Wound Ballistics: The Science of Injury and the Mystery of Exploding Bullets

1018Johnkinder-FBToday’s guest post is written by John Kinder, Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran (University of Chicago Press, 2015). On Tuesday, October 17, Kinder will give his talk, “A History of American War in Five Bodies.” To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

On March 11, 1944, an American soldier in the 182d Infantry was digging a foxhole on the island of Bougainville when a Japanese bullet ricocheted and hit him in the ankle. The wound didn’t look that serious. There was almost no blood. Still, it was better to be safe than sorry. Medics bandaged the wound, loaded the soldier onto a litter, and started down the hill to the aid station. He was dead before they reached the bottom.

I recently discovered this story in a volume on wound ballistics published by the US Army Medical Department in the early 1960s. Wound ballistics is the study of the physiological trauma produced by modern projectile weapons. It achieved quasi-scientific status in the late nineteenth century, as military physicians and other self-proclaimed wound experts carried out experiments to measure and ultimately predict what happened when chemically-projected metal collided with living human tissue.

Early on, much of their research involved shooting ammunition into pine boards or the carcasses of  animals to estimate the casualty-causing potential of various armaments. Over time, however, wound ballisticians developed increasingly sophisticated techniques for mapping the body’s vulnerability to different weapons and fine-tuning the production of physiological trauma.


Microsecond X-ray of the femur of a dog after it has been shot by an 8/32-inch steel ball travelling at 4,000 feet per second. The bone has been shattered despite the fact that it was not actually hit by the steel ball. In order to understand the mechanisms of human injury, World War II-era scientists carried out ballistics experiments on a variety of “model” targets including living dogs, cats, pigs, and horses, as well as blocks of gelatin and tanks of water. 

In the process, they also managed to solve one of the most head-scratching mysteries in nineteenth-century military medicine. The mystery emerged in the mid-century, when growing numbers of observers began to notice a peculiar phenomenon: soldiers were dying from what initially appeared to be relatively minor “through-and-through” wounds. High-velocity bullets seemed to enter and exit the body with only minimal damage. Upon autopsy, however, surgeons discovered extensive internal trauma—pulped tissue, ruptured veins, shattered bones—far outside of the track of the bullet. How was this possible? As early as the 1840s, critics charged that the wounds must be the product of “exploding bullets,” which were subsequently banned by international treaty in 1868. In later years, physicians speculated that the internal explosions were caused by compressed air or heat, but nothing could be proven.


Microsecond X-ray of a thigh of a cat that has been shot by a 4/32-inch steel ball at an impact velocity of 3,000 feet per second. The dark area is the temporary cavity formed as the ball passes through the muscle tissues. X-rays like this one helped wound ballisticians explain the “explosive effect” that mystified nineteenth-century military physicians. 

By the 1940s, scientists were able to use X-rays and high-speed cameras to solve the mystery once and for all. They discovered that, around 200-400 microseconds after a high-speed bullet strikes a human body, a temporary cavity begins to form around the bullet path. This cavity, which expands and contracts in a fraction of a second, can be more than 20 times the volume of the permanent wound track, resulting in the explosive damage to nearby tissue and bone. And, thanks to the elasticity of human skin, the bullet’s entrance and exit wounds might be nearly closed over by the time the patient reaches medical attention. It was remarkable discovery—not least because it affirmed wound ballisticians’ belief that, when it came to understanding injury, the human eye was no match for a scientist and a machine.

To this day, practitioners of wound ballistics like to justify their work in humanitarian terms. The goal of their research, they often say, is to help military surgeons and body armor manufacturers cut down on unnecessary deaths. All of this is true—to a certain extent. From the very start, however, the field of wound ballistics has played a more ominous role in military history. If wound ballistics is the science of injury, it is also the science of injuring others. Understanding the body’s vulnerabilities has allowed warring nations to develop deadlier antipersonnel weapons: armaments designed to pulverize, poison, burn, shred, emulsify, and eviscerate the bodies of one’s enemies.

No doubt, some readers might be wondering about the soldier at Bougainville, the one who died after a light wound to the ankle. Was he too a victim of the “exploding bullet” phenomenon? As it turns out, his death can be chalked up to a more quotidian threat: human error. Today, we can only speculate about the medics’ actions: perhaps they were in a hurry, or perhaps they were exhausted after a brutal day of fighting, or perhaps—and this is my guess—they were so used to seeing war’s butchery that this soldier’s injury appeared inconsequential by comparison. Whatever the reason, they failed to apply a tourniquet to the wounded man’s leg.

Shortly after the litter party started down the hill, the soldier’s ankle began to hemorrhage. As blood drained from his body, he said that he felt cold. Within minutes, he was dead.

