Three Cases of Death Caused by Shots From Blank Cartridge

Zdravkovic, Miodrag PhD*; Milic, Miroslav MD*; Stojanovic, Miroslav PhD†; Kostov, Milos MD‡

American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology:
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e3181c15d8c
Case Report

The authors describe 3 cases of lethal injuries caused by 7.62 mm blank cartridge shots from military automatic rifle of domestic origin (AK 47, 7.62 mm). In 1 case, the cartridge was fired from a weapon that had been leaned on the head, with subsequent destruction of brain, and in other 2 cases, the weapon had been leaned on the chests, which led to destruction of heart parts. The injuries were caused by the action of striking wave of gunpowder explosion, the air blast type. The cases demonstrate that the gas pressure from the exploding propellant of blank cartridge is powerful enough to penetrate the thoracic wall and the skull.

Author Information

From the *Department of Forensic Medicine Nis, Bul. Dr. Zorana Djindjica 81, Nis, Serbia; †Clinic of Surgery Nis, Bul. Dr. Zorana Djindjica 48, Nis, Serbia; and ‡Department of Pathology Military Hospital Nis, Bul. Dr. Zorana Djindjica bb, Nis, Serbia.

Manuscript received March 8, 2007; accepted July 1, 2007.

Reprints: Miodrag Zdravkovic, PhD, Department of Forensic Medicine Nis, Bul. Dr. Zorana Djindjica 81, 18000 Nis, Serbia. E-mail:

Article Outline

Blank cartridge represents special type of ammunition, and its purpose is mainly the sound imitation of shooting. It is used for shooting practices, for start guns, in theaters, etc.

It may be constructed by a bullet made of wood, pressed cardboard, plastic, or it may not contain a bullet at all. In recent years, the most frequently produced and used practice ammunition does not contain a bullet at all. It consists of steel cartridge case, 0.76 g of freely poured nitrocellulose gunpowder filling and of the initial powder charge primer of fulminant types (Fig. 1). The user manual for this type of ammunition says that there is an absolute safety for people who are more than 20 m away from the weapon.

Since this type of ammunition is easy to provide, and knowledge about potential dangers very poor, injuries may happen very often. Injuries are caused by striking wave of gunpowder explosion, and when it has been fired from absolute or close range, they can be equally serious as injuries caused by conventional ammunition, even lethal.

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Case 1

A soldier, aged 20, shot himself in the right temple by leaning the barrel of automatic rifle loaded with blank cartridge.

On autopsy, the following findings were registered: in the right temporal area there was a gaping wound, oval in shape, with the tear of skin in the lower part, measuring 30 × 40 mm, with edges and surfaces lacerated and suffused with blood. In the gap of the wound, a fragment of human temple bone could be seen, which seemed to be covered with soot. Seared blood on the edges of the wound in the upper half circumference was slightly dark red. Tissue of the head around described wound, in extent of about 80 mm was much suffused with blood. On the squama of the right temple, there was a bone defect, around which a large number of small bone fragments were driven back to the inside, and most of them were located along the track of destruction. Bones of cranial roof (forehead and crown) had multiple fractures in large bone fragments, which were driven back to the outside. Bones of frontal and medial cerebral pit were also multiple fractured and there was communication with nasal cavities and orbital sockets. In the area of the internal lamina of left temple, there was a bone defect around which there were multiple fractured gaps on the bones of the left side of skull. Both solid and soft meninges were very lacerated in the area of described bone defect as well as in the area of skull base (frontal and medial cerebral cup and sella turcica). Cerebral tissue, including temporal, frontal, and parietal lobes, as well as lateral cerebral chamber, was like a wide channel, almost completely destroyed, erased in constitution, and saturated with blood. Stains and irregular streaked dark blue covering could be seen on the walls of the described channel, as well as in the places with multiangled dark gray particles with flat edges.

Pathohistological findings: Apart from the part destruction of cerebral tissue with recent bleedings and foreign black particles and aspiration of blood in it, clear histologic picture in other organs could be seen.

The conclusion is that the cause of death was massive brain destruction as well as multiple skull fractures, which occurred as a result of gunpowder explosion of blank cartridge fired from a hand firearm weapon from absolute range.

