History Flashback: Soldier Shot in the Head Survived for Decades

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Imagine being shot in the head – right between the eyes, no less – and not only surviving, but carrying on with life as usual for three decades. For Civil War soldier Jacob Miller, a member of the 9th Indiana Infantry, that was his reality. Miller took a bullet to the head on September 19, 1863, and the wound was apparently bad, because his fellow soldiers left him for dead. He was shot at Brock Field at Chickmauga, a battle known as second in casualties only to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Miller gave the following statement regarding his battle wound: “I was left for dead when my company fell back from that position. I got up with the help of my gun as a staff, then went back some distance, then started parallel with the line of battle. I made up my mind as long as I could drag one foot after another I would not allow myself to be taken prisoner. I got a nurse to fill my canteen with water so I could make an effort in getting near safety as possible.”

He ended up with an open wound in his forehead, one that occasionally spit out chunks of lead. Thirty-one years would pass before pieces of the bullet would stop randomly oozing from the bullet hole, and through it all, Miller simply went about life as usual.

If you’re thinking that bullets – and ballistics – have changed significantly since the Civil War, you’re right. But that doesn’t mean the whole shot-in-the-head-and-survived thing hasn’t happened since. It’s happened more than once, with one example being an 18-year-old guy in Jefferson City, Missouri, who survived being shot in the head back in July of this year. Or, if you’re looking for another story with three decades attached, consider the story of Jim Saunders, a man living in the UK whose wife shot him in the head point-blank – while he slept. He not only lived to tell the tale but has spent over thirty years with the .25 caliber bullet lodged in his brain. It’s sitting in a spot too delicate to touch, although if it ever shifts, he’s bound to be in trouble.

It just goes to show, the key to self-defense may be shot placement, but sometimes even a round to the head fails to take someone down. Granted there does seem to be a trend in these bullet-to-the-head stories – most seem to be small caliber. While the survivors are fortunate the little bullets didn’t simply ricochet, scrambling everything in their path, they’re also fortunate a larger caliber wasn’t used since it seems far less likely they would have survived the damage created by a good-sized bullet.

Let the caliber versus wound cavity debate begin. And…go!



katie.ainsworth

Katie is an avid shooter, hunter, military journalist, and Southern girl. Firearms are her passion whether at the range or on a spot-and-stalk after a big buck. She’s a staff writer at The Firearm Blog and writes about guns, hunting, and the military for various publications both online and in print such as Outdoor Life, Handguns, and Shooting Illustrated. Shoot her a message at ainsworth.kat@usa.com


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  • hikerguy

    Being “hard-headed” has its advantages.

    • Jon

      Exact head hardness is the key, too hard head would break like glass.

  • mosinman

    i don’t think you could describe most military small arms from the civil war era as “small caliber”

    • Martin M

      Definitely not small caliber, but certainly low velocity. Add to that all the ricochets from volley fire, and projectiles that have spent all their energy from being fired at too long a range.

      • mosinman

        they had decent velocity all things considered. but yeah i can see what you mean

  • M.M.D.C.

    In the movies and on TV a head shot (or just about any shot) is always instant death but it ain’t necessarily so. If poor Phineas Gage can survive with a spike right through his head then a little ol bullet isn’t so bad.

    • Plumbiphilious

      Well…Phineas Gage didn’t quite survive “well.” His mental function (and subsequent social interaction) suffered for the rest of his life.

      • M.M.D.C.

        Perhaps he didn’t set the bar so high after all.

        • iksnilol

          Well, the bar did go pretty high up.

          • BertMacklin

            If I remember correctly, he was stuffing dynamite into a hole with a steel bar the way one would churn butter. Perhaps his cognitive function before the incident is more interesting.

          • noob

            In those days SOP for dangerous operations was, well dangerous. If you tried to do it safely you’d get beaten with a pick axe handle for being slow. At least that’s what a documentary about the first transcontinental railway told me.

