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Bullets Do Not Work That Way
aka: Magic Bullets
In real life, bullets are little lumps of lead that fly through the air at great speed and generally put holes in whatever they hit. On TV bullets are made from Applied Phlebotinum and rarely penetrate objects like couches or overturned dinner tables, unless the plot dictates otherwise. TV bullets have several other remarkable characteristics.

While having a gun shot out of your hand in real life would render it inoperable (both the hand and the gun), in a movie you will be able to pick it back up and keep firing. There's little chance of the bullet bouncing off the gun and ruining the gunman's day.

A bullet is the business end of a cartridge, whose other components include a metal case, either brass or steel, filled with gunpowder, and a primer. When the gun fires, the bullet exits this happy arrangement, leaving the brass case behind, which now must be ejected to make room for another cartridge, either automatically in gas-operated firearms or manually in bolt-action or pump-action weapons. Most American movies get this part right, and in mystery stories brass cases may furnish important clues for the detective if the killer leaves them behind. But some films show the entire cartridge, brass case and all, flying through the air toward the target! This gaffe is understandably more common in films from countries where private gun ownership is rare, e.g. China and India.

When someone is shot in the head in a movie, the bullet will vanish on exiting their skull, leaving the wall behind them perfectly undamaged — though in sore need of a good wipe down. Also, the bullet will either leave a bloody but small hole in the victim's head or completely vaporize it.

Alternatively, a machine gun will riddle a person with bullets, but his surroundings will remain unscathed, suggesting the bullets somehow curved in the air to hit only him, possibly to curb property damage. Good bullets.

Can be occasionally justified if the guns used are police guns, which are normally loaded with hollow point rounds to prevent over-penetration. These are fairly common with civilians as well, for the same reason, they also tend to add stopping power, so you could really assume anyone is using these unless it's military (for whom using hollowpoints would in most cases be a war crime) or it's been shown otherwise.

Other times the reverse is true — the entire landscape will be shot to pieces, including areas that a bullet could only hit by traveling through the target, but the person being shot at is left untouched. Bad bullets.

For the inversion of this trope, where hitting targets depends on the shooter rather than the weapon:

Compare Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics, Blasting It out of Their Hands, Pretty Little Headshots, and Bulletproof Human Shield. For actual magical bullets, see Depleted Phlebotinum Shells. Not to be confused with the product infomercials of the same name, The Magic Bullet.

When bullets fail to penetrate through things that really shouldn't stop them — such as drywall, car doors, and in many cases, people, that's Concealment Equals Cover.

Examples

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     Anime  

  • In the first episode of Black Cat Detective, the title character shoots at a mouse. The bullet misses completely, and the mouse celebrates his narrow escape. How can he know that soon the bullet will stop in mid air, turn around, and then chase him? Eventually, the bullet passes through his ear, causing it to fall off.
  • In Cowboy Bebop's first episode, "Asteroid Blues", a woman shoots her boyfriend in the head at point-blank range in their spaceship, splattering blood all over the passenger window. The window itself, however, isn't even scratched; however, it is a spaceship window that must be tough enough to stand up to orbital debris and micrometeorites. It isn't until the police open fire with their heavier ship-mounted machine guns that the glass shatters, and yet only the ship itself is noticeably affected by said barrage - the woman's corpse is somehow perfectly intact, save for the hole in her dress from earlier being slightly larger and actively spilling out the vials of Red Eye she had been faking pregnancy with.
  • In the anime version of Hellsing, Alucard uses his broken Jackal to shoot a molten stream of silver from a cross and impale Incognito. Makes Just as Much Sense in Context.
  • In Gravitation K-san fires three shots with a sniper rifle at the wall, which the protagonists are standing next to (he isn't aiming for them, though). Three holes appear in the wall, but not a scratch is seen on the window panel between K-san and the wall.
  • Averted in a similar fashion as The Sarah Connor Chronicles in Black Lagoon: In the first episode, the crew of the eponymous ship are able to take cover behind a counter in a bar, but that's because the owner had everything bullet-proofed and in at least one instance Revy has a gun fight where she regularly shoots at her target through a thin wall.
    • Played straight at other times, particularly when Revy and Roberta BOTH get their guns shot out of their hands by snipers and yet Revy's gun at least is perfectly usable later on, and neither of them have injured hands from it.

