Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fatal and non-fatal injuries caused by crossbows. USA, LLC

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Today in modern times, traumatic injuries caused by crossbows are a rarity. The largest collection of cases so far is presented in this study, consisting of four fatalities (two homicides and two suicides) and two non-fatal injuries (grievous bodily harm and an accident). All the victims were male having an age between 31 and 54. The weapons, which were used, were mainly high-performance precision crossbows with telescopic sights and hunting bolts. The parts of the body involved were the facial/head area in three of the cases and the thorax in three of them. There were either deep or total penetration injuries to the cranium and thorax with the bolt remaining in the wound in four out of six cases. The persons with non-fatal crossbow injuries exhibited comparatively few symptoms, despite the sometimes extensive involvement of the interior of the cranium (cerebrocranial penetration, in one instance). The two cases of suicide favoured the body areas often found with gun-users. The aetiological classification of crossbow injuries may be difficult after the removal of the bolt. The external morphology is strongly dependent on the type of tip used. Multiple-bladed hunting broadheads produce radiating incised wounds, whereas conical field tips produce circular to slitlike defects. Correspondingly, the external injuries can be reminiscent of the effects of a violent attack by sharp force or of a gunshot wound. The possibility, supported by clinical data, that the victim might have the ability to act or even to survive for a period of time, even with penetration of the brain, should be taken into account when the cause of death is being investigated.

Keywords: Crossbow; Bow and arrow; Morphology; Homicide; Suicide; Accident

1. Introduction

The crossbow was the most important weapon of foot soldiers during the middle ages. This weapon is now mainly used for sport or hunting purposes. Traumatic crossbow injuries, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, are very seldom encountered these days in forensic medicine or in hospitals. In the available literature [1-17] there are references in a case report form on 14 deaths (eight homicides and six suicides) and seven non-fatal injuries (suicide attempts and accidents). Closely related to crossbow injuries and nowadays even more unusual are bow-and-arrow injuries caused by longbows or compound bows [17-19].

According to the US National Bowhunter Education Foundation (NBEF) all bows, including the longbow, recurve bow and compound bow, are defined by three characteristics: all of them have a string, a pair of limbs, and a handle. The longbow is a single-piece bow in traditional archery, the recurve bow is a bow with limbs, which curve away from the archer, and the compound bow (similarly the compound crossbow) has eccentric pulleys and cables allowing high bow weights, but low weight at full-draw. The crossbow does not have a handle and bow limbs, its prods (limbs) and string are attached to a gun stock. It may be considered a longbow-rifle hybrid [5] and can be defined as a weapon consisting of a bow fixed transversely on a stock having a trigger mechanism to release the bowstring, and often incorporating or accompanied by a mechanism for bending the bow (see Fig. 1B for the construction of a crossbow).

The characteristic morphological effects depend rather on the type of arrows (or bolts) and especially tips used than on the type of weapon. For both the bow and the crossbow, there are two common forms of arrow tips, the v-shaped broadhead, which is used in hunting and has two or more (often three) cutting edges, and the conical field tip, which is used in sports.

From an interdisciplinary point of view, combining clinical and forensic findings, we present the largest collection of crossbow cases so far, including four cases where death occurred with this weapon (two homicides and two suicides) and two cases of non-fatal wounding (grievous bodily harm and accident).

2. Material and methods

The autopsy records of the institutes of forensic medicine of two German regions (Hamburg, Saarland) were systematically evaluated for fatalities due to crossbows. The metropolitan area of the city of Hamburg in northern Germany has about 1.7 million inhabitants, the federal state of Saarland in south-western Germany has about 1.1 million inhabitants. In the time interval from 1986 to 2000 (15 years) only four fatalities could be found (two homicides and two suicides, one homicide and one suicide from each institute). Furthermore, from the region of Hamburg three cases with survived crossbow injuries which became known to the local institute of forensic medicine were included (no systematic collection of cases possible). Two out of these three cases are depicted as case reports below (grievous bodily harm and an accident). The third case, supposed to be attempted suicide, is not described in detail because of too little data available.

