A Murder Mystery trope.
The victim and the attacker are both actors, rehearsing or acting out a scene with a prop weapon. Unbeknownst to either, a third party has switched out the prop weapon for a real weapon, and the attacker kills the victim before realizing the switch.
- Toyed with in Detective Conan. An otaku shoots himself in the head with a real gun in public, apparently thinking it was a fake one. For worse, he had just shot a cosplayer under the same belief. This is intentional: the cosplayer who was shot is the one who tricked that otaku into first shooting him (he was wearing protection as a part of his outfit) and then shooting himself, in revenge for having caused the death of his younger brother.
- Played straight in the The Kindaichi Case Files: One case got kicked off as an actress died from drinking a glass of wine that has been poisoned. Later averted when in the same case, a prop has been switched with a murder weapon that was about to be used but the would-be victim blocked it in time.
- In The Maze Agency story "The Death of Justice Girl", the actress playing Justice Girl is killed when the murderer swaps out a pistol loaded with blanks for one loaded with live ammo.
- Animal House: As a prank, Bluto and D-Day get Flounder to shoot Neidermeyer's horse in Dean Wormer's office, the two formers assured that there are blanks in the gun. Flounder doesn't have the heart to shoot the horse so he aims it in the air and fires. The horse promptly drops dead of a heart attack. Bluto and D-Day panic when they hear the horse fall with a thud and see it dead on the floor.
Bluto: Holy shit!
D-Day: There were blanks in that gun!
Flounder: I didn't even point the gun at him!
Bluto: Holy shit!
D-Day: [checks the chamber] They were blanks!
Flounder: He must have had a heart attack!
Bluto: Holy shit!
[all scream and run away]
- In The Clones of Bruce Lee, the gold-smuggling director's yes-man suggests using this to kill the Bruce Lee Clone they suspect to be a secret agent. As Spoony pointed out in his review, this is very badly Harsher in Hindsight, since Bruce's son Brandon was killed on the set of The Crow by a weapons malfunction.
- In Curse of the Headless Horseman, one of the re-enactors is wounded when a real bullet is placed in the chamber of one of the stage guns and wings him in the arm during the daily shootout.
- A variation in the Soviet comedy "Deja Vu". The prop guns are fake, but the assassin shoots the actor with a silent gun from the box at the exact moment he's "shot" by the firing squad on the scene. This way the assassin has enough time to leave before anyone realises the actor is actually dead, and then, hopefully, the investigation would assume that one of the prop guns was to blame and waste time checking that version.
- In a deleted scene of Diamonds Are Forever, Kidd and Wint fire a "Bang!" Flag Gun at Shady Tree, and then the second shot is a live bullet.
- Happens in the Elvis Presley film Frankie and Johnny with a prop gun that's been loaded with real bullets.
- The Gallows: On October 29, 1993, Beatrice High School student Charlie Grimille is accidentally hanged and killed after a prop malfunction during a presentation of the play The Gallows. His parents, along with the whole audience, witness the tragic event.
- In Game Night, after being it was not All Part of the Show, her brother-in-law was kidnapped, Annie goes "This gun is real? Oh, bang bang..." and to her shock, shoots a bullet on the ceiling. And worse, the shock makes her drop the gun, which fires again, this time hitting her husband's arm!
- In George of the Jungle, Lyle has a small pistol and an identical-looking cigarette lighter. At one point, the Swahili guides get them confused and give him the gun when he asks for the lighter — which has serious consequences when he aims the "lighter" at George as a bluff and pulls the trigger. Fortunately, the ensuing gunshot wound isn't fatal (as the narrator explains, George is The Hero, so he can't die), but Lyle still goes to prison.
- In Get Over It Kelly playfully brandishes a crossbow found in a high school prop room, which turns out to be a functional weapon, as she learns the hard way when she accidentally shoots Berke in the arm.
- In Here Come the Girls, during a performance of the titular in-universe play, serial killer Jack the Slasher tries to use this as an opportunity to murder actor Stanley Snodgrass. He uses the actual telescoping prop knife by mistake.
- Lampshaded and then inverted in Knives Out. Ransom tries to stab Marta in the chest, only to realize that the knife is a prop knife.
