Father of Modern Wound Ballistics

The Vietnam War witnessed new weapons and munitions on the battlefield, such as U.S. cluster bombs and its small caliber high-velocity (SCHV) 5.56×45 mm M16 rifle, joining long-standing munitions, such as gravity bombs, artillery and napalm. In turn, opponents both in and of the war– not surprisingly, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact allies and Sweden, maintained a steady stream of propaganda attacks alleging the illegality of U.S. weapons and munitions. These were intended to increase political protests against the U.S., potentially limiting effective weapon employment against the North Vietnamese military and its Viet Cong surrogates. Simultaneously, anti-U.S. protesters turned a blind eye to Viet Cong indiscriminate employment of booby traps, endangering civilians and feces-coated pungi stakes, an indigenous, infectious biological warfare weapon.

Following the 1973 conclusion of active hostilities challenges to the legality of conventional munitions continued in the United Nations (UN). It published critical, highly controversial reports, such as Napalm and Other Incendiary Weapons and All Aspects of Their Possible Use (1973), strongly supported by the Stockholm International Peace Research’s Incendiary Weapons (1975), and Anti-Personnel Weapons (1978). In 1974 and 1976 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hosted meetings of military, government and legal experts to consider the potential for new law of war rules to prohibit or regulate the use of certain conventional weapons. The experts’ discussions revealed the complexity and challenges facing any such international effort.
A decision was taken that Switzerland would host a conference commonly referred to as the UN Conference on Certain Conventional Weapons (UNCCW). A preparatory session in September 1979 to consider proposals to prohibit or regulate munitions ranged from those containing so-called “non-detectable fragments”, land mines, incendiary weapons, including napalm and SCHV weapons. I was designated as the U.S. negotiator for incendiary weapons and SCHV.

Colonel Martin L. Fackler, Medical Corps, U.S. Army (Ret.), April 8, 1933-May 23, 2015, Father of Modern Wound Ballistics.

The SCHV debate focused on the 5.56×45 mm U.S. M16 rifle, acquired by the U.S. military in 1963. SCHV gained international attention in large measure from hyperbole by the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s pro-acquisition position exaggerated characterization of the 5.56×45 mm bullet as having “explosive” terminal effects. (A 1960 demonstration for Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Le May involved shooting into watermelons, reinforcing the fiction of “explosive” terminal effects). Industry proponents asserted caliber 5.56×45 mm provided “increased lethality,” and increased “kinetic energy transfer” resulting in terminal ballistics superior to that of 7.62×51 mm NATO ammunition. These false, sensationalist claims created a self-inflicted wound for the U.S. delegation in the ensuing UNCCW debates.

As the UNCCW approached, Sweden submitted a proposal to ban SCHV military ammunition in any caliber that would “expand or flatten easily in the human body”, repeating the prohibition contained in the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets. The United States is not a party to this treaty and therefore not legally bound by it. Sweden proposed adding a protocol prohibiting ammunition that “(a) burst or deformed while penetrating the human body, (b) tumbles (sic.) early in the human body or (c) causing shock waves leading to extensive tissue damage or even a lethal shock”, based upon close range laboratory test shots into substances of greater density than human tissue but unsubstantiated by combat wound data.

In support of its proposal, the Swedish delegation presented a film to conference diplomats ostensibly of an anesthetized pig weighing 100 to 150 kg (220-330 lb) being shot using a M16 rifle firing the U.S. M193 cartridge. Subsequently it was determined to be a miniature pig weighing about one-tenth the purported weight. A Swedish assertion that a SCHV temporary cavity causes major trauma was rebutted by Vietnam wound data indicating that in the great majority of torso and extremity wounds damage was attributable to the permanent cavity alone. Finally, images of shots fired into a medium of greater density than human tissue while described as the temporary cavity suggested to uninformed diplomats that the oversize temporary cavity was permanent. A temporary cavity in human soft tissue would be akin to dropping a small pebble into a water-filled swimming pool. Cavity size would be reduced quickly. In contrast, a temporary cavity created by firing a projectile into a substance heavier than human soft tissue served to mask the smaller permanent cavity while its artificial expansion was intended to impress an audience of uninformed persons as to its “lethality.”

It was not lost on the U.S. delegation that NATO had under consideration adoption of a second rifle caliber. In 1978 Swedish industry developed the 4.5x26R Interdynamic cartridge, a likely second NATO caliber competitor. Other foreign industries also had SCHV military ammunition under development.

Dr. Fackler drew wound profiles from his shots into10% ballistic gel to illustrate wound characteristics. Drawings employed in NATO Emergency War Surgery handbook.

No combat-experienced U.S. medical expert was present to challenge these points. Upon return to Washington request was made to the Surgeon General of the Army for an experienced combat surgeon to join the U.S. delegation. Thus began a major career change for Colonel Martin L. Fackler, Medical Corps, U.S. Army. A Navy combat surgeon in Vietnam, Dr. Fackler subsequently transferred to the Army. My professional association with Dr. Fackler continued for the next quarter of a century.

