FORENSIC FIREARMS IDENTIFICATION
In the past called forensic ballistics, this forensic science concerns itself with the comparison and identification of crime scene bullets and shell casing firing pin impressions with the marks on test-fired rounds in the crime lab. If the marks on the bullet made by the test gun barrel are identical to the striations (rifling scratches) on the crime scene bullet, or the firing pin impressions are the same, the crime scene weapon has been identified. The science is grounded on the principal that no two guns will leave the same marks on the ammunition. Bullet striations and firing pin impressions are unique as a person's fingerprints. Firearms identification also involves restoring filed off serial numbers, retracing projectile flights, identifying the various types of bullet wounds, and determining the range of close range shots through powder stain patterns on the target. Firearms identification experts apply the sciences of metallurgy, chemistry (gunshot residue analysis), microscopy, and ballistics. A knowledge of the gun smith trade is also useful. Like document examiners, forensic firearms experts are trained on-the-job in crime laboratories.
Jim Fisher has extensively researched the history of forensic science. Presented here are selected, never before published articles written by Jim on the history of forensic firearms identification.
In the early twentieth century the discipline of criminalistics was forming and at the same time its existence was being threatened by phony experts. The biggest phony of all was Albert Hamilton. This article discusses Hamilton's infamous roles in several well-known cases.
Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case:
Part I, The Phony Experts
Part II, Dr. Calvin Goddard, A Real Expert
In this two-part article, Fisher explains the role firearms identification played in the 1923 conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the 1920 shooting deaths of a factory paymaster and his bodyguard.
Murder on St. Valentine's Day
This article discusses firearms identification in the investigation of the infamous 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
The Stielow Firearms Identification Case
Based on the testimony of Albert Hamilton, the courtroom charlatan discussed above, Charles Stielow, a mentally slow farmhand, was convicted and sentenced to death in a 1915 double shooting homicide. Due to the investigation of Charles Waite, who would later establish himself as the father of modern firearms identification, Stielow was found innocent and his sentence was commuted. This article tells the story.