We Have to Get the Bullet Out

No, you don't.

Having a bullet dug out of a character's flesh or bone is almost as dramatic as the shooting itself. Even better, it requires only simple tools, little expertise, and is intensely painful (thus allowing the bullet recipient to demonstrate his or her heroic pain tolerance). It is easy to see why any series which involves gun play eventually includes a sequence in which a professional or amateur field medic applies a little bullet withdrawal to his or her comrade-in-arms.

Unfortunately, this is a seriously bad idea, as the very last thing you would want to do to help a shooting victim would be to pull the bullet out. Bullets are, once they stop moving, largely harmless, and trauma surgeons frequently leave them in place whilst repairing the damage inflicted by their ingress. Removing a bullet may harm the patient in several ways, but chiefly in that the bullet may be pressed against a damaged blood vessel, and removing it may cause severe bleeding.

Depending on the time period, however, this can be a Justified Trope - historically, a musket ball would have been extracted as part of recovering any part of the wearer's clothing that it had tracked in with it - bits of cloth in wounds were a good source of infection, since most soldiers (and civilians, for that matter) had just one set of clothes which they wore constantly without washing themnote , and because musket balls travel far slower and have less penetrating power, bits of clothing could often be dragged into the wound.

In more futuristic scenarios, the bullet might be laced with harmful substances, made of radioactive material, set to detonate inside the target, or be such an Abnormal Ammo to be more threatening than the blood loss from subsequent removal.

See also Annoying Arrows when this trope is applied to other types of projectiles. Contrast Heal It With Fire.


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    Anime And Manga 
  • Gunslinger Girl. Triela has to remove the bullet from her handler Hilshire after he's wounded carrying out an assassination mission. With a pocket knife, in a hotel room, without anesthetic.

    Comic Books 
  • A Golden Age Batman story had Robin getting a bullet out of Batman's shoulder.
    • In an earlier issue, this was subverted when Batman, as Bruce Wayne, just went to a doctor to get a bullet out. When the doc asked him how he could have shot himself when there were no powder marks, Bruce just handwaved it by saying he did funny things sometimes.

  • In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Stephen Maturin operates on himself to extract a ball round. Justified in that he is after a piece of his shirt that he fears will infect the wound. We even get to see his assistant match the extracted fragment to the hole in the shirt.
  • Averted in an unusual fashion in Iron Man. Tony Stark ends up with his heart damaged by shrapnel, and instead of having the fragments removed, which would endanger his life, he gets an electromagnetic thingamajig implanted to keep the bits from killing him. He finally goes and does it at the end of the third film.
  • In Bill Cosby's opus Leonard Part 6, we're treated to an even more heroically pain-resistant hero: Leonard, having been shot, removes the bullets himself, his trusty manservant only standing by with surgical tools and a mirror. The bullet is then placed in a large and almost full jar of other bullets that have been extracted from him over the course of his spy career.
  • Subverted in The Green Hornet: Britt is shot in the shoulder as Green Hornet, but obviously can't go to the hospital lest he give away his Secret Identity. So he tells Lenore to dig the bullet out with a kitchen knife (while he bites down on a spatula), but even the heat from the sterilized knife causes him to wuss out. They end up having Kato (in costume) drive up and "shoot" Britt at a public event, which lets him safely go to the hospital and makes it less likely that people will think he's the Hornet.
    • However, this means that Reid has to spend a day or so with a bullet in his shoulder and not let anyone know about it. Yikes.
  • At the beginning of The Bourne Identity the fishing boat's medic digs two bullets out of the unconscious Jason Bourne's back.
  • Inverted in The World Is Not Enough, where leaving the bullet in results in superpowers. The Dragon, Renard, was shot in the head by MI6, the bullet didn't kill him, but it is slowly drifting towards his medulla oblongata which will eventually kill him. Unfortunately for Bond, this somehow causes him to feel no pain and become stronger.
  • In Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the female lead sucks out a bullet the male lead had taken earlier. Not only would this be likely to cause both tissue damage and risk infection from all the saliva, but she would get blood all over herself in the process. Fortunately the movie's realism tends to not be very consistent.
  • Justified in the Runaway where the Big Bad is armed with a Hand Cannon firing heat-seeking microshells. One of them ends up in a cop's arm but fails to explode, and the protagonist has to remove it for fear it will detonate before they get her to the hospital.
  • Robert De Niro has a bullet removed from his body in Ronin while simultaneously instructing his buddies step-by-step on how to do the procedure. After the excruciating surgery, De Niro's character says "I think I'll pass out now" and does.
  • In the Mr. Bean movie, as usual for Mr. Bean, after a series of misunderstandings, he ends up in an emergency room in a doctor's outfit, at which point the other doctors and nurses expect him to retrieve a bullet from the police chief's body. As soon as he does (before and after some Squick), amazingly, the chief's flat lining vital signs immediately stabilize, at which point he regains consciousness, and is apparently going to be just fine afterward. Cue applause from doctors.
  • After the first shootout of The Killer, Ah Jong has some bullets taken out of him by Fung Sei at the church. It is painful as hell.
  • Carolina digs a bullet out of the Mariachi's arm following the Tarasco Bar shootout from Desperado.
  • Averted in Speed: early on Harry gets shot by the villain, and later mentions that the bullet is still inside him.
  • Possibly averted in X-Men: First Class. After Charles is accidentally hit in the spine by a bullet deflected by Erik, Erik pulls the bullet out using his powers. It's entirely possible (even likely) that the act of pulling the bullet out is what makes Charles a paraplegic in the original trilogy.

