Blank Ammo: Handle With Care

Blank ammo is one of those things we hear about quite often in the firearms community. The purpose blanks serve is quite simple: They recreate the noise and sound of gunfire, but without sending bullets downrange. This makes them very useful for all kinds of reasons in many different occupations. However, it also means that a lot of the inherent dangers with live ammunition and live guns still remain — including death, even though you are “just using blanks.”

Let’s take a look at what blank ammunition is, how the world uses it, and what it can do. 

Have you ever watched a 3 gun volley, or the military honors given at a funeral? Those guns are loaded with powder and a priming charge, but no ammo is shot out of the barrel. It’s also quite common to see military reenactors shoot off muzzle loading guns. They’ll load large cannons with powder and nothing else. This produces the bang and flash of an actual shot being fired, but with a greatly reduced chance of anything getting blown up as a result.  Note that I said “greatly reduced,” not “non-existent.” More on that later. 

What’s Inside A Round Of Blank Ammo

A round of modern ammunition has four components: 

  1. A primer, which starts the ignition process 
  2. The casing
  3. Gunpowder, which burns very quickly and generates a large amount of expanding gas. This, in turn, makes a lot of noise and light and pushes the fourth component out of the barrel 
  4. The bullet

With blank ammo, since there is no bullet leaving the barrel, the round has significantly lower chamber pressure than a normal round. This means it will not cycle the action on a semi-automatic gun without a blank-firing adapter (“BFA”) added to the muzzle. A BFA restricts the flow of gas through the barrel. This causes a buildup of pressure in the gun and allows it to cycle normally. A BFA partially blocks the barrel, so you should never use one with live ammo. 

blank firing adapter used by a military member

The military often uses blanks for training

The ability of a BFA and blank ammo to facilitate normal gun operation is of great use to the military. The military’s sophisticated MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) training gear uses blanks to replicate gun shots and lasers to track their effects on the target. As a result, the military uses millions of rounds of blank ammo each year to make sure our troops are in peak fighting form. 

Blanks Are Useful In Many Forms

Blank ammunition also has many other uses. It’s common to find race starters with 38 special blanks at track meets.

Trainers use blank ammo with hunting dogs to accustom them to the sound of gunfire.

The theater industry uses them in movies and stage productions, which is where most of us see them in action. The use of blank ammo on the silver screen goes back almost as far as movies themselves. They are a staple in the special effects field. As I said before, blank ammo reduces the dangers associated with firing a gun, but it does not eliminate them. The movie industry (and others) have unfortunately learned this the hard way.

Jon-Erik Hexum was an actor who died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a gun that was loaded with blanks. While waiting with other actors and crew on the set of Cover Up, a TV show he was filming, he joked about the wait. In jest, he pressed the revolver he was holding against his head and pulled the trigger. Even though the gun was loaded with blanks, the force of the gunpowder alone was enough to fracture his skull and send pieces of bone into his brain, causing a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. 

Can Blanks Hurt You?

Sadly, this was not an isolated event. Brandon Lee was another actor who died due to the improper use of blanks on a film set. He was Bruce Lee’s son and a movie star with a bright future ahead of him. His life, however, was brought to an end with an accident with a prop gun on the set of The Crow, his first big movie.

Earlier in the shoot, a piece of lead from an inert dummy round became lodged in a prop gun. That same gun was used to shoot blanks later on in the filming of The Crow, with tragic results. The blast from the gunpowder inside the blank drove the bullet shard out of the barrel with enough force to inflict a fatal wound on Mr. Lee, ending his life far too soon

Shooting a round of blank ammo into ballistic gelatin

The round of blank ammo caused the testing material to bounce around with significant force

Things have changed in the movie industry since these two incidents. Blank-firing guns and other prop guns are now subject to rigorous safety procedures.

Blank ammunition may not shoot out a bullet, but it is certainly not harmless. To see just how dangerous a round of blank ammo can be, we’re going to shoot a round of blank ammunition into a block of 10 percent synthetic ballistics gel at contact distance.

We’ll be using Fiocchi 9mm blank ammunition shot from a Gen 4 Glock 19 with no blank firing adapter. In order to ensure maximum safety, we held the pistol in a rest for the shot and fired it remotely. 

Testing Blank Ammo

Test results firing the blanks into gel

The material inside the round of blanks was forced about one inch into the gel

As expected, the blank ammunition did not generate enough pressure to cycle the action of the Glock. It had quite an effect on the gel, however. The block of gel, which weighs over 17 pounds, bounced up and down on the testing table by the force of the blank round.

While there was no bullet inside the round that we tested, there was a fine granular material inside the case that looked like cellulose or a similar material. The rush of expanding gas from the gunpowder inside pushed that material around an inch into the gel. There was also a significant amount of powder burns around the area where the muzzle of the gun pressed up against the gel. Under most circumstances, this amount of damage likely would not represent a fatal wound to a human being. However, under some circumstances, a blank round can still cause a fatal injury.

The bottom line is, always treat blank ammo with respect. Blank ammo is like any other tool out there: If it is used improperly and in an unsafe manner, tragedy will soon follow. 

Stay Safe, No Matter What

Guns, even when loaded with blanks, are still guns. Blanks are useful when used correctly. We should never treat them as a toy or an inert hunk of metal. Loading a gun with blank ammunition does not exempt you from the basic rules of gun safety. If there is any doubt, apply the same four rules of firearms safety to a gun that’s loaded with blanks. Those rules are designed to keep you safe around loaded guns. They’ll work just fine with guns loaded with blank ammo as well.