The silver bullet is a common form of Depleted Phlebotinum Shells. It's often called for when supernatural creatures are around for whom silver is an Achilles' Heel.
Throughout mythology and subsequent fiction, silver has been a common ward against evil. Silver, especially if blessed, was thought to ward off or harm certain supernatural beings (including vampires) since the Middle Ages. The use of silver bullets to kill werewolves has become popular only since it was invented by Curt Siodmak, the writer of the 1941 film The Wolf Man (though in the 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, someone did use a silver bullet on Bertrand Caillet, though it did not slay him, only landing in the leg).
In reality, there are a number of difficulties involved in making silver bullets. The first is that silver melts at a far higher temperature than lead (1763ºF vs. 621ºF), meaning that one would need a proper furnace to melt it, unlike lead which can be melted over a hot fire or kitchen stove. One would also need special bullet molds, both due to the higher temperature of the liquid silver, and the fact that it shrinks more than lead does when it solidifies, so the use of a mold designed for lead would result in an undersized bullet even if the mold could withstand the heat. An alternative would be to machine the bullets from commercially available rods or bars of silver, however this would be very time consuming and also requires specialized machinery/skills.
And all of this ignores the fact that silver simply costs a lot more than lead does, making silver bullets a rather costly proposition. It would also be rather ineffective in real life in most modern firearms, as a bullet made entirely of silver would be too hard and light to properly engage to riflingnote Density of lead: 11.34 g/cc. Density of silver: 10.49 g/cc. Now gold, whose density is a whopping 19.3 g/cc, might be a good choice., so all you'd get is an ineffective, fast, light bullet which would be very inaccurate.
A solution that comes up surprisingly rarely is silver-jacketed rounds, coating a lead projectile in a shell of silver in the way regular bullets use copper. This would increase the mass of the bullet while decreasing the amount of silver you need per round, but the manufacturing process isn't something a Vampire Hunter could MacGyver in their garage.
A Sub-Trope of Silver Has Mystic Powers.
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Anime and Manga
In the Hellsing anime Alucard uses silver bullets against other vampires; after a while, he is given a new gun which uses mercury ("quicksilver") bullets. Since mercury has about the same density as lead, but is a liquid, the effect it has upon striking a body is quite horrific (it practically explodes).
In Berserk, silver possesses protective properties against astral creatures, such as Trolls. Farnese and Casca wear shirts made out of silver mail for this reason, and the former has a silver knife to fight them off.
In the Solomon Kane comic book story "The Silver Beast of Tonkertown" (not based on one of Howard's original stories), Kane melts down an inn's silverware to create a silver pistol ball which he uses to slay a werewolf that is terrorising the town.
The Golden AgeBatman used silver bullets to slay the vampire/werewolf hybrids the Monk and Dala as they slumbered in their coffins.
In The Astounding Wolf Man, an assassin explains that even if the story about Silver Bullets wasn't true, silver bullets should at least hurt as much as regular ones. As it turns out, there are a few elements harmful to werewolves, but Silver is the most commonly known one.
In Scare Tactics, the werewolf clan the Ketchums load their shotguns with silver buckshot when they ambush their runaway member Fang.
Doctor Strange foe Silver Dagger not only wields his namesake knives as weapons but also commands a group of zealot commandos armed with automatic weapons loaded with silver bullets.
Doc nearly lost his own life to a silver bullet, fired from the very pistol with which Hitler committed suicide. Apparently the combination of the two was enough bad mojo to get through his magical protections.
An issue of Planetary had a The Lone Ranger expy who used silver bullets to kill the criminals who wanted the silver mine he owned. In an interesting twist, it's revealed that he tipped every bullet with mercury, a byproduct of silver mining. So, even if a shot was non-fatal, which many of them were, the victim would still die of mercury poisoning.
In World's Finest #214, western-themed hero the Vigilante uses a silver bullet to save Superman from a werewolf.
The protagonist of Fiends Of The Eastern Front made a whole belt of silver bullets to combine this trope with More Dakka to take on Constanta and his minions.
