CRIME LAB: Myths & Misconceptions

There are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to bullet behavior in the real world.

CRIME LAB: Myths & Misconceptions

I entered the crime lab when I was 24 years old from a middle-class background that hardly hinted at the nature of "life on the streets." I could write a book about my rude awakening to the greater world, but I thought I'd review some of the myths and misconceptions that I brought to the new job.

Bullet Path Acrobatics

In my youth, I assumed that as a bullet passed though an animal or person, it continued on in a straight line in the same direction the gun barrel was pointed. It was an eye-opener to find that's not always the case.

Hitting any target can upset the artificial stability imparted to a bullet by rifling. If the bullet starts to yaw, it can change direction. My first experience with this came while shooting 200-grain .38 Special bullets through gelatin. I fired a shot, saw the chronograph screen light blink out and felt a dull thud against my foot. In only 51/2 inches of gelatin, the long, slow bullet turned up and to the right 45 degrees, so it had no problem whamming the chronograph screen and bouncing back to the shooting station.

That was a homogenous target, unlike living tissue. We worked an officer-involved shooting where a policeman made an essentially level shot on an armed assailant with a .357 Magnum hollowpoint.


Having expended most of its velocity in the bad guy's chest, the bullet exited and struck a wall about four feet behind the suspect. The pockmark on the wall was close to seven feet off the floor even though the exit point on the suspect was less than five feet from the floor. If one assumes that bullets always travel in a perfectly straight line, the officer would have been lying under the floorboards shooting up, something that both civilian witnesses and the officers involved said didn't happen.


I often wish that some pundits making claims about a certain historical shooting in 1963 would take this very common behavior of bullets more seriously.

Crimelab-Projectile

Must Remove That Bullet

Having watched so many movies and shows where doctors dig for a bullet in a wounded man and then proudly clang it into a metal pan, I figured the lab would be covered with bullets from the Parkland Hospital emergency room. This was not the case.

Best medical practice is to fix important bodily bits that the bullet damaged. If the bullet is not going anywhere, leave it and worry about the leaks. Needlessly going after the bullet can increase blood loss and complicate recovery.

What about lead poisoning from a retained bullet? The human body has good self-defense processes that isolate a foreign body by covering it with a biological shell. Old bullets removed years after the shooting look like they'd been repeatedly dipped in paraffin. When our lab developed a relatively easy means of screening for blood lead, the Dallas PD arranged for any officer carrying a bullet or pellets to get screened. During my tenure, no one with a bullet onboard ever turned up with enough elevation in blood lead to warrant concern.


Lethality

I quickly learned that "what hits you" gets trumped by "where it hits you" as the major factor in lethality. I did a survey in 1972 of about a decade's worth of recovered autopsy bullets. I found that .22-caliber and .38-caliber revolver bullets were almost equally represented and made up about 80 percent of the sample. Everything else fell in the remaining 20 percent. Granted, some people died of penetrating gunshot wounds where no bullet was recovered, but the study was still an eye-opener in that there were as many .22s as .38s in the sample.

Any penetrating injury creates leaks and blood loss that, if not stopped by the body's defense mechanisms or medical intervention, can kill. The number of areas to be treated depends on the path of the injury. At one time I thought the .32 Auto FMJ was pretty high on the lethality scale because we had a run of fatal shootings with that cartridge where the little bullet seemed to have plenty of penetration and the uncanny knack of finding important things and making holes in them. About the same time, a veteran patrol officer related the story of shooting an armed suspect four times in the torso with a .44 Special loaded with roundnose ammo. The bad guy put down his gun, asked the officer not to shoot him anymore and sat in a chair while waiting for the ambulance. He was out of the hospital and in jail in a little over two weeks.

Projectile size is a second-order issue in lethality, subordinate to what organs were hit and how quickly medical treatment was started. A doctor does not need to know the caliber of bullet to save a life.


Bullet Meets Ice

One of the old firearms identification texts showed a picture of a .22-caliber lead bullet that had been recovered using ice. At the time we saw this, all we had was a cotton box and saw entirely too many bullets that were badly scrubbed when we tried recovering in cotton. We were still in temporary digs in a construction trailer in 1971 awaiting completion of a new lab building.

