct 1995 – see YouTube). This short segment features interviews with the Wilmington Police Department detectives who actually investigated the shooting. Note that the narration implies that only a primer remained, but if you pay attention only to what the detectives say, it matches Baiss’s account exactly. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Baiss also interviewed both men. All other versions are hearsay.

 

This account actually complicates the sequence of events slightly, and in that respect might be something of a gift to those predisposed to CT. But it’s the actual official story, so I present it here. It follows essentially the same sequence, the crucial difference being in the (re)manufacture of the live, blank and ‘dummy’ cartridges that caused the fatal shot. Bear with me on this;

 

  1. BLANK cartridges (¼ load) made from live by second unit (by pulling bullet, emptying propellant, and adding black powder and some form of wadding).
  2. DUMMY cartridges later made from the same blanks (by firing them & inserting a bullet into the now-empty case). One cartridge accidentally left unfired, but a bullet was inserted bullet anyway, creating a low-powered, live round.
  3. Flawed dummy cartridge fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  4. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  5. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  6. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.

 

Note that although this version of events may seem even less plausible on the face of it, it does have the advantage of negating the main point of contention regarding the official story. That being the possibility of a primer alone being sufficient to propel the bullet far enough into a revolver barrel for it to a) not block the cylinder from revolving and b) not be noticed by crewmembers. In this version, this factor becomes irrelevant.

 

This was the version that we chose to replicate in our testing. Note that the type of blank cartridge is irrelevant. We made our own, but factory-made blanks may have been used. Provided the case is properly wadded, and a propellant charge equivalent to (or frankly, even less than) a ‘full charge’ movie blank is used, the bullet will be driven from the barrel.

 

However, as already stated, it IS perfectly possible for a primer (especially a magnum primer) to do this, making even the popular version of the story still plausible. I know, because I’ve tried it, multiple times. There is enough variance in the manufacture of primers and bullets, for a bullet to lodge partway out of the chamber, or all the way out of it. Our first attempt lodged the bullet clear of the cylinder, but only a centimetre or so down the barrel, making it visible to anyone observing normal safety precautions. However, it is clear that not everyone on set was observing them, so this sequence of events remains at least plausible.

 

Here’s the thing – as interesting as it is to have the (likely) details, they aren’t actually that relevant to the CT. Once again, and this bears repeating, our tests showed that, more often than not;

 

  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successful propel that bullet from the barrel.
  3. A bullet fired in this way retains more than enough velocity to fully penetrate a 10% ordnance gelatin block approximately 12″ deep.

 

Thus either version of the story, or some other variation of it, could have resulted in the death of Brandon Lee. No conspiracy theory is required, nor is there any evidence to support one.

 

It was an emotional experience taking part in this filming. When our ‘dummy’ bullet popped into the barrel, I began to feel a little odd. When, shortly afterward, the blank blasted the bullet from the barrel and through the ballistic gel in front of me as though it wasn’t there, I had to suppress a tear at the thought of what happened that day. I had wondered what we’d do if, as many have claimed, this wasn’t actually possible. There would be no question of faking anything. Nor could I really have withdrawn from filming by that point. We would have been obliged to state that we thought it was possible, but no, we couldn’t recreate it for the cameras. As it was, Channel 5 got multiple successful shots. Was it flawless? No. Out of six attempts, two failed as a result of the small propellant charge lodging the bullet too far into the barrel. When trying just the primer, out of several attempts, one did block the cylinder. To me, this doesn’t make the official story any less plausible; but it does make it all the more a tragic roll of the dice. The proverbial ‘golden BB’. You could follow the same series of mistakes, and still narrowly avoid killing Lee (especially when the revolver being pointed at him, against best practice, is factored in).

 

There’s one silver lining to Brandon’s death. It’s used as a cautionary tale across the fields of cinema and of firearms. It’s impossible to quantify, but in death, he will have saved countless lives.

 

*Gun nerdery alert. I believe the revolver used was not, as is usually claimed, a Model 629 (stainless steel), but a Model 29 in nickel plated finish with 6” ‘pinned’ barrel and recessed chambers. This is what we used in the documentary. However, movie lighting and the level of polish on the screen-used prop make the two impossible to distinguish for certain. Note that, in yet another layer of misfortune, the original movie script called for an AMT Automag – a semi-automatic pistol for which there would have been no need to make dummy rounds (they would not be visible unlike in a revolver’s open cylinder) and therefore, no accident.

[edited to add – note that the documentary got the details of Lee’s death right in terms of it occurring during the scene where Eric returns to the apartment to find the gang members there – but the reconstruction shows him in full Crow regalia. In fact this was a pre-Crow scene with Lee in ‘civvies’. Note also that for this scene he was carrying a prop bag of groceries in which an explosive squib had been fitted to simulate the bullet impact. This later led to confusion over a pyrotechnic ‘squib’ (which did not contribute to his wound) and the ‘squib load’ of the lodged bullet in the gun barrel.]

Further Reading

This is Baiss’s book, originally published in 2000. Recommended reading for any Crow or Lee fan. You may be able to read the section on Lee’s death as part of the Google Books preview here.