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Military rifle bullet wound patterns

by Martin L. Fackler

In addition to the full-metal-jacketed construction which makes them "military" bullets, the pointed ogival "spitzer" tip shape is shared by all modern military bullets. The obvious advantage of this streamlined shape is decreased air drag, allowing the bullet to retain velocity better for improved long-range performance. A modern military 7.62 mm bullet (with all-lead core) will lose only about one-third of its muzzle velocity over 467 m; the same weight bullet with a round-nose shape loses more than one-half of its velocity over the same distance.

More pertinent to the present discussion is this pointed shape's effect on the bullet's yaw in tissue. The first full-metal-jacketed bullets (1885-1910) were over four calibres long and round-nosed. Typical of this bullettype are the 6.5 mm Carcano and the 30-40 Krag bullets; they penetrate tissue simulant travelling point-forward for 50 cm or more before significant yaw begins (Fackler, M.L., unpublished data, 1987). The very minimal wounding effect produced by these early round-nosed jacketed bullets was remarked upon by surgeons of the time (Kocher, Markins, Brunner, Abbott, LaGarde, etc.). Even those soldiers with through-and-through chest wounds in which the bullet missed the large vessels (but passed through the lung) would be fit to rejoin their units in a few weeks.

The distance that the military-type bullet travels point-forward before yawing is critical to wounding effects. The distance shown on the wound profiles is the average distance at which this occurs. However, it is important to recognise how much shot-to-shot variation from this average distance can be expected. Taking the M16 wound profile (Fig. 6) as an example, it shows significant yaw starting at a 12cm penetration depth. Seven out of ten shots can be expected to begin yaw within 26 % of this distance (between nine and 16 cm penetration depth). This plus or minus 25 % rule is a useful approximation that can be applied to the otherwound profiles. Let us apply it to the 50 cm distance-to- yaw for the older bullets; whether the bullet begins to yaw between 37 or 63 cm penetration distance does not effect most wounds of the human body because, in the great majority of cases, the total tissue path will be less than 37 cm.

Conversely, inconsistent effects have been noted in wounds caused by the M16 and other modern military bullets. Considering the variation in length of the possible tissue path through the human body, this "inconsistency" of effect is to be expected. Beware! This variation can be used to dupe the unsuspecting. A series of shots through a 14 or 15 cm block of tissue simulant or the leg of a 25 kg animal can give enough variation so that, by selective choice of exit wound photographs, one can "prove" any point one wishes (such as one bullet being less "humane" than another). The author hopes, that understanding this, will make the reader less likely prey to this sort of deception.

Bullet mass and bullet striking velocity establish a bullet's potential; they set the limit on the tissue disruption it can produce. Bullet shape and construction determine how much of this potential is actually used to disrupt tissue; they are the major determinants of bullet effect. Far and away the most disruptive bullet of those described is the West German 7.62 NATO round. Its fragmenting behaviour maximises utilisation of its much higher potential (bullet mass well over twice that of any of the 5.56mm bullets and velocity only about ten percent less than theirs) for tissue disruption.

This author has not tested other European 7.62 NATO rounds, but the "NATO standards" apparently allow bullet designers great latitude in the choice of bullet jacket material and thickness. In 1979 a published high-speed x-ray photograph showed the Swedish 7.62 equivalent to the 7.62 NATO bullet breaking in a soap block shot at a range of 100m. Although bullet fragments were not recovered and photographed (the importance of bullet fragmentation in tissue disruption was not well recognised at the time), one must suspect the same very disruptive behaviour from this bullet as from the West German round. This is particularly ironic since the Swedish wound ballistics program was using every means possible to discredit the M16 as "inhumane" while, at the same time, Sweden was producing a 7.62 mm military bullet that caused far more extensive wounds than the M16.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the primary purpose of military rifle bullets is to disrupt human tissue. Yet the effects of bullets on bodies - the characteristic tissue disruption patterns produced by various bullets - remains unclear even to many of those who design and produce bullets. Surgeons who are called upon to treat the damage bullets cause, with few exceptions, lack practical knowledge of bullet effects. Attempts to fill this information void with formulae, graphs, flawed experiments, invalid assumptions, and theories based on half-truth (or no truth at all) have only increased confusion.

The obvious - simply measuring, recording and describing the disruption produced by various calibres and bullet types - has largely been ignored in favour of more dramatic and complex methodology. To illustrate the problem: if a neighbour told you that a meteorite had fallen into his back yard, wouldn't you ask him how deep and how large a hole it had made? If he replied that he had, on good authority, an estimation of the meteor's striking velocity and the amount of kinetic energy it had "deposited" and gave you both these figures, you might be impressed by the sophistication of this information, but you still wouldn't know how big a hole he had in his yard.

Roger Frost, in his cogent editorial "Bullet holes in theories" (IDR 8/1988 p.875) suggested that the various groups interested in gunshot wounds need to "start to talk to one another". Let's add that the talk needs to be in terms that can be understood by all - to inform rather than to impress.