Our first reaction was that ice should destroy a soft lead bullet. However, the picture showed an undeformed bullet. Then after one particularly frustrating afternoon trying to get decent test bullets from a .22 LR revolver, we decided to try ice. We filled a half-gallon paper milk carton with water and stuck it in the freezer. The next morning we had a seven-inch column of ice ready for shooting.

If any of you are responsible for workplace safety, you may wish to jump ahead, because we were definitely not acting responsibly at this point. At least we waited until the other occupants of the trailer were away on coffee break to do the dirty deed. The ice block stood on the floor atop several thick phone books, and we wrapped layers of carpet scraps around and over it. And we pulled the trigger.

We found the frozen milk carton intact with only a few ice shavings spattered on the improvised shielding. The bullet was visible about five inches from the top, and the ice was refrozen around the bullet. We had to thaw the mess to get the bullet, but we were rewarded with a perfect test bullet for the comparison microscope.

The mechanism was clearly that ice melted under pressure, slowing the bullet in the same way water does. It quickly became obvious that this method had cartridge limitations and logistics issues, so when the new lab with its water recovery tank was move-in ready a few months later, we were relieved. So were the nice ladies who shared the old trailer with us.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Hornady 6MM Creedmoor

Hornady 6MM Creedmoor

Tom Beckstrand and Neal Emery of Hornady highlight the 6MM Creedmoor ammo.

Beretta

Beretta's New 92X

The 92X Performance model from Beretta was created to satisfy two requirements: Speed and accuracy. Beretta's new competition pistol is uncompromising and aims for top performance.

All About .300 Blackout

All About .300 Blackout

The .300 Blackout is here to stay, and we take some time to look at new technology surrounding this cartridge. Next, we pit subsonic rivals against each other before stretching the legs of this CQB round out to 600 yards from a short 9-inch barrel.

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

David Fortier talks with Jeff Hoffman of Black Hills Ammunition about the evolution of the .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match bullet.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

The Hornady 6.5 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge) is a Rifle

6.5 PRC - Magnumized 6.5 Creedmoor

Tom Beckstrand - August 01, 2018

The Hornady 6.5 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge) is a "magnumized" 6.5 Creedmoor. It offers...

How-To

9 Commonly Misused Gun Terms

Kyle Wintersteen

"Assault weapon." Sixteen-round "clip." A box of "bullets." When it comes to guns and gun...

Here's the latest competitive intel on what are the top ARs in 3-Gun today and why. Rifles

Top ARs in 3-Gun Shooting Today

James Tarr - May 14, 2019

Here's the latest competitive intel on what are the top ARs in 3-Gun today and why.

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a zeroed rifle scope. Here's how to sight in your rifle scope setup in five quick-and-easy steps. How-To

How to Sight In a Rifle Scope in 5 Steps

Craig Boddington - June 04, 2018

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a...

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

You have to have solid fundamentals to be a good pistol shooter, and their importance is clear when we watch the Step Back drill in Guns & Ammo TV's “Pros vs. Joes.” Professional shooter and law enforcement officer Chris Cerino walks G&A TV cameraman Ben LaLonde through the drill and learns the benefits of training and experience. How-To

Guns & Ammo TV: Step Back Drill

Guns & Ammo Staff - May 13, 2020

You have to have solid fundamentals to be a good pistol shooter, and their importance is clear...

An interesting solution for nearsighted shooters is the Meprolight FT Bullseye, a tritium and fiber-optic-powered green or red optic that appears as a front-light dot centered within a rear ring. How-To

Meprolight FT Bullseye for Nearsighted Shooters

Eric R. Poole - May 04, 2020

An interesting solution for nearsighted shooters is the Meprolight FT Bullseye, a tritium and...

Hardened warriors don't rely on luck; they make their luck. Rely on your training. Don't rely on superstitions or a lucky rabbit's foot. How-To

Good Luck Comes With Good Training

SGM Kyle Lamb [Ret.] - June 22, 2020

Hardened warriors don't rely on luck; they make their luck. Rely on your training. Don't rely...

Black powder and muzzleloader shooting can open up hunting opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available. If you hunt with muzzleloaders, you will quickly learn the value of accurate range estimation, stalking and making a good shot. How-To

Black Powder and Muzzleloader Shooting Basics

Dave Emary - March 10, 2020

Black powder and muzzleloader shooting can open up hunting opportunities that wouldn't...

See More How-To

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now