After a day at the range, cleaning your guns is not the only thing you should be cognizant of. When you come in contact with any firearm, it’s important that you also practice good hygiene.
Most people, especially shooting novices, can be very negligent about taking hygiene, safety, and precautions seriously after shooting their firearms. Gun safety doesn’t end once you put your weapon back in its case, but also depends on what you do immediately after.
How many think of washing their hands immediately after shooting? How many remember they haven’t washed their hands before reaching for a bite of their lunch?
Shooting your weapon leaves gunshot residue on your hands and sometimes on your clothes. If you don’t clean up after, there’s a high chance that you’ll be transferring that residue to places it has no business being on.
So, can gunshot residue be washed off? Let’s find out!
What is Gunshot Residue?
Gunshot residue is the residue left on the hands, and sometimes on the clothes of a person who has done any of the following:
- Shot a firearm
- Stood near the area where a firearm was shot
- Touched a recently used firearm
- Touched something that was recently used by someone who has just used a firearm
The residue can also be found on the barrel or body of the firearm itself, an entry or exit wound, as well as any objects that were shot at by the firearm.
Firearm discharge residue is created when the particles produced by a discharged firearm cools and condenses.
As mentioned before, these particles can go a far distance from the gun fired including the hair, hands, and clothes of the person who fired the gun, the object that was fired at, and any bystanders who were nearby when the firearm was discharged.
What Happens When a Firearm is Discharged
In discussing gunshot residues and its particles we first need to understand the process of firing a gun and all the mechanics involved.
As mentioned before, visible or microscopic gunshot residue is made up of particles that are dispersed when a gun or a firearm is shot. Numerous processes are in play when a gun is fired, several of which contribute to the particles that make up the bulk of the residue.
When the trigger of any firearm is pulled back, the primer cap is hit by a firing pin, which causes a small controlled explosion and a flame. The resulting flame from the explosion still has to pass through the anvil holes in the primer and in the process, it ignites the propellant inside the cartridge case.
With this ignition, the temperature in the gun rises along with a pressure reaction that causes the bullet to be quickly propelled out of the gun barrel.
Along with the expelled bullets, gases also release residue from the entire combustion process from the gun back onto your face, hands, and torso. While your eyes cannot see most of the gunshot residue, it doesn’t mean it’s not there or that it’s harmless.
The issue is that gunshot residue contains a lot of harmful particles from the breakdown of the components in the gun, such as lead. Because these materials are microscopic, it’s easy for the body to absorb those particles and that spells danger in the future.
In 1979 Wolten et al. put forward a classification of gunshot residue based on size, composition, and morphology. Four compositions were considered characteristic of gun residue particles, they are:
- Barium, calcium, and silicon
- Lead, antimony, and barium
Most of these chemical compounds have no business being in prolonged contact with the human body, which is why it’s important to wash gunshot residue from your skin after you’re done at the shooting range.
What Chemical Compounds Do Gun Components Have?
The cartridges of small firearms comprises gunpowder (which serves as the propellant), a primer, the bullet, and the cartridge case.
Let’s look closer at each component to fully understand the process.
Primer Case & Primer
The primer case of a gun is usually made of copper and zinc, both of which can be detected as gunshot primer residue.
The cartridges of small arms are grouped in two different categories based on where the primer is located, namely the rimfire and centerfire. These two categories also have their own different primer compounds.
With rimfire types of cartridges, the makeup of the primer depends entirely on the manufacturer. However, the components that make up the primer of centerfire primers comprises three major chemical compounds.
These compounds also form gunshot residue and can be used in its identification. The components and the compounds associated with them include:
- The initiator – Comprises lead styphnate. The reaction sets off when the firing pin touches the primer cap.
- The oxidizer – Comprises barium nitrate. This provides the oxygen required for fuel burning to force out the bullet.
- The fuel – Comprises antimony sulfide. This burns very fast, ignites the gunpowder, and then propels the bullet out of the gun and towards the target.
The Cartridge Case and Propellent
Like the primer case, the cartridge case is normally made of zinc and copper. However, in some cases, some may be made with a nickel coating instead.
The modern-day gunpowder, aka ‘smokeless powder’, was invented in the late 17th century. A French chemist named Paul Vielle was the first to create this kind of smokeless gunpowder in 1884, while another was invented three years later by Alfred Nobel.
There are two major categories by which all bullets are grouped: lead bullets and metal-jacketed bullets.
As their name suggests, the primary component of lead bullets is lead. Although, sometimes, manufacturers may add antimony to make them harder. They may also come coated with copper, copper alloy, or nickel.
These types of bullets are lubricated and have a gas check, which is a hard metal cup that controls lead buildup and improves the accuracy of the gun.
Bullets with metal jackets are usually made from either brass or copper and have a steel or lead core. Some bullets have metal clad cases made with either copper-nickel, steel, or aluminum. Frangible bullets, on the other hand, are made of copper and a synthetic polymer.
Can Gunshot Residue Be Washed Off?
Gunshot residue has the consistency of flour and so is easily transferable to other surfaces. In fact, putting your hands in your pockets and taking them out will take a good bit of the residue off.
After about six to eight hours, it will be difficult to find gunshot residue on the hands of an active human being (though, according to Christopher Dockery et al. gunshot residue can be found on hands up to 5 days after the discharge).
Clothes or shoes, on the other hand, are a whole different tale. While, thanks to movement and natural oils secreted from the body, the majority of particles present in gunshot residue can be removed from the skin with soap and water.
However, it’s much more difficult to do this with clothes (especially cotton) as the microscopic particles may not come out after a single wash and burrow deep into fibers.
What to do to Ensure Hygiene Safety
- Wash up after you’re done shooting. In addition to washing your hands, also wash your clothes to minimize exposure to those harmful compounds, especially if you have kids or expectant mothers at home.
- Don’t wash your range clothing together with the rest of the laundry to prevent secondary transfer of these compounds.
- After a trip to the range, consider washing your hands before you eat anything. That way, if you forgot to wash up before, you won’t transfer particles into your mouth.
- Wear disposable gloves when cleaning your guns to keep both the residue and cleaning solvents from your skin.
Can Gunpowder Residue Be Detected After Washing?
Can gunshot residue be washed off, and detected after washing?
Although washing can reduce the amount of gunshot residue left behind, it doesn’t completely eliminate it. The characteristic chemical compounds of gunpowder residue cannot be easily removed by regular cleaning and washing.
Although they may not be visible to the eyes, forensic scientists can still collect samples of these compounds with an adhesive stub. Forensic laboratories can then test the stub be particle analysis, using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM).
Though washing doesn’t completely remove gunshot residue, as we can see above, it still greatly reduces your exposure to the harmful components contained in them and reduces the risks of developing health complications further down the line.
Conclusively, when it comes down to can gunshot residue be washed off, the answer is yes and no.
While it’s fairly easy to remove the visible traces of residual gun powder, it’s much more difficult to get rid of the invisible gunshot residue, especially nowadays as gunshot residue tests with the Scanning Electron Microscope still show their presence.
However, you can help yourself and everyone around you reduce the risk of exposure by washing your hands, face, and clothes after a trip to the range.