In order to illustrate the penetrating projectile-body tissue interaction, the "wound profile" method was developed. It is an attempt to present a useful approximation of the pertinent, useful, factual data to clarify bullet effects in a form that can be readily understood. The profiles depict the maximum disruption that a given bullet can be expected to produce in the elastic soft tissue of the living animal. The "permanent crush cavity" indicated on the wound profiles is the "bullethole" produced by the projectile crushing the tissue it strikes. The "temporary stress cavity" shows the approximate extent to which the walls of this hole were stretched a few milliseconds after bullet passage (entirely analogous to a splash in water).

Anyone who has ever seen a bullet hole recognises that in many cases it is, in fact, more what might be called a potential hole; it need not be gaping open. One can, however, easily pass a probe through it, as is commonly done by forensic pathologists to establish the direction or angle of the shot. How deeply the bullet penetrated and its attitude (yawed or straight) and form (deformed or fragmented) as it penetrated. along with the approximate distance the walls of the hole were stretched after the bullet passed (temporary cavity) - this is the crucial information needed to understand the wounding mechanisms.

wund1.jpg
Figure 1. Fired bullets internal cross section from left:AK-47, AK-74, 5,56 x 45 NATO, 7,62 x 51 NATO.

To describe wounding patterns of the common military rifle bullets in use today, wound profiles will, along with a description of the two characteristic wounds for each bullet, be used. A simple abdominal wound, and an uncomplicated (didn't hit bone or large vessels) human thigh wound caused by each bullet, will be described to demonstrate how the material presented as wound profiles, can be put to practical use. This should give the combat surgeon some idea of what to expect. His descriptions of the wounds he actually treats, if they differ significantly from the expected pattern, might be the first indication of a change in enemy weapon or bullet type. Patterns of bullet fragmentation as seen on x-ray, or even the tissue disruption pattern as observed in the body, can be compared with the series of wound profiles to estimate the bullet type when the bullet has passed entirely through.

Current rifle bullets

Soviet 7.62x39mm - The Soviet AK-47 Kalashnikov fires a full-metal-jacketed, boat-tail bullet that has a copper-plated steel jacket, a large steel core, and some lead between the two. In tissue, this bullet typically travels for about 26cm point-forward before beginning significant yaw. This author observed, on many occasions, the damage pattern shown in Fig. 2 while treating battle casualties in Da Nang, Vietnam (1968). The typical path through the abdomen caused minimal disruption; holes in organs were similar to those caused by a non-hollow-point handgun bullet. The average uncomplicated thigh wound was about what one would expect from a low-powered handgun: a small, punctuate entrance and exit wound with minimal intervening muscle disruption.


Figure 2. AK-47, 7,62 x 39 mm FMJ, 713 m/s 7,8g

Yugoslav 7.62x39mm - The Yugoslav copper-jacketed, lead-core, flat-base bullet, even when fired from the same Kalashnikov assault rifle, acts very differently in tissue. It typically travels point-forward for only about 9cm before yawing. Due to the lead core, this bullet flattens somewhat as it yaws, squeezing a few small lead fragments out at its open base, but this does not add significantly to its wounding potential. Referring to the wound profile of the Soviet AK-47 bullet (Fig. 2) and blotting out the first 17cm of the projectile path will leave a good approximation of what one might expect from this bullet.

Since this bullet would be travelling sideways through most of its path in an abdominal wound, it would be expected to cut a swath over three times the dimension made by the bullet travelling point forward. In addition to the larger hole in organs from the sideways-travelling bullet, the tissue surrounding the bullet path will be stretched considerably from temporary cavitation. Actual damage from the stretch of cavitation can vary from an almost explosive effect, widely splitting a solid organ such as the liver, or a hollow one such as the bladder if it is full at the time it is hit, to almost no observable effect if the hollow organs (such as intestines) when hit contain little liquid and/or air. The exit wound may be punctate or oblong, depending on the bullet's orientation as it struck the abdominal wall at the exit point. The exit wound could be stellate if sufficient wounding potential remains at this point on the bullet path. The thigh entrance wound will be small and punctate but the exit wound will probably be stellate, measuring up to 11 cm from the tips of opposing splits. The stellate exit wound results from the temporary cavity simply stretching the skin beyond its breaking point. These stellate wounds generally bleed very little. Small-to medium-sized vessels are certainly cut or torn, but the temporary cavity tearing action generally stimulates the tiny muscles in the vessel walls to constrict and clots will form in their open ends, limiting blood loss. Being wide open, these wounds tend to drain and heal amazingly well even in situations of limited surgical resources. This increased tissue disruption of the leg will, of course, temporarily limit the mobility of the person hit to a greater extent than wounds causing less tissue disruption.

