Ballistics | The Science of Firearms

Ballistics | The Science of Firearms

All law enforcement officers are familiar with firearms. Officers qualify with them on a regular basis, and must ensure that their service weapons are always clean and in good working order. But how many officers are trained or knowledgeable when it comes to ballistics, the science involving firearms and projectiles? While it is unnecessary for every law enforcement officer to be an expert in the field of ballistics, every law enforcement officer should have some basic knowledge when it comes to the subject. If they are lucky, most law enforcement officers will never fire their weapons outside of a training situation. Every law enforcement officer however, will at some point find themselves in a situation where they are forced to safely handle unfamiliar firearms and/or bullets. Having a basic working knowledge of the different firearms, the different calibers of bullets, and proper evidence management techniques with regards to firearms and ammunition can go a long way in performing their duties properly when the situation arises.

Types of Firearms

Most firearms can be placed into two categories: rifles and pistols. Rifles are typically used for situations that necessitate an increase in range such as hunting or hitting targets at a long distance. Pistols are typically used in closer range situations and unlike rifles, are easy to conceal. Both rifles and pistols come chambered in different calibers, and the situation may dictate which caliber is appropriate to use. For example, when shooting at paper targets or hunting small game, many people prefer to use a rifle or pistol chambered in a.22 long rifle due to the low cost and relatively low noise of this caliber. When hunting large game, experienced hunters may choose a larger caliber round such as the.30-06 which is superior to smaller calibers in stopping power. Most firearms and types of ammunition were designed with a specific task in mind and understanding the often subtle differences between the different types of firearms and calibers of ammunition will make a law enforcement officer’s job much easier if and when they are called upon to safely handle these items.

Basic Handling Considerations

Before your personnel go into the field, a standardized in-service training should be provided concerning agency policy in regards to handling of firearms. Backed by the four universal rules of gun safety:

  1. All guns are always loaded
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target
  4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it

Personnel should be instructed on safe handling, wearing protective gear (gloves) when handling any firearm. They should also be taught the expectations concerning recording, documenting, handling, and storing of firearms that are established as evidence. Your personnel do not necessarily have to be experts on firearms, but they do need a healthy working knowledge of how to operate each firearm system, how to safely handle them, and how to process them correctly for evidentiary purposes.

Proper Management of Firearms and Ammunition after Seizure

As previously stated, all law enforcement officers will eventually detain or seize firearms and/or ammunition as part of their official duties. Aside from the basics of safe handling of firearms and ammunition that every new recruit should learn in the academy, what should every law enforcement officer know to ensure that firearms and ammunition are kept and stored in a safe and proper manner? First and foremost, every law enforcement department or agency must develop a plan to integrate firearms and ammunition into their evidence management system. Storage facilities must be equipped to safely store these items, and any evidence management software being utilized must be designed in a way that allows officers to record the make, model, serial number, and caliber of any weapons seized. If a law enforcement department or agency has a separate forensic evidence management system, this system must also be equipped to handle any firearms or ammunition seized. Preparation is key for law enforcement departments and agencies, and it is imperative that these changes or updates be made before any firearms or ammunition seizures and not after.

.38 Special or .357 Magnum?

Although it is certainly not the only case in the ballistics world, an interesting and somewhat confusing situation arises when discussing pistols chambered in the .357 Magnum caliber. This is because pistols chambered in this caliber can also safely fire bullets in the .38 Special caliber. So what does this mean for investigators who may recover bullets or spent shell casings recovered at a crime scene? Essentially, investigators must realize that just because a recovered bullet or shell casing is chambered in the .38 Special caliber, it doesn’t mean that said bullet was fired from a pistol chambered in the .38 Special caliber. It is just as possible that this bullet was fired from a pistol chambered in the .357 Magnum caliber. Ballistic tests have conclusively proven that different caliber bullets fired from the same weapon will have identical markings on them that are unique to the weapon. By recognizing and understanding unique circumstances such as this one, law enforcement officers will be able to perform their duties in a more effective manner and with fewer mistakes.

Does Your Evidence Management System Record the Details?

While the conversation of differences found between calibers far exceed what we could document succinctly in this space, the key takeaway here is whether or not the evidence management system you employ is able to map these findings permanently in corresponding records to firearms evidence. If your agency is dealing with a series of related shootings that involve .357 Magnum, and upon arrest of the suspect, the firearm used is indeed chambered in .38 Special, can your system automate the process of linking that firearm to all documented cases upon verification tests being entered?

If not, then your personnel are going to be spending a lot of time at a desk manually adjusting a series of older reports. How much money is this process costing you in manpower hours every time a crime spree happens?

Take it a step further with cold cases. If a firearm from a crime 15 years ago is recovered in an unrelated incident, can your system identify that possibility for your personnel who is entering that firearm? It would stand to reason they may not have been working when the original crime happened, and with that amount of time that has passed, it’s anyone’s guess if other personnel is going to recall that specific incident as well. Having a system that could inform your officers of potential matches concerning evidence is an extremely useful value that any system you employ should be capable of.


The world of ballistics is an interesting one to say the least. While it is not necessary for every law enforcement officer to be an expert in the study of ballistics, every law enforcement officer must have basic training and knowledge with regard to the safe handling, transportation, and storage of firearms and ammunition. In addition to ensuring that all of their officers receive this training and knowledge, law enforcement departments and agencies must be sure that their general evidence management system as well as any additional forensic evidence management system being utilized is properly equipped to handle both firearms and ammunition. The make, model, serial number, and caliber of any weapon seized must be recorded properly and annotated using the appropriate evidence tracking system. As shown in the case of the comparison between the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum and the fact that both these rounds may be fired from the same weapon, having advanced knowledge of the different types of weapons systems can be a useful tool in the fight against crime.

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