Ballistic Fingerprints

Ballistic Fingerprints

A ballistic fingerprint is the unique pattern of markings left by a specific firearm on ammunition it has discharged. Ballistic fingerprinting efficacy as a tool of forensics is a matter of some controversy. On the one hand, many lawenforcement officials insist that ballistic fingerprints are as useful as ordinary fingerprints in linking a round of ammunition to a specific gun. On the other hand, many advocates of gun-owners' rights maintain that these fingerprints change so much over time that they are largely useless as a means of matching a spent round to a firearm.

In 1997, the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network, established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, made 8,800 ballistic fingerprint matches, which resulted in the linking of 17,600 crimes. As of 2000, two states—Maryland and New York—had passed laws requiring the ballistic fingerprinting of weapons. Upon selling a firearm, a dealer was required to provide the state with a spent round from the gun, so as to establish a permanent record of the gun's ballistic fingerprint. By 2002, four other states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—were considering ballistic fingerprinting laws of their own.

Police used ballistic fingerprints, in part, to link the shootings of numerous people in the Washington, D.C., area during the fall of 2002 to the accused "Beltway snipers," John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. The case brought ballistic fingerprinting to national attention, but not all of that attention was positive. Gun ownership advocacy groups such as Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association hold that ballistic fingerprints are ineffective in solving crimes, not only because the fingerprint changes over time, but also because criminals usually steal, rather than buy, their weapons. Ballistic fingerprinting, these groups claim, is actually a subtle means of further tightening gun control.

On the other hand, criminologist Daniel W. Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is an advocate of ballistic fingerprints as a tool of forensics, or the application of scientific techniques to crime-solving. In Comprehensive Ballistic Fingerprinting of New Guns, Webster cited research showing that the majority of criminals actually obtain their firearms legally. He also noted studies suggesting that though ballistic fingerprints change over time, these changes do not prevent authorities from establishing a match between a firearm and a spent round.



Lowry, Edward D. Interior Ballistics: How a Gun Converts Chemical Energy into Projectile Motion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Webster, Daniel W. Comprehensive Ballistic Fingerprinting of New Guns: A Tool for Solving and Preventing Violent Crime. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2002.


Gun Owners of America. "Why Ballistic Fingerprinting Is Not an Effective Crime Tool." October 2002. < > (January 14, 2003).


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