Episode 79: Western Myths

Air Date: May 30, 2007

A cowboy can shoot a hat off a person’s head, sending the hat flying through the air without harming the wearer.


Using an arsenal of period weapons, cowboy hats, and a dummy head, Adam and Jamie were unable get the hat to fall off the dummy’s head, much less fly. The bullets simply could not transfer enough force into the hat to make it fly off. While pistols and rifles were ineffective, the Mythbusters found that shotgun shells could make a hat fly into the air since the birdshot provided greater surface area to transfer the force of the shell. However, the birdshot also peppered the dummy in a fashion that would be fatal to a human being.

A thief attempted to pick the lock of car and accidentally tripped the side airbag, launching the lockpick with enough force to skewer his skull.


The Build Team constructed a robotic arm to simulate a person attempting to pick the lock of a car. They then placed a ballistics gel head over the arm to simulate a human head. However, they were unable to trigger the side airbag with the lockpick (the mechanic present explained that the airbag was not inside the door but in the car and attached to the inside of the door). The Build team then built a robotic leg, under the assumption that if the thief was unable to break into the car, he would kick the car in frustration and trigger the side airbag. Neither a human nor superhuman strength kick could trigger the airbag. Plus, the airbag is placed in a way that it would never be pointing towards the lockpick, meaning that it could never be launched. In order to replicate the results, the Build Team encased the lockpick in a sabot and placed it inside an air cannon. The lockpick, fired from the cannon, was able to skewer the skull. However, there was no clear evidence to suggest that the myth was in any way true.

A horse can be used to pull the bars out of a prison window and help free the occupant inside.


After some research, Adam and Jamie built a replica of a period prison cell, complete with a barred window. However, when they tied a horse to the bars and attempted the pull them out, the bars did not budge. Two horses could not pull out the bars and neither could a motorized cart that was twice as strong as both horses combined. As a last ditch attempt, the Mythbusters tried pulling the bars out using a thirty thousand pound crane. However, the the steel beams bracing the wall failed before the prison bars did. Since not even a modern vehicle could pull the bars out of the window, it is unlikely that any number of horses could.

A prisoner can be freed from an Old West jail cell with a single stick of dynamite.


The Mythbusters placed a single stick of dynamite on the cell window and detonated it, with Buster inside to test whether the occupant would survive. While the dynamite did not cause any significant damage to the wall, it did loosen the bars enough for Adam to pull them out and escape. However, the blast set off all of the shock pads on Buster, indicating that even though a single stick of dynamite exploding would allow him to escape, the shock of the blast would kill him first, busting the myth. Jamie remarked that an axe could achieve the same amount of damage the dynamite caused, with signficantly less noise.

The silver bullets used by the Lone Ranger are more effective than standard lead bullets.


In this test a silver bullets and a lead bullet were fired into layers of ballistic gel. The lead bullet penetrated farther than the silver bullet due to its weight, and thus is more effective in bringing down an opponent. Also, silver shrinks when cooled, forcing precision accuracy when forging bullets out of it, and was used as a form of currency back in the Wild West, which would make using silver bullets impractical and a waste of good money.


  1. eclipsed450 says:

    Regarding the “A cowboy can shoot a hat off a person’s head, sending the hat flying through the air without harming the wearer” myth, this one needs to be retested. They tested shooting level with the dummy’s head, whereas the westerns that show this action are mostly shown with the shooter pulling his pistol and firing from the hip, giving an upward angle, thus thrusting the hat off his head.

  2. reply says:

    no the bullet would just slice through the hat
    and the hat would stay stationary

    • Janice says:

      Higher speed (and larger) bullets would just “slice through, without moving an object”.

      Lower speed (and smaller) bullets can “move an object” when it makes the hole.

  3. Tammy says:

    When speaking in reference to silver bullets being more effective than lead bullets, I think that the water is a little murky here.

    YES, it is true that lead is much heavier than silver. One may assume that there would be greater penetration with a lead bullet as opposed to a silver bullet.

    BUT…when a silver bullet is used…it will shrink inside the body as it cools. This allows for massive bleeding out. This occurs because as the silver bullet shrinks, it no longer has the ability to effectively plug the wound. The victim would bleed out in at least half the time as the victim shot by a lead bullet.

