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High-speed imaging of shock waves,

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Article in American Scientist January 2006

DOI: 10.1511/2006.1.22


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Gary S. Settles
Pennsylvania State University


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Feature Articles

High-speed Imaging of Shock Waves,

Explosions and Gunshots
New digital video technology, combined with some classic imaging techniques,
reveals shock waves as never before

Gary S. Settles

S hock waves were recognized as a

natural phenomenon more than a
century ago, yet they are still not wide-
into how buildings and airplanes can
be hardened to resist damage resulting
from such blasts.
sity of the air, which refracts light rays.
What Hooke described is now called
the shadowgraph method, and its a
ly understood. They are responsible for Their almost-total invisibility has simple approach that works extremely
the crash of thunder, as well as the bang given shock waves a mystique that has well for visualizing shock waves.
of a gunshot, the boom of fireworks, been exploited by Hollywood in count- Hooke also discovered another vis-
or the blast from a chemical or nuclear less scenes where explosions send ible trait of transparent phenomena:
explosion. But these are not just loud heroes diving for cover. Like sound They can distort the features of a back-
noises. Sound waves can be thought of waves, shock waves are as transparent ground pattern that is viewed through
as the weaker cousins of shock waves in as the air through which they travel. them. In this way an antique glass
the air: They are both pressure waves, Usually they can only be seen clearly windowpane warps ones view of the
but they are not the same. by special instruments under con- world outside. But Hooke was ahead
Shock waves play important roles in trolled conditions in the laboratory. of his time, so this observation princi-
modern physics and engineering, mili- Now, however, our research group ple lay unused until the mid-19th cen-
tary operations, materials processing has taken modern high-speed vid- tury, when the German scientist Au-
and medicine. Historically, the study eography equipment and combined gust Toepler rediscovered it and used
of shock waves has taught us much it with some classical visualization it to observe electric sparks. He saw
about the properties of gases and ma- methods to image shock waves from spherical waves in the air from loud
terial responses to a sudden energy explosions and gunshots in more re- spark discharges and thought he was
input, and has contributed to the de- alistic environments. This allows us to observing sound, but actually he was
velopment of gas lasers and the field capture the development and progress the first to see shock waves. Toepler
of plasma dynamics. of these wave fronts on a scale that has named his optical method the Schlie-
Recent attacks by terrorists using not been possible in the past. ren method (Schlieren means streaks
improvised explosive devices have in German). Although the technology
reinforced the importance of under- Optics in the Transparent World has changed significantly, particularly
standing blasts, explosions and the re- Even a transparent phenomenon some- for capturing large fields of view, that
sulting shock waves. These waves can times leaves telltale signs. For shock name for this method persists today.
be powerfully damaging in their own waves these signs can include moisture In the 1880s, Ernst Mach and his col-
right, but in addition, studying them condensation, dust disturbance, white- leagues used the schlieren method to
can help to quantify their originating caps on water, optical distortion and observe gunshots and thereby settle
explosions and can provide insight shadows. Certain aquatic predators find an argument about what actually hap-
their transparent prey by the shadows pens when a bullet travels faster than
that the Sun casts on the ocean floor. sound. They saw shock waves trailing
Gary S. Settles is professor of mechanical engineer-
Robert Hooke discovered this effect from a supersonic bullet like the water
ing and director of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory
at The Pennsylvania State University. He earned
more than three centuries ago while waves from a speedboat. Such obser-
his Ph.D. in 1976 from Princeton University. He observing the shadow of a burning vations became essential to the new
is the author of Schlieren and Shadowgraph candle cast by sunlight. Above the field of ballistics. Eventually Machs
Techniques (Springer, 2001). Address: 301D Re- flame he saw a plume of hot air that name was linked to the non-dimen-
ber Building, Pennsylvania State University, Uni- was not directly visible but cast a shad- sional ratio of an objects velocity V to
versity Park, PA 16802. Internet: ow because the heat changes the den- the speed of sound: the Mach number.

