Peter B Herdson
MJA 2000; 173: 604-605
The scene -
Autopsy findings -
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In February 1995, a death in parkland close to residential property in
Canberra was reported to the Australian Federal Police. The body of a
man had been found at the edge of a steep slope, about 150 metres from his
home. He was lying on his left side with his head towards the top of a
ridge. There was a lot of blood on his right shoulder and an obvious
injury to the lower jaw and neck. A pump-action shotgun was lying about
a metre from the body with the barrel facing up the slope, and a pair of
shoes lay next to the gun. The action of the gun was open and contained a
fired No. 2 shot shell case which had not been ejected. The muzzle end of
the barrel was bloodstained and smudged, consistent with the barrel
being held by both hands.
Initially, it appeared to be a straightforward shotgun suicide. When
the body was turned over, however, two additional gunshot entry
wounds were seen on the chest. To suicide was added the possibility of
The police forensic team conducted a detailed search of the property
(Box 1), finding a 12 gauge No. 2 shot shell cartridge on a sand pile near
the rear stone wall of the property, with bloodstains on the ground
nearby. Further examination of this area revealed shotgun pellet
marks on the wall and some fragments of flesh. A second fired 12 gauge
No. 2 shot shell cartridge case and an unfired cartridge were found on
the ground close to a vehicle parked about 10 metres from the boundary
of the property. A fragment of jaw with teeth and metal dental work and
several bloodstains were found at this site, and a 12 gauge plastic
shot shell wad was found 15 metres away.
The body was that of well-built, well-nourished, muscular white man
of 39 years, 168 cm tall and weighing 80 kg. There was a gaping wound in
the front of the neck slightly to the left of the midline, extending
from the level of the lower mandible 9 cm downwards, measuring 9 cm from
medial to lateral edge (Box 2A). This wound, which was consistent with
a shotgun blast, showed some soot marks around part of the irregular
edge; on dissection it was established that the anterior part of the
larynx had been largely removed by the blast and there was blood and
cartilaginous and muscular debris in the tracheobronchial tree. The
carotid arteries and jugular veins were intact on both sides. The
lower mandible had been fractured and some teeth were missing.
On the anterior chest wall, there was an injury consistent with a
shotgun blast, consisting of an entry hole about 2.5 cm towards the
midline from the left nipple at about the level of the 5th rib (Box 2B).
On dissection, this entry wound, which measured 2.5 x 2.3 cm and showed
powder marks in a semilunar fashion on the upper rim, was found to be
continuous immediately beneath the skin, outside the rib cage, with a
large soft-tissue wound to the left and below the left nipple
measuring about 12 x 8 cm (Box 2C). Further dissection showed that this
wound had not penetrated the rib cage.
Also on the anterior chest wall was another injury consistent with a
shotgun blast. This wound was slightly to the left of the midline of the
lower sternum, and measured about 3 x 2 cm, with powder marks in a
semilunar fashion on the lower edge of the wound (Box 2D). This entry
wound had a trajectory which was slightly up and to the left, and had
completely blown apart the heart, leaving only shreds of cardiac
muscle. There was about 800 mL of blood in the left hemithorax and 300 mL
of blood in the right hemithorax, and the left lung was lacerated. A 12
gauge plastic shot shell wad and a number of No. 2 shot pellets were
found in the mediastinum.
There was mud over both knees and postmortem lividity and rigor mortis
were present. There were no other significant external findings, and
the remainder of the autopsy was unremarkable.
Blood taken at the time of autopsy did not contain ethanol.
The most likely chain of events in this intriguing case was as follows.
The man had taken the shotgun, which measured 885 mm from muzzle to
trigger, and loaded four 12 gauge No. 2 shot shell cartridges into the
tubular magazine, cocked the weapon and loaded a cartridge from the
magazine into the breech.
He then got into a stooped position near the sand pile adjacent to the
rock wall of the backyard. The butt of the shotgun was most likely
resting on the ground, with the gun held to the right of the deceased and
the muzzle in contact with the centre of the chest. He used the fingers
or thumb of the right hand to pull the trigger. The shot charge and wad
entered the subcutaneous tissues at a low angle, travelled outside
the rib cage, and exited on the left side of the chest. The remainder of
the shot charge, wad and particulate matter then hit the rock
retaining wall. The action of the shotgun was then cycled, ejecting
the shell case onto the sand pile.
The man then walked to the vehicle. He loaded another cartridge from
the magazine into the breech of the shotgun. Holding the shotgun to his
right, with the left hand holding the barrel muzzle against his
throat, he used the fingers or thumb of the right hand to pull the
trigger. The shot charge and wad entered the right front side of his
throat and exited on the left, taking a fragment of lower jaw with it.
After this second shot was fired, the shotgun most likely fell to the
ground, where the action opened and ejected the shell case onto the
ground. The impact also caused an unspent cartridge to fall out onto
The deceased then walked about 136 metres to the hill slope. He loaded
the last cartridge from the magazine into the breech of the shotgun,
then removed his shoes and lay on the ground on his left side. With the
gun in front of him, he held the barrel with both hands, with the muzzle
in contact with his chest. He used his toes to discharge the shotgun.
The shot and wad entered the lower chest area and penetrated up into the
chest cavity, demolishing the heart. The shotgun then fell to the
ground, causing the action to open. The body then slid a short distance
down the slope.
At the coronial inquest, the Coroner and the lawyer representing the
family of the deceased both attempted to replicate the man's supposed
actions with the shotgun. The Coroner, some 20 cm taller than the
deceased, with a longer reach, demonstrated that the barrel of the
weapon was so long that, with a finger or thumb of the right hand on the
trigger, the barrel could only contact the chest at an angle of about 45
degrees at best. Similarly, when the shotgun was held with its muzzle
against the side of the neck, the barrel pointed forward and upward, as
the right hand had to be a little to the rear of the body to press the
trigger. These demonstrations explained why the first two attempts
were not fatal, while the increased reach obtained by using a toe on the
trigger resulted in the immediately fatal third attempt.
Self-inflicted gunshot wounds are a common method of suicide,
accounting for more than five per cent of all suicides in some
series.1 Most of these deaths are
caused by a single shot, usually directed to the chest or head.
Occasionally, two shots have been fired in the suicide, either
because the first shot was not immediately fatal2 or because a
rapid-action weapon was used.
Suicides involving three shots are very rare, although a fascinating
report was presented recently concerning the death of a prisoner in
the Tower of London in 1585. In that case, three balls were fired by the
deceased into his chest from a pistol.3
This report describes a suicide in which death by gunshot was achieved
on the third attempt, with the deceased showing remarkable stamina
following the first two attempts. He walked about 15 metres from the
site of inflicting the first, relatively superficial but obviously
painful wound to his chest. At a second attempt, he shot out his larynx.
Then, breathing through a gunshot-induced tracheostomy, he moved
about 136 metres over parkland to make a final attempt.
Shotguns of this type are now banned in Australia. As suicide weapons
they are far from ideal, partly because of the length of the barrel, and
partly because of their significant recoil.
I would like to thank the Coroner, G G Dellar, and P McFawn, E M Fuderer,
and R Tait, of the Australian Federal Police.
- Nowers M. Gunshot suicide in the county of Avon, England. Med Sci
Law 1994; 34: 95-98.
Solway R. Gunshot suicides in Victoria. Australia. Med Sci
Law 1991; 31: 76-80.
Gee DJ. Suicide of a prisoner with multiple missiles: a case report.
Med Sci Law 1996; 36: 85-90.
Canberra Clinical School, Canberra, ACT.
Peter B Herdson, FRCPA, FRANZCR(Hons), Professor of
Pathology, and Consultant Forensic Pathologist.
Reprints: Professor P B Herdson, Consultant Forensic
Pathologist, PO Box 9585, Deakin, ACT 2600.
Readers may print a single copy for personal use. No further
reproduction or distribution of the articles
should proceed without the permission of the publisher. For
permission, contact the
Australasian Medical Publishing Company.
Journalists are welcome to write news stories based on what they read here, but should acknowledge their source as "an article published on the Internet by The Medical Journal of Australia <http://www.mja.com.au>".
© 2000 Medical Journal of Australia.
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|2: The four significant wounds visible externally
|The gunshot-induced tracheostomy (A) is obvious. The upper
round entry wound (B) was continuous with the gaping exit wound over the
left chest (C). The lower round entry wound (D) was caused by the third,
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