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Author Topic: Projectile Retrieval in the Hospital  (Read 23877 times)

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Offline Brandon Bertolli

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Projectile Retrieval in the Hospital
« on: November 10, 2004, 05:32:13 PM »
Firstly I'm new here, so let me introduce myself by greeting you all warmly. Good day from Brandon the South African!

Secondly, I am not a forensic scientist, I am a radiographer who has a keen interest in the preservation of evidence as pertains to live gunshot victims being treated at hospital. To this end I am writing a book whose title is "Projectile Tracking in Live Gunshot Cases." This title may change. The book is a technical work that is primarily aimed at all the health professionals who may come into contact with the gunshot victim, review any images, and affect the patient's management. A large proportion of this book is given to the proper techniques employed to X-ray the patient, and the proper recognition of projectile densities and contours on X-ray with a view to identifying the projectile and tracking its terminal trajectory within the patient (if possible).

I am presently writing the chapter on projectile retrieval in the hospital. I have contacted some firearms and toolmarks examiners here in the UK, and also in South Africa where I processed 150 gunshot victims in 4 months for this project, and I asked them what the preferred method for packaging the evidence would be. I have a general idea of what they require and now I would like to ask you if you can list a few basic requirements (a 'wish list' if you like) that will enable you to have exhibits arriving at your lab in as optimal condition for analysis as is possible. Also, I would like to know what your pet 'irritations' are, for example unrinsed 'dirty' projectiles, and lint-laden surfaces (because the bullet was wrapped in cotton wool).

I appreciate any advice you can give me and also hereby offer to help anybody should they ever have a question about radiographs of projectiles and projectile injuries.
Brandon Bertolli, Radiographer, bbertolli(at)

Offline Bob Shem

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Projectile Retrieval in the Hospital
« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2004, 06:06:26 PM »
Whenever possible a bullet should be retrieved so as to prevent the addition of toolmarks from scalpels, forceps, etc.  However, the health and safety of the patient comes first, so if there are health concerns then the attending surgeon should do what is necessary even if it jeopardizes the evidence.  The logical extension of this is that the doctor should not recover the bullet if it is better for the victim's recovery to leave the bullet in place.

Trace evidence must always be taken into consideration.  Did the bullet perforate an object before penetrating the victim?  Did it ricochet off something in the environment?  To answer these questions the bullet needs to be examined for "included" materials, such as glass, wood, asphalt, etc.  That said, it is my humble opinion that a careful rinsing of a bullet by the attending surgeon to remove an obscuring layer of liquid blood helps immeasurably by allowing an unimpaired microscopic examination of the bullet.  It is hard to see a tiny amount of embedded glass if it is masked by a dried bloodstain.  Now I am sure that there are some experts out there that would disagree and suggest that the bullet be saved in a glob of blood.  It is my contention that if trace material can remain embedded/attached to a bullet and subsequently survive the perforating trip through a human body then a slow flow of water over the bullet's surface will not jeopardize this material.  It seems that cleaning fresh liquid blood off of a bullet is less destructive to included trace evidence than the attempts to remove a crusty stain.

The bullet should be packaged in a container that allows the bullet to dry completely.  A pasteboard pill box or pasteboard slide box is perfect.  I would avoid the use of any kind of "cotton" padding.  Many boxes sold as bullet boxes come with this white cotton-like pad pre-installed.  These pads "add" trace evidence in the form of fibers to the bullet, especially those bullets in globs of sticky blood.  There is a hazard in removing the pad from the "pre-padded" boxes prior to use because it is likely that some of the fibers from the pad will remain in the box and then contaminate the bullet.  The trace examiner would find the fibers and, not seeing the discarded fiber source, erroneously conclude that the bullet picked up the trace in the shooting environment.

Body fluids can be very damaging to a bullet's surface due to the moisture and salt content.  That is why a dry bullet is the best.  However, I have seen bullets sealed in formalin-filled plastic specimen jars that have survived in surprisingly good shape.
Robert J. Shem, 4900 Buckingham Way., Anchorage, AK  99503, ph 907 952-2254,

Offline Brandon Bertolli

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Rinsing material
« Reply #2 on: November 11, 2004, 05:27:51 AM »
Dear Bob

Thanks for the information. It may be worth my while to make a recommendation that the air-tight plastic screw-top specimen jars be ditched in favour of the pasteboard containers. Do you guys have any links or tips on companies that supply these containers? I have tried unsuccesfully to Google my way to enlightenment.

Another question arises. I have three references here relating to the evidentiary value of biological and trace materials that may be found on the surface of a retrieved projectile, and may be present prior to rinsing of the projectile:

"Evidentiary value of the contents of hollow-point bullets" Smith OC, Harruff RC.
J Forensic Sci. 1988 Jul;33(4):1052-7

"Cytology in ballistics. An experimental investigation of tissue fragments on full metal jacketed bullets using routine cytological techniques" Knudsen PJ.
Int J Legal Med. 1993;106(1):15-8

"Recovery and evaluation by cytologic techniques of trace material retained on bullets" Nichols CA, Sens MA.
Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1990 Mar;11(1):17-34

The first two studies indicate that macroscopic material and microscopic material have evidentiary value when found in the nose cavity and on the surface of a retrieved projectile. That is in line with what Bob has said. The last reference concerns the value of microscopic cytological evidence that may be lost when the rinsing material is discarded after the projectile is cleaned.

My question is two-fold: is the analysis of the rinsing material something that would be done frequently, and if so, is there any value in having the hospital preserve the rinsing material in a separate container for possible future analysis?
Brandon Bertolli, Radiographer, bbertolli(at)


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