     Film  
  • These made an appearance in Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), when Tony shoots an assassin to keep him from blowing up a car containing their target's wife and kids; blood and brain matter appear on the window behind the assassin, but the glass stays perfectly intact.
  • Exception: in the films of John Woo everything gets damaged by bullets.
    • In an emulation of John Woo, the lobby shootout in The Matrix is famous for the collateral damage it did to the environment. The pillars themselves were designed to look like apple cores.
  • Gigli had the Big Bad get his brains blown out and smeared all over the aquarium behind him, though the fish tank itself remained curiously unshattered. And somehow, his brains end up inside the fish tank. Amazingly, it's the least idiotic part of the whole movie.
  • In the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this is parodied by Eddie Valiant pulling out a cartoon gun, with cartoon "bullets" that are alive, that he's able to talk to. After he shoots them, they go a distance then stop, trying to figure out which way to go. They make a 90 degree turn, the wrong way. Valiant remarks, "Dum dums."
  • The "unshattered glass" version of the trope shows up in Die Hard, when Takagi is executed. Everywhere else, though, it's averted.
    • In Die Hard 2, the soldiers and mooks exchange fire with blanks and then switch to live ammo to fire on McClane. The guns used in the movie need an obvious blank firing attachment on the end of the barrel to enable them to fire blanks, or extensive modification which will destroy the gun if it's then used to fire a live round. Either way, when firing blanks, the barrel is physically blocked so that the gases will keep the weapon operating, but that blockage is a very dangerous thing when live rounds are fired through it.
  • Subverted in Tremors 2: Aftershock. At one point, the resident gun nut fires what is earlier identified as an anti-tank round at one of the beasties. The critter is killed —magnificently, we might add— and the bullet makes a large hole in the wall, several chunks of debris behind it, and then goes through the engine and gas tank of the car they were trying to reach. This also averts Every Car Is a Pinto, since the car doesn't explode. Somebody on the Tremors writing staff had obviously done their homework.
    Burt: We were supposed to be huntin' Graboids! I wanted maximum penetration!
    Earl: Well, you got it.
    • Also averted in the first one. Burt tries to shoot a Graboid while it's in the ground, with his most powerful weapon. It doesn't work.
    • Someone did do their homework. According to interviews, Tremors series co-writer S.S. Wilson is a bit of a gun nut.
  • From Full Metal Jacket. Pvt. Pyle shoots Sgt. Hartman with an M-14 rifle (a full-sized, powerful battle rifle) which does nothing to the bathroom wall behind Hartman even though the bullet would have passed straight through him at that range. Pyle then sits on a toilet, puts the muzzle of the weapon in his mouth and pulls the trigger spraying the wall behind him with blood. In real life, Pyle's head would have been virtually obliterated and the wall behind him pulverized, between the supersonic shock wave from the round's passing and the propellant gases. Quite a major malfunction, when one thinks about it.
  • Wanted pulls more than its fair share of Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics, and among them is a multi-stage bullet.
  • Pineapple Express has the main character witness a murder: mobster is shot at practically point blank range by two assailants. He also happens to be pressed against a window, which suffers nothing more than a serious mess because of it.
  • By the end of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both of Brangelina's bulletproof vests are covered in bullet marks, but somehow no bullets hit their heads, arms or legs.
    • Possibly somewhat justified, as they were fighting operatives who would presumably have been trained to aim for the center of mass.
  • In the opening dream sequence of Ali G Indahouse: The Movie, Ali G is missed by a posse of gun-toting LA gangbangers, whose bullets form the outline of his body (including an excessively large organ).
  • One of the major plot points of Pulp Fiction involves the "bad bullets" version of this trope, where a man empties a high-caliber revolver at Jules and Vincent (at almost point blank range), but completely misses them. After killing him, Jules and Vincent examine the bullet holes in the wall, which the camera could not see until they stepped back, suggesting that the bullets should have passed through them.
    • Although this incident is considered freakish and miraculous by the pair. As in, one of them actually thinks it was divine intervention.
    • There's a continuity error in this scene as well - looking closely at the previous scene shows the bullet holes in the wall before the gunman starts shooting. note 
    • A rather extreme example of the "unshattered glass" version of this trope makes an appearance immediately afterward, when Vincent accidentally and inexplicably shoots Marvin in the face while they are both inside the car. Bits of brains and skull are strewn all over the backseat, not to mention blood everywhere, but the window remains intact.
    • Another continuity error is when they show the scene at the beginning, Jules fires all the bullets in his gun and the slide is locked back. When they show it again at the end, Jules is not out of bullets and shoots the last guy.
