There is an age old tradition in some cultures to fire celebratory shots into the air on certain anniversaries, events (weddings), or accidents. In the United States this activity seems more concentrated around our Independence day and New Year’s Eve (although pretty rare overall). For the purposes of this posting we’ll just consider bullets fired from small arms as opposed to artillery shells. Bullets falling from the sky are no laughing matter. They can cause serious injury including death. But, there are some misconceptions surrounding the lethality and velocity of bullets returning to Earth.
One of the most common misconceptions is that small arms bullets will return to the ground at the same, or greater, velocity than when emerging from the muzzle of the weapon. Now bullets come in a variety of sizes (caliber) and shapes. Basically they are conical in shape but the nose can be flattened or rounded as can the base (to a lesser degree). Believe it or not a number of studies have been conducted on this issue since at least the early twentieth century. It was found that some common rifle calibers such as the .30-06 attained a muzzle velocity of 2700 feet per second and gained an elevation of 9,000 feet. When a bullet is fired straight up into the air it will continue on it’s flight path until it is overtaken by gravity and begins to free-fall back to Earth.
During this fall the bullet will be affected by air resistance. Now it is theoretically possible the bullet can return one of three ways; nose first, base first, or tumbling. Of the three, a nose first return from a near-vertical trajectory is the least likely. It is much more likely that the bullet will tumble or fall back in generally the same orientation (so base first) especially if it retains any of the gyroscopic spin imparted from the barrel (rifling). Tumbling creates the greatest amount of air resistance so the bullet’s terminal velocity will be lowest in this condition. Regardless, most lead core bullets will return to the Earth in about 45-55 seconds. The falling velocity will be determined by a number of factors including the air resistance and bullet weight. Generally speaking, a smaller bullet like a .22 short will have a lower free falling velocity than a larger one like a .30-06.
While the muzzle velocity for most small arms can average around 1,000 feet per second that same bullet may only reach a free-falling velocity of 150-250 feet per second. If you consider that a bullet needs to reach a velocity of approximately 200-330 feet per second to perforate human skin in a nose first orientation you can see how these falling bullets may not cause a fatal wound. The key words being “may not”. There are plenty of case studies of people being killed by downward arching bullets (though some are not at near vertical falling angles. They can still be very dangerous and cause serious injury. They will typically cause less trauma than one fired at close range however.
Reconstructing the original trajectory is nearly impossible because of all the conditions (wind, air resistance, tumbling, original load conditions, etc.) during flight that can alter the bullet path. So if you are thinking about using a falling bullet in your novel you might want to keep some of this in mind. A falling bullet might only pierce the skin or in some cases just create a bruise. In other cases it may actually cause death. The important thing to remember is that they are not traveling at the manufacturer’s listed muzzle velocity. It should go without saying that you should never attempt to conduct this type of research or experiment. All of the published studies I am aware of were conducted by the military on large scale controlled firing ranges. Do not try.
Vehicle examination bays are a relatively new feature of the modern crime lab in the United States. Now there have always been garages that vehicles could be sequestered in but that was not their primary purpose. Large agencies may have used parking structures (for patrol vehicles) or impound lots but they lacked certain amenities for the forensic scientist. When I first got into forensics we used to process vehicles at the tow yard. Some had indoor garages but others did not. In some cases they would back the cars into a kind of shipping container where you couldn’t even open the doors! Another problem is the potential for unauthorized access. Even if you lock the vehicle it’s possible for damage to occur from the normal operations of the tow yard. Workers may brush against the car wiping off fingerprints or they can accidentally hit the vehicle as they move other vehicles around. I’ve even seen cases where the suspect (owner) climbs the fence after hours and literally steals their car back from the tow yard.
A forensic garage offers certain qualities that are hard to find in other facilities such as,
- Security from all persons not affiliated with the investigation (including other officers and detectives)
- Environmental control (weather, lighting, temperature, etc.)
- Access to specialized tools and processing systems.
Most vehicles can be processed in the field. Fingerprinting a recovered stolen vehicle with no damage may not necessitate it being towed back to the crime lab. If the car was used to kidnap and rape a woman however, it’s going to take time to process. Some vehicles can take hours to properly search and document. It’s nice to have a safe and secure area to work in where you don’t have to worry about approaching snow storms, security, limitations of your equipment, or even the prying eyes of the media. You may have to wait hours for a search warrant to look for various kinds of trace evidence, documenting damage like impacts or bullet holes, or even restoring obliterated VIN numbers so it nice to know the vehicle is protected. A forensic garage allows the investigator to control the environment which is critical for things like an ALS examination (light control) or the application of blood reagents like Luminol.