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction

22 American Scientist, Volume 94
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Figure 1. High-speed photography freezes in time an instant of the discharge of a .30-06-caliber rifle. The fast exposure captures the bullet
as it emerges at about Mach 2.5, but the spherical shock wave of the muzzle blast and the sweptback shock waves behind the bullet are nor-
mally invisible. While this image was captured on film, new digital video technology that can capture the waves distortion of a background
pattern has enabled some classical optical techniques to enter the modern age, where they can image high-resolution details of ballistic
events with a large field of view and under realistic conditions. Because flows are standardized to move from left to right in fluid dynamics,
some images in this article are printed in reverse. (Except where noted, photographs courtesy of the author.)

Machs motto was seeing is under- Because these tools and the study of speed imaging of shock waves at an
standing. He, Hooke, Toepler and ballistics and explosions are over a cen- unprecedented scale. Coupled with the
other, more recent investigators all tury old, it may be hard to picture what utility of small (gram-range) explosive
understood a principle that unites the could renew interest in them. In addi- charges, which are used for safety and
worlds of technology and art: In order tion to the current need for counter- convenience in research, this technol-
to understand a new or complicated terrorism measures mentioned earlier, ogy opens new vistas in the study of
phenomenon, one needs a physical investigators also now have modern shock waves and explosions.
picture of it early in its study. This electronic high-speed cameras with The contribution of my lab, the
is especially true of flow patterns in which to capture transient explosive Penn State Gas Dynamics Lab, to this
gases and liquids, which are usually events and fast-moving shock waves. topic has been primarily in freeing the
transparent. Without at least a con- Sadly for some of us, the era of pho- shadowgraph and schlieren methods
ceptual picture, working with fluids is tographic film is almost over. Howev- from the benchtop, applying them to
like working with solid objects in the er, with its demise, the rather painful large fields of view without the need
dark. Getting that picture, whether methods of high-speed cinematography for impractically large parabolic tele-
by experiment or computer simula- are being replaced with high-speed vid- scope mirrors, and even taking them
tion, invokes a special branch of the eography, which has an ever-improving outdoors. We have extended these
field of fluid dynamics called flow vi- frame rate and resolution and compara- methods to security applications such
sualization. The schlieren and shadow- tively magnificent user-friendliness, as as aircraft hardening, where they
graph techniques used to image shock well as compact and robust packaging. had never been used before but were
waves are vital tools for visualizing This allows the simpler optical meth- sorely needed. Currently we are ex-
flows that have a different refractive ods, such as shadowgraphy, to break ploring the broad range of scientific
index than the surrounding air, and out of the laboratory and take to the studies that can be done safely and
therefore bend light. field, where one can accomplish high- inexpensively with small, gram-sized

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction 2006 JanuaryFebruary 23
with permission only. Contact
explosive charges and the quantitative around the world, but such destructive A shock wave has no substance
optical measurement of shock-wave events are fortunately rare. itself; rather it is an extremely thin
motion using modern high-speed vid- Hollywood clearly does not under- wavefront that passes tsunami-like
eography. Such experimental data are stand shock waves, resulting in some through solids, liquids and gases at
important not only to elucidate the ludicrous cinematic special effects. On high speeds, driven by molecular colli-
physics of explosions, fragmentation television, Bart Simpson sent a shock sions at the nanoscale. It is defined as a
and blast damage, but also to guide wave rippling across Springfield by compression wavea sudden spike in
and validate computational simula- yelling into a row of megaphones pressure followed by a sudden drop in
tions of these events. ganged together in series. Children pressureformed, for example, when
who try this at home will be disap- the speed of an object (such as a bul-
Shock Waves pointedit doesnt actually work to let) is faster than the speed at which
But first consider what a shock wave is produce shock waves. In movies, the the surrounding medium (such as air)
and what it is not. What does it mean hero might outrun the blast from an transmits sound.
to read that some political event sent explosion on his motorcycle. Real mo- Sound waves in the air, whether
shock waves around the world? Such torcycles cannot begin to approach from a whisper or a yell, travel at the
shock waves are obviously figura- such speeds, and if they did they speed of sound, called a, for acoustic
tive and not real. The meteorite impact would not likely stay on the ground. speed. This speed depends on air tem-
that led to the demise of the dinosaurs But actual shock waves, in fact, are perature, but a is typically about 340
at the end of the Cretaceous Period much more interesting than anything meters per second in standard air.
and the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa Hollywood has come up with so far Shock waves, on the other hand, travel
in 1883 really did send shock waves to represent them. faster than a, being supersonic wave

