Original Article

International Journal of Legal Medicine

, Volume 109, Issue 3, pp 147-149

First online:

On the physics of momentum in ballistics: Can the human body be displaced or knocked down by a small arms projectile?

  • B. KargerAffiliated withInstitute of Legal Medicine, University of Münster
  • , B. P. KneubuehlAffiliated withDefence Procurement Agency, Weapon Systems and Ammunition Test Centre

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Shooting incidents are often portrayed as resulting in a sometimes violent backwards displacement of the victim. This opinion is also not infrequently held by expert witnesses. The physical force responsible for this would be momentum (mass x velocity). The physics of momentum in ballistic injury is explained in detail. The maximum momentum transferred from different small arms projectiles including large calibre rifles and a 12-gauge shotgun only results in a backwards motion of a 80 kg target body of 0.01–0.18 m/s, which is negligible compared to the velocity of a pedestrian (1–2 m/s). Furthermore, counterbalance is constantly maintained by neurophysiological reflexes. So the effect of the momentum transferred from the missile is virtually zero and there is no backwards motion of the person shot. Empirical evidence verifying these calculations can be obtained from hunting big game, from human gunshot victims and from a video documentary demonstrating the lack of any backwards motion of a person wearing body armour after hits from a centre fire rifle. So the alleged backwards hurling of a person shot is nothing but a myth which should be refuted not only because it is incorrect but also because it can result in miscarriages of justice.

Key words

Gunshot wounds Momentum Physics Wound ballistics