    Just some food for thought.

    • MSpears says:

      Yes, but accuracy suffers. That’s because silver is a harder metal and does not expand enough to properly engage the rifling in the barrel (if at all). Therefore it does not spin as fast as it should, its ballistic arc is more unstable, and its range and accuracy suffer.

      And as they point out in the summary, silver was used as a form of currency in the Old West. You would be (literally!) shooting your money at the target.

  4. Joe says:

    Since when does a bullet “plug” a wound?

    • MSpears says:

      It can act as a tamponade, slowing the bleeding long enough to receive medical attention.

      That’s why I was taught in grade school that if you get impaled on something, DON’T pull it out! Go to a hospital and let the DOCTORS get it out.

  5. Ray says:

    I remember a competition to shoot an empty beercan with a .22, and it was night, and we all thought we were missing. Finally my friend had a shot, and knocked the beercan off the log. We had all been hitting the beercan, but had gone straight through the front surface to the back surface. My friend’s hit the side, and pushed through the side of the can on the edge where it was thicker.

    I guess there aren’t that many thick hard parts to a hat, especially to shoot it off a head. Too much momentum maybe.

  6. CyberGuy says:

    Hummm, I think they could be missing another point on the silver bullet. Deep penetration into the body is not all that is required in a bullet. Energy Transfer is important as well. If a lead bullet, or a full metal jacketed bullet penetrates entirely through the body, it can possibly pass without hitting anthing vital, whereas a bullet of any type that is stopped by the body, even a blunt sandbag, can cause enough damage to be fatal.

  7. Cpt. Cranky says:

    In the Air Bag Lock Pick segment, you say “the mechanic present explained that the airbag was not inside the door but in the car and attached to the inside of the door”. He actually said “The airbag is not inside the door, it’s inside the car.” Side curtain airbags are located in the top pillar, not the door.

  8. Jimmy J says:

    A bullet “plug” a wound. Isn’t that the expression John Wayne used to use, “…or I’ll plug ya.”

    How about if they drilled a bunch of very tiny holes in the silver bullet, would it absorb fluid like a sponge and swell?

    I didn’t think so.

    • Norman M. Canter, M.D. says:

      Silver’s mass is 107.8, lead is 207. With a given muzzle energy the velocity of silver should be 2X as great, with a flatter projectory. Greater accuracy would be expected particularly at the extreme ranges for a pistol or rifle….in my opinion.

      • MSpears says:

        Norman, you’re forgetting the fact that silver is also a harder metal than lead, with a higher melting point. Metal expands when heated, but when a lead bullet expands, it makes contact with the grooves in the barrel, which makes it spin, which gives it accuracy.

        A silver bullet does not expand enough to properly make contact with the grooves, so even if it had a higher velocity, it would NOT have greater accuracy, and in fact, would probably have a SHORTER range than the lead bullet.

        In fact, when the rifle was first introduced (they had been using smoothbore muskets up until that point), the Church tried to declare that it was unholy technology. To prove this, they held a contest… one rifle loaded with lead bullets, the other loaded with silver bullets that had a cross etched into the tip. Not a single one of the silver bullets hit the target.

      • Dan says:

        Another thing you’re missing is that a lighter bullet is more affected by wind than a heavier bullet. So why the theoretical range will be increased accuracy will suffer. After all, we typically don’t shoot guns at long ranges in climate controlled environments.

  9. jamoecw says:

    lead mushrooms due to the fact that it is soft, silver is harder than lead and will not mushroom as much.
    the proper caliber lead bullet will mushroom and stay in the body, the mushroom effect will cuase massive internal damage, which means that internal bleeding will be high.

    as far as myths being revisited i’d like to see other types of jails, personally i think that the wood one is the most robust against both the dynamite and the horses, a cement one might have some microfractures that weaken the wall and cause it to break much more so than the relatively flexible wood timbers. not that i think it is possible mind you.

  10. Brad Hoehne says:

    Two observations I made about the Breaking out of Jail with a horse/dynamite myth:

    – The ropes were wrapped around all four bars of the cell, effectively distributing the pulling force over a much larger surface of railroad tie. Perhaps the best way to go about this is to put the rope around a single bar and pull them out one at a time.