          • Paladin

            There was supposed to be sand on top of the dynamite, to prevent the impact from setting it off, but they forgot it on that hole.

        • Jim Keilman

          Phineas was packing explosive powder in the hole when it exploded,
          dynamite was patented by Alfred Nobel in 1867, Phineas’s accident
          occurred in 1848.

    • Don Ward

      I was going to bring this up. Plus Uno!

  • Refaim

    Its a velocity thing I think. Your head is probably the only part of your body reasonably modeled by a milk jug full of water, watermelon, etc. A 22 rimfire pokes a nice hole, while a 22-250 sends chunks flying.

    • Cattoo

      My granddad used his 22-250 to send ground squirrel chunks flying every chance he could.

  • Alex Nicolin

    Seems to be more of a function of velocity then caliber. A wound caused by a low velocity round, like a modern handgun or any black powder weapon, like the ones used until the 1880s, is far more survivable than one caused by a small caliber modern rifle, because the former would have a relative small wound channel, would not significantly yaw, fragment and rip the tissues. Even a marginal hit from a high velocity impact, that still manages to penetrate the cranium, will cause catastrophic, non survivable damage to the CNS.

  • datimes

    In 1983 I remember a Chicago mob bookie by the name of Ken Eto was shot at point blank range in the back of the head by a hit man in the back seat. Eto was seen running from the scene screaming with blood gushing out his head. I think the bullets bounced off his skull and he survived. Suspected of cooperating with the Feds, which he wasn’t, Eto became very cooperative sending a dozen mobsters to prison. His two assasins were found dead shortly there after. Eto died in 2004.

    • iksnilol

      You won’t believe it but your bookie buddy has a Wikipedia page. Interesting story. I never understood the glamour of the mobster life. Too much paranoia for me.

      • Tassiebush

        That pretty much goes for any tough guy at the top of the cr@p heap role. It’s pretty hard to think of many warlords, cartel bosses or dictators who lived a happy life or if they did, then it’s rare for their descendants.

      • Kurt Akemann

        No surprise, since his story is on of the many odd tales of the Outfit and the its deeds in the Wicked City.

        (I was born and raised in Chicago, BTW, so I use “Wicked City” with a good deal of affection.)

        • iksnilol

          Wicked City, I like the term. Every city has a true name that’s usually only known by its locals. Nice to put another one on the list.

  • Ezra Bristow

    Wasn’t one of the gun theft victims of Platt & Matix (the 1986 Miami Shootout
    guys) shot in the head and then left, presumed dead before he alerted the authorities?

    • billyoblivion

      Yes.

      He took a .38 alongside the jaw that tracked up into a barely tapped his brain. He passed out for a very short while, woke up and went to one of the FBI cars to try to get away.

  • WFDT

    As an EMT in the mid-80’s I treated a man shot in the head by a DC police officer (DC cops were still carrying .38s then). The bullet hit the man in the forehead and exited out the back of the head. I was completely befuddled by this man, with an entrance wound in the front and bloody wreckage out the back, conversing with me with otherwise zero deficits. It wasn’t until the hospital x-rayed his head that we found out the bullet skidded along the surface of the skull without penetrating it.

    • El Duderino

      The old lead RN bullet? I have heard this story from a LAPD cop who worked in the 70s and 80s. So maybe not the only time it has happened…

      • some_jerk_from_the_eastbay

        My cousin married an EMT, who witnessed similar event first hand in Oakland, CA. Victim found unconscious, presumed dead with head wound. Came to and was P.O’d. Immediately started talking revenge.

    • iksnilol

      Ismet Bajramovic in Bosnia was shot in the heart by a sniper and survived. He did have heart problems later in life but still, surviving a shot to the heart ain’t easy.