Soviet 5.45x39mm - This is fired from the AK-74, which is the Soviet contribution to the new generation of smaller-calibre assault rifles and which produces the wound profile seen in Fig. 3. The full metal-jacketed bullet designed for this weapon has a copper-plated steel jacket and a largely steel core, as does the bullet of its predecessor, the AK-47. A unique design feature of the AK-74, however, is an air-space (about 5mm long) inside the jacket at the bullet's tip (Fig 1). The speculation that this air-space would cause bullet deformation and fragmentation on impact proved to be unfounded, but the air-space does serve to shift the builet's centre of mass toward the rear, possibly contributing to its very early yaw. In addition, on bullet impact with tissue, the lead just behind the air-space shifts forward into this space. This shift of lead occurs asymmetrically and may be one reason for the peculiar curvature of this bullet's path in the last half of its path through tissue (Fig 3). Only in a shot with a long tissue path, like an oblique shot through the torso, would this curved path be evident; it doesn't really add anything to wounding capacity, but might cause an occasional confusing path through tissue. This bullet yaws after only about 7cm of tissue penetration, assuring an increased temporary cavity stretch disruption in a higher percentage of extremity hits; other bullets need more tissue depth to yaw and in many cases cause only minimal disruption on extremity hits.


Figure 3. AK-74 5,45 x 39 mm FMJ 935 m/s 3,4 g

The abdomen and thigh wounds expected from this bullet would be essentially the same as those described above for the Yugoslav variation of the AK-47 bullet.

All pointed bullets that do not deform end their tissue path travelling base first, since this puts their centre of mass forward; this is their stable attitude. The rotation imparted to the bullet by the rifled gun barrel is sufficient to force the bullet to travel point-forward in air (in properly designed weapons), but not in tissue where such factors as bullet shape and the location of centre of mass far outweigh rotation effects. The bi-lobed yaw patterns shown in the profiles of the AK-47 and the AK-74 represent what is seen in most shots. Sometimes the bullet yaws to 180, or the base-forward position, in one cycle. These variations, along with the curvature in bullet path at or near the end of tissue path, are of far less importance than the distance the bullet travels point-forward before significant yaw begins.

US M193 5.56x45mm - This bullet is fired from the US armed forces' first-generation smaller-calibre rifle, the M16A1. The large permanent cavity it produces, shown in the wound profile (Fig. 4), was observed by surgeons who served in Vietnam, but the tissue disruption mechanism responsible was not clear until the importance of bullet fragmentation as a cause of tissue disruption was worked out and described. As shown on the wound profile, this full-metal-jacketed bullet travels point-forward in tissue for about 12cm after which it yaws to 90, flattens, and breaks at the cannelure (groove around bullet midsection into which the cartridge neck is crimped). The bullet point flattens but remains in one piece, retaining about 60 per cent of the original bullet weight. The rear portion breaks into many fragments that penetrate up to 7cm radially from the bullet path. The temporary cavity stretch, its effect increased by perforation and weakening of the tissue by fragments, then causes a much enlarged permanent cavity by detaching tissue pieces. The degree of bullet fragmentation decreases with increased shooting distance (as striking velocity decreases), as shown in Fig. 5. At a shooting distance over about 100m the bullet breaks at the cannelure, forming two large fragments and, at over 200m, it no longer breaks, although it continues to flatten somewhat, until 400m. This consistent change in deformation/fragmentation pattern has an important forensic application. It can be used to estimate shooting distance if the bullet is recovered in the body and has penetrated only soft tissue.


Figure 4. M193 5,56 x 45 mm FMJ NATO, 943 m/s 3,6 g initial mass, 2,3 g final weight, 36% fragmentation

The effects of this bullet in the abdomen shot will show the temporary cavity effects as described for the Yugoslav AK-47 and, in addition, there will be an increased tissue disruption from the synergistic effect of temporary cavitation acting on tissue that has been weakened by bullet fragmentation. Instead of finding a hole consistent with the size of the bullet in hollow organs such as the intestine, we typically find a hole left by missing tissue of up to 7cm in diameter (see permanent cavity in Fig. 4). The thigh entrance wound will be small and punctuate. The first part of the tissue path will show minimal disruption. The exit will vary from the small punctuate hole described for the Soviet AK-47 to the stellate exit described for the Yugoslav AK-47, depending on how thick the thigh is where the bullet perforates it. In a sufficiently thick thigh, the M193 bullet fragmentation is also likely to cause a significant loss of tissue and possibly one or more small exit wounds near the large stellate one.




Figure 5. NATO M855 / SS109 5,6 x 45mm


Lutz Mller: Dear Reader, Here I put you little Jampressurecalculator, so you can by yourself recon the Jampressure at the Bullettip. From Fluiddynamic one knows the Jampressuereformula ps = * rho*v². See by yourself which fairytalelike high pressures result upon impact. Fill in some Speeds in m/s. When you then hit the "recon"-button, I (true: your JavaScript) calculates the pressure

Speed: m/s Pressure: bar

The Brakeforce results from effective Pressure over the Area. As the full Jampressure only applies on the Bullettop, from there dimishes to the side and finally lifts off to Zero, leaving a pressureless Cavity, one marks a bullet with a Drag Cofficient Cd, so F = -Cd * A * * rho * v²


Fackler continued

The slightly heavier and longer American M855 bullet shot from the M16A2 assault rifle is replacing the M193 bullet shot from the M16A1 as the standard bullet of the US armed forces. FN Herstal originally developed this bullet type (which has a steel "penetrator" as the forward part of its core - Fig. 1) designating its bullet the SS109. The wound profile (Fig. 6) is very similar to that produced by the M 193 bullet. Although the SS109 and the M866 are not the same bullet, their differences are small and one almost needs a magnifying glass and a side-by-side comparison to differentiate the two. There is little difference in their performance in tissue.

