PSA: What you thought were blanks will get someone killed

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Within high risk jobs that deal with small arms, a death while on duty is something that soldiers and cops make a very real realization about, sometime during their careers. However a death in training is one of the hardest tragedies to come to terms with, particularly because it was in training. This is what happened to a 73 year old lady who kindly volunteered her services to the Punta Garda Police Department’s citizen academy in Florida. The scenario involved a force on force training that consisted of an officers handgun loaded with blanks to simulate a law enforcement contact.

Let’s stop there. Blanks. Live rounds. Firearms. Blanks. Live rounds. Firearms. Do not match under casual circumstances.

The audacity of the Chief to almost blame this accident on the storage of ammunition is appalling-

Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis said there was no policy in place for community demonstrations – something that will change. The department has already changed its policy on the storage of ammunition.

Why were blanks and live ammo mixed?

“As you know, we are a very small department. Typically you have one armory, where you have all weapons, all ammunition,” Chief Lewis told NBC 2.

New policy

According to the Punta Gorda Police Department: “We have instituted a new policy for the storing of weapons and ammunition in the department armory. While the previous practice of keeping these items in the same storeroom is not directly related to the events of August 9th, the decision was made to take extra measures to ensure non-lethal weapons are stored in a designated safe which is separate from the armory.”

There are specific reasons why blue guns have come such a long way in development and complexity. Specific reasons why Simunition or other training firearms and parts kits are made so a normal round will not chamber, and if a Simunition round is fired in a live firearm, it expands to the point of locking the breech shut. This development has been painfully built on the lessons and experiences learned from such unnecessary deaths as above. The problem with Simunitions is that they are routinely more expensive than the actual firearms they are representing, which if you are a small town police department like the one mentioned in the article, you probably can’t afford. But even if you can’t afford Simunition guns, there are a myriad of options to choose from, before pointing actual firearms at people in training, and avoiding this live versus blank mix up. Non-firing replica guns, airsoft, an imagination can be a powerful thing in situations such as this.

The Marine Corps learned this very hard lesson in ammunition storage in 2007 when a Recon Marine unloaded a magazine of live 5.56x45mm rounds through a BFA clamped barrel at another Marine in an urban training scenario. The BFA actually stopped the first and second round, but the third one blew it clean off, and the next several rounds killed the Marine on the receiving end. The result of this accident was that units were not allowed to train with blanks and live rounds on the same training day, they’d have to be separated by at least one day.



Miles V

Former Infantry Marine, and currently studying at Indiana University. I’ve written for Small Arms Review and Small Arms Defense Journal, and have had a teenie tiny photo that appeared in GQ. Specifically, I’m very interested in small arms history, development, and Military/LE usage within the Middle East, and Central Asia.

If you want to reach out, let me know about an error I’ve made, something I can add to the post, or just talk guns and how much Grunts love naps, hit me up at miles@tfb.tv


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  • Sianmink

    This was local news here. IMO gross negligence that should result minimum in lost jobs of the officer and supervisor directly responsible and ideally in prosecutions for negligent homicide. Mary wasn’t even involved directly in the scenario, but was an observing bystander when she was shot multiple times.

    There is NO reason that live ammunition should have been anywhere near a public demonstration, and no compelling reason for blanks loaded in handguns capable of firing live ammunition.

  • De Facto

    I know it’s easy to second guess… but how do you mix up live ammo and blanks? They look completely different. Especially if you’re using a revolver – where you (usually) HAVE to load each round individually while loading. If I knew I would be shooting blanks at someone, you can be darn sure I’d look them all over beforehand.

    • 11b

      You’d be surprised- it happens ALL the time in the military. It’s dark, you’re under stress, you’re tired, probably fresh out of basic and don’t know how to run a gun (but think you do). There’s actually very little supervision when loading/firing blanks and rounds get mixed up all the time.

      I once watched a new soldier blow a whole 100rd belt of ‘blanks’ through his M240 at a target- the BFA stopped the first couple but the rest went right on through. Thankfully no one was killed and the target was a shell of a vehicle.

      • KestrelBike

        Holy…..

      • Evan

        Never underestimate the stupidity of boots. We had one fire his SAW at an AAV with Marines in it…that he thought was a target hulk or something.

    • Have you seen any of the articles here on TFB about people energetically disassembling their 5.56 ARs by loading them with .300BLK? Stupid happens.

  • DIR911911 .

    even blanks can kill, Jon-Erik Hexum died on a film set in 84 shooting homself with a blank gun when the wax wad hit him in the head.