  • LG

    One really needs to visit the museum for The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The injuries and treatments used therefore are displayed from The War of Northern Aggression to the present. Garfield’s spine, Indian tomahawk skull injuries, etc are all on display. One of the most interesting is the skeletal specimen of a yankee officers’s leg with a comminuted fracture secondary to a minnie ball. The specimen was sent to the AFIP in a whiskey barrel by the battlefield surgeon. The specimen is displayed along with a photograph of the officer who lost this leg visiting and viewing his own leg in the museum years later.

    • STW

      I’m guessing that’s Union general Daniel Sickles. He sustained the wound and lost the leg at Gettysburg.

  • nova3930

    .700 Nitro Express. Put a big enough hole in it and it will stay down :p

  • nova3930

    And as a serious comment, a few years back my wife and I visited Europe, specifically the Czech Republic where we visited the Sedlek Ossuary, aka “The Bone Church”. They had examples of skulls on display of people that had fought in the 30 years war, suffered what appeared to be some pretty horrific head injuries and lived for quite some time. Long enough for the holes in their skulls to start growing over with bone again…..

    • Tassiebush

      Gee that place would be interesting/confronting to visit!

  • Al

    It was actually not wildly unusual to survive headshots in CW battles. The writer Ambrose Bierce was shot in the head by a Confederate sniper in 1864, and went on to write books and short stories galore.

  • Lance

    Not just with old black powder weapons either. Remember a news story where a Oregon Sheriff’s deputy survived getting shot in the face with a .45 ACP pistol. Seems its only God who has your time to go written and you can survive alot till its your time.

    • hikerguy

      Sounds Calvinist. Yep, I ‘ll go with that, LOL.

    • Cattoo

      That was just a couple years ago in Oregon City if I recall correctly.

  • iowaclass

    Groh-oss! (Gag-guh.) Well, people survive skull shots, but it still takes them out of the fight, so it seems.
    And, of course, poor congressman Giffords, a petite woman hit at close range with a 9mm, saved through advanced surgical methods under the aegis of the miracle of modern medicine. Lord, make us humble, amen.

    • mxprivateer

      A major factor in Gabby Giffords’ survival was the shooter used FMJ /target ammunition instead of something more lethal. Had he used HP or personal defense type ammo, she would have most likely not survived.

  • Micki

    Check out the story of Ahad Israfil. Lost the right hemisphere of his brain in an accidental shooting at the age of 14 in 1987. He is still alive today with most of his faculties intact and has even obtained a degree.

  • El Duderino

    I hear his great great grandson Trent Reznor got into music…

    • Tassiebush

      That would suggest angst can be transmitted down the generations.

      • El Duderino

        Referencing something else but good try 🙂

        • John Yossarian

          “Head like a hole – Black as your soul – I’d rather die – Than give you control”

          • Tassiebush

            Ha-ha of course! Well at least that reassures me it that it wasn’t a reference to “Closer”

        • Tassiebush

          Ah John Yossarian got it!

  • Bob

    Gabrielle Giffords.

  • noob

    Officer Jarred Slocum was shot in the temple and had the bullet exit the other side of his head on video recorded by a local news crew (you can find it on youtube by searching his name).

    He stayed in the fight long enough to move towards cover but collapsed in the suspect’s line of fire. He saw his own blood and brain matter on his neck and held his hand to it thinking that was the wound. When he collapsed Officer Tim McFarland dragged him to safety with the aid of two citizens.

    The suspect set fire to the structure he was shooting from and died at the scene, tragically killing two others.

    Jarred Slocum made a full recovery and returned to duty. Later he retired to attend college.

  • Tassiebush

    I remember reading about a local incident where the a guy had a revolver emptied into his head but it didn’t kill the assailant or immediately stop the assault. No idea of the type of revolver or cartridge though. Wasn’t legally owned at any rate.

    • Cymond

      I read a case a few years ago where a housewife and children hid in an upstairs air vent. A home intruder came upstairs and was about to come down the air vent. The lady emptied her 38 revolver into him (some accounts say they hit his head, some say head and shoulders). Anyway, he got up, went downstairs, and drove away.
      I have no idea whether or not he survived in the long-term.