The abdominal and the thigh wound produced by the M856 or the SS109 bullets would be essentially the same as those described above for the M16A1 M193 bullet.


Figure 6. M856 5,56 x 45 mm FMJ 925 m/s initial mass 4 g, final mass 2 g, 50% fragmentation

The longer 5.56mm bullets (M866, SS109) need a higher rotational velocity to maintain stabilisation in air. FN claimed that this faster rotation also causes the SS109 to have a significantly longer path in tissue before marked yaw occurs, thus producing wounds of less severity. This is simply untrue (compare Fig. 6 with Fig. 6). Additional rotation beyond that needed to keep the bullet straight in air appears to have little or no effect on the projectile's behaviour in tissue. However, there is a situation concerning rotation rates whereby these longer 5.66mm bullets can cause increased wound severity. Shooting the SS109 or M865 bullet in the older M16A1 rifle barrel (they are not intended for use in this 1-in- 12 in twist barrel, but in the newer M 16A2 1-in-7in twist) produces a bullet spin rate insufficient to stabilise the longer bullets. Such a bullet will yaw up to 70 in its path through air. Striking at this high yaw angle (essentially travelling sideways), these bullets break on contact and the marked fragmentation, acting in synergy with the temporary cavity stretch, causes a large (over 15cm) stellate wound with the loss of considerable tissue (Fackler, M.L., unpublished data, 1988).


Figure 7. American 7,62x51 NATO FMJ, 862 m/s, 9,7g

NATO 7.62x51mm FMJ (US version) - This full-metal-jacketed military bullets wound profile (Fig. 7) shows the characteristic behaviour in tissue observed in all non-deforming pointed bullets. It yaws first through 90 and then, after reaching the base-forward position continues the rest of its path with little or no yaw.

The uncomplicated thigh wound might show very minimal tissue disruption since the streamlined bullet tends to travel point forward during the first 16cm of its tissue path. The abdominal wound, with a sufficiently long path so that the bullet will yaw, causing the large temporary cavity that is seen at depths of 20 to 35cm, would be expected to be very disruptive. If the bullet path is such that this temporary cavity occurs in the liver, this amount of tissue disruption is likely to make survival improbable.


Figure 8. German 7.62 x 51 mm FMJ NATO left, same american right

The design standards for ammunition that can be called "NATO" ammunition do not specify bullet jacket material or jacket thickness. The construction of the West German 7.62 mm NATO bullet differs from the US 7.62 mm NATO round in that, the jacket material is copper plated steel, whereas the US version is copper (or the so called gilding metal alloy, which is predominantly copper). The West German steel jacket is about 0.6mm thick near the cannelure and the US copper jacket is about 0.8mm thick at the same point. This design difference is responsible for a vast difference in performance in tissue. The German bullet, after travelling point-forward for only about 8 cm, yaws and breaks at the cannelure. The flattened point section retains only about 66 % of the bullet's weight, the remaining 45 % mass becomes fragments (Fig. 8). The wound profile can be described as an enlarged M16 profile (Fig. 3), with dimensions of the tissue disruption increased by 60 % (temporary stress cavity about 22 cm diameter; permanent crush cavity about 11 cm diameter, penetration depth of the bullet point about 58 cm). The uncomplicated thigh wound from this bullet is likely to have a large exit with the loss of substantial tissue near the exit; still, this might not be a very serious wound since the bullet fragmentation does not occur until beyond 10 cm penetration depth and, in most shots, the bullet will have passed well beyond the major vessels before this occurs. The abdomen shot, however, because of the much enlarged permanent cavity from bullet fragmentation, is likely to prove fatal in a majority of cases.

Sovjet and Chinese 7.62 x 54 mm R (Rimmed case) - This bullet, although not nearly as common as the AK-47 or the others discussed above, is included because it is currently used in the Dragunov sniper rifle and the Communist bloc light machine-guns. Also, since it was the standard Soviet military round in WW1 and WW2 (in the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant), it might well be found in considerable numbers in some Third World countries. The bullet weighs 9,6 g; the base is hollowed out with a cone-shaped cavity - 5 mm deep for the Sovjet, 3 mm deep for the Chinese). The Sovjet bullet has a copper-plated steel jacket and the Chinese one has a jacket of what appears to be brass. The muzzle velocity is about 853 m/s and the wound profile closely resembles that of the 7.62 mm NATO (US version). Thigh and abdominal shots thus would be as described above for the US 7.62 mm NATO bullet.

