Fingerprinting Merit Badge Fingerprinting 
Merit Badge Requirements of the 
Boy Scouts of America


Fingerprinting Information

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Why you still need the Real Thing

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Fingerprinting Merit Badge Requirements:

1. Give a short history of fingerprinting. Tell the difference between civil and criminal identification

2. Explain the difference between the automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) now used by some law enforcement agencies and the biometric fingerprint systems used to control access to places like buildings, airports, and computer rooms. 

3. Do the following: 

a. Name the surfaces of the body where friction or papillary ridges are found. 

b. Name the two basic principles supporting the science of fingerprints and give a brief explanation of each principle. 

c. Explain what it takes to positively identify a person using fingerprints. 

4. Take a clear set of prints using ONE of the following methods. 

a. Make both rolled and plain impressions. Make these on an 8-by-8-inch fingerprint identification card, available from your local police department or your counselor. 

b. Using clear adhesive tape, a pencil, and plain paper, record your own fingerprints or those of another person. 

5. Show your merit badge counselor you can identify the three basic types of fingerprint patterns and their subcategories. Using your own hand, identify the types of patterns you see.



Fingerprints form before birth and, except for cuts resulting in permanent scars and diseases such as leprosy, remain unchanged until the body decomposes after death.

Fingerprint evidence is the most positive investigative means of identifying people. Even DNA blood analysis cannot differentiate between identical twins - fingerprints can. Every fingerprint is unique. Fingerprints are records of the raised surface of papillary skin, also called friction skin, appearing on the palmar side of a person's fingers.

Papillary skin is present on the palmar surfaces of the hands and the plantar surfaces of the feet. These are skin surfaces on your fingers and hands which touch a drinking glass with when you pick it up, and the skin surfaces on your toes and bottoms of your feet which touch the ground when you walk barefoot.

Palm, lower finger joint, sole and toe impressions are all unique. Almost any area of friction skin that can be covered with a pencil eraser is large enough to permit positive identification if recorded clearly and completely.

Although many fingerprints have the same pattern type and look very similar, when examined closely the differences can prove that the prints have been made by different fingers. And the opposite may be true. Prints from the same finger may look different because the pressure used to make them differed. Or they may look different because the curve of the surface differed. Yet examination by a qualified examiner can prove the prints to have been made by the same finger.

Positive identification or elimination of fingerprints can only be made by trained and qualified fingerprint examiners. Examiners identify prints by making the qualitative and quantitative comparisons of one friction ridge print with another. They compare the separate ridge characteristics and their relationship one to another. They can do this from impressions of any area of friction skin.

Fingerprint records are maintained in government computerized databases in America. Civil fingerprint identification, such as occurs with police or soldiers entering into public service, is the recording of a person's fingerprints primarily for the purposes of:

    Determining the person has no prior criminal arrest record

    Verifying the person's identity at a later date

Criminal fingerprint identification is the recording of an arrested person's fingerprints primarily for the purposes of:
    Recording the arrest and/or conviction information in a permanent file associated with that person

    Determining the person's true identity if they have used other names for previous arrests

    Determining the person's prior arrest/conviction record

Recording Inked Prints

Fingerprints impressions taken directly from a person's fingers for the purpose of identification must be uniformly clear and visible. It is not hard to take good, clear fingerprints. A good fingerprint impression is dark gray in color and free of smudges. All that is needed to obtain good prints is practice.

Have the subject sign the fingerprint card. It is not needed nor desired that you advise persons of their legal rights just to take their fingerprints. Have the subject wash his hands to remove any dirt particles. Make sure that the fingers are free of lint from the towels used to dry the hands. Gather your equipment together and ready it for printing.

In addition to fingerprint cards, you will need--

  • A fingerprint card holder.
  • Ink (printer's ink or any special fingerprint ink).
  • A rubber ink roller.
  • Glass (or metal) plate (approximately 12" x 6" x l", fixed to a base).
  • Note: your counselor may provide an inkless chemical recording method, porelon ink pad, or even a computerized live scan device for recording the fingerprints. The mechanics of recording the fingers to make the record prints will be similar and the resulting fingerprint card will look somewhat similar regardless of the method used to completely and legibly record the fingerprints.
Place a small dab of ink on the plate glass and roll until a thin, even film covers the surface. If using a glass plate, it helps to place a white card underneath to check the ink's thickness while rolling it out and while inking fingers. Secure the fingerprint card in the holding device, and the equipment is ready to use.

