What are the best options for using real or fake bullets in artwork?
August 15, 2018 3:04 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to use bullets (real or fake) in a piece of art? I have questions about cost, safety, and feasibility. Location: New York City, New York.

I have an idea for an art project that will involve using a lot of bullets. Maybe 200-300. For aesthetic reasons, I think I would prefer to use rifle bullets (e.g. something like this), although I could also use handgun bullets (e.g. these)

Can I use real bullets for art work? I will be gluing them to wood.

Is it safe to use real bullets? Is it legal in NYC to buy them here, or buy them online?

What would be the rough costs for real bullets (rifle or hand gun)? I'm buying for aesthetics, so the cheapest option would work, but I don't know where to shop around for the cheapest possible bullets.

Can I get some "fake" bullets? Blanks? Replicas? Something else? What is the comparable cost?

I have lots of art experience, and have the plan how to actually make this piece, just not sure how to make the "bullet" part work. Thanks!
posted by andoatnp to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Having done a few odd art projects over the years, I'd have to advise against using real ammunition. It might be safe enough, unless you start hitting it with a hammer, but if you later have to transport it across state borders, let alone international ones, there may be very strange issues indeed, since it's still ammunition.

You can find "prop bullets" from any theatrical supplier, though, or even on Amazon. "Replica bullets" will even get you high quality brass ones that look and weigh almost exactly right.

(Also, since you seem to not be a gun person, keep in mind that the images you linked are unfired ammunition, and in the act of firing the brass part is discarded. If you knew this and I am being patronizing, please forgive, but I have seen Hollywood people think that bullets like the ones you showed are what actually flies through the air to kill people, when of course it's only the lead part. I figure this might impact your art and/or message.)
posted by rokusan at 3:21 PM on August 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thanks. I want to be using unfired bullets.
posted by andoatnp at 3:29 PM on August 15, 2018

Do a search for "inert rounds" or "dummy bullets".
posted by cazoo at 3:32 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, "dummy rounds" or "snap caps" are what you want. Some of them look more or less like normal bullets. Most will have at least a little bit of color/paint on them to more clearly mark as dummies, but you can probably paint/cover over that easily enough.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:53 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Echoing as someone with a lot of experience in galleries and museums in Australia, including some experience with museum display of firearms, if your work was to be successful and end up here it would be incredibly problematic for all concerned. Not impossible to display, I once worked on the lighting for an exhibition that contained live ammunition of many types and hundreds of firearms, but extremely expensive.

That exhibition was for the army. The solution to the legal storage but public display of working weapons was to put it on an army base and construct the gallery to armory standards. Only gallery I've ever worked in with blast doors. It was a very odd week.
posted by deadwax at 3:54 PM on August 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

What would be the rough costs for real bullets (rifle or hand gun)? I'm buying for aesthetics, so the cheapest option would work, but I don't know where to shop around for the cheapest possible bullets.

I recommend inert or dummy cartridges. You could also create your own, and just not put any powder in the cartridge.

The costs of live ammo will vary widely depending on the brand and type of cartridge.

Note that "rifle bullets" and "handgun bullets" are odd, inaccurate terms. There are cartridges generally used in rifles, but there are such things as rifles with cartridges generally used in pistols and vice versa.

If your art is centered around current events, the cartridge you probably want is the 5.56x45mm, which is the most common cartridge used by Western militaries and the most common AR-15s. If you want the most common Russian/Soviet take (e.g. the AK-47), you want the 7.62 mm.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:13 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

The danger with live ammunition is less from the possibility of hitting it and shooting it than from the more serious consequence of being in a fire. Depending on the other materials in your project the danger may be enhanced.
posted by uncaken at 4:50 PM on August 15, 2018

Yeah, it’s slightly more expensive but you could hand-load ammunition and just not add the gunpowder.
posted by corb at 4:55 PM on August 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding: absolutely your best bet for realism + non-explosiveness is hand-load with no gunpowder.
posted by so fucking future at 5:10 PM on August 15, 2018

Seconding: absolutely your best bet for realism + non-explosiveness is hand-load with no gunpowder.

