Scientific Interpretation

The task of the firearms and toolmark examiner is to identify the individual characteristics of microscopic toolmarks apart from class and subclass characteristics and then to assess the extent of agreement in individual characteristics in the two sets of toolmarks to permit the identification of an individual tool or firearm.

Guidance from the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE)61 indicates that an examiner may offer an opinion that a specific tool or firearm was the source of a specific set of toolmarks or a particular bullet striation pattern when “sufficient agreement” exists in the pattern of two sets of marks. The standards then define agreement as significant “when it exceeds the best agreement demonstrated between tool marks known to have been produced by different tools and is consistent with the agreement demonstrated by tool marks known to have been produced by the same tool.”62

Knowing the extent of agreement in marks made by different tools, and the extent of variation in marks made by the same tool, is a challenging task. AFTE standards acknowledge that these decisions involve subjective qualitative judgments by examiners and that the accuracy of examiners’ assessments is highly dependent on their skill and training. In earlier years, toolmark examiners relied on their past casework to provide a foundation for distinguishing between individual, class, and subclass characteristics. More recently, extensive training programs using known samples have expanded the knowledge base of examiners.

The emergence of ballistic imaging technology and databases such as NIBIN assist examiners in finding possible candidate matches between pieces of evidence, including crime scene exhibits held in other geographic locations. However, it is important to note that the final determination of a match is always done through direct physical comparison of the evidence by a firearms examiner, not the computer analysis of images. The growth of these databases also permits examiners to become more familiar with similarities in striation patterns made by different firearms. Newer imaging techniques assess toolmarks using three-dimensional surface measurement data, taking into account the depth of the marks. But even with more training and experience using newer techniques, the decision of the toolmark examiner remains a subjective decision based on unarticulated


Theory of identification, range of striae comparison reports and modified glossary definitions—An AFTE Criteria for Identification Committee report. 1992. Journal of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners 24:336-340.


Ibid., p. 336.

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