BOX 1-1

“Ballistics” Terminology

Ballistics, literally, is the study of the dynamics of projectiles in flight. It is not equivalent to “firearms identification,” though in common usage, as in the title of this committee, the word has been interpreted that way. Calvin Goddard—considered the father of modern firearms identification—was chagrined at his own role in initiating this use of language. He titled his landmark 1925 paper on the use of the comparison microscope “Forensic Ballistics,” a name selected “after long and prayerful consideration, and in an effort to employ terms that would be concise and at the same time meaningful;” it was, however, “a title that has plagued me ever since” (Goddard, 1999:233):

Forensic was good enough, since it means that which has to do with public disputation, and was what I meant to say. “Ballistics” was bad, very bad, since ballistics strictly used applies solely to projectiles in motion, and the forces that influence that motion. Thus far, I never made an attempt to identify a projectile in motion, and if I ever have to, it will be too soon, so far as I am concerned. However, the man in the street found ballistics [an] interesting word, and seized upon it avidly, at the same time discarding the “forensic” which, when used jointly with ballistics, partly takes the curse off the latter.

Likewise, Hatcher (1935:20) rued the way “the word ‘ballistics’ has in the past several years become associated in the public mind with the science of Firearms Identification.… I realize fully that usage makes language, and that the recent rather extensive mis-use of the word Ballistics in this way may be a valid excuse for continuing the practice; but still it seems to me that the use of the word to describe the Science of Firearms Identification is somewhat undesirable in any case, as being loose English.”

Forensic scientists distinguish between four types of “ballistics” (Rinker, 2004):

  • Internal ballistics refer to the forces—pressure, ignition, and so forth—that operate on the bullet while still inside the firearm.

  • External ballistics, closest to the literal definition of ballistics, describes the flight of a bullet between the firearm muzzle and its impact at target.

  • Terminal ballistics describe the mechanics of impact on both the projectile and the target.

  • Forensic ballistics, in Goddard’s sense, is the analysis of bullet and cartridge case evidence and the use of that evidence to link specimens to each other and to particular weapons.

“Ballistics” is convenient shorthand but in this report—save for the committee’s formal name—we try to refrain from the use of the word on its own. Our use of the adjective “ballistic” (as in “ballistic imaging” and “ballistics evidence”)—like any instances of “ballistics” that may still appear in the text—is properly interpreted as referring to “forensic ballistics.”



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement