Ballistics: Aiming to Find Out

By The History Detectives Team
7 July 2009
Category: DIY Investigations

You can use the same techniques carried out by ballistics experts to find out the story behind weapons and bullets.

In this week’s story, the St Valentines Day Massacre, History Detectives investigates whether a shotgun was used in an infamous gangland massacre.

As Elyse discovered, examining your object and comparing it with historical research can help to shed light on its origins and use. In our story, the sawn-off barrel was a tell-tale characteristic of a gangster gun. Gangsters would saw off the barrel so that they could conceal their shotguns under their coats.

More modern weapons have a serial number, unless it has been illegally removed, which can be used to date the gun. You can do this by contacting the sheriff or police where you live or by looking at your state’s government or criminal apprehension site, a good example is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Experts are an invaluable source of information, and many ballistics experts specialize in particular gun manufacturers or eras and know obscure details about their weapons. For example, an authority on Colt revolvers may know details as intimate as the grit of sandpaper used at the factory. Try and locate an expert that can shed some light on your discovery.

There is always the possibility that your gun is in fact a replica or a forgery. Under controlled light, an expert eye will be able to identify the legitimacy of your weapon.

If a weapon is of considerable value, you can always invest in laboratory testing. Depending on the weapon, tests can include metallurgic analyzes, or even x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging, providing a deeper understanding of your weapon’s history.

When examining bullets, there are two types of tiny markings to look out for. These are class characteristics and individual characteristics.

The bullet caliber and “rifling” marks are class characteristics. Rifling marks are caused by spiral grooves located inside the gun barrel. These spirals cause the bullet to spin, producing a more stable flight path. Different types of guns have unique rifling marks, the bullets will turn in different directions with varying rates of twist.

Individual characteristics encompass the small imperfections and quirks of different guns which leave a mark on a bullet when it is fired. Two bullets fired from the same gun will bear identical individual characteristics.

If you are examining bullets from a weapon dating from before the end of the 18th century it will be very difficult to match them. This is because older guns had a smooth barrel which left next to no marks.

Have you examined any weapons or bullets? We would like to know about it. Do you have any tips or sources you think we should know about? Let us know in the form below.


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