The gloves are off in the world of wound ballistics. The question is: how do handgun bullets do their damage?
According to Martin Fackler, a retired colonel and battlefield surgeon in the US Army Medical Corp, the main cause of injury is along or close to the wound channel, the path the bullet takes through the body. This directly damages tissue and causes loss of blood.
But husband and wife team, Amy and Michael Courtney, from the Ballistics Testing Group at West Point, New York, say there is another process at work. When a bullet enters the body it creates a pressure wave that radiates and reflects through the body. This wave can do damage in areas that are physically distant from the wound channel, a process known as hydrostatic shock.
The Courtneys point to a number of lines of research in pigs and dogs that show strong evidence that a thigh wound can generate significant pressures in the brain.
The Courtneys have written their paper to take on people such as Fackler who they say dispute the idea of hydrostatic shock. They say Fackler’s argument in particular is based on the idea that ultrasonic kidney stone treatment creates pressure waves which produce spatially limited damage.
(The Courtneys also end one of their papers with this: “Get good training, practice regularly, learn to use cover, and pray that you will never have a lethal force encounter armed only with a handgun,” achieving what must be an arXiv first in combining the notions of prayer and lethal force in the same sentence.)
From my limited knowledge of this debate, we’re witnessing a spat over magnitude. Nobody disputes the possibility that hydrostatic shock occurs if the bullet energies are high enough, just whether it occurs with handgun bullets.
There are some gruesome studies from WWII that note the entry and exit wounds of dead soldiers and attempt to correlate this with the cause of death. My understanding is that hydrostatic shock is well established in these cases although these were not generally caused by handguns.
So what to make of this work? My take is that this is an ordinary academic spat in an extraordinary and emotive field of research, one that’s mere existence raises all kinds of ethical issues.
We’re talking the science of killing people and the questions that fascinate me, I guess, are not so much to do with hydrostatc shock but with what drives and motivates ordinary men and women scientists in this area.
arxiv.org/abs/0803.3053 : The Ballistic Pressure Wave Theory of Handgun Bullet Incapacitation
arxiv.org/abs/0803.3051 : Scientific Evidence for “Hydrostatic Shock”