sorry, but we need to talk about wound ballistics

Okay, let’s talk wound ballistics.

Wait. First, let’s just confess that any culture in which it’s necessary to talk about wound ballistics as they apply to school kids is a fucked up culture. Sadly, that fairly accurately describes the culture in the U.S. right now.

Anyway, a friend who’s a gun enthusiast claimed the AR-15 is no more deadly than any other rifle. Which is a difficult argument to address–not because it’s correct, but because the definition of ‘deadly’ is pretty elastic. Which is why–and the only reason why–we need to talk about wound ballistics.

You hear the term ‘ballistics’ tossed about in police movies and television shows, but what the hell are they really talking about? Ballistics is just the study of the mechanics and behavior of projectiles. Any projectile–rocks thrown by a slingshot, bullets shot by a firearm, missiles launched from a submarine. We’re just going to be talking about bullets here.

First, you need to remember this: a bullet–well, any projectile–displaces air as it travels through it. When you fire a gun, you want a bullet that remains stable as it flies through the air towards the target. In other words, you want a bullet that will go where you aim it. This is what they mean when they talk about ballistics in the movies.

What doesn’t get discussed–and what we need to discuss–is terminal ballistics. That’s the study of how projectiles behave after they’ve arrived at the target. When you apply terminal ballistics to a body of flesh, we’re talking wound ballistics. After a bullet strikes a body, what happens to the bullet? How is the energy of the speeding bullet spent? And what happens to the flesh?

When I was being trained as a medic (a million years ago) my unit was given an object lesson in wound ballistics. The instructors hung a pair of pig carcasses from hooks, one in front of the other, and shot them. First with a standard issue 9mm pistol, then with an old M1 Garand–the .30 caliber rifle that was the standard service weapon in WWII–and finally with an M-16. As you know, the AR-15 is the civilian version of the M-16. We examined the carcasses after each weapon was fired.

Here’s what you need to remember. Just as a bullet displaces air on its way to the target, it also displaces flesh after it enters the target. The 9mm pistol rounds easily penetrated the first carcass, making a tidy little entry wound–a little hole in the body. The bullet remained fairly stable as it hit and passed into the pig’s flesh. Except where they hit bone, the wound track was simple and neat. Even when the bullet struck bone and caromed in a different direction, the wound track remained fairly simple. The 9mm bullets lacked the penetrative power to pass through the first carcass and into the second.

The M1’s larger and heavier .30 caliber rounds made a larger but similar entry wound–a hole in the body. Like the 9mm bullets, the wound track was fairly simple–a hole drilled through the body. Unlike the 9mm bullets, several .30 caliber rounds completely penetrated the first carcass and entered the second. Those bullets became less stable in the second carcass.

Both the 9mm and .30 caliber rounds remained stable as they hit and passed into–and in the case of the .30 caliber, passed through–the carcass. That stability meant the bullets penetrated the body fairly smoothly, displacing a relatively small amount of flesh. Basically, these bullets drilled holes in the carcass. The energy of these bullets was spent passing through the body.

Unlike the other bullets, the M-16’s smaller and lighter .223 rounds remained stable until they hit the carcass, at which point they became wildly unstable. That instability resulted in the bullet lurching and tumbling. Where energy of the stable bullets was expended by passing through–by drilling holes–in the body, the energy of unstable lurching .223 bullets was spent in creating extensive shockwaves in the body. This is called cavitation. It not only displaces a lot more flesh, it means organs, blood vessels, and bone near the bullet’s path are also damaged. The energy of the bullet is expended IN the body instead of passing THROUGH the body. The result is really big, savage, gaping, messy wounds.

What does that mean? For a medic, it means a wound from an AR-15 variant rifle is less amenable to treatment than wounds by a .30 caliber rifle or a 9mm pistol. The AR is more likely to pulp tissue and organs instead of simply passing through them, more likely to shatter bone than simply break it. For a shooter, it means he (yeah, these shooters are almost exclusively male) doesn’t need to be particularly accurate in order to produce a high body count.

In practical terms, this generally means mass shootings involving AR-15 variants will have a higher body count–a bigger butcher’s bill. (I say ‘generally’ because the butcher’s bill depends on more than just the weapon used; it also depends on where the victims are shot. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 using a pair of relatively small-caliber pistols — but 28 of those victims were shot in the head, and all of them had been shot at least three times.)

My point is that the argument that the AR-15 is no more deadly than any other rifle is a bullshit argument. It’s not about the rifle; it’s about the wound ballistics. A shoulder-launched missile is no more deadly that an AR-15, but the wound ballistics…well, you get my point, right? The story is always the wound ballistics.

