Early Firearms Examinations In The United States

During the U.S. Civil War firearms examination was used in several notable cases. One such case was the shooting of Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. In 1863 General Jackson was shot by what was believed to be one of his own men during the Battle of Chancel-lorsville. The bullet struck the general in his right arm necessitating its amputation. Pneumonia set in and ultimately caused the general's death.

Following the amputation surgeons recovered the bullet. The bullet was examined by Confederate officers, who determined its caliber and design, both of which were consistent with Confederate weapons and inconsistent with Union weapons. Thus, it was confirmed that the general had, in fact, been the victim of "friendly fire."

The following year, 1864, Union general John Sedgwick was shot dead by a Confederate sniper from an estimated distance of 800 yards. The fatal bullet was removed from Sedgwick's body and examined. Based upon its hexagonal shape and caliber, it was determined to be consistent with English Whitworth rifles imported and used by the Confederacy.

These developments alerted both the legal and the scientific communities to the potential evidentiary value of firearms evidence. While these initial efforts were limited to the recognition and comparison of class characteristics (characteristics common to two or more similar items), they form the basis for the initial examinations still used by modern examiners. The next section relates to the comparison of another type of class characteristics: general rifling marks.

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