This is a completely new edition of an article that was published on April 1, 2013. New information has been added and any inaccuracies have been reviewed and completely removed.

Celebratory gunfire occurs when people with guns use them to mark an event. It’s culturally acceptable to fire projectiles, not only fireworks but sometimes bullets into the air on holidays in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern India and many places in Latin America. Gunfire rings out above the noise of fireworks in the streets of Barcelona when FC Barça edges out Real Madrid for the futbol championship. After a cease fire in the Mideast, soldiers routinely celebrate by unloading their weapons into the air. It happens all over the US on New Year’s Eve and again on the 4th of July. But in the US, it is not only a dangerous and reckless practice, it is illegal.

 

A party tradition with a body count.

On New Year’s Eve, in Highlands Park, CA (A suburb of Los Angeles), Sheriff Lee Baca warned about the dangers of shooting live ammunition into the air. A few hours later, past the stroke of midnight, a 30 year old man was struck in the head and hospitalized by bullet fragments from above. Fortunately, he survived. “A bullet fired into the air can return to earth at speeds between 300 and 700 feet per second, fast enough to pierce a person’s skull,” Baca claimed.

This was not an isolated incident. Celebratory gunfire has wounded hundreds and killed dozens in recent years in the US alone. A 50-year-old woman in Atlanta, an 11-year-old boy in Phoenix, a baby in New Orleans — deaths like these are reported and investigated every year. A young man in Fresno, CA was killed when a friend’s vertical ‘lucky shot’ went straight up and came straight back down, entering his skull. A randomly-fired bullet hit a police helicopter in Riverside, California on New Year’s Eve in 1994, striking the pilot in the foot and forcing him to make an emergency landing. In Dallas, Texas on January 1st, 2012, a bullet came through the roof of a bedroom where a woman was nursing her baby and landed next to her on her bed.

 

Bullet time: the science of projectile flight.

When a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, it is under explosive acceleration. It is compelled to spin due to spiral grooves cut into the gun barrel, which provide stability and direction during the first 3 to 6 seconds of flight. Eventually, the blast energy wears off, and the projectile, working against air resistance and gravitational pull, begins to drop. If fired horizontally, the energy dissipates in a linear fashion, and unless it impacts against something, it will eventually slow down and come to rest in the dirt.

However, if fired up into the air, some different physical properties come into play. A .30-06 rifle bullet, shot straight up with an initial velocity of 2,900 feet per second (880 m/s), will eventually lose all inertia. The top of the arc is too steep to crest and therefore — once the forward motion is dissipated — it will fall back to earth. It will again accelerate due to gravitational forces until drag from air resistance lets it reach terminal velocity on its unpredictable return path. Incidentally, the bullet fired upwards will not always come back down facing downwards.

If fired at an angle between 20 to 45 degrees or even more, then the bullet will travel farther with a greater probability of hitting something (or someone). The uninterrupted ballistic trajectory will make it far less likely to engage in a tumbling motion, and allow it to continue at a higher speed over terminal velocity.

 

Raining cases: facts or fiction?

Of the millions of rounds fired into the sky by trigger-happy celebrants, most land innocently in empty land. Fortunately, the impact of a falling bullet is much less than that of one fired directly at a target. Major General Julian Hatch, a U.S. Army firearms expert, did extensive testing on ballistics and falling projectiles in the 20’s. He calculated that .30 caliber rounds will reach terminal velocities of 300 feet per second (90 m/s) on descent, and determined that, while most bullets will leave a small dent in the ground when they land, that same bullet travelling between 200 to 330 feet per second can still penetrate human skin. The experience of many hospitalized and killed innocents validate his conclusions.

The popular scientists on the TV show, Mythbusters experimented with the premise that “Bullets fired into the air maintain their lethal capability when they eventually fall back down.”