  • Spoofed in Team America: World Police when Lisa enters the Bad-Guy Bar wielding a Gatling gun, and somehow manages to machine-gun every terrorist while leaving all the innocent bystanders intact.
  • Similarly spoofed in Top Secret!. One of the Resistance fighters runs into a room where his comrades and the East Germans are locked in hand-to-hand combat with each other. He fires several burst-fire blasts from his machine gun. The East Germans all fall down dead, while his comrades are unharmed. "Nice shootin', Tex!"
  • Averted in Bullshot (1983). The hero blasts away at a huge tarantula crawling across the floor, nearly killing several people in the dining room below. He then spends several minutes running about searching for the 'mad gunman' who's just shot up the place.
  • Used in The Usual Suspects pretty much whenever anyone dies. It is however a story in universe.
  • Terminator:
    • There's a take in The Terminator that averts this trope and ends up cooler because of it: when the T-800 is killing its way through the police station, one doomed Officer Mook hits it with a revolver shot that passes right through and spiderwebs the glass partition behind it.
    • Played straight in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As John and the T-800 escort Sarah out of the asylum, a law enforcement officer drives up in his cruiser; Sarah proceeds to carjack him, firing a round through the windshield (not aimed at the officer) to show she means business. The bullet goes through the glass, and then disappears- the seats and rear window are unharmed. This might be a gaff of a different kind. The creators may have believed that police cars habitually use bulletproof glass. They don't, but Hollywood might assume they do. If it did have bulletproof glass, the bullet might've ended up somewhere on the dashboard or bouncing around harmlessly in the cab.
  • Played in various ways in The Fifth Element. Zorg demonstrated a "replay" feature on his custom machine gun that actually makes its subsequent shots home in on the target of the first hit, regardless of which direction the gun is actually aimed (much to the surprise, then applause of the prospective buyers). Police fire ricochets off of Korben's cab early on, and Zorg successfully wounds Leeloo through a ceiling ventilation duct.
  • In the Christopher Walken classic King Of New York, the main character ambushes David Caruso's Dirty Cop as he's starting his car outside a funeral. A shotgun blast graphically blows the victim's entire head off, splattering the windshield and the passenger side window with gore. Neither windshield nor window shatters, although the windshield is somewhat justified (Walken shot from his car window and through Caruso's lowered window, so one can assume that the pellets didn't spread enough or whatever).
  • In the Bollywood movie Rama Rama Krishna Krishna, Gauthami is shown being killed by a bullet that is still attached to the rest of the cartridge. Doubles as a Pretty Little Headshot.
  • In Ronin, The Mole meets with his contact in The Mafiya to sell him the MacGuffin. When the contact pulls a gun from his Trouser Space and tries to pull a double cross, the mole knocks the gun out of his hand and points his own gun at him. Cut to an exterior shot of the window of the car being painted with blood spatter, but not breaking or shattering.
  • Averted in The Shawshank Redemption when the warden shoots himself, smashing the window behind.
  • Blue Thunder has a heroic policeman as the protagonist, so it would be bad karma to show him killing his fellow cops, who are merely innocent dupes of the villains. Therefore, although he faces a variety of opponents, from ordinary police cars to helicopters to F-16 fighter aircraft and blasts them all to shreds with his helicopter's 20-mm rotary cannon, he somehow doesn't injure a single person until the final showdown with the Big Bad.
  • In the opening scene of Iron Man, a soldier is shot and killed as he exits a Humvee. The pellets penetrate the side of the vehicle yet don't harm Tony Stark, who is sitting at the other side.
  • In one scene of Hellboy II, our protagonist shoots a tooth fairy with his massive handgun which fires massive bullets. Somehow the bullet doesn't carry on and hit anyone in the large crowd a few feet behind the fairy. The bullets are literally so big that you would be able to see it fall to the ground if it stopped when it hit the fairy. It must have just disappeared.
  • In Road to Bali, a bullet shot out of a bent gun barrel starts whizzing around in circles, due to the Rule of Funny.
  • Inception: Bullets fired at Yusuf's van will shatter one side of the windows, but not the other. The body of van itself is virtually bulletproof. Then again, it is a dream.
  • Judge Dredd. The Double Whammy round, which is two rounds fired at once. How it works is anyone's guess.
  • The Monster Squad features Rudy, the oldest and most Badass of the title group of kids, using a silver bullet to kill the Wolfman. What pushes it into this territory is that the bullet in question was not fitted with a cartridge prior to its use, but yet is still somehow capable of being fired from the police-issue revolver that Rudy used in the scene.
  • RoboCop (2014) makes the false assumption that a bigger caliber always equals a more powerful gun. .50 caliber Desert Eagles are used like they somehow are significantly more powerful than regular assault rifles (in reality, they are not).

