The affliction of Firearm Injuries on Human Body and its Medico-Legal Importance

The affliction of Firearm Injuries on Human Body and its Medico-Legal Importance in Contemporary Times

Author: Shreya Saxena

Jamnalal Bajaj School of Legal Studies, Banasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan.

1. Introduction:

Whilst in a generic harangue, one may call the concept of the firearm to be that of importance when the topic of general conversation is that of forensic science. Firearms are certain devices used in different ways- generally, either to protect self or to commit a crime. A firearm is a mechanism to hurl a single projectile or multiple projectiles. According to Wikipedia, ‘A firearm is a portable gun or precisely a barreled ranged weapon which is designed in a way to be used by any individual. They inflict endamage on targets by launching one or more projectiles which are in a way, intemperately driven by rapidly expanding high-pressure gaseous elements produced chemically by exothermic combustion also known as deflagration of propellant within any ammunition cartridge.’ A cartridge may be defined as a case containing an explosive charge for blasting[1].

2. Etymology:

Originated in 10th-century China, the first primitive firearms came to light when some bamboo tubes containing gunpowder and some pellet projectiles were mounted on spears into a specific individually portable fire shaft.

During the 13th century, avowedly, the Chinese invented and thereby excogitated the metal-barreled hand cannons and thus were widely considered the true ancestors of all firearm weapons if the concept is studied etymologically.  The technology then gradually spread itself through the remaining part of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Typically in older firearms, a black powder was used in order to harness this particular weapon, but modern firearms mainly use smokeless powder or some other types of propellants. Most modern firearms [particularly excluding the notable smoothbore shotguns] have rifled barrels so as to impart a fastidious spin to the projectile for an improvement in its flight stability.

Firearms herein include a variety of ranged weapons[2]. However, there is a noticeable absence of a definition agreed upon by the forensic as well as legal experts. Different people have shared and presented different opinions regarding the same.

3. Configuration:

The term ‘small arms’ customarily refers to any ‘kinetic projectile’[3] firearm which is small and light enough to be carried and operated by any individual or particularly for the pertinent application by a single infantryman. They also comprehend handguns such as revolvers, pistols and derringers, and long guns such as rifles, and there are many subtypes of long guns such as anti-material rifles, sniper rifles, battle rifles, assault rifles and many more, shotguns, submachine guns, personal defense weapons and light machine guns.

4. Injuries caused by the firearms:

Purporting over the general concept of Firearms may lead the research towards the injuries caused by these firearms to the human body. The injuries caused by these firearms provide information to the experts on various points including those of the injuries being gunshot injuries or not and the type of firearm and ammunition being used to cause that specific kind of injury. Questions like, ‘are the injuries suicidal, accidental or homicidal?’ are also answered by the disquisition of these type of injuries thereby also cogitating the issues regarding the range of fire.

The injuries caused by firearms are examined and scrutinized by medical doctors. However, a firearm expert has to evaluate them on a frequent basis. Generally, a firearm injury consists of three parts, namely – the entrance wound, the exit wound and the internal wound. Nevertheless, in some cases, when the projectiles are withheld inside the body of the victim, no exit wounds are found. In some cases, the entrance and the exit wounds are invisible. In such scenarios, the projectiles may enter into the human body through the natural orifices or openings like those of mouth, anus etc. However, this may result in cleavage of tissues at any place throughout the track of the firearm projectile inside the body.

The entrance wounds of a firearm may be found to be circular, oval, ragged, explosive or in the shape of a key. The explosive shape of wounds may be sometimes confused with the injuries caused due to explosives. Such wounds are effectuated because of some high velocity projectiles being fired or by a shotgun fire from a close range, when the whole ‘eject’ enter into the body at such a point where there is no space for the gases to expand.

It has been generally observed that the entrance wounds of the gunshot injuries have a bit smaller diameter than the diameter of the projectile. Whereas, sometimes they may even have equal or larger diameters, but the latter formations are not that common. It has been noticed that the exit wounds are usually irregular, occasionally circular and gaping at times. The dimensions of the exit wounds are ordinarily larger than that of the diameter of the projectile being fired by the firearm and also larger than that of the entrance wound caused by the same. The internal track of the firearm projectile inside the body of the victim can be a straight tunnel or even weavy and zigzagged because of the divergence of the projectile. The track can even be found to be conjoint and multi channeled in some cases due to the projectile being fragmented into multiple pieces which thereby forms secondary projectiles. The track may even end inside the body and in such conditions, the projectile is found at the site inside the body itself.

Whenever a projectile strikes the body of the victim, it may either compress or depress (or both) the skin and even the flesh and the bones underneath. The continued pressure caused by the projectiles stretches these body parts beyond their plastic limits, if there is sufficient amount of energy being carried by the respective projectile. Therefore, the stretched skin facing the impress of the projectile is pierced. Thereby the hole on the skin appears to be a bit smaller in diameter as compared to the diameter of the projectile which created the wound. Under general conditions, the minimum velocity, known as the threshold velocity which is required to penetrate the skin has been found to be 40 to 55 meters per second. The threshold velocity for the penetration of the bone can be 60 meters per second.