Martin Fackler



Betreff: [HK-L] Re: Fragmenting Bullets
Datum: Thu, 20 Jan 2000 21:49:37 -0600
Von: "Michael Bonomo" <mbonomo@interaccess.com>
An: Chuck Santose <santose@compuserve.com>
CC: hk-l@odaiko.ss.uci.edu

Hi Chuck,
I'm afraid I don't share the admiration for the 55 grain M16 at any range beyond 100 meters. Too many first hand close-up-and-personal experiences in rather muddy jungle areas where they didn't get the job done for me to trust them at more than 100 meters. And even then I've seen the 55 grain do no more damage than a .22 rifle in some cases. What a .223 is SUPPOSED to do and what it does in real life are two different things. Ever wonder why they put 3-shot burst devices on many of the newer weapons? A hint...it wasn't just to conserve ammo. I'd much rather score a single solid torso hit with a 7.62NATO (with an H&;K G3 of course;) than a multiple hit with a varmit cartridge. While I agree that "wonder bullets" like the Glaser, etc., are not ultimate killers...they DO have applications. As in airplanes where you don't want any misses blowing out your cabin pressure at 20,000 feet. However, I am VERY reluctant to trust laboratories for finding the ideal cartridge for street use. I don't give a dang if they spend the whole budget surplus (if there still is one) to reach their findings. Labs can NOT duplicate street situations or military combat scenarios.
Better check that effective range info for the SS109. I think it is superior to the M193 and not inferior.

Mike

> Date sent: Thu, 20 Jan 2000 10:59:32 -0500
> From: Chuck Santose <santose@compuserve.com>
> Subject: Fragmenting Bullets
> To: Michael Bonomo <mbonomo@interaccess.com>,
> HK-L@odaiko.ss.uci.edu

> Mike --

> The M16 bullet (actually M193 Ball and M855 Ball) is extremely effective to roughly 170 meters beyond which the bullet is unlikely to fragment and cause the giant wounds these rifles are famous for. This is why military ball ammo causes larger wounds than JHPs from THIS rifle at THESE ranges. (M16-type carbines have less MV and less real effective range. The darling 10" "CAR-15" bbls used by Delta operators in Somalia proved very ineffective.)

> [M855 Ball -- the newer 62gr steel cored bullet -- has a shorter effective range than older M193 Ball because it starts off almost 200 > fps slower.]

> Fragmentation of M16 military ball ruptures the walls of the giant temporary cavity caused by the high velocity bullet turning it into a very large permanent wound cavity. This cavity is located DEEP within the target where it has great potential of damaging vital organs.

> Pistol bullets don't move fast enough to cause temporary cavities of any significance and none shred it with fragments.

> Bozo Bullets like MagSafes, Glasers, Tritons are designed to fragment. So what? There's no temporary cavity to rip apart. These bullets rarely penetrate deep enough to have any potential of reaching vital organs. They can cause large shallow wounds which are much less likely to incapacitate an attacker than deeper wounds. These bullets are effective in fragmentation. They are ineffective in incapacitation.

> Laboratories like those at the FBI and California Highway Patrol have spent a lot of our tax dollars determining the most effective cartridges for pistols of all calibers. Their criteria is based on what it takes to incapacitate a determined attacker in a gun fight.

Why anyone would choose a lesser bullet (like MagSafe, Glaser, or Triton) is a mystery to me!

> -- Chuck

The HK List is sponsored by Street Smart Professional Equipment. For the finest in public safety equipment and tactical gear, For list instructions goto http://www.streetpro.com/usp/list.html



Peter G. Kokalis, Editor of Fighting Firearms Magazine from http://remtek.com/cfi/aw/awcfile.htm writes:

Both the AWP and AW CFI Limited Edition rifles chamber throats optimized for the Federal 308M cartridge that features the superbly accurate Sierra 168-grain BTHP Matchking bullet. Developed for 300-meter shooting in international matches, this remarkable Boat-Tail Hollow-Point bullet has been winning competitions ever since it was introduced in 1959. It was used by the gold-medal winner in the 1968 Olympics and set a new Wimbledon record at 200-15 Xs in 1983 at Camp Perry. With Federal 308M I have shot 0.25 MOA at 200 yards and 0.5 MOA at 300 yards with the AW CFI Limited Edition rifle equipped with the AWC Thundertrap sound suppressor. It just doesn't get any better than this. The Sierra 168-grain BTHP Matchking bullet remains far and away the most popular bullet among law-enforcement selected marksmen in the United States. But, is it really the best choice from a wound ballistics'
perspective?

