“I shot an arrow into the air.
It fell to earth, I know not where.”
He should have that arrow, bow, and quiver stuck up his nose, for the apparent permission he gives the witless among us to launch projectiles into the air to “fall to earth, they know not where.” Like this is some sort of romantic mystery as opposed to a grindingly stupid act.
Although it goes without saying that “what goes up, must come down” and “every bullet launched moves until something stops it,” we’ll say it anyway because every now and then you meet some knuckle-dragger whose Daddy didn’t teach him proper firearms handling like Thomas Jefferson recommended. And we’re not talking about the possibility of hitting a camel here; we’re talking about the US of A, a “nation of riflemen,” where everybody old enough to shoot should know better.
One astute writer noted, “Dumb asses shooting into the sky to celebrate . . . isn't something that only happens in the Middle East . . .” He’s right, you know. He also concluded, “Remember the old days when we just tolerated drunk drivers? Even though we all had a relative who had been killed by one? This is the same damn thing.”
Hard to argue with that, as well. And since friends don’t let friends drive drunk, they shouldn’t let pea-brains shoot into the air, either. Whether the person is holding the gun or not, say something. OK, he’s holding a gun, so be polite, but say something.
In a vacuum, a bullet launched straight up, would return at the same speed, accelerating downward from its apogee at the rate of 32 feet per second. But bullets fired into the air usually fall back at speeds much lower than those at which they leave the barrel, because of wind resistance, which is usually compounded by the tumbling of the projectile once its spin-stabilization gives out.
Firearms expert Julian Hatcher studied falling bullets and found that GI .30-06 bullets reach terminal velocities of 300 feet per second (90 m/s), while larger .50 BMG bullets have a terminal velocity of 500 feet per second (150 m/s) on the way back down. A bullet traveling at only 150 feet per second (46 m/s) to 170 feet per second (52 m/s) can penetrate human skin, and at 200 feet per second (60 m/s) it can penetrate the skull.
Despite these unimpressive velocities, countless people are injured, often fatally, when bullets fired into the air return to earth. The mortality rate among those struck by falling bullets is about 32 percent, compared with about 2 to 6 percent normally associated with gunshot wounds. Despite the lower velocities, the higher mortality is related to the higher incidence of head wounds from falling bullets. Except for the pea-brain who shot into the air: he’d be more likely to be hit in the butt, as that is where his head is.
A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 80 percent of celebratory gunfire-related injuries are to the head, feet, and shoulders. In the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a couple of people die and a couple dozen more are injured every year from celebratory gunfire on New Year's Eve, according to the CDC.
Between 1985 and 1992, the King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles treated some 118 people for falling-bullet injuries: 38 of them died. Kuwaitis celebrating the 1991 end of the Gulf War by firing weapons into the air caused 20 deaths from falling bullets. In July 2003, more than 20 people were reported killed in Iraq from celebratory gunfire following the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay. In July 2007 at least four people were reported killed and 17 others wounded by celebratory gunfire in Baghdad, after the victory of the national soccer team in the AFC Asian Cup. (Sigh)
If you could fire exactly straight up — odds are good that you can’t — this would probably result in a more slowly falling projectile, as it would be more inclined to tumble, whereas one fired even in a steep arc would more likely have retained its spin stabilization, point-first orientation, and lessened air resistance. In World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, “unpropelled” missiles of the Lazy Dog type, aerodynamically shaped and heavier than most small-arms projectiles, were dumped from aircraft, their aerodynamic shape helping them gain far greater terminal velocity. In World War I, they were dumped from dirigibles and slow-flying craft and relied on gravity, but when dumped from fast-movers they start with the speed of the aircraft and accelerate at 32 fps/sec in relation to the ground. Some World War I reports were that these could penetrate an enemy’s helmet and completely through his body, but this seems optimistic. And that arrow? It probably would have greater lethal effect than many projectiles, again because of its aerodynamic properties.
Check the Bob Tuley and Wikipedia links on celebratory firing for further info and tabulations. For the best titles on safe and effective firearms handling, check out the Combat Shooting section on the Paladin website.