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Become a Ballistics Expert: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a ballistics expert. Research the job description and the education requirements, and find out how to start a career in crime scene investigations. View article »

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  • 0:03 Ballistics Expert Career Info
  • 1:48 Earn Bachelor's Degree
  • 3:08 Become Forensic Apprentice
  • 3:31 Complete Training
  • 4:16 Pass Proficiency Exams
  • 4:35 Continue Education

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Video Transcript

Ballistics Expert Career Info

A ballistics expert, or ballistics analyst, is a forensic scientist who works for the criminal justice system on cases involving ammunition. By examining explosives, bullet fragments, gunshot wounds, and bullet holes, ballistics experts attempt to determine what types of weapons were used and the way in which they were fired. They may work collaboratively with other forensic experts to paint a full picture of an event. Ballistics experts may work outside of a typical 40-hour work week of daytime shifts.

The basic duties of forensic scientists and technicians include cataloging crime scene evidence, testing evidence samples in a lab, and writing crime scene investigation reports based on the gathered data. Ballistics experts usually work for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies. Some may work for forensic laboratories or private research facilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nine out of ten forensic scientists work for crime labs, police departments, medical examiners' offices, or morgues. Ballistics experts may also teach forensic students about firearms analysis, according to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, or AAFS.

Ballistics experts should have strong judgment and problem-solving skills; an eye for detail; the ability to prioritize evidence and follow laboratory procedures; and an advanced knowledge of firearms, laboratory equipment, and crime scene investigation tools. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that forensic science technicians in general earned a median annual pay of $56,230.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Forensic science, biology, molecular biology, chemistry, or physics
Experience 3 years' experience working as a forensic apprentice specializing in firearms analysis
Key Skills Communication, problem-solving, and judgment skills; eye for detail; ability to prioritize evidence and follow laboratory procedures; advanced knowledge of firearms; knowledge of computerized forensic databases; and familiarity with document creation software programs, laboratory equipment, and crime scene investigation tools
Median Salary (2015)* $56,230 per year (for forensic science technicians)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015), American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)

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Earn Bachelor's Degree

The first step to becoming a ballistics expert is to earn a bachelor's degree. Most undergraduate forensic science degree programs are structured around chemistry, biology, or physics. Some programs include training within all of these areas, whereas others may focus predominantly on only one field. Ballistics experts require an understanding of physics in order to determine how objects move and interact with other objects as well as a background in chemistry in order to identify chemical residues associated with firearms examinations. To figure out trajectory angles and bullet speed, they also need a thorough understanding of mathematics. Since bullets often pass through victims, ballistics experts need to have some knowledge of biology or human anatomy.

Forensic science students also complete coursework related to criminal justice. They study fingerprint analysis, laboratory instrumentation usage, forensic toxicology, investigation procedures, evidence collection, arson, criminal court systems, and crime scene documentation. Most programs require students to complete internships at forensic laboratories and to attend active crime scenes. Some schools offer internships that provide access to ballistics labs in which students can gain hands-on experience examining evidence related to explosives and firearms.

Become Forensic Apprentice

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, newly graduated forensic science students are often hired as apprentices under experienced forensic specialists. As apprentices, students gain on-site training in evidence collection and documentation and other procedural rules. At this level, students usually receive general training in all areas before choosing field specialties.

Complete Training

After completing initial on-the-job training, workers can request to be transferred to ballistics. Once accepted into the ballistics department, professionals have to complete firearms forensics training. Each employer has different training protocols, but forensic workers may have to train for three years before they are proficient in the field of ballistics.

According to the National Institute of Justice, potential firearms-analysis training topics include propellants, evidence handling, firearms manufacturers, bullet identification, ammunition development, gunshot residue, fired projectiles, distance determination, analysis instrumentation, and results reporting protocols.

Pass Proficiency Exams

Upon completing firearms analysis training, ballistics professionals are often required to take proficiency exams to verify that they are knowledgeable in the field and ready to work on cases without supervision. Additionally, only those who have passed examinations are allowed to testify as expert witnesses in court.

Continue Education

The field of forensics, including ballistics, changes frequently, especially with advances in technologies. Both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the AAFS recommend that forensic scientists and technicians stay current with new trends by attending seminars or taking continuing education courses.

Once again, ballistics experts are a type of forensic science technician and to get started in the field, they must complete a degree program in forensic science, become an apprentice, and complete ballistics-specific training.

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