Contemporary agencies using impact rounds today generally deploy them in cases where officers are justified in using impact energy, but for obvious safety reason are unable to walk up to the suspect and do so. Common operational scenarios involve armed and/or violent people affected by mental illness, suicidal subjects, or those who for whatever reason are found armed, non-compliant, and not overtly assaultive. Reasons for procuring impact rounds extend well beyond the common operational scenarios and often include, among other things, public order management.
The rounds have greatly assisted countless agencies in situations where a death or critical injury would almost certainly have occurred had they not been available. Likewise, the rounds have played a causative role in 14 deaths and hundreds of serious injuries in the United States and Canada since 1971. As such, most progressive police managers think long and hard about what they will procure, when they will deploy, and how they will use the various tools available to them.
With that in mind, what is the best impact projectile system for YOUR agency? The answer to the question is not the same for every application. In order to answer the question as it relates to you and yours, you would first need to answer a number of other questions. What is the likely operational environment? What is the likely range of deployment? How willing are we to injure those we are engaging? Do we have access to money for both procurement and training?
Significant numbers of agencies nationwide deploy 12-gauge, non-square, beanbag rounds in the field for a variety of reasons. Practically everyone has access to shotguns, and the pump action 12-gauge offers a cost-effective, eight-shot impact projectile system, with the minor addition of eight hours of training and some beanbags.
The non-square rounds are generally more accurate than the shooter behind them at under 60 feet, which dramatically reduces the probability of accidentally hitting a vital area. The rounds also have a record of consistent performance on human targets. They definitely leave a mark but have avoided almost all of the rough edges (penetration, edge hits, lack of accuracy) associated with the square bags that proceeded them.
The vast majority of less-lethal encounters are handled by field officers moments after arriving, and having ready access to such a system increases the chance that it can be used effectively before the situation escalates to a higher level. The 12-gauge non-square beanbags have an excellent track record of safely and effectively getting the job done when properly deployed by well-trained personnel.
With that said, let me point out that the 12-gauge beanbag is about as low tech as one could go for impact projectiles. A select group of more advanced and specialized technologies fills unique operational voids and enhances the capabilities of those willing to commit the time, personnel, and financial resources to having the best impact projectile program possible.
The PepperBall system is unique in that it allows the operator to accurately engage subjects multiple times to about 60 feet (beanbag range), and do so with almost zero possibility of causing a fatal injury outcome. The company offers a 10-round CO2 pistol, a 180-round carbine, and a fully automatic version capable of firing 700 rounds a minute.
The weapons all fire the proprietary .68 caliber frangible round ball and include those designed to break windows, leave identifying paint marks or dusting the suspect on impact with a high-grade pepper irritant called PAVA (Capsaicin II). The PAVA round can also be used out to extended ranges (200 feet) to contaminate the air and limit access to a particular area.
The most important thing PepperBall brings to the table is a minimally intrusive yet extremely painful “nudge” when officers need to take action but can’t risk the type of injuries often associated with the more powerful rounds. The PAVA round delivers between 8 and 12 ft/lbs of energy, as compared to the 120 ft/lbs found with a standard beanbag. It has dramatically less impact but is still quite uncomfortable, not to mention the OC powder and psychological factors associated with the subject believing he had just been shot.
All this adds up to a weapons system that has proven itself in operational engagements, and doesn’t bring with it any baggage related to deaths or serious injuries. Agencies using the 12-gauge beanbag system can also take advantage of the impact / OC concept PepperBall offers by using the 12-gauge PAVA round called the Impact Plus. This frangible finned round delivers 14-20 ft/lbs of energy and is accurate to about 60 feet.
FN USA offers the semi-automatic, 15-shot FN 303 Less Lethal System, which fires a .68 caliber, 8.5-gram plastic projectile, delivering 25 pounds of impact energy or a combination of impact, a marking die, or an OC / pepper formulation. The system is reliable and extremely accurate. Independent tests suggest the point of aim / impact to 30 yards with lower body mass hits almost assured out to 50 yards when deployed by a skilled operator.
The FN 303 is an extremely well-made weapons system that is available in a stand-alone platform or mounted under an M16-M4. The air canister will propel about 115 rounds and can be rapidly reloaded in the field. The FN 303 offers some specific and unique advantages. One is minimal yet effective impact energy, which dramatically reduces the potential for death or serious injury when vital areas are avoided. Another is extreme accuracy, which would allow specific targeting of violators at long range in cases such as public disorder where the goal is to provide incentive to leave, as opposed to incapacitation and arrest.
Large Caliber Munitions
The large caliber rifled barrel impact projectile systems have been the standard to which all others are compared since the mid-1980s. They are extremely accurate and hard hitting and generally recognized in some variation as the system of choice for those who have the financial resources to procure the very best. Technology has changed since 1984, but the big bullet systems continue to enjoy almost universal acceptance with the different manufacturers having strong support from various segments of the law enforcement community.
When considering large caliber rifled systems, a number of issues must be addressed before a procurement decision can be made. The good news is that there really isn’t a bad system in the category. The bad news is there are lots of things to think about, beginning with caliber, i.e., 37mm vs. 40mm. The primary benefit of 37mm is that it is clearly the most operationally proven of the two, which means a lot when considering issues such as historical injury data and related potential.
The ARWEN 37 was the first system introduced to the U.S. market from England in 1984, and it is now manufactured from the ground up by Police Ordnance in Canada, with major modifications and improvements having been made. The upside is that the weapon is extremely well made and has been proven operationally around the world. Fit and finish are superb, and it’s hard to find an operator who tests it and doesn’t like it.
The down side is that it