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.

Dog

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.

Cat

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.

References:
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.

Images:
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.

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