The projectile thereby continuing towards its progressive path may leave body through an exit hole, or if its energy has been pent inopportunely in overcoming the defiance caused by the clothes, the skin, flesh or bones, it may be found lodged inside the body itself. The mutilating effect of the firearm projectile depends upon four factors viz. The target site or the body part necessarily hit by the projectile and responsible for bearing the extent of shock caused by the same, the velocity or the speed of the projectile having a great inference upon the nature as well as the detriment and damage caused to the body tissues, the Constructional features or attributes having a profound influence on the wounding effect, and lastly the range which also affects the wound, the track of the projectile, the exit point etc.

  • The Target Site:

A human body, not being a uniform medium is approximately 80% water and even the water is not uniformly distributed. The presence o bones, flesh, veins and arteries, internal as well as external organs, nerves, muscles and blood vessels tend to unevenly distribute the vulnerability. There have been various general calculations which state after a careful study and consideration of the anatomy of a human body that about 40-45% of the total skin of the body covers some body parts like the organs, the cavities, nerves, blood vessels and many more which are prone to damage. If a firearm shot hits any of these body parts, serious damage and impairment may be caused.

A frontal –attack is more likely to cause an even serious wound than the injury caused by the shot from backside. The body part which is hit by a firearm projectile essentially plays an important part. If only the skin is perforated by the projectile, it does not necessarily cause much harm. However, if the shot injures the brain of the victim, the heart, the spinal cord or the aorta etc. of a person, the bodily functions of the person are stopped at once and for all in most cases. The part of the body which is hit is also responsible for the extent of shock caused to the body. The shocking intensity of a projectile may be varying from one person to another unless the vital parts are hit and are this seriously injured.

  • The Velocity:

The velocity of a projectile has great influence on the nature as well as the extent of the mutilation caused to the tissues of the body of the victim. Mathematical discourse contemplates that the energy of a projectile is proportional to the square of the velocity i.e. .

If one doubles the velocity; the energy of the projectile will become four times itself. This shows that there is an extreme influence of the velocity factor. The explosive wounds are usually caused by sporting and service rifles. However, the velocity with which the projectile strikes should be 600 meters per second to cause such wounds and very few projectiles are manufactured which propel the approaching projectiles which have the aforementioned velocity. Consequently, there is the negligible study of the wounding effects caused by such projectiles. A modern cartridge develops a velocity of about 300 to 1400 metres per second when the entire grain powder is allowed to combust or burn within a confined space. If the burning is not done within a confined space, the projectile is pushed as soon as the pressure building up inside the cartridge case of the projectile is sufficient enough to open the mouth of the firearm. However, the pressure built is ordinarily insufficient so as to propel the projectile at a velocity sufficient to kill any person and if such a case is practically reported, it might be a fake.

  • The Constructional Features:

As mentioned in the research earlier, the constructional features have a weighty upshot and impact on the wounding effect. There are two main determinants of these features namely, proper penetration and adequate damage to the tissues. The proper penetration in addition to the velocity of the projectile depends upon the proper shape and the material comprising of the structure of the same. The ideal shape, for the projectile so as to overcome the resistance of air is found in streamlined bullets. The ideal projectile which is streamlined may need some extreme care while being manufactured so that its centre of gravity would coincide with the centre of shape and form.

If these are two are distanced even by .0025 centimeter, the projectile would strike about 25 centimeters away from the target which is placed at a distance if 600 meters. Besides this, they pass through the body without the adequate amount of energy being transferred so as to damage the tissues of the body. Therefore, the streamlined bullets are not popularly used in actual practice. For that reason, most of the firearm projectiles have a flat base and in turn have an excellent power of penetration.

  • The Range:

The increasing rage of the fire which is in addition to the reduction in the velocity of the projectile of the firearm influences the wounding effect in two ways viz.,

  1. The lighter ejecta [any material or substance containing various types of particles that is forced or thrown out, especially as a result of volcanic eruption, meteoritic impact, or stellar explosion.] is only dispersed and it does not reach or enter the target.
  2. There is an overcome of the initial instability of the projectile after being fired.

The smoke, the powder gases, dirt and wads, the semi- burnt or the unburnt grain powder residues and the metallic particles etc. all constitute the lighter ejecta. They are essential to the effect of the wound only if the firearm is fired when pressed upon the skin making it a ‘contact wound[4]’ or from a very close range making it a ‘near contact wound’.

Under such conditions, the ejecta en masse enters the body of the victim and the expansion of the gases takes place inside the body. Such a wound may give the appearance of an explosion but the damage may not appear to be extensive on the outside. There may be found no charring, blackening, sullying or tattooing on the outer margin of the injury and these phenomenons will be occurring inside the wound body, near & around the track of the projectile.

