5 Of History's Greatest Magic Tricks Explained

Ever wondered how Penn and Teller caught a bullet, or Derren Brown played Russian Roulette?
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Ever wondered how Penn and Teller caught a bullet, or Derren Brown played Russian Roulette?
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Let’s get one thing straight: I love magic. Part of the beauty of a great magic trick is in the not knowing, the willingness to accept the illusion, the joy of being fooled. This is why new inductees to the ‘Magic Circle’ (international magicians’ guild) swear solemn oaths of secrecy, vowing never to share the details of their illusions with the world.

However, I don’t rank among their number, and while I enjoy being deceived I also get a kick out of appreciating the skill and craftsmanship that goes into such iconic stunts as metamorphosis, bullet-catching and levitation. So, without further ado, join me as I uncover the subterfuge, duplicity and sheer showmanship behind the ten greatest magic tricks in history…

5) Double Bullet Catch, Penn and Teller (1996)

There’s nothing to elevate a magic trick like a bit of danger. The bullet catch is a classic stunt, creating an awesome heart-in-mouth moment for the audience, as well as indulging the darker side of magical spectatorship.

Infamous magic duo Penn and Teller take this stunt to a whole new level. Not only do they double-up for a simultaneous catch, they also ask two audience members to sign the bullets (clearing up accusations of sleight of hand), set up a glass pane between them to demonstrate the bullets being fired, employ laser sights to show their targets and attempt to catch the slugs in their mouths. Open wide boys…

How is it done?

With the advent of modern firearms, this trick presents more of a challenge for modern performers. The days of powder, ball and magnetic ramrods are long gone. So, how do Penn and Teller pull this one off?

In many ways, this is one of the most intricate stunts on the list, involving a lot of preparation and sleight of hand on the part of the magicians. Essentially, the magicians swiftly exchange the signed bullets with wax ones, loading these duplicates into their guns. The falsies are immediately melted on firing and the spray of hot wax (or possibly squibs) is what puts holes in the pane of glass. Meanwhile, both performers use misdirection to pop the specially-manufactured, signed bullets out of their shells, concealing them in their mouths, only to reveal them after pulling the trigger for a magical money shot.

4) Metamorphosis, The Pendragons (1986)

I’m not going to lie, Metamorphosis is one of my favourite magic tricks and the Pendragon performance is by far the best I’ve seen. This blindingly eighties husband and wife duo made a name for themselves with their spectacular televised illusions, which were known for their speed, intensity and balletic choreography.

In this stunt, Charlotte Pendragon ties her husband up in a bag before locking him in an apparently solid chest (using a sword as a bar lock for good measure). She then leaps atop the chest and raises a curtain, lowering it to momentarily conceal herself. In the blink of an eye, Jonathan Pendragon emerges, revealing that the spouses have swapped places.

How is it done?

The secret behind this stunt was revealed in a 2010 programme, Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. The ‘solid’ chest actually has no back and the bag in which the first performer is placed has a zip in the base for easy escape. The magician in the bag simply unzips themselves and escapes, making the swap possible behind the curtain, as demonstrated below:

However, the Pendragons rise above the competition with the unbelievable speed of the transfer, a feat most likely accomplished with sheer skill and impeccable timing. Charlotte’s iron quads also come in handy for misdirection – as a viewer it’s pretty hard to focus on anything else.

3) Russian Roulette, Derren Brown (2003)

Another magician who appreciates the appeal of life-or-death theatrics, Derren Brown shocked a nation when he appeared to correctly choose the ‘live’ chamber in a game of Russian Roulette, clicking through the empties with the muzzle of the revolver to his temple.

Brown claimed to achieve this stunt by selecting a stooge at random, spending a week getting to know the man’s ‘tells’ and allowing his amateur assistant to load the single bullet. The magician then asked his stooge to count down from six, detecting the minor wavers that revealed the live chamber. This pant-wettingly tense trick recently celebrated its 10th birthday and you can relive the whole spectacle in the clip here.

How is it done?

