A “5-in-1” is a blank cartridge, originally designed in the early days of motion pictures, for use in a number of similar, but differently chambered firearms.
Early on in filmmaking, it quickly became evident that it was a logistical problem to have a different caliber of ammo for each firearm used—especially when so many Western-style six-guns and lever-action rifles used ammunition that had such minor differences in their dimensions.
In an effort to simplify things for the expediency of production, a special blank cartridge was designed. With its live cartridge length, tapered bottle-nose configuration and crimped head, the blank round would easily fit in the chambers of a revolver or could be fed through the actions of several lever guns. Originally, this blank was made to fit the chambers of a .38-40, .44-40 or .45 Colt revolver, and a .38-40 or .44-40 Winchester rifle (1873 and 1892 models). Three revolvers and two rifles equal “5-in-1.”
In this age before replicas, all guns in use were originals. The blank worked great in these vintage arms for several decades, since filmmakers relied heavily on these five guns for most on-screen work.
The blanks were loaded with a variety of charges—each for a specific purpose—but were generally loaded with 3Fg blackpowder to produce the visual effect of smoke. Charges included: one-quarter loads for interior shooting and around animals; one-half loads for a slightly louder report; three-quarter loads for an even noisier sound—often used outdoors; and full loads for the loudest sound level—used almost exclusively on outdoor sets. The load designation was printed on the colored wadding on top of the powder charge.
Sometime in the second half of the 20th century, however, slight changes made to the “5-in-1” blank cartridge brass prevented it from being loaded into the .38-40 firearms, thus making it a “3-in-1” round (although the old “5-in-1” name stuck). When replica lever-action rifles were chambered in .45 Colt caliber, moviemakers could use the standard “5-in-1” blanks in an entirely new firearm—uh oh, now it’s a “4-in-1.”
To make matters more complicated, a few years ago, Starline—the major supplier of “5-in-1” brass for the film industry—reshaped the casing ever so slightly, allowing for its use in .44 Special and .44 Magnum rifles and revolvers. With the variety of rifles and six-guns offered in the Old West chamberings, plus the newly added calibers, should the blank now be labeled an “8-in-1?” We could call it the “.44-40, .45 Colt, .44 Special, .44 Magnum and Colt, Winchester and Replica Rifle and Revolver Blank that also Fits a Slew of Other Similarly Chambered Guns.”
Naw, let’s just do as the movie folks do: keep on calling the movie blank the “5-in-1” and enjoy the show.