Is there a good online guide that explains how to do this?
posted by andoatnp at 5:22 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

(no gun powder and no primer)
posted by NormieP at 5:47 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hand loading guide
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:54 PM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just an idea, but have you thought of making a mold, casting them and then spraying them with a metallic paint? I bet they would look kind of cool, would be lighter weight (a box of ammo is surprisingly heavy), and then you could make as many as you want.
posted by amanda at 8:09 PM on August 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Casting them with what?
posted by andoatnp at 8:40 PM on August 15, 2018

Resin casting might fit the bill.
posted by Harald74 at 2:10 AM on August 16, 2018

You can buy brass and bullets and put them together with a pair of pliers. Since you won't have any gunpowder or primer, they will be completely inert (though the bullet is made of copper-jacketed lead). There's no need for the reloading. You won't be firing them so exact precision isn't important.

The links above will make a 223 Remington which is a common cartridge for the civilian AR-15. The brass I linked has already been fired, so the neck will likely be a little looser than new brass. If you were reloading for shooting you'd have to fix that. For artwork, I'd suggest a little glue on the bullet when you insert it into the brass.

Edit: the linked brass still has the spent primer. You can pop that out with an awl.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

You could perhaps find a person who makes their own ammunition (a "reloader") and contract them to make some dummy rounds for you, since they'll have the presses and dies already. Because of NY State or NYC gun laws this person might be outside the city or state, so ensure it's OK to bring dummy rounds back.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:45 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd find a shooting range and ask around. The whole find some empty casings and come about some bullets to put on the end with pliers. On the artistic side there's the bit of "will it spoil things if the primer is dented(used)" and faking a real looking primer. A common thing to do would be to drill a 1/16th in hole in one side (hopefully not visible)... that makes the casing unfit for any real or imagined usage.

I'd really just buy live rounds of interest from random gun range users and wiggle/twist the bullet out, dump the powder for fun-time, set off the primer from the inside with awl and hammer, drill a hole in the side, and put the bullet back in. If you twisted too hard, you just tap the hole from the sides to make it smaller, push the bullet in upside down to stretch it back out round and tight, then put the bullet in the right way.

As you might surmise, I had an impressive (to me) collection of live and dummy ammunition as a kid (up to 20mm AA) and hand-loaded.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:59 PM on August 16, 2018

I will mention that if you "set off the primer from the inside with an awl" (or any other way) it may be LOUD. Wear ear protection.

If you stop at a place that sells reloading supplies, you can get a "bullet puller" that uses inertia or some clever lever dingus to pull bullets. This will be way less trouble than wiggling out 300 bullets manually. And the easy way to fire a primer is to put the empty (but primed) casing into a gun and fire it. Remember to point it at something that will catch a bullet in case you had brain fade and put in a live round. Failure to allow for brain fade is how people and property get holes in them.

Finally, I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of using an awl stuffed inside the casing to fire the primer, since it implies the casing is facing towards your face. Any time I wanted to fire a primer I put it in a vice and used a punch and a hammer on the outside. Be sure you have most excellent safety glasses.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:50 PM on August 23, 2018

Thanks Gilgamesh's Chauffeur for the warnings that I didn't mention... I'm trying to remember what I really would have done and it does come down to "I have the gun, fire that thing.". But I also think that I'd probably just put it in the press and use the same process that is used to remove the spent primer... and if it didn't go off I'd put it on the anvil and bash it with a hammer.

I was thinking on the second hand that you could probably just pour some water in the empty shell and ruin the primer... but I'm not sure of the chemistry; I'm sure there's something you could pour in and destroy the primer.

The bullet-puller I know (didn't have one) is basically a mallet with a hole through the head. You put the shell in one end and bash the other down hard on the table and the bullet pops out. Like the press for hand-loading I fear that if the OP wanted multiple types of ammunition, that would involve buying multiple tools to handle them all (I don't know, maybe there are bullet pullers that work on a broad spectrum of sizes and shapes). Worth it if you're hand-loading a specific round, probably not if you just want some bullets.

I think the OP has gone another way but I have a new plan :)
I don't know what they're called, but the Home Depot or other hardware store will know exactly what this is. Copper tubing is used for all sorts of water/gas usage and there's this tool that is used to make a hole in the tubing. You slide it on and turn the thumbscrew and it just forces a sharp pointy thing through the tubing.

You use that on the cartridge to make a hole in the gentle non-sparking way. Shake the powder out into a bucket of water. Drop the now empty and has a hole ammunition into the bucket of water to destroy the primer. --ish (but I'd really just use a small hand powered itty-bitty drill (think the size of eyeglass screwdrivers))

But yeah, spent casings and fresh bullets or mold and cast and paint something suitable is the totally best bet. Especially for the legal bits of "it's totally not a real bullet".
posted by zengargoyle at 12:11 AM on August 24, 2018

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