The hollow-point cavity in this competition target bullet does not guarantee the type of consistent, early expansion exhibited by hollow points and soft points designed for use on living-tissue targets. Research recently conducted by Lucien C. Haag and reported in the Wound Ballistics Review (Vol. 2, No. 2), the journal of the International Wound Ballistics Association, revealed that these bullets frequently fail to expand in tissue simulant even after as much as 6 inches of penetration and with close range impact velocities. Dr. Martin L. Fackler, in the same issue of the journal, reported that these bullets will commonly break up after 7 inches of penetration. His experiments indicated that when the cavity was increased in diameter to 0.055 inch by a drill, reliable expansion was obtained after penetrating less than one inch of 10% gelatin or muscle. Recent controlled testing has demonstrated that this alteration degrades accuracy by no more than 0.1 MOA - an insignificant amount. Winchester is reportedly in the process of developing their own bullet for law-enforcement use that will provide both match-grade accuracy and reliable performance in tissue.

http://www.fen.baynet.de/norbert.arnoldi/army/wound.html - Quelle: WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WOUND BALLISTICS LITERATURE and why by M. Fackler

Sniper Use of Open-Tip Ammunition

Submitted by Don Bain

MEMORANDUM FOR COMMANDER, UNITED STATES ARMY SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND SUBJECT: Sniper Use of Open-Tip Ammunition

1. Summary.

This memorandum considers whether United States Army Snipers may employ match-grade, "open-tip" ammunition in combat or other special missions. It concludes that such ammunition does not violate the law of war obligations of the United States, and may be employed in peacetime or wartime missions of the Army.

2. Background.

For more than a decade two bullets have been available for use by the United States Army Marksmanship Unit in match competition in its 7.62mm rifles. The M118 is a 173-grain match grade full metal jacket boat tail, ogival spitzer tip bullet, while the M852 is the Sierra MatchKing 168-grain match grade boat tail, ogival spitzer tip bullet with an open tip. Although the accuracy of the M118 has been reasonably good, though at times erratic, independent bullet comparisons by the Army, Marine Corps, and National Guard marksmanship training units have established unequivocally the superior accuracy of the M852. Army tests noted a 36% improvement in accuracy with the M852 at 300 meters, and a 32% improvement at 600 yds; Marine Corps figures were twenty-eight percent accuracy improvement at 300 m, and 20% at 600yds. The National Guard determined that the M852 provided better bullet groups at 200 and 600 yards under all conditions than did the M118. (citation omitted.)

The 168-grain MatchKing was designed in the late 1950's for 300 m. shooting in international rifle matches. In its competitive debut, it was used by the 1st place winner at the 1959 Pan American Games. In the same caliber but in its various bullet lengths, the MatchKing has set a number of international records. To a range of 600 m., the superiority of the accuracy of the M852 cannot be matched, and led to the decision by U.S. military marksmanship training units to use the M852 in competition.

A 1980 opinion of this office concluded that use of the M852 in match competition would not violate law of war obligations of the United States. (citation omitted) Further tests and actual competition over the past decade have confirmed the superiority of the M852 over the M118 and other match grade bullets. For example, at the national matches held at Camp Perry, OH in 1983, a new Wimbledon record of 2--015 X's was set using the 168-gr. MatchKing. This level of performance lead to the question of whether the M852 could be used by military snipers in peacetime or wartime missions of the Army.

During the period in which this review was conducted, the 180-gr. MatchKing (for which there is no military designation) also was tested with a view to increased accuracy over the M852 at very long ranges. Because two bullet weights were under consideration, the term "MatchKing" will be used hereinafter to refer to the generic design rather than to a bullet of a particular weight. The fundamental question to be addressed by this review is whether an open-tip bullet of MatchKing design may be used in combat.

3. Legal Factors.

The principal provision relating to the legality of weapons is contained in Art. 23e of the Annex to Hague Convention IV Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 18 October 1907, which prohibits the employment of "arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury". In some law of war treatises, the term "unnecessary suffering" is used rather than "superfluous injury." The terms are regarded as synonymous. To emphasize this, Art. 35, para. 2 of the 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, states in part that "It is prohibited to employ weapons [and] projectiles . . . of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering." Although the U.S. has made the formal decision that for military, political, and humanitarian reasons it will not become a party to Protocol I, U.S. officials have taken the position that the language of Art. 35(2) of Protocol I as quoted is a codification of customary international law, and therefore binding upon all nations.

The terms "unnecessary suffering" and "superfluous injury" have not been formally defined within international law. In determining whether a weapon or projectile causes unnecessary suffering, a balancing test is applied between the force dictated by military necessity to achieve a legitimate objective vis-à-vis suffering that may be considered superfluous to achievement of that intended objective. The test is not easily applied. For this reason, the degree of "superfluous" injury must be clearly disproportionate to the intended objectives for development and employment of the weapon, that is, it must outweigh substantially the military necessity for the weapon system or projectile.

