JOHANNESBURG – The bullets that killed Paralympian Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend were of a type that has been the subject of repeated, though largely unsuccessful, bans since the 19th century.
A pathologist who performed an autopsy on Reeva Steenkamp the day after she died told the court Monday that the fatal gunshot wounds were inflicted by a type of expanding ammunition once known as “Black Talon.”
The American-manufactured bullets, fired by Pistorius from a 9mm pistol, were banned in the 1990s in South Africa, but made their way back to the market under a different name, Ranger.
But even before that, hollow- and soft-point bullets — also known as Dum-Dums — were officially proscribed by the 1899 Hague Convention governing the laws of war.
That text’s overly precise description rendered it almost meaningless and left ample scope for loopholes, yet their deadliness remains undisputed.
“It opens up once it is inside the body and cuts the tissue,” said Jacobus Steyl, the owner of Durban-based specialist Forensic Ballistic Services.
“It causes severe damage . . . It’s quite dangerous,” he added.
On impact, expanding bullets flare out, forming jagged edges, like flower petals.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross this can happen within centimeters of entering the body.
The effect is more pronounced at higher velocity, and at close range, like the bullets that shattered the 29-year-old Steenkamp’s body through a bathroom door.
Gun experts told reporters that hollow-points can be bought at many gun shops in South Africa, but are not always easy to come by.
The ammunition was first manufactured by Winchester Ammunition in 1991, and became popular in South Africa during the violent years before the end of apartheid.
Steyl said the ammo was banned just before the advent of democracy in 1994.
“It’s a rather expensive type of ammo compared with your normal shotgun bullets,” he said.
In the 1990s, a box of 20 rounds of the copper-jacketed bullets cost about 2,000 rands ($185).
“Legal gun owners can buy hollow-point bullets at gun shops,” he said.
But the bullets are more commonly used by security enforcement agencies like police, who say they reduce collateral damage because they are more likely to stay in the body of the target.
According to Andy Fuller, the owner of the Western Cape-based Homtini Tactical Shooting Academy, “victims of this bullet have very slim chances of survival, due to massive internal bleeding they cause.”
“Its fragments also cause major tissue damage,” he said, adding: “In many cases they kill instantly.”
In the United States, Black Talons came under the spotlight in 1993, when 15 people were shot by a lone gunman in San Francisco, nine fatally.
In his testimony, University of Pretoria pathologist Gert Saayman said Black Talon bullets were designed for “maximum damage” — adding that they are now known as ranger-type ammunition.
Pistorius, 27, says he fired four shots at Steenkamp on Feb. 14, 2013, through a locked toilet door, believing her to be an intruder. He denies intentionally killing her.