Journal Review: AFTE Quarterly

AFTE Journal coverToday’s review is a bit different than normal, as I’m not looking at a book but rather a quarterly trade association journal. The association is AFTE, the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners – these are the folks who do crime lab analysis of evidence from crime. Like CSI, but with real science! They are probably best known to the public for being the people who look at the tiny markings on bullets and cartridge cases and use them to match those items to specific guns. As with all such specialized professions, there is a formal association for such people worldwide, and they publish a quarterly journal of articles related to the profession.

The AFTE Journal really isn’t intended for general distribution – it’s printed with mostly police agencies in mind – but a friend loaned me a few recent editions to take a look at, because they have more than a few articles that are definitely of interest to serious gun geeks. Yeah, if you’re reading this there’s a good chance that means you. 🙂

Here is the list of articles in the Summer 2013 edition:

  • Restoration of Rusted Firearms: An Evaluation of Different Methods
  • Intelligence and Historical Background on the AK-47 and AK Variants
  • Estimates of Striation Pattern Identification Rates by Algorithmic Methods
  • Association Between a Paint Flake and a Wheelbarrow on the Basis of Toolmarks
  • Heads or Tails: The Use of Dimes in a 12 Gauge Shotshell
  • History and Manufacturing  Process of the Jennings/Bryco/Jimenez Arms Pistols
  • Inter-Comparison of 1,000 Consecutively Fired 9mm Luger Bullets and Cartridge Cases from a Ruger P89 Pistol Utilizing both Pattern Matching and Quantitative Consecutive Matching Striae as Criteria for Identification
  • Breechface Recess Marks Recorded on Cartridge Cases Expended from Beretta PX4 Storm Subcompact 9mm Pistols
  • Obsolete Caliber 7.92x33mm AK Type Rifles Which are Also Capable of Firing 7.62x39mm Cartridges
  • Subclass Characteristics in a Gamo Air Rifle Barrel
  • The Likelihood Ratio Approach in Cartridge Case and Bullet Comparison
  • An Empirical Study/Validation Test Pertaining to the Reproducibility of Toolmarks on 20,000 Bullets Fired Through M240 Machine Gun Barrels
  • Reprint: Forensic Ballistics

As you can see, some of these articles are highly technical discussions of very specific issues  – but others are definitely of interest to folks like us – and the whole thing is pretty fascinating for anyone who wants to learn more about the science of forensic ballistics. One further element that the AFTE Journal has above and beyond any typical mass-market firearms magazine is a high standard for scientific rigor. The very first article in this issue, on restoration of rusted guns, was written by a Utah examiner whose department regularly received firearms that had been ditched in the Great Salt Lake and a nearby freshwater river. He wanted to know what methods might be effective at restoring such guns to functional condition, and to what extent those methods would change the rifling and breechface markings imparted by the guns (too much change would render them impossible to match to bullets or cases found at crime scenes). So he chose 5 different methods (including solvents, ultrasonic cleaners, electrolytic baths, and soda blasting) and 10 pistols scheduled for destruction. The guns were all fired to provide “before” cases and bullets, and then the guns were immersed in salt and fresh water (5 in each) taken directly from the Salt Lake and the river. After several weeks of corrosion, the cleaning methods were used on the guns, and “after” cases and bullets collected and compared to the “before” samples. This is a much more scientific assessment than I have seen of any similar type of commercial publication on a similar question.

I should say that the AK article was pretty basic, by my standards (although it was pretty thorough in covering identifying markings, which would be most useful the typical reader). Do keep in mind the target audience for the Journal; this particular piece was written as a basic overview for people who will rarely encounter an AK in their regular work. That said, the article on the use of “dime loads” in shotguns was very interesting to read. It was motivated by a case in Los Angeles in which a victim (in the technical sense; he was probably not exactly a model citizen) was found dead with 10 dimes and a modified shotshell wad lodged in his body. The criminalist running the case decided to study the history, feasibility, and practicality of using dimes or other coins as shotshell payloads. His subsequent article for the Journal is an excellent look into these questions, and includes details of patterning, choke considerations, and some historical mythbusting.

The article on the 7.92x33mm AK rifles (written by an investigator in Lahore, Pakistan) was to me the most interesting piece in this issue, despite being rather short. I’ll be writing my own article on the subject shortly, so I’ll just tease you with that one for now.

As I had mentioned at the top, the AFTE Journal is not written with the average gun enthusiast in mind, and a good number of the articles will likely be outside the interest of most readers who are not actually in the profession of forensic analysis. However, the Journal is available to anyone who wishes to pay the rather expensive subscription fee ($150 for four issues annually in North America; $180 mailed outside North America). It is available worldwide, and the contributing authors are definitely an international bunch (this Summer’s issue included articles from Pakistan, New Zealand, and Malaysia, among others). If you are interested in some of the more esoteric or crime/police related aspects of firearms and don’t mind the price, it’s a very cool journal to subscribe to.

You can find subscription information here (you will have to fill out a Microsoft Word form), and can see the other things that the Association does at