On Israel using ‘illegal expanding bullets’ against Palestinians, investigation should precede accusation
A recent report has raised concerns that “illegal” ammunition may have been used in the Middle East (“Israel accused of using ‘expanding bullets’ designed to permanently maim Palestinian protesters”, April 28). The allegations appear to have been made on the basis of the severity of destructive wounds, and an assumption that expanding bullets must have been fired.
This may not necessarily be the case. Terminal ballistic studies have demonstrated that the wounding power of a bullet depends on its energy at impact, physical profile and the characteristics of the target. Deformable, or “expandable” bullets are designed to present an increased surface area within the target to maximise energy transfer and damage.
However, legal full metal jacketed rounds may also produce similar injuries if the bullet is destabilised in flight, such as when rotational spin is lost and angulation changed, or tumbling occurs. These common disturbances of exterior ballistics can be seen with ricochet or when a bullet passes through an obstruction – a fence, wall, glass, a Kevlar (bulletproof) vest or another person.
In this instance, the projectile hits the final target side-on with maximal area of impact and creates a correspondingly larger wound track and cavity – typically close to the surface entry, and in limbs, likely to be accompanied with substantial bone shattering.
It may seem paradoxical but, although banned in warfare by international treaty, deforming bullets are actually used by many police forces worldwide: the logic is to avoid the calamity of a round passing through the intended target and into the body of an innocent bystander (this same principle applies to hunting ammunition).
Surgeons managing the injuries of swar appreciate the difficulties and pitfalls of attributing wounds to weapons, and caution is warranted because accusations can further inflame hostilities.
Suspected violations of the law of armed conflict should be properly investigated, with forensic analysis of recovered illegal bullet types.
Lt Col Darren Mann, trauma surgeon, Wan Chai