Context: Gunshot wounds are the most common cause of homicidal death in the United States. Analysis and interpretation of fatal gunshot wounds is an important and common practice among forensic pathologists. Additionally, for pathology residents, it is an integral aspect of their training during their rotations at medical examiner or coroner offices.
Objective: The correct interpretation of gunshot wounds by forensic pathologists not only provides valuable information that can assist law enforcement in their investigation but also is essential for the final determination of manner of death. Discussion of the practical, basic, and essential skills required to interpret gunshot wounds include distinguishing a classic entrance wound from an exit wound; recognizing atypical entrance and exit wounds; utilizing the features of soot and stippling patterns to differentiate among contact, close, and distant range gunshot wounds; understanding of the trauma produced by gunshot wounds; and understanding the importance of recovering and documenting/handling any projectiles recovered at autopsy.
Data sources: This article reviews numerous standard forensic pathology textbooks and the pertinent literature to formulate practical guidelines to assist the pathologist in the performance of forensic autopsies and the investigation of gunshot wound fatalities.
Conclusions: Pathologists who perform investigations and autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death in gunshot wound cases must be aware of the implications, requirements, and pitfalls in interpretation of the injuries so that the examination fulfills its expectations to the community and the justice system.