The fact that a weapon causes suffering does not lead to the conclusion that the weapon causes unnecessary suffering, or is illegal per se. Military necessity dictates that weapons of war lead to death, injury, and destruction; the act of combatants killing or wounding enemy combatants in combat is a legitimate act under the law of war. In this regard, there is an incongruity in the law of war in that while it is legally permissible to kill an enemy combatant, incapacitation must not result inevitably in unnecessary suffering. What is prohibited is the design (or modification) and employment of a weapon for the purpose of increasing or causing suffering beyond that required by military necessity. In conducting the balancing test necessary to determine a weapon's legality, the effects of a weapon cannot be viewed in isolation. They must be examined against comparable weapons in use on the modern battlefield, and the military necessity for the weapon or projectile under consideration.

In addition to the basic prohibition on unnecessary suffering contained in Art. 23e of the 1907 Hague IV, one other treaty is germane to this review. The Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets of 29 July 1899 prohibits the use in international armed conflict:

". . . of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core or is pierced with incisions."

The U.S. is not a party to this treaty, but U.S. officials over the years have taken the position that the armed forces of the U.S. will adhere to its terms to the extent that its application is consistent with the object and purpose of Art. 23e of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, quoted above.

It is within the context of these two treaties that questions regarding the legality of the employment of the MatchKing "open tip" bullet must be considered.

4. Bullet Description.

As previously described, the MatchKing is a boat tail, ogival spitzer tip bullet with open tip. The "open tip" is a shallow aperture (approximately the diameter of the wire in a standard size straight pin or paper clip) in the nose of the bullet. While sometimes described as a "hollow point," this is a mischaracterization in law of war terms. Generally a "hollow point" bullet is thought of in terms of its ability to expand on impact with soft tissue. Physical examination of the MatchKing "open tip" bullet reveals that its opening is extremely small in comparison to the aperture in comparable hollow point hunting bullets; for example, the 165-grain GameKing is a true hollow point boat tail bullet with an aperture substantially greater than the MatchKing, and skiving (serrations cut into the jacket) to insure expansion. In the MatchKing, the open tip is closed as much as possible to provide better aerodynamics, and contains no skiving. The lead core of the MatchKing bullet is entirely covered by the bullet jacket. While the GameKing bullet is designed to bring the ballistic advantages of a match bullet to long range hunting, the manufacturer expressly recommends against the use of the MatchKing for hunting game of any size because it does not have the expansion characteristics of a hunting bullet.

The purpose of the small, shallow aperture in the MatchKing is to provide a bullet design offering maximum accuracy at very long ranges, rolling the jacket of the bullet around its core from base to tip; standard military bullets and other match bullets roll the jacket around its core from tip to base, leaving an exposed lead core at its base. Design purpose of the MatchKing was not to produce a bullet that would expand or flatten easily on impact with the human body, or otherwise cause wounds greater than those caused by standard military small arms ammunition.

5. MatchKing performance.

Other than its superior long range marksmanship capabilities, the MatchKing was examined with regard to its performance on impact with the human body or in artificial material that approximates human soft tissue. It was determined that the bullet will break up or fragment in some cases at some point following entry into soft tissue. Whether fragmentation occurs will depend upon a myriad of variables, to include range to the target, velocity at the time of impact, degree of yaw of the bullet at the point of impact, or the distance traveled point-first within the body before yaw is induced. The MatchKing has not been designed to yaw intentionally or to break up on impact. These characteristics are common to all military rifle bullets. There was little discernible difference in bullet fragmentation between the MatchKing and other military small arms bullets, with some military ball ammunition of foreign manufacture tending to fragment sooner in human tissue or to a greater degree, resulting in wounds that would be more severe than those caused by the MatchKing. [FNaaa1]

Because of concern over the potential mischaracterization of the M852 as a "hollow point" bullet that might violate the purpose and intent of the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets, some M852 MatchKing bullets were modified to close the aperture. The "closed tip" MatchKing did not measure up to the accuracy of the "open tip" MatchKing.

Other match grade bullets were tested. While some could approach the accuracy standards of the MatchKing in some lots, quality control was uneven, leading to erratic results. No other match grade bullet consistently could meet the accuracy of the open-tip bullet.

6. Law of War Application.

From both a legal and medical standpoint, the lethality or incapacitation effects of a particular small-caliber projectile must be measured against comparable projectiles in service. In the military small arms field, "small caliber" generally includes all rifle projectiles up to and including .60 caliber (15mm). For the purposes of this review, however, comparison will be limited to small-caliber ammunition in the range of 5.45mm to 7.62mm, that is, that currently in use in assault or sniper rifles by the military services of most nations.

Wound ballistic research over the past fifteen years has determined that the prohibition contained in the 1899 Hague Declaration is of minimal to no value, inasmuch as virtually all jacketed military bullets employed since 1899 with pointed ogival spitzer tip shape have a tendency to fragment on impact with soft tissue, harder organs, bone or the clothing and/or equipment worn by the individual soldier.

