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Fatal contact shot to the chest caused by the gas jet from a muzzle-loading pistol discharging only black powder and no bullet: case study and experimental simulation of the wounding effect


In modern medico-legal literature, only a small number of publications deal with fatal injuries from black powder guns. Most of them focus on the morphological features such as intense soot soiling, blast tattooing and burn effects in close-range shots or describe the wound ballistics of spherical lead bullets. Another kind of “unusual” and potentially lethal weapons are handguns destined for firing only blank cartridges such as starter and alarm pistols. The dangerousness of these guns is restricted to very close and contact range shots and results from the gas jet produced by the deflagration of the propellant. The present paper reports on a suicide committed with a muzzle-loading percussion pistol cal. 45. An unusually large stellate entrance wound was located in the precordial region, accompanied by an imprint mark from the ramrod and a faint greenish discoloration (apparently due to the formation of sulfhemoglobin). Autopsy revealed an oversized powder cavity, multiple fractures of the anterior thoracic wall as well as ruptures of the heart, the aorta, the left hepatic lobe and the diaphragm. In total, the zone of mechanical destruction had a diameter of approx. 15 cm. As there was no exit wound and no bullet lodged in the body, the injury was caused exclusively by the inrushing combustion gases of the propellant (black powder) comparable with the gas jet of a blank cartridge gun. In contact shots to ballistic gelatine using the suicide’s pistol loaded with black powder but no projectile, the formation of a nearly spherical cavity could be demonstrated by means of a high-speed camera. The extent of the temporary cavity after firing with 5 g of black powder roughly corresponded to the zone of destruction found in the suicide’s body.

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Correspondence to Markus Große Perdekamp.

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Große Perdekamp, M., Glardon, M., Kneubuehl, B.P. et al. Fatal contact shot to the chest caused by the gas jet from a muzzle-loading pistol discharging only black powder and no bullet: case study and experimental simulation of the wounding effect. Int J Legal Med 129, 125–131 (2015).

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  • Black powder
  • Muzzle-loading pistol
  • Gas jet
  • Suicide
  • Contact shot