a b
Figure 2. The first photograph of oblique
shock waves from a supersonic bullet was
taken by Ernst Mach and Peter Salcher in
the 1880s (a). The similarity of shock waves
with water waveshere caused by a family

of ducks fleeing an intruder (b)is no coinci-

dence. The same partial differential equation
governs both flow patterns. It is commonly
recognized that such sweptback waves in-
dicate high speed. Images of these types of
shock waves can be made with a retroreflec-
tive shadowgraph set-up. Harold E. Doc
Edgerton, who is famous for his invention
of the electronic flashlamp and his many
high-speed photographs, first developed this
system. The authors group modified the arc-
lamp output so it is focused on a small 45-de-
gree rod mirror centered on the camera lens, to
prevent a double-image effect when the lamp
and camera are on different axes (c). The rod
mirror casts a spot on the retroflective screen,
which returns light to the camera with high
gain. Disturbances in the path of the light
beamhere, a small explosive chargecast
shadows on the screen, which is imaged by
the video camera. (Photograph courtesy Peter
c Krehl, Ernst-Mach-Institut (a), Flight, wa-
tercolor by Connie Barlow, 1980 (b).)

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction

24 American Scientist, Volume 94
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b a

Figure 3. August Toeplers schlieren apparatus used two lenses and a small bright lamp, flashing in the microsecond range, to project an im-
age on a viewing screen (a). Opaque objects placed between the lenses appear in silhouette on the screen. A transparent phenomenon in the
test area, such as a shock wave (S), bends light rays away from their original paths. Two such rays are shown, one bent upward and the other
downward (dotted lines). The upward-deflected ray brightens a point on the screen, but the downward-deflected ray is blocked by a knife-
edge at the focus of the second lens. Its corresponding image point is dark against a gray background. A phenomenon such as a gunshot
between the lenses refracts many such rays in many directions, painting a picture of itself on the screen. A different principle is used to take
schlieren photographs of large-scale phenomena. Instead of lenses, a large retroreflective grid is used as a background in Penn States Full-
Scale Schlieren System (b). A camera lens focuses this source grid on a photographic negative of itselfthe cutoff gridthus blocking light
from the image plane. However, optical distortions in the test area allow some light to get through, forming a schlieren image. In effect, each
bright stripe on the source grid and corresponding dark stripe on the cutoff grid constitutes a Toepler-type schlieren optical system.

phenomena. Theyre also stronger and loud noises, such as those from a can be controlled for medically ben-
more energetic than sound waves, are jet engine in the 110-dB range, are ac- eficial purposes as well: A method
highly nonlinear and cause signifi- tually very weak shock waves. One called shock wave lithotripsy focuses
cant jumps in temperature, pressure can see them using the optical meth- shock-wave energy at a point inside
and density of the air over their wave ods described here, but they travel the body to break up kidney stones
thickness of only nanometers. The pas- barely faster than sound waves, with without significantly damaging the
sage of a strong shock wave through pressure peaks of only some hundred- surrounding tissue.
the human body, for example, causes thousandths of an atmosphere. On Spherical shock waves from explo-
severe damage owing to the large in- the other hand, a strong shock wave sions decrease quickly in strength
stantaneous pressure change. in air, such as one traveling at Mach with distance from the explosion cen-
Normal conversation, with a sound 2, produces an overpressure peak of ter, rapidly leveling out to Mach 1.0,
intensity in the 60- to 70-decibel 4.5 atmospheresmore than enough or the speed of sound. This rate of
(dB) range, involves minuscule air- to destroy the delicate human hearing speed decrease can be extracted from
pressure fluctuations of less than one mechanism and wreak other biologi- a high-speed shadowgraph video.
millionth of an atmosphere. Painfully cal havoc. However, this phenomenon As Harald Kleine of the Australian

