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.

War Wounded

Paul Theerman, Associate Director

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War on the side of the Allied powers. By the following fall, those powers were victorious, in part due to the American presence, adding industrial might and men to the stalled conflict and making up for the Russian withdrawal after the October Revolution.

Combat is the most vivid part of war. Victory often depends, however, on maintaining the military effort, and this meant mobilization, training, logistics, supply, and above all, the “medical front.” Armies had to take the wounded soldier, help him heal, and return him to battle. For World War I, that front was where men’s wounds met the medical machine.

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From a training book for stretcher bearers. Image source.

How were men wounded in the war? The strain and the boredom of trench warfare are part of our collective memory; the drama of that war comes from two sources: mustard gas and machine guns. The use of chemical weapons and the mechanization of shooting brought horror to men’s lives at the front. Yet they were not the greatest source of casualties. By far, artillery was the biggest killer in World War I, and provided the greatest source of war wounded.

In his book Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front (2010), Stephen Bull concluded that in the western front, artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front.”[1] Of this total, perhaps a third resulted in death, two-thirds in injuries. Artillery wounded the whole body. If not entirely obliterated, the body was often dismembered, losing arms, legs, ears, noses, and even faces. Even when there was not superficial damage, concussive injuries and “shell shock” put many men out of action. Of course, shooting—in combat as well as from snipers—was another great source of wounding. Gas attacks were a third. Phosgene, chlorine, mustard gas, and tear gas debilitated more than killed, though many ended up suffering long-term disability. Overall the war claimed about 10 million military dead, and about 20–21 million military wounded, with perhaps 5% of those wounds life-debilitating, that is, about a million persons.[2]

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Moving the wounded. Image source.

Outcomes depended on getting treatment quickly. Evacuation and triage became watchwords of the war-wounded. For the British Army, for example, the Royal Army Medical Corps developed an extensive system to move the wounded from the front to the rear, with triage at each step. Stretcher bearers evacuated the wounded to Regimental Aid Posts (RAP)—or at least those that they had the means to move, for when stretcher-bearers were few, the worst cases were left on the field of battle.

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The path from the front to the hospital. Image source.

In one report of a man severely wounded in the abdomen, “Since ‘death awaited him with certainty . . . I gave him a hypodermic of morphia and we propped him up as comfortably as we could’ and left him there.”[3] Behind the RAPs were Advanced Dressing Stations, then further back Main Dressing Stations, and finally, Casualty Clearing Stations. Each move to the rear—always challenging in itself—was based on an assessment of the injury and the chances of survival. The lightly wounded—those likely to recover quickly—and the “moribund”—those likely to die—were kept, and the others sent on. Each station provided stabilization and immediate care, with some basic surgeries, such as amputation, at Casualty Clearing Stations. More advanced treatment occurred at hospitals, either back in Britain or in France. As the war wore on, more of the wounded were kept in France, at hospitals far back from the lines. This was to use less transport and to maintain military morale, with the goal of returning the men to the front as quickly as possible. And indeed, American medical entry into the war came first in the form of hospitals. “The first six [mobile hospitals] to arrive in France took over British General Hospitals and provided hospital level care for the British. Other American hospitals arriving later in the summer of 1917, remained assigned to the American forces.”[4] The Allied pattern of medical triage and evacuation became the model for American efforts.

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The fracture ward; the term “machine shop” likely refers to the frames and power belts that characterized such shops at the turn of the last century. Image source.

How well did the system work? “War is a matter of expedients.”[5] The medical operation was persistently understaffed and under-resourced. In the latter part of the war, as the static front changed to a dynamic one, some medical units had difficulty achieving the mobility needed. And inevitably, given the need continually to evaluate the severity of wounds, and the difficulty of transport, some men ended up in the wrong place, some facilities were too crowded, and others were underused. Finally, in 1918 the medical system began to be overrun with influenza cases. Overall, though, the magnitude of the challenge needs to be kept in mind. In just the American experience, for an army that numbered almost 2 million men in France at the end of the war, 1.2 million men passed through the medical system, with about quarter million military wounded.[6] That is an astounding number for which to provide medical services under severe stress.

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Surgery in a Belgian field hospital. Image source.

[1]“Krilling for Company.” Mud Feud [Review of Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, by Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)]. Papyrocentric Performativity. Published July 14, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.
[2] The total number of killed from the Allied Powers exceeded that of the Central Powers by over a million; the total wounded exceeded by perhaps 4 million. Accurate statistics are hard come by; these are based on Antoine Prost. War losses. 1914-1918-online: International encyclopedia of the First World War. Published August 10, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2017.
[3] Carden-Coyne A. The Politics of wounds: Military patients and medical power in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2014. P. 65.
[4] Jaffin J. Medical support for the American Expeditionary Forces in France during the First World War. Published 1990. Accessed March 31, 2017. Pp. 95–96.
[5] Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke. Wikiquote. Published October 7, 2006. Updated September 1, 2016. Accessed March 31, 2017.
[6] Jaffin J. P. 166.