What exactly is a blank (gun)?

After reading the thread on executions I got to thinking just what is a blank?

I know it still must be dangerous; because didn’t that model/actor Jon-Erik Hexum (or something like that) die from shooting himself with a blank?

A blank is a cartridge containing a small charge of gunpowder and some wadding. This wadding is usually cotton or paper stuffed tight into the casing of the cartridge. Without the wadding, there could be no explosion.

At a distance, the wadding falls apart and is harmless. However, fired at close range, the wadding remains relatively intact, and can injure, or even kill, as you pointed out.

As I recall from my Basic Training Days, I could tell by the feel of the M-16 whether I was firing blanks or live rounds. I’m not much of a weapons man (although I did qualify as ‘Expert’ in the Army), so I don’t know if this is common or not. If so, it would seem a firing squad participant would know whether he was firing a live round or a blank.

From my army days, I remember that blanks jam the rifle a great deal more often. For whatever reason, less gas/pressure is created, which is usually insufficient to push the bolt back far enough to reload the rifle. In wargames, we had BFAs, or “blank firing attachments”, that attached to the end of the barrel, blocking it so that more gas/pressure would be retained.

You can definitely feel the difference, even if the weapon isn’t jamming every third round. However, if you’re part of a firing squad, shooting simultaneously, you can’t tell; when several weapons go off at the same time, your experience of your own weapon is altered by the collective ‘bang’.

As has been pointed out, a blank is essentially a cartridge without a bullet, with the powder held in place either with a plug of some sort or by crimping the end closed (.22 blanks use this method).

Jon-Erik Hexum was killed by the wadding. He put the gun right against his temple and pulled the trigger. The wadding never had a chance to disintegrate in air, and continued from the barrel straight into his brain.

I once took a .44 revolver that was loaded with blanks and put the muzzle about 1" from a piece of 1/4" plywood. I blew a dime-sized hole right through the plywood.

Guns with blanks in them can be very dangerous. Hollywood has finally learned this and they have strict controls on the handling of weapons that have real blanks (most ‘stage guns’ aren’t really using blanks but are more a type of cap-gun like kids have. Real blanks are used when the weapon needs to have an action cycled as in an automatic weapon).

In a machine gun, the action is cycled by the hot gases building up pressure behind the bullet as it travels down the barrel. The excess pressure is vented into a piston which moves the action. When firing blanks, there is no bullet so the gas pressure is released faster. This leaves less energy for the action, which is why these guns jam a lot when firing blanks. In most weapons like this, a type of plug is used in the muzzle to help contain the gases so that blanks will work.

IIRC, the starter pistol we used in high school track (which fired blanks) had a conical dispersion thingy instead of a functional barrel. (There was still a barrel on the pistol just for looks.) So any discharge would be dispersed rather than actually fired. Maybe they also used a special type of blank, also, I don’t know. I seem to recall the shells were .22 shorts with a crimp at the bullet end.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

      • Starter pistols (always revolvers, I have seen) are made so that no actual real bullet of any type can be loaded, even though they are .22 caliber. The short explanation is that the hole in the back of the cylinder (where the “bullets” get loaded is obstructed so that it isn’t deep enough for any real ammunition to fit inside. There’s a small hole somewhere so that it still can make noise.
      • You can get blank ammo for real guns, and it can be lethal at close ranges - I recall that there are two types that Hollywood uses. One uses a paper wad where the bullet would normally be, for close-range discharging. This is the safer of the two but it’s still not perfectly safe, and it’s more expensive to produce. The other uses a plastic wad that is cheaper to produce, but can cause injury at much farther ranges, and is only used where safety isn’t a problem. There isn’t any type of blank that you can, say, point at your head and pull and not get hurt (and very possibly killed). - MC

Not that anyone asked, but I think it’s interesting the way Brandon Lee got killed. Apparently, there was a real bullet in the gun, but not the way people often think.

The cartridge was a blank, but a bullet had gotten lodged in the barrel from using the gun in a previous scene with reduced-charge ammunition. The latter ammo was supposed to spit the bullet out a really low speed so it could be filmed, but the charge was too small and the bullet didn’t leave the barrel at all. A common enough occurence, which is easily remedied by upping the powder charge slightly, and pushing the bullet out of the barrel. Unfortunately, before the gun was cleared, some twinkie unloaded it, checked the chamber, and decided it was clear. So loading it with blanks made it, in effect, a fully lethal weapon. And then in the next scene somebody fired it at Lee, and you know the rest.