12 thoughts on “sorry, but we need to talk about wound ballistics

  1. This is why I want the photos from Sandy Hook released. And the photos from Parkland. These kids were not simply killed with bullets, they were decimated. And as you used the term “butcher’s bill,” perhaps a butchering would probably be a better description of what happened, particularly the smaller Sandy Hook kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d be okay with that IF the parents are okay with it. I’ve had the misfortune to see a lot of gunshot wounds — both fatal and near-fatal — as a medic and a criminal defense investigator. I wouldn’t want to force that on anybody.

      On the other hand, there are a lot of folks whose only knowledge of wounds is from television and the movies. They’re used to seeing people get shot, wear a sling, and go back to work the next day. They’re used to seeing a tidy wound and a pool of visually dramatic blood. And that shapes how they think about GSWs. So maybe it would benefit people to see the reality. Maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Decimated does not mean what you Think it means.
      Those kids were Mutilated by the rounds that struck them.

      Decimation was a type of Punishment used by the Roman Legions. A Legion which was judged to have not fought Hard Enough (ie. They Lost) could be ordered to be Decimated as punishment for Cowardice. What that consisted of was to line up the entire legion in nice neat rows and, while they stood there, a team from the Legion assigned to carry out the discipline would walk through those ranks killing 1 solder out of each 10.
      Hence “Decimate”: Kill One in every Ten.


      • Not surprisingly, this is a discussion I’ve had dozens of times because I’ve always been fascinated by etymology. And here’s the thing: a word means what the majority of people think it means, and that often changes over time.

        ‘Furniture’ used to refer to equipment, supplies or provisions, ‘naughty’ used to refer to people who were poor and had naught, ‘cloud’ used to refer to a large mass of rock.

        So yes, that’s the correct etymology of ‘decimate’. However, at this point in time, through common usage, the term is generally accepted to mean ‘to reduce greatly in number; to destroy a large part or number of something’. I confess, I rather dislike that usage, but there it is.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. If you love your children, PROTECT THEM. We used armed guards for every other person, item, location we want to protect, except for of course our kids.

    The reason is simple, the left needs dead kids to push their agenda, the more dead children the more gun control they get.

    If you place armed guards at schools and the school shootings drop or go away completely, the “ammo” the left had for banning guns is gone.


    • Aw, Billy, c’mon. You’re not stupid; you have to know that isn’t true. Seriously, tell me exactly how much more gun control we’ve had after a couple of decades of school shootings and mass killings. What we’ve actually seen is a couple of decades of relaxing firearm regulations.

      Nor will armed guards at schools stop school shootings. The vast majority of school shooters are students at the school they shoot up. When there’s an armed school officer, those shooters KNOW the guard’s routine. These aren’t spontaneous events; these school shooters plan their attacks. Consider what Cruz did: he pulled the fire alarm to get kids out in the hallways where they were vulnerable and where he could create the most chaos.

      Cruz was different than a lot of school shooters in that he also planned his escape. A LOT of school shooters/mass murderers have no intention of escaping. They expect to die…either by the police or by their own hand. If part of the plan is to end up dead, an armed guard isn’t going to deter that. Granted, the shooter might end up dead a wee bit sooner, but most of these events only last a few minutes — plenty long enough to kill a lot of people before a guard or the police can respond.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Patrick. In my opinion, I think a big part of what turned around the Vietnam War was the horrific images that filled our TV screens and Life Magazines, and the unfettered distribution of the wages of the war. The Pro-Lifers with their big posters of mangled fetuses – while they might not be actual images from abortions, they still seem to have the impact they seek. The scrubbing of photos of wartime in the Middle East is probably partially responsible for why we are still involved…no photos of blown-up soldiers to rile the masses.

    Perhaps, with the permission of the families, of course, the aftermath of these murders of children were actually shown, the outrage might be what it takes to bring about change.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m with Starfish. The photos we saw from Vietnam had a huge impact on myself and others who protested the war. I cry at the thought of releasing photos of massacred children, and would not want to cause further pain to parents, friends and relatives. However, perhaps their should be a private showing for those who oppose updating gun laws in our country. Particularly if they have children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if some lawmakers have seen them, particularly those which might have oversight (Hahahaha! Oversight…). But then, the NRA snaps them back in line with fists full of money.


    • I can’t imagine anybody wanting to see the crime scene photos. I suspect the people who’d benefit from seeing them (although that’s a pretty dubious concept of ‘benefit’) would refuse to look at them.

      The photographs you saw from Vietnam weren’t really all that graphic. There were some shots that were shocking, no mistake…but they weren’t graphic in the way that crime scene photos are.

      Liked by 1 person

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