In Medieval times the English long bow, crossbows employed by France and other nations, and compound bows as employed by Turkish and other forces launched arrows with various arrow heads into different types of wood to determine target penetration. The testing may have been useful in determining ability to penetrate a knight’s body armor or depth of penetration into a horse, potentially disabling it, but otherwise it provided little to no information as to combatant wounding effectiveness. The Fifteenth century transition to gunpowder and firearms continued the practice of shooting into wood to measure projectile penetration. The target medium changed over time, ranging from such targets as filled pig bladders, live animals, human and animal cadavers, water-filled boxes, sandbags, earth devoid of rocks, peat, hard clay and 20% ordnance gel (c. 1935). Tests remained more a performance comparison than reliable method for determining wounding effectiveness or providing information relevant to medical treatment of the wounded.

The UNCCW conference debate regarding 5.56×45 mm projectiles made it apparent that shooting into substances of greater density than the human body and referring to a permanent cavity in clay, soap or similar substances as “temporary” was misleading. The discrepancy intensified with Dr. Fackler’s explanation to the assembled diplomats that human bodies vary in weight and mass, bullets strike different parts of the human body at different distances and velocities, while projectile angle of yaw on impact may affect terminal ballistics.

The proposed Swedish ban ignored close to a century of military small arms wound ballistic history. The late-Nineteenth Century transition from black to smokeless powder and French fielding of the 8 mm Lebel Type D Spitzer, a design soon adopted by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and other nations, enhanced external ballistics, including long-range accuracy. With higher velocities than its predecessors, at distances to 200 meters the Spitzer bullet could and did affect terminal ballistic performance (e.g., through fragmentation) contrary to the Swedish UNCCW proposed ban. In World War I, Germany and the United Kingdom accused one another of using “illegal” rifle bullets contrary in terminal ballistics to the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets. Each was Spitzer standard ball ammunition (viz., the British Mk VII and German 7.9 S.Patrone, a fact unmentioned by the Swedish delegation and unknown by most diplomats). Following World War I no government is known to have undertaken bullet design modifications to alter this terminal ballistic performance factor for the purpose of compliance with the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets.

7.62x51mm shot into Dr. Fackler’s 10% ballistic gel. Consistent in density with human tissue, providing temporary and permanent cavity transparency. Most accurate and practical medium for determining wounding effectiveness.

Colonel Fackler joined the United States delegation for the 1980 conference sessions. With his extensive knowledge of firearms, ammunition and, in particular, gunshot wounds, he effectively rebutted the Swedish delegation’s terminal ballistics assertions, particularly its exaggerated emphasis on temporary cavity damage. The limited interest governments had in the Swiss proposal at the beginning (Unknown to most delegations, the Soviet Union was well into fielding its 5.45×39 mm family of weapons, for example). The UNCCW concluded on October 10, 1980, adopting a treaty containing protocols (1) prohibiting munitions containing fragments not detectable by x-ray; (2) regulating employment of incendiary munitions; and (3) regulating landmines, booby traps and other devices in order to protect the civilian population. The SCHV proposal proceeded no further than SCHV working group informal conversations consisting of a Swedish delegate, Dr. Fackler, a U.S. Army civilian engineer and the author. Ten days later, NATO adopted the 5.56×45 mm as its second rifle caliber using the Belgian SS109 projectile. Subsequent comparative testing by Dr. Fackler determined that terminal ballistics for the original U.S. 5.56×45 M193 and the NATO SS109 were indiscernible.

Recognizing the importance of increasing knowledge of small arms wounding effects and wound treatment, in 1981 Colonel Fackler was appointed to establish and head the U.S. Army Wound Ballistics Laboratory of Research, Letterman Army Institute of Research, Presidio of San Francisco. He carried out these duties until his retirement in 1991.

Colonel Fackler’s research efforts identified and established credible criteria for determining terminal ballistics effectiveness in enemy combatants. He determined the proper medium for wound ballistic testing to ascertain small arms wounding effectiveness as 10% pork gelatin using calibrated 25x25x50 cm blocks of a 10% weight (gelatine to water) construction shot at a temperature of 4°C. The wound profile method measures the amount, location and type–permanent cavity (CRUSH) and temporary cavity (STRETCH)–of disruption of living muscle. 10% gelatin shot at 4 degrees Celsius shows projectile penetration depth, deformation and fragmentation pattern, making the distinction evident between temporary and permanent cavity.