3. Case reports

3.1. Case 1: homicide

A 54-year-old man on the street became the accidental victim of a 25-year-old, emotionally unstable man who had been using the crossbow for recreational purposes for 9 months. Following a frustrating episode in his life (jealousy), and after consuming alcohol and cannabis, he first shot at his grandmother (a failed shot) and then at a motorbike. Afterwards he went to the house of his mother. Nearby he saw two men on the street, who were unknown to him, and spontaneously decided to kill one of them. Sitting in his car, he aimed at the forehead of the 54-year-old bricklayer from a distance of about 8-9 m (Fig. 1A). The victim immediately fell to the ground after the shot and died approximately 35 min later (no information on emergency measurements). The perpetrator was sentenced to 9 years imprisonment for manslaughter by the court.

3.1.1. Weapon

A Barnett Commando crossbow with special features and telescopic sight (draw weight: 220 lb) (Fig. 1B). Hunting bolt with three-bladed tip (kinetic energy ascertained to be 46 J).

3.1.2. Findings

Point of entry was in the face below the left eye, with the bolt projecting (Fig. 1A). It passed through the nasopharynx, the left vertebral artery and the muscle tissue of the neck. There was a descending path with a length of about 14 cm. The victim was not under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.00 [per thousand].

3.1.3. Cause of death

Asphyxia from blood aspiration.

3.2. Case 2: homicide

A 39-year-old man was found dead near a motorway, with no sign of a bolt. The motive for murder by the 19-year-old perpetrator was later discovered to be greed connected to drug dealing. According to the concurring statements of all three people involved in the crime, which were plausible, the shot has been fired from a distance of no more than a few metres away (main perpetrator and victim stood near the car door). The victim fled after the attack and has removed the bolt from the wound himself. The main perpetrator was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for murder, in line with the criminal law for young offenders in Germany.

3.2.1. Weapon

A Barnett Commando with telescopic sight and a mounted flashlight (draw weight: 160 lb). Three-bladed hunting bolt (47 cm long, kinetic energy ascertained to be 46 J).

3.2.2. Findings

There was a penetration of the left thorax, passing through three layers of clothing, with an entry wound in the area of the left nipple in the form of a triple radial, smooth-sided cut, with a lateral length of between 1.2 and 1.6 cm (Fig. 2A). It produced a slightly descending, 22 cm deep wound passage from the fifth intercostal space at the front through the left lung to the nineth intercostal space at the back (Fig. 2B). The bolt just penetrated the body, there was no complete exit wound, but a small defect (2 mm X 1 mm) on the skin of the back on the left, with some damage to the clothing. No sign of any injuries due to attempts at self-defence or any other injuries could be found. The wound to the thorax was not at first recognized by those carrying out the autopsy as a crossbow injury ("typical stab wound"). The blood alcohol concentration was 0.00 [per thousand].

3.2.3. Cause of death

Exsanguination due to hematopneumothorax on the left side (1.9 1 blood).

3.3. Case 3: suicide

A 42-year-old man, who was addicted to alcohol and medicinal drugs, was found lying dead in a supine position on his bed (Fig. 3A). A crossbow lay by his right foot on the floor which he had bought 2 years earlier from a hunting supplier for recreational purposes.

3.3.1. Weapon

A Barnett Panzer II crossbow with telescopic sight (draw weight: 150 lb). Forty-one centimetre long hunting bolt with a three-bladed tip.

3.3.2. Findings

There was a shot to the chest with penetration of the thorax and the bolt remaining in situ. Point of entry was 2 cm above the left nipple through pyjama top, suggesting a triple radial, smooth-edged shape with a 45[degrees] angle from the left (Fig. 3B), with the tip of the bolt discernible under the skin of the back, to the right of the spine, at the same height as the entry wound (bulging of the skin).

3.3.3. Cause of death

No autopsy, death probably due to loss of blood.

3.4. Case 4: suicide

A 38-year-old man was found dead in a kneeling position in an empty bathtub. According to the inquiries, the crossbow lying on the edge of the bath had evidently been purchased by the subject solely in order to commit suicide. There was no evidence that he had any previous experience of crossbows. Domestic problems were the most likely reason for the suicide.

3.4.1. Weapon

A Starfire II crossbow (draw weight: 150 lb), 62 cm long hunting bolt with broadhead.

3.4.2. Findings

Main finding was a penetration through the mouth, with the bolt remaining in place, and slightly ascending penetration of the cranium. The bolt passed through the hard palate, the clivus, the pons, the right occipital lobe and the roof of the cranium. The tip of the bolt was protruding 0.8 cm above the level of the skull and could be felt underneath the scalp. Slight subdural and subarachnoid haemorrhaging and damage to the basilar artery were concomitant findings. BAC was 0.00%0.