    • ostiariusalpha

      Of course, Jon was known to be more than a little cavalier with his handling of the guns on set, but even he might have thought better than to point a gun at his temple (he knew that blanks were dangerous) if he wasn’t exhausted from the long shooting sessions that the Cover Up production schedule was infamous for.

      • James

        Even with a revolver that I just opened up, saw was clear, ran a rod down the barrel and saw was also clear I STILL wouldn’t EVER put the damn thing to my head and pull the trigger. Hell, I wouldn’t even do that with an airsoft gun. People are dumb.

    • Major Tom

      The mythbusters did that one too just using black powder and wadding. They found it was lethal at point blank range.

    • Mr Mxyzptlk

      I have personally seen two instances where people could have been killed by blanks. Both of them were training British ACF/CCF cadets using the L98A1 straight pull bolt action version of the L85A1, which is actually less safe as it doesn’t have a BFA. In the first a fellow instructor was shot point blank in the leg by a cadet and the heat/pressure/debris/whatever split his thigh open with an 8 inch gash. It was a gruesome yet relatively non-life threatening wound, but if it had happened on another part of his body it could have been a very different story.

      With the second, the crimp separated from a blank and was propelled out of the barrel like a bullet. I was instructing and heard the thing whiz pass me and hit the tree behind me. At the time I assumed it was a live round and stopped the exercise to check weapons and investigate. I was able to find the thing in the tree and when I pried it out you could clearly see that it was a half opened crimp. We were also able to match it with the rest of the case which was still jammed inside one of the cadet’s rifles which had to be coaxed out with a cleaning rod and a rock. We shipped the whole batch of blanks back to be inspected.

      • KestrelBike

        Wow, interesting stuff, thanks for sharing!

      • John

        Which troop were you with? I was a gunner in North walsham troop, and i saw some concerning stuff involving the L98A1 as well.

    • Anonymoose

      Brandon Lee died from a blank pushing out a squib bullet that was lodged in the barrel of a revolver used on set.

      • Billy Jack

        & + playing Russian Roulette is the rumor I always heard.

    • Giolli Joker

      Actually, IIRC, he was playing Russian roulette with a revolver with a blank in the cylinder: firing so close to the skull broke a piece of bone that flew through the brain.

      • John Yossarian

        Yes – I remember reading it was the pressure of the gasses that fractured his skull, as he’d had the muzzle directly against his head.

    • Mystick

      I remember that from when I was a little kid – it was my first experience thinking about firearm safety, having not been directly exposed to them at that point.

    • Jim

      I’ve used blanks a number of times in the entertainment field. AT POINT BLANK RANGE, BLANKS ARE LETHAL! There’s no bullet, but the energy from the powder has to go somewhere. Take a pistol loaded with a blank and shoot an aluminum can at point blank range and see what happens. When we stage a shootout, we have a minimum distance of separation and no one is pointing a gun directly at another.

  • Joshua

    most live ammo guns are not capable of cycling on blanks, and most blank adapted guns are modified to either take 6mm blanks which are not compatible with standard ammo, or have an obstruction in the barrel that will destroy the gun before the projectile leaves the barrel.

    how do you mess that up?

    • Major Tom

      A revolver can fire both blank and live ammunition without modification. A small town police department may not have the budget to upgrade to high dollar automatics.

      That doesn’t excuse what happened though.

      • Agitator

        High dollar? Have you compared the prices of Glocks/M&Ps/etc versus modern revolvers?

        • Mr Mxyzptlk

          I suppose that you could argue that they are “high dollar” in comparison to the $0 price tag of a revolver that you already have. The price is even higher if you are talking about buying blank fire conversion kits, especially if they are the safer kind that require more specialist and expensive blank ammunition.

    • Mr Mxyzptlk

      Blank fire guns you are talking about are purpose made blank firers intended more for civilian or theatrical use. Traditionally, military and LE blanks are simply crimped brass that is the same size as a live round, and fire from live fire weapons that are adapted in some way by using something like a BFA or in the case of pistol a different barrel without a locking surface. WIth old systems like this a live round can still be fired from a “blank” weapon, as the chamber has exactly the same geometry.

      Newer systems solve this in the case of rifles by sing blanks with an anular primer that is solid in the middle and a special bolt with an offset firing pin which will not set off a live round, or in the case of pistol by using a replacement barrel with slightly different chamber geometry which will not accept a live round. These sorts of blanks are more expensive than traditional crimped brass blanks, but for a lot of militaries and LE agencies the safety argument is winning out and they are being used more and more.

      • Ken

        At least with the UTM’s, the “primer” is actually a rimfire blank that you need the special bolt to fire. The rimfire blank telescopes the case body to cycle the bolt, and launches a ball at another primer, which can launch a sim bullet or simply make noise. They even have silent blanks that only cycle the action and trap the gas inside.

