Assassination Weapons, Mechanical (World of Forensic Science)
The deliberate murder of a political leader, figurehead or other important person can be accomplished using the variety of weapons. Some means of assassination involve biological agents. Others use the brute mechanical force of guns, knives, and other hardware.
In the aftermath of an assassination, forensic science can be valuable in establishing the nature of the weapon used. For example, the trauma inflicted by a bullet and the chemical traces left by the residue are easily distinguished from a knife wound and its effects, such as the scouring of bone by the knife blade.
The various analytical forensic analysis techniques and skills of the forensic investigator can be used to ferret out the details of the assassination, such as the type of bullet used and the firearm that the bullet came from.
A forensic investigator can also benefit from knowledge of the operative principles of the various mechanical means of assassination. To varying degrees, all of these use the mechanical principles of force, pressure, and momentum, which are related through various ratios involving the fundamental physical interactions of mass, length, and time. Additionally, several are variations on the three classic "simple machines" of classical mechanics: the inclined plane (knife), the lever (the firing mechanism of a pistol), and the hydraulic press (some types of firing devices other than pistols).
Firearms also employ chemical properties. The gunpowder in a bullet undergoes a chemical, rather than a merely physical change. A physical change, such as the freezing of water, is reversible, but once gunpowder has chemically been altered by the addition of heat and the process of combustion brought about by interaction with oxygen, it turns into fire, smoke, and ashnd a fraction of it becomes energyuch that it can never become gunpowder again.
Mechanical firing devices can also be a means of deploying a poison. A classic example is the poison pen, most effectively employed by the Soviet KGB. Disguised as an ordinary writing pen, one such device fired hydrocyanic acid in the form of gas. Another KGB pen used as a weapon fired pellets of ricin, a poison long favored by agents in the assassination squad known as SMERSH.
SMERSH used variations on this technique to eliminate several Bulgarian dissidents living abroad in the 1970s. The most famous example of this occurred in London, where SMERSH caught up with journalist Georgi Markov in September 1978. As an unsuspecting Markov stood waiting in a crowd for a bus at Waterloo Bridge, a man walked past him and jabbed him in the thigh with the pointed end of his umbrella. Within a few days, Markov was dead. The man with the umbrella was a SMERSH assassin, and the pointed tip of his umbrella had fired a platinum pellet containing ricin. So clever was this method of murder that it took some time before Western intelligence operatives realized what had happened, and arranged for Markov's body to be exhumed. Only then did they discover the pellet.
In this and other such cases, a biochemical agent actually caused death, yet the method of delivery was mechanical. In the same way, poison that passes through a syringe (a hydraulic pump) into the victim's body is a biochemical weapon delivered by mechanical means. By contrast, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult employed ricin to kill 12 commuters, and injure thousands more, in a Tokyo subway in 1995, they used it in the form of gasn almost purely biochemical technique. Victims inhaled the gas, which went to work immediately on their systems.
More conventional mechanical assassination weapons include bludgeons; knives and other sharp objects; guns and other firing devices; and miscellaneous weapons. An encyclopedic treatment of such weapons would fill an entire book, especially where guns are concerned. Therefore, the focus here is confined to weapons noted for their clever design or means of concealment that were developed by and for covert action organizations or similar groups. Even then, it is possible only to touch on a few notable examples.
Bludgeons and blunt instruments are used to deliver a blow when the victim and assassin are very close together. Forensically, the injury would be evident as a fractured skull or other signs of blows to other parts of the body.
Another mechanical weapon is a knife, edge weapon, or pointed instrument. All can deliver a cut or slash or sever a vital artery. Such assassination technology can be quite sophisticated. British special forces in World War II, for example, used the push dagger and the thrust weapon, both sharp instruments that are more like stakes or spikes than knives. Other British forces, serving as commandos in North Africa, employed a combination of knife and brass knuckles, by which the user could first stun the victim before using the knife.
As with most assassination weapons, concealment is a key issue. Hence, many units responsible for special operations in World War II used thumb knives, which were so small they could only be gripped with the thumb and forefinger. Their size made them easy to hide in the user's clothing, or even in a closed hand. Also during the war, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) designed an ingenious knife kit for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of CIA. The kit, made to fold up and fit neatly in a pocket, contained a plethora of knives and sharp instruments, ranging from a tiny knife painted a nonreflective black to a fierce-looking open-handled dagger.
There are also miscellaneous assassination devices that either combine aspects of the bludgeon and edge weapon, or use strangulation as a means of killing. A notorious example of the latter is the garrote, typically used when the killer is able to approach the victim unexpectedly from the back. Consisting of two handles joined by a thin, strong wire a little longer than a man's shoulders, the garrote is a highly effective low-tech weapon. Again, a pattern of injury that is produced that is distinctive to the instrument used. This can aid a forensic investigator in identifying the weapon utilized.
SEE ALSO Assassination weapons, biochemical; Kennedy assassination; Lincoln exhumation; Ricin; Sarin gas.