  • In The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman, Mrs. Pollifax (a little old lady spy) and a fellow agent called Farrell are captured by the enemy. Farrell is shot in the shoulder during an attempt to throw himself off a cliff to avoid questioning, and as his condition worsens, much is made of how the bullet must be removed before it kills him. As soon as this is done (not by a doctor, in the rather unsanitary environment of a prison cell), Farrell's health begins to improve.
  • Subverted in a story told to the Orkney children in The Once and Future King, in which a king has a bullet-like projectile hit him at the base of his skull while fighting in the war. It had to stay in there, because no doctor could remove it without killing him. Unfortunately, he wasn't left much better off, seeing as any serious rise in blood pressure could still kill him from the wound. He ends up dying when he hears that Jesus Christ had been crucified and he took his sword and ran from his home in fury to save his Savior, the anger causing his heart rate to spike enough to kill him.
  • Justified in the second book of the Apprentice Adept series: Red has shot Stile with a bullet that, in Proton, is a tracer for a bomb robot, and in Phaze is a basilisk amulet that will activate the second it gets to Phaze.

    Live Action TV 
  • Averted in House when a police officer has fragments of a bullet lodged in his skull. The team desperately wants to do an MRI, and House shoots a corpse to prove that an MRI's magnetism makes it impossible. The bullet gets violently ripped out of the corpses skull and breaks the MRI.
    • While most materials commonly used in munitions aren't ferromagnetic, Foreman specifically states that the particular bullet used was. More often than not, the actual type of bullet used isn't known, so they'd be gambling with his life. Also, House tends to play it fast and loose with MRI-related physics. While shifting, the bullet wouldn't likely have ripped out of the skull, but would slowly burn during the scanning process.
  • In the first-season Harper's Island episode "Gasp," a physician directs his friend (and romantic rival) to remove a bullet from his shoulder. "You have to get the bullet out" he (incorrectly) insists.
  • Subverted in the final episode of Firefly. Simon is shot in the leg, and doesn't have the bullet removed until the end of the episode, and with somewhat sophisticated imaging and removal tools to minimize damage.
    • Simon does remove a bullet from Kaylee's stomach wound during the pilot, but as part of a much longer surgical procedure that isn't shown on-screen and (most likely) involved a lot more than just pulling the bullet out.
    • In "Safe" Zoe removes a bullet from Book's shoulder (Simon is too busy being kidnapped at the moment), but that isn't the end of it. Zoe is not a trained surgeon, so while she can remove the bullet and bandage and clean the wound, the damage inflicted by the bullet would still eventually kill Book unless he got professional medical help.
  • In a season 2 episode of LOST, Sawyer digs a bullet out of his shoulder with his fingers. This one is justified in that a) this causes him more problems than it solves, including a nasty infection, and b) Sawyer isn't a doctor.
    • Dealt with a little better in two later episodes, where after the bullet is removed the hole is cleaned and stitched.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • In "The I in Team," Spike is shot with a tracer, apparently deeply embedded, and it has to be removed quickly by the team. Justified because a tracer isn't a proper bullet and Spike is a vampire, without the same medical concerns as a human.
    • In the episode "Villains," Willow magics out the bullet that hit Buffy, but it's OK because she witch-fus all of her wounds closed at the same time.
  • The Bionic Woman remake justifies this: Jaime's nanomachine-based Healing Factor isn't programmed to handle the situation, and it's actually pushing the bullet deeper inside her.
  • CSI:
    • Averted with an attorney who was shot in the head. Her doctors had left the bullet in place for years due to its dangerous location near the basilar artery of her brain, but later needed to remove it because it had shifted position over time and was sure to become fatal soon. She tells Sara that she honestly doesn't expect to survive the operation. She lives through the surgery, but the belatedly-extracted bullet provides new clues that exposes her as a murderer.
    • Also averted in an episode guest starring Roger Daltrey. A mobster, long thought dead, decides to come back to take revenge on the thugs who tried to kill him after a mob doctor tells him that the bullet they put in him is pressing on an artery and will likely kill him within weeks, but cannot be removed without killing him due to its location. He explains this to Catherine while laying in a hospital bed after having a heart attack while in police custody... and then she shows him the bullet, saying that mob doctors become mob doctors "because they suck".
  • Averted variation on CSI NY in 'Officer Blue'. Mac needed a bullet that had lodged inside a horse when a mounted officer was shot to death. He knew it would likely kill the animal in the process. Mac did manage to stall the surgery long enough that the horse did survive.