Dr. Fackler’s combat surgery experience, reinforced by his research and extensive laboratory shooting, refuted many common myths regarding terminal ballistics. including exaggerated M16/5.56×45 hyperbole by its pre-acquisition proponents or UNCCW challengers. In particular, he and other surgeons experienced in wound treatment confirmed there is no valid basis as to a relationship between kinetic energy deposit and tissue damage as a measure of wounding effectiveness. As a result of his work, major enhancement was achieved in test and evaluation of small caliber terminal ballistics and medical treatment of gunshot wounds. His expertise was adopted by NATO for the chapter on missile (small arms)-caused wounds in the 1988 edition of its Emergency War Surgery Handbook. Ten-percent ballistic gel is used by the Small Arms Ammunition Branch, Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane (Crane, Indiana) and the Ballistic Research Facility, Federal Bureau of Investigation. The latter conducts ammunition test and evaluation for state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and in support of the DOD mandatory law of war review of all newmilitary ammunition. In 2006, the Joint Service Wound Ballistics Integrated Product Team accepted 10% ballistic gel as a testing medium, including calibration. 10% ballistic gel is also employed by private industry.

(nontransparent) ballistic gel showing large concave indentation in entire center of gel block.

As is the case with firing into wood, clay or soap, or similar media, Dr. Fackler’s methodology is a form of small arms terminal ballistics comparison. Its value lies in 10% ballistic gel being the most accurate replication of human soft tissue.

Dr. Fackler authored numerous peer-reviewed authoritative articles summarizing his combat surgery experience, his research work and lessons learned from it. In 1991 he founded and served as editor of the international Wound Ballistics Review until publication ended a decade later.

Dr. Fackler’s retirement did not conclude the U.S. Government’s reliance on his expertise. On April 11, 1986, FBI agents engaged in a 4 ½-minute gun battle with two suspected bank robbers. The two suspects succumbed from their wounds but not before one of them killed two FBI agents and wounded five others. To its credit the FBI launched a full review into the lack of effectiveness of the handgun ammunition it employed. It called upon outside medical and other experts, including Dr. Fackler, to participate in meetings it hosted in 1987 and 1992. Its focus was on terminal ballistic effectiveness rather than undefined lay terms, such as “increased lethality” and “stopping power”.

Other corrective measures followed. In August 1988, the first steps were taken in establishment of a world-class FBI Ballistic Research Facility to evaluate terminal effectiveness of law enforcement ammunition, utilizing 10% ballistic gel, for dissemination of test and evaluation results to law enforcement departments. In 1989, the FBI published “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” based on comments at its 1987 experts meeting.

International legal challenges to military small arms ammunition resumed in the 1990s. In 1998 the ICRC questioned the legality of the Raufoss 12.7 mm (.50 caliber) Multipurpose round. A test demanded by the United States and other Raufoss manufacturing nations conducted at the Swiss Low Noise Range, Thun, September 9-10, 1999, confirmed the legality of the Raufoss 12.7 mm round (described in the author’s “Failing to Make a Mountain out of a Molehill: The International Red Cross’ Unsuccessful Effort to Outlaw the 12.7 mm Raufoss Multipurpose Projectile,” Small Arms Review 10,1 (Oct. 2006), pp. 90-95). Knowledge gained from Dr. Fackler’s work proved invaluable in challenging and defeating Swiss testing methodology and ICRC assertions.

In 1999 the government of Switzerland began hosting periodic meetings of experts to consider its proposal for an international center at Thun for test and evaluation of all military small arms ammunition regardless of government/military nationality, that is, offering each government an opportunity to submit its military ammunition to the proposed Thun facility for test, evaluation and an “independent” determination of its legality. Given the competitiveness of the military small arms ammunition industry and at times a necessity for classified military weapons and ammunition development, the Russian development of its 5.45×39 mm family of weapons a recent example, the offer was met with skepticism early in its brief life.

Dr. Fackler was called upon to serve as a member of the U.S. delegation in expressing U.S. opposition to the proposal. He was joined by Supervisory Special Agent J. Buford Boone III from the FBI Ballistic Research Facility for the 2002 experts’ meeting. The collective expertise and critical comments of SSA Boone and Dr. Fackler were effective in causing the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs to terminate further funding of the initiative.

In the period following his retirement from the Army, Dr. Fackler was called upon as an expert witness in criminal and civil litigation and, as noted, by the FBI and Department of Defense. His response to government requests always was positive. While he charged an hourly rate as an expert witness in litigation cases, other than reimbursement for travel expenses he never sought payment from the U.S. Government for his services.

Following a long battle with cancer, Marty Fackler died on May 23, 2015. Five days prior to his passing Supervisory Special Agent Boone, his Ballistic Research Facility successor, Supervisory Special Agent Scott Patterson and this author visited Dr. Fackler to express our gratitude personally and on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of State and Department of Defense for his contributions with respect to small arms wound ballistics and wound treatment. Without question he is the Father of modern wound ballistics. The United States military, local, state, federal law enforcement and the medical community at large owe Dr. Martin L. Fackler a great debt. His research and knowledge provided military and law enforcement the most accurate means for measuring terminal ballistics effectiveness while providing information to assist surgeons in treating gunshot wounds and saving lives.

A retired Marine Colonel and Vietnam War veteran, Hays Parks retired from his position as Senior Associate Deputy General Counsel, Office of General Counsel, Department of Defense, in 2010. He is the 2016 recipient of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock Award. ©Copyright 2017 W. Hays Parks