Hilariously, in the MST3K fodder movie Werewolf, after spending over 10 minutes going on and on about how the skeleton they discovered isn't of "your white man's movie monster werewolf", but a traditional Native American skinwalker, when one of the characters turns into one he's quickly killed with a silver bullet.
Crow: "So...you've got Coors Light in your gun?"
In The Monster Squad, one of the protagonists crafts silver bullets but neglects to bring a gun. Rudy, the oldest of the Squad, eventually has to use a gun from a fallen cop to deliver the fatal bullet to the Wolf Man.
Underworld Vampires are currently using traditional silver bullets against Lycans, but as the war escalates they upgrade to bullets that release liquid silver nitrate into the bloodstream, killing them faster. In the prequel, they used swords and arrows either made or coated in silver. By the time of Awakening, silver grenades and aerosol have been invented.
The Lycans used some sort of UV tracer round against vampires, that cooked them from the inside.
Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf subverts this trope and reveals that silver bullets don't always kill werewolves, they just incapacitate them for a while. The real metal of choice when dealing with werewolves is titanium. Silver bullets work just fine against young werewolves, but ancients like Stirba are immune to silver, which is where the titanium comes into play.
Averted, and mocked, in An American Werewolf in London: David, the eponymous werewolf, is advised by his undead victims to kill himself. When he asks, "Don't I need a silver bullet?", his dead best friend Jack replies, "Oh, be serious!"
In Love at First Bite, Dr. Rosenberg tries to kill Dracula with silver bullets. Dracula then informs him he's thinking of werewolves.
In Project Metalbeast, Silver Bullets can kill werewolves but this particular one happens to be cybernatically enhanced, so it requires a silver tipped bazooka shell to kill it.
Silver is good against werewolves and vampires in Van Helsing, with silver bullets and stakes being employed against both.
Blade employs silver bullets and stakes as part of his vast vampire-killing arsenal.
In the Fright Night remake, Amy tries using silver bullets against Jerry, who seems more amused than injured as he pulls the bullets out of his shoulder, chiding her: "Werewolves." She then throws a cupful of holy water in his face, responding in kind: "Vampires."
The Breed, a sci-fi vampire film taking place Twenty Minutes into the Future, claims that vampires are sensitive to both silver and sunlight. So not only do cops expecting to deal with vampires carry silver bullets, but also silver handcuffs and silver hand grenades.
The Man with the Golden Gun film has the titular villain equipped with a golden gun (assembled from ordinary-looking parts) which was then loaded with gold bullets engraved with the name of their targets. Averted because the bullets had no supernatural powers - Scaramanga was really that good.
In The Lone Ranger Tonto made one for the Lone Ranger to shoot the Wendigo.
The Matrix Reloaded establishes that stories about werewolves, vampires and UFOs are based on now-defunct programs trying to escape deletion. The Merovingian employs several of these programs as muscle.
Persephone: My husband saved them because they are notoriously difficult to terminate. How many people keep silver bullets in their gun? (BANG)
An example that predates the Wolf Man: In Swedish novel Gösta Berlings Saga (1891) a shape-shifting bear is killed with a silver bullet cast from a church bell.
"Magic bullets" are common in Swedish folklore - among other things, they are used against shapeshifters, against people who have been made "hard against shot" by sorcery, and against the animals "owned" by beings like Skogsrået, a wood fairy. Lead taken from church windows is popular, but the most famous magic bullet of legend was the one who killed Charles XII; according to folklore (reality is of course different) he couldn't be shot with normal bullets, but the one that killed him was made from a button from his own coat.
In the Moran & Moriarty story The Hound of the D'Urbervilles, there is talk of a supernatural dog, called Red Shuck. Part of the beast's legend implies it may be a werewolf, so Moriarty gives his gun, Moran, a box of silver bullets to use. The wolves (six in total) are totally mundane, and Moran never so much as fires a single silver shot)
To defeat the creature only referred to as IT, the Losers Club decide to trap It in Its werewolf form and slay It with a silver bullet. As none of them know how to use a gun, they do the next best thing and make silver balls and use a slingshot. While they don't kill It, they definitely leave It badly wounded.