  • Dan

    Local guy here tried to kill himself when his construction buisness went under and wife left him for his best friend, he drove just outside of town on a gravel road shot himseld in the head. Woke up later on tried a second time. Someone noticed his pickup drove up found him slumped on his seat. Tried twice with a .25acp. He now works as a door greeter at Walmart and has little regard for people in the way of his motorized wheelchair. If he thought his life was bad before wonder how he feels about it now.

  • Jose

    …wonder if they became absent minded?

  • Victor Lourenço

    I’ve been shooting myself with 22 LR caliber ammunition for years, in order to build up immunity to it. Next week I’m switching to 32 ACP.

  • Darren Hruska

    And this is why using the word “will” or the phrase “will do this/that” when discussing terminal ballistics isn’t always wise. People have pretty much survived just about everything that has been thrown at them (sometimes literally).

  • stevengunner80

    When I was a corrections officer (I’m Hungarian) there was an inmate who killed his wife and his daughter and after that he tried to commit suicide, shoot himself in the head with a handgun (later I heard the gun he used was a .22s). He survived but the bullet blew almost half of his skull off…I remember he was not really conscious most of the time, he was always staring the ground and didn’t say a word.

  • Arch

    The Confederacy had at least one similar casualty – my great grandfather, Private Mac Hurt, 2nd Tennessee. In late November 1864 at the Battle of Franklin (TN), the Army of Tennessee attacked the Army of Indiana in a unsuccessful effort to prevent them from withdrawing to Nashville. The battle was one of the bloodiest of the War Between the States.

    As Mac dismounted and stepped under a rail fence, a .58 caliber, 500 grain Minié ball struck him in the temple. By modern standards, this is a huge bullet. Even though it had much lower velocity, the 500 grain Minié is larger than the .338 Lapua (Ameican Sniper) or the .458 Weatherby elephant gun. His comrades assumed he was dead and left him on the field. Fortunately for me and my ancestors and descendants, Mac was found by a medical team after the fighting and lived in Western Tennessee until 1913.

    Better luck than good.

  • iksnilol

    More penetration ability, sure, but 14.5mm is “only” .57 caliber.

    • Jon

      It also has more muzzle energy, .700 Nitro Express 12.100 J vs 14.5×114 less “energetic” one 29.850 J.

  • AJ

    When 17 was employeed by 3 funeral homes for care of vehicles, when maintenance was complete would do errands for office and ‘shop’ which included delivering death certificates and such. Met a young man who lives and over half his face was gone, looked like a large ice cream scoop removed some of one side and all of the other below his eye socket, seems he put a 12 gauge in his mouth and barrel was long so he had to reach down to get at trigger, this caused him to turn his head, he was healed when I met him so wound was open to air, there is a ‘plate’ above our eye sockets that separates brain, most everything below can be removed as long as spine is intact and airway is open, this guy was not happy with the outcome, was horrific… So its about ‘placement’

  • Clyde Bower

    It sounds like it was that “one in a million” shot. If the bullet managed to go in between the two halves on his brain without tearing the covering, survival would be (as this story shows)possible.
    I just wonder why the hole didn’t heal over and is he wearing a Congressional Medal of Honor?
    I know of an instance where a man attempted suicide with an electric drill and a half inch drill bit. In this case the man drill down in the top of his head and managed to have the drill bit go between the two hemispheres of his brain without tearing the brains covering. His wife came home to find him sitting on the floor, propped up with pillow with the drill bit still attached to the drill sticking out of the top of his head. He was lucid as one who attempted suicide with an electric drill could be and able to converse with the paramedics once they arrived.
    He survived the ambulance ride to the hospital, only to die from complications from the surgery to remove the drill bit.

  • Cattoo

    Almost a unicorn.

  • anomad101

    I survived 13 years of marriage.

  • Jonnie

    Ouch! This dude lived for a year with a lance in his head before he died.