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Episode 50: Bullets Fired Up, Vodka Myths III

  • Bullets fired up into the air can be lethal: busted, plausible, and confirmed.
  • Vodka as a poison oak oil remover: busted
  • Vodka as a bandage remover: plausible
  • Filtering vodka through a Brita filter will turn it into a high-end vodka: busted

The "all of the above" ruling on the bullets fired into the air myth was a new one for MythBusters. All of their tests showed that if you fire a bullet perfectly straight up into the air, it will not kill you as it will fall down on its side and have too low of a terminal velocity to kill, much like the Penny Drop myth. However, it is very difficult to fire perfectly straight into the air and they even found an international expert in falling bullets who was able to confirm for them that people have died from bullets fired up into the air.

Bullets Fired Up

Myth: A bullet fired up can come down and kill you

How high would a bullet fly up?

Adam's idea was to correlate the density of ballistics gel with the density of air (Jamie: "Huh."). Adam figured that if they could see how far a bullet traveled in ballistics gel, they could use the difference in density to calculate the distance it would travel through air. Adam calculated that the ballistics gel is 650x more dense than air, so, according to his theory, if a bullet fired into ballistics gel goes 1ft, it would go 650 ft through air. At least that was the theory: they would have to go to the firing range with some blocks of ballistics gel to see if it would work.

They lined up several blocks of ballistics gel end-on-end at the South San Francisco Police Department firing range (last seen in the Catching a Bullet with Your Teeth myth). They quickly ran into a problem. The 9mm round went through three blocks of ballistics gel for a total distance of about 5ft. The much more powerful .30-06 only went one block in. This wasn't so surprising given the results of the Bulletproof Water myth, though they didn't seem to anticipate the same happening with ballistics gel. The .30-06 rounds travel much faster, so they a greater tendency to break up on impact. Jamie managed to flip a block of ballistics gel with a final shot, finally putting an end to this particular avenue of testing: the ballistics gel was not going to help them figure out how far a bullet would fly up.

Based on the failure of the ballistics gel experiment, they used a computer simulation program to calculate how high the bullets would travel up into the air. The calculations:

  • .30-06 10,000 ft 58 seconds
  • 9mm 4,000 ft, 37 seconds

Terminal velocity of a falling bullet

Adam built an acrylic wind tunnel (much like the one in the Penny Drop myth). Air was shot up through the bottom and a bullet was dropped into the chamber. The terminal velocity was calculated based on the speed of the air needed to make the bullet stop falling. They figured that the terminal velocity was 100mph (150 ft/s). The wind tunnel also showed that the most stable falling position for the bullets was on their side.

Firing bullets at terminal velocity

The rigged up an air hose to an aluminum pipe to launch the bullets at terminal velocity (150 ft/s). Their first shot put a good dent in the metal door. Their next target would be a pig's head, just as soon as they got the amount of air pressure tuned correctly. A chronograph was used to measure the speed of the bullet and a solenoid valve was attached to the tube to control the air flow.

They fired bullets from the pipe into the pig's head and recorded it all on the high-speed camera. At 166 ft/s, the 9mm bullet bounced right off of the pig's head. The .30-06 bullet did only slightly better, piercing the skin and then bouncing off.

It was looking like this was going to be busted, but, as it turns out, there is an international expert on falling bullets working in nearby Stanford. The expert, Dr. David G Mohler, told them about a case in Menlo Park where a woman sitting in a lawn chair was struck in the leg by a bullet that was fired into the air 1 1/2 miles away during a 4th of July celebration. Mohler recovered the bullet from her leg and the police were able to match the ballistics to a shooter.

Mohler also told them about a case of an elderly man in Alameda who was talking to his wife underneath a plastic corrugated roof in his carport. His eyes rolled up and his wife thought he was having a stroke. When they got to the hospital they found out there was a bullet in his brain and, unfortunately, he died.

"I know for a fact that bullets fired at a distance, returning to Earth, with terminal velocity, have the ability to kill people." - Dr. Mohler

This contradicted their findings so far, so it was back to the drawing board.

Mojave Desert testing

They figured out what was different from their original assumptions: the bullets in Dr. Mohler's cases weren't fired straight up into the air. They were fired at an angle, which meant that they remained spin-stabilized and on a ballistics trajectory.

It was time for them to figure out what would happen with real bullets fired into the air. They went out to the Mojave Desert, where they setup a rig to fire straight up into the air. They planned to fire a bunch of bullets into the air and hopefully find at least one of the bullets where it landed. To maximize their odds, they stationed their crew in bulletproof listening posts.

They first fired bullets straight into the ground as a control:

  • BB: 3"
  • 9mm: 6"
  • .30-06/M1 Garand: 12"

Jamie fired a clip of 9mm bullets up into the air. 39 seconds later they heard the bullets hit the ground.