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Case 2

A soldier leaned an automatic rifle previously loaded with blank cartridge and shot another 20-year-old soldier through the clothes into the right side of chest.

On autopsy, following findings were registered: On the right side of the chest, on the left side, and above breast nipple, there was a circular wound, dimensions 20 mm, with rough edges suffused with blood and covered with soot. The skin around the wound on the left half circumference an area about 60 mm wide was burnt and light red colored (Fig. 2). In the third intercostals space on the right side, immediately by sternal joint there was a defect of intercostals muscles, dimensions 20 × 55 mm with rough, black, and soot covered edges. The round tissue in diameter of 130 × 120 mm was bruised and suffused with blood. The third right rib, 45 mm on the right from sternal joint was completely transversally broken, and on its external surface, along the fracture line, presence of impressed, dark black small particles on the area of 10 × 8 mm were registered (Fig. 3). In the right half of thoraces cage, there was 1800 mL of liquid, dark red colored blood. Base of the upper lobe, and whole medial lobe of right lung were destructed, intensively suffused with blood. On these areas, pleura was teared apart. In the pericardium, there was 400 mL of liquid blood. In the area of lateral side of right auricle, pericardium and epicardium were lacerated in the length of 35 mm, and the surrounding area measuring 40 × 35 mm in diameter was suffused with blood, spotty, and had stained appearance (Fig. 4). The side wall of the right heart auricle, immediately below the confluent of the upper hollow vein was longitudinally lacerated 30 mm in length. Lacerations spread from that area over the endocardium, which was suffused with blood in its surroundings.

Pathohistological findings: On HE stained colored entrance wound skin preparation, taken from the chest, a partly lacking the epidermis was noticeable, and that superficial and deeper layers of dermis were in coagulation necrosis. Along the thickness of dermis impressed blackish particles as well as parts of epidermis and hair could be seen (Fig. 5). Alizarin red S test on nitrate presence was performed and it was positive with respect to scattered orange precipitates impressed in the epidermis (Fig. 6).

The conclusion is that death was violent and the victim died due to rapid exsanguination.

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Case 3

A soldier, aged 20, took automatic rifle loaded with blank cartridge, leaned it on his own chest and fired.

On autopsy, following findings were registered: on the shirt, in the level of the left pocket, there was a star-like defect on clothes, 30 mm in diameter. On the front-left side of the thoracic cage, below, inside, and diagonally from the left nipple, there was an oval wound, transversally set, measuring 16 × 12 mm, with rough, bruised, and blood-suffused edges and sides. The surrounding area, up to 7 mm in diameter, the skin was burnt, with erased drawing, seared, dark red colored. In the left half of thoracic cage, there was 700 mL of liquid and partly irresolutely coagulated blood. In the level of V intercostal space on the left side, there was a defect in intercostal muscles, left edge of sternum, and upper-inside part of the fifth rib joint, the dimensions of which on the surface were approximately the same as those of wound on the skin. On the defect edges, these structures showed blackish shade. Pericardium was completely lacerated as were the right ventricle, right auricle, and partly interventricular septum. Total sprain of V and VI rib joints to the sternum was also registered.

Pathohistological findings: there was a destruction of parts of the myocardium and recent hemorrhage in the tissue. On skin section sample taken from surroundings of the wound, recent hemorrhages and presence of foreign bodies in the cutis were registered.

The conclusion is that the death was violent, caused by destruction of the heart, which was the result of high mechanical pressure of gunpowder explosion while shooting blank cartridge using hand firearm weapon from absolute range.

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Contrary to the public opinion, blank cartridge is dangerous weapon that may cause potentially fatal injuries when fired at a close range, especially to the head and the thorax.