They found that a bullet fired straight up (an almost impossible achievement for a human), will tumble on its return trip and falls at a slower rate due to terminal velocity. In addition, they found that a bullet in this circumstance is therefore less lethal on impact. However, they also discovered that a bullet fired at a non-vertical angle will be able to maintain its speed enough to be very destructive on impact. In determining if the myth was ‘Busted’, ‘Plausible’ or ‘Confirmed’, they proposed that this myth would receive all three ratings at the same time.

 

Projectile dynamics: forces of nature vs. forces of fantasy.

According to apologists in the police departments, some people think (wrongly) that the bullets they fire high up to the heavens either disintegrate up there, or will never hurt anyone out in the dark. “A lot of these people, they’re somewhat impaired,” claims Fred King of the Houston Police department. “They’ve been drinking. They’re just not using good judgment.”

They clearly don’t think they will get caught (if this crosses their mind at all), but police departments across the country receive complaints and witness statements, evidence falls to the ground somewhere (maybe on the bed next to you), and the complaints are investigated. And, if there is an injury or a death, bad luck seems to follow these insensitive shooters.

As the 2006 IANSA Macedonian Poster campaign against celebratory shooting clearly stated, “Bullets are not greeting cards. Celebrate without firearms.”

 

Your Turn: Do you have any evidence to the contrary? Want to share your stories? Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

About The Author

Doug Filter has worked in legal support for three decades, developing visual communication tools that help litigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys tell stories in court. He is an author, presenter and designer, and has worked on cases ranging from mapping body locations by interviewing a serial killer to explaining and animating the life style of trout in a water pollution case. His specialty is learning scientific, technical, medical and complex case details and then explaining them to an audience of fact finders in a courtroom setting. He has worked in jurisdictions in North and South America and Europe.

15 Responses

  1. Edwin T. Lee

    If you take the surface area of the impact area for bullets fire up at o to 20 degrees (if someone is firing in the air, he should be able to be within 20 degrees of vertical, but if he is drunk, you may calculate some other angle & 45 degrees is certainly intentional to risk hitting someone) and include for the starting point everywhere people are firing, you will find that very little of that area is taken up by people. The lack of injuries from celebratory firing is not just dependent on the terminal velocity and types of bullets (handgun vs rifle), but also the very small part of the impact area consisting of people and the low density of falling bullets. Most injuries are from people intentionally firing at an angle.

    The lack of police response in the United States is related to the short time the police have to act before the firer is back inside and the lack of injuries. The police should not be afraid of being in their patrol cars in a bullet impact area as the probability of being hit is so low, and the probability of a falling bullet passing through a patrol car’s windows or roof is even lower.

    The falling bullets in U.S. neighborhoods don’t result in much property damage, even to greenhouses. Most people won’t shoot because any injuries at all or damage to property is not something acceptable them.

    Reply
  2. Steven Doyle

    “When the bullet is falling down, it slows down and reaches a point where it no longer accelerates. It starts to free-fall: this is its terminal velocity.”

    No; the bullet does not “slow down”, and terminal velocity is not free fall. Here’s a better way to express that: “When a bullet is falling in an atmosphere (after reaching the peak of its trajectory) it accelerates until it reaches a velocity at which drag from air resistance prevents it accelerating any more; this is its terminal velocity. The bullet is not free falling; it is descending at a constant rate. If there were no air, the bullet would continue to accelerate until struck the ground at approximately the same velocity with which it left the barrel of the gun (more or less, depending on relative elevation).”

    Whether a bullet’s terminal velocity is potentially lethal depends on a number of factors. If I recall, .30 rifle bullets have shown a terminal velocity of about 300 fps, definitely enough to kill. Don’t know about handguns.

    Reply
    • The Forensic Outreach Team

      Thanks for leaving this comment, Steven. Your explanation is brilliant, and we’ll be adding an edit to this article after further review.

      Reply
  3. Rich

    Wikipedia documents many deaths from falling bullets that had been shot into the air in celebratory moments. Even if this post were correct and the terminal velocity were not enough to kill, the injuries caused by shooting up in celebratory moments is cause enough to ban the practice.