    – Regarding the dynamite portion of the myth, I think two things could be done to achieve a better result. First, buster could be placed closer to the far side of the Jail cell. The reason Buster was placed alongside the exploded wall of the cell was presumably because shrapnel flying off the wall would have proven deadly. This may have been a mistake, however, as a plausible reason for buster’s “death” was his being smacked by concussive force transmitted directly through the wall he was leaning against. Placing Buster near the opposite side of the room, and not directly up against the the wall that endures the full brunt of the explosion might produce a better result.

    The shrapnel problem can be taken care of by the fact that the prison has a bed. Many prison beds are simple metal or wooden planks attached to a side wall of the cell and could plausibly shield the escapee from flying debris . Have Buster hide under the bed and he may be safe from shrapnel- a bit deaf, yes, but alive?

  11. Brad Hoehne says:

    … and one more thing regarding the “escape from jail with a horse” myth. :-) The horses used to pull the bars were coaxed to pull steadily rather than getting up some speed and applying a sudden jerk to the bars, which would impart a lot more instantaneous force to the bars and may have dislodged them. If I remember correctly, this seems to be what happens in movies.

    Unfortunately, the risk of injuring a horse would be to great to make this testable with a live animal, but one could easily try this with an ATV. Allow several meters of slack and then get the ATV up to speed. If the ATV is going, oh, 20 miles per hour or so, it seems plausible that some serious damage could be achieved. Or not… but it’s worth a shot!

  12. Sally says:

    In gaol-break, I expected them to use an adobe building with mortared in bars. I reckon that would crumble.

  13. Daniel says:

    If there was an old jail, the bars should be a bit rusty so they will break easier than fresh bars. They might even throw water over it first. So that myth technically was flawwed(stuffed up).

  14. Rick says:

    There are a couple of issues with the old jail myth. The bars would have been made with iron not steel. If the bars were pulled from the middle rather than the base you would have a much better chance of bending the bars enough to pull them out of the frame.

  15. Josh says:

    if someone had a buckle or something on there hat like i have seen there hat would be able to get shot of

    • MSpears says:

      Fair enough, though it would also require some very precise shooting.

  16. Jeff says:

    In the jail break myth, the movie examples I recall seemed to be either rock and mortar or adobe, both having much less structural strength than railroad ties.

  17. MIke says:

    The jail break….. hey folks….it is the movie’s the imagination is unlimited only to time and money!!!! anything is possible.. good job guys!!!

  18. Kusumura says:


    Since when does a bullet “plug” a wound?”

    With a usual lead bullet, there isn’t really a variation in size that’s worth writing home about, and it blocks a portion of the exiting blood to be restrained.

    -Insert third post by Tammy-

    I agree with that 100%. BUT, the lead bullet can also pass *straight through* the body, leaving two points of wounding rather than just one, which has even more of an advantage, I’m sure you can see the major advantage there.
    And even if it doesn’t pass completely through, the deepness of the wound would damage alot more muscle and tissue, incapacitating the target.

    Whichever. Your choice. But if I got my hands on some silver, I’d prefer to make a ring for a flame that I was pursuing ^.^ .

  19. Mark R says:

    Maybe this was addressed in the episode (I haven’t seen it), but I took this from Wikipedia’s Lone Ranger entry:

    “In addition, the Lone Ranger decides to use only silver bullets–the precious and valuable metal serves to remind the masked man that life, too, is extremely precious and valuable, and, like his silver bullets, not to be wasted or thrown away.”

    The effectiveness of the bullet isn’t really the point.

    Not that this should in any way discourage Mythbusters from shooting silver bullets into layers of ballistics gel, because that’s just cool.

  20. Christopher Treptow says:

    Buster died because he had no protection,you should have put him under the cell bed or behind the cell bed.

  21. Todd says:

    I was just wondering, If like I have been lead to understand, hats of this era where not always “made to fit” and a bit of paper or cloth would be tucked into a sweatband to make a hat fit better. Would a multi layer stack of paper or heavy cloth affect how a bullet might travel. Being and avid shooter I know that the difference might be slight. but in relation to the weight of a hat……………..

