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The History of Forensic Ballistics – Ballistic Fingerprinting

Ballistics…sounds like a pretty bombastic word to us plebeians, isn’t it? Well, simply put, ballistics is the study of the flight path of projectiles. And when used in criminal investigations, forensic ballistics or ballistic fingerprinting (also called forensic firearm examination) helps in the reconstruction of a crime scene involving a firearm. It also enables the tracing of the weapon used and thus provides significant leads to identify the suspect(s). Forensic ballistic relies heavily on evidence such as bullets, gunpowder residues, shell casings, firearms, etc. recovered from the crime scene.

Forensic ballistic professionals are adept at examining such evidence to draw conclusive inferences on the exact weapon used, the distance, velocity, and angle of firing, and ultimately the shooter himself. In crime scene investigations, forensic ballistics has now become synonymous with the matching of the recovered bullets and their casings to the firearms from which they were discharged. However, while the modern-day crime drama series may make the application of such techniques look quite contemporary, the fact is that such ballistic work has its roots way back in time.

First Use of Ballistics in Forensics

Before the mass manufacturing of guns began, barrels and bullet molds were handmade by gunsmiths. Thus, the exclusivity of each firearm was unavoidable. This meant that the bullets fired always bore some exclusive impressions which were unique to a specific firearm. Thus began the first instances of the careful examination of a bullet in order to trace it back to the gun used to fire it. And this laid the foundation of what is now called as forensic fingerprinting – the forensic examination of firearms and other evidence (bullets, cartridges etc.) recovered from the crime scene to link them to suspects or the specific weapons used in a crime.

The first case of forensic firearm examination to be documented was in 1835. That was when Henry Goddard applied ballistic fingerprinting to link a bullet recovered from the victim to the actual culprit. On careful inspection, he found that the bullet had a defect on its surface which did not seem to be from the barrel or the result of an impact. It seemed more like a defect acquired during its manufacturing. Anticipating that the shooter would have made the bullet himself, he realized that recovering the bullet mold would easily help him confirm the shooter. He was thus able to exactly zero in on the shooter when the mold found at the suspect’s home matched the marks on the bullet. This proved as a crucial evidence in convicting the shooter though he did also confess to the crime eventually.

Back in 1860, the case of Regina v Richardson showcases another example of the early application of firearm identification. The major evidence, in this case, was a newspaper wadding. Back in the era before cartridges came into existence, such wadding was used to create a seal between the bullet and the gunpowder. The wadding that was found in the two-barreled muzzle-loading pistol recovered from the murder site matched the wadding found in the victim’s wound. Additionally, a wadding that was discovered at the suspect’s home was found to be made up of the same material (London Time’s newspaper) as the waddings recovered before. This helped to confirm that he was the shooter and led to his conviction.

The Birth of Magnification

Over time, as the mass production of guns and ammunition gained pace, the process of rifling became standardized. Thus, whereas a forensic examiner could specifically match the rifling marks on a bullet recovered from the crime scene to those on the firearm’s barrel, it became increasingly difficult to match a bullet to a specific firearm made by a specific manufacturer through simple observation. And as they say, necessity is the mother of invention! So eventually, this paved the way for the magnified observation of bullets.

In 1902, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who later became the justice of the US Supreme Court, is said to have used a magnifying glass to examine a test bullet that he fired into cotton wool to compare its striations with those found on the bullet recovered from the victim during an autopsy.

Later in Paris (1912), Professor Balthazard took numerous photographs of the circumferences of the bullet found at the crime scene. He then enlarged these photographs to compare the markings with those obtained on the bullet that he had test-fired from the suspect’s weapon.

Paving the way for the Development of Comparison Microscope

Eventually, magnification became a crucial part of firearm examinations. However, even though microscopes did exist back then, it was quite challenging to compare two bullets simultaneously. While examining one bullet under the microscope, forensic examiners had to retain the mental image of the other bullet meant for comparison. This posed obvious risks to the validity and reliability of the investigations.

In fact, a major flaw involving ballistic fingerprinting almost led to the conviction of an innocent Charles F. Stielow in 1915 in the United States. He was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting his employer and employer’s housekeeper using a pistol of 0.22 caliber. However, when investigator Charles E. Waite reevaluated the evidence with microscopy expert, Dr. Max Poser, he confirmed that the bullets recovered from the crime scene couldn’t have been fired from Stielow’s gun. Stielow was then acquitted and released.

Embarrassed and perturbed at the possibilities of such blunders in the future, Waite began cataloging the manufacturing data on guns and ammunition. He also made sure to include foreign sources upon realizing that a majority of firearms back then were imported. In due course, Waite along with physicist John Fisher, Major Calvin Goddard, and chemist Philip Gravelle, established the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City. Philip Gravelle eventually developed the comparison microscope (two microscopes connected by an optical bridge) solving the challenges of simultaneous comparison.

The first significant application of this microscope was in the investigations of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. By examining the bullets and cartridge cases recovered from the site, he was able to identify the exact weapons used – a 12-gauge shotgun and two Thompson submachine guns. Furthermore, he was led to the suspect by matching the evidence recovered to the gun retrieved from his home. In 1932, when the FBI laboratory was established, Goddard got to train its first firearm identification professional.

Texial– In the league of busting crimes

Texial – a premier private forensic science laboratory headquartered in Chennai and having a presence all over India, is a valuable addition to the forensic domain in India. With crime rates ascending every year, the dearth of sufficient forensic labs leads to a delay in investigations and the relay of justice. Texial Lab with its repertoire of forensic experts catering to various segments is thus a valuable addition to the country’s forensic requirements. That, coupled with a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory has enabled them to be the frontrunners in investigating a host of complicated cases. They are a futuristic cybercrime and digital forensic center that offers solutions catering to law enforcement agencies, private investigators, individuals, corporates and the government. They firmly believe in leveraging the technical expertise of their forensic experts in providing efficient, fast, and cost-effective services and solutions across a diverse spectrum.

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