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction 2006 JanuaryFebruary 25
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Defence Force Academy and his col-
leagues outlined in their 2003 paper
in the journal Shock Waves, the shape
of the curve produced by graphing
this speed-decrease data can be used
to find an explosives equivalent
mass, as compared with the standard
of trinitrotoluene (TNT).
Close to an explosion, a shock wave
can travel at several times the speed
of sound and reach pressures of ten
or more atmospheres, producing dev-
astating effects. Also, the wind that
immediately follows a strong shock
wave is brief but very intense. In an
explosion, the fireball expands very
quickly and pushes air ahead of it. As
the shock wave ripples out from the
explosion center, the speed of its fol-
lowing wind is the same as the speed
of expansion of the initial fireball. A
shock wave at a mere Mach 1.3 already
has a stronger following wind than
Figure 4. A U.S. Navy Blue Angel F-18 fighter flying transonically over San Francisco Bay the fastest natural tornado-generated
leaves some visible clues of shock waves. The air around the plane is compressed by the
wind speed ever recorded. Footage of
shock waves, then immediately expands and produces visible moisture condensation.
Shock waves also induce a wind immediately behind them that is strong enough to leave
pre-1963 aboveground nuclear tests
a track of white water on the bay. (Photograph courtesy of Peter Steehouwer.) shows the shock wave smashing whole
buildings, whose debris is then swept
downrange by the following wind.

What causes such a strong shock
wave? Since a stereo system makes
sound waves, can one turn the vol-
ume up to maximum and make shock

waves? No, stereo speakers are only

designed to vibrate in order to repro-

duce sound. Shock waves are made by
a rapid, continuous push, or by an
object traveling at supersonic speed.
Cracking a whip creates weak shock
waves, because the whip tip moves
faster than the speed of sound.
But the best way to generate a
strong shock wave in the air is sud-
denly to release a lot of energy stored
in a small space. Pressurized gas is
an example: On release, the gas ex-
pands very quickly and pushes the
atmosphere out of the way, forming a
shock wave. Even popping a balloon is
Figure 5. A shock wave can be produced by the rapid forward motion of a piston in a tube. The ac- enough to generate a very weak shock
celerating piston follows a curved path in space and time that eventually gives it a fixed forward wave from the gas released when the
speed. (Speed is represented by the slope of a line, comparing changes in distance and time.) balloon skin ruptures. In the labora-
The initial motion of the piston sends a pressure disturbance, or sound wave, down the tube at tory, shock waves are best studied in
the initial acoustic speed of the air that fills the tube. Acoustic speed is proportional to the square a facility known as a shock tube, where
root of the gas temperature, but each sound wave also incrementally heats the gas. Therefore, as
they are generated by the rupture of a
the piston accelerates, many successive sound waves follow the first, each at an incrementally
higher acoustic speed. (For clarity, only a few such sound waves are illustrated.) These sound
thin diaphragm separating high- and
waves overtake and reinforce one another, forming a strong disturbancea shock wave. The low-pressure gases.
shock wave travels faster than the acoustic speed of the undisturbed gas in the tube; it is a super- Explosives are another good way to
sonic phenomenon. In the laboratory, the piston is replaced by a thin diaphragm that holds high- produce shock waves. In this case, the
pressure gas. When the diaphragm is ruptured, the high-pressure gas expands in a piston-like energy is stored in an unstable chemi-
motion, forming a shock wave. This device is called a shock tube. cal formoften in nitratesand can

