Ballistics: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:04 The Crime Scene
  • 0:33 What Are Ballistics?
  • 1:07 What Do Ballistics…
  • 1:54 Ballistics Determinations
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will review ballistics by defining the term and providing an overview of what ballistics consists of. The forensic nature of ballistics will also be discussed.

The Crime Scene

John is a police detective with ten years of experience. He was recently promoted to the homicide unit, and has been called to an unfolding crime scene in an upscale neighborhood. Inside, he finds two women have been shot dead. The weapon is nowhere to be found but the shell casings lie nearby. John carefully stores the casings in evidence bags as he hopes that a ballistics examiner will be able to identify the type of weapon used to commit this crime.

What Are Ballistics?

Simply put, ballistics involves the study of firearms and ammunition. It's an area of forensic science, which applies the scientific method to solving crimes. Ballistics looks at why and how firearms are used in the commission of crimes. As a seasoned detective, John realizes that ballistics can hold the key to solving what took place at his crime scene. That's because he knows that ballistics examiners can use the shell casings he located in an effort to identify the murder weapon, which is an important step in solving his crime.

What Do Ballistics Examiners Do?

Ballistics examiners, also known as firearms experts, are highly trained professionals who are typically employed by police departments or crime laboratories. They are called to crime scenes where a firearm was used in order to scientifically determine the circumstances surrounding the crime. These experts are usually responsible for mapping the scene, collecting ballistics evidence, and examining ammunition. From this process ballistics examiners can determine:

  • The trajectory path of the bullet
  • How close the weapon was discharged onto the victim
  • Who touched and/or discharged the weapon
  • What type of weapon was used if the weapon itself isn't present
  • The type of ammunition that was used
  • Whether the crime committed was self-inflicted or committed by an outside perpetrator

Ballistics Determinations

The conclusions that are drawn by ballistics examiners rely on scientific ballistics inquiries made at the crime scene and an examination of the facts surrounding the crime. Ballistics examiners make their determinations by inspecting firearms and ammunition. At John's crime scene, the firearm was missing but the shell casings were present. Through inspecting the shell casings closely, markings might be visible. These markings can then lead a ballistics expert to identify of the type of firearm that was used. Often, ballistics experts discharge weapons in controlled environments to gather additional evidence. For example, this process can help confirm the angle at which a weapon was discharged.

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