The Blast Effect
This is how bullets from an AR-15 blow the body apart
Editor’s note: We are publishing these 3D animations to show the destructive power of the AR-15. The images may disturb some people.
The wounds show the lethal force of the AR-15.
But they are rarely seen.
The gun is the weapon of choice for many mass killers.
It works with brutal efficiency.
The scenes of chaos and terror are all too familiar in America.
The AR-15 fires bullets at such a high velocity — often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession — that it can eviscerate multiple people in seconds. A single bullet lands with a shock wave intense enough to blow apart a skull and demolish vital organs. The impact is even more acute on the compact body of a small child.
“It literally can pulverize bones, it can shatter your liver and it can provide this blast effect,” said Joseph Sakran, a gunshot survivor who advocates for gun violence prevention and a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
During surgery on people shot with high-velocity rounds, he said, body tissue “literally just crumbled into your hands.”
The carnage is rarely visible to the public. Crime scene photos are considered too gruesome to publish and often kept confidential. News accounts rely on antiseptic descriptions from law enforcement officials and medical examiners who, in some cases, have said remains were so unrecognizable that they could be identified only through DNA samples.
As Sakran put it: “We often sanitize what is happening.”
The Washington Post sought to illustrate the force of the AR-15 and reveal its catastrophic effects.
The first part of this report is a 3D animation that shows the trajectory of two different hypothetical gunshots to the chest — one from an AR-15 and another from a typical handgun — to explain the greater severity of the damage caused by the AR-15.
The second part depicts the entrance and exit wounds of two actual victims — Noah Pozner, 6, and Peter Wang, 15 — killed in school shootings when they were struck by multiple bullets.
This account is based on a review of nearly 100 autopsy reports from several AR-15 shootings as well as court testimony and interviews with trauma surgeons, ballistics experts and a medical examiner.
The records and interviews show in stark detail the unique mechanics that propel these bullets — and why they unleash such devastation in the body.
This is a .223-caliber-sized round inside an AR-15. What makes the weapon so deadly is the speed of that bullet.
It is small and light. Its cartridge holds enough propellant to send the bullet flying out of the barrel at a speed that would cross six football fields in a second.
This is a 9mm-sized round, a common choice in handguns. Its bullets are larger, inside smaller cartridges. They don’t hold enough gunpowder to match the velocity of the .223.
Any bullet can kill, and instantly, when it hits a vital organ. The higher speed of a bullet from an AR-15 causes far more damage after it hits the body and drastically reduces a person’s chances of survival.
“As that bullet slows down,” said trauma surgeon Babak Sarani, an authority on casualties from mass killings, “that energy is so massive it has to go someplace, and your body will literally tear apart.”
In this hypothetical scenario, the bullet bursts into the chest cavity. It shreds lung tissue, severs nerves and vessels and causes massive bleeding. It also begins to tumble, taking a chaotic path in the body.
The speed at impact creates a blast effect, like the wake that follows a boat, causing internal injuries far outside the bullet’s path. Here, the blast destroys large veins that carry blood back to the heart.
A 9mm bullet from the same distance takes a relatively linear path. Because that bullet doesn’t produce the same blast effect, it causes far less damage.
The bullet from the AR-15 leaves behind a gaping exit wound. The 9mm bullet fired from the handgun has a much smaller exit wound.
In this scenario, with immediate medical care and minimal bleeding, the victim has a chance at surviving the 9mm shot to the chest.
The bullet from the AR-15, however, causes torrential bleeding that is quickly lethal.
Two children, many bullets
When multiple bullets from an AR-15 strike one body, they cause a cascade of catastrophic damage.
This is the trauma witnessed by first responders — but rarely, if ever, seen by the public or the policymakers who write gun laws.
The Post determined that there is a public interest in demonstrating the uniquely destructive power of the AR-15 when used to kill.
What follows is a detailed depiction showing the impact of bullets fired from AR-15s at two young victims. It is based on autopsy reports for Noah Pozner and Peter Wang that The Post obtained through public records.
Due to the unusual visual nature of the presentation, The Post took the added step of seeking — and receiving — the consent of the victims’ families before proceeding with this account. The Post offered the families the opportunity to view the depictions in advance of publication, which they declined to do.