- The shackle bed trap in Madhouse (1974). The shackles are supposed to be breakaway, and the descending canopy has a cutoff switch, but both of these safety features have been disabled.
- In The Man Who Knew Too Little, Wallace gets embroiled in a political assassination plot, but thinks it's all experimental, interactive theatre. Plenty of Black Comedy comes from him casually threatening people with a real gun which he thinks is just a prop. He actually does shoot a wall and a phone, and mistakes the bullet holes for really good special effects.
- This is the central plot point of Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star.
- In The Prestige, Borden emphasizes that a bullet-catching trick where the (bulletless) gun is fired by an audience member is still dangerous because the volunteer can slip something down the barrel and fire it for real. Guess what happens.
- In Shaun of the Dead, not only is the rifle displayed at the Winchester pub real, but it's also loaded.
- In The Show, the Greek's plan to murder Robin involves sneaking into Robin's performance — a staging of the Salome story — and replace the prop sword with a real sword, thus lopping off Robin's head. The actress playing Salome notices this at the last second when she sees the Greek's dress shoes.
- In Sisters of Death, the murderer swaps the dummy bullet used in the Initiation Ceremony for a live round.
- The Uncanny: In 1936, in Hollywood, the actor Valentine De'ath replaces the blade of a fake pendulum to kill his actress wife, and give his young mistress and aspiring actress a chance. The cat of his wife avenges her.
- This trope can also apply to blunt instruments. In the non-fiction book The Art of Coarse Acting by Michael Green, which sounds like it ought to be a guidebook for starring in an Awful British Sex Comedy but is actually a combination memoir and Affectionate Parody of amateur dramatics tropes, author Michael Green expounds on the importance of viewing realistic-looking coshes and blackjacks supplied by the props department with grave suspicion.
- Happens in the Joanne Fluke / Hannah Swensen mystery Cherry Cheesecake Murder, when the director of a movie shoots himself with a supposed-to-be-not-loaded prop gun, to attempt to demonstrate the emotion required in the scene to the actors.
- Caroline Graham's novel Death of a Hollow Man has the actor playing Salieri in a performance of Amadeus fatally injured when someone removes the protective tape from the blade of the prop razor that the character cuts his throat with. This stayed the same when the story was adapted into an episode of the Midsomer Murders TV show also written by Caroline Graham.
- The Polish book Dwie "Kobry". A character in a live TV production is supposed to be killed by a faulty electrical socket, but someone had the socket secretly connected to the electrical grid and the actor is actually electrocuted.
- Ngaio Marsh used this trope several times:
- In Enter A Murderer has a prop gun used for an on-stage killing loaded without the actors' knowledge.note
- Swing Brother Swing uses a sneaky variation of this. It's suggested that a musician was murdered during an on-stage gangster routine by a dart, not a bullet, being loaded into a blank-firing pistol. But actually he acted the death as planned but was surreptitiously stabbed to death afterwards while playing dead before the scene ended, so everyone thought the on-stage killing had been real.
- Light Thickens has a loose variation, in which the fake severed head of Macbeth is replaced on the end of a pole with the head of the decapitated murder victim.
- Done by accident in a Selby the Talking Dog short story, where Selby accidentally glues up a retracting knife and then has to save Mrs. Trifle from it.
- The latest Spy School book has a scene where Ben and the others review the secret files of Croatan and find out that they tricked John Wilkes Booth into assassinating Abraham Lincoln while thinking it was All Part of the Show, and that his gun wasn't loaded.
- In There Was an Old Woman by Ellery Queen, one man challenges his brother to a pistol duel, so friends replace all the bullets with blanks, but somebody else puts bullets back in the gun before the duel.
- A Noodle Incident in the The Thirteen Problems has former police commissioner Sir Henry describe a case where someone pulled an antique pistol off the wall and jokingly pointed it at someone else and pulled the trigger. It was fully repaired and loaded. The investigation had to look at who had the opportunity to tamper with the weapon, and who brought the conversation round to the point where this seemed like a good idea.
