Ballistics for physicians: myths about wound ballistics and gunshot injuries

J Urol. 2004 Apr;171(4):1408-14. doi: 10.1097/01.ju.0000103691.68995.04.


Purpose: Wound ballistics is a difficult subject. The behavior of all bullets is unpredictable but the specific effect of high velocity projectiles has been a particular source of confusion in the literature. This confusion has resulted in the likely incorrect conclusion that all high velocity wounds require massive débridement. We reviewed the entirety of the literature on this subject and concluded that high velocity weapons do not reliably create massive wounds, and judicious débridement and staged explorations may be the best treatment method for these patients.

Materials and methods: A MEDLINE search and retrieval were done of all pertinent references from 1966 to May 2003 concerning the field of wound ballistics. Articles initially missed in this search were obtained from the bibliography of retrieved studies. More than 70 articles and book chapters were reviewed.

Results: Five common myths about the tissue effects of gunshot wounds were reviewed as well as the data that dispel these myths. Information on the effects of different bullet types, and the intended and actual effect of military rifle wounds were assessed.

Conclusions: For the majority of high velocity gunshot wounds, especially military rifles that generally fire a projectile that is meant to stay intact after impact, wound severity can be limited, even much less than that from a civilian rifle, shotgun or handgun. Judicious use of débridement during surgical exploration limits the extent of iatrogenic injury in the surgical care of these patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Forensic Ballistics* / methods
  • Humans
  • Wounds, Gunshot* / etiology