3.4.3. Cause of death

Collapse of the central regulatory system caused by a shot passing through the cranium and brain.

3.5. Case 5: grievous bodily harm

A 35-year-old man was hit from the front in the left shoulder by a crossbow bolt fired by his 25-year-old rival at night in the garden in the presence of a female witness and from a distance of approximately 6 m. He removed the bolt himself. He was then critically injured by several stab wounds. The crossbow had been ordered 2 weeks before the crime and tested out briefly shortly beforehand. The crime was first assessed as attempted murder, but the perpetrator was eventually sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for grievous bodily harm.

3.5.1. Weapon

A Barnett Panzer II crossbow with telescopic sight (draw weight: 150 lb). Bolt with field tip (37 cm long, kinetic energy of 55 J).

3.5.2. Findings

There were "stab wounds" to the left shoulder/clavicle area, left sternum, right costal arch, lower abdomen and back. The doctors, who were treating the victim, did not differentiate between the crossbow wound and the others.

3.5.3. Symptoms and signs

The victim was capable of action after being wounded by the crossbow, the following course of events being determined by the knife wounds.

3.6. Case 6: non-fatal accident

This case involved a 31-year-old man who injured himself while he was cleaning a crossbow used for sport. After initially losing consciousness, 1 day later he was found, responsive, awake and aware of his surroundings. The case data is based on the victim's own statements, there was no evidence of attempted suicide, theoretically it cannot be excluded.

3.6.1. Weapon

A crossbow used for sporting purposes, with a 30 cm bolt and a field tip.

3.6. 2. Findings

There was an involvement of the face with penetration of the cranium (Fig. 4A and B). Point of entry was through the right upper eyelid, passing through the right orbita and the brain/corpus callosum, the right basal ganglia and the right lateral ventricle, exiting in the occipital area, left paramedian, with a small occipital fracture (Fig. 4C). Perforation of the bulbus was diagnosed, no significant intracerebral bleeding was found.

3.6.3. Symptoms and signs

Partial paralysis of the right leg. Later on, frontobasal cerebrospinal fluid fistula with meningitis. Surgical removal of the bulbus was necessary.

4. Discussion

All the victims involved were male having an age between 31 and 54 years. The weapons used were mainly powerful precision crossbows with telescopic sights (mostly with a draw weight of approximately 150 lb) and multi-bladed hunting bolts. The body areas affected were the face/head in three cases and the thorax in three cases. There were injuries ranging from deep to total penetration of the cranium and thorax, with the bolt remaining in situ in four out of six cases. Typically, after passing through the trunk (including clothing, but without any bones being involved) the tip of the bolt was just visible outside the body or could be detected directly under the surface of the skin.

The two people committing suicide favoured those areas typically found where guns are used (i.e. the mouth and the heart area). This is reflected in the literature, with the majority of suicides using this "hard" method being men; only one non-fatal suicide attempt by a woman being described [14].

Modern precision crossbows weighing between about 2.5 and 4.0 kg are claimed to hit targets accurately for up to 60 m (e.g. the Barnett Commando Compound crossbow). They usually have a draw weight of between approximately 150 and 185 lb. The initial bolt velocity [v.sub.0] is about 40-60 m/s [20,21], with other sources putting it at about 80-100 m/s [22]. With bolt weights of between approximately 27-32 g bolt energies [E.sub.0] of about 90-165 J are attained [22]. With regard to their ballistic features, crossbow bolts resemble low velocity projectiles. Ballistic tests [20,21], however, have demonstrated that, despite a relatively low amount of kinetic energy, sharp bolts can penetrate deep into soft tissue and body cavities. Even the osteocranium can be penetrated from a distance of a few metres.

The external morphology of the injury is determined by the tip of the bolt (arrowhead) [5,10,11,17,20,21]. There are no essential differences between various forms of bows and the crossbow as far as the same tip is used. There are two main types of arrowheads: the conical field tips are used in sports and produce wounds in the form of circular to ovoid slitlike skin defects that may resemble an entrance gunshot wound. The arrow wound may have a circumferential marginal abrasion. The exit wound may mimic that of a gunshot wound as well as the skin is pierced from the internal aspect and lacks an abrasion. The multiple-bladed (often three-bladed) hunting broadheads produce very characteristic entrance defects with correspondence to the arrowhead's geometry. There are radiating incised wounds that lack abraded edges both on entrance and on exit. Through-and-through shots of the trunk are possible. They may be confused with the effects of other types of a sharp force violence. Particular attention should be paid to a thorough examination of the clothing worn, since--as in our case 2--a characteristic, multi-radial cutting pattern often emerges in the broadhead [16]. Furthermore, the degree of injury depends not only on the type and weight of bolt used, but also on the draw weight of the crossbow and its specifications (draw-length, string-and-cable system, and limbs).