However, the book reveals later that it was not the silver slug, but rather the children's belief in its killing power, that made it work.
Silver bullets are used to kill the title creature in King's Cycle of the Werewolf.
In G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown story "The Dagger with Wings," a man speaks of using white magic against his enemy, and shows he had a blunderbuss specifically so he can charge it with silver bullets. He cites the legend of Dundee, who had sold his soul to the Devil and so could be shot only with a silver bullet. Father Brown debunks, thoroughly, and concludes he is the murderer, posing as the victim.
In the Silver John vignette "You Know the Tale of Hoph" by Manly Wade Wellman, John uses a silver bullet to slay the Hoph. Silver, not necessarily in bullet form, is generally effective against evil creatures elsewhere in the stories.
The Dresden Files's second book Fool Moon had a type of werewolf that had the traditional silver weakness. The catch is that it had to be Inherited silver. Luckily, Murphy had some silver earrings she inherited from her grandmother, which she had melted down and made into bullets. With the small caliber—she only has equipment to make .22 bullets—it doesn't kill the monster, but it does stop it in its tracks and make it reconsider its options. Fortunately, Harry figures out in the nick of time that a werewolf-killing projectile has to be inherited silver, but not necessarily an inherited silver bullet.
In The Chronicles of Amber, gunpowder doesn't work in Amber. In The Guns of Avalon, Corwin has discovered another substance which will work like gunpowder there. He also uses silver bullets because he figures it can't hurt. And Caine uses silver-headed arrows to shoot Brand during the final battle. It doesn't pay to take chances with that family.
Downplayed throughout the Instrumentalities Of The Night series, where in order to combat gods (or "Instrumentalities of the night" if you are into that One-True-God thing) the Papacy of Brothe manufactures iron bullets with a silver jacket. Making thousands of pure silver rounds is expensive, and so long the instrumentality is struck with a fast-moving silver object, he'll go down fine.
In Brian Lumley's Necroscope books silver is deadly to vampires, and the historical use of silver as a backing for mirrors is considered to be the origin of the whole vampires afraid of mirrors in folklore.
In the novel Digital Knight, Jason Wood makes some silver bullets first to fight a vampire (which didn't work) and then a werewolf (which did). He ran out of silver bullets while fighting the werewolf king, and was forced to improvise with several buckets of silver chloride taken from an x-ray development room.
The Talisman features a weaponized silver coin used against Sunlight's son because in The Territories he is a horrible monster and thus vulnerable to silver.
Of course, its effectiveness as the only weapon that can kill werewolves is averted, as regular bullets are enough to kill Wolf.
In The Witcher series, silver is especially effective at warding off and causing pain for monsters. Hence, it's customary for Witchers, trained monster slayers, to fight them using silver-plated swords and to have silver lining their armor.
Silver is confirmed to be dangerous to werewolves on the Discworld. Along with fire, it is one of the few weaknesses they have.
Silvered weapons, mostly blades, feature in Anno Dracula as one of the few guaranteed ways to harm a vampire. (Jack the Ripper is originally known as Silver Knife.) Silver bullets also make an appearance; in one of the books' many Shout Outs they're called "the Reid design".
In Much Fall of Blood by Mercedes Lackey, Dave Freer and Eric Flint (part of the Heirs of Alexandria series, soldiers are seen making silver bullets to fight Prince Vlad of Valahia, a descendant of Dracula in this alternate universe. Whether this works or is purely superstition is never seen.
In Blood and Chocolate silver forms a powerful acid when it blends with werewolf blood, if it gets into the bloodstream it means a painful death. After Aiden finds out that Vivian is a werewolf he melts down his pentacle necklace into bullets, he shoots her but the pack's healer gets it out before she dies.
The Elemental Masters series is largely Urban Fantasy with a corresponding blend of mundane and magical threats. In Reserved for the Cat, a female character employed as a maid carries a firearm loaded with silver, blessed lead, and iron bullets, which she teaches the protagonist to use.
