Barcodes on Bullets is as Dumb as it Sounds

There’s an article today on Philly.com about some activists who want to put barcodes on bullets. At first glance it sounds like a great idea — bullets could be tracked back to the person who bought them if they were used in a crime, and we could solve more murders. This sounds a bit familiar to another scheme we discussed, microstamping. And then you remember how bullets work and what this effort would take and the idea loses a little bit of its luster. And by “a little bit” I mean every last shred.

The first question to ask is “what is a barcode?” Wikipedia to the rescue:

A barcode is an optical machine-readable representation of data, which shows data about the object to which it attaches. Originally, barcodes represented data by varying the widths and spacings of parallel lines, and may be referred to as linear or 1 dimensional (1D). Later they evolved into rectangles, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns in 2 dimensions (2D). Although 2D systems use a variety of symbols, they are generally referred to as barcodes as well. Barcodes originally were scanned by special optical scanners called barcode readers; later, scanners and interpretive software became available on devices including desktop printers and smartphones.

Okay, so a barcode is something that is machine readable, translates to a number or string of characters, and looks similar to this:

Even using the 2D “QR” style barcodes it comes down to black and white marks and the spaces between them being significant. Distort the proportions and the barcode can become unreadable.

So now we know what a barcode is and how it’s used. The next question becomes how would you put it on a bullet? Microstamping cases is already a technology that’s been created, but bullets (which were specifically indicated in the article) have never been done before.

The easiest and most cost effective way of putting a barcode on a bullet is right on the top of the projectile. Since each box of shells would need its own unique barcode standing all the rounds up and doing them in one go would save time and not drastically increase manufacturing costs. There is, however, a problem with that option.

Just a small problem. Even with full metal jacket ammunition the bullets will deform as soon as they hit something, obliterating the barcode.

Plan B would probably be to slap the barcode on the side of the bullet, either in one section or as circumferential rings. The same types of problems arise with this situation, as the distance between the rings will change and the barcode will become unreadable. Not to mention the effect the rifling in the barrel will have on the metal jacket. In short, it’s guaranteed to be erased before the bullet has left the barrel.

That leaves only one place to put a barcode — the base of the bullet. Which would be great except for those pesky superheated gases and intense pressures. Anything stamped on the bottom of a bullet is likely to be extremely deformed and unreadable by the time it gets out of the barrel, and anything that makes it that far has a great chance of being completely obliterated upon impact.

Another reason that base stamping wouldn’t be effective is that it would simply be extremely cost prohibitive. With the tip or the side, the barcode can be applied either by a stamp or by laser etching after the rounds are in the tray and ready for packaging. With base stamping, from the second the bullet is formed by the machinery it needs to be tracked and the factory must ensure that only the 50 rounds with the right barcode on the bases make it into the 50 round packs.

In most factories the ammunition is treated like any other bulk good being produced — another one of countless identical units. Bullets are stored in large hoppers and allowed to mix with other similarly finished rounds before packaging. Implementing this system would mean redesigning factories to accommodate the new requirements, and should any of the rounds in a set fail inspection the entire set must be destroyed or else risk contaminating a box with two barcodes.

With the expense required to reconfigure the factory it would probably make more financial sense for the companies to start manufacturing for export only or simply not selling to shops in that state rather than produce the expensive ammunition.

Like I said before, if there were a 100% foolproof way to have the identity of a shooter revealed when they fire a gun illegally I’d be the first person to support it. But with this effort, the probability of an intact bullet being found and successfully identified are so minuscule and the expense for the system to be implemented so astronomical that it doesn’t make sense. And that’s not even starting on jacketless bullets or unregistered or stolen ammunition being used.

In short, it sucks. Find something better and I’ll get behind it.