LESS THAN LETHAL WEAPONS – Less Lethal Projectiles – An Investigation

In   Issue .


“Load up, load up, load up, the rubber bullets” 1


The Australian Defence Force is becoming more involved in military non-combatant  control and peacekeeping in areas such as Timor and Bougainville, boarding parties, and the handling of illegal immigrants. This is compounded by Defence Aid to the Civil Power requirements, in events such as boarding parties, the Olympics, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The issue of non-combatant control becomes critical where the use of lethal force would be illegal.

Less lethal projectiles could fill this niche and can be used with current weapon such as the Steyr F88 rifle, the M79/203 grenade launcher and the Remington12-gauge shotgun.  Less lethal projectiles are those designed to incapacitate a target without inflicting lethal injuries2, but will do so if used incorrectly3. This paper will discuss their design, use and effects, concentrating on rubber  and plastic bullets and beanbags.

FLEXIBLE  PROJECTILES –  BEAN  BAGS Less Lethal projectiles can be categorised into two groups2: flexible and non-flexible. The flexible projectile is one that is not of solid formed construction and the one most widely used is the ‘Bean Bag’ design, which

is a tightly woven bag loaded with fine lead shot4.

It can be fired out of 12-gauge shotguns, 37mm gas guns2 and 40mm grenade launchersS. It is folded into a wad and then inserted  into a shell.  The bean bag shown  in Figure 1 is made by MK Ballistic Systems and weighs 40.4 grams.

In data obtained from 106 United States law enforcement agencies up until 30 May 2001, these projectiles had caused four deaths from 623 firings when used against citizens. The victims were hit in chest (three) and neck (one). Two of the chest impact deaths resulted from penetration into the thoracic cavity and the other still has a coroner’s report pending6.  The majority of non-lethal injuries are bruises and abrasions to the abdomen, chest and back. Impacts to the head tended to cause lacerations and fractures over 50% of the time.6



Current  training in the Los Angeles Police Department is to have the point of impact within a six inch radius of the navel and on a frontal aspect7, but movement of the target, obscured vision and the extreme situation  involved does not always allow this to happen4. Personnel are taught to shoot at the centre of mass with lethal weapons so under stress this aim point may be taken7_  This may lead to an unwanted penetration of the thoracic cavity or head.

In a series of tests in Canada, Dahlstrom, Powley and Penke8 fired Deftech 23BR 12 gauge bean bags at three different targets 21 feet (6.5 metres) away to try to understand a previous fatality with the ammunition.  Five rounds were fired into a block of ballistic gelatin, three rounds into a block of gelatin with pig’s ribs embedded 1-2 inches from the entrance surface, and three rounds into a block of gelatin with the fresh draped belly skin of a pig over the entrance surface.  They also studied  the bean bag’s orientation when it hit the target. This could  be with the projectile open  and contacting the target surface flat, with  the sewn  edge striking first, or being still rolled up and contacting target surface with sewn edge of bag as leading  edge.

The five bean  bags that were not of flat orientation in all but one instance  (when the bag struck  a rib) penetrated deeper  than  the flat orientation. The other non flat bag broke three ribs and penetrated deeper than  the flat bean bag that  passed between  the ribs (7.6 em versus 5.1 cm)8.  This  could lead  to a fatal injury.

Bean bags must  be used cautiously, and tested to determine the minimum distance for shooting  so penetration is not a consequence.  The round  must also not be shot at or into  the chest, back or head to avoid a potentially fatal injury4,6-8.


Non-flexible rounds come in a variety of types, shapes and  sizes, and include  wooden, rubber  or plastic bullets fired from 37mm gas guns9, plastic bullets fired from rifles, rubber  bullets fired from rifle canisters, and rubber balls and  pellets fired from shotguns9.