Used against vampires and werewolves in the Thursday Next novels.
Death to the French: The French soldiers whom Dodd is facing mold silver bullets. They believe Dodd is a supernatural entity and can be defeated only with the use of silver bulelts. In the book the bullets have better performance then the traditional lead ball ammo.
In Operation Chaos, automatic weapons can be used against were-creatures, by making "every tenth round argent".
Mentioned offhandedly by the Crowe twins in A Wolf In The Soul. They were just joking around, not knowing there really was a werewolf out there.
Live Action TV
Teen Wolf: Stiles thought that Derek got shot by one, which caused Derek to call Stiles an idiot.
The Lone Ranger used silver bullets. Not for lycans, but a much cooler calling card than a stupid white glove with a script "P" on it. ("Who was that masked man?")
Another motivation: making the bullets valuable was a reminder that firing a lethal weapon (even when done without lethal intent) was not a thing to be done lightly. See the entry under "Radio".
MythBusters tested the effectiveness of a silver bullet compared to a standard lead bullet. Since silver warps and shrinks when it cools, the resulting deformation made the bullet's' flight path erratic, making for poor accuracy. They didn't test it on an actual werewolf or other supernatural creature, however.
In Supernatural, the Winchester Boys often use silver bullets, most commonly against shapeshifters. Characters cutting themselves with silver knives has become a common shorthand for "it's really me, not a shapeshifter" after they come back from something they shouldn't have.
In the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode "The Werewolf", Kolchak improvises silver buckshot by melting down the silver buttons of a ship captain's uniform.
In the Doctor Who episode "Battlefield", the Brigadier uses these to destroy the Monster of the Week.
Fyarl demons are particularly vulnerable to silver and will die immediately after being stabbed with it. In "A New Man" Buffy grabs a silver letter opener to kill one, but it turns out to be a fake. Which is a good thing, as the fyarl demon was actually Giles.
Tony on NCIS once (facetiously) speculated that his boss, Gibbs, can only be killed by a silver bullet like a werewolf. He then subverted this trope, by concluding that even silver would be insufficient for Gibbs.
Port Charles vampires were weak to silver bullets. Caleb didn't die from one but was bady wounded by it.
In American Horror Story: Coven, silver bullets are said to be the only things guaranteed to kill witches. Not that they can't die otherwise, but some witches have the ability to come back from the dead.
Ivan Isaacs of Priest uses silver bullets against zombies. Priest zombies are immune to the traditional headshot unless the head is completely destroyed, but silver bullets will kill them regardless of where they hit.
In some epic folk songs about Bulgarian rebel leader Delyo, he is described as invulnerable to normal weapons, driving his enemies to cast a silver bullet in order to murder him.
This series of articles discusses the trope in great detail, including a Real Life test.
In Frank And Ernest, Tonto tells the Lone Ranger that he oversold it and everyone thinks silver bullets are the solution to everything.
Modesty Blaise: The villagers use one to slay what they think is the vampire in "The Vampire of Malvescu".
Parodied by one The Far Side strip where a man futilely blasts away at a werewolf with bullets "Guaranteed to be pure silver" By a salesman who happened to wear the same tie as the werewolf.
In his case, it's not supernatural but symbolic. John Reid, the future Lone Ranger, was given access to a lost silver mine by his mentor. Reid used the silver to finance his career as the Lone Ranger, and made bullets from that silver to remind himself that life, like silver, was precious so he wouldn't waste his bullets. In later years, Britt Reid, the son of the Lone Ranger's nephew, inherited his great uncle's mine and used the silver to finance his own crime-fighting career as The Green Hornet.
Werewolf: The Forsaken has silver weapons of any kind do aggravated damage to Uratha once the silver touches blood. While using silver on other werewolves would be expedient, it's also a sin against the code of werewolf ethics. Still, the Uratha have a step up on their cousins, the Pure, who apparently can't even touch silver without it messing them up something fierce.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse has no such moral compunction, though wielding silver does blunt a werewolf's magical effectiveness. Still doesn't stop a lot of werewolves from making silver klaives.
Silver bullets are hard to make in GURPS but have no negative effect on range or damage, against werewolves they do multiplied damage. High-Tech points out one potential problem: because they are relatively soft silver bullets can mess up rifled firearms.
High-Tech is wrong. Silver is harder than lead, but also less dense. It has also been discovered that a silver bullet will shrink while cooling, and thus a silver bullet cast in a regular bullet mold comes out smaller than the intended size. Also, silver does not "mushroom" in the barrel as much as lead does. Thus, the bullet does not form a proper seal against the grooves of the barrel, allowing much of the gas to escape around the bullet, and the bullet does not get as much spin imparted to it. As a result, a silver bullet has a shorter range and less stopping power (except against werewolves, of course) when compared to a lead bullet.
A rule of thumb in Rifts is: "If Mini-missiles won't work, try silver." Silver is useful not only against werebeasts, but also vampires (damages, and a silver stake works just as good as a wooden one) and most other Undead, demons, and some gods. One country in South America actually issues silver-plated swords to it's Humongous Mecha because they're at war with a kingdom of vampires.
Dungeons & Dragons. Starting in early editions of the game, the only mundane weapons that could hit a number of monsters are those made of silver. The monsters include not just the usual lycanthropes (e.g. werewolves) but also devils, night hags and many undead (such as ghosts, wights and wraiths).
To prevent silver weapons being a Game Breaker in Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master guide says the DM should impress upon the players that fighting with swords made of such a soft metal all the time is a bad idea...
Guide: "Oh dear, you stabbed that orc's plate armor with your silver sword and the blade bent!"
Guide: "You know, you've been using that silver spear for so long that the point is dull. It's like hitting that ogre with a clumsy club, only it doesn't work that well!"
It looks like Dungeons & Dragons got it right. Silver is harder than bronze, but much softer than steel. In terms of durability, therefore, silver would be somewhere between the two. In an iron-age setting against heavy armor (like plate), a silver piercing weapon like a short sword or dagger would stay effective longer than a silver slashing weapon like a long sword.
In later versions they then decreed that the silver that worked against supernatural beings wasn't actually silver but "alchemical silver" ... much as "cold iron" was a metal that looked a bit like iron but wasn't. Okay, technically it's normal silver alchemically bonded (whatever that means) to an iron blade, so you get the best of both worlds, but whatever.
Basically it means that it's a steel weapon that's silver-plated.
In the d20 Modern Urban Arcana setting, one of the numerous new bullets available (and the only type that can't be bought but must be crafted) are silver bullets. They are perfect against lycanthrope.
Invoked by BattleTech's "Silver Bullet" Gauss rifle. Rather than silver (which isn't particularly magnetic and wouldn't do much against 31st century armor in any event), this variant on the standard Gauss rifle fires special pre-fragmented ammunition that, while lacking the concentrated punch of the original, creates a hail of shrapnel that improves its chances of causing at least one critical hit especially against already-damaged targets and makes it an excellent anti-aircraft and anti-vehicle weapon in general.
In Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischütz, Max unknowingly makes a Deal with the Devil to win a sharpshooting contest. He forges seven silver bullets; six will strike their target unerringly, but the seventh is foretold to strike Max.
Nocturne gives the Stranger these for taking on werewolves. He can also find mercury bullets to use on demons and "Aqua Vampira" bullets for vampires. Of course, any type of bullets can be used to kill any type of monster, but using the proper ammunition kills them much more quickly.
In Silent Hill 4, silver bullets are the fastest way to down a ghost, and without it, it becomes nearly impossible to pass the water prison the second time around... There are only two of them in the game, so they are best saved for the Water Prison and Building World ghosts.
Konami's licensed The Lone RangerAction RPG allows you to use the show's staple silver bullets, which can drop almost anything in one or two hits. They are rather hard to obtain however, and as such are usuallly Too Awesome to Use.
Like the book series it's based off of, silver is especially effective against monsters in The Witcher games. Geralt carries a silver one for dealing with them alongside a steel sword for humans, though as he puts it, "both are for monsters."