    Reply
  4. Zachery Christensen

    Its a right in America to bear arms but shooting in the air is childish. And it sets a bad example for our next generation so people should just respect the right make better choices and use firearms for what they was made for to defend your hearth and home. Provide food for your family, gins are not

    Reply
  5. SB_Pete

    @ 300fps, a typical 150-180gr .30-06 projectile would exert between 30 & 36 ft-lbs of energy. The Hatcher tests computed this using 60 ft-lbs as the threshold for lethality. For comparison purposes, a typical paintball is .68 cal (roughly twice as much surface area) and has a similar muzzle velocity of ~250-350fps. The paintball is obviously more elastic and it’s impact is spread over a greater surface area lessening its potential for damage. That said, a typical 50gr paintball pellet carries 10 ft-lbs of energy @ 300fps. Gen Hatcher’s 30-’06 was most likely a 150gr Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) service round and thus carried roughly 30 ft-lbs of energy or three times the force of being hit by a paintball (or more like 3 times the force of a frozen paintball in order to discount the elasticity factor). In short, really F&*^ing painful, and likely to break the skin and with the potential to fracture the skull, but not likely to be deadly. To further put how slow 300fps is in into perspective a typical 36gr .22lr projectile leaves the barrel at ~1100 fps with ~100 ft-lbs of energy. Slowed down to 300fps that same projectile would imparts only 7ft-lbs or 70% the force of a paintball.

    Of course, using Gen Hatcher’s data is a bit misleading too as I would venture you don’t find too many .30-06’s shot into the air in this manner. Much more common would be 7.62x39mm (AK), .223/5.56mm (AR/M-16), 9mm, .45, .22lr and 12ga shotgun bird and buck shot. Projectiles from all of these cartridges will have lower terminal velocities as they are all less aerodynamic and weigh less. Also, that 300fps was a 1920’s estimate based largely on time of flight. Unfortunately converting G1 BC (industry standard bullet aerodynamics coefficient model) into Cd (coefficient of drag, the model used for my terminal velocity calculator) is not something I know how to do correctly so we have to use assumptions here. If anyone knows how to calculate terminal velocities with BC instead of Cd, please chime in! A perfectly round projectile like a shotgun pellet or bb is listed as ~.5 Cd and a more aerodynamic rifle round at .3 Cd. It’s worth noting here that lower numbers equal more aerodynamic in the Cd scale, but higher numbers are more aerodynamic on the BC scales.

    I will assume the .3 Cd for the Hatcher .30-’06 round. If I plug the numbers for that bullet into a terminal velocity calculator (150gr, .071 sq in cross section, .3 CD, @ sea level – 1G & 1.5kg/M3 air density), I get ~285fps which more or less lines up with the Hatcher numbers but would drop us down to 27 ft-lbs.