The rubber  bullet, or rubber baton round  (RBR), is made  of slightly  flexible rubber, is 37mm diameter and  15cm long with a slightly  rounded tip10.  It has no gyroscopic stability, its flight path is unpredictable and  it readily  tumbles  on firing. 55,000 of these rounds were used in Northern Ireland from 1970-75, causing three deaths, two from head impacts and one from a chest impact, and many  skull fractures, eye injuries and lung contusions 10. Soldiers were instructed to fire at the legs of rioters but, as the rounds were inaccurate, they did not always go where aimed10_

Millar et al. reported  on 90 patients  that presented at hospitals in  Northern  Ireland  with injuries from rubber bullets.  The number of rounds fired during their study  was 33,000. The mortality  ratio was 1:16,000, the serious injury ratio 1:800 and a disability ratio of 1:1900, with 54% of injuries to the head and neck,  26% to chest and abdomen and 20% to the limbs.   67% of the victims  were male, with 64% of these in the 10-19 age groupll. Of all the injuries, 87 had skin lesions,  21 had sustained fractures of the face and skull  bones, 24 had eye or adnexa injuries,  three had severe brain injuries with  one being a fatality of an ll year old boy allegedly shot from 2-3 metresll. Nine had chest injuries and  three had abdominal injuries with  the other fatality being a chest injury that may have been caused  by the projectile injury or as a result of respiratory obstruction on route  to hospitalll.  Of the 90 studied, two died, 14 had various degrees of blindness, 4 were facially disfigured, three had anosmia  and one had a stiff finger joint, with  the other  62 having  no permanent disability or disfiguremem11.

The study raises the issue of using  rubber  bullets against young or disabled  people  involved in  the riots, as the youngest person  hit was seven  and one victim had osteogenesis imperfecta11_ The severity  of injury is increased in children  due to the reduced  body  mass and immature bone growth.  Such  use could  also  lead to claims of brutality against children and disabled people with  the ensuing  political and legal ramifications.

The 37mm plastic bullet,  or plastic  baton  round (PBR)6, replaced the rubber  baton  round used in Northern Ireland in 1975.   Up to 1999,  over 60,000 had been  fired and, even though they were more accurate, they caused more injuries. This was due  to their tendency to strike  head on as a consequence of their rod like shape, which meant that  the energy  was transferred over a smaller surface area causing more injuries10_  There had been fourteen deaths in Northern Ireland  with  ten from head strikes and  four from chest strikes10.

The American  experience shows that the belly button aim point  often lead to chest  injury. The  three recorded deaths7  were from the rounds fracturing a rib, which  pierced  the heart in one case, the lung in the second and both  the heart  and lung in the third6. The literature does not expound the non-lethal injuries caused  by individual types of projectiles. Rocke in 1983 compared  Millar et al’s researchll to a similar  number of people struck with plastic bullets and  found  that, while the plastic bullets  tended to be more lethal when  the skull is hit, the rubber bullet struck more people in the face and also caused more lung  contusions12_

Rubber  and  plastic ammunition is used in Israel and was designed  to be used by the Israeli Defence Force to cause sudden and reversible  immobilisation of demonstrators by inflicting  painful  and non­ penetrating injuriesl3.  This was to avoid  the serious wounds and deaths caused by conventional military ammunitionB.  There are four variants of the rubber bullets, which are fired from a canister mounted on either the M-16 or Galil combat rifles. Two are spherical rubber balls 1.8 em in diameter known as the Standard Rubber Bullet (SRB)l3.  The other two are cylindrical projectiles of the same diameter and 1.8 em in length13.   The plastic bullet is fired from a 5.56 assault rifle, weighs 0.85g and is composed of an alloy of PVC and metallic fragmentsl3.

There were 17 fatalities recorded with ten from the rubber bullet and seven from the plastic bulletl3. Ten fatalities were from brain injury, two from cardiac injury,  three from internal haemorrhage, and single cases of spinal shock and blood aspirationB.  Again, their use against young males is highlighted, with l2 fatalities in the 10-19 age group with a mean age of There was only one woman fatality aged 42. Non-lethal injuries were not discussed in the report. As an aside, not all less-lethal projectiles are designed to control people or are sophisticated in design.  A l2 gauge shotgun round called a ‘Smack’ round is made and marketed from a cattle property in Nebo, Queensland, and is a used in rounding up cattle_l4_ It is made by loading a cut off shotgun wad into a plastic case, inserting a piece of hydraulic hose and sealing the case.


Less-lethal projectiles are aptly named because, although they are designed to injure, they can kill if they hit vulnerable areas of the body, particularly the chest and head. They give law enforcement and military personnel an option, however, of using something other than lethal force. Training is required to prevent serious and fatal injuries.

The ADF has a need for such rounds where the use of lethal force is unwarranted or illegal, such as in peacekeeping or Defence Aid to the Civil Power. It has the weapons to fire these projectiles and, with proper training and rules of engagement, these rounds would be a valuable adjunct to military operations.




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