The Cheney Shotgun Experiment
Vice President Cheney's February 11 hunting accident has raised a lot of questions. Sketchy details released after a delay are bound to raise suspicions. And given the chaos of the moment and other factors, we’re not sure even those present could give a fully accurate account. So we’re using science to try to clear things up. That means, of course, getting a 28-gauge shotgun and shooting stuff.
We wanted to find out what happens when you fire a 28-gauge shotgun at various distances – 5 yards, 10 yards, 20 yards, and 30 yards – to see what results were most consistent with the damage reported in the Cheney-Whittington accident. Our intention was to establish with some accuracy the distance at which the shotgun was fired. And also to see what happens when you blast a watermelon with a shotgun at close range.
We obtained a Remington 870 Express 28-gauge shotgun for this experiment. While this reasonably priced model is a far cry from Cheney's high-end Perazzi-Brescia over-under 28-gauge, it is a fair enough facsimile for our purposes. We used shells loaded with ¾ oz. of No. 7 ½ shot, the identical size of shot that Cheney was using.
A note on chokes: The type of choke Cheney was using has been identified as a significant factor because it controls the gun's shot pattern and therefore impacts calculations of the distance at which it was fired. If the gun was fired at a close range, we don't think the choke type would matter, since at ranges closer than 20 yards the differences between the various chokes starts to disappear, and at a very close range of 15 feet, there is virtually no difference. The shot pattern doesn't start to widen until it has traveled some distance out of the barrel. Our gun was equipped with a fixed modified choke, which is somewhere in the middle of the range of chokes. Cheney was probably using a modified choke, an improved cylinder choke, or possibly an open cylinder (no choke). From modified to no choke there is a difference of about 20% density in the amount of shot delivered to a 30-inch circle at 30 yards.
After stocking up with a wide range of targets, from regulation police silhouettes to half a pig, we enlisted an experienced hunter and marksman, went to an undisclosed location, and began blasting away. We fired at a variety of targets for experimental purposes, using paper silhouette targets to establish the blast pattern consistent with the accident, and homemade ballistics gel and poultry to establish the range at which the shot was fired. We then attempted to re-create the incident more accurately by firing on half a pig carcass, with and without clothing.
Background on the Accident
The Texas Parks and Wildlife official accident report put the distance of the shooting at 30 yards. However, some hunters and others knowledgeable about firearms have questioned this, saying that the amount of shot that hit Whittington and the injuries he received were consistent with a shotgun discharge at a closer range. It basically comes down to two things: how many pellets hit him and how deep were his wounds? Unfortunately, the initial information released (or lack thereof) muddled both of these issues. Some media reported that Whittington was hit by 200 pellets, which would have been nearly the entire contents of a shotgun shell filled with 7 ½ shot. There’s also the question of whether the pellet that ended up in Whittington’s heart, causing a minor heart attack, got there by penetrating his ribcage deep enough to lodge in his heart, or got there by migrating through a blood vessel.
If you look at photos of Whittington after his release from the hospital, it appears he has about a dozen small pellet wounds all across his face, and major bruising on his neck. So we were trying to estimate what firing distance would produce that sort of damage. But we also wanted to see if it was possible that Whittington had been struck close enough for a pellet to penetrate deep enough into his flesh to hit him in the heart.
Procedure and Results
Paper Police Silhouette Targets:
Summary: Close range shots produced a very tight and focused blast pattern on the paper targets. If Whittington had been hit at a range of 5 yards, the pellets that hit him would have been very densely concentrated within a hand-sized area. The blast patterns at 20 yards and 30 yards had a more even and wide distribution of pellets, which appears consistent with the number of wounds on Whittington’s face and their distribution.
We then fired into the blocks of gel from various distances
Summary: There was not much difference in depth of penetration between firing at 30 yards vs. firing at 20 yards. Firing at 10 yard and 5 yard ranges gave a higher concentration of pellets and up to twice the penetration at 5 yards. The 5-yard range was highly destructive to the gel.
Cornish Game Hens:
Summary: There was significant pellet penetration at 30 yards, to the degree that the pellets traveled through the front and back side of the body cavity and almost through the back. At 5 yards the bird was completely ripped open.