  • The Listener: Zig-Zagged in "Desperate Hours," in which Toby and Oz get kidnapped and forced to help a man who was shot. The kidnapper makes Toby perform surgery to remove the bullet, which he believes is the only way to save the man's life, despite the fact that Toby is a paramedic. Toby gets them to call Olivia, an actual surgeon, who advises that the safest way to handle the bullet wound is just to stitch it up and leave the bullet in. Then Toby finds the bullet lodged against an artery; removing it could either be necessary to save him or make things fatally worse. They end up removing the bullet to find little damage in the artery, meaning he's in the clear. He then goes into cardiac arrest and dies anyway.
  • An episode of New Amsterdam has John help an old colleague who is dying of lead poisoning from a bullet that was never extracted.
  • Bull Randleman has to have a Dutch farmer do this to him after he is wounded and stuck behind enemy lines. Technically not a bullet (it was shrapnel from an exploding British tank), but the concept remains the same.
  • In the Supernatural episode "Death's Door", Sam and Dean take the fact that the hospital staff was not rushing to remove the bullet as confirmation that said staff had given up hope of saving the victim Bobby Singer. Also, the Reaper that comes for Bobby tells him that the bullet in his head is killing his brain.
    • Played straight in "Born Under A Bad Sign" where Jo digs a bullet out of Dean's shoulder so he does not need to seek further medical attention.
  • In "The Walking Dead" Herschel Greene insists they have to get the bullet out of Carl, who has been accidentally shot.
  • Deconstructed in one Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, when a couple stumbles across a man trying to get into their car having mistaken it for his own due to intoxication and the effects of a knife in his groin. When he collapses they promptly call 911 (good), pull the knife out (bad), and stick the knife back in to try plugging the wound when he starts bleeding out (worse).
  • Burn Notice does this all the time. Whenever someone is shot on that show, it is always treated as a priority to get the bullet out, and it is also assumed that doing so will save the person, often all by itself. The finale to season six contained a notable example.
  • In Sons of Anarchy season 1, a very unfortunate Irishman gets shot in the buttocks. Since he's a wanted criminal in most parts of the world, they cannot take him to the hospital, so they take him to the Sons' clubhouse and instantly start digging up the bullet with the help of pliers and whiskey. This goes just as well as you'd expect, and once they get the bullet out, he starts gushing blood all over the place.
  • Justified in an episode of M*A*S*H, where the 4077 gets a patient that has a live grenade in him.
  • In Castle, Castle becomes an impromptu bullet-remover for his own father, because going to the hospital would compromise his mission.
  • Doctors on NY Med told a shooting victim's mother that they would leave the bullet in her son, as it had lodged itself in his calf and would do no further damage. The mother, believing in this trope, immediately put up a fuss.
  • In Underbelly, Johnny Ibrahim's mates take him to a vet to have a bullet removed, as the corrupt police officers have declared that there are to be no shootings in King's Cross, and a hospital would have to report the shooting to the police. Then they take him to a hospital.
  • Subverted in Boston Legal. A man is shot while robbing a convenience store, and a man who later appeared at a hospital with a bullet wound in the same area is arrested and the police try to get the bullet out to see if it's a match for the one in the store owner's gun. He successfully takes them to court to allow him to leave the bullet in. He is later given the card for an under the radar option to get the bullet out.
  • In the Smallville episode "Extinction", Clark Kent is shot with a kryptonite bullet, so his parents have to get it out before the kryptonite kills him. As soon as they get it out and take the bullet a safe distance away, his wound heals up.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • Played straight in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, where a gangster was shot in the chest, miraculously survived and had an operation to remove the bullet, or else he'd die in six months. Justified by the bullet's location, extremely close to the aorta.
    • But averted with Von Karma in the first game. The villain has had a bullet lodged in their shoulder for 15 years, and its presence is key to solving the case.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 3, Snake is able to dig out bullets, arrows and various other projectiles from his body with his knife. Doing this ingame will cause the wounds to heal faster, but leaving them over time will cause the wounds to naturally heal around them, leaving the projectile in the for remainder of the game.
  • In Fallout 2, Marcus the Mutant carries a substantial amount of munitions in his hide. If you bring him to the leading doctor in Vault City (which requires substantial authority, as mutants are usually not allowed inside), the doctor will dig out several dozen rounds (fully reusable) of various ammunition and an undetonated frag grenade. The doctor mentions that Marcus was in a very real risk of suffering fatal lead poisoning.
  • In Far Cry 2, when a player's health drops to a critical level they must perform emergency first aid before they bleed out by, of all things, ripping/cutting bullets out of their body with pliers or a knife, accompanied by a blood spurt. Then again, another healing animation involves resetting the ulna bone that is poking out of the elbow socket, so it's not like this game can really double as a trauma surgeon simulation.

