specialized toolmarks. Gun barrels typically are rifled to improve accuracy, meaning that spiral grooves are cut into the barrel’s interior. The process of cutting these grooves into the barrel leaves marks and scrapes on the relatively softer metal of the barrel.59 In turn, these markings are transferred to the softer metal of a bullet as it exits the barrel. Over time, with repeated use (and metal-to-metal scraping), the marks on a barrel (and the corresponding “stria” imparted to bullets) may change as individual imperfections are formed or as cleanliness of the barrel changes. The brass exterior of cartridge cases receive analogous toolmarks during the process of gun firing: the firing pin dents the soft primer surface at the base of the cartridge to commence firing, the primer area is forced backward by the buildup of gas pressure (so that the texture of the gun’s breech face is impressed on the cartridge), and extractors and ejectors leave marks as they expel used cartridges and cycle in new ammunition.

Firearms examination is one of the more common functions of crime laboratories. Even small laboratories with limited services often perform firearms analysis. In addition to the analysis of marks on bullets and cartridges, firearms examination also includes the determination of the firing distance, the operability of a weapon, and sometimes the analysis of primer residue to determine whether someone recently handled a weapon. These broader aspects are not covered here.

Sample and Data Collection

When a tool is used in a crime, the object that contains the tool marks is recovered when possible. If a toolmark cannot be recovered, it can be photographed and cast. Test marks made by recovered tools can be made in a laboratory and compared with crime scene toolmarks.

In the early 1990s, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) developed separate databases of images of bullet and cartridge case markings, which could be queried to suggest possible matches. In 1996, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed data exchange standards that permitted the integration of the FBI’s DRUGFIRE database (cartridge case images) and the ATF’s CEASEFIRE database (then limited to bullet images). The current National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) includes images from both cartridge cases and bullets that are associated with crime scenes and is maintained by the ATF.

Periodically—and particularly in the wake of the Washington, DC,


Although the metal and initial rifling are very similar, the cutting of the individual barrels, the finishing machining, and the cleaning and polishing begin the process of differentiation of the two sequentially manufactured barrels.

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