Let’s Talk About Gunshot Wounds

Let’s talk about gun shot wounds, shall we?  So you want your fiction to be believable, but you don’t want it to be so graphic that it will turn your readership off.  You want to strike that balance that gives the reader the shiver they’re looking for without having the gorge rise in the back of their throat.  The devil’s in the details.

A quick recap of previous posts:

#1. A handgun is not a construction crane. It cannot fire a projectile that will lift a human body – even a child’s – off the floor and fling it back against a wall or out a broken window.

#2. Entry wounds are generally (I’ll provide an example of when this is not true) the same basic size or diameter as the bullet.  Given the elasticity of skin, often times the entry wound is considerably smaller than the diameter of the bullet.  One cannot look at the entry wound and surmise the caliber that made it, except in poorly written fiction or Hollywood scripts.

#3. The exit wound is generally (I’ll provide an example of when this is not true) larger in diameter – and often much more delightfully gruesome than the entry wound.

As for number one, that old unbreakable law of physics that reasons for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction comes into play here.  If a bullet imparts incredible force on a body, that same force must be imparted in the opposite direction as the bullet is leaving the barrel of the gun.  Therefore, if we see a body picked up and flung against a wall due to the impact of a bullet, the shooter would be experiencing roughly the same force against their arm.  Imagine the comedy there.  Enough said.  Don’t make this mistake.

Number two is a little more difficult.  Unless we are shooting naked people in our books, bullets must first penetrate clothing before getting to the flesh.  Depending on the article of clothing worn, a lot of things can happen to the bullet before it enters the body.  We’ll talk about this momentarily.

Number three is my favorite topic because with the exception of number one, it is the most often abused in fiction.

Bullet wounds are a study in themselves. A blog post can never do justice to the topic so I urge writers of fiction to do their research.  This essay is merely to shed light on the topic so one’s fiction is more authentic and doesn’t immediately mark the author as a fraud.

High powered rifle caliber bullets are capable of doing great internal and external damage.  Some handguns are capable of delivering enough energy to cause similar damage as well, but normally, the handguns used in most fiction are not in that specialty category to replicate rifle energies.  Our most popular contemporary handguns are the 9mm Parabellum, the .45 ACP (automatic Colt pistol), the .357 Magnum, the .38 Special, the .380 ACP and the .44 Magnum.

I won’t take each caliber and dissect the damage it can do as there are plenty of articles one can research on these rounds.  I suggest you Google Ed Sanow and see what comes up.  What I’ll do is approach the topic from the standpoint of someone who has witnessed bullet wounds from several of these rounds and attended the autopsies of the victims who suffered them.

Most bullets used today in defensive situations (I’m omitting war as the ammunition used in war is technically designed to be less damaging than that used in law enforcement or civilian applications) are designed to expand when contacting flesh and bone.  This expansion is supposed to cause greater lethality and a more abrupt cessation of combat.  At handgun velocities, many bullets perform as designed, but certain factors can come into play, which have an impact (pardon the pun) on what the wounds are going to look like.  A bullet with a hollow nose, designed to expand like the petals of a flower can become clogged with cloth as it passes through various articles of clothing and fail to expand.  I only mention this because it’s nice to know and knowing it, can make you seem like a more knowledgeable writer.

If you watch slow motion video of handguns firing, you will see a significant amount of expanding gas from the explosive forces propelling the bullet as it exits the barrel.  I mentioned earlier about exceptions to the entry wound being the same size or smaller than the projectile.  This is one of those cases.  If your victim was executed with the muzzle of the gun placed against the skin of the head or body, these explosive forces can create an entry wound that is sensational!  But there are always exceptions.  It doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes, the gases enter the body and dissipate inside without making the entry wound any larger than the diameter of the bullet.  On contact wounds to the head, with say a .45ACP, or .380 ACP or other “low pressure” rounds, there will be an expansion that occurs under the skin between the skull and skin that causes a temporary bulging of the flesh.  What you may see there is an imprint of the muzzle of the weapon surrounding the entry wound that may help you identify the weapon used.  Keep this in mind if you want to play CSI at the scene.

The reason exit wounds are often described as gaping is due to a temporary wound cavity being created by the hydrostatic forces generated as the bullet passes through flesh.  If the bullet has sufficient force as it exits, so that this temporary cavity is still being generated, it will manifest itself in a much larger wound than the diameter of the bullet would suggest.  As in the case of entry wounds, of course, there are always exceptions.  If there is a tight article of clothing holding the flesh in place at the point of exit, such as a heavy leather belt, a bra strap or some such item, the exit wound can resemble the entry wound.  In cases like that, an autopsy is the only 100% court-approved way to tell which directions the bullet was going when it entered and exited.

This is just touching on the topic.  Like I often say, be authentic.