Half a Pig:
The first shot was fired squarely at the dressed pig from a distance of 30 yards. When we examined the carcass, we were surprised to find that virtually all of the pellets were stopped from penetrating the pork skin by the fabric of the clothing. Pellets made impressions in the denim of the jeans, and penetrated through the vest and shirt, but did not lodge in the skin. When we undressed the pig to examine the damage, several loose pellets rolled out from under the shirt. On an exposed area of the pig, we found one pellet that lodged about one millimeter into the skin. Although the skin was not broken, on the areas of the pig that were struck by shot, there was what appeared to be “bruising”, indicating trauma to the flesh under the skin.
We stripped the pig and fired at it again from the 30-yard distance. This time the pellets did lodge in the skin and flesh of the carcass. About a dozen pellets penetrated deep, going all the way through the skin and into the flesh. About 30 pellets lodged superficially in the flesh, which we should note is a lot tougher and leatherier than human skin.
We shot the pig again at a range of 5 yards. The blast pattern was identical to the one produced when we shot the paper target at 5 yards. The pellets were clustered in a radius of about 8 inches. Virtually all of them penetrated deep into the flesh. We cut into the carcass to see if we could locate some and found one buried at a depth of about 5.5 cm. We assume the others were buried as deep or much deeper.
Based on the shotgun spray patterns we observed and the various ballistics penetration tests we performed, we think that it is plausible that Whittington was shot at a distance of 30 yards and possibly as close as 20 yards. It seems unlikely that he was hit at close range.
Firing at 20 to 30 yards produced a broad pellet spray pattern that is consistent with the number and distribution of wounds on Whittington’s face. Our tests using poultry and the pig carcass showed that at 30 yards, pellets would have lodged in his flesh at least superficially and possibly have gone deeper into the tissue. If the pellet struck a bony area, say on his cheek or forehead, the bone would likely have stopped the pellet. Pellets that hit him from 30 yards and contacted areas of clothing would probably not have penetrated the skin, but would have left bruising.
All of this seems consistent with Whittington’s apparent injuries. This is what we speculate happened: Whittington was hit from 20 to 30 yards, either at an angle or from the side, or he caught just part of the blast pattern. The pellets hit him on the right side of his head, neck, and shoulder. The pellets that hit his face embedded in his skin. Hopefully he was wearing shooting glasses, or else he was damn lucky. (Remember what your mom told you about putting out an eye with your BB gun?) The pellets that hit his neck and shoulder were mostly stopped by his clothing, but left some serious bruising which is apparent in photographs.
We think it is unlikely that Whittington was hit at a very close range like 5 yards. First of all, if he was that close, the pellets that struck him would have been clustered together in an area several inches in diameter. They wouldn’t have spread out enough to produce the “peppered” effect of the dozen or so pellets scattered across the side of his face. Second, he would have had a much grislier injury. We can see from his photographs and the bruising pattern that he was hit at least partly on his neck. At 5 yards, if he had caught even part of the blast in the throat, he would probably be dead. If he was hit directly at 5 yards and his clothing slowed down some of the pellets, he probably still would have had a mass of closely clustered penetration wounds. Even if he did happen to catch a few stray pellets, if they contacted bare flesh, they would have gone in very deeply. Based on our test, even a distance of 10 yards would have produced more damage than he sustained. Of course, we are assuming that Cheney was using some type of choke in his gun. If he was not, the pattern at 5 yards might have spread out another foot or so, but it would still be pretty focused and the penetration of the pellets would be comparably deep.
As for the estimate that he was hit by 200 pellets, that figure may just have been derived from the number of pellets in a ¾ oz. shell of 7 ½ shot, which is about 262. However, if Whittington got hit from the side or at an angle, it’s possible he could have caught up to 200 pellets, with the majority landing on clothed areas and not penetrating deeply. It’s certainly not out of the question that he could have been hit by more than 100 pellets, but most of them did not cause serious injury.
Our conclusions also assume that his heart attack was caused by a pellet that somehow migrated to his heart, rather than one that was shot directly through his clothing, skin, and ribcage and lodged inside of his chest. We think our tests show that such a scenario would require being shot at a very short range, and such an impact would almost certainly have been fatal.
In summary, our results suggest that the media reports on the distance of the shooting and the number of pellets that hit Whittington are plausible. It’s possible that he was hit at a slightly closer range, up to 20 yards, but we think that if the distance was closer than 15 yards, the Whittington’s injuries would have been more severe and the outcome of the accident would have been much more dramatic.