     Literature  

     Live Action TV  

  • In The Vampire Diaries, a gun that fires little tiny stakes may sound really neat, but the writers seems to be unaware of the fact that guns work by slamming a firing pin into a metal case filled with a combustible material, creating a small explosion enclosed and focused by the chamber and barrel. This explosion is strong enough to deform a hunk of lead and force it into the rifling. Even if the bullets are just wood-tipped or are fired from an airgun, one section of the Geneva Convention agreement specifically bans the use of wooden bullets, because of the fact that they shatter on impact and cause horrific injuries, meaning it wouldn't be a neat stake through the heart.
  • True Blood also features weapons using wooden bullets as ammo, first used by religious anti-vampire fundamentalists, then by regular people as vampire deterrent and later by the army.
  • In "Everything Changes", the first episode of Torchwood, Captain Jack gets shot in the head. A spatter of blood comes out of the back and some of his blood can be seen on the fountain behind him. However, the fountain itself is undamaged.
  • Babylon 5: It is briefly mentioned that the special-effect powered "PPG" weapons fire plasma rounds so that they won't accidentally breach the hull. In universe, that's a good idea because they're on a space station (and shooting holes in it is a good way to end up breathing vacuum). It just happens to have the real world benefit of not having to worry about scenery damage as much, although more powerful PPGs are shown to penetrate thinner materials like those used for air ducts.
  • Various police procedurals avert this all the time... at least for the crimes being investigated.
  • Aversion: In The Sarah Connor Chronicles premiere, Sarah ducks behind a recliner and is apparently magically safe from a semi-automatic. Police at the scene later disclose that the chair has been upholstered with Kevlar.
  • In the Dollhouse episode "Spy in the House of Love", DeWitt gets shot, with the bullet grazing the side of her abdomen. Blood splatters the window behind her, but the bullet itself mysteriously vanishes before it breaks the glass.
  • The death of Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As shocking and tragic as it is, there's still a certain amount of Fridge Logic as far as how Warren was able to accidentally shoot her in back, from the side. Unless it was a REALLY improbable ricochet.
  • Played straight and averted in Star Trek. Phasers on low-powered "stun" settings typically won't damage equipment (other than display panels) or bulkheads if the security guys miss. But higher settings (and other energy weapons such as disruptors) will scorch walls, blow equipment up, or even blast a hole in the hull.
  • Averted pretty well in Breaking Bad, virtually any time guns are used. Mike once deliberately shoots a man in the head right through a wall, and gets a tiny bit of ironic justice when a bit of his ear gets grazed by one of many bullets passing right through a truck he happened to occupy. Another interesting example is Hank shooting one of Tuco's cousins in the head. The problem of messy walls with no bullet holes is averted by setting the scene outdoors.
  • Averted in 24. One notable example is a scene where Jack Bauer fights an assassin in a small apartment. They trade shots for a while, but when the assassin hides behind a wall, Jack calmly takes aim and kills her with several shots fired right through the wall.
  • Where the bullet went is the MacGuffin in an episode of Dragnet. One character claims to have been shot at and returned fire, yet no bullet could be found. Eventually, it turned out to have lodged in the wall right under a bookshelf, making it impossible to find without a detailed examination of the scene.
  • In Monk, in one episode Monk and Stottlemyer discover a single 7.62mm*39 shell casing and immediately deduce that the shooter was using an AK-pattern rifle, that the ammunition is military-grade, and Stottlemeyer orders an investigation into a Russian connection as their first lead. Too bad the 7.62mm*39 cartridge is actually extremely common, used in many popular and legal rifles in America (even in California with their tough gun laws, it's a popular hunting cartridge), and you can buy that type of ammunition at any Wal-Mart.