The effect of the unsteadiness, as well as the shakiness of the firearm projectile in the initial stages of its flight depending upon the nature of the wound, is immense. The projectile is also quivering and wobbling, it may not thus strike in a nose –onward position. The extent of instability of any firearm projectile may depend upon a number of factors and not only on the projectile but also on the firearm itself and the cartridge.

Firearm injuries can be explained either from the superfluous residual deposits or from the characteristic mutilation that has been inferred upon the body by the shot. Extraneous deposits of the gunshots include absorption of carbon monoxide [resulting in the pink coloration of the skin around the track of the projectile], blackening [caused by the deposition of the smoke and the powder etc.], sullying or tattooing, charring or contusions etc. these facts should be well known to any person who is associated with the discipline of forensic science and the legal experts, particularly those who carry out the postmortem examinations of the bodies of the victims of the crimes committed by the firearms. 

Proper evaluation of the firearm injuries can indicate the nature of the firearm and even the time that has passed since the injury in some cases. The projectiles have certain distinctive shapes, velocities and kinetic energies differing from mostly all the other agents causing injuries.

  • Medico Legal Importance of Firearm Injuries:

There can be found to be a number of issues and questions which transpire in the mind of any forensic expert and also the medical officer carrying out the post-mortem of the body of the victim of any crime committed by a firearm. Some of these questions can be:

  • Did the victim succumb to injuries because of the gunfire or did the death occur because of some other cause?
  • What type of firearm and ammunition has been used for the commission of the crime?
  • How much time has been passed since the victim was subjected to that firearm injury?
  • Is the particular injury under consideration an entry wound or an exit wound?
  • What was the range from which the projectile was fired towards the victim?

and many more of the sort.

There are a number of issues that help up build a criminal investigation and can be helped when supported by the discipline of forensic science. Certain things, parts and particles of the firearm weapons become evidence so as to evaluate the questions of medical and legal importance so as to take the criminal investigation a bit forward.

It may prove difficult for an investigator to at times find and locate the firearm injuries, especially when the injury is caused by the projectile being a small-caliber projectile hurled towards the victim with a very low velocity. These injuries are thus located by a medical officer. This will also help the investigating officer in getting some crucial information and evidence regarding the nature and number of injuries caused by the firearm. If the shot is a contact shot, it is possible that the victim might carry some muzzle impressions of the firearm around the injury.

The path of the projectile in the body of a victim is an essential ingredient in the investigation procedure of a criminal trial.

This kind of data might help in one way or the other to decipher whether the shot fired was of fatal nature or not? In the cases of damages caused due to non-fatal injuries, these points help in deciding upon the entire quantum of compensation. The clues like bullet, slug, pellets and powder etc. are the ones that help in establishing the link between the criminal and the crime. 

It is possible that the culprit might carry some primer residues like that of some soot or gun powder after they committed the crime. These kinds of clues might be found to be deposited on the hands and arms of the culprit which in turn establish the commission of the crime by him or her. A culprit may put an end to the firearm weapon after the commission of the crime. However, if the whereabouts and the house and household of the victim is searched thoroughly, certain inklings such as the firearm residues, the cartridges may be discovered. The collection as well as the location of the cartridges fired previously and bullets should also be useful in certain cases where the firearm has been tampered with and damaged by the culprit. This kind of practice has gained popularity in recent times.

The scene of the crime is an important part of a criminal investigation. It is also the place a person can find the primer indications and the evidentiary traces related to any crime committed by a firearm. The firearm itself can be evidence if it is recovered from the scene of the crime and is in a position to fire a projectile shot. The recovered firearm can link the criminal with the crime committed by the criminal through the identification process of the fired bullets or cartridge cases covered from the victim of the scene of the crime. The firearm may be found to be carrying the fingerprints of the assailant, the dead skin cells, etc. It may also be carrying the blood, flesh, or skin of the victim if at all the shot was a contact shot. Therefore, these materials establish a link between the victim and the firearm. A standard firearm has the name of the manufacturer and the serial number which help in locating the owner of the specific firearm. It also carries fingerprints, fibers hair, skin, blood, or any other material. Also, there are certain precautions to be noted while investigating the firearm for a criminal inquiry. It should be checked whether the weapon is cocked or not or else, the firearm may be loaded and might go off while being handled, proving fatal to the investigation officer or the forensic and medical expert.

  • Conclusion:

Therefore, the concept of the affliction of firearm injuries on the human body is a matter of extreme importance in the field of forensic science. Nowadays, when there are frequent acquittals of the actual criminals because of a lack of evidence and clues pertaining to the criminal trials and investigations, the medico-legal importance of firearm injuries is increasing by the day.

[1] Definition- [Source:]

[2] List of firearms []

[3] Kinetic Projectiles, []

[4] Source: &