Shelling out evidence: NIST ballistic standard helps tie guns to criminals

August 9, 2012
This cartridge case shows the three distinct marks, or 'signatures,' impressed on its surface when it was fired by a gun: the firing pin impression (FP), the breech face impression (BF) and the ejector mark (EM). NIST's standard casing ensures that forensic labs can accurately match signatures on shells found at crime scenes with images in a national database. Credit: NIST

( -- Thanks to a new reference standard developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), law enforcement agencies will have an easier time linking the nearly 200,000 cartridge cases recovered annually at U.S. crime scenes to specific firearms.

Cartridge cases—the empty shells left behind after a gun is fired—are routinely sent to forensic laboratories for analysis when they're found at a shooting scene. Using a specialized microscope called an Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS), lab technicians acquire digital images of three markings, or "signatures," impressed on the cartridge case by the gun that fired it. These signatures—the firing pin impression, the breech face impression and the ejector mark—are unique when fired from a specific firearm and can serve as "fingerprints" for that gun once the digital images are entered into a national database known as the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).

For forensic examiners to reliably match recovered cartridge cases with ones whose signatures have been recorded in the NIBIN, they need to have confidence in the accuracy of the equipment and procedures used to make the link. That's where NIST's new "standard casing" comes in. The standard contains two items: an exact replica of a master cartridge case with distinct signature marks (obtained from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF), and a "golden" digital image of those same signatures that reside on the NIBIN.

Forensic labs can image the signatures on the SRM cartridge cases—a test of their optical microscope and measurement procedures—and compare those images to the golden image provided by ATF. In this way, lab technicians can verify their equipment is calibrated and functioning properly, validate their methodology, and can demonstrate that their work is traceable to an authoritative national standard.

To make the standard cartridge cases, NIST engineers used a technique called electroforming, which is similar to the electroplating method used by jewelers to coat objects with silver, gold and other metals. First, a master fired cartridge case was selected. Then the electroforming process created a near-perfect inverse copy, like a photographic negative, of the master. The negative was then used as a mold from which multiple replicas were made.

"The electroforming process is so accurate that the replica cartridge cases made using it have signature marks that are less than a few micrometers—millionths of a meter—different from those on the master," says NIST mechanical engineer Alan Zheng, one of the team members who developed the reference casing.

NIST Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2461, Standard Casing, is the second NIST ballistic reference material to be made available to . In 2006, NIST created a Standard Bullet, SRM 2460, which is machined to precisely mimic the firing markings seen on sample bullets obtained from ATF and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Like the standard cartridge case, SRM 2460 includes a bullet and golden images of the striations on the bullet.

"Together, the two SRMs make a powerful tool for forensic labs and the law enforcers they support," says NIST physical science technician Brian Renegar, another member of the ballistics SRM development team. "For instance, if a crime is committed in California, and another in New York using the same firearm, the link between the two crimes might be missed. The NIBIN network enables forensic examiners to identify these potential matches, or 'hits', where they might otherwise go unnoticed. And the NIST ballistic SRMs ensure that the imaging systems used in the labs are calibrated and operating properly, and that proper measurement procedures are being followed."

Explore further: NIST 'Standard Bullet' fights gang violence

Related Stories

NIST 'Standard Bullet' fights gang violence

January 19, 2007

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a copper bullet designed to help end criminal sprees without once being fired. Crime laboratories can use NIST's "Standard Bullet" to ...

New NIST SRM supports the fight against terrorist bombings

May 30, 2012

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a new standard reference material (SRM) to aid in the detection of two explosive compounds that are known to be used by terrorists. Researchers designed ...

Recommended for you

Scientists write 'traps' for light with tiny ink droplets

October 23, 2017

A microscopic 'pen' that is able to write structures small enough to trap and harness light using a commercially available printing technique could be used for sensing, biotechnology, lasers, and studying the interaction ...

When words, structured data are placed on single canvas

October 22, 2017

If "ugh" is your favorite word to describe entering, amending and correcting data on the rows and columns on spreadsheets you are not alone. Coda, a new name in the document business, feels it's time for a change. This is ...

Enhancing solar power with diatoms

October 20, 2017

Diatoms, a kind of algae that reproduces prodigiously, have been called "the jewels of the sea" for their ability to manipulate light. Now, researchers hope to harness that property to boost solar technology.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2012
It's a good idea to have your tools calibrated, but since this recent demonstration of making guns with a 3D printer I fear that profiling guns will become obsolete.
What good is are distinct signature marks when a perp can just print a new gun per crime?
1 / 5 (2) Aug 09, 2012
What good is are distinct signature marks when a perp can just print a new gun per crime?

At least it will keep tens of thousands of bureaucrats employed on the taxpayer dime.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2012
All that got printed was the lower receiver. You can already buy plastic ones. Nothing special about it and it wouldn't affect the shell casing makings. There is very little stress on that part as all it holds is the firing group (trigger, sear, hammer etc...) and the magazine.

All someone would have to do to defeat this is file the end of the firing pin slightly, scratch the breach face of the firearm slightly or swap out the ejector with a different one. Unless they can find the gun with the casings it could easily be changed by whoever owned it before the police ever got their hands on it.

This same stupid idea has been going on for years and they are still wasting their time. Same thing for trying to match fired bullets to a firearm. It only catches really dumb crooks.
3.9 / 5 (14) Aug 09, 2012
All someone would have to do to defeat this is file the end of the firing pin slightly, scratch the breach face of the firearm slightly or swap out the ejector with a different one.
They would have to know how to do all these things, and do them convincingly to thoroughly disguise the original configuration.

Why not document the whole shell? Including feed ramp, chamber, and ejection scrape markings? This would tie the shell to the barrel and chamber similar to the bullet.

Guess next time I rob a bank I'll use cap and ball. Worked for jesse james.
not rated yet Aug 09, 2012
This doesn't help us with the police beating, shooting and tazering citizens to death which has become a regular occurrence here and in other states. Guns don't kill people, police do. And then the state's attorney general tells us the records are sealed and nothing will be done to the police officers nor will changes in procedures be implemented to prevent this in the future. Business as usual. Move along folks.
3.9 / 5 (15) Aug 09, 2012
This doesn't help us with the police beating, shooting and tazering citizens to death which has become a regular occurrence here and in other states.
Well at least some of them deserved it didnt they? Like this pig:

-Or these little piggies:

-Who should rightfully be maimed and left to suffer dont you think?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.