     Tabletop Games  

  • The 'Call of Cthulhu introductory adventure "Dead Man Stomp" opens with the PCs sitting at a table in a speakeasy with a man who gets shot in the head, and the text directly calls for one player to sustain mild mental trauma as blood from the victim's gaping exit wound splatters over him or her. Why they don't sustain physical trauma from the bullet that caused the exit wound is not mentioned.
    • a) Skulls are quite thick; a moderately-powerful bullet could curve just about any way you please punching through it, and b) Cthulhu Did It.
    • C) Exit wounds would spray a cone of material out, whereas a bullet remains a very small object traveling in a straight line once it finishes being deflected from the skull. A simulation using a fiberglass-covered melon here demonstrates the effect nicely as Penn And Teller debunk why Oliver Stone's "back and to the right" claim about the JFK assassination is wrong. Warning: strong language.

     Truth In Television  

  • A Discovery Channel documentary actually took Oswald's rifle as well as ammunition from the same factory lot that was found in the book depository, and duplicated six of the seven wounds. The seventh would have occurred as well had the bullet not expended extra energy striking and breaking two rib bones of Governor Connolly compared to only one in the original incident. Striking all debate about the surroundings of the assassination, the Discovery Channel's accomplishment in catching a single bullet on high-speed cameras striking seven separate targets and doing so within half an inch of the bulls-eye certainly qualifies for the trope.
    • The Carcano Mod. 1891-series rifles like Oswald's gun (a 91/38) were actually infamous for this kind of thing, and the munitions produced for the Royal Italian Army tended to either be not penetrate things they should (if the quality was bad) or to pierce the target all the way and exit without actually taking it down (if the quality was good), and universally compensed their extreme accuracy with poor stopping power. For this reason the Italians adopted the Mod. 1938, basically a Mod. 1891 chambered for the new 7.3551mm Carcano round (with more stopping power than the 6.552mm Carcano round of the Mod. 1891)... Except Italy entered World War II before they could build up any significant stock of the new round, prompting its abandonment for logistic reasons.

