A fundamental problem with toolmark and firearms analysis is the lack of a precisely defined process. As noted above, AFTE has adopted a theory of identification, but it does not provide a specific protocol. It says that an examiner may offer an opinion that a specific tool or firearm was the source of a specific set of toolmarks or a bullet striation pattern when “sufficient agreement” exists in the pattern of two sets of marks. It defines 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.” The meaning of “exceeds the best agreement” and “consistent with” are not specified, and the examiner is expected to draw on his or her own experience. This AFTE document, which is the best guidance available for the field of toolmark identification, does not even consider, let alone address, questions regarding variability, reliability, repeatability, or the number of correlations needed to achieve a given degree of confidence.

Although some studies have been performed on the degree of similarity that can be found between marks made by different tools and the variability in marks made by an individual tool, the scientific knowledge base for toolmark and firearms analysis is fairly limited. For example, a report from Hamby, Brundage, and Thorpe65 includes capsule summaries of 68 toolmark and firearms studies. But the capsule summaries suggest a heavy reliance on the subjective findings of examiners rather than on the rigorous quantification and analysis of sources of variability. Overall, the process for toolmark and firearms comparisons lacks the specificity of the protocols for, say, 13 STR DNA analysis. This is not to say that toolmark analysis needs to be as objective as DNA analysis in order to provide value. And, as was the case for friction ridge analysis and in contrast to the case for DNA analysis, the specific features to be examined and compared between toolmarks cannot be stipulated a priori. But the protocols for DNA analysis do represent a precisely specified, and scientifically justified, series of steps that lead to results with well-characterized confidence limits, and that is the goal for all the methods of forensic science.


The basis for hair analyses as forensic evidence stems from the fact that human and animal hairs routinely are shed and thus are capable of being


J.E. Hamby, D.J. Brundage, and J.W. Thorpe. 2009. The identification of bullets fired from 10 consecutively rifled 9mm Ruger pistol barrels—A research project involving 468 participants from 19 countries. Available online at http://www.fti-ibis.com/DOWNLOADS/Publications/10%20Barrel%20Article-%20a.pdf.

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