While the bolt remains in the wound the aetiological classification of crossbow injuries is straightforward, but after its removal the exterior morphology can lead observers to conclude that they are seeing the results of violent injury due to sharp force or of a gunshot wound. Sometimes clinicians as well as forensic pathologists cannot distinguish the real cause of the injury.

In most of the cases it is no problem to get information on the trajectory of the bolt. Either the bolt remains in the wound and allows a reconstruction of the trajectory on the basis of the penetration angle and the probable original position of the victim, or the internal tract can be elucidated during the autopsy by means of the permanent wound cavity. The long and rigid nature of the arrows provides some evidence of the trajectory and may aid in localizing the shooter relative to the victim [19]. However, sometimes the bolt may change its direction during body passage with as much as 90[degrees] (quoted in [19]).

The non-fatal crossbow injuries showed comparatively few symptoms, despite the sometimes extensive involvement of the interior of the cranium (penetration of the cranium and brain, in one case). Here, the victims--after initially losing consciousness--were capable of action, and this ability to some extent can also be seen as a characteristic feature of the fatal cases. A considerable survival time and/or the continuing ability to take action have also been underlined by other authors [3,6,9] and are supported primarily by the findings of non-fatal injuries, where important interior organs such as the heart and the aorta have sometimes been damaged [2,6,8].

The reason for the minor severity of injuries by crossbows compared with gunshots is probably the fact that they resemble sharp force attacks (stab wound pattern). There is no essential temporary wound cavity, the kinetic energies of bolts are low and no relevant energy is transferred to the surrounding tissue as it is the case in gunshot wounds [23]. Injuries by crossbow bolts result from the direct damage due to the wound passage through the body. Thus, consciousness and the capability of action can be maintained for a longer period of time, even in cases with cerebral lesions.

In their assessment of fatalities, forensic investigators should take the possibility into account (which was supported by clinical data) that the victim was capable of action and/or of surviving for some time, even with penetration of the brain. In dependence on the degree of injury and organs involved, survival times of many hours seem to be possible even in cases with severe penetration of the body. Prerequisite is that the bolt covers defects in structures such as the heart or great vessels and therefore prevents essential blood loss.

There is a potential risk in allowing adults easy access to this silent weapon, which is not regulated by the law on firearms in Germany. Also in many other countries crossbows may be obtained legally or easily got via mail order without permit or background check [5]. As the operation of a longbow requires a certain amount of skills and practice, a crossbow can be used relatively successfully by anyone after a short trial period. The unwieldy nature of the weapon, the physical strength required to use it and its limited availability must be responsible for its rare involvement in physical injury, suicides and homicides.


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[23] B. Karger, Z. Puskas, B. Ruwald, K. Teige, G. Schuirer, Morphological findings in the brain after experimental gunshots using radiology, pathology and histology, Int. J. Legal Med. 111 (1998) 314-319.

W. Grellner (a,b) *, D. Buhmann (b), A. Giese (c), G. Gehrke (d), E. Koops (e), K. Puschel (e)

(a) Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Mainz, Am Pulverturm 3, DE-55131 Mainz, Germany

(b) Institute of Forensic Medicine, Saarland University, Building 42, DE-66421 Homburg/Saar, Germany

(c) Department of Neurosurgery, University of Hamburg, Martinistr. 52, DE-20246 Hamburg, Germany

(d) Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Henriettenstift Hannover, Marienstr. 72-90, DE-30171 Hannover, Germany

(e) Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Hamburg, Butenfeld 34, DE-22529 Hamburg, Germany

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +49-6131-3937357; fax: +49-6131-3932181.

E-mail address: (W. Grellner).

Received 4 February 2002; accepted 19 December 2003

Source Citation
Grellner, W., et al. "Fatal and non-fatal injuries caused by crossbows." Forensic Science International 142.1 (2004): 17+. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Dec. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A132748164

Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

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