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American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology:
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e3181c1318b
Original Article

Black Powder Handgun Deaths Remain an Uncommon Event

Hartwig, Sven MD*; Tsokos, Michael MD*; Byard, Roger W. MBBS, MD†

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From the *Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Berlin, Germany; and †Discipline of Pathology, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.

Manuscript received April 14, 2007; accepted April 20, 2007.

Reprints: Roger W. Byard, MBBS, MD, Discipline of Pathology, Level 3 Medical School North Building, The University of Adelaide, Frome Rd, Adelaide 5005, Australia. E-mail: byard.roger@saugov.sa.gov.au.

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Abstract

Although it was predicted that there would be an increase in the use of black powder guns due to their greater ease of procurement with less government control on sales, this does not seem to have been the general experience. To determine the rate of use of black powder handguns in shooting deaths in Berlin, Germany, review of the files of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin was conducted over a 10-year period from 1997 to 2006. Out of total 85 gunshot deaths, there were only 3 where black powder handguns were used (3.5%). The cases involved 3 males aged 55, 62, and 63 years, respectively, all of whom had committed suicide with black powder percussion handguns, using 0.45, 0.56, and 0.36 caliber weapons. The source of the guns could not be determined. Wounds were characterized by excessive soot and propellant soiling and tattooing. The low number of fatalities involving black powder guns in a large forensic institution in Berlin, Germany, suggests that limiting access to such weapons would have little effect on total numbers of gunshot deaths. Simple loading mechanisms and reliability appear to be more important features influencing the choice of a handgun, rather than mere availability.

In the 19th century, prior to the introduction of so-called “smokeless powder ” as a propellant for bullets in firearms, black powder was used. This is a mixture of charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur, which is poured down the barrel of a rifle or handgun and ignited either by a flintlock or a percussion cap.1 Several reports have noted that legislation controlling firearms in at least 2 countries (the United States and Germany) does not apply to these 19th century weapons, or to their replicas.2,3 Given the apparent availability of these guns, it was suggested in 1981 that the number of deaths from such weapons might be expected to increase.2 It is now timely to assess whether this trend has occurred. In the following report, we review the incidence of such deaths at 1 institute to determine whether there has been an increase in numbers, and also to detail the findings in 3 deaths from self-inflicted black powder handguns to demonstrate the characteristic autopsy features of such cases.

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MATERIALS AND METHODS

The autopsy files of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Berlin, Germany were searched over a 10-year period from 1997 to 2006 for all cases of deaths due to black powder gunshot wounds. The institute now serves a population of 3.4 million. Case files were reviewed and the details summarized.

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RESULTS

Of a of total 85 gunshot deaths, 3 involved black powder handguns (3.5%).

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Case 1

A 55-year-old man was found by his wife dead on a sofa at his home. He had been shot in the head once and the weapon was beside him. There was a strong smell of gunpowder. His history included depression following a spinal injury in a motor vehicle accident. A suicide note was found.

At autopsy, the major findings were limited to the head where there was an irregular entrance bullet wound in the right temporal region with shattering of the underlying skull with exposure of underlying markedly traumatized brain (Fig. 1). Marked soot staining and tattooing was present of the surrounding skin, with soot being found within the temporalis muscle and throughout the track through the brain parenchyma. Both hands also showed extensive soot staining. An irregular shattered exit wound was present on the left side of the head. The projectile was found in a pillow behind the head.

Figure 1
Figure 1
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The weapon was a modern reproduction 0.45 caliber black powder percussion handgun (Fig. 2) that the deceased had previously claimed to have “found.” No significant underlying organic diseases were present, which could have caused or contributed to death. Toxicological studies were negative for alcohol and common drugs. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was suicide.

Figure 2
Figure 2
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Case 2

A 63-year-old man was found in extremis sitting in a garden chair at his home with a single gunshot wound to the right side of the head. The weapon was located between his feet. He had been a sporting shooter and was currently involved in a court case where he had been charged with the sexual abuse of a minor. He died in hospital 3 hours later.