Blank cartridge firearms demonstrate the characteristics of a missile when fired at close range. It can cause destruction of the skin and underlying structures including bones.1–7 This ammunition is available in several loads and caliber sizes. Ignition of a 9-mm load for revolver, for example, will lead to expansion of a pressure wave at 1200 to 1500 m/s, creating a gas volume of 950 mL/g for nitrocellulose and 280 mL/g for black powder. The explosion leads to a pressure of 100 to 200 bars at the muzzle of the handgun.8 For a barrel length of 105 mm, a 9-mm load can create a pressure of approximately 5, 3, and 1 bar at a distance of 3, 5, and 10 cm, respectively. The power density in such a case may be equivalent to 0.75, 0.27, and 0.1 J/mm2 at 0, 5, and 10 mm. A projectile has a theoretical capacity to penetrate human skin at minimum value of 0.1 J/mm2.9

The explosion temperature of nitrocellulose in a constant volume is 2500°C to 3000°C, which results in a temperature of approximately 1500°C at the muzzle, lasting for 0.1 to 0.5 milliseconds. The high temperatures of burning gas will cause formation of CO-hemoglobin, which is evident by bright red muscle tissue.1

There were rare descriptions in the available literature of the cases of injuries caused by blank cartridge ammunition that had lethal outcome. Most of the described cases were those of injuries caused by different types of gas weapons, weapons used for a sleeping and killing animals in slaughterhouses, etc.

There are also descriptions and studies of the cases of injuries caused by practice ammunition that has cork on the top cartridge case, which could be made of wood, cardboard, plastic mass, etc. Performing experimental shootings from rifle using blank cartridge with cork, and shooting from different ranges, Smith obtained following results: from 4-cm range cork passed through intercostal muscle into the pleural cavity, from 5 cm range, a 5 cm deep wound occurred, and from 50-cm range clothes were torn off and there were fleeces of the skin.10

Brinkmann (1990) presented a case of nonlethal injury caused by firing blank cartridge to supraclavicular pit from close range, when a wound of 5 mm in diameter occurred on the skin, and the damage of frontal tracheal wall in the body, which led to both-sided pneumothorax, pneumomediastinum, pneumoperitoneum, and subcutaneous emphysema of the thorax and abdominal wall.11

Considering relatively easy availability and insufficient precaution in use of this type of ammunition, frequent injuries are possible, which are proven to be far more serious than expected.12

At the moment of firing blank cartridge, gunpowder explosion occurs and creates striking wave. Because of the construction of cartridge case and weapon, it has a directed action, and enormous lifting power, which can heavily destroy materials on its way and can create specific channel passing through solid tissues. After shorter directed trip, part of striking waves concentrically spreads toward periphery, proportionally losing power after certain distance.

According to its characteristics, entrance wound caused by a blank cartridge is almost identical to entrance wound caused by conventional ammunition fired from absolute range. The difference is that skin defect is not caused by striking power of projectile, but exclusively tension created by gunpowder gases, which, like conventional ammunition, create other characteristics of entrance wound in cases of shooting from absolute range. The characteristics are as follows: relatively irregular shape of defect, with frequent presence of skin tear that originate from the edge of the wound, burns, and blackness of edges and initial part of wound channel, impressed and layered gunpowder particles and soot particles in initial part of wound channel, as well as absence of contusion ring and projectile erasure. Histological findings on skin material taken from the edges of such wounds are also nonspecific, because all the elements that are characteristic for conventional projectile shooting from close range can be seen (layered and impressed gunpowder and soot particles, coagulation necrosis of dermis, impressed parts of epidermis and hair, even erasure of parts of epidermis). Because of all that, differential diagnoses between this type of injury and injury caused by conventional ammunition fired from absolute range is very difficult, almost impossible.

In all 3 presented cases, the pressure wave had sufficient directed energy to perforate not only the skin, but also the bone below it (skull, rib) and deeper soft tissues and to create specific wound channel. In cases of absolute range shootings with conventional ammunition, the wound channel is wider toward the entrance hole, and described to have a shape of “truncated cone.” Specificity of the channel of the wound caused by blank cartridge is that the channel itself is wider than the entrance hole, and it also has a shape of truncated cone, only now its narrower part is toward the entrance hole. Apart from that, the destruction of the tissue that creates the wound channel is much heavier than in cases of use of the conventional ammunition, so the channel itself is more voluminous, and with no exception, without an exit hole, probably due to sudden loss of tension power of gases. Also, products of gunpowder explosion (soot and gunpowder particles) can be found along the whole wound channel.

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shot wounds; firearms; blank cartridges; gunpowder gases; entrance wound

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