William J. Lewinski, Ph.D., Force Science Institute and Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN, USA.

William B. Hudson, Ph.D., Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN, USA.

David Karwoski, Ex-Faculty member, Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN, USA. Currently mentor and advisor to senior Iraqi leadership         at the Ministry of Interior, Iraq.

Christa J. Redmann, Force Science Institute, Mankato, MN, USA.




During testimony, “experts” often cite that spent cartridge case ejection locations from a semi-automatic firearm indicate the location of the shooter based on the assumption that most spent cartridge cases land to the right and rear of the shooter. The authors of this study investigated whether spent cartridge case ejection locations are an accurate indicator of a shooter’s location. Eight different semi-automatic weapons most frequently used by police officers were used to collect data from eleven different shooting positions. The results highlighted the significant inconsistency of the spent cartridge case ejection locations that occurred across test positions even when several factors including firearm type, firearm position, and ammunition were accounted for. Of 7,670 bullets fired, over 25 percent of the spent cartridge casings landed somewhere other than to the right and rear of the shooter where it is commonly accepted they should land. That pattern inconsistency is significant and demonstrates that determining shooter location from the spent cartridge case alone leads to only a tentative estimate of the shooter’s location.




The authors of this research project intended to determine the level of precision that can be reached and the significance that should be given to a spent cartridge case location alone as a method of determining shooter location when unknown variables include how the firearm is held and/or manipulated. Shooter location is often used in the process of homicide reconstruction and other shooting-related cases, the results of which typically are submitted to the justice system during the course of criminal or civil cases. Therefore, it is imperative to obtain the most accurate shooter location that can be determined from the evidence. Until recently, the impact of human factors, such as stance, firearm motion, firearm position and grip have not been given proper analytical consideration when attempting to determine the shooter’s location from the final resting location of a spent cartridge case.


During the investigation of officer-involved shootings and some homicide incidents, knowing the shooter’s location can be a vital piece of information in understanding the dynamics of the encounter. Often officers in a complex, rapidly unfolding, life-threatening event of very short duration will not be able to report on their precise or even approximate location because of their intense focus on the threat and their attempts to cope with it (Lewinski, 2008). They may later attempt to “figure out” their location but this can be recognized as the officer’s “best guess.” However, if for some reason, the officer was attending to or cognizant of his/her location, such as when he/she had used an obstacle for tactical cover, then of course the officer is better able to determine his/her shooting location. In an attempt to more accurately determine a shooter’s location, some reconstructionists (“experts who use and analyze physical evidence at a scene, deriving inferences from that data to test theories about prior events” (Garrison, 2003) began to place a heavy weight on the location of the spent cartridge casing(s). This emphasis assumes the reconstructionist can confirm that the spent cartridge case was undisturbed from the time it landed until its final location; was accurately marked for evidence; and did not encounter factors, such as walls and hard or bumpy surfaces at the landing site, that impacted significantly on it while arriving at its location.


Some reconstructionists engage in a very simplistic analysis, for instance, they may state that the firearm the officer fired ejected its spent cartridge cases to the right and the rear when the firearm was fired on the range. Therefore, they continue further with their analysis by asserting that when the officer fired, and when the spent cartridge cases were ejected, he/she had to be to the left and to the front of the placement of the spent cartridge cases. However, other reconstructionists understanding the effects of weapon manipulation, shooter movement, bounce factors, and other elements, began to list and accommodate for some of them. For example, Edward Hueske has said that reconstruction of an equivalent shooting environment should take into account the following eight variables: weapon design, weapon condition, ammunition type, position weapon was held when fired, movement of weapon during firing, how tightly the weapon was held during firing, type of terrain where shooting occurred, and the presence of obstacles (Hueske, 2006).



Some of this information can be determined quite empirically. For example, the markings found on spent cartridge cases help to illustrate the firearm condition variable. Semi- automatic weapons can leave magazine lip marks, chambering marks, and extractor override marks. Any atypical markings or occurrences might be attributed to the same mechanism that also creates differences in spent cartridge case patterns. The mechanism of the ejector and extractor affects the firearm condition variable, as well as the weapon design variable (Haag, 2006). The purpose of the ejector and extractor in all semi-automatic weapons is the same: to eject the spent cartridge case from the weapon. Literature about semi-automatic firearms reveals that Glock, Sig Sauer, Smith and Wesson, and the Berretta ejector and extractor mechanisms are in many cases similar. However, wear, slight damage, and alignment all seem to be plausible justification for variability/diversity in spent cartridge casing ejection (Ayoob, M 2004; Ayoob, 2005; Sweeney, 2003; Sweeney, 2004). Other elements of the reconstruction such as the grip factors or weapon manipulation, although apparently reasonable, have not been subject to the scrutiny of research to determine their impact on final spent cartridge case location. This study attempts to perform that research.