At autopsy, the major findings were limited to the head where there was an irregular entrance bullet wound in the right temporal region above the right ear with shattering of the underlying skull and exposure of markedly traumatized brain. Marked soot staining and tattooing was present of the surrounding skin, with soot staining within the right temporalis muscle, around the entrance wound in the right temporal bone (Fig. 3) and throughout the track through the brain parenchyma. No exit wound was present, with the projectile found embedded in the left parietal bone.

Figure 3
Figure 3
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The weapon was a 0.56 caliber black powder percussion Scheiben pistol from 1900. Although the deceased had been a sporting shooter, his license had been revoked for violation of weapons laws and his weapons confiscated. It appears likely, however, that he had retained the Scheiben pistol. No significant underlying organic diseases were present, which could have caused or contributed to death. Toxicological studies were negative for alcohol and common drugs. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was suicide.

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Case 3

A 62-year-old man was found sitting on a sofa at his home with a single gunshot wound to the chest. The weapon was located between his feet. His history included chronic shoulder pain following a motor vehicle accident. A suicide note was found.

At autopsy, the major findings were limited to the chest where there was an irregular loose-contact entrance bullet wound of the left chest wall below and medial to the left nipple (Fig. 4). The projectile had passed from left to right, backwards and slightly downwards between the third and fourth ribs lacerating the left lung, left atrium, left ventricle, and esophagus before embedding in the intervertebral disc of the 10th thoracic vertebrae. The heart was extensively traumatized with loss of parts of the left atrium and ventricle (Fig. 5). Approximately 2.2 L of fluid blood was present in the left chest cavity and 0.9 L in the right. Marked soot staining and tattooing were present in the surrounding skin, with soot staining of the soft tissues and muscles of the chest wall, the heart, and the intervertebral disc (Fig. 6). There was no exit wound.

Figure 4
Figure 4
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Figure 5
Figure 5
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Figure 6
Figure 6
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The weapon was a modern reproduction Italian 0.36 caliber black powder percussion Pedersoli handgun (Fig. 7). A case with cleaning and loading equipment was also present. No significant underlying organic diseases were present, which could have caused or contributed to death. Toxicological studies were negative for common drugs with a low level of alcohol in the blood (0.08%). The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the chest and the manner of death was suicide.

Figure 7
Figure 7
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DISCUSSION

Black powder guns have been superseded by guns that use smokeless powder. Guns that use black powder are generally muzzle loaders with the powder being introduced down the barrel, followed by a piece of wadding and a lead ball. These have to be rammed into place by a ramrod. Ignition depends on either a pan containing loose powder that is ignited with a spark from a flint, or by impact onto a percussion cap. Detonation of these primary charges causes a flame to ignite the main charge and thus the weapon is fired.1 The complexity of these sequential steps with the potential for misfire contrasts with the rapidity with which modern guns are available for use and their reliability.4 For this reason, black powder guns are now mainly owned by collectors, hunters, or those with an interest in historical aspects of weapons. Modern reproductions and new designs have included percussion revolvers as in the reported cases, and percussion and flintlock shotguns, rifles, and muskets with calibers ranging from 0.31 to 0.75.1

One result of the difference in the nature of these weapons has been that control of the sale of black powder guns is not always as strict as it is for modern rifles and handguns, with older weapons and replicas sometimes being exempt from government legislative requirements.2 This can be readily confirmed by searching “black powder ” on the internet and observing sites where such guns can be purchased. In 1981, Labowitz et al in their article suggested that the availability of such firearms, with increases in sales, would lead to increased numbers of black powder weapon shooting accidents, suicides, and homicides.2 However, the subsequent literature from the United States would not seem to indicate that this has occurred, with only isolated case reports being published.4,5