The steps for inking fingers and the steps for making impressions on the card are the same. Each finger is rolled through the ink on the glass and then that finger impression is rolled on the fingerprint card. All rolling should be made in single movements. Do not roll back and forth. The pressure should be just enough to apply an even coat of ink on the finger and a clear image on the card.

After the procedure is complete, fill in the data on the fingerprint card. Sign the card or paper for identification. This signature is important in legal proceedings.


one-fourth inch below the first joint. They are made by rolling the finger or thumb from nail edge to nail edge. This surface gives all the needed ridge characteristics for correct classification. (Classification is the means by which a set of fingerprints may be filed and then retrieved in the future.)

There is a specific means of rolling the subject's fingers or thumbs in the ink and on the fingerprint card to give a good impression. You roll the fingers or thumbs from "awkward to comfortable." To see what is meant, hold your hands in front of you with the backs of your hands together. Now roll them around so that the palms are together and thumbs are up. You will see that the right hand moved clockwise and the left hand counterclockwise. This is the direction the fingers on each hand should be moved. Thumbs are moved in the opposite direction of the fingers.

When you take prints, grasp the top of the subject's hand to make sure that the finger to be printed is extended. The roll is a single movement and with only enough pressure to give a clear print. Tell the subject to look away from the fingerprint card and to try not to "help" the roll. This will reduce smudging and give a clean impression.


Plain impressions verify the order of the rolled impressions and show characteristics that are sometimes distorted in rolled prints. Plain impressions are made on the card by just pressing the four inked fingers on the card at a slight angle. They should show from the tips to one-fourth inch below the first joint. Thumbs are then printed by inking and pressing them on the block next to the plain finger impressions.

Have the subject hold his fingers straight and stiff. The hand should be level with the wrist. Grasp the wrist with one hand and press the fingers onto the cards with the other hand. Then allow the subject to clean the ink from his fingers.


Excessive perspiration may cause inked impressions of many persons to blur. Wipe each finger with a cloth and then quickly ink and roll it on the fingerprint card. Follow this process with each finger. You may also wipe the fingers with alcohol or other drying agent. Some people have dry, rough hands from their work. Rubbing the tips of the fingers with oil or creams can often make them soft enough for clear, un-smudged prints. If the ridges are fine and small and the skin is soft, holding ice against the fingers sometimes helps.

If the hands and fingers are deformed, normal printing steps cannot be followed. Apply the ink directly to the fingers with a spatula or small roller. Then rotate a square piece of paper around the finger. When an acceptable print has been made, the square is taped to the proper box of the fingerprint card. If there is an extra finger (usually a "little" finger or a thumb), the innermost five are printed as usual on the card. The extra digit is then printed on the reverse of the card. Print webbed fingers as well as you can in the rolled and plain impressions. And if a finger or a fingertip is amputated, note that fact in the proper box. (Example: "AMP" 1st joint, FEB 1943 or "TIP AMP.")


Experts with years of specialized training, experience and proven ability (proficiency tested) can positively identify persons using fingerprints by comparing various levels of detail (Levels 1, 2 and 3) present in the known fingerprints (on file) and questioned fingerprints (of the person just printed).  Positive identification occurs when a qualified expert determines that the questioned and known prints contain sufficient quality (clarity) and quantity of friction ridge detail in agreement with no unexplainable differences.  Because the skin on fingers and palms is very flexible, no two fingerprints (even one recorded immediately after another) are exactly alike.  Fingerprint experts study for years to understand the normal variations caused by flexible skin, by finger movement, by temporary skin damage, and by other factors such as dirt or liquid present on a finger or surface. Even one unexplainable difference means that the fingerprints are not from the same person. 

There is no minimum number of matching points (Level 2 detail) required for positive identification because fingerprint experts also use the actual ridge shapes (Level 3 detail) during the identification process.  Because Levels 1, 2 and 3 are used, the amount of area required to effect an identification, such as just a portion of one fingerprint, depends on the quality (clarity) and quantity of friction ridge detail present in the questioned and known prints being compared.  In many situations, a tiny piece of a fingerprint with good quality ridge detail from a crime scene may be positively identified.  At other times, the poor quality of a fax machine copy of a complete set of ten rolled ink fingerprints may preclude them from being identified. 

Positive identification of a fingerprint to a person means a qualified expert has determined the chances the fingerprint was made by someone else are so small as to be considered a practical impossibility. 



