Experiments were conducted to examine the potential for rifle bullets to ignite organic matter after impacting a hard surface. The tests were performed using a variety of common cartridges (7.62x51, 7.62x39, 7.62x54R, and 5.56x45) and bullet materials (steel core, lead core, solid copper, steel jacket, and copper jacket). Bullets were fired at a steel plate that deflected fragments downward into a collection box containing oven-dried peat moss. We found that bullets could reliably cause ignitions, specifically those containing steel components (core or jacket) and those made of solid copper. Lead core-copper jacketed bullets caused one ignition in these tests. Ignitions of peat also occurred with a small set of tests using solid copper bullets and a granite target. Thermal infra-red video and temperature sensitive paints suggested that the temperature of bullet fragments could exceed 800°C. Bullet fragments collected from a water tank were larger for solid copper and steel core/jacketed bullets than for lead core bullets, which also facilitate ignition. Physical processes are reviewed with the conclusion that kinetic energy of bullets is transformed to thermal energy by plastic deformation and fracturing of bullets because of the high-strain rates during impact. Fragments cool rapidly but can ignite organic matter, particularly fine material, if very dry and close to the impact site.
Finney, Mark A.; Maynard, Trevor B.; McAllister, Sara S.; Grob, Ian J. 2013. A study of ignition by rifle bullets. Res. Pap. RMRS-RP-104. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 31 p.