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Forensic Ballistics Expert: Career Guide

Forensic ballistics is the examination of evidence relating to firearms at a crime scene, including the effects and behavior of projectiles and explosive devices. A forensic ballistics expert matches bullets, fragments, and other evidence with the weapons of alleged suspects or others involved in a case. Experts may be asked to explain their findings to a jury during criminal or civil trials.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

A ballistics expert understands the different marks that firearms leave on bullets when they are fired, including the marks of the rifling on a barrel and other striations on the projectile. They may also perform modeling of the scene to identify where a firearm or explosive was used and perform chemical analysis to identify the weapon that was used. Ballistics experts frequently display graphics, video, or other explanations of the results of their analysis in court. Forensic ballistics experts typically work in crime labs for local governments, state governments, or the federal government, including such organizations as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Other experts offer private consulting services.

Steps for Becoming a Forensic Ballistics Expert

Ballistics experts generally complete coursework similar to other forensic scientists, such as biology and physics. Similar to accident reconstruction experts, ballistics experts’ coursework may include trigonometry, chemistry, metallurgy, and the use of computer-based modeling programs. A bachelor’s degree in forensic science or ballistic forensic science is common. Aspiring ballistic experts may be required to complete post-bachelor’s training to keep up with the latest trends. The typical steps for becoming a forensic ballistics expert are as follows:

  1. Attend a degree program and/or gain experience in criminal justice or a related field.*
  2. Apply for an open position.
  3. Attend an interview.
  4. Successfully complete a physical examination, drug test, polygraph exam, and background investigation.
  5. Get hired as a ballistics expert.
  6. Receive on-the-job training after being hired.

*A degree may not be required for a forensic ballistics expert job. Check the job opening to read about educational and experiential requirements.

Forensic Ballistics Expert Job Training

Novice ballistics experts should be prepared to initially work in a supporting role, working alongside a seasoned firearms analyst to gain hands-on training. Training requirements depend on the employer and typically allow novices to gain experience in identifying firearms, handling evidence, searching crime scenes, and providing expert testimony in court.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Prospective firearms experts should have strong written and oral communication skills, as they will be expected to write detailed reports and to testify in court. They should have strong knowledge of different firearms, ammunition, and possess the ability to handle them. Individuals with law enforcement or criminal justice experience may find this experience beneficial in securing employment as a forensic ballistics expert.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Ballistics Expert
  • Ballistics Analyst
  • Firearms Examiner
  • Firearm and Toolmark Examiner
  • Forensics Firearms Analyst
  • Forensic Ballistics Expert

Forensic Ballistics Expert Salary and Job Outlook

Ballistics experts generally work in the forensic science division of law enforcement organizations at the federal, state, or county level. Because of their specialization, forensic ballistics experts may be able to obtain positions with higher salaries than entry-level forensic science technicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median salary of $56,320 per year for forensic science technicians as of 2015.1 Private consultants also perform work on behalf of firearms manufacturers and law firms and earn can salaries into six figures as they gain experience. Job growth in the forensic science technology sector is expected to be faster than average, at 27% between 2014 and 2024.1

Related Careers

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What type of work schedule do forensic firearms examiners generally work?

Answer: Firearms examiners typically work full-time during normal business hours, although they may be on-call when necessary.

Question: In what kind of environment does a ballistics expert typically work?

Answer: Experts should be prepared to work irregular hours, if necessary, and to travel to crime scenes regardless of the time of day or the weather conditions.

Question: What other types of work might a ballistics expert perform?

Answer: Experts can often complete such tasks as restoring serial numbers, examining and identifying tool marks, and determining the firing distance between a gun’s muzzle and the target.

Additional Resources

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm