Falling bullets

In many parts of the world it is traditional to celebrate by firing guns in the air. But what happens to the bullets?

Cartridges
Grasyl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Supposedly, wedding guests firing their guns into the air in central Serbia in the early 2000s accidentally shot down a plane flying overhead. There’s a BBC article about it in the links below, but it sets off my hearsay-o-meter because of the lack of identifying details (dates, places, people). Nevertheless, there are genuine risks whenever you fire bullets into the air. They all have to land somewhere.

If you fire a bullet straight up, it will of course eventually stop going up and start coming down. Like any falling object, it will speed up until forces counter to the pull of gravity (buoyancy and wind drag) stop the acceleration and it reaches terminal velocity.

A bullet travelling at terminal velocity is not as fast as a bullet fired from a gun, but it’s still fast. A .30 calibre bullet free-falls at about 90 metres per second, the same as a skydiver who has pulled their arms and legs in and is pointing straight down. In comparison, bullets fired from a modern gun routinely break the sound barrier (340 metres per second). But 90 metres per second is still more than enough to penetrate human skin if you’re unlucky enough to be caught underneath it.

And, of course, not every bullet fired upwards goes straight up – even a slight angle to its ascent means that it will be much faster coming back down. Unless it begins tumbling, which will slow it down again. There are a lot of variables in how lethal falling bullets can be.

So, here’s a more recent story with more evidence and detail behind it. At the start of this year, this guy named Mike Donahue was eating food in a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida. A stray bullet from a nearby celebration popped down through the roof and ceiling, bounced off a concrete floor, and hit him directly in the chest. The bullet left a dent in the concrete and a bloody and bruised mark on Donahue.

This is not an isolated incident. The Wikipedia article linked below lists dozens of falling-bullet injuries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, and the United States. In many cultures with gun cultures celebratory gunfire results in accidental deaths, injuries, and (I imagine) a certain degree of paranoia about what may fall out of the sky.

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