Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

[edit – 15.10.20 – many thanks to Giselle Jakobs for the information on blank rounds in Josef Jakobs’ execution; see her excellent site at]

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 forum:

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.


(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). It is thought that blanks were used in this case. The details are unclear, but thanks to Giselle Jakobs, we know that by 1950, the official Royal Military Police manual specified two cartridge should have their bullets removed. One of the shooters, Roy Harrison, claimed in a 1984 newspaper article that all but one rifle was loaded with blank. This is unlikely, but does suggest that the 1941 procedure followed by the shooters (men of the Scots Guards) probably did include ‘conscience’ rounds. In any case, the Jakobs 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.

You’re Pulling My Leg

‘I say, would you mind awfully attaching some

urchins to my breeches?’

Guided tours of heritage sites can be a bountiful source of BS history. A friend and I have even come up with a game called ‘Hence the Expression’, where we’ll compete to dream up with the most fanciful origin possible for a given word or phrase. Unfortunately the real tour guides are sometimes beyond parody. A favourite of mine involved the claim that big dining tables historically had reversible surfaces in order that the household dogs could ‘clean’ the table with their tongues between courses. See what I mean?

Another slightly more plausible example is that sometimes given for the expression ‘hangers on’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘pulling one’s leg’); that it derives from the individuals paid by a criminal’s family to pull down on them during their hanging, and thereby minimise their suffering. I last heard this during a tour of Lincoln Castle, where it’s a bit of a staple claim, even appearing on the wall of the cafe. Tastefully, it specifies that ‘hangers on’ were children.

A quick note with respect to my title above; although ‘hangers on’ remains the subject of this post, I have come across a few instances of this explanation being given for the expression ‘to pull one’s leg’.

To start with, I should concede that the basic premise is sound; people did occasionally attempt to hasten the death of the convicted, although as the linked source points out, it wasn’t usually desired by the authorities. This simply provides a convincing basis for a story like this, it does NOT make it true. It also does not provide evidence for the veritable trade in ‘hangers on’ implied by the claim.

Interestingly, the phrase does appear in my favourite period slang dictionary (1699), but not in its own right:

‘Burre, a Hanger on or Dependent.’

We can presume, therefore, that it was a common phrase in the standard English of the day, and that there was no need to spell out either its meaning or origin. In fact we can trace it back as far as 1549, in Hugh Latimer’s ‘Sermons’:

‘But your Majesty hath divers of your chaplains, well learned men, and of good knowledge: and yet ye have some that be bad enough, hangers-on of the court; I mean not those.’

The term doesn’t appear in any dictionary, slang or otherwise. Indeed, why would it? The etymology here is surely self-explanatory. A ‘hanger-on’ is a sycophant who almost literally ‘hangs-on’ to the coat-tails of a well-off and/or well-known person. Just as a parasitical animal physically hangs on to its host. There’s no need to associate ‘hang’ in the sense of ‘attach’ to ‘hang’ in terms of the form of execution. Possible irony aside, there’s also no connection between the supposed origin and the meaning of the saying – a metaphorical hanger on attaches himself to the great and good; a literal one to the lowest of the low.

Not only that, but the French-derived synonym ‘dependant’ happens to also mean to ‘hang down’ or ‘hang on’, as in ‘pendant’ (as noted here), backing up the idea that ‘hanger-on’ is purely descriptive.

As usual, I’ve had a bash at finding early references, and the furthest I can push this one back is a piece of fiction that although set in the 1750s, was published very recently – in 2001.

‘the friends and relatives and hired ‘hangers-on’ hauling on the feet to hurry death. . . ‘
(‘Slammerkin’ by Emma Donoghue, p.76)

The first non-fiction cite is a throwaway line, given without reference, in a local history book ‘Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea’ (2004).

‘…it was customary to accelerate the business of hanging by means of the poor victims having their ‘leg pulled’ by a ‘hanger on.’

Everything else post-dates these appearances in print. How the idea spread is anyone’s guess; I tend to think that these trite origin stories started as jokes, like oral email forwards. They provide easy to understand, evocative and memorable ‘bites’ of history, particularly where they relate to the dark side of the past and allow us to feel superior to our barbarous forebears. The problem is that they’re often bollocks. So, the next time a tour guide or some bloke down the pub tells you where a particular saying came from, question it: The more convenient and appealing it sounds, the less likely it is to be true!