In addition to the controlled environment the garage can provide very specialized equipment such as chemical fume hoods, vehicle lifts, pneumatic tools, even a winch. Vehicle lifts are handy for getting under a vehicle to recover fired bullets, remove tires or bumpers, or even document things like damage to brake or fuel lines. It’s also nice to get under vehicles to look for blood, tissue, or clothing strips in cases of hit and run or homicide where the victim is intentionally run over. You may even find vegetation from the crime scene wedged in the undercarriage. Most garages are designed to be over sized. Large enough to house a city bus or several vehicles at once. Further, the garages are alarmed, can be easily locked down, and may even have video surveillance. I was recently at a large garage that even had a huge tent structure that allowed the entire vehicle to be fumed with cyanoacrylate! Most forensic garages have room for two to six vehicles although some agencies may have more if they can demonstrate a need (like a regional or state crime lab).
Bottom line is that a forensic garage is a unique feature of the modern forensic laboratory. They are nothing like the automotive garages you may be used to. They are over sized to ensure there is enough room for a photographer to be able to get the whole car in a single photograph and some even have cat walks above so elevated pictures can be taken. If you ever get a chance to tour a crime lab call ahead and see if they have a garage you can visit. Some may be off site from the main crime lab so it doesn’t hurt to ask in advance.
“Trace Evidence” is a term that is commonly used by detectives and forensic scientists but may not be widely understood by others. The term gained prevalence in a series of three papers written by Edmond Locard in 1930 and published in the American Journal of Police Science. The papers define what has become known as the Locard Theory of Exchange. Basically, the theory holds that whenever two things come into contact with one another they will likely leave “traces” of their presence with each other. Imagine a man walking across a muddy field. He leaves behind shoe print impressions and in return the muddy soil will cling to his shoes. That scenario creates an “exchange” between the scene and the suspect. obviously, the more activity and participants in a given crime scene, the greater the potential for such exchange.
I’m not wedded to any particular definition but I think many criminalists would agree that when they think of “trace evidence” they imagine small items normally examined with a microscope. Others might also include impression evidence from shoes and tires but, as an author, you needn’t concern yourself with parsing it all out. I have previously described how criminalists “touch” evidence to minimize any exchange and/or destruction of this valuable evidence. But, detectives rely on this exchange to prove connections between the suspect, victim, and crime scene. As authors you can use various types of trace evidence to drive an investigation and challenge your characters. Trace evidence can be divided into several categories. Here are a few (of many) examples:
- DNA (blood, semen, saliva)
- Hairs (human, pet, livestock)
- Stomach contents (vomit)
- Synthetic fibers (clothing, carpet)
- Paint chips
- Safe insulation
- Glass fragments
- Botanical (pollen, seeds, plant fragments)
- Geological (soil, sand)
I will soon post some articles describing how and where CSIs search for this trace evidence so keep checking back!
Shotgun shells are similar to center-fire cartridges with one important distinction; the wad or shot cup. Shotgun shells come in a variety of calibers (such as .410, 20 gauge, 12 gauge which are the most common) and typically fire pellets instead of a single projectile. Having said that, there are shells designed to fire a single projectile called a “slug”. The size and number of pellets varies as well and are designed for specific uses. Size 8 or 9 shot are small BB sized pellets used for target practice and small game hunting while larger shot such as 00Buck are used for home defense and predator hunting.
When a typical cartridge is fired at a crime scene the CSI might look for both the bullet and the cartridge case. The other component (powder) is generally burned up but can be found in a residue. But with a shotgun discharge the CSI may also be looking for the wad or shot cup . Most modern ammunition uses a shotcup which is a plastic “cup” with separate ”petals” which fold away after leaving the muzzle and slow its forward movement (see photo). Older shotgun shells commonly used a wad which was a small fibrous disc of the same diameter as the shell. It’s kind of like a little padded sponge but without the holes and denser. Without a wad or shotcup the pellets would exit the muzzle with much les energy because the pellets can’t hold back the pressure as well as a solid projectile. Shotguns are smooth-bore weapons and generally do not have rifling which means the examiner can not do a traditional rifling comparison like they would with an expended bullet.
Badguys will sometimes pick up their expended cases or shells (often referred to as “policing your brass”) but finding the shotcup would be very difficult as it can travel quite some distance from the muzzle (I have found them over 100 feet away). Sometimes, if the muzzle is in contact or close contact with the victim the shotcup or wad may even be recovered from inside the victim at autopsy. Now a firearms examiner can not link a shotcup to a particular weapon but examining the shotcup might reveal what type and size of shot was used and even the manufacturer of the ammunition. This might be important circumstantial evidence to consider when searching a suspect’s home, vehicle, or financial records.
Not unless your novel is based in a pre-WWI era. This is one of those terminology mistakes that seems to have kept a foot hold in modern crime and suspense thrillers. I’m listening to an audio book during my commute and the NYT best-selling author has referenced the smell of Cordite several times in the modern tale. Perhaps it’s a little thing that a lot of readers may not notice but it is a glaring error to knowledgeable readers. The fact that such a well regarded author (one with a reputation for doing good research) makes this mistake tells me that many other authors may make the same error. Truthfully, it’s a simple error to make but even easier to avoid.
