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The exploding bullet
  1. B Swift,
  2. G N Rutty
  1. Division of Forensic Pathology, University of Leicester, Robert Kilpatrick Clinical Sciences Building, Leicester, Royal Infirmary, PO Box 65 Leicester LE2 7LX, UK;

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    The article entitled “Health and safety at necropsy” by Julian Burton provides a detailed and well written narrative regarding both the risks and hazards faced by professionals during postmortem examinations.1 Despite the presence of a relatively large publication base regarding this topic, important aspects are highlighted, including transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and the more modern, but potentially dangerous, advances in medical technologies. However, we would wish to clarify the issues that the author raises regarding exploding bullets. The difference between a true exploding bullet and a projectile designed to fragment on impact is one of great importance, and one that may cause confusion, as would appear to be the case within this article.

    Bullets are composed of a casing containing an explosive powder charge, which, on striking, forces the end projectile element out at speeds of up to 1500 metres/second, depending upon the ammunition and the type of gun used. The projectile causes soft tissue damage through crushing, creating a temporary cavity that contains hot gases. The tissue is compressed radially from the centre of the cavity and, depending on its elastic properties, results in tears to structures (as seen with injuries to solid abdominal viscera). The recoil of the tissues, together with the dissipation of the gases, causes the soft tissue to collapse inwards on itself, the resultant defect being the permanent cavity.

    Expansion, or hollow point, bullets are specialised bullets designed to deform upon impact because of a collapsible space within the projectile tip. The result is that a single projectile will inflict greater overall damage to a target, allowing an increased transfer of kinetic energy compared with a standard bullet. The “benefits” include a decreased risk of ricochet because the overall penetration distance is reduced; however, some of the older ammunition failed to expand on impact as a result of pieces of clothing obstructing the cavity.

    Prefragmented, or frangible, bullets are composed of a prescored outer jacket with a plastic round nose containing compressed lead shot within. The result is a controlled explosion on impact producing increased damage and less clothing related problems. The tips, however, possess no explosive charge.

    Burton describes the Winchester Black Talon SXT bullet, but erroneously includes this within the heading of exploding bullets.1 It is, in fact, a type of expansion bullet. The tip is coated with a black lubricant and has a hollow point possessing six prescored serrations designed rapidly to open outwards upon impact. The jacket of the bullet is thickest at its tip, unlike most hollow point bullets, to provide support for the claw-like petals as the bullet passes through the body. The result, in theory, is a wider permanent cavity created by a single projectile, thus increasing the likelihood of damage to a vital structure. The bullet was voluntarily removed from the market in 1994 and remarketed as the Ranger SXT, and later as the Ranger Talon, both available only to law enforcement officers. Despite media assertions, these projectiles are not “armour piercing”, the title relating purely to a widely reported manufacturing error in one brand of body armour, which resulted in a recall of this product. Although such expansion bullets do indeed pose a health and safety hazard, because of the sharp edges of the deformed projectile, there is no risk of explosion at necropsy.

    True exploding bullets were first described over a century ago and, although not actually in use at that time, were prohibited under the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868, which states that explosive or inflammable projectiles, with a weight of less than 400 g, should never be used in the time of war. Examples include the Russian 7.62 mm ×54R machine gun ammunition with an internal charge of tetryl and phosphorus, and later handgun cartridges containing Pyrodex charges, with or without mercury additives.2 It should also be noted that individuals can easily obtain instructions for the creation of their own bullets. The most infamous use of such bullets was the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 by John Hinckley, who used “Devastator” bullets (Bingham Limited, USA) composed of a lacquer sealed aluminium tip with a lead azide centre designed to explode on impact. Although frequently referred to in works of fiction, they are rarely encountered in forensic practice, because sales have been restricted following the incident in 1981. Projectiles that have failed to detonate are also not as sensitive to movement and heat as mentioned in the article; the author refers to an article on this topic, but fails to acknowledge a follow up letter correcting Knight’s original mistakes.2,3 Burton has, unfortunately, reproduced these errors in his text. In addition, unexploded bullets are safe on exposure to x rays and ultrasound.4 The quantity of explosive is small and, if it fails to detonate on high velocity impact, is unlikely to explode during postmortem examination. We would indeed agree with the assertion that safety glasses should be used during necropsy examination of ballistic victims; however, as Burton himself details within his own book, such eye protection should be routine practice, regardless of the cause of death.5

    A footnote on the topic should include the mention of armour piercing incendiary round ammunition used during recent conflicts that possesses explosive points, such as the Raufoss Multipurpose Projectiles (Nammo, Norway;, which are fired from anti-vehicle guns of varying calibre. These are not designed or produced for use against personnel. In fact, the rounds will pass through the body unexploded and are thus unlikely to be present in bodies from military conflicts. As such, it is also argued that they do not contravene the St Petersburg Declaration. If present with a body, they are safe to handle, transport, and store. They also comply with NATO standards ensuring complete handling safety, even following vertical drops of up to 15 metres.

    Finally, it is interesting to note that the Devastator bullet was developed in the 1970s for use by sky marshals, to minimise the risk of penetration of the plane fuselage when incapacitating a hijacker; a concept that appears to be returning in light of recent world events.