One hundred nineteen patients suffered penetrating cardiac trauma over a 15-year period: 59 had gunshot wounds, 49 had stab wounds, and 11 had shotgun wounds. The overall survival rate was 58%. The most commonly injured structures were the ventricles. Twenty-seven patients had injuries to more than one cardiac chamber. Thirty patients had associated pulmonary injuries. Emergency thoracotomy was performed in 47 patients with 15% survival. Median sternotomy was used in 30 patients with 90% survival. Seventeen of the 83 patients with thoracotomies required extension across the sternum for improved cardiac exposure or access to the contralateral hemithorax. Only one patient with sternotomy also required a thoracotomy. All pulmonary injuries were easily managed when sternotomy was used. We conclude that sternotomy provides superior exposure for cardiac repair in patients with penetrating anterior chest trauma. We feel it is the incision of choice in hemodynamically stable patients. Thoracotomy should be reserved for unstable patients requiring aortic cross-clamping, or when posterior mediastinal injury is highly suspected.