Gunshot wounds to the head are a major cause of death among soldiers in combat but little is known about where bullets are more likely to impact. A study just published in the Journal of Trauma looked at common bullet entry points among soldiers who died in combat and found clear patterns – but the researchers are not sure why.
The study, led by physician Yuval Ran, looked at Israeli combat deaths from 2000 to 2004 and tracked where bullet entries appeared on the skull (illustrated above), finding that the lower back (occipital region) and front of the temple areas (anterior-temporal regions) were most likely.
The results of our study show that in a combat setting, the occipital and anterior-temporal regions are most frequently hit, as opposed to the anterior-parietal and the posterior-temporal regions, which are rarely hit. Moreover, most of the parietal injuries were in proximity to the occipital bone. In an attempt to explain these findings, we presented them to sniper instructors, only to learn that snipers always aim to center mass, and aiming at high distances to different skull areas is not probable. At this time, we have no plausible theory to explain these findings.
Your first thought may be that the distribution is because helmets better protect certain parts of the head, but as the researchers note, helmets have been shown to be almost entirely ineffective in protecting against direct gunfire.
Getting shot in the head is not just an unfortunate event, it is the result of the interaction between the shooter and the target, and each of their behaviours could affect where bullets are more likely to land.
The researchers also note that the results are strikingly similar to the only other study looking at the location of fatal gunshot wounds to the head, despite the fact that this earlier study only included civilian shootings.
While there is no current theory as to why fatal gunshot wounds are more likely to be distributed as they are, the article suggests that this could be used to save lives in combat.
Effective helmets are not worn by soldiers because sufficient armouring would make them too heavy, but simply adding protective armour to the most common areas would make for a lighter helmet that could stop the majority of fatal bullet wounds.
Link to PubMed entry for study.