1. International Committee of the Red Cross. Wound Ballistics: an Introduction for Health, Legal, Forensic, Military and Law Enforcement Professionals (film). 2008.
2. Kinder, John. Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
3. Saint Petersburg Declaration of 1868 (full title: Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight”). November 29-December 11, 1868.
4. United States Army Medical Department. Wound Ballistics. Washington DC: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, 1962.

Dog X-ray: Newton Harvey, J. Howard McMillan, Elmer G. Butler, and William O. Puckett, “Mechanism of Wounding,” in United States Army Medical Department, Wound Ballistics (Washington DC: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, 1962), 204.
Cat X-ray: Ibid, 176.

Open Access to Your State Medical Society Journals

By Robin Naughton, Head of Digital

In 2015, The New York Academy of Medicine Library embarked on a mass digitization project with the Medical Heritage Library (MHL), a digital curation consortium.  Over the course of two years, the Academy Library along with MHL collaborators digitized state society medical journals from 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  The Academy Library contributed state medical journals from 37 states, which accounted for 716 volumes of the digitized content now available.   Today, you can find, 97 titles, 3,816 volumes and almost 3 million pages of digitized journals on the Internet Archive.

Digitizing the medical journals of state societies has been an amazing experience for the Library and it is a significant contribution to preserving our cultural heritage and making it accessible to anyone with an internet connection.  Researchers and the general public now have access to a major resource on medical history that includes journals from the 19th and the 20th centuries that would not otherwise be available to the public.  “One of the great values of having the state medical journals online is the willingness to provide full-text digital content for materials that would normally be available only with limited content because they are still in copyright,” says Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian.

Dr. Daniel Goldberg, Associate Professor at University of Colorado, Denver and 2016 Academy Library Helfand Fellow, agrees:

“As an intellectual historian, medical journals in general are really important for my work because they can reveal much about significant ideas and concepts circulating in medical discourse.  I am working on several projects where the specific local and state histories are crucial to the story I am trying to tell, so having full access to digitized state medical journals will be enormously helpful.  I continue to be so grateful for the important work of the MHL and its partners!”

A quick exploration of the journals can be the catalyst for a deeper research project across many disciplines.  For example, what style and design trends can be identified from the covers of the Illinois Medical Journal?

Illinois Medical Journal through the years.

We invite you to explore the journals, use them, and share with us how they’ve impacted your work: https://archive.org/details/nyamlibrary

Charles Terry Butler and the “War before the War”

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director

The centenary of the United States entry into World War I was this past April. But wars—even those having such sharp cease-fires as this one did, on November 11, 1918—rarely have well-defined beginnings and endings. Even before the official American entry, Americans served in France from the outbreak of the war in 1914. Expats in Paris formed the American Ambulance (the term then meant field hospital), which spun off the American Field Service, charged with transporting wounded soldiers from the front line and providing immediate care. In direct combat, the famed Lafayette Escadrille was founded in 1916, made up of volunteer American air fighters under French command, who battled the Germans up until actual American military deployment two years later. And in the realm of battlefield medicine and surgery, Americans served as volunteers in France from 1914 up to 1917. One of the most noted was Dr. Joseph A. Blake (1864–1937) who, at the outbreak of war, resigned from his prominent surgical positions at Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and went to France. There he successively headed up three volunteer hospitals in Neuilly, Ris-Orangis, and Paris, up until his induction to the American military medical corps in August 1917 where he continued his work.


“Merry Christmas to J.A.B” [Joseph A. Blake, chief surgeon and hospital director], December 1916. Image: Charles Terry Butler papers, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Blake had an outstanding reputation, so much so that he readily attracted both funds and workers. One such surgeon was Charles Terry Butler (1889–1980) whose memoir, A Civilian in Uniform (1975), and personal papers are held in the Academy Library. Butler was born in Yonkers, New York, to a prominent family. He was the son of lawyer William Allen Butler, Jr., whose father, William Allen Butler, Sr., both lawyer and author, was himself the son of Benjamin Franklin Butler, U.S. attorney general in the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations. Charles Butler led a life among the New York elite. As one example, he remembers that his family hosted William Howard Taft to dinner during his presidency.[1] Butler went to Princeton University, where he graduated in 1912, and then to medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. After his graduation in 1916, he was due to take up an internship at Presbyterian Hospital that July. He postponed it to January in order to serve under Blake, then at the Anglo-French volunteer hospital in Ris-Orangis, France, some 25 miles southeast of Paris. As Butler put it:

My two year internship would be put off six months, but here was the opportunity to learn the treatment of serious war wounds under a great surgeon, perhaps my only chance to have such training, and if the United States were forced into the war, I would be much more useful to the Army.[2]

