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Amazing Advances in Forensic Science Part 3: Firearms and Ballistics

Article by Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Homicide and Forensic Consultant

©2010 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
Reprint: Law and Order, Vol. 58, No. 10, October, 2010, Article Expanded for Research









Practical Homicide Investigation® emphasizes that the basic time-proven traditional investigative methodologies, which have been used by law enforcement throughout the years be coupled with an appreciation for and an understanding of the advances in forensic science and its application to the investigative process. Forensics, which is the application of science to matter of law, has made great strides over the last thirty years providing law enforcement with an assortment of exciting tools.

Forensics has made great strides over the last 30 years, providing law enforcement with an assortment of exciting tools. The forensic sciences include the disciplines of pathology, toxicology, serology and forensic DNA analysis, psychiatry, psychology, entomology, odontology, computer and digital science, archeology, anthropology, geology, etc.

Criminalistics is the application of various sciences to answer questions relating to the examination and comparison of biological, trace and impression evidence, such as fingerprint analysis, footwear, tire impressions and toolmark evidence, as well as drug analysis, ballistics and firearm examinations.


Forensic Examination of Firearms and Ballistics

In the 1980’s all we had to check ballistics nationwide was the “Drugfire” program administered by the FBI.  It had been initiated during the drug wars of the 1980’s to track murders and killer using the same gun.  Today, we have The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (N.I.B.I.N.) presently every gunshot case sent to the FBI or ATF is on file.  Thousands of bullets that have been read by laser and coded for computer storage are on file using the technology provided by Forensic Technology, Inc. called IBIS.

            The Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS) developed by Forensic Technology, Inc. is an image analysis system for acquiring, storing and analyzing the images of bullets and cartridge cases.  IBIS® is Forensic Technology’s cornerstone product and has proven to be one of the impressive advances in forensic science and criminalistics.  The System is comprised of two modules: BULLETPROOF® for bullets and BRASSCATCHER® for cartridge cases

            The system captures video images of bullet striations and the markings left on cartridge cases, which produce an electronic “signature” stored in a database.  Networking hardware and software allow transfers and comparisons of forensic evidence from different cities and countries.

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Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS)











Gunshot Residue Testing      

The most effective gunshot residue testing (GSR) in the past was done with the scanning electronic microscope and atomic absorption with SEM-EDX capability.  Today ASPEX has become the world leader in Gun Shot residue testing.  When a weapon is fired or discharged, it produces a residue from the combustion of the primer and powder in the shell cartridge.

            Residue may adhere to the skin or clothing of the person who discharged the firearm, or on other people and objects in close proximity at the scene. The major primer elements are lead (Pb), barium (Ba), or antimony (Sb). Gunshot residue (GSR) is normally a combination of gunpowder and lead residues.  As lead-free primers are becoming increasingly common (lead is replaced by aluminum and strontium), new methods are required to handle GSR analysis.

Traditional approaches would no longer be useful, but ASPEX GSR can be configured to detect, classify and report on new types of ammunition.  The Aspex GSR Analyzer is a dedicated system capable of performing high through put analysis of GSR samples. The PerceptionTM software platform seamlessly integrates the SEM and the EDS components for a fast and accurate analysis.  We have certainly come a long way from Trace Metal Detection or Neutron Activation Analysis tests of years ago, which gave mixed results. 

Cell Phone Technology

Thirty years ago we didn’t have cell phones like today.  The first generation of cell phones began in 1973 with a Motorola hand-held analogue model. The first commercial cell phone service began in 1983 and the devices were basically “Bag Phones”.  The first modern network technology began in the 1990’s with the introduction of the Motorola StarTac flip phone in 1996.  Wireless technology for cell phones has existed for a long time, but it was only very recently that cell phones themselves became practical and popular. In fact, wireless technology has made huge advancements in the last five years, and it continues to do so.  Cell phones are quickly becoming one of the most widely used pieces of technology in the world.

Initially cell phones were only used to send and receive calls but with a fast influx of new technology, they are a lot more than just a phone. Everyday a new cell phone enters the market with a new amazing feature. First it was games for your phone, next came the digital camera and then after that the video camera and these are just a few forms of technology to make their way onto today's cell phones. What used to be a tool for making and receiving calls now has the ability to do much more. 

From an investigative standpoint, the cell phone has become a crucial source of information. Cell Phone Technology is giving detectives leads in cases that they may not have had before.  Today the newer phones are being equipped with the global-positioning technology that pinpoints the user’s location within dozens of yards.

As the hand-held devices grow smarter and hold more and various kinds of data, they become something like highly mobile closets of information such as contacts, images and text conversations. Police can use the cell records to track the owner’s movements, which can establish or refute an alibi. It’s a valuable tool in law enforcement’s toolbox as the investigators ask, "Who do you know? Who have you been talking to? And what are the conversations?"

The science of recovering digital evidence from mobile phones, using forensically sound conditions and accepted methods, is called mobile phone forensics. In general, forensic science is the application of scientific principles for legal, investigative, and public policy purposes. Digital forensic science refers to the preservation, acquisition, examination, analysis, and reporting of electronic data collected and stored on computer and network systems and on many digital devices.  Guidelines on Cell Phone Forensics: Recommendations of the National Institute of Standards and Technology was issued in May 2007 as NIST Special Publication (SP) 800-101. Written by Wayne Jansen.



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Estimating Time of Death – Scientific Breakthroughs

The Molecules of Death The bacterial putrefaction of the human body is a progressive breakdown of complex biological compounds into smaller and simpler ones. Scientists can now make determinations of T.O.D. based on microbial digestion of the body’s proteins, which produce chemical compounds.

Scientists have isolated 30 compounds specifically linked to decomposition in buried bodies.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee have identified these compounds which are uniquely human. This breakthrough will immediately be useful in creating chemicals to train cadaver dogs.

The future of forensics in recognizing the 30 Human Compounds of Decomposition will be the development of hand-held devices, which will in draw the air with a pump to concentrate and analyze samples, which will provide an estimated Time of Death.

New Technique Developed To Date Forensic Death Based On Corpse Microorganisms

In a similar study a group of scientists of the University of Granada has developed a new technique of forensic dating based on thermo-microbiology, which will allow scientists to determine more accurately the time of a death which has not occurred under controlled natural conditions or as a consequence of a crime.

This new system, of great interest in the field of criminology, establishes correspondences between the parameters of micro-organic growth on cadaverous remains and dates the time of death of such remains, as well as their relation with their temperature.

They have used new thermographical and weather measurement tools and they have applied traditional microbiological methods with a new approach. The purpose was to make easier the analysis of the stages of cadaverous decomposition and putrefaction, connecting them with the model of growth/death of the micro-organisms, responsible for the post-mortem alterations. The aim of this work, in short, is to establish a microbiological indicator to determine the Time of Death.


This is the last of a Three-Part series on the amazing advances in forensic science and its application to the investigative process. I thank Law and Order Magazine for featuring this series and hope that it will familiarize investigators with the potential possibilities and capabilities, which can be applied to their criminal investigations.

Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S. is the author of the Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques, FOURTH EDITION and Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigation: Practical and Clinical Perspectives SECOND EDITION CRC Press, LLC. These materials are excerpted with Geberth's permission and are protected under U.S. Copyright Laws.