From the *Department of Forensic Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya; and †General Hospital, Badulla, Sri Lanka.
Manuscript received March 19, 2012; accepted July 2, 2013.
The authors report no conflicts of interest.
Reprints: Sarathchandra Kodikara, MBBS, MD, DLM, Department of Forensic Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. E-mail: email@example.com.
A variety of common and uncommon firearms of different origin are used worldwide.1,2 Among the less commonly used firearms, zip guns,1 stud guns,1 captive bolt devices,1 bang sticks,1 and mole guns2,3 are well known. The trap gun used in Sri Lanka is an uncommon firearm, whose history dates back to 1888.4 It is an illegal, locally made, smooth-bore, long-barreled, muzzle-loading firearm with a victim-activated simple trigger mechanism. This firearm is intended to be used on wild animals, and the prime objective of setting up this weapon is to protect crops and livestock from potential harm by wild animals. This weapon does not have a mechanism to select the victim, and it is therefore indiscriminate. Any passerby can trigger the line that activates it and fall prey to it.
Injuries due to trap guns have become a silent epidemic in Sri Lanka, leading to an increasing number of cases and some fatalities.5 Published data on this topic are limited,4,5 and deaths due to trap gun injuries are not reported in the forensic literature.
A 35-year-old previously healthy man went into a jungle, looking for his missing cattle. He did not return from the jungle. The following day, he was found dead in the jungle, in a pool of blood.
Positioned 45 cm above the ground level and 492 m away from the body, there was a trap gun that had been aimed at a wild animal. A trail of blood spots ran from the site of the trap gun to the location where the deceased was found. There was no evidence of a struggle, nor were there any cartridges/pellets/slugs/bullets at the scene. A number of distorted metal nails, metal pieces, and homemade pellet-like metal balls were found at the scene. A police investigation confirmed that the trap gun had been fired very recently.
At autopsy, the deceased was a well-built, well-nourished man clad in short pants and a T-shirt. Although the clothes were bloodstained, they were not disturbed or injured. Radiographs of the lower limbs revealed no presence of ammunition, but did reveal a comminuted fracture of the left lower femur. The external examination showed pale conjunctivae and lips and nail beds with poorly developed hypostasis. There were 2 perforating entry wounds on the lateral aspect of the left knee just lateral to the patella (Fig. 1). These wounds oriented one above the other. The lower wound was regular and 1.0 cm in diameter located 47.0 cm above the foot sole. The upper wound was irregular and 1.2 × 0.8 cm and located 49.0 cm above the foot sole. Both wounds were surrounded by a rim of abrasion. There was no tattooing or wad marks. There were 2 irregular extruding exit wounds in the left popliteal fossa. Internal examination revealed pale internal organs and multiple subendocardial hemorrhages. There was no evidence of any natural disease. The dissection of the wound tract in the left lower limb revealed laceration of the popliteal artery and vein, the peroneal and tibial nerves, the short and long heads of biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus muscles and their tendons in the popliteal fossa. Microscopic examination revealed centrilobular necrosis of the liver. Postmortem blood alcohol analysis was negative. The cause of death was concluded to be hemorrhagic shock following a trap gun injury to the left lower limb.
A trap gun is not a sophisticated firearm. It is made from a long metal barrel of varying bore sizes (Figs. 2 and 3). The breach end is permanently sealed. A nipple is present, and it communicates with the breach end. A flat iron rod acts as the hammer, of which one end is levered to the middle of the barrel, and the other end is in contact with the nipple. A small metal container filled with powdered matchstick heads/firecrackers covered by the striker surface of the matchstick box is used as the percussion cap. This part acts as the percussion cap. A variety of materials such as pieces of barbed wire, metal clips, nails, used pellets, slugs, and so on, are used as ammunition. The prime objective of setting up a trap gun is to protect one’s crop and livestock from wild animals. It may also be used to kill wild animals for meat and animal skin and to prevent the entry of human beings into jungles where illicit activities are taking place.
To set up the mechanism, the barrel is mounted horizontally on pegs of sticks fixed to the ground, so the nipple faces upward. The height of the barrel from the ground level is adjusted according to the height of the targeted animal. Through a lever mechanism, the hammer is kept under tension. The lever mechanism is then connected to a trigger cord, which runs across the animal’s path, and the muzzle end is directly facing the animal’s path. The trap gun, trigger mechanism, and the trigger line are hardly visible and are camouflaged in the jungle. The first passerby, whether a human being or a wild animal, who accidentally trips the trigger cord and activates the trigger mechanism is critically injured. As the commonly targeted animals are wild boar, deer, and porcupine, the barrel is usually positioned of approximately 30- to 60-cm height. This being the case, the trap gun characteristically damages the lower limbs of the human being.
