Firearms have been used for more than 500 years, however the science of identification is a relatively new practice. The profession of firearms and ballistics analysis has existed for less than 100 years. Due to the popularity of television shows, such as CSI, this profession has also gained in popularity.
Firearms examination is a highly specialized field of forensic science. By employing their vast knowledge and expertise, these well-trained examiners can help detectives and criminal investigators get crucial information about how gun crimes were committed and help identify the weapon used. They can determine the trajectory of a bullet, the distance a shooter was from the target, whether or not a discharge was accidental, the position a shooter was in when he/she fired a weapon, and – perhaps most importantly – pinpointing the exact weapon used in a crime by comparing a fired bullet to the barrel of a specific gun.
Most undergraduate forensic science degree programs are structured around chemistry, biology or physics. Some programs include training within all of these areas, whereas others may focus predominantly on only one field. Ballistics experts require an understanding of physics in order to determine how objects move and interact with other objects as well as a background in chemistry (to identify chemical residues associated with firearms examinations). To figure out trajectory angles and bullet speed, they also need a thorough understanding of mathematics. Since bullets often pass through victims, ballistics experts need to have some knowledge of biology or human anatomy.
Its advisable that the student chose a college or university offering a forensic science program. Typical courses are:
- Principles of Biology
- Organic Chemistry
Once the student has earned a Bachelor of Science degree, the next step is to seek an apprenticeship under experienced forensic specialists. As apprentices, students gain on-site training in evidence collection and documentation and other procedural rules. At this level, students usually receive general training in all areas before choosing field specialties.
Integral to the aspiring firearms and ballistic expert’s education is to complete a Firearms Forensics Training course. This is an on-the-job training which may take up to three years to reach the point of proficiency in the field of ballistics. This training includes work in these areas:
- Expert Witness Testimony
- Evidence Handling
- Firearms Identification
- Wound Ballistics
- Gunpowder Residue
Continuing education is commonplace in this profession, and the FBI and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) offer many firearms identification training programs throughout the year.
This field has an organization called The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE). Membership has six different levels whose entry is limited to those “persons of integrity with suitable education, training, and experience in the examination of firearms and/or toolmarks.”
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has one category for Forensic Science Technicians. Therefore this is a broad field that includes anyone employed in the forensics business. The BLS reported in 2012 that the annual median salary was $52,840 with a growth/change rate of 6% through 2022. Another site referencing crime scene investigators has average salaries ranging from $37,332 to $100,465 in 2010. Of course, salaries vary by state and experience level.
Most ballistics experts work for local, state or federal crime labs; however, these professionals may also work as private consultants or contractors.
If you’ve been captivated by watching episodes of CSI, you may become a doer instead of watcher. First, you need the forensic science degree, then the extensive training in firearms and ballistics- and lastly, pass a rigorous background test. Once all those have been accomplished, you’ll be on the career path to becoming a bonafide crime scene investigator!