  • In Cuanta Vida, Scout is shot in the arm. He doesn't want to go to the Medic, so Pyro removes it for him. Possibly justified as Pyro (probably) isn't a doctor, and might not know any better.
  • In Last Res0rt, Scout Arael in her civilian wear removes a sniper's bullet from Jigsaw's chest — it may be justified not only because we don't know if it's some kind of futuristic bullet, but also in that Jigsaw is a vampire — so it's possible she was "staked" by the bullet, requiring its removal.
  • Possibly justified in FreakAngels, as apparently the bullet remaining in the wound screws up their Healing Factor somehow or other, and in any case the two individuals we see getting shot are neither in the presence of The Medic or especially well-equipped with brains.
  • Subverted and lampshaded in Zombie Ranch; you think this is what Chuck is going to do when he's operating on Brett's shoulder. Instead, he just yanks a piece of Brett's shirt out of the wound.
    Chuck: "Take that bullet out, are you crazy? Guess it goes without sayin', but...you folks watch way too much T.V."

    Web Original 
  • We're Alive features this when Saul is shot and the bullet is removed without proper tools, antiseptics, or morphine. Plus the only one actually trained to perform the operation is Saul himself.
  • The Salvation War has a scene where the angel Michel is demanding a bullet be taken out of him. Justified since angels have healing powers that have already healed over the bullet wound and that said bullet was an iron round that was burning inside of him.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons episode "Simple Simpson", after Homer (as the Pie Man) gets shot in the arm, Lisa later finds him in the kitchen digging the bullet out of his arm with a butcher knife, while naming the things the knife is touching (including "vein", "nerve" and "bone").
  • Played with in The Venture Bros.. When Phantom Limb rescues Brock Samson, he gives the following comment:
    Phantom Limb: No, don't get up. You've been shot. Sadly, it wasn't fatal. I've removed the bullet and three others, a blowgun dart, two sharks teeth, the tip of a bayonet, a twisted paper clip and a meager handful of buckshot. You may want to learn to duck.
  • In Justice League: Doom, Superman is shot with a kryptonite bullet which created an interesting problem: It must be removed because it's killing him on the inside, but he's still as tough on the outside, making traditional surgical tools ineffective.
  • Subverted in Archer. Sterling gets shot by border patrol and is taken to an unlicensed Mexican veterinarian. He removes the bullets and sets Archer up on an IV... only to tell him none of what he did helped at all and he needs to see a real doctor as quickly as possible.