During a grilling on GMTV, Brown admitted that the ‘bullet’ was, in fact, a blank. However, blanks are far from harmless, being responsible for the untimely deaths of a number of celebrities, including Brandon Lee. Besides, whether the bullet was real or not, this still doesn’t explain how Brown correctly identified the ‘live’ chamber of his revolver.

Honestly, this is the only trick on this list I’ve been unable to fully explain to my satisfaction. I’m a bit dubious of Brown’s claims to ‘read’ the psychology of his stooge – it would be much easier just to receive surreptitious prompts from his stage-hands, unseen to television audiences. I’d like to believe Brown’s feat was accomplished entirely by mind-over-matter, psycho-intuition, but I’m afraid I’m not buying it. Awesome trick though.

2) Zig-Zag Girl, Robin Harbin (1965)

This stunt is another golden oldie that has been performed countless times, but Robin Harbin’s Zig-Zag Girl stands out from the pack. The ‘last of the gentleman magicians’ performed this trick throughout the 1960s, convincing the audience of its legitimacy by explaining the process at length, coming off somewhere between a wizard and an eccentric university lecturer.

Locking his ‘lovely assistant’ in a body-sized cabinet, the magician would proceed to slide blades into the box, seemingly dividing the unfortunate lass into thirds. A stooge from the audience would then be called up to push the segments out into an impossible arrangement, creating a ‘Zig-Zag Girl.’ Cue applause.

How is it done?

This trick relies on a number of deceptions including (brilliantly) the prejudice of the audience. In fact, Harbin’s role in this stunt is solely as showman – all of the trickery is performed by his assistant. Notice that the black strips running down the sides of the box make it appear narrower than it is. By squeezing and twisting her body, the performer can still fit into the individual segments when they are slid out. Also, the blades inserted into the box don’t actually take up that much space: the wide handles make them appear larger than they are, so Harbin doesn’t have to dissect his debutante.

The real genius of this trick is in the role-reversal. Where normally the male magician is in control and the woman is the passive assistant, here the woman does all the work while the man simply distracts the audience, contributing to the misdirection that makes the illusion possible. Bet you feel bad for falling for it now, eh? You sexist so and so!

1) Death Saw, David Copperfield (1988)

The most successful magician in history, David Copperfield has racked up $1 billion in career earnings, busted ten world records and amassed a whole host of awards for his work as a theatrical entertainer. This chronic overachiever has wowed us so often that picking just one of his tricks for the list was a challenge in itself.

While floating unsupported and making the Statue of Liberty miraculously vanish were dazzling feats, there is one trick so endemic to Copperfield’s legend that he legally purchased the rights to the illusion: the Death Saw.

In this world-class illusion, the magician lies flat on his stomach on a board as a whirring saw-blade swings towards him. The blade bisects Copperfiled at the midriff, only for his assistants to push the two halves back together. Copperfield then rises for his prestige, whole and unscathed.

No words could do this trick justice, just watch below:

How is it done?

Despite the elaborate staging, this trick is actually one of the most primitive on this list. What makes it so incredible is Copperfield’s natural showmanship and the immensity of his apparent danger.

In the end, the Death Saw trick boils down to timing. Where Copperfield appears to lie flat on his stomach, he actually folds his legs tightly underneath his body, concealed in a hidden compartment in the front half of the board. His ‘legs’ are actually those of an assistant, whose body is concealed in the rear half of the board and whose legs are sticking in the air, as you can see in the diagram below:

david copperfields saw trick

For this trick to work, it is crucial that the two performers synchronise their movements in such a way that they convincingly constitute a single ‘body.’ When the two halves are reunited, the accomplice must remove his legs in absolute unison with Copperfield’s emergence to prevent the audience from smelling a rat. There’s really nothing more to it than a healthy dose of glitz and whole lot of charisma.

David Copperfield, master of magic, we salute you.

Hey Presto!

And there you have it; five of the greatest magic tricks in history, utterly ruined forever. I hope you enjoyed our journey through the history of magic, and if you happen to be affiliated with the magic circle, please don’t sue; I might be forced to perform a disappearing act.

5 More Of History's Greatest Magic Tricks Explained