Adam: "I'm searching across the desert for a pencil-sized hole"

The first bullet that Adam found went only 2" into the ground and appeared to have hit the ground on it's side. The bullet had traveled 330ft horizontally. Jamie found another bullet hole almost identical to the first.

Jamie then fired the .30-06 rounds. Big problem: after 40 rounds fired into the air, they weren't able to hear any bullets land. The .30-06 rounds travel over twice as high, so they were simply traveling too far for them to find.

Adam brought out plan B: a balloon attached to an instrumented platform that could drop bullets remotely. The platform had a wireless video camera that fed an image of the platform, including the altitude gauge, down to Adam.

The bullets were dropped in a bundle from a height of 400 ft. The .03-06 made a 2" hole. The 9mm made a 2" hole as well, matching up perfectly with the actual 9mm bullet firing.

For the first time ever, they deemed this one busted, plausible, and confirmed. All of their tests, from the pig's head to the 9mm firing to the balloon, showed that a bullet fired perfectly straight up into the air is not lethal. However, it is also very difficult to shoot perfectly straight up into the air and, with the cases cited by Dr. Mohler, they have confirmed that people have died from bullets falling from the sky.

Vodka Myths III

Previously: * Vodka Myths II * Vodka Myths I

The previous vodka myths showed that vodka is not a bee killer, is a good mouthwash and foot odor remover, and can removed the smoky odor from a jacket.

Vodka as a Poison Oak Cure

Myth: Vodka can remove the urushiol oil from poison oak, reducing the harm

90% of people are allergic to the urushiol oil in poison oak, with reactions varying from a rash to hospitalization.

It was Tory's turn to be the guinea pig for a vodka myth. Kari is apparently very allergic and Grant has already been the guinea pig on many of these.

The poison oak was applied to Tory's forearm. They applied a commercial poison oak remedy to one section of his arm, vodka to another, and the remaining section was left untreated. As it turns out, Tory is one of the 10% of people who isn't allergic. Adam, as the next found out, is also part of that 10%. Grant was next on the list . Also immune. They verified that the poison oak samples they collected were, in fact

"I did the test a week ago and it seems the myth now isn't about poison oak and vodka as a topical treatment, it's about whether or not a mythbuster can actually get poison oak." - Adam

At this point they tested three poor members of the MythBusters crew. John the Researcher was the winner, as the other two crew members were also immune. The commercial remedy showed no rash, but the vodka and untreated areas had the same amount, i.e. vodka does nothing.


John shows me where the MythBusters hurt him:

John Hunt Vodka Myth-1

Photo of actual rash from the MBFC forums

Bandage remover

Myth: Vodka can be used to remove a bandage more easily as it acts as a solvent on the bandage.

Grant was the guinea pig for this. A bandage was attached to each leg, one soaked with vodka, one normal. Tory ripped off each bandage and Grant gave the pain a rating on a scale of 1 to 10. The normal bandage ripped off plenty of hair, which merited a 6 or 7 from Grant. The vodka bandage ripped almost no hair off and got a 4 from Grant.


Top shelf filtration

Myth: You can turn low-end vodka into top-shelf vodka with six filtrations of a domestic charcoal water filter (i.e. Brita filters)

They set up the experiment so that the vodka testers would each get 8 shots of vodka: 6 from the filtration stations (single filtered, twice filtered, etc...), 1 top-shelf vodka, and 1 unfiltered low-end shot. The tasters were asked to rank the shots.

The tasters were:

  • Anthony Dias Blue, vodka expert, executive director San Francisco World Spirits Competion
  • Jamie, degree in Russian literature
  • Kari, former undercover martini tester

Kari: "I'm wondering if you might have contaminated your experiment by mixing on the mustache"
Jamie: "either that or they're actually very sensitive and able to pick up on subtle variations in the chemistry in the vodka"

Kari was a terrible judge, giving a much higher score to the unfiltered cheap vodka than the top-shelf vodka: * Kari's worst: 3rd filtration * Kari's second worst: top shelf * Kari's third best: the cheap, unfiltered vodka

Jamie was a better judge: * Jamie's second worst: the cheap, unfiltered vodka * Jamie's second best: fifth filtration * Jamie's best: top shelf

Anthony showed off his tasting skills: his ranking corresponded exactly to the number of filtrations, with the top-shelf vodka picked as the best.

Anthony: "Passing a low-end vodka through a filter will make it better, but it won't make it a top shelf vodka"

They analyzed the vodka samples and found that there was no difference in chemical composition between the filtered vodka and the unfiltered vodka. You're better off buying the top-shelf stuff than wasting a bunch of water filters.



Adam mentioned that he used a 400 ft platform drop, because he calculated that at 32ft/sec/sec, that's how far you would have to start to reach terminal velocity of 150 ft/sec. Yeah, that's true in a VACUUM! But you don't get a terminal velocity without air friction. A quick model in VisSim shows that, with air friction, a 400 ft drop puts the bullets at 64% of terminal velocity. To get to 90% of terminal v, he should have dropped from 1066 ft.