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction

26 American Scientist, Volume 94
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be released in about a microsecond.
Ironically, most chemical explosives
contain less energy per unit mass than
ordinary table butter, but fortunately
the butter is too stable to explode.
The loss of life caused by an ex-
plosion is often due to fragmentation
rather than the overpressure or the
following wind of the shock wave
itself. Shrapnel behaves like a hail
of supersonic bullets, being acceler-
ated along radial lines in all direc-
tions from the explosion center by the
aerodynamic drag force exerted by
the rapidly expanding gas.
But strong shock waves are also
devastating to structures. In the 1995
terrorist bombing of the Murrah Fed-
eral Building in Oklahoma City, a huge
truck bomb was detonated only a few
meters from the building. The result-
ing strong shock wave and its many
concomitant effects destroyed the col-
umns supporting the north face of the
Figure 6. When a toy balloon bursts, a schlieren photograph shows that the balloon skin
building, whence it collapsed. As a re-
shreds very rapidly, revealing a balloon-shaped bubble of compressed air inside. A spheri-
sult, 168 lives were lost and there were
cal shock wave is formed despite the non-spherical initial shape of the balloon. The colors
many more injuries. Both experiments in this image were introduced by color filters that take the place of a knife-edge.
and computational blast simulations
now help inform building designers
on how to mitigate such lethal effects ward cheaper, safer, quicker simula- tors can simulate shock-wave and frag-
and how to prevent building collapse tions of blast effects using gram-range mentation effects on planned buildings
and improve survivability. explosive charges, scale models and or transportation vehicles, for example,
The experiments can sometimes be optical shock-wave imaging. By ap- using scale models. The high-speed
dangerous and costly, however, when plying known scaling laws to small digital video cameras my colleagues
done at full scale. A recent trend is to- explosions in the laboratory, investiga- and I use record shock position over

Figure 7. Shadowgrams of two small explosive charges show the dangers of fragmentation. The charges are 1 gram each of triacetone triper-
oxide (TATP) encased in solid containers. Ignited electrically, they produce spherical shock waves that were captured here by 1-microsecond
exposures when each shock was about 1 meter in diameter. At left, the container fragments into large pieces that are hurled at near the speed
of sound behind the shock wave. In the image at right, the fragments are much smaller and travel at supersonic speeds ahead of the main
shock. In full-scale explosions, fragments like these are as deadly as a hail of bullets.

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction 2006 JanuaryFebruary 27
with permission only. Contact
103 in Lockerbie, Scotland, at first
seemed to show the effects of multiple
simultaneous blasts at various fuselage
locations. As investigations progressed,
it was realized that shock waves had
traveled the length and breadth of the
fuselage, sometimes reflecting and
thus causing local blowouts remote
from the actual terrorist bomb located
in the forward cargo hold.
Optical shock-wave imaging can
help explain the complicated conse-
quences of such onboard explosions.
In addition to simulations, the U.S.
Transportation Security Administra-
tion recently did tests on actual air-
cargo containers filled with luggage,
which were blown up by planted ter-
rorist-scale explosives. For the first
time, high-speed videography cap-
tured shock-wave motion in these ex-
periments. To do this, a retroreflective
shadowgraphy method pioneered by
Figure 8. Detonation of a small, 10-milligram silver nitrate charge three centimeters above a
surface produces primary and secondary spherical shock waves that are irregularly reflected Harold E. Doc Edgerton proved ro-
by the ground. Although shock waves from explosions have spherical symmetry in the open bust enough to function in the field
air, reflections off objects can make the shock-wave pattern very complicated. The pastel despite environmental extremes and
colors of this photograph are introduced by color filters and coded to indicate the direction severe shock loads on the apparatus.
in which light has been refracted. (Courtesy of Harald Kleine, University of New South Retroreflective screens return to
Wales/Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia.) the camera lens orders of magni-
tude greater illumination than does
time by schlieren or shadowgraphy, ing is needed if aircraft are ever to the simple diffuse white screen that
from which we can determine all post- be hardened against catastrophic in- is often used for shadowgraphy. The
shock fluid properties. flight failure resulting from explosions, screen functions like a spherical re-
Even after several costly full-scale whether deliberate or accidental. Inte- flector, returning much of the light
blast experiments involving real air- rior explosions in aircraft (as in build- striking it to its point of origin. For
planes, the gas-dynamics of explosions ings) are complicated by shock-wave high-speed video shadowgraphy, a
onboard commercial aircraft remains reverberation from interior surfaces. In retroreflective screen is a necessity for
poorly understood. Better understand- 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight creating a bright image.

