Q&A: Overpenetration

Suppose three people are standing in a line: A – B – C. A and B are about two meters apart. If person C shoots at B with a hunting rifle, is there a danger that the shot will pass through B and also hit A? I’m trying to construct a scene and wonder if I have to rearrange the way those three are standing. Thank you for your help!

Yes. There are some situations where a bullet might not fully penetrate, but, overpenetration is a thing.

Anytime you have a gunshot wound that creates an exit wound (which is most of the time), the bullet has passed through the victim and continued traveling. This means it can potentially hit someone else.

Hitting multiple people in a row is possible, with a few important caveats. It’s possible for the bullet to strike bone and deflect off in a new direction. Similarly, it’s possible for the bullet to strike bone and shatter, creating multiple exist wounds, any one of which could potentially strike others. It is possible for the bullet to strike bone (or another solid object), embedding in it and stopping it’s travel. (This can also break said bone.) It is possible, though extremely rare, for bone fragments to be ejected from the victim, causing further injuries down range.

From a safety perspective, expect overpenetration. There is a real risk of a round, especially a rifle round, passing through the intended target and striking someone (or something) behind them. As a result, shooters are advised to keep track of their background, (the area behind their target), when firing in an uncontrolled environment.

However, because of the risk of deflections, and bullet trajectories generally being somewhat difficult to fully predict in the moment, you cannot count on overpenetration doing what you want.

It’s also worth knowing that bullets do lose a lot of velocity when they’re punching through meat, so while overpenetration is a thing, it’s not especially likely that a single shot will just keep going through people. It’s possible the second victim wouldn’t have an exit wound (which can a very bad thing.)

So, yes, it could pass through the target, striking the person behind them. At very short ranges, with a high power rifle, that’s the likely outcome. At 2 meters, this can happen with most handguns, rifles or even shotguns (depending on the load.)

Overpenetration is real, and I’ve been dinged in the past for overstating it. However, from a safety perspective, standing behind the target is not a good idea. From a practical perspective, it’s less of a certainty, but given your scenario, it’s quite likely.

-Starke

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