A ballistics expert (also often referred to as a forensic ballistics expert or a firearms examiner) is a forensic specialist who is responsible for collecting and analyzing ballistics-related evidence, which includes firearms and ammunition.
Ballistics is a science that is rooted in physics, as ballistics experts are called upon to determine everything from trajectory to probable distance and angle when studying firearms and ammunition. A ballistics expert may study shell casings, bullet fragments, clips, and firearms at the scene of a crime and in a laboratory setting.
Ballistics evidence studied by ballistics experts may include:
- Spent cartridges
- Spent shell casings/bullets
- Shot shell wadding
- Live ammunition
When analyzing ammunition found at a crime scene, ballistics experts are said to be engaged in ballistics fingerprinting, which involves studying the marks left on ammunition to determine which firearm was used to fire the bullet. (Just like fingerprints, no two firearms will produce the same marks, even those of the same make and model.) Ballistic fingerprinting and firearm identification is in the same forensic group as toolmark identification, as a firearm acts as a tool to leave marks or imprints on a spent shell casing or bullet.
Ballistics experts are called upon to identify the characteristics of firearms, from the bullets fired to calibers and rifling patterns. They also analyze cartridges and cases to search for signs of firing pin impression, ejector marks, extractor marks, and other toolmarks. These professionals often use a comparison microscope to compare toolmarks, side by side, to identify a potential match.
Ballistics experts may also input information found on spent cartridges and bullets into a number of ballistics databases, such as the FBI’s ballistic database, Drugfire, a computerized forensic firearms identification system.
The Work Environment for Ballistics Experts
The majority of a ballistic expert’s work is performed in the laboratory, although these professionals are also called to crime scenes to preserve and collect evidence. Ballistics experts are often involved in crime scene mapping, which involves using computer design programs, photogrammetry, and laser measuring tools. Crime scene mapping is also used to create diagrams for police reports and for courtroom presentations. It is also not uncommon for ballistics experts to lift fingerprints from spent shell casings or to collect DNA samples from spent rounds.
Upon completing ballistics testing, ballistics experts must write detailed reports, which may be used by law enforcement officials and in courtroom hearings and trials. They may also be required to serve as expert witnesses during criminal trials and hearings.
Most ballistics experts work for local, state or federal crime labs; however, these professionals may also work as private consultants or contractors.
Education and Training for Ballistics Experts
Ballistics experts undoubtedly need to pursue an educational program through an accredited college or university; however, there are a number of avenues individuals may take when seeking careers as ballistics experts.
For example, a common degree program for ballistics experts is a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, which provides individuals with a solid framework in the biological sciences, physics, and chemistry, and introduces study in criminal justice and the law. Forensic science degrees are ideal for preparing students for work in the forensic laboratory.
Core requirements in a bachelor’s degree in forensic science typically include:
- Principles of Biology
- Biology Laboratory
- Chemistry Laboratory
- Organic Chemistry
- Analytic Geometry
- Physics Laboratory
- College Physics
- Calculus-Based Physics
Individuals interested in pursuing careers in ballistics may also seek undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering or metallurgy, as well as chemistry, biology, or a similar life science.
Training in the field of ballistics is a must for individuals seeking ballistics expert positions. Training often includes work in the following areas:
- Expert witness testimony
- Evidence handling
- Crime scene searches
- Firearms identification
- Gunpowder and primer residue
- Wound ballistics
It is quite common for ballistics experts to spend two or more years in initial training under the guidance of a forensic science expert. Continuing education is commonplace in this profession, and the FBI and the ATF offer many firearms identification training programs throughout the year.
Salary Expectations for Ballistics Experts
The salary ranges for ballistics experts are often indicative of the size of the crime laboratory and the location within the country:
- Nassau County, New York: $39,085-$77,532
- Wheaton, Illinois: $40,390-$67,318
- Los Angeles, California: $77,402-$96,152
- Arkansas State Crime Lab: $37,332-$62,616
- Norfolk, Virginia: $50,139-$83,880
- Ventura County, California: $71,606-$100,465
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that ballistics experts, who fall under the category of forensic science technicians, earned $51,570 (mean annual salary) as of May 2010, with the top 10 percent in this field earning more than $82,990 during the same period.
Resources for Ballistics Experts
The Association of Firearms and Toolmark Examiners provides professional certification, information on continuing education classes and training seminars, and networking opportunities.
The International Ballistics Society hosts an international symposium on ballistics and provides members with a number of professional development opportunities, such as publication opportunities, short courses, and student programs.