What is a Forensic Firearms and Toolmark Examiner?

A firearms and toolmark examiner is a forensic scientist who is an expert in evidence regarding firearms, toolmarks, and ballistics.

In addition to forensic examinations, firemarms and toolmark examiners are called upon to test-fire and photograph firearms and firearms-related evidence and prepare investigative reports based upon their examinations.  Their work may include performing chemical and/or electrolytic etching and magnetic processes for firearms serial number restoration and determining the muzzle proximity and trajectory of firearms used at the scene of a crime. They also engage in footwear and tire track comparisons, primer residue analyses and toolmark comparisons.

Although the majority of work performed by toolmark examiners is done in the forensic laboratory, these forensic scientists may need to engage in crime scene processing, particularly when determining bullet trajectory. They are also required to serve as expert witnesses, prepare courtroom evidence, and provide courtroom testimony, and they may provide training to law enforcement personnel.

Forensic Firearms and Toolmark Examiner Job Description

Firearms and toolmark examiner jobs may involve:

  • Reviewing case notes and reports
  • Preparing written case reports resulting from observations and findings
  • Acting as a liaison with the courts, with law enforcement personnel, and with the public
  • Developing specific applications involving the comparison, analysis, and identification of physical evidence
  • Preserving evidence for laboratory analysis and comparison
  • Conducting research for the development of new techniques, methods, and equipment

Firearms/Toolmark Examiners must be able to demonstrate knowledge in the following areas:

  • Performing standard ballistics tests
  • Photographing firearms and related evidence
  • Operating specialized equipment
  • Performing chemical testing for forensic analysis
  • Preparing clear and concise reports
  • Using modern theories and methods for firearms classification and identification

Firearms/toolmark examiners may work for private forensic laboratories or, more commonly, for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FBI Firearms/Toolmarks Unit (FTU)

The FBI’s Firearms/Toolmarks Unit (FTU) applies scientific procedures to a number of areas, including:

  • Toolmarks
  • Serial number restoration
  • Gunshot residue
  • Firearms
  • Bullet trajectories
  • Ammunition components

The FTU includes the following firearms identification testing:

  • Comparing bullets to barrels
  • Silencer testing
  • Comparing cartridge cases to firearms
  • Ejection pattern testing
  • Shot pattern examinations
  • Trigger pull measurements
  • Serial number restoration
  • Shot pattern examinations
  • Accidental discharge determination
  • Gunshot distance determination

Within the area of toolmark identification, FTU testing includes:

  • Fracture matching
  • Lock and key examinations
  • Comparing stamps with stamped impressions for identification
  • Comparing tools with toolmarks found at the crime scene

Education and Experience Requirements for Firearms/Toolmark Examiners

As forensic scientists, firearms/toolmark examiners must complete a formal course of study through a bachelor’s or graduate degree program from an accredited college or university.

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A number of degree programs may be suitable for work in this field, including:

  • Criminal justice
  • Forensic science
  • Criminology
  • Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Further, many employers require study in quantitative analysis and general chemistry. It is also commonplace for firearms/toolmark examiners to pursue graduate degrees in one of the physical sciences.

Many employers require at least two years of on-the-job experience under the supervision of a court-recognized firearms/toolmark expert. An apprenticeship provides valuable experience in analyzing and comparing firearms and toolmark evidence, preparing written reports, and testifying in court as a forensic firearms/toolmark expert.

Professional Certification for Firearms/Toolmark Examiners

Although not generally required, many employers view professional certification through the Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners (AFTE) as highly desirable. Individuals may attain certification in one, two or three areas:

  • Firearm Evidence Examination and Identification
  • Toolmark Evidence Examination and Identification
  • Gunshot Residue Evidence Examination and Identification

To achieve certification, candidates must:

  • Be an AFTE member in good standing
  • Possess at least 5 years of training and experience as a firearms/toolmark examiner (at least 3 years of experience must be as a court –qualified firearms and/or toolmark examiner)
  • Possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, with major coursework in physical science, forensic science, natural science, criminalistics, criminal justice, police science, industrial technology, or related fields

Candidates who meet the minimum requirements for AFTE certification must take and successfully pass the AFTE Certification Test, which includes a written and practical examination.

Salary Expectations for Firearms/Toolmark Examiners

Recent job postings reveal the salary range for firearms/toolmark examiners to be between $38,236 and $74,901, with the lower end of the salary range often indicative of apprenticeship positions.

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