     Video Games  

  • In many games, only specific types of guns will fire through multiple enemies, despite all of them leaving bloodstains on walls through exit wounds.
  • Resident Evil 2 has a scene in which a protagonist's gun is shot out of her hand, and after a short Cat Fight with her attacker, she recovers it (we know she didn't take the attacker's gun, because the attacker still has it later in the game). True to form, it still works like a charm.
  • In Half-Life 2, bullets (from the player's weapons, at least) seem to be unable to hurt plot-relevant characters or innocent civilians.
    • And, of course, a round damaging something (an enemy, a crate, whatever) would generally not penetrate to whatever was behind it unless it was explosive. (Not that one round matters much to the Combine.) Hunter flechettes, however, had an annoying tendency to stick to objects and then detonate, which would hit anyone trying to hide behind too-thin cover.
  • Same thing happens in then original Deus Ex.
  • An actual magic bullet, the Patsy's Magic Bullet, functions as a homing, intelligent, powerful projectile which first appears in Worms 2. Some of its incarnations could actually phase through terrain. It was just about impossible to miss with the thing.
  • In Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Albus, not content with mere magic bullets, uses a MAGIC GUN. It never runs out of bullets, and it can fire magic spells.
  • Averted and played straight in Team Fortress 2's "Meet the Spy" video. Averted when the RED Spy head shoots an Engineer, with the bullet (and, oddly, blood) traveling through the door the Engie had backed up against; then played straight when the BLU Soldier takes out the BLU Spy at close range with his shotgun, with only the blood spattering on the glass window behind the Spy.
    • Also averted (sort of) in "Meet the Sniper", where a bullet hit a Heavy Weapons Guy to a Demoman through his whiskey bottle, shattering the bottle, putting the cork in the Demo's good eye, blinding him. In panic, his response is "blow shit up". Shit being himself, in this case.
    • Generally averted, but played straight as well in-game. Bullets leave marks on everything, but the bullets themselves disappear as soon as they hit something. As well, glass is never actually shattered, and any marks upon it will fade if you watch long enough.
  • In Xenogears this trope is taken literally in Billy's case. He uses two "ether guns" in his repertoire that do not require ammo and have elemental properties. His Humongous Mecha shares these same characteristics.
  • Taken to ridiculous levels in Borderlands, where bullets can paint the wall behind an enemy's skull a delicious crimson color with minimal effort or even splatter their entire body if powerful enough, but can't penetrate rusty sheet metal walls.
  • In Fallout 3, during VATS bullets can burst skulls, sever limbs, sever heads, and send the opponent flying across the landscape in beautiful slow motion, but they can't damage stationary scenery beyond bloodstains and cosmetic pock marks. It is perfectly viable to dodge gatling fire behind a broken plaster wall or wooden door, and you can even hide behind a dead tree or lamp post that is narrower than you - as long as you can't make eye contact, they won't fire. Grenades and missiles are the only observed exception.
    • If you've taken the Bloody Mess perk, your bullets patently defy common sense: shoot a guy in the head and his legs might fall off. However, in a rare display of sense, Blasting It out of Their Hands does damage weapons.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 has The Boss and her Patriot rifle, which already is hurting realism enough with its infinite ammo...then this happens. Bullets literally do not work that way. They fly in a more or less straight axis on the length of the slug, then tumble when they strike a target, ostensibly to increase the amount of damage caused by the bullet's travel through the target and to do more damage to internals on soft targets. If bullets flew the way they were depicted coming out of the Patriot, The Boss would have been lucky to hit any part of a barn, let alone the broad side, not to mention have pitiful penetrating power as a result of the energy wasted on air resistance.
  • Played straight in some cases, averted in others, in Left 4 Dead and the sequel. Bullets can - and will - penetrate certain types of cover, and while their impacts on the infected may look extreme, it's somewhat justified considering the state the targets are in. Especially obvious is the Magnum, which can thoroughly destroy several lined-up infected with a single round. Unless you have fragmentation or incendiary rounds, which will only hit a single target. And yes, you can have incendiary and frag rounds in the grenade launcher as well.
  • Parodied in one of the promotional videos for Portal 2, specifically the one advertising turrets. "Plus, we fire the whole bullet. That's 65% more bullet per bullet." A close-up schematic shows the turrets actually flinging cartridges forward using springs! The ones in the game do seem to actually fire them, at least going by the muzzle flashes.

     Web Comics  

     Western Animation  

  • On Family Guy, Joe once shot a bird right in front of Peter without the bullet going through (though this was probably intentional).
    • And they once went paintballing with actual guns . . . inside the house. Despite mysteriously impermanent excessive property damage, I think only one person was shot.
    • Joe once shot Brian with a bullet from a shotgun.

Boom, HeadshotSniper IndexInstant Death Bullet
Bullet HellBullet IndexBullet Sparks
Bullet SparksGuns Do Not Work That WayCartridges In Flight
Blasting It out of Their HandsGuns and Gunplay TropesBullet Sparks

alternative title(s): Magic Bullets
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