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Learn all about starting a career in ballistics

As a ballistics expert, you’ll solve crimes that use guns and weapons.

ballistics expert records evidence from gun

Guns can leave their own “fingerprints” that provide police with valuable evidence in a crime. Ballistic experts, also known as firearm and/or tool mark examiners, use their specialized knowledge and eye for detail to analyze this evidence. 

Although the field does draw people from professions that deal with firearms regularly such as law enforcement or the military, anyone can learn to become a ballistics expert with the right education and training. 

“You learn this profession and you’re going to have not just a job but you’re going to have a career for life,” said William Demuth, a ballistics expert in Illinois and the President of the Association of Firearm and Took Mark Examiners (AFTE).

In this Article

How to become a forensic ballistics expert in 4 steps

Get a bachelor’s degree.

woman college graduate holding bachelors diploma

Most ballistics expert jobs want candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, especially in criminal justice or the sciences. Although this may not be a requirement everywhere, a bachelor’s degree could make you a more competitive job candidate, especially when you’re just starting out.

Apply for jobs that provide on-the-job training.

woman ballistics expert bags gun at crime scene

Some firearm and tool mark examiner positions already want experience, but you can’t gain experience without getting hired somewhere first. Luckily, it’s common for many employers to provide on-the-job training for new hires. This can give you the experience you need to start moving up the career ladder. Employers may provide the training themselves, or could sponsor you for training through the National Firearms Examiner Academy (NFEA).

Consider getting certified.

man taking certification exam on laptop

Ballistics experts who have been in the field for some time can get certified in three different patterned evidence domains by the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE) after passing a written and practical exam. Certification is voluntary but can demonstrate your expertise to future employers and possibly make you a more competitive job candidate.

Keep up on continuing education, whether you’re certified or not.

ballistics expert measures crime scene bullet

People with AFTE certification must complete continuing education requirements to maintain their certification. That being said, all ballistics experts should continue to learn about their profession and keep up with the latest methods and procedures.

What you’ll do as a ballistics expert

Ballistics experts often work for police forces, but it’s common for them to be hired by private agencies as well. Guns leave ballistic “fingerprints,” which result from the weapon’s individual twists and grooves that spin the bullet as it shoots. Here’s what you can expect to do if you become a ballistics expert:

  • Analyze and conduct tests on guns and weapons used to commit crime
  • Analyze traces of weapon usage such as powder markings, bullet holes, cartridge casings, tool marks, footprints, tire tracks and more
  • Take photographs of evidence
  • Enter evidence into an online database, such as the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN)
  • Collect, study, and sort evidence to determine its importance in an investigation
  • Care for and maintain laboratory equipment
  • Testify in court and serve as a witness, if needed

Demuth said it’s important to keep in mind that most ballistics experts are not out in the field doing crime scene investigations, which is a common misconception about the profession.

“Some agencies do have their laboratory people do crime scenes, but the vast majority don’t. We’re pretty much just the lab professionals.”

Another aspect of the job that is commonly misunderstood is the amount of administrative work that they have to do, and while it may not be the most fun part of the job, it is crucial that people are prepared to do it.

“Test-firing a gun can take ten minutes. And then that is followed by hours upon hours under the comparison scope doing the comparisons, followed by hours of note taking. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on that’s really not all that glamorous.”

Where do ballistics experts work?

Most ballistics experts are employed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or by private laboratories.  

Ballistics experts can even be hired by the United States Postal Service, which employs firearm and tool mark examiners to help with cases of illegally shipped firearms.

Some ballistics experts, particularly those with more experience, may work as a private examiner who is hired on a case-by-case basis with individual agencies.

Ballistics expert qualifications

Educational requirements can vary by state and employer, but in most cases, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or related sciences is required to work in a forensics lab. However, some forensics laboratories may accept experience with firearms as a sufficient substitution.

Some other baccalaureate majors that may be beneficial for a prospective ballistics expert include:

  • Forensics
  • Criminology/criminalistics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Engineering

Some forensics laboratories may accept experience with firearms as a sufficient substitution for a lack of postsecondary education. Police officers, for example, occasionally switch to the field because of their firearm and policing experience.

Gaining experience

Even with a college degree in hand, you probably are not ready to start doing casework right away.

“Unfortunately there really are no college-level forensic programs that teach firearms and tool marks. There are quite a few that cover drug chemistry, biology and DNA, toxicology, things like that. But for the most part, university forensic programs don’t tend to cover patterned evidence, and if they do it’s at an introductory level.” 

That’s why he recommends finding an agency that is willing to train you on-the-job.

“What some people do is they’ll find an agency that does train them. They’ll get trained and work for them for a period of time, and then they’ll have some experience. And then they’ll look for that position at the agency that they really want to be at.”

Employers may train you themselves or they can sponsor you to be sent to another training program such as National Firearms Examiner Academy (NFEA).

Firearm and tool mark examination training programs

The National Firearms Examiner Academy (NFEA) is currently the only national training program that provides a standardized training curriculum for education in the forensic firearm field. This training, which was developed by the ATF, is intended to provide training for entry-level firearms examiners from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. In order to be considered for the program, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Be a United States citizen
  • Have at least a bachelor’s degree in a related area such as the sciences or criminal justice
  • Be employed full time in a trainee status to perform the duties of a firearm and tool mark examiner.
  • Have a senior firearm and tool mark examiner assigned to oversee your training
  • Satisfactory completion of a background check

The NFEA’s training program lasts a little over a year long. Some of the training is completed on the student’s own time with their employer, and some must be completed in Ammendale, Marlyland as well as in the Washington, D.C. area.