The current study was undertaken to formally examine whether there had been a noticeable increase in deaths in other jurisdictions related to black powder weapons, focusing specifically on a single forensic institute in Berlin, Germany. Out of total 85 autopsies performed at the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin on deaths due to firearms between 1997 and 2006, there were only 3 cases where black powder weapons were involved (3.5%). This shows that there has not been a significant contribution to gunshot deaths in Berlin by black powder weapons. In retrospect, this is perhaps not surprising as, although these weapons may be available, their use requires some knowledge of weaponry, with an understanding of the mechanics of the guns. Although access to methods of suicide has been partly responsible for differences in suicide methods between the sexes and at different ages,6–8 other factors come into play. For example, black powder and percussion caps need to be obtained and loading the gun is a much more complex process than merely inserting a cartridge into a modern handgun. Handgun and rifle use in suicides are often associated with drug or alcohol intoxication, another feature that would make handling such relatively complex weapons more difficult under those circumstances. No alcohol or drugs were detected in 2 of our victims, with only a low level of alcohol found in the third.

Black powder weapons produce characteristic wounds that can indicate their use prior to the identification of a possible weapon. Incomplete combustion of powder results in extensive stippling and tattooing of the skin with soot and propellant residue taken deep into the bullet track.9 It has been estimated that 56% of the residue left after black powder is ignited is solid material.1 Similar residues may be present on other surfaces at a scene thus implicating a black powder weapon.5 The wound and scene may smell of burnt gunpowder and there is often marked coagulative necrosis of the skin with focal areas found around propellant residues where there has been continued burning of black powder after expulsion.2,10 There may also be extensive tissue disruption due to the escape of large amounts of gas and the expansion of soft lead bullets.3 All of the reported cases showed extensive soot and propellant staining continuing deep into the wounds. Extensive soiling of wounds may also have historical significance. For example, it has been suggested that analysis of skeletal remains from the Battle of Little Bighorn might identify black powder residues and be useful in clarifying the manner of death.11

In conclusion, despite the sale of black powder handguns being less restricted than modern weapons, their use in homicides and suicides remains rare in the population studied. This demonstrates that availability is only one factor in the choice of a weapon and that familiarity, ease of use, and simplicity in design are also important considerations. For these reasons, it seems unlikely to expect an increase in such deaths, and this has certainly been shown in the current study from the Berlin area. Given these findings, it would appear that legislative changes to restrict access to these weapons would have a limited effect on overall gun-related mortality.

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REFERENCES

1. Di Maio VJM. Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1999:23–30.

2. Labowitz DI, Menzies RC, Scroggie RJ. Characteristics and wounding effects of a black powder handgun. J Forensic Sci. 1981;26:288–301.

3. Karger B, Teige K. Fatalities from black powder percussion handguns. Forensic Sci Int. 1998;98:143–149.

4. Vila RI, Martin JV, Wetli CV, et al. Accidental death from a black-powder rifle breech plug. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1990;11:241–243.

5. DeHaan JD. Homicide with a black powder handgun. J Forensic Sci. 1983;28:468–481.

6. Byard RW, Klitte Å, James RA, et al. Changing patterns of female suicides: 1986–2000. J Clin Forensic Med. 2004;11:123–128.

7. Byard RW, Markopoulos D, Prasad D, et al. Early adolescent suicide: a comparative study. J Clin Forensic Med. 2000;7:6–9.

8. Byard RW, Hanson K, James RA, et al. Suicide methods in the elderly in South Australia 1981–2000. J Clin Forensic Med. 2004;11:71–74.

9. Hanke CW, Conner AC, Probst EL, et al. Blast tattoos resulting from black powder firearms. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1987;17:819–825.

10. Missliwetz J, Wieser I. Medical and technical aspects of the effect of weapons III. Black powder muzzle loading guns. Beitr Gerichtl Med. 1990;48:685–696.

11. Spencer JD. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn: homicide or mass suicide? J Forensic Sci. 1983;28:756–761.

Keywords:

black powder; handgun; suicide; gunshot wound

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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