Cordite was a type of smokeless propellant for firearm cartridges developed by the British from the early 1890′s to about the end of WWI when better smokeless powders were developed. It was still used in heavy guns (like tanks) to varying degrees but it is not produced anymore and certainly not for modern firearms. It produces an acrid smell like burnt acetone if you can imagine that. Modern smokeless powders produce a much less noticeable odor. The smell of modern powders don’t “hang in the air” unless you’ve discharged dozens or hundreds of rounds in a confined space. That’s not to say a seasoned CSI or detective couldn’t detect an odor after a few shots were fired but it just wouldn’t be as pungent or last very long (minutes) in most cases.
So if you’re writing a modern novel avoid descriptions like “After emptying his magazine at the knife wielding thug, Butch Big-guns nearly gagged on the curtain of cordite hanging in the air”. You are of course welcome to use the character name Butch Big-guns if so inclined
This is a really interesting video of a ballistics test on bullet-proof glass designed for vehicles. Technically, these products are really “bullet-resistant” since eventually it can fail (with enough bullets) or some larger calibers and bullet types. Nonetheless, it is interesting. This is obviously done under very controlled conditions with a proven product so it goes without saying DON’T TRY THIS YOURSELF!
Some of you know that I continue to conduct research in the forensic sciences so I thought it might be fun to share my latest paper on detecting patched bullet holes with portable x-ray units. I hope you enjoy!
Rifling is a term that refers to the grooves machined into the barrel of a firearm to impart a spin on the bullet during flight. This spin helps stabilize the bullet thereby improving accuracy and increasing the distance traveled. The raised ridges traveling along the length of the barrel are called lands and the grooves are the spaces between. These lands and grooves also have a “twist” or slight rotation to the left or right (depending on make and model) which creates the spin. The number, width, direction of twist, and rate of twist can vary between makes and models. The degree of this twist is called the “twist rate” and is expressed by how many inches it takes the projectile to make one full revolution of the rifling. For example, a barrel with a 1:12 rate of twist means the bullet will make one full revolution every 12 inches of the rifling.
Rifling is found in most modern rifles and handguns (even muzzle loaders) with the exception of most shotguns which are referred to as “smoothbore”. There are different methods for machining gun barrels but generally speaking, the tools that manufacturers use to create these lands and grooves leave unique marks (scratches) on the lands and grooves. As the bullet passes down the barrel the lands and grooves will replicate these marks onto the projectile. Firearms examiners evaluate the rifling in two main ways.
First, by looking at the gross physical features (called General Rifling Characteristics; GRC) of the lands and grooves (number, width, and direction of twist) the examiner may be able to eliminate certain makes and models of firearms. The FBI maintains a database of GRC from firearms all over the world which is updated once a year and distributed to the firearms examiner community. From this an examiner can create a list of possible gun models that share the same GRC as the crime scene bullet. When a known bullet is submitted to the lab the examiner can compare the presence and location of these rifling marks on the crime scene bullet to the known standard to determine if that gun was the one that fired the bullet. I’ll have more on this process later as it is much more detailed than what I have allowed for here.
Suffice it to say that firearms examiners use these marks to include or exclude a gun as having fired a particular bullet. If you want to put something interesting into your story choose a gun that has unusual rifling marks or general rifling characteristics. This may be from a rare or antique firearm, an after-market barrel, or a custom-made one. Your local gunsmith may be able to point you in a good direction. Then your characters can spend a few scenes trying to unravel the mystery of what kind of gun was used in the shooting. Another thing you might consider is using a gun in which these rifling marks have been damaged or destroyed intentionally by the criminal (like using a drill bit to mar the barrel). Use your imagination and have some fun with it.
Many of my articles deal with using the proper terminology and this one is no exception. I don’t like to sound too critical but I believe it is important to be accurate in the small details of our novels. One of the most frequent mistakes I read in novels or see on television is the use of the term “bullet” instead of “cartridge”. Even experts can interchange the meanings of these words. Recently, a firearms examiner I know called to ask if I had any .45 caliber bullets for an experiment he was conducting. Being a re-loader I did but as the conversation progressed I had to clarify “do you mean .45 cartridges?” to which he laughed and affirmed. It was a simple, innocent, exchange of terminology but if you don’t like e-mails pointing out the mistakes in your novels here is the difference.
The bullet is the conical shaped projectile of the cartridge. The bullet is the piece that leaves the muzzle of the gun and travels towards the intended target. The cartridge case is the brass or steel part that holds the primer (the ignition source), the gunpowder, and the bullet. When all of the unfired components are assembled you have a cartridge. If you load a cartridge casing without a bullet or insert a bullet without a casing holding powder and primer you won’t project a bullet.
One big exception is a muzzle loading rifle sometimes referred to as a “musket”. These weapons are characteristic of the type used in the American Revolutionary War but are still manufactured and used today by collectors, hunters, and competitive shooters. I will have future articles on muzzle loading weapons but those are not used by police or most bad guys. So if your character is loading “bullets” into a gun or magazine you’re technically incorrect.