It’s important to point out that you can’t attend this training program to get experience for a job you haven’t landed yet—the training is intended for people who have already been hired and are being put through the program by their employer.

Ballistics expert certification

The Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE) offers a voluntary certification program to qualified members. These certifications are designed to promote a standard of excellence in the field that qualified individuals can show for their expertise.

You can get certified by the AFTE in any or all of the following three subject areas:

  1. Firearm Evidence Examination and Identification (FA-AFTE)
  2. Tool mark Evidence Examination and Identification (TM-AFTE)
  3. Gunshot Residue Evidence Examination and Identification (GSR-AFTE)

In order to earn any of these certifications, you must possess the following qualifications: 

  1. Be a member of the AFTE in good standing
  2. Have the training and experience equivalent to the two-year course of study described in the AFTE Training Manual
  3. Have three years paid experience as a firearm and/or tool mark examiner following successful completion of a competency test and authorization by the applicant’s laboratory to perform firearm and/or tool mark identification casework.
  4. Have a bachelor’s degree (in any subject)

If you qualify, you must take and pass both a written and practical exam for each subject area you wish to be certified in.

Continuing education

In order to maintain AFTE certification, you must recertify every five years and complete 100 continuing education credits in that time frame.

Demuth said that he thinks continuing education is important regardless of whether you are certified or not.

“In terms of other ways to advance your credentials, a lot of it has to do with continuing education in my opinion. Because think about it, if at the beginning of your career you take 18 months to two years of training and become a firearms examiner, and you don’t do anything to go beyond that and don’t continue to evolve with the discipline and learn about your craft as you go along, you become stagnant.” 

AFTE members, for example, have the chance to attend annual training seminars where they can network, participate in workshops, attend technical sessions and more. Demuth said that there are many smaller, regional groups too that put on these sorts of conferences which are worth checking out.

Salary and career outlook

Ballistics experts are specialists in the field of forensic science. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for ballistics experts, who are classified under forensic science technicians, is $63,740.

Forensic Science Technicians

National data

Median Salary: $63,740

Projected job growth: 12.6%

10th Percentile: $39,710

25th Percentile: $49,320

75th Percentile: $82,160

90th Percentile: $104,330

Projected job growth: 12.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $53,610 $37,970 $68,810
Alaska $65,120 $47,960 $98,110
Arizona $62,760 $40,760 $103,620
Arkansas $46,500 $34,900 $52,420
California $85,490 $54,230 $132,320
Colorado $74,060 $54,710 $101,050
Connecticut $81,450 $47,250 $100,150
Florida $59,090 $37,520 $80,440
Georgia $47,980 $36,460 $69,100
Idaho $52,810 $38,300 $81,830
Illinois $107,520 $59,380 $107,520
Indiana $58,300 $37,490 $79,920
Iowa $65,690 $53,390 $93,370
Kansas $62,390 $46,090 $93,640
Kentucky $52,460 $41,250 $67,140
Louisiana $50,920 $37,870 $86,840
Maine $61,830 $40,310 $74,730
Maryland $65,480 $47,080 $104,310
Massachusetts $80,910 $60,240 $122,860
Michigan $57,490 $26,030 $95,120
Minnesota $79,210 $47,900 $99,780
Mississippi $51,630 $31,510 $67,330
Missouri $52,240 $32,350 $80,620
Montana $62,860 $49,890 $80,060
Nebraska $61,300 $34,770 $75,170
Nevada $64,980 $45,540 $104,400
New Hampshire $75,070 $55,850 $89,320
New Jersey $61,620 $48,150 $77,780
New Mexico $54,050 $29,820 $80,870
New York $79,140 $62,510 $104,330
North Carolina $47,370 $38,720 $64,030
Ohio $63,620 $48,350 $100,960
Oklahoma $67,120 $38,820 $100,330
Oregon $104,470 $61,270 $109,930
Pennsylvania $49,910 $35,680 $83,090
South Carolina $48,590 $36,310 $65,890
Tennessee $60,540 $39,380 $83,480
Texas $56,970 $38,400 $80,640
Utah $53,560 $41,390 $73,200
Virginia $68,310 $42,310 $102,660
Washington $77,170 $50,250 $99,180
West Virginia $48,840 $34,710 $66,990
Wisconsin $59,400 $38,730 $90,220
Wyoming $57,790 $41,900 $79,640

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

The BLS expects job growth to be faster than average for forensic science technicians—12.6% through 2032.

Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience, and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

Demuth said that one of the great things about a career in forensic ballistics is that it’s a relatively stable job. As long as there is crime, there will be a need for forensic science technicians like him.

You may still be wondering if becoming a firearm and tool mark examiner is a good fit for your individual interests and career goals. Demuth said that there are some qualities that you should have if you want to make the most of this career.  

“It’s a great field for people who are public service oriented,” Demuth said. “It’s also a great field for people who have an inquisitive mind. People who enjoy problem solving and things like that, because that’s really what forensics is all about. You’ve got a question you need to answer, you’re going to develop an experiment to answer that question, and then you’re going to run through the experiment and see what happens. It’s very fun in that regard.”

“People who enjoy problem solving and things like that… that’s really what forensics is all about.”

It also may go without saying that if you are interested in working with and studying firearms, a ballistics expert could be a great career fit.

“There are people out there who are very interested in the history and development of firearms, and this is the perfect field for them because you’re working with these things day in and day out,” Demuth said.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

With professional insights from:

William Demuth, Laboratory Director of the Illinois State Police

President of the Association of Firearm and Took Mark Examiners (AFTE)