The pointed ogival spitzer tip, shared by all modern military bullets, reflects the balancing by nations of the criteria of military necessity and unnecessary suffering: its streamlined shape decreases air drag, allowing the bullet to retain velocity better for improved long-range performance; a modern military 7.62mm bullet will lose only about one-third of its muzzle velocity over 500 yards, while the same weight bullet with a round-nose shape will lose more than one-half of its velocity over the same distance. Yet the pointed ogival spitzer tip shape also leads to greater bullet breakup, and potentially greater injury to the soldier by such a bullet vis-à-vis a round-nose full- metal jacketed bullet. (See Dr. M. L. Fackler, "Wounding Patterns for Military Rifle Bullets," International Defense Review, January 1989, pp. 56-64, at 63.)

Weighing the increased performance of the pointed ogival spitzer tip bullet against the increased injury its breakup may bring, the nations of the world-- through almost a century of practice--have concluded that the need for the former outweighs concern for the latter, and does not result in unnecessary suffering as prohibited by the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets or article 23e of the 1907 Hague Convention IV. The 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets remains valid for expression of the principle that a nation may not employ a bullet that expands easily on impact for the purpose of unnecessarily aggravating the wound inflicted upon an enemy soldier. Such a bullet also would be prohibited by article 23e of the 1907 Hague IV, however. Another concept fundamental to the law of war is the principle of discrimination, that is, utilization of means or methods that distinguish to the extent possible legitimate targets, such as enemy soldiers, from noncombatants, whether enemy wounded and sick, medical personnel, or innocent civilians. The highly trained military sniper with his special rifle and match grade ammunition epitomizes the principle of discrimination. In combat, most targets are covered or obscured, move unpredictably, and as a consequence are exposed to hostile fire for limited periods of time. When coupled with the level of marksmanship training provided the average soldier and the stress of combat, a soldier's aiming errors are large and hit probability is correspondingly low. While the M16A2 rifle currently used by the United States Army and Marine Corps is capable of acceptable accuracy out to six hundred meters, the probability of an average soldier hitting an enemy soldier at three hundred meters is ten percent.

Statistics from past wars suggest that this probability figure may be optimistic. In Would War II, the United States and its allies expended 25,000 rounds of ammunition to kill a single enemy soldier. In the Korean War, the ammunition expenditure had increased four-fold to 100,000 rounds per soldier; in the Vietnam War, that figure had doubled to 200,000 rounds of ammunition for the death of a single enemy soldier. The risk to noncombatants is apparent.

In contrast, United States Army and Marine Corps snipers in the Vietnam War expended 1.3 rounds of ammunition for each claimed and verified kill, at an average range of six hundred yards, or almost twice the three hundred meters cited above for combat engagements by the average soldier. Some verified kills were at ranges in excess of 1000 yards. This represents discrimination and military efficiency of the highest order, as well as minimization of risk to noncombatants. Utilization of a bullet that increases accuracy, such as the MatchKing, would further diminish the risk to noncombatants.

7. Conclusion.

The purpose of the 7.62mm "open-tip" MatchKing bullet is to provide maximum accuracy at very long range. Like most 5.56mm and 7.62mm military ball bullets, it may fragment upon striking its target, although the probability of its fragmentation is not as great as some military ball bullets currently in use by some nations. Bullet fragmentation is not a design characteristic, however, nor a purpose for use of the MatchKing by United State Army snipers. Wounds caused by MatchKing ammunition are similar to those caused by a fully jacketed military ball bullet, which is legal under the law of war, when compared at the same ranges and under the same conditions. The military necessity for its use-- its ability to offer maximum accuracy at very long ranges--is complemented by the high degree of discriminate fire it offers in the hands of a trained sniper. It not only meets, but exceeds, the law of war obligations of the United States for use in combat.

This opinion has been coordinated with the Department of State, Army General Counsel, and the Offices of the Judge Advocates General of the Navy and Air Force, who concur with its contents and conclusions.

An opinion that reaches the same conclusion has been issued simultaneously for the Navy and Marine Corps by The Judge Advocate General of the Navy.

FNa1. The M118 bullet is loaded into a 7.62mm (caliber .308) cartridge. In its original loading in the earlier .30-06 cartridge, it was the M72.

FNaa1. While this review is written in the context of the M852 Sierra MatchKing 168-grain "open-tip" bullet and a 180-grain version, the MatchKing bullet (and similar bullets of other manufacturers) is also produced in other bullet weights of 7.62mm rifles (.308, .30-06, or .300 Winchester Magnum).

FNaaa1. For example, 7.62mm bullets manufactured to NATO military specifications and used by the Federal Republic of Germany have a substantially greater tendency to fragment in soft tissue than do the U.S. M80 7.62mm ammunition made to the same specifications, the M118, or the M852 MatchKing. None fragment as quickly or easily upon entry into soft tissue as the 5.56mm ammunition manufactured to NATO standards and issued to its forces by the Government of Sweden. Its early fragmentation leads to far more severe wounds than any bullet manufactured to military specifications and utilized by the U.S. military during the past quarter century (whether the M80 7.62mm, the M16A1, M193 or M16A2 5.56mm) or the opentip MatchKing bullet under consideration.

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