Figure 9. Schlieren images that show shock wave reflections may help aircraft designers harden planes against explosions. Some recent
tests include a schlieren image of a 60 percent scale-model simulation of a luggage-container bomb that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 in 1988
(left), and a full-size simulationusing real aircraft seats and department-store mannequinsof Ramzi Yousefs 1994 attempt to bring down
a Philippine Airlines flight using a nitroglycerin bomb under a passenger seat (right). In both cases a small acetylene/oxygen gas detonation
produces a fireball and shock wave in Penn States Full-Scale Schlieren System.

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction

28 American Scientist, Volume 94
with permission only. Contact
Figure 10. Color schlieren and black-and-white shadowgraph techniques capture similar information but emphasize complementary details.
A microsecond color schlieren photograph (left) captures an instant during the firing of a .22-caliber marksmans pistol. The air shock wave
and the transonic bullet have left the muzzle, followed by the propellant gases. The muzzle blast is the bang that one hears upon firing
a gun. Toward the right side of the image, thermal convection rises from the gun and the shooters hand. A frame from a high-speed shad-
owgraph video (right) shows the firing of a single round from an AK-47 submachine gun, with its spherical muzzle blast and supersonic
bullet trailing oblique shock waves.

A flaw in Edgertons original method The gunshot images my colleagues centimeters, and could thus visualize
is that the camera axis had to be slightly and I have produced were taken with only part of the discharge. My col-
offset from that of the light source. This a massive bullet stop, permission from leagues and I developed a set-up with
creates a confusing double image in the the Penn State campus police and all a field of view of up to several square
resulting video. A beamsplitter could appropriate safety precautions. Previ- meters, which is able to reveal most or
be used to correct this, but with a large ous high-speed shadow and schlieren all of the process.
loss in illumination intensity. Instead, images of gunshots were limited to The evolving flowfield of a gunshot
we affixed a small mirror at a 45-de- small fields of view, typically a few is rather complicated over a period of
gree angle to the center of a filter over
the camera lens and reflected the beam
off of this surface before sending it to
the screen. This arrangement provides
perfect alignment between light source
and camera axes, and there is no notice-
able loss of shadowgram quality as a
result of the small area of camera lens
occluded by the mirror.

All this leads inexorably to the topic
of firearms, which, after centuries of
refinement, now hurl bullets with
high speed and deadly accuracy. Ernst
Mach was cynical about his original
supersonic-bullet research, and ex-
pected to be criticized for its lack of
utility because one cannot wage war
with mere photographed projectiles.
Controversial as the topic is, we can
nevertheless learn from high-speed gun-
shot images and perhaps use that knowl-
edge to save lives and prevent crime.
Forensic investigation of gunpowder
Figure 11. This full-scale schlieren image shows the discharge of a .44 Magnum revolver.
residues, point-blank gunshot wounds, Two spherical shock waves are seen, one centered about the guns muzzle (the muzzle blast)
shooter hearing protection and sniper and a second centered on the cylinder. The supersonic bullet is visible at the far left. This
location are a few topics that can ben- weapon produces a bright muzzle flash and a cloud of products of gunpowder combustion
efit from observing and understanding that envelops the hands of the shooter. Such high-speed images help forensics experts un-
shock waves and related phenomena. derstand the transfer of gunpowder traces to the hands when firing a gun.