If you enjoyed this essay, perhaps you’d like to read my bestselling novel: THE LONG SHOOTERS, available at the following outlets.



About danielchamberlain

Former Chief of Police. Former Special Agent, AFOSI (Retired). Former Director of Security of multi-national corporation. Currently, Registered Nurse. Father Husband Outdoorsman
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12 Responses to Let’s Talk About Gunshot Wounds

  1. …really relevant as my heroine shoots a .357 in chap one. I consulted with an old detective here in SB, and even went and fired the gun at the range. (great image about the shooter and shoot-ee pinwheeling from exaggerated force of bullet)

  2. Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment. Too many fiction writers don’t do their research and all too often it shows. Good on you for checking out the gun in advance. Best. Dan

  3. What a helpful site. Thank you. 🙂

  4. kjwaters says:

    Excellent post Dan. I’ll be changing a scene in my novel based on the exit wound info. Always bothered me in movies where the victim is thrown across the room. I mean really? Have these writers ever shot a gun. Oh yeah, it’s Hollywood, nuff said.

    Really enjoy your blog and just signed up for your posts. Keep up the great work!

  5. Duke Pennell says:

    Hi Dan! Good info, but that’s no surprise with it coming from you.

    One question: while I agree with you about the laws of physics, I do believe someone can be “knocked” down or back if they are reacting to being shot and, consciously or otherwise, trying to throw themselves away from the impact. What do you think?

    By the way, that’s a very nice looking modified S&W 1917 you have there. I’d almost trade my 5″ 629 for it. Almost.

    • Duke, you’re right about the person’s muscular reaction to being shot, but it doesn’t “look” the way Hollywood would have us believe. The reaction is significantly less spectacular as literally thousands of video clips would demonstrate. Thanks for the compliment on the 1917. It came back from South America about 20 years ago so badly pitted I decided a complete makeover was in order. Didn’t have to worry about ruining a classic. I think it’s the gun S&W should have made.



  6. David says:

    First off, thank you for having so many post about GSW’s. I am trying to find out few specifics that I am having a hard time finding but I’m hoping you could shed a little light on.
    Do you think a person would fall forwards or backwards from a self inflicked shot w/ a 12 gauge slug to the chest?
    In your opinion, would a self inflicked loose contact shotgun wound to the chest angled down w/ a 12 gauge slug have a larger entry or exit wound?
    I thank you ahead of time for your much valued opinion.

    • David,

      First off, thank you for visiting this site and your very good question. I’m going to respond here and in an email to you, so that we can carry on a dialogue if you see fit.

      So much of your question, centers around the physical attitude of the body at the time the gun was fired, and really, this is far more important than the type or caliber of weapon used.

      A shotgun – unless it’s a sawed off barrel, is a rather unwieldy weapon with which to dispatch oneself. The suicides involving shotguns that I investigated, involved the decedent using an instrument, in one case a pencil, to reach and push the trigger. In both cases, shot was used as opposed to slugs, but with a contact wound, a shot cup full of shot is in essence a slug.

      Without knowing for certain how the person was standing, I’d have to say, based on your description, It’s possible the person was leaning into the shot, or leaning over the barrel of a weapon being held perpendicular to the ground, in which case, they would almost certainly fall forward.

      Even though a shotgun’s slug is a heavy piece of metal, Hollywood special effects to the contrary, the human body doesn’t offer enough resistance to allow the mass of the slug to impart the drag necessary to really effect the body’s position through projectile inertia. The skeleton of the human body is jointed in such a way, as to cause most people to fall forward, regardless of the projectile used, unless they are back-pedaling away from the threat or turning away from it. If a person is simply standing in place and received a shot to the head or spine, they would generally fall forward, or straight downward, in which case, as the knee joints buckled, probably 7 times out of 10, they’d end up looking like they fell forward.

      Now, as to the size of the relative wounds, it’s not an easy task to explain to those who may not have a good frame of reference from which to draw, but it’s entirely possible for a shotgun, pistol or rifle, held against the skin or against a garment covering the skin (more likely the case) to have a very dramatic entry wound, due primarily to the expanding gases released against the skin following the passage of the projectile. In the case of a shotgun, I literally mean explosive. So an entry wound could be significantly larger than the exit wound, though a good examiner would be able to tell the difference.

      I hope I’ve helped.

      Expect an email from me by way of follow up.



    • Replied to via email.

  7. Chris Blumenstein says:

    I forgot to say I envision, based on my (admittedly imperfect) research to date, that I envision the protagonist using soft-point ammunition for largest possible exit wound (as opposed to hollow-point, which might break up?). The (again, somewhat campy) effect I’m going for is the largest possible exit wound. Any advice is much appreciated. Thanks again.

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