Blake promised Butler scant remuneration, 400 francs travel expenses each way, and 100 francs a month salary, relying on his “contribution” to aid the cause.[3]


Charles Terry Butler identity card for Ris-Orangis hospital, June 1916. Image: Charles Terry Butler papers, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Butler left for Liverpool on May 27, and—after a long period of negotiating his credentials to enter France, as authorities were concerned about German infiltrators—he arrived at the Ris-Orangis hospital on June 10. A converted college, long empty before its refitting, the hospital was organized by two English patrons and operated by private donations and support from the French military. The hospital held about 200 beds, with a surgical theater and supporting radiology and bacteriological facilities, as well as, of course, kitchens and laundries.

with patient_watermark

Charles Terry Butler dressing a wound with the aid of two nurses, 1916. Image: Charles Terry Butler papers, New York Academy of Medicine Library.


A recovery ward, 1916. The flags of Britain and France are mounted at the window, as this hospital was a joint effort: operated within the French military hospital system, sponsored by private British philanthropy, and staffed by American surgeons. Image: Charles Terry Butler papers, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Butler’s letters home trace his awakening to war and medicine. Within a week, he wrote to his uncle Clare:

The hospital has about 200 beds, and on my arrival I was put in charge of two wards with over 90 beds and some 80-odd patients. It was some contract to start with, and for two or three days I hardly knew whether I was coming or going. I did about forty dressings a morning with three nurses to help me, and two getting their patients ready for dressing ahead of me and bandaging up when I was through. It took over three hours of hard, steady work.[4]

After a month, to his mother:

Last Sunday, 65 new blessés arrive—the majority of them frightfully wounded. They come by ambulance from a distributing railroad station some 6–7 kilometers away. Arriving in bunches of four or eight, they are sent immediately to their beds. Most of the orderlies had been given leave that day, so we doctors had to turn to and help carry them to the wards. (It isn’t particularly easy carrying a large man on a heavy stretcher with his trappings up three flights of stairs.) There they are undressed; their clothes put in a bag, tagged, and sent to be sterilized and cleaned; and then bathed. . . . The next thing is food. Many have not had anything for 24 hours or more while en route from the front or the last hospital. Then the surgeon comes along. Dressings, casts, splints, etc. are removed so as to see the condition and nature of the injury. It would be impossible to describe the state of some of the wounds—many not having been dressed for several days, some even for 10 or 14 days. A hasty and rather superficial cleansing must suffice for the time being, until the patient comes back from the X-ray room. … All the wounds are terribly infected, and a large percentage have foreign bodies (balls, pieces of shell, clothing, stones, dirt, etc., etc.) lodged…. [Surgery followed, aided by X-ray and fluoroscopy.] The recoveries are wonderful. Men whom no one would expect to live, ordinarily, in a civil hospital, hang by a hair for days and come around O.K.[5]

Butler noted that the average length of stay at the hospital was almost 50 days.

lg group_watermark

The staff of the Ris-Orangis Hospital, 1916. Dr. Joseph A. Blake, director, is the central figure (second row, seated); Charles Terry Butler is the third man to his left. Image: Charles Terry Butler papers, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Ris-Orangis was considered one of the most successful hospitals in the war. [One of the founders, Harold J. Reckitt, wrote a detailed history of the hospital, V.R. 76: A French Military Hospital (1921)]. Butler spent most of his time dressing wounds, with little occasion for actual surgery. He returned to New York in January 1917 to take up his internship at Presbyterian. But upon the American entry into the war in April 1917, he was commissioned a first lieutenant with the United States Medical Corps, serving into 1919—the topic of a future blogpost. Butler’s experience at Ris-Orangis was crucial to his surgical accomplishments in this second phase of war service. After the war, he entered private practice, but by 1923 ill health—apparently resulting from wartime conditions—led Butler to retire. Moving to the Ojai Valley of Ventura County, California, he became a prominent civic and cultural leader up to his death in 1980.

[1] Butler, Charles Terry. A Civilian in Uniform. Butler, 1975, p. 28.
[2] A Civilian in Uniform, p. 49.
[3] Blake to Butler, 29 April 1916, A Civilian in Uniform, p. 49.
[4] Butler to “Uncle Clare” [Clarence Lyman Collins (1848–1922)], 17 June 1916, A Civilian in Uniform, p. 57.
[5] Butler to “mother” [Louise Terry Collins (1855–1922)], 7 July 1916, A Civilian in Uniform, p. 62–64.

Charles Terry Butler, “Ris-Orangis, France, 1916,” photographic album. Charles Terry Butler papers. New York Academy of Medicine Library.