10 Mar 2014

Black Talons at the heart of Pistorius trial

So once again Black Talon is in the headlines. It turns out from the pathologist giving evidence in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in Pretoria that the “blade runner” shot his former girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp with just this ammunition.

Cue more lurid headlines…

Black Talon bullets have been in and out of various controversies down the years and a number of urban and otherwise-located myths and legends have grown up around them.

First, the history. These hollow-nosed bullets were first invented by Winchester Ammunition in 1991 and quickly became popular with some US police forces.

Time and again ballistics reports have shown them to be no more damaging to human tissue than other hollow-nosed ammunition. That of course means they are very damaging indeed, but just to say there is nothing inherently worse about Black Talon in a dark trade.

Olympic and Paralympic track star Pistorius reacts in dock during his trial for murder of his girlfriend Steenkamp, at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria

The unique design lies in the hollow nose of the bullet which is designed to flatten out into petal shapes – like a flower as the pathologist explained it in court today – which exposes a series of jagged edges and much wider surface area than a conventional round, when impacted with wet tissue like a human body. The effect of all that should be fairly obvious.

One of the first myths surrounding this ammunition was that it had armour-piercing capability. The idea grew up quickly that the bullets were either teflon coated or tipped with another type of armour-penetrating coat.

In fact, this was simply because of the non-armour piercing coating applied to the bullet which gave it an unusual dark colour compared to the more usual copper colour of more widely used ammunition. You will find this similar coating and thus dark colour on many Winchester bullets today.

Too late for truth – that was all the cachet your average gangster needed…

A number of US police forces commented on the powers of the Black Talon to stop  people they were shooting and not to ricochet or pass through the body. But so would any other hollow-nosed round.

But the rounds were destined for notoriety after they were used in a shooting in San Francisco where several civilians died. Another shooting spree happened soon after this with similar bullets the other side of the USA.

Lurid headlines surrounded this case and homed in on the bullets which by now had acquired the “cop-killer” reputation along with all the non-existent armour-piercing mythology as well.

You might think back at Winchester this was all – behind closed doors – the best form of marketing money can’t buy in the cynical world of munitions manufacture. You’d be wrong.

In fact, Winchester did something they had never done before in more than a century of bestowing on humankind the means to kill and maim each other. They stopped selling Black Talon to the public.

The company had never done this in its history for any product not found to be defective.

Winchester had had enough – too many headlines for the “cop-killer” bullets. They continued to sell to various police forces in the US and beyond but manufacture finally ended in 2000. Black Talon had been around for just nine years.

That, inevitably, leaves the bullets with something of a reputation within the gun world. In crude terms they remain perhaps a route towards obtaining “dum-dum” style ammunition and where something is discontinued and therefore has a certain scarcity value – it can become more desirable.

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