    • By being an idiot? That seems to be the common factor in every one of these.

    • Sianmink

      They were using revolvers. Small department, can’t afford dedicated blank guns or blank adapters.

      Why they had live revolver ammo anywhere near the demonstration however…

  • Bill

    There are common training protocols that have been in place for years, decades even, designed to prevent just this sort of thing. Every single instance involving LE incidents like this has broken down to human factors and a violation of best practices like sterile zones, having training simulators loaded by one trainer and inspected by another, and searching scenario actors and participants.

    While it’s impossible to remove all risk, there are well-established procedures to reduce it as much as humanly possible.

  • Major Tom

    Wouldn’t this have been prevented with but a simple mag/cylinder and chamber inspection immediately before the exercise?

    That would have been a best practice to ensure you loaded the correct stuff before beginning.

  • iksnilol

    I thought it was bad when coworkers were stealing from the company.

    This is even worse.

    • Please tell me you weren’t working for the NRC at the time.

      • iksnilol

        Nah, I wasn’t.

        • DaveP.

          …The bloodbank?

  • Hudson

    In the case of .22 rimfire, blanks and shotshells look very similar.

    • Cymond

      A scary thought, and you’re right.

  • Martin Grønsdal

    think about my grand father, training for the Independent Norwegian Brigade Group in Germany, in 1946 or 1947, their “blanks” were wooden bullets, made to spin off their target. If you aimed at someone, you’d miss by a few meters. I doubt the instruction said anything the possibility of a guy standing a few metres next to your target 😉

    • Mr Mxyzptlk

      The wood training bullets were hollow so incredibly light, therefore they lost their velocity very quickly so they had a very shot “lethal” range. Some countries even used adapters on the front of their rifles that shattered to wood bullets and turned them into dust and splinters making them “safe” for short range use.

    • Ken

      Actually, the wooden “bullets” in those blanks shattered upon firing from the gas pressure. Sometimes they disintegrate completely, but usually small wood fragments go flying. They’re generally harmless past a short distance but just in case, some countries issued blank adapters to catch and destroy the remaining fragments.

    • Mog

      “Bulleted Blank” (wooden bullets) were used to operate the action of .303 Bren Guns, when fitted with a muzzle deflector that shattered the bullet and sent the fragments downwards. As far as I remember it was a Court Martial offence to fire one through a rifle (No 4 etc)

  • Kyle

    Wait, wait. A Force Recon Marine didn’t know the difference between blanks and live rounds? There is a pretty huge difference between M855 and a blank.

    • Mr Mxyzptlk

      I would guess that more likely he accidentally used a magazine that had been intended for live-fire training. If you are doing both types of firing on the same day this is a possibility, hence why they introduced the rule saying that the types of training had to be separated.

    • Gary Kirk

      I’m more concerned with the fact that he didn’t notice the bfa fly off his muzzle and kept firing..

      • noob

        if the weapon had the fire selector set to fully automatic, you could get a typical M16 running at upwards of 700 rounds per minute. a three round burst goes downrange in 0.25 seconds. five rounds in 0.42sec

        • Gary Kirk

          Yes, but as quoted, said marine emptied the mag.. And it took three rounds to take out the BFA, meaning one trigger hold (most marines at that time were using 16s with burst) so it required a second through tenth trigger pulling to empty the mag.. Not saying you can’t dump a mag quick fast and in a hurry on burst.. But if something blows up off the front of my rifle, I’m gonna stop and check it out.. Especially when only in training.

  • Joel

    The safe solution is to observe the standard gun safety rules, like never pointing a real firearm at someone else, even if one thinks it has blanks in it. However, some groups (orgs, depts, agencies, etc) will violate this one. So, they will introduce peril.

    It’s hard to believe that the demonstration in Punta Gorda could not have been done with a pointed finger or a blue gun. But apparently there are people there who think that real guns and blanks are safe. And, they are “trained professionals” so they probably won’t listen to what some NRA civilian would say about the classic safety rules.

    FWIW, my brother helped save the life of a guy who was hit with live rounds coming through a blank fire adapter weapon. So, the 2007 incident was no the first of its type.

  • TechnoTriticale

    Blanks will get anyone nearby just as deaf as live rounds, if they don’t manage to maim or kill someone downrange.

    I also wonder if industrial blanks are safe in older firearms.

  • Disarmed in CA

    Should just use blowback pellet guns without pellets. No need to even purchase the pellets. They still make noise and cycle the slide from the CO2 cartridge.. Relatively inexpensive and relatively harmless.

