Q&A: Gunshot Pain

How much does getting shot actually hurt? I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about it just feeling like a punch, or the person not even noticing it, but that probably has a lot to do with adrenaline, I imagine. It almost certainly varies by Caliber, but in general how much does it really hurt?


Mercifully, I can’t speak from personal experience. I’ve had guns pointed at me, but I’ve never been shot.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to vary much based on caliber. The body doesn’t know what to do with a bullet wound, so the victim will feel the impact, they know they’ve been hit by something, but may not realize they’ve been shot.

Adrenaline does mute the experience of pain, I can speak from personal experience there. However, with gunshots this seems to reduce the burning sensation. So, a bullet in flight is going to be quite hot. This is also true with spent shell casings. Again, I’ve never felt a bullet in flight, but fresh shell casings are unpleasant. If you’re putting a lot of rounds down range, it’s possible to burn yourself on the weapon. (We could do an entire discussion on the engineering to managing heat in firearms. It’s a real challenge in firearms design.)

The testimony I’m looking at, frequently equates the injury with either being struck by a large blunt object (baseball bat, hammer, ect.), a sharp jabbing pain, comparable to a bee or wasp sting, a burning sensation or some combination of the three. This appears to be (at least partially) agnostic of whether they were experiencing an adrenaline rush at the time. (This is a little tricky to quantify, because I’m having to make educated guesses.) My suspicion is that the exact point of contact determines which you’ll experience, but I do not know.

So, the short answer to, “how much does it hurt?” seems to be, “not much,” with a lot of caveats.

If a bullet hits a nerve, things can go really wrong. This can result in paralysis, numbness, or constant pain (ranging from a mild annoyance, to perpetual agony.) This damage can be persistent and the victim will continue to experience it for the rest of their life. Nerve hits can also result in an electrical (or tingling) sensation from the wound. (Though, I haven’t seen one of these as a persistent wound, it’s probably possible.)

Shrapnel is worse. If the bullet ricochets and carves up the skin, it will hurt quite a bit. (Incidentally, this also applies to explosives.) The testimonial I’m seeing meshes with my experience from knife wounds. There’s little to no pain in the moment, but it’s starts seriously hurting shortly afterwards. (Again, this is not the result of adrenaline muting the sensation. It simply takes a little while for the body to catch up and start yelling at you.)

Shrapnel can also present a long-term complication. It is possible to end up with shrapnel that cannot be safely extracted. This can result in a persistent pain from the embedded chunk of metal.

Ironically, in some cases, the stippling hurts more than the gunshot itself. This is the unburned powder ejected from the muzzle when firing. Gunpowder burns at around 2700 Fahrenheit. I don’t know the exact temperature of the stippling after it leaves the barrel, but it’s going to cause burns at close range. (Postmortem, this can be useful to estimate the distance between the shooter and victim.) These won’t cause serious injuries in most cases. You’re dealing with flaming particles. However, it will hurt. Heavy clothing can soak that, though it will be damaged.

There’s a related situation. I don’t have any victim testimony on this one, but I’ve seen it enough times in autopsy photos and medical reference. When the muzzle of a firearm is pressed into the victim, the burning gasses are forced into the wound. This will form a bubble just under the skin, tearing in a star shaped pattern. Again, I can’t find anyone explaining what this feels like, but, I’m willing to bet it’s singularly unpleasant.

Long term, any lasting damage is something the victim will have to live with. Damage to bones or nerves can result in lifelong impairment and pain. Even in the short term, gunshot wounds need to be carefully managed to heal properly.

Every gunshot wound, and victim, is unique. I’m also fully willing to admit, the number of reports I could find is limited. (I’m also rather annoyed because one collection I read was a shameless repost from an r/AskReddit thread.) This isn’t a topic people like to talk about openly, so when I’m talking about, “why,” that’s semi-educated guesses.

I hope this helps, and if anyone has some personal experiences they’d like to share, I’ll collect those in a follow-up.


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