The placement and reproducibility of spent cartridge case locations from eight semi- automatic firearms is the focus of this study. Much of the literature on spent cartridge cases primarily describes techniques and measurement methods for determining ejection patterns (Garrison, 2003; Hueske, 2006). Less research has been conducted on the impact that human performance factors such as the shooter’s grip on the weapon and the weapon’s left-right cant or incline/decline (firearm’s axes) at the time it was fired has on the location of spent cartridge cases. Similarly, little research has been conducted and published on the impact of firearm position, ammunition, shooter movement, firearm type, and grip on the ability to indicate the shooter’s actual location at the time the shot was fired. The authors could only find two studies published in the Journal of Forensic Identification that utilized more than two weapons and looked at different variables such as stance (Sims & Barksdale, 2005; Pepper & Bloomer, 2006).


In this study the researchers used eight different semi-automatic handguns, eleven test positions, and three major weapon gripping techniques/styles with 45 shooters. The study demonstrated that even when done in a controlled environment with several variables accounted for, the ejection patterns of spent cartridge cases remain “trendable” at best. This study has also demonstrated that weapon motion, weapon position, and the grip on the firearm have profound effects on spent cartridge case ejection patterns. Each of the variables previously mentioned is attributable to the human factors in shooting situations, for it is humans who hold, manipulate, and fire the weapon. The weapon design and weapon type variables were accounted for by using weapons in good firing condition and by separating the data depending on weapon type. Even when these factors remain constant, significant variability, and in some cases dramatic variability, has been found in the landings of the spent cartridge cases. Specifically, this study is intended to determine the level of precision that can be reached and the significance that should be given to location of spent cartridge cases alone as a method of determining shooter location when firearm position and manipulation are unknown or not accounted for.


Experimental Design


Study Participants


The 45 participants in this study were fully certified Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Deputies. They were all full-time deputies whose time on the job ranged from 2 months to 28 years and were 22 to 50 years old. There was nothing to indicate that any of the participants was more or less skilled than the average officer. They had all participated and qualified in the required training, including the firearms component, to become a certified peace officer in the State of California, and all were current in their certification requirements.


Experimental Site


The experimental site was located at the LASD north shooting range in Los Angeles, California. It consisted of a 30 foot by 30 foot, or 900-square foot, area that had been dug, tilled, and then loosely covered with fine-grain river sand to a depth of three inches. The whole experimental site was then leveled. A smart level was used to confirm this process. This preparation significantly reduced the bounce factor of the spent cartridge casings to nearly zero.


A grid was then constructed over the area using colored string. To further illustrate the grid structure, the experimental site picture, located below, contains some enhanced lines. This split the 900- square foot area into one foot sections in both the x and y direction. A 1-ft/sq transparent plastic template with one-inch grid marks was then constructed. When this was inserted into each square foot that had a spent cartridge casing land in it, it allowed further precise position determination (to the square inch) of the spent cartridge casings. The officers were instructed to shoot from a stake that was driven into the ground at the center of the test site. Each of the officers was told to enter into the grid from the rear and to fire 10 rounds from each of the test positions with the weapon at the center of the grid (zero point). All the test firings end in a slide lock. This has been known to produce aberrant spent cartridge locations on the last casing in some weapons. This was not observed or accounted for in this study. After each officer fired ten rounds from a specified test position, the ten ejected spent cartridge casings were measured and recorded, the casings were then removed and the sand was raked back to a relatively smooth, level surface that had a minimum of three inches of fine sand on top of the tilled soil. (Experimental Site & Pilot Site picture below)


The experimental site was located in a small sheltered valley that was hot and still each testing day, therefore wind speed was not a significant factor on our test results. Wind speed, while possibly a factor in spent cartridge casing ejections patterns, has not been specifically studied by any researcher.



Firearm Position, Motion, and Handling


Each officer performed the eleven test conditions in a random order. Prior to each test the officers were directed to hold the weapon in a particular way or to hold it and then move it through a prearranged motion. A smart level was used to help confirm angular positions. Unless otherwise stated the tests have the weapon positioned such that the plane of the weapon is vertical and the weapon is aimed parallel to the horizon. The eleven tests were: