If you’re fascinated by the crime scene clues that allow detectives and investigators to solve crimes, a role as a type of forensic specialist called a ballistics expert may be of interest. In the related (and sometimes combined) roles of firearms examiners and ballistics experts, skilled professionals analyze gun-related evidence collected from crime scenes.
Becoming a forensic ballistics expert requires a college education and apprenticeship training on the job.
What Is a Forensic Ballistics Expert?
A forensic firearms and ballistics expert is a specialized type of forensic science technician. This forensic expert specializes in analyzing evidence pertaining to gun-related crimes.
What Do Forensic Science Technicians Do?
As a whole, forensic science technicians apply scientific methods to matters of criminal justice – namely, the solving of crimes. They perform this work by using laboratory equipment to analyze evidence collected from crime scenes.
Some forensic science technicians are generalists. Crime scene investigator and criminalist are other terms for generalist forensic science technicians. Aside from firearms and forensic ballistics experts, forensic science technicians may also specialize in areas like DNA or digital forensics.
What Do Forensic Ballistics Experts Do?
Firearms examiners and ballistics experts possess two different, though related, areas of expertise. Firearm examination is concerned with analyzing the characteristics of guns and bullets. For example, firearms examiners may use their skills to identify weapons used to commit a crime. They may be able to determine firearms’ manufacturers, models and caliber – the size of the internal diameter of the gun barrel – based on bullet fragments or shell casings left at the scene of the crime.
Ballistics refers to the science of the mechanics of projectiles. A forensic ballistics expert may be able to figure out the flight path or trajectory of a bullet and determine and distance it traveled – which can, for example, suggest where the shooter was positioned.
Firearms examiners and ballistics experts analyze evidence ranging from the guns themselves to live ammunition and the remnants of spent ammunition, including spent cartridges, shell casings and bullet fragments. They may even examine the wounds sustained by the victim or any clothing the victim was wearing, which may contain traces of chemical residues. A firearm and ballistics expert may attempt to identify potential suspects through ballistics fingerprinting, identify chemical residues left on clothing or the environment of the crime scene, and identify tool marks – like indentations, abrasions and cuts – on bullets that link the ammunition to a particular firearm. Ballistics experts may also check the data produced by their lab tests against the FBI’s ballistic database or other databases.
To communicate their findings, firearm and ballistics experts write detailed reports that investigators use as they chase down leads and try to solve crimes. The ballistics expert job is an important one in crime labs, because the findings produced by firearms and ballistics examination can be what cracks a case, especially when there were no witnesses to the crime.
When a person charged with the crime goes to trial, firearms and ballistics experts may serve as expert witnesses for the prosecution. The expert testimony they provide can inform jurors of what the science says about the weapon used in the crime and how it is connected to the defendant.
Where Do Ballistics Experts Work?
As you might expect from a job so closely connected to the criminal justice system, most ballistics experts work for the government in some capacity. Nearly 60% of forensic science technicians are employed by local government agencies, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Local police departments and medical examiners’ offices are examples of work settings for ballistics experts. Another 28% of forensic science technicians work for state government agencies, often in law enforcement.
Ballistics experts may also work for federal law enforcement agencies that have their own forensic laboratory. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are examples of agencies with federal crime labs complete with cutting-edge technology.
Forensic science technicians may also work in testing laboratories or medical and diagnostic laboratories. Firearms examiners and ballistics experts not employed by the government may be hired by private research facilities.
The ballistics expert job, along with other forensic science technician jobs, takes place largely in a lab setting. However, your work will also take you out of the lab. The evidence collection aspect of the job means you may have to travel to active crime scenes. You must also be present in the courtroom when you serve as an expert witness at a trial.
How to Become a Ballistics Expert
The process of becoming a ballistics expert includes pursuing a college education, applying for your first job as a forensic science technician, completing apprenticeship training on the job and passing a competency exam.
Earn a College Degree
Although the specialized skills needed for ballistics analysis are taught on the job, a degree is essential to break into the field of forensic sciences. Most ballistics experts have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field that encompasses considerable coursework in science.
Get Hired as an Entry-Level Forensic Scientist
You won’t start your career in forensic science as a ballistics expert. Rather, you need to land your first forensic science technician role first and then develop your expertise in ballistics through completing firearms identification training programs on the job. This process of learning laboratory specialties through on-the-job training is common not only in the field of firearms examinations and ballistics but among other forensic specialist roles, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
At this entry-level stage of your career, you will essentially be an apprentice to an experienced ballistics expert, according to the job search website Indeed.com.
In order to get hired, forensic science technicians must often undergo background checks, drug tests and physical examinations and may even be required to take a polygraph exam.
Complete Ballistics-Specific Training and Other On-the-Job Training
Once you start work as an apprentice in a crime lab, you will undergo general training as well as specialty training.
Part of your on-the-job training will focus on learning the proper practices of evidence collection and other procedural rules for handling and processing crime scene samples and performing lab tests. Following the proper procedures is critical for working in the criminal justice system. If you don’t follow the proper procedures when you collect evidence or run analyses on ballistics evidence, the perpetrator of a terrible crime could walk free – able to hurt someone else – on a technicality.
