Blank Cartridge Injuries

A blank is a cartridge containing powder but no bullets or pellets. It is intended to produce noise. Blanks are generally loaded with ultra-fast burning powder that detonates rather than burns. The case itself may appear like any other case in this caliber or may have a rosette crimped end. The wad can cause injury to a person immediately in front of the gun. If the wad is removed and a bullet is substituted, pressure generated by the ultra-fast burning powder will explode the gun.

A number of European countries have manufactured blanks whose cartridge case and "bullet" are made of plastic. The blanks can be identified easily by breaking points or serrated lines on the nose of the cartridge.

Injuries from blank cartridges are rare in civilian life.23-24 They are more commonly encountered in the military, where there is extensive use of blanks in training.25 Thus, it is not surprising that most civilian physicians are unaware of the severe wounds blanks can cause - even fewer physicians realize that these cartridges can cause death. Gonzales et al. described the death of a 14-year-old boy shot with a pistol loaded witha.32blank. Theweaponwasheld in contact with the skin of the left fifthintercostalspaceadjacent tothester-num. The blank perforated the chest wallandthe right ventricleof theheart.

While serving in the military, the authorhadoccasion toreviewadeath from a rifle blank. A 22-year-old black malewasdeadonarrivalatadispensary in Germany with a blank gunshot woundof the chest. Inspectionof thebody revealed a circular wound of entry of theleft chestinthesecondinterspace, 5 cm from the midline. The wound measured15mmindiameterandwas surrounded by a 75 mm area of powder blackening. Subsequent autopsy revealed a fracture of the third costal cartilageandadjacentlateralhalf of the sternum. There was an irregular lacerationof theanteriorwallof the right ventricle, the interventricular septum, and the aortic valve. A bilateral hemothorax and hemopericardium were present. The weapon involved in this incident was an M-1 rifle (caliber .30-06)loaded withablank training round. The nature of the wound suggested eitheralooseoranear-contact wound.

In the civilian population, blank cartridge injuries and death are extremely rare. It is unlikely for a civilianforensicpathologist toseeonein a lifetime. Injuries in the civilian populationaremost commonlydue toblank pistol cartridges rather than rifle cartridges. Most modern blank pistol cartridges are loaded with smokeless powder. Black powder .22's and .32's are still encountered. The type of powder is important in that smokeless powder has a greater wounding capacity than black powder.

Shepard conducted a number of tests on dogs using .38 caliber blanks.25 At a range of one (1) inch, he produced subdural and cortical hemorrhages in the head, penetration of the skin and pleura with laceration of the lung in the thorax, and penetration of the skin and peritoneum with lacerations of the liver in the abdomen. At 12 in., although there was injury to the skin, the pleura and peritoneum were intact. Tests with .22 Short blanks at a range of one (1) inch failed to produce either skin penetration or internal injuries.

The author conducted a number of experiments on cadavers to determine the wounding capacity of blank pistol cartridges. The first test was conducted with .38 Special smokeless blanks. Test firings were conducted on human thighs, using a Smith & Wesson revolver with a 6-in. barrel and firing at ranges from six (6) inches to contact. From a range of greater than 1 in. up to 6 in., focal accumulations of largely unburnt powder and shredded wad were deposited on the skin. The skin underlying the deposits was abraded. There was no powder blackening of the skin. At the one inch (1) range, a faint gray halo of soot, one inch (1) wide, enclosed a deposit of unburnt powder averaging 3/4 in. in diameter. An underlying 1/4 in. long X 1/2 in. deep laceration extended into the subcutaneous tissue.

Contact firings produced two different types of wounds in the thighs. In the first type, there was a 1/2 in.-diameter circular wound of entrance in the skin, surrounded by a faint gray sooty halo, 1/2 in. wide. A 3-in.-deep by 2-in.-wide cavity was present in the underlying muscle of the thigh. In the second type of wound, the entrance was irregular, measuring 1 1/2 X 3/4 in. with no detectable blackening of the wound edges. The underlying cavity in the muscle was 3 1/2 in. deep X 2 1/2 in. wide. Careful examination of these wound cavities revealed small shreds of wad and unburnt powder grains.

Contact test firings were also conducted on the head. These tests produced stellate wounds of the scalp up to 1 X 3/4 in. with no observable blackening. No fractures or injuries to the skull were produced. Deposited on the external table of the skull was a circular deposit of unburnt powder and shredded wad, averaging 1/2 in. in diameter.

Contact wounds of the thorax were of two types. When the muzzle of the gun was pressed firmly into the intercostal space, there was complete perforation of the anterior chest wall. Unburnt flakes of powder were deposited on the skin around the entrance wound. There was no powder blackening. When the muzzle overlaid a rib, there were no penetrating wounds, only a focal accumulation of powder with loss of the underlying superficial skin. When these areas were incised, however, there were comminuted fractures of the underlying rib with laceration of the parietal pleura. If the lungs had been expanded at the time of firing, lacerations of the parenchyma from the fractured rib would have been produced.

Contact test firings of the anterior abdominal wall produced circular perforating wounds with laceration of the underlying small bowel. Again, there was no evidence of blackening of the skin.

Test firings with .22-caliber smokeless blanks were of a limited nature. The weapon used had a 4-in. barrel. All test firings were contact and occurred in the intercostal spaces of the chest. These blanks produced perforating wounds of the chest wall.

A final series of tests were conducted with the M-9 military .45-caliber blank. This blank is loaded with smokeless powder. Contact firings of the thigh produced irregular entrance wounds of the skin, slightly larger (1 1/4 x 1 1/4 in.) than those produced by the .38 Special. Again, there was no observable blackening of the skin. The underlying cavity measured 4 x 3 in. Careful examination of this cavity revealed a small area of blackening on the surface of the femur and a few remnants of shredded wad. Both these elements were relatively inconspicuous.

Based on the experiments, we can conclude that contact wounds with pistol blanks are without doubt potentially lethal as such wounds can cause perforation of chest and abdomen. Close range non-contact wounds with pistol blanks probably would not produce significant internal injuries, though injury to the skin would be produced.

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