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction 2006 JanuaryFebruary 29
with permission only. Contact
Figure 12. Images from high-speed videos elucidate the acoustic difference between the firing of a .45-caliber pistol (left) and the firing of
the same pistol with a suppressor, or silencer, attached (right). Without the suppressor, powder gases expand laterally out of the muzzle
following the bullet, driving a strong muzzle-blast wave that causes a loud report. With the suppressor in place, the lateral expansion is
reduced, weakening the muzzle blast and instead causing jet noisemore of a hiss than a bang.

several milliseconds. The interior bal- pand tremendously as they transfer If you are unlucky enough to be
listics of firearms cannot be observed from high pressure inside the barrel shot at but lucky enough to be missed,
by the methods described here, so to one atmosphere outside. This rap- sometimes you hear instead the sound
the first visible phenomenon at the id expansion behaves like an explo- of the bullet itself. Inertia keeps super-
muzzle is the emergence of the bul- sion in pushing the air out of the way sonic bullets moving at high speed,
let-driven shock wave, followed im- and thus generating a strong spheri- while the muzzle blast rapidly decays
mediately by the bullet itself. Then cal shock wave, or muzzle blast. The in strength like the spherical shock
the propellant gases, the products of bang of a gunshot is almost always wave from an explosion. So the bul-
gunpowder combustion, exit and ex- caused by this muzzle blast. let inexorably pulls ahead of the de-
caying muzzle blast, trailing oblique
shock waves. These shock waves pro-
duce the sensation of a sharp crack
as the bullet passes, followed later by
the bang of the muzzle blast. This
sequence varies with timing and the
hearers position with respect to the
bullets path, making it very difficult
to determine the direction of gunfire
from its perceived sounds.
The Penn State Full-Scale Schlieren
System is the largest indoor schlieren
system in the world, with a field of
view that is two meters by three me-
ters. Photographs made in this system
show these gunshot phenomena on
a grander scale than was previously
possible. Not only are the exterior bal-
listics of the bullet revealed, but also
the interaction of the muzzle blast
with the shooter. Proper ear protec-
Figure 13. This computer-generated simulation of a schlieren image is derived from a tion is essential to prevent hearing
numerical solution of the equations of motion to mimic the emergence of a supersonic bul- loss. Propellant-gas interactions with
lethere, modeled as a cylinderfrom the muzzle of a gun. High-speed schlieren imagery the hands of the shooter, the gas-dy-
verifies simulations such as these, which in turn have made significant contributions to the namic behavior of various firearms
field of fluid dynamics. (Image courtesy of Zonglin Jiang, Chinese Academy of Sciences.) and many other related phenomena