When wrapping presents, you may have sometimes noticed that your fingerprints show up on the sticky side of the tape if you have any dirt (or discoloration from the wrapping paper) on your fingers.  Using the same type of clear, cellophane tape you can record fingerprints that often have better quality (clarity) detail than inked or electronic prints. 

First make the finger(s) to be printed "dirty" by rubbing it against pencil lead, a charcoal drawing stick, a charcoal briquette or even against black ink newspaper photos.  Next, place the sticky side of the cellophane tape against the "dirty" fingers one at a time and then stick the tape to a piece of white paper or cardboard.  Label each strip to indicate which finger/thumb and hand it is from.  Record all ten fingers/thumbs on a piece of paper to show to your counselor (requirement 4 for Fingerprinting Merit Badge).

Fingerprints produced by clear tape lifts are mirror image reversals of fingerprints produced using ink and paper.  If you use white (opaque) tape to lift the prints from the fingers and then stick the tape to a clear plastic document protector, the fingerprints viewed through the clear plastic will be in the same relative position as inked prints.

Look at the tape-lift fingerprints through a magnifying glass and you will see very fine friction ridge detail, including very exact ridge shapes and pore structure that is often not recorded by ink or electronic fingerprint recording methods (especially when recording detail from small children's fingers).  If you record your own fingerprints using tape, you can use a magnifying glass to determine your own fingerprint patterns (requirement 5 for Fingerprinting Merit Badge).


Automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) were developed by police as a means of identifying a person from a very large fingerprint record file such as the FBI's over 40-million-person repository.  Biometric fingerprinting was developed by businesses as a replacement for passwords, ID cards or other methods of controlling access to computers or access to buildings/rooms/areas. 

AFIS involves positive identification and was developed by police to identify persons who often desire to not be identified.  Biometrics normally does not involve positive identification, but instead involves a computer finding enough similarity to give a red light (asking you to try placing your finger again) or green light (your finger matches close enough) to enable access.  Biometrics is normally used as a means to identify persons who want to be identified (who want fast, routine access to a computer/building/area, etc.) and thus it is okay that biometric systems often fail to correctly recognize a finger and require the person to "try again" (place the finger on the reader again).  Such failure to identify fingers in law enforcement AFIS systems is unacceptable and could have serious negative consequences such as letting a criminal remain unidentified. 

Fingerprinting Links

Why you still need the Fingerprinting Merit Badge Handbook -

As good as I try to make it, this web site can only supplement and confirm the material in the Official Boy Scouts of America Fingerprinting Merit Badge Handbook. Get it... read it... and learn it. Borrow one from your troop library, other scouting resources, public library, or buy one

(2008 cover)

(2008 cover)
FP Merit Badge Pamphlet image
(2003 cover)



About this site...

This site is not an official Boy Scouts of America maintained site. These pages are maintained by Ed German, a fingerprint expert with over 30 years experience with local, state and federal law enforcement laboratories in America, and more importantly a former Boy Scout and OA Member (with troops in Jacksonville and Decatur, IL), and former Assistant Scout Master for troops in Manassas, VA; Morristown, TN; Hickory, NC; and Livermore, CA.  Ed German helped write the recent versions of the official Boy Scout Fingerprinting Merit Badge pamphlet (see the acknowledgments on page 32 of the 2008 edition of the pamphlet, or on page 40 of the 2003 edition, or on page 35 of the 2014 edition), but did so for free and does not earn money from pamphlet sales. 

Ed was one of the counselors manning the Fingerprinting Merit Badge tent at the 1981 National Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia if you happened to be there. He has previously served as the training officer for fingerprint experts in the two-year Latent Print Examiner forensic science courses of the Illinois State Police and the United States Army.

Ed German is Certified as a Latent Print Examiner by the International Association for Identification (IAI), is Certified as a Biometrics Professional by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and is a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (based in the UK). Ed retired from the US Government after more than three decades of service in the US Government.

In addition to the Illinois State Police, Ed German served in US military crime laboratories in Asia, Europe and America, and worked on six continents for the for the US Government. Ed was as a Special Agent/CW5 (the senior technical officer rank in the Army) and his military service awards include two Legion of Merit medals.  As of 2020, Ed works for the sheriff's office (supporting ten law enforcement agencies) in the central Illinois hometown where he and his wife graduated high school. He also still serves as a Fingerprinting Merit Badge counselor.

This Web site does not purport to represent any official position of the U.S. Army, US Government or any other organization with which Ed German was or is affiliated.

Click here to e-mail questions or comments to Ed German about this site.

 Updated 3 August 2021