It’s a trick so dangerous that Harry Houdini refused to perform it. With countless injuries and at least 13 reported deaths, the bullet catch is one of the most dangerous stunts ever performed.
Rob Drummond, performing under the name of William Wonder, is not an illusionist. He is a stage actor playing an illusionist, but the similarities are cogent.
Showmanship is extremely important to an illusionist’s act, and Drummond brings an actor’s flair. He is quick to say that this is not a magic show but rather a theater show with magic.
So what happens when a stage actor performs such a daring stunt? According to Drummond, you’ll have to watch to find out.
Illusionist Ben Robinson, author of the book “12 Have Died,” has traveled the world documenting the history of this terrifying stunt. Even with the advances of firearms, he said, the trick hasn’t been altered much since its invention in the 17th century.
“The gun has very little to do with the stunt,” Robinson said. “A gun is a gun is a gun.”
Drummond is quite clear about his rationale for doing this particular trick. “When I decided I wanted to do a magic show in a theatrical way, there was only one choice,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, do it right. The bullet catch is the most dramatic, theatrical, dangerous, exciting stunt in magic. This is probably the only magic show I will ever make, so why do anything else?”
While the bullet catch is the crux of the show, Drummond explained that he will also perform sleight-of-hand illusions and games of chance, all with the help of an audience member every night. But he knows that the finale of the show is the reason people come.
So what makes the stunt so appealing? The idea of death? Robinson and Drummond agree that the show isn’t even really about the stunt itself; it’s about how well you can sell it throughout the performance.
“It’s the same as any theater show in that respect,” Drummond said. “If you went straight to the final scene of ‘Hamlet,’ the deaths would mean nothing. You’ve got to slowly build the tension, get to know and like the protagonists, and then when you put them in danger, it will mean more.”
More, that is, for whoever makes it to the end.
“Some audience members actually leave the auditorium before the finale, unable to watch,” he said. “The ones who remain don’t actually believe anyone is going to die, but they enjoy the feeling of controlled danger.”
In some tragic cases, the danger was not controlled enough. The concussive blasts from blank rounds can kill performers.
Robinson stressed that a bullet catch is a stunt, not a trick. Tricks have known outcomes, but the outcome of a stunt is unknown, even to the performer.
This doesn’t deter Drummond, who has been performing “Bullet Catch” since 2012, even though “it’s still very scary looking down the barrel of a gun.”
He doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon either. “We have bookings well into 2014, so I think I’ll be doing it for a while yet. It does enter my mind that it could go wrong, and I sometimes do think I should quit while I’m ahead. The more shows I do, statistically the more likely it is to go wrong.”
Nic Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.