A blank is a firearm cartridge that generates a muzzle flash and an explosive sound (muzzle report) like any normal gunshots, and the firearm experiences a recoil capable of cycling its action, but without shooting a projectile (e.g. bullet or shot). Blanks are often used for shooting simulations that have no need for ballistic results but still demand light and sound effects, such as in historical reenactments, special effects for theatre, movie and television productions, combat training, for signalling (see starting pistol), and cowboy mounted shooting. Specialised blank cartridges are also used for their propellant force in fields as varied as construction, shooting sports, and fishing and general recreation.
While blanks are less dangerous than live ammunition, they are far from harmless. Beside the hot combustion gases, any objects in the cartridge itself (like wadding or a bullet-shaped plug keeping the propellant in place) or the barrel will be propelled at high velocity and cause injury at close range.
Blank cartridges differ from the inert/fake ammunitions such as dummy cartridges and snap caps, which contain no primer or gunpowder to even produce flash and sound and are used for "cold" training or function-testing firearm actions. They are also different from the percussion caps used in cap guns, which also produce a sound of gunfire but only consist the equivalent of the primer with no propellant or casing.
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Blanks are commonly used when the sound and flash of gunfire is needed, but a projectile would not be safe, such as in military training manoeuvres or funeral honours, in movies that require gun fights, in starter pistols to signal the beginning of races, and in the equestrian sport of cowboy mounted shooting.
For military applications, blanks are typically used with a special blank-firing adaptor in the firearm that constricts the barrel, keeping chamber pressures from the blank high enough and for long enough of a duration to cycle the firearm's action. In the case of non-crimped blanks, it also serves to pulverise the plug to prevent it leaving as a projectile.
For movie use, specially designed blank-firing firearms are often used, which increases the margin of safety as they cannot be loaded with live ammunition. 5-in-1 blanks are specifically made for theatrical use and are commonly used in real firearms for dramatic effect. 5-in-1 blanks can function in a variety of different calibres, hence the name.
Special blank cartridges are also used when the explosive power of a cartridge is needed, but a projectile is not. Blank cartridges were commonly used for launching tear-gas or rifle grenades, though some types of grenades are capable of trapping the bullet of a live round. Larger blanks are also used for line launching guns, such as the line launching kit for the Mossberg 500 shotgun.
Blank rimfire cartridges, commonly called power loads, are also used in some nail guns (powder-actuated tools), where the power is tapped to force a heavy piston into the nail, with enough force to bury its full length into steel or concrete.
Some forms of fast draw competitions use special blanks that are loaded with a layer of slow burning rifle powder on top of a thin layer of faster-burning pistol powder. The pistol powder ignites the slower burning rifle powder, and fires it out the barrel much like a shotgun shell. The burning powder only travels a few yards before it completely combusts, but that is far enough to burst the balloon used as a target for those competitions. Wax bullets are also commonly used for competitions and training where a non-lethal projectile is required.
A blank cartridge was sometimes also issued to a randomly selected shooter in an execution by firing squad, on the theory that each of the shooters would take comfort in the fact that they may not have fired a live round. This tradition dates back to before cartridge arms, when a muzzle loading musket would be loaded without a ball.
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The appearance of a blank cartridge can give a false sense of safety. Although blank cartridges do not contain a bullet, precautions are still required because fatalities and severe injuries have resulted on occasions when blank cartridges have been fired at very close ranges.
Blank cartridges frequently contain a paper, wood or plastic plug called a wad which seals the powder in the case. This wad can cause severe penetrating wounds at close range and bruising at medium ranges. There is also "muzzle blast" – a cloud of hot, expanding gas expelled at extremely high velocity from the muzzle of the firearm. This high velocity gas can inflict severe injury (see powerhead for an example) at close ranges. In addition, if there is any small debris lodged inside the barrel it will be expelled at a velocity similar to that of a bullet, with the ability to inflict a severe or lethal wound. Furthermore, the extremely loud noise of blanks being fired can damage the hearing of people in the immediate area.
Note that cartridges loaded with wadcutter target bullets and cartridges for the 7.62×38mmR Nagant M1895 revolver can be mistaken for blanks because the bullet does not protrude past the mouth of the cartridge casing. Shotshell cartridges known as "snake shot" or "rat-shot" used in rifles or handguns for pest control often have the shot charge sealed with cardboard or plastic wads or the ends may be crimped or folded in a manner similar to that of blank cartridges.
Actors in particular are at serious risk of injury from blank cartridges used on movie sets. Several actors have been killed in such mishaps:
- Brandon Lee was killed while filming a scene for the 1994 film The Crow when a .44-caliber S&W Model 629 revolver used as prop that contained a squib load — a bullet accidentally stuck in the gun barrel — was fired with a blank cartridge, which propelled the lodged bullet down the barrel. As reported in the investigation and court records, the dummy round used during an earlier shoot were handloaded by someone other than a firearms expert, who removed the propellant powder but unknowingly left a live primer in place, resulting in a bullet being separated from the casing without enough energy behind it to exit the barrel. The gun was not properly checked for the retained bullet prior to the incident, and squib load was then blown out of the barrel by the blast energy of the blank, fatally injuring Lee.
- Jon-Erik Hexum was killed when he placed a blank-loaded .44 Magnum revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger — the powerful shockwave from the blank cartridge caused a depression fracture to the skull, sending bone fragments deep into his brain and causing severe intracranial hemorrhage. He died a few days after the accident.
- Johann Ofner, a professional stunt double, was killed in 2017 while filming a scene for Bliss n Eso music video Dopamine in the Brooklyn Standard bar in Brisbane.
- A 17-year old was playing with a gun used in a St. George, Utah high school theatre program to be used in a production of Oklahoma!, and accidentally killed himself, thinking that "blank" cartridges were harmless.
- William Schabas (1996). The death penalty as cruel treatment and torture. UPNE. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-55553-268-0.
- Robert L. Kimberly, Ephraim S. Holloway (1897). The Forty-first Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion. R. W. Smellie. p. 19.
- Under the Red Patch. Sixty Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association. 1908. p. 44.
- "Alarm Mines | Security". Ultimate Handyman. Retrieved 12 Oct 2019.
- Welkos, Robert W. (April 1, 1993). "Bruce Lee's Son, Brandon, Killed in Movie Accident". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-12-07.
- A. Giese "Head injury by gunshots from blank cartridges", Surgical Neurology, Volume 57, Issue 4, Pages 268-277
- Jorge Branco "Bliss n Eso music video shooting: Stuntman Johann Ofner dead" Brisbane Times. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
- Robertson, Joshua (24 January 2017). "Bliss N Eso shooting: Johann Ofner killed by gun that was 'loaded with blanks'". the Guardian.
- "Student Dies After Prop Gun Discharges Before Play Performance". 25 March 2015.
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