    Real Life 
  • This features in the cases of several United States presidents:
    • Most researchers agree that when James Garfield was shot, probing for the bullet (with dirty instruments, and not even coming close to finding it) did more to kill him than the bullet itself. Not helping matters was that the doctors were afraid that the bullet punctured his intestines and decided to administer food and whiskey.... Rectally. James Garfield lost 100 pounds from starvation by the time he died. The assassin tried to use this in his defense at trial, but was convicted and hanged anyway.
      Charles Guiteau: The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.
    • William McKinley's doctors elected to remove only one of two bullets, fearing they would do more harm than good. They had the right idea, but he inevitably died of gangrene anyway, because the shot had punctured his intestines and antibiotics had not yet been discovered.
    • Theodore Roosevelt got shot and — remembering what happened to McKinley, who was his predecessor — decided not to have the bullet removed, and survived. (In his case, the bullet was too afraid of Roosevelt to kill him.)
    • Ronald Reagan ended up being a rather unusual case where politics ended up playing a part. After he was shot through the armpit, doctors decided to probe for the bullet since they did not have the equipment to find out what it had damaged. After fifteen minutes of not finding it, the doctor doing the probing wanted to stop, since Reagan was a very old man and it was unlikely his body could handle too much. They decided to continue, partly out of fear that the media would claim incompetent doctors had left a bullet inside the President. This later turned out to be a good decision, because the shot was an explosive one that had failed to detonate yet. That's one of the few situations when we really do Have To Get The Bullet Out.
    • Andrew Jackson had at least one bullet in him for 19 years that surgeons didn't remove because they were afraid of causing more damage. Perhaps not the only one as he was described as having so many bullets in him he rattled.
      • He eventually begged a doctor to remove the bullet because it had been causing him chronic pain.
  • When Wild Bill Hickok was murdered, the bullet passed through his head and lodged in the wrist of another man at the table. The man left the bullet there the rest of his life, and apparently reveled in the fact that had the bullet that killed Wild Bill in his arm.
  • Steve Irwin reportedly pulled out the stingray barb that had punctured his heart. Some speculate that he may have survived to get medical help if it had been left in place.
  • An elderly man in Britain went to the doctor complaining of dizziness, and as part of the tests they took an X-ray of the man's head. The results showed a bullet lodged at the base of the skull. When the man was asked if he was aware that he carried a bullet in his neck he said, "No, I had no idea. It must have been there since WWII, because I haven't been shot at since!" The doctor decided that in that case, it would probably be best to leave the bullet alone. There are several other stories where doctors discover bullets from old wounds still inside a person, often without the patient ever realizing it.
  • When there's no pressing need to remove a foreign object, it's common to take a wait-and-see approach. If it is necessary to remove the object, it's safer to do so after the immediate trauma has already healed.
  • There is also a geographical version of this trope: live ordnance from World War I still littering the fields of France. Because quality-control standards were just so poor at the time (it's estimated that one third of all artillery shells fired during the British Somme Offensive of 1916 were defective), Farmers have had a century's experience of plowing up bullets and shells by now. More tragically, former war zones in several third-world countries are full of land mines and no one has the money or authority to remove them. Occasionally an unlucky villager will step on one and get blown up.
    • The grounds of the Vimy Ridge War Memorial are a particular example of this. The artillery bombardment (immediately prior to the taking of this ground from German forces in 1917) consisted of over a million shells, a (relatively) small portion of which failed to explode immediately. There remain fenced-off fields, pitted with grass-filled craters from a century before, where visitors are not permitted to walk. Sheep graze in some of these areas, and every once in a long while...
    • It's not just war zones, former artillery training areas usually leave some projectiles behind. Fortunately, since they are training grounds the rounds are usually non-explosive.
    • Over twenty years on and in the middle of a whole new war, Afghans are still being killed by Soviet mines.
  • There have been multiple real life cases where people end up in the emergency room and/or field hospital with live grenades embedded somewhere not immediately lethal. In these cases the object must be removed ASAP, preferably with a bomb squad on hand and often with hard-to-replace equipment (or personnel) well out of the blast radius.
  • For more Real Life examples: This usally only done if the bullet is pressing and/or pierced something vital. If the bullet is resting right on a nerve or major blood vessel, they'll pull it out because it's better that it happens in the OR rather than days, weeks, months, or years later, as it could shift.
  • Averted notably in one World War 2 officer. Surgeons were looking at a bullet that somehow had lodged itself in the knee of an Allied Officer with no problems. The Doctor advised against pulling it out as even the smallest probe he had would be too big to not damage something important.