  22. David says:

    the lead bullet will flatten out and create a more severe wound than a silver bullet

  23. Gary says:

    I am an American and I watch your show everyday in Uganda, Africa. I watched your episode where you took some rings and punched the pig. You showed that no marks were left on the pig. I think you produced the rings incorrectly. If you look at these Harley type rings you’ll see that the y have ridges and the ones y’all made did not. I feel that when you produce the rings, you should make the ring with the objects on the ring are ridges and not holes.

  24. Jeff says:

    As a former body shop manager, let me ask you a question about your side impact airbag scenario.
    What if the thief was using the lockpick as we used to: by going inside the window and attempting to use it to move the actual lever of the lock on the inside of the vehicle? If that was the case, it is possible to have the lockpick ‘shot’ IF the airbag was activated. As for how it is possible for it to be activated, I don’t know.
    Just the thoughts of one guy, but I think it isn’t as easily busted as you communicated.

  25. Emmett says:

    Shooting a hat off head.

    It should work if they use a shotgun slug.

    A shotgun slug is a heavy lead projectile, usually with pre-cut rifling, often used for hunting large game. The first effective shotgun slug was introduced by Wilhelm Brenneke in 1898, and his design remains in use today.

    • MSpears says:

      Hmm, another good point. They were using buckshot, not a slug.

  26. JohnnyW says:

    A horse can be used to pull the bars out of a prison window and help free the occupant inside: I think, that the prison wall must be made of bricks. Then you can pull the bars out with horse.

  27. Disgruntled Inmate says:

    As others have noted, the jailbreak myth was not tested as we see it in the movies. Even the animation clip on the episode showed a brick and mortar type of wall, not one made out of wood. Logs bend, giving them much more resistance before breaking than a brick and mortar wall. I think they chose wood over stone because the site Adam visited had granite slabs as walls, which of course is pretty impenetrable. But still, I think the way they tested it was Historically accurate, but not from a movie point of view.

  28. Escapee says:

    I think the jail myth is done incorrectly, they should’ve tried to use the ATV to pull out the bar one at a time. As for the dynamite method, they should’ve placed buster away from the blast, as we can see there’s no shrapnel that made it inside the jail.

  29. Hook says:

    As the owner of a towing company My guys and I open locked car doors every day and have never had an air bag deploy while doing it.

  30. Matt says:

    I think the Mythbusters fail to take into account the usefulness of silver bullets.

    They’re a lot more effective to use against werewolves.

  31. Will says:

    In the movie lonesome Dove, during the cattle drive, they get caught in a storm where a sand storm hits followed by lightning and rain. In that seen lightning strikes the herd and lightning dances across there horns across the hole herd. Can this be confirmed. I have also heard several old time cowboys have also sworn this to be true.

  32. paul wheaton says:

    Rope based jailbreak: one iron bar, pulled from the middle of the bar, with an adobe wall.

    I suspect that that will work. If it doesn’t, then what about working in a stout tree and a pulley: a movie about the old west could be built on stories about jailbreaks where rope was used, but the pulley was left out.

  33. bede says:

    with the jailbreak, buster should,ve be placed in diferent positions in the cell and as someone else said use the bed for a little protection.
    Also if a mate is bringing the dynamite why not pass something else thru to help give some protection? Not sure what they had back then to protect from shock waves but surely something wouldve been better than nothing?

  34. grandpa says:

    the lone ranger used silver bullets as his mark not because they were better than lead hi ho silver away. horse pulling out cell bars hay guys you did not use showdy construction methods. When was Steel comercially produced? it was surely not used in old west jail cells Brick buildings if brick was available had no reenforcementand the mortor they had available was not very strong and the bars would probably have been buried only one brick deep.

  35. ERIC S says:

    Maybe the Lone Ranger really did NOT want to hurt anyone, just REALLY get their attention.
    So a bullet that really doesn’t penetrate would go along with the Lone Ranger’s character.

    He mostly just shot the guns out of their hands anyway.

    Also, the Lone Ranger and Tonto had a secret silver mine so getting silver wasn’t a problem.

  36. Stephen says:

    My two cents on the “Cowboy can shoot a hat off a person’s head”

    The bullets in those days (circa. 1850) were different.
    It was before the brass casings and refined gunpowder.

    please redo/retest the myth!

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