Perpetuating the Blank Round Myth

Caught a programme about the Tower of London on some sat channel the other night. All very sensationalist and not that good. They were talking about the German spy who was shot there in WW2. The 'expert' was waffling on about how he was shot rather than hanged as he was a military officer (fair enough) and the Tower was the nearest 'shooting range' to the prison where he was held(sic). Then came the punch line..

The eight soldiers would have been handed their rifles already loaded but three of them would have had blank rounds in....

OK, so in no particular order

1. Over the last 35 years or so I have fired thousands of .303, 7.62 and 5.56 and you would have to be clinically dead not to be able to tell the difference between a blank and a ball round (especially in the larger calibres). So why bother as the soldier would certainly know.

2. Three out of eight? almost half? You are pulling my pudding. You would only have to have one misfire and one cross-eye mong and you might only have two or three rounds heading in the right direction (admittedly one .303 ball would be enough but then why detail eight).

3. This was not some regiment executing 'one of their own' but a spy being shot for treason/espionage so there would be no sentimentality.

Richard Holmes was very sceptical of this legend in his book Tommy and indicates testimony that units chose those for this duty that could be relied upon to do it properly - if you are going to do something unpleasant then do it right. Personally I think it was BS generated by the Army in WW1 so that those involved in firing squads could give some flannel to the civvies back home if they ever raised the issue.

If there is cast iron proof that the blank round myth is anything but that then I will of course do the decent thing with the Mess Webley, but as one chamber is always left empty I'll take my chances
While I agree that you would know if you had fired a blank perhaps the original idea was that you didn't know that you had loaded a blank?

That way you could aim properly and still think that it wouldn't be you that did the killing?

Sounds a bit sus I know but it is the only way that it might fit?

Or maybe it came from the days of muskets? Of course it would only work if you got given a ready loaded one as you might notice that you didn't shove a ball down the end.

Just odd musings on the subject.
Well it gave you something to have a bet on and I assume blanks are cheaper.
I've seen the chair he was shot on and given that they were firing FMJ, albeit through someone, how many rounds do you suspect would be required to remove this much wood:

...five or eight?
I'll have a wee look into it later, but I do know for a fact that in the 2 or 3 executions by firing squad in the US in the last 40 years, one of the rifles has been loaded with a "blank", a wax bullet in at least one case.

Regarding your first point, and the whole OP, you are right in saying most people would know the difference between a blank and a live round. However, it is said that the mind of the shooter/executioner is inclined to subconsciously block out how much recoil, etc there was, allowing themselves to think perhaps they fired the blank. Even seconds after firing the shot, it's possible that your brain could have cast doubts about the recoil you thought you just felt, or didn't. It's a coping mechanism, pure and simple.

Anyway, I'll have a dig around later. I'm fairly sure the UK and US both used the practice, and I have a vague memory of WWII German firing squads also doing so.
It sounds a bit like letting Albert Pierrepoint loose with a papier mache rope. Saying that though, I suppose AP volunteered for what he did as oppsed to the firing squad.

Out of interest, how was a firing squad made up? I've had to dick blokes for a few thankless tasks but I can't imagine that being the system in this instance. Were they actually professionals who routinely did the job or was it a punishment duty?
The father of a friend took part in the execution by firing squad of Josef Jacobs at The Tower, by the Scots Guards, in 1941 and it is wrong that some were given blank rounds.
Depends on the circumstances Bryan. As someone mentioned above, a lot of the "Shot at Dawn" guys firing squads were made up of men from the prisoners unit, pour encourager les autres. At least one US firing squad in the last 40 years was made up by deputies who had served with the murdered officer.

Lastly, I know of 1 German shot in WWII for the murder of one of his oppos, while trying to cover up the theft of Feldpost. His firing squad was made up from enthusiastic volunteers from the murdered mans unit.
Given the propensity for .303 blank to misfeed, that would cause possible problems for the execution, if bulleted blank were used then there's not much difference between being shot with a wooden bullet as opposed to an FMJ.

I did read somewhere that Victor Silvester was involved in firing squads in WWI, he might also have lied about his age to join up.
There will be a regulation somewhere. You've just got to find it.
I keep an open mind on the blank round issue:

From a military point of view, it makes no sense:

a) the priority is surely to ensure a clean execution?

b) most soldiers would of course immediately know if they'd fired a blank round or live;

c) apart from the safety issue of mixing live & blank ammo, would blank ammo automatically be available in field conditions? OK, there were grenade ballistite cartridges in some wars/locations, but it'd be hard to write that into a military manual for all scenarios.

d) executions were largely carried out to enforce discipline - hence the frequent parading of troops as witnesses. Why would the firing squad - having been ordered to perform the duty - be offered some sort of moral get-out?


1) there are many personal accounts of blank rounds having been used. This might be challenged, due to the well-known phenomena of old soldiers frequently talking complete bollocks - or claiming hearsay as fact or personal experience...

2) on some WW1 forums, DCIs or equivalents have been found that lay down the execution process - including pre-loading of rifles by the NCO, and including mention of blanks.
Again no actual evidence, but IIRC only one rifle was loaded with a blank round and all rifles placed in a rack. Everyone would leave the room and another person would enter the room and swap the order of the rifles around (double blind), then the firing squad would come in and take them away.

This process was reversed for the unload.

The whole process for the Firing Squad was very quick, to stop people thinking about it. All as said as a coping mechanism for the shooters.

It was that long ago I can't even remember if I read it or was told about it, and of course it could have been something that was told to soldiers just to make them feel better.
I'm sure the US regulations for firing squads in WWII is available. Possibly at the start of the book about Eddie Slovik? Think I also have some snippets of German WWII firing squad regulations in a book somewhere. Like dingerr suggested, this would conclusively answer the question. More things for me to find later then...
Footage of US firing squads clearly shows the squad of some 15 men march past a rifle rack and collect a rifle each. They
proceed to the firing point - space, left turn and the front rank kneels. As soon as they have fired they about turn - presumably so as not to dwell on the executed man and pass the rifles back to the NCO at the rack.

This of course proves nothing but would suggest that the squad randomly receive the rifles.

The Japanes execution chamber recently used to hang various naughty Japs has three triggers for the trapdoor so that the guards don't know who actually sent the bloke to Buddha. However I would have thought pressing a knob in a different room to the 'victim' would be a lot less harrowing than actually sticking a noose on the bloke..
Look for the execution of German general Antonio Dostler.

Clearly see the firing party picking their rifles from a stand in a random fashion.
Look for the execution of German general Antonio Dostler.

Clearly see the firing party picking their rifles from a stand in a random fashion.
I believe that is the execution I was referring to -

A first hand account from WWI says contrary to belief all the rifles were loaded, he does not however state they were loaded with live rounds.

(3) At the age of fourteen, Victor Silvester ran away from Ardingly College and joined the army. In an interview he gave just before his death in 1978, he described how he was ordered to execute a man for desertion.
We marched to the quarry outside Staples at dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.

Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man's temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word 'mother'. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.

Source: Executions in the First World War

If you read all the accounts it would appear that most of the soldiers had no stomach for the task and either got pissed the night before or deliberately aimed off. I wonder how many young officers had to administer the coup de grace!

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