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NIST Ballistics Teams Preserves Kennedy Assassination Bullets

The NIST ballistics team recently undertook a unique project with great historical significance. Researchers created digital replicas of the bullet that fatally wounded beloved President John F. Kennedy using a 3D surface scanning microscope.

In partnership with the National Archives, NIST work will provide public access to these important artifacts while ensuring the originals remain safely preserved. For NIST, this project was simply about historic preservation. But now, anyone can perform forensic analysis of the bullet without risking damage to the original.

In a NIST article published on December 5, 2019, NIST explains the details.

“In the lab, the NIST ballistics team used a technique called focus variation microscopy to image the artifacts. At each location along the object’s surface, the microscope created a series of images at different focal distances. By analyzing which parts of those images were in focus, the microscope measured the distance to the object’s surface features. As the lens moved across the object, it built a 3D surface map of the microscopic landscape beneath it, like a satellite mapping a mountain range.”

While this was a special project, NIST researchers do spend significant time imaging bullets in their day-to-day work. Historically, forensic examiners match bullets by viewing them under a comparison microscope. They examine striations on a pair of bullets or microscopic photographs of those bullets to determine a match. The NIST ballistics team is working to provide greater detail and accuracy than 2D methods by using 3D surface maps.

It’s also developing methods so that, instead of just saying whether or not two bullets appear to match, forensic examiners will be able to statistically quantify their degree of similarity. CSAFE partners with NIST in this effort, conducting research to develop new and improved scientific methods for firearms and tool mark analysis.

Read more about the Kennedy bullet on the NIST website, and learn more about CSAFE advancements in bullet technology in our news section. We also invite you to visit our tools page and data portal, where you can find helpful resources to implement in your forensic analysis work.