- The initial murder in Witness in Death is accomplished in this manner during a stage production of Witness for the Prosecution. It's subverted when it turns out that the actress who did the stabbing was the one who switched the prop knife with the real one, and knew very well what she was doing when she stabbed him. Asshole Victim: He also was a womanizer who slipped date rape drugs into the drinks of the women he slept with and after the murderer told him that a young actress in the production was their daughter in hopes that he would not commit incest, he not only went right ahead and sleeps with his own daughter, he suggested to the mother that they have a threesome! That drove the actress to switch the knives.
- The Judge Dee short story "The Wrong Sword" has a family of street performers who used a fake sword with a retracting point and a hollow blade filled with pig's blood in one of their acts. Before somebody swapped it for a real sword and caused the father to stab his son in the chest.
- Inverted in Wyrd Sisters, when the Duke loses his mind and begins stabbing people, including himself, with a prop knife. No-one is hurt, but he's convinced that everyone he strikes is dead, and even insists he's now a ghost to Death himself. The discrepancy is soon resolved when he attempts to use his ghostly powers to fly.
- One 1000 Ways to Die clip has a magician killed this way while performing the bullet catch illusion.
- Black Adder: The Black Adder tries this one, but changes his mind when he learns the victim has information he thinks can prove he's the real heir. The information ends up proving the opposite.
- An episode of Bonanza has Hoss getting framed for murder when the blank rounds from a prop gun get switched for real bullets and the blanks turn up in his saddlebag.
- Used in an episode of the 1994 revival of Burke's Law, entitled "Who Killed the Starlet?" A woman is in the bath while listening to some music, when a killer sneaks in and drops her boombox into the bathtub, killing her. It turns out that the killer and lady are merely actors on a movie set, and they're filming a murder scene. Then it turns out the boombox had been plugged into a live outlet by an unknown party, and the actress in the bathtub really is dead. But the boom box was plugged in after the murder; the victim was actually poisoned.
- Colonel March of Scotland Yard: In "Passage of Arms", the killer removes the the safety cap on his fencing foil—revealing a sharpened tip underneath—and attempts to stab his opponent during a fencing bout.
- CSI: NY had a case that bore a few similarities to the Real Life John-Erik Hexum case. An Assassin-esque game was going on around New York in which people eliminated each other from said game with water guns/balloons. One player, an aspiring actor, got extremely annoyed because the eliminator used a fake casting agency setup and made him go through the whole interview, thus humiliating him. He got back at the guy by hoping to scare him with a gun loaded with blanks. He didn't know that a blank gun fired at point-blank range can be as lethal as a gun with real bullets.
- Castle had two variants:
- While the two guns used by the victim and the "murderer" were both real, they were so wildly inaccurate (as a disgruntled cop and a laser sight would attest) that there was no chance of one party hitting the other. The third party hid in a tree nearby.
- Another time this is played with when the murderer modifies an actual prop gun to fire bullets.
- And another one earlier in the series, also with a real gun but the shooter didn't know there was a bullet in the barrel.
- Diagnosis: Murder featured a morning show staging a shooting between the hosts as a publicity stunt. Someone switched the real bullets for blanks and the cohost gets shot.
- Ellery Queen: A movie is being filmed based on Ellery and the man playing Ellery is killed by a gun that was supposed to be filled with blanks.
- A non-lethal version happens in Hogan's Heroes. When the Krauts capture a famous Hollywood actor, Hogan decides to concoct the making of a German propaganda film to pull off the destruction of a bridge. The explosives he swore were fake... weren't. Same he didn't tell the actor this until just before the boom...
- Law & Order had a similar case, where an actor in a web video series is shot for real while filming an episode. The police investigate how the blanks could have been replaced with real bullets, and who would have done it. It turns out the gun really was loaded with blanks, and the death was just from poor gun safety: no one in the studio realized that blanks can still be deadly from that close.
- Magnum, P.I.: Happens during a shoot for the In-Universe film adaptation of Tahiti Kill.
- Midsomer Murders:
- Happens in the episode "Death of a Hollow Man", based on the novel above under Literature.
- And in "The Magician's Nephew", where the spikes inside an illusionist's 'Cabinet of Death' are coated with a fast-acting poison.
- And in "Send in the Clowns", the killer sabotages the retraction mechanism in a trick knife used in a sword cabinet routine, resulting in the volunteer from the audience being fatally stabbed.
- Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries:
- In "Framed for Murder", the killer swaps the prop knife being used in a movie for the real knife used for taking stills. When the director demonstrates to the actress how he wants her to stab the leading man, he stabs himself in the heart.
- In "Death Defying Feats", the killer sabotages the prop guillotine being used in a magic act to turn it into a real one.
- Monk also did it. The weapon was switched after the victim had already collapsed, due to peanut oil on the apple he had eaten. The actress accused of murder rightly points out that she would have been able to feel the difference in weight and balance between the prop knife and the real one.
- In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "The Final Curtain", a gun loaded with blanks for a play has one live bullet, which really kills one of the actors in the final scene. Murdoch eventually realises that while nobody had the opportunity to switch the bullet, the person who actually fired it was able to switch the entire gun.
- New Tricks: In "Final Curtain", the UCOS team looks into the death of an actor who was shot dead during a performance of a play. The gun was loaded with blanks, but a piece of metal lodged in the barrel killed him.note The death was originally ruled an accident, but new evidence makes the team reopen the case.
- Done in Oz during the prison production of Macbeth, though with a shank. Keller promises both Beecher and Schillinger hell replace their prop knife with a real shank for their characters final battle. The real weapon goes to Beecher.
- Psych has used this plot, during a telenovela episode. Until Shawn is able to prove otherwise, everyone is convinced that the actor with the knife was obviously completely responsible (and dumb enough to stab someone in the chest on live television). In true Psych fashion, proving his hypothesis almost resulted in Shawn's own death by not-fake prop weapon, this time a nail gun.
- An episode of The Professionals centered around a gun used in a crime being dumped in the prop bin of a theater company.
- Rizzoli & Isles: In "No More Drama in My Life", the Victim of the Week is an amateur actor killed when the killer packs ball bearings into the blank round being used in a prop gun during rehearsal.
- Shakespeare & Hathaway - Private Investigators:
- A Smallville episode had someone put live ammo into a gun that was going to used to "shoot" the lead actress in a movie filmed in the town. The would-be murderer learned about Clark's powers when he somehow saw him catch the bullet.
- In the Tales from the Crypt episode "Yellow," a soldier caught deserting is told by the general (who is his father) that the firing squad will use blanks, the soldier can play dead and escape when the army leaves. At the last minute, when the soldier sees his father look away, he finds out this trope is in effect.
- In the 1980s version of the series V (1983), when an alien member of La Résistance is sword dueling with a human, the leader Diana turns on the plasma swords, making them lethal.
- Whodunnit? (UK): In "Before Your Very Eyes", a Stage Magician's Lovely Assistant is murdered when the killer sabotages the sword cabinet, resulting in her being stabbed when the magician thrusts a sword through the cabinet.
- The Honky Tonk Man almost killed Jake Roberts when the prop guy got a real guitar instead of a prop.
- The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: In "The Adventure of the Notorious Canary Trainer", a criminal plans to fake his suicide so he can disappear. However, his partner double-crosses him and replaces the blanks in his revolver with real bullets.
- At the climax of the stage version of Moulin Rouge!, Christian secretly loads the prop gun his character uses in the Show Within a Show with real bullets, planning to kill himself because Satine has rejected him.
- The climax Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy centres on a play within a play, acted by the loved ones of a murdered man, as well as the murderers. The former stab the latter to death with real daggers instead of prop daggers.
- In one mission in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Cesare plans to have his Dragon kill an actor who is having a relationship with his sister by using a real spear instead of a fake one to kill him during a play. Ezio and his assassins take the place of the actors and stop the plan.
- A case in a CSI game involves an actress being killed on stage, supposedly by a prop gun. However, there are several inconsistencies: the man in charge of all props made the bullets and loaded them himself; the actress firing the prop weapon never actually pointed at the murder victim. It turns out the killer was the dead woman's husband, who found out that she was having an affair with the other actress. He fired a rifle from a balcony at the moment the prop gun was to go off.