In every game of The Elder Scrolls, enemies such as ghosts and wraiths can only be harmed by weapons that are enchanted, or made of silver. Werewolves are also vulnerable against it.
Daedric weapons also work against those types of enemies. In-game books explain that daedric weapons fall under the "enchanted" category, since it's made by applying certain spells to ebony (a kind of mineral).
Dwarf Fortress allows weapons and ammo to be crafted out of silver. It is the worst material available for any type of edged weapons. Since it treats all weapons as a completely rigid item, it does make for very effective war hammers and maces.
In Hakuōki, silver counteracts the Healing Factor of the furies, something the Shinsengumi discover when their enemies start using silver bullets against them.
The bonus chapter in the collector's edition of Shadow Wolf Mysteries: Bane of the Family includes creating a silver bullet by melting a broken plate in a scale suspended above a fire and then placing a bullet mold on the other half of the scale so that the melted silver can run down into it. Quite a bit of work considering actually shooting the werewolf takes up maybe five seconds of the forty-second ending.
In Spec Ops: The Line, one of the mementos is a set of hand-loading equipment next to some silver jewelry. The Big Bad waxes rhapsodic for a bit about how his men are now monsters that can only be killed with silver, before acknowledging the fact that there are loads of now-useless jewelry around Dubai and very little ammunition to be found, making silver bullets a necessity.
The Lonely Winds make extensive use of these against vampires. Interestingly, the author takes the trouble to mention a workaround for the problem of silver being a relatively soft metal that would perform poorly with modern firearms.
SCP Foundation: This is the only way to kill the shadow creatures in SCP-1983. And you have to be praying as you fire the bullet.
In Ben10, when the Yenaldooshi, a Native American Werewolf, is on the rampage, Gwen asks if they need to use a Silver Bullet to kill it, only to get the response that it only works in movies. The real solution does require a silver pendent though. However, this is inverted when it turns out to be a alien that just looks like a Werewolf.
Spoofed in Robot Chicken. While playing a pen-and-paper RPG, one player offers an... alternative... to the silver bullet, only for the game master to stubbornly insist that it has to be a silver bullet.
During the 18th century hunt for the Beast Of Gévaudan, Jean Chastel reportedly loaded his gun with silver bullets. However, in this case the bullets were not 'special' because they were made of silver, but because the silver was obtained from a blessed medallion of the Virgin Mary (the creature was thought to be demonic in nature).
Silver has a density of 10.5 grams per cubic centimeter. Lead has a density of 11.3 g/cm3. In the ballistics game, higher density means better performance, which is why bullets are still made out of lead, though price is certainly a factor as well. (Uranium, it should be noted, has a density of 19 g/cm3, which is why anti-tank rounds are made of the stuff.)
Book author's husband researches making silver bullets. It's not as straight-forward as casting bullets from lead. Silver melts at 1761°F (versus 621°F for lead), this makes just melting it a problem for home-made bullets. And silver has a different coefficient of expansion, and the hardness difference means the bullet has to be crafted more precisely. And silver jewelry and coins are made with silver alloys that are harder still. The bottom line is that silver bullets aren't something even someone who home loads can make in a hurry, from materials at hand; they take planning and preparation.
During the 17th Century, many people believed that only a silver bullet could kill a king.
Count Jan Potocki, a Polish Gentleman Adventurer and author of The Manuscript Found In Saragossa, allegedly killed himself with a silver bullet made from the knob of his mother's sugar bowl and blessed by the castle priest.
For over a century it was common in parts of Russia to use low purity silver as bullets (and more commonly shot for blunderbusses, since the metal was not worth refining at the time and so abundant a byproduct that it was cheaper than lead. Unfortunately high quality platinum ore has similar properties, so many of these were actually very pure platinum bullets.
When rifling was being discovered in the 17 century, European bishops at the time claimed that the ammo used in rifles was the devil's work. To prove this, they compared the accuracy of a rifle to that of a smoothbore gun firing blessed silver ball bullets. Since the blessed silver ammo missed more than the rifles, they concluded it was obviously the devil doing his dirty work.