The families also declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson for the Wang family offered a statement explaining why Peter’s parents, Hui and Kong Wang, provided their consent to The Post.
“Peter’s parents want people to know the truth,” said Lin Chen, their niece and Peter’s cousin. “They want people to know about Peter. They want people to remember him.”
This presentation may be disturbing to some people.
Noah Pozner, 6
Noah was found dead on the floor of Classroom 8 at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012. He was 6. He was wearing a red Batman sweatshirt, black pants and black sneakers.
He loved Batman. He was full of energy, his family said, curious and imaginative. He wanted to be an astronaut, and he also wanted to manage a taco factory, because he loved tacos. Noah would tease his sisters that when they went to bed, he was going off “to his third shift” at the factory, so convincingly that they would wake up to make sure he was still in bed.
It was cold that morning when his father, Lenny, dropped him off at school, “but he jumped out not wearing his jacket and he had one arm in one sleeve and his backpack in his other arm, and he was kind of juggling both and walking into the school that way,” Lenny Pozner would later testify.
“And that’s the last visual I have of Noah.”
The first visual that Connecticut state police Sgt. William Cario has of Noah is this: 15 children and two educators are piled on top of one another in a small school bathroom on the southwest corner of the classroom. Cario proceeded to pull them out one by one. All were dead.
One of them was Noah.
Noah was shot three times. Adam Lanza took his mother’s AR-15 rifle to the school and fired 80 rounds into the bathroom. Here are the wounds that killed Noah.
The bullet that struck Noah’s left thumb caused the smallest of his wounds. His hand was badly mangled.
The bullet that struck Noah’s back crossed through the center of his chest, filling it with blood. It broke apart into fragments, according to 2019 court testimony from chief state medical examiner Wayne Carver.
The bullet that hit Noah’s face caused an almost “complete destruction” of the lower lip and jaw.
Noah’s wounds were not survivable, Carver testified. “This particular kind of projectile, it’s got so much energy that it just breaks up.” The pattern of metal over a wide area, he said, “would give me a marker of ... what organs were destroyed and how completely.”
Peter Wang, 15
Peter was found dead in a third-floor hallway of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018. He was 15. He was wearing his Army JROTC uniform.
He kept notes in his bedroom drawer about his plans. He had joined the military training corps, with its mission to “motivate young people to be better citizens,” as an important step toward attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Born in New York to parents from China, he was always helping everyone around him, friends and family said. Once, at Disney World, he held a friend’s child aloft in a crowd for 20 minutes so she could see a fireworks display.
When gunfire broke out at Parkland, Peter was in study hall, playing chess with a friend. He held the door open for other students to escape.
A few of them made it. He did not.
Peter was shot 13 times. Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 he bought legally and fired at least 139 rounds. Here are the wounds that killed Peter.
Peter was running down the hallway when he was shot. He was struck once in the foot, twice in the thigh, once in the torso, five times in his arms and, finally, four times in the head.
One of the bullets that hit his thigh fractured his hipbone and then broke partially apart before exiting through his abdomen.
Two bullets tore Peter’s chest apart. One entered his torso and flew upward, fragmenting and perforating his chest muscle, which bruised his lungs and created a cluster of three large exit wounds. The other struck the back of his upper right arm, pierced the shoulder joint and opened up a gaping hole on the way out.
The four bullets that obliterated Peter’s head were the last four he received, medical examiner Wendolyn Sneed, who performed the autopsy, testified at Cruz’s sentencing trial last year. Surveillance video showed that Peter’s legs were moving as the killer came closer to him and fired rapidly.
The combined energy of those bullets created exit wounds so “gaping” that the autopsy described his head as “deformed.” Blood and brain splatter were found on his upper body and the walls. That degree of destruction, according to medical experts, is possible only with a high-velocity weapon.
Peter was one of 16 Parkland victims who were shot several times. The shooter had equipped his AR-15 with the ability to fire dozens of rounds without pausing to reload, preventing people from escaping.
In many of America’s mass killings, shooters hit multiple victims, multiple times. In seconds.