International Journal of Legal Medicine

, Volume 109, Issue 3, pp 147–149

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

  • B. Karger
  • B. P. Kneubuehl
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/BF01369676

Cite this article as:
Karger, B. & Kneubuehl, B.P. Int J Leg Med (1996) 109: 147. doi:10.1007/BF01369676


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 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • B. Karger
    • 1
  • B. P. Kneubuehl
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of Legal MedicineUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  2. 2.Defence Procurement AgencyWeapon Systems and Ammunition Test CentreThunSwitzerland

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