- In the Hitman: Blood Money mission "Curtains Down", Agent 47 has the option of switching a prop World War I pistol for a genuine one in working condition to kill a target, who is to be executed in the play Tosca. (At the time you first gain access to the level, this will be the only method of completing the mission with a Silent Assassin rating since you won't have access to a suppressor for your rifle yet.)
- For bonus irony points, the scene in Tosca in which this takes place involves Mario Cavaradossi, who is played by your target, being killed for real as a result of bastard police boss Scarpia going back on his word that he would let Mario live if Tosca slept with him and informing the firing squad to use real guns.
- In Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, at the end of the mission "Final Cut" an actor playing a serial killer is peppered with shots by the actress playing his victim. Turns out that the gun was real and the actor has really died, as he doesn't get up once the filming finishes and the New Game+ intro cutscene depicts his bullet-ridden corpse.
- In the bonus chapter of Elephant Games Mystery Trackers 7: Blackrow's Secret]] it's revealed that director Alfred Richardson was in unrequited love with actress Emily Lockwood. Growing frustrated with her refusal of his advances, he switched the prop revolver with a real one, resulting in the fatal shooting of her fiancé Jeffrey Dean.
- Ace Attorney:
- Subverted in the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game, done to distract the player. The victim is killed with a large prop used for the TV show he co-starred in. Phoenix tries to argue that if it's a prop, it shouldn't have worked, but we realize that the blade itself is actually reasonably sharp. Subverted further in that the prop wasn't the murder weapon, it was a really sharp fence the victim fell on. The giveaway is that the only possible suspects aren't strong enough to have shoved the prop into the victim's chest with any sort of force, ruling it out as a murder weapon.
- Yet another subversion occurs in the second case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice. The prosecution's case is that the defendant murdered the victim with a real sword that had been swapped with a prop one. The real sword is the murder weapon, but the defendant didn't use it.
- Inversion: In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Gordito's father is killed during his gunslinger circus act because PETA sabotaged his guns before the performance. Had the PETA assassin UNLOADED Gordito's father's guns, the veteran shooter would have noticed the weight difference and presumably halted the act or loaded them. He sabotaged the guns so they were fully loaded, but were incapable of firing. Played with, since Gordito originally believed that he accidentally killed his father by forgetting to load his gun, and made up the story about PETA in order to sound badass. But then it turns out that PETA really did sabotage his father's gun, and he didn't notice for the reasons listed above.
- In a strip of Savestate, Kade dresses up as a Power Rangers S.P.D. character, complete with a prop sword. The sword is plastic, but Riley notices it's still got a sharp point. When Kade tries to demonstrate it's fake by drawing the point across his arm, he ends up cutting himself.
- The Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoon "People Are Bunny" ends with a passel of hunters in a TV studio opening fire on Daffy. Bugs assures us that they always shoot blanks on TV. Daffy shows up afterwards, his bill swiss-cheesed as he spits out a huge pile of lead shot.
Daffy: "Blanks," he says. Here. Have a handful of blanks! [tosses them in the air] Sheesh!
- While performing a suicide scene in a production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller in Vienna, actor Daniel Hoevels accidentally slit his own neck, as the theatre company's order for the originally sharp knife to be dulled for the stage was overlooked; a police investigation never determined who was responsible, or whether it was due to negligence or a deliberate attempt to kill or injure him. The wound was almost fatal, but Hoevels quickly returned to the stage after emergency treatment in the hospital.
- Never treat a blank in a gun as harmless. They can maim or kill you. Anyone who says otherwise is not your friend. Read the article here on Gun Safety for more details.
- There have even been two sad cases listed in Fatal Method Acting: Brandon Lee, accidentally killed during The Crow because the crew left a cartridge in the barrel before loading the blanks, which then hit his spine; and actor Jon-Erik Hexum, who in-between takes of the show Cover-Up, goofed around with a gun and by firing it into the side of his head, had a blank cause enough trauma to shatter a quarter-sized piece of his skull and propel the pieces into his brain.
- More than 20 illusionists have been killed performing the 'bullet catch' trick. It is generally considered the most dangerous magic trick as so many things can go wrong. Some of those killed were murdered when someone (often their partner/assistant) substituted a live round for the blank or—in earlier days, when single-shot black powder guns were used—placed the ball back in the barrel after it had been removed.