2006 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction

30 American Scientist, Volume 94
with permission only. Contact
Hooke, R. 1665. Micrographia. London: J. Mar-
tyn & J. Allestry.
Jiang, Z., K. Takayama and B. W. Skews. 1988.
Numerical study on blast flowfields induced
by supersonic projectiles discharged from
shock tubes. Physics of Fluids 10:277288.
Jussim, E., and G. Kayafas. 1987. Stopping
Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton.
New York: H. N. Abrams.
Kleine, H., and H. Groenig. 1991. Color schlie-
ren methods in shock wave research. Shock
Waves 1:5163.
Kleine, H., J. M. Dewey, K. Ohashi, T. Mizu-
kaki and K. Takayama. 2003. Studies of the
TNT equivalence of silver azide charges.
Shock Waves 13:123138.
Krehl, P., and S. Engemann. 1995. August
Toeplerthe first who visualized shock
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Liepmann, H. W., and A. Roshko. 2002. Ele-
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of Blast-effects Mitigation Technologies from
Military to Civilian Applications. Washing-
Figure 14. A 1-microsecond direct-illumination photo reveals the fate of a banana struck by a ton, D.C.: National Academy Press.
.22-caliber rifle bullet, illustrating how destructive high-speed bullets and their attendant shock
Ray, S. F. 1997. High Speed Photography and
waves are for soft tissue and cellular material. (Photograph by S. S. McIntyre and the author.) Photonics. Oxford, U.K.: Focal Press.
Settles, G. S. 2001. Schlieren and Shadowgraph
of interest to ballistics can be studied a microphone, located outside the field Techniques: Visualizing Phenomena in Trans-
in this experimental imaging facility. of view, which picked up the passage parent Media. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
One such topic, imaged for the first of the bullets oblique shock wave. Settles, G. S., B. T. Keane, B. W. Anderson and
time using retroreflective shadowgra- Ballistics, shock waves and high- J. A. Gatto. 2003. Shock waves in aviation
phy and high-speed videography, is speed imaging have been and continue security and safety. Shock Waves 12:267275.
the effect of a suppressor or silencer to be crucial to many fields. Medical Settles, G. S. 2004. The Penn State full-scale
schlieren system. In: Proceedings of the 11th
in reducing the strength of a guns and materials processing applications International Symposium on Flow Visualiza-
muzzle blast. Suppressors are illegal of shock waves are similarly fascinat- tion, ed. T. J. Mueller and I. Grant. Notre
in many states but can be important ing to observe at high speed. Faster Dame University, Paper 76.
assets to police special forces. Their electronic cameras with better reso- Settles, G. S., T. P. Grumstrup, L. J. Dodson, J.
effect is believed to involve slow- lution are on the horizon, potentially D. Miller and J. A. Gatto. 2005. Full-scale
ing and cooling the propellant gases yielding a million frames per second high-speed schlieren imaging of explo-
sions and gunshots. Proceedings of the 26th
as they leave the muzzle. However, and beyond. The opportunity for inge- International Conference on High-Speed Pho-
high-speed shadowgraphy reveals nuity in devising and applying high- tography and Photonics, Alexandria, Va.,
another effect: The lateral expansion speed optical imaging systems is like- ed. D. L. Paisley. Bellingham, Wash.: SPIE
of the propellant gas is channeled for- wise not nearly exhausted yet, and the 5580:6068.
ward into a supersonic turbulent jet, future holds many novel applications Settles, G. S., T. P. Grumstrup, J. D. Miller, M.
reducing the strength of the muzzle for such experiments. J. Hargather, L. J. Dodson and J. A. Gatto.
2005. Full-scale high-speed Edgerton ret-
blast but also generating jet noise. In roreflective shadowgraphy of explosions
other words, some of the bang is Acknowledgments and gunshots. In: Proceedings of PSFVIP-5,
converted to a hiss, which can re- The author wishes to thank Gary and Carol 5th Pacific Symposium on Flow Visualisation
duce the sound level by 10 to 20 dB or Katona for assistance with Figure 10a and and Image Processing, Australia.
more. With high-speed flow imaging E. M. Freemesser and E. F. Spencer, Jr., for Settles, G. S. 2006. Fluid mechanics and
and the application of gas-dynamic assistance with Figures 10b and 12. homeland security. Annual Review of Fluid
Mechanics 38:87110.
principles, advances in suppressor
design are possible. Bibliography U.K. Department of Transportation. 1989. Re-
port on the accident to Boeing 747121,
Finally, direct illumination of bullet Biele, J. K. 2003. Point-source spark shadow- N739PA at Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, Scot-
impacts with a microsecond flashlamp graphy at the historic birthplace of super- land on 21 December 1988. Aircraft Acci-
also produces revealing images, even sonic transportationA historical note. dent Report 2/90 (EW/C1094). Air Accident
Shock Waves 13:167177. Investigatory Branch.
though the shock waves and other
gas-dynamic phenomena are not vis- Edgerton, H. E. 1970. Electronic Flash, Strobe.
ible this way. The ballistic impact of Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. For relevant Web links, consult this
a high-speed bullet does not usually Glass, I. I. 1974. Shock Waves and Man. Toron- issue of American Scientist Online:
to, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
just punch a clean hole in a target, but
rather shatters brittle material and dis- Glasstone, S., and P. Dolan. 1977. The Effects
rupts soft tissue. The images we have of Nuclear Weapons. Washington, D.C.:
US DOD/DOE. IssueTOC/issue/801
taken were triggered electronically by

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