I have never understood the fascination with firearms. And I have always thought the bizarre practice of firing live ammunition above your heads – you must have seen footage of soldiers firing off to celebrate some victory – as being intensely dangerous. There have been casualties recorded from celebratory gunfire. For example, in Turkey in 2010 a bridegroom killed three of his relatives when he fired off an AK-47 at his wedding and in the Philippines in 2011 three were killed by stray bullets during a New Year celebration. In Minnesota, I’m told, it is illegal to fire bullets up in the air in a cemetery.
As what goes up must come down, it is natural for the enquiring mind to wonder just how lethal the practice is. The starting point would seem to be to establish the speed at which a bullet needs to be travelling in order to penetrate the human skin. You would have thought that with the billions invested in developing weaponry and the centuries of practice in firing bullets either in anger or at targets such as pig carcasses and ballistic gel, this would seem to be a piece of knowledge honed to fine precision. But apparently not.
The best I can find is an estimate put forward by those shadowy characters, munitions experts. They estimate that a bullet must be travelling at a speed of at least 200 feet a second in order to break the skin. However, there are circumstances in which a bullet traveling as fast as 330 feet per second might just bounce off your body. Some of the factors that can impact how lethal the shot is are how pointed the bullet is and what part of your body it strikes. Skin thickness varies between individuals and in different parts of the body. The skin in the upper lip, for example, is 50% thicker than that on the chin. And, inevitably, age is a factor. The skin of babies is thin and of the elderly less elastic meaning that bullets can penetrate them more easily.
A gunshot fired straight up into the sky can reach a height of 10,000 feet and is prone to be affected by and its direction altered by prevailing winds. And then there is the point at which the speed at which air resistance balances the accelerating force of gravity, known as terminal velocity, to consider. For a .30-caliber rifle this is round 300 feet per second and for bullets from something like a 9mm handgun it is a paltry 150 to 200 feet per second. Bear in mind, though, that air resistance decreases at altitude so it is intuitively more dangerous to fire a gun to celebrate climbing Everest.
Then, of course, we have the angle at which the bullet is fired. The general consensus seems to be that if the bullet is fired vertically, that is at 90 degrees to the ground, it is unlikely to be lethal. This is because, on the way down, air resistance will prevent the bullet from maintaining its initial velocity. It may give you a painful shock but unless you are hit directly in, say, the eye or mouth you are likely to come out of the experience intact. And bullets fired vertically generally fall with the pointed end upwards or at least sideways.
And this is pretty much the case until you get to an angle of 45 degrees where the actions of air resistance and gravity have less of an effect on moderating the bullet’s initial velocity.
So now we know. I think it is safer to pop a champagne cork.