Trap gun injuries represent a wide spectrum including skin, muscle, ligament, and tendon lacerations; femoral and popliteal vascular lacerations; and compound, comminuted fractures of the femur, tibia, fibula, and bones of the patella. Some victims end up with amputations. Complications and sequelae include disfigurement, disability, sepsis, and osteomyelitis. As in this case, most of the trap gun injuries happen in rural and remote areas, where the facilities for emergency care are poor.5 The delay in emergency treatment makes the injuries critical. When the incident happens in an area away from human habitat, the victim is left helpless, at the scene. In the case under study, the femoral fracture and damage to the peroneal and tibial nerves and the short and long heads of biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus muscles in the left lower leg made it virtually impossible for the deceased to walk for help. If there is significant damage to a major blood vessel, death is imminent because of hemorrhagic shock. A pool of blood at the scene, pale conjunctivae, lips, nail beds, poorly developed hypostasis, pale internal organs, multiple subendocardial hemorrhages, acute damage to popliteal artery and vein, and centrilobular necrosis of the liver support the finding of acute hemorrhagic shock.
When irregular ammunitions are used, the entry wounds are also usually irregular. The entry wounds, however, could be regular in shape when pellets/pellet-like and slugs/slug-like ammunitions are used as in this case. Burning, blackening, and tattooing may be seen. Wad injuries are not seen as wads are not used in the firing mechanism. Some missiles stay inside the tissues, whereas the others go through and through, leaving irregular exit wounds. These wounds are often heavily contaminated by rust and metal debris originated from the missiles and by soil due to struggle for life on the ground as the terminal event.
The firearm ordinance of Sri Lanka has stipulated “gun” as “any barreled weapon of any description from which any shot, pellet, or other missile can be discharged with sufficient force to penetrate not less than 8 strawboards, each of 3/64th of an inch thickness placed one half of an inch apart, the first such strawboard being at a distance of 50 ft from the muzzle of the weapon.”6 Accordingly, the trap gun falls within this legal definition of a gun. Article 17 of the Firearm Ordinance declares, “No person shall manufacture any gun without a license from the licensing authority.”6 Accordingly, the trap gun is an illegal firearm in the country. A gun license for crop protection from potential harm by wild animals is provided only for the farmers who own a crop of land over 5 acres. Small-scale farmers therefore use illicit means including trap guns for crop and livestock protection.
The term “zip gun” is used to denote homemade firearms or firearms made using blank firing pistol, tear gas gun, or cap pistol.1 They are short-range weapons that use either .22 rim fire cartridge or 12-gauge shotgun shells and have been seen in both cases of suicide and homicide.1 The stud guns are industrial tools that use special blank cartridges to fire metal nails or studs into wood, concrete, or steel.1 Accidental1 and suicidal7 deaths have been reported with stud guns. In captive bolt devices, the discharge of a blank cartridge drives a captive bolt8 and is used in cattle slaughtering.1 This leaves a sharp-edged circular hole with or without soot around it. Accidental deaths1 and a homicide8 are reported in this regard. The bang stick is used by fishermen and skin divers to kill sharks, large fish, or alligators.8 This has various calibers and fires a bullet. Suicides have been reported, and the wounds on human are contact.9 However, none of these unusual firearms are made to fire locally made ammunition aimed at wild animals and to exclusively injure the lower limbs of the human. A mole gun is a handmade weapon used as a trap by farmers to kill moles in Turkey.3 However, this fires a shotgun cartridge, and the wounds caused by mole gun are similar to those caused by shotguns.3 The triggering mechanism is different from that of trap gun.3
Thus, for the first time, a trap gun death is reported in the forensic literature. The injury pattern caused by a trap gun could overlap that of a shotgun/rifled firearm. Therefore, forensic pathologists should be meticulous while conducting an autopsy where the victim has sustained firearm injuries in the lower limbs. However, a proper scene examination, the characteristic location of injuries, presence of irregular wounds, wound contamination, absence of wad marks on the skin and wads inside the wound, miscellaneous ammunition in the wound path and at the scene, and minimum cavitatory effect help to differentiate trap gun wounds. To curtail the menace caused by this weapon, the farmers should be provided with alternative methods to crop protection, and users of trap guns should be strictly prosecuted with existing legislation.
The authors thank Drs S. D. Channa Perera, Indira Kitulwatte, and Induwara Gooneratne for their valuable guidance. The authors also thank Mr P. G. L. Gunatilake and Mrs Judith de Souza for assistance in preparing the manuscript.
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