    So what would those more common rounds do? A typical 124 gr FMJ 7.62x39mm has a G1 ballistic coefficient of .298. Compare that with Gen Hatcher’s .30-’06 which has .41 BC and weighs in @ 150gr. Doing our very rough BC to Cd calc, the AK round is 75% as aerodynamic as the .30-’06 and lies between .3 and .5 on the Cd scale, so we’ll call it .35. Calculated this way, the Terminal Velocity (TV) of that AK round would be 265fps yielding 23 ft lbs. A typical .223 or 5.56mm NATO round (62gr, .307BC) yields ~245fps TV and 8 ft lbs (or 4/5 the energy of a paintball). Moving on to pistols, a typical 9mm projectile (115gr, .12 BC) yields a TV of ~195fps and 10ft-lbs of energy (equal to our paintball @ 300fps), a typical .45 (230gr, .153 BC) yields a TV of ~220fps and 25 ft lbs of energy. A typical .22lr (36gr, .125 BC) yields a TV of 170fps and 2 ft-lbs of energy (or roughly 1/5 the force of a paintball). 12ga 00 buckshot weighs in at 54 grains and is .33″ of spherical lead thus the full .5 Cd for a yield of ~130fps TV and 2 ft lbs energy. 12 ga #8 birdshot clocks in at 1.3gr and .089″; this yields 76 fps and a number too low for my ballistic energy calculator to calculate. Safe to say it’s less than 1 ft lb and many a shooter who’s shot birdshot into the air for the novelty of having it rain on their hat on a windless day will attest to this.
    Shooting centerfire rifle and pistol cartridges into the air is a stupid thing to do. Getting hit by a .45 or any 30 caliber class rifle projectile is likely to inflict serious damage requiring medical attention but unlikely to be deadly. 9mm or .223 rounds are liable to be like getting shot on top of the head with a paintball gun when you’re not expecting it. It’ll hurt, it could well knock you out, but you’re unlikely to require medical attention. Buckshot and .22lr is probably akin to a kid throwing a small rock at you.
    All of these calculations were predicated on a round coming back down at terminal velocity which is generally assumed to mean fired within ~20 degrees of vertical. If a round is fired at 45 degrees, it will impact the ground with retained energy from its explosive acceleration and thus will be travelling faster than terminal velocity.
    All BC’s were taken from the Federal Ammunition Ballistics calculator
    http://www.federalpremium.com/ballistics_calculator/
    Except for shotgun pellets which were assumed to be roughly .01
    Energy Calculations were taken from the Beartooth Bullets Ballistician’s Corner Caluclator
    http://www.beartoothbullets.com/rescources/calculators/php/energy.htm?bw=150&bv=285
    Terminal Velocities were calculated with the calctool.org terminal velocity calculator.
    http://www.calctool.org/CALC/eng/aerospace/terminal
    Cross-Sectional areas were solved using πr squared.

    Reply
    • The Forensic Outreach Team

      Dear SB_Pete,

      Thanks for providing more detail and a deeper study and analysis of General Hatcher’s study. Your descriptions are both on-point and consistent with his opinions, and it is interesting to include modern, more common of the day ammunition. Your analogies are great, also. We very much appreciate that you are reading our articles and taking what we teach to a higher level. We’re sure our readers appreciate it as well.

      Reply
  6. Mike

    I actually had a bullet come straight down, penetrate my roof and land on the top side of ceiling drywall. It rests there to this day. Had a little water damage and had to get a minor roof repair. I’ve got pictures if there is any interest.

    Reply
    • Douglas Filter

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. Yes, it happens, and these falling bullets do cause damage. We’re glad you were not hurt, but sorry you were inconvenienced. The one responsible will never know what he cost you, or how he endangered you or a member of your family.

      Reply
  7. Ben

    I live in Barcelona and your comment about people firing guns to celebrate Barça is nonsense! Where on earth did you get that from?? Gun ownership is virtually non existent here.

    Reply
    • Douglas Filter

      Hello Ben. I lived in Barcelona from 2004 to 2009. I wrote it because I observed it and had many discussions about it with family and friends who lived there and yes, while rare, it happens. Guns come into Catalonia with immigrants from the Eastern European countries as well as from Africa. Many Catalan people keep guns for hunting.

      While there are way fewer guns as in the US, they are certainly not rare. Sandro Rossell, the former President of Barça will agree with me after his home in Barcelona was hit by bullets last Christmas.

      I am happy that you did not experience it yourself.

      Reply
  8. Mayank

    Hi Douglas

    Thanks for providing the more details on this topic. I feel there is one small correction needed.
    “It’s culturally acceptable to fire AK47’s in the air on holidays in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern India and many places in Latin America. ”

    In India, guns like revolvers, pistols and rifles are part of legally authorized weapons (you should have license for carrying a weapon and for the license application you should have very specific reason for your need). However, AK47 is illegal here under TADA act (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act,).

    I hope you understand the reason behind my comment. People should not think that once you are in these countries, you can keep weapon with you all the time.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Douglas Filter

      Hello Mayak,

      Thank you for providing more specific information and clarification. You make a good point, and obviously, guns can cause problems but also have their place in different cultures and countries. I hope my edit clarifies the subject.

      Reply

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