This stage of your career is also when you have the opportunity to develop your expertise in forensic ballistics. While you may have the opportunity to take some limited classes related to firearms and ballistics in college, there aren’t degree programs available in ballistics specifically, The Houston Chronicle reported. Forensic ballistics experts gain most of their knowledge of this specialized area of forensic science on-the-job. As an apprentice in a forensic laboratory, you will have the opportunity to complete firearms forensics training.
Pass a Firearms Analysis Proficiency Exam
After finishing firearms analysis training, an aspiring ballistics expert must prove their knowledge and skills in this area of specialty by passing a proficiency exam. Only upon passing this test are ballistics experts considered qualified to work independently and serve as expert witnesses in court cases.
A forensics ballistic expert may choose to go further in demonstrating their professional proficiency. Experienced forensic specialists in ballistics can pursue professional certification from the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE).
What Level of Degree Program Does an Aspiring Ballistics Expert Need?
Like other types of forensic scientists, ballistics experts need at least a bachelor’s degree to work in this field. A graduate degree isn’t required for entry-level forensic scientist roles, but having an advanced education can be valuable.
Many forensic scientists who go to graduate school pursue a master’s degree in a slightly different field of study than their bachelor’s degree. It’s common for aspiring forensic scientists to start out their education majoring in a science discipline, such as biology, chemistry or physics. After learning the scientific methods through their undergraduate studies in one of these branches of science, students often enroll in a forensic science master’s degree program, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Studying the basic science first provides a strong foundation on which to build studies in the application of scientific principles and methods to criminal investigations. Additionally, forensic science degree programs are much harder to find than degree programs in the basic sciences, especially at the undergraduate level. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences recognizes more than twice as many accredited forensic science degree programs at the graduate level compared to the bachelor’s degree level.
College Majors for Forensic Ballistics Experts
What are the best fields of study for aspiring ballistics experts? Because you need to develop technical skills in laboratory analysis and understand the science behind these tests, majoring in some area of science is a wise choice. At the schools that offer them, programs specific to forensic science are popular options, but coursework in other areas of science may also pave the way for a career in the forensic sciences. Students may also major in criminal justice, although they are advised to take as many science courses as they can.
Forensic science students focus their major coursework on the application of basic science principles and techniques to the field of criminal justice. This interdisciplinary field commonly includes a natural science core as well as laboratory studies in the methods used in crime labs. Examples of forensic science courses include fingerprint analysis and forensic toxicology.
Biology is the scientific study of living things. In a biology degree program, students will likely take courses in general biology, human anatomy and physiology, molecular biology and genetics. Some biology degree programs offer a forensic science concentration in which you might complete courses in subjects like forensic toxicology, criminal investigation, law enforcement and social and psychological aspects of crime and criminal investigation.
Chemistry is the science concerned with the properties and reactions of matter. Most chemistry degree programs cover coursework in organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry and biological chemistry or biochemistry.
Physics, the scientific study of the motion of matter, is closely connected to the field of ballistics. Studying physics means taking courses in introductory physics, modern physics, mathematical physics, calculus, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, electronics, thermodynamics and subatomic physics.
Ballistics experts and other forensic science technicians play an important part in the criminal justice system, so it makes sense that criminal justice is an appealing major to students interested in this career path. Studying criminal justice allows an aspiring ballistics expert to learn about the court system, the foundations of criminal investigation procedures and trends and issues in criminal law.
The downside to majoring in criminal justice, as opposed to one of the science disciplines, is that the curriculum doesn’t provide the strong science background that may be needed to perform the hands-on technical work of running tests and analyses in a crime lab. It’s important that students who are interested in ballistics or other areas of forensic science specialty round out their education with elective courses in the natural sciences.
What Qualities Do You Need to Become a Ballistics Expert?
When people ask how to become a ballistics expert, they are usually thinking about the process of preparing for this career path. However, it’s just as important to develop a thorough understanding of the qualities – both personal characteristics and teachable skills – that a ballistic expert needs. Otherwise, you won’t know if a forensic ballistics expert job is really the right fit for you.
Aside from the math and science skills and the critical-thinking skills you develop in the course of your education and on the job, a forensic ballistics expert must have strong communication skills, be detail-oriented and demonstrate an eagerness to learn new approaches and technologies.
Strong Communication Skills
In many aspects of their jobs, ballistics experts need to be able to communicate effectively. They collaborate with investigators, medical examiners and other forensic science technicians. They write detailed reports that contain their findings and present their conclusions in court to a jury composed of people who may not have a technical science background. Being able to communicate well both orally and in writing is an essential skill for success in this technical career field.
A Detail-Oriented Personality
In the field of forensic science, clues that allow for the solving of crimes are hidden in the details – especially in the field of firearms and ballistics. Bullet speed and trajectory, fingerprints on shell casings and gun caliber are all details, yet these details are what allow investigators to link the crime to a suspect. As such, the best ballistics experts possess a detail-oriented nature and pay close attention to the facts that others might write off as being trivial.
A Willingness to Keep Learning Throughout Your Career
Even once a firearm and ballistics expert has finished their training on the job and passed a competency exam, they aren’t done learning. The technology used in crime labs is constantly evolving.
Continuing education is necessary for forensic science professionals to keep doing their job to the best of their ability. To accomplish this goal of keeping up with the most cutting-edge technology in the field, ballistics experts and other forensic science technicians often complete continuing education courses offered through training programs offered by the FBI or the ATF.