  • John

    Untrained citizens participating in a “simulated” live fire training scenario….what could go wrong?

    • KestrelBike

      That reporter chick in Navy Seals that Hicks wanted to bang.

  • Anomanom

    Should use only the airsoft guns for any training or demo that isn’t live fire. Can’t stuff a real bullet in there if you tried, and couldn’t fire it even if you somehow managed to jam one in.

  • gunsandrockets

    I still remember that old article from a 1970’s era issue of Guns&Ammo magazine that talked about the dangers of blank rounds. The photograph they used to emphasize that danger was of a metal lined SA revolver holster intended for fast draw trick shooters that had a rough edged hole about one inch in diameter blown through its side. The damage was from a blank round fired at near contact range.

  • Rider_66347

    Quite simply, you cannot use crimped blanks safely in any kind of force on force training or demonstration. It violates well known rules. Training needs to be simunition or live fire on special ranges. (and safety needs to be upgraded, even in shoot houses)It used to be they’d give you a “rubber ducky” if you couldn’t be trusted with a gun like a grownup.

  • oldman

    Common sense aint real common at times

    • Gary Kirk

      Not really sure if it even exists anymore??? Just try driving down the road nowadays..

      • oldman

        I had noticed common sense and courtesy are hard to find on or off the road.

        • Gary Kirk

          Especially off the road, I love off roading, but where I currently reside opportunities/trails are few and far between. I always take a few trash bags with me and am lucky not to fill all of them with the trash along the few places I can go.. Which land owners get tired of their property being used as a dump.. And less and less will let people use anymore.. I’m not a save the earth hippie by any means, but, it’s just (not so) common courtesy people..

          • oldman

            I know what you mean there were a few back roads i used to like walking.Then others discovered them it got so bad i could make 20 or 30 bucks just from picking up empty beer cans every week. Then they closed off the roads and it is all posted land now.

          • Gary Kirk

            I’ve both lost, and gained access to many a fishing hole/trail/hunting property for same very reasons.. Lost due to people’s disgust at the treatment of their land, and gained by people’s appreciation for me being the way I am. But, I was raised quite a bit different than most in my generation..

          • oldman

            Always leave it better then you found it. We are stewards and must take care of it was what i was taught. Today they just don’t care.

          • Evan

            Good to see that I’m not the only one who feels compelled to pick up beer cans on hiking trails/fishing holes etc. I understand if people want to drink beer while they fish, I like to drink beer when I fish too, but for God’s sake, take the bottles or cans out with you when you leave. It isn’t that hard, and I resent having to clean up after others.

  • Don

    Punta Garda? That’s a new one on me.

  • Blake

    RIP Brandon Lee. The circumstances that created the squib load that killed him were inexcusable negligence on the part of the prop crew.

  • Evan

    I’ve used blanks in training in the Marine Corps, and quite frankly I don’t see the point. MILES gear goes off every five seconds whether someone is firing at you or not, and without even that, blanks are just an adult equivalent of children with cap guns – you can’t actually hit anything, so there really isn’t much training value in them at all.

    Although one time in SOI, I put a cleaning rod down the bore of my rifle, chambered a blank, and shot it at a tree. That was pretty cool.

  • Will

    Until my department could afford it he Simunition system we trained with modified revolvers that were called “Red Handled a Guns”. The projectile was half a dental cotton roll stuffed into a red plastic cartridge, that was half the length of a standard .38″ the propellant was a primer and nothing more.
    The charge holes of the revolver were blocked by cut .38 brass that was driven into each hole thereby blocking if from taking live ammunition.
    Each revolvers grips were painted bright red for easy identification.
    The revolvers were loaded by, by the student, under the direct supervision of two instructors.
    Thankfully we had no injuries.
    After receiving the Simunition system we had several people injured by bruising and some bleeding when struck on exposed or lightly padded skin.

  • John

    Rule #1 Guns are ALWAYS loaded.
    That being said, if you want to play act then get a cap gun, a airsoft, or whatever, just don’t use a REAL gun.

  • Old Vet

    I recall an incident in basic training where we were all standing around with loaded M-14’s with adapters. One of the guys was standing and had his muzzle under his armpit. One of the goofballs came up behind him and pulled the trigger. It blew out the pit of his field jacket and scorched him pretty badly. We all got to do pushups for quite some time after that. He was lucky, no doubt.

  • uisconfruzed

    WHY?!? The hell would this moron and his supervisor approve of using a firearm AND POINTING the weapon at someone?!?
    Much less firing a blank at a 73yr old woman?!?
    Looky here Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis, proper training tools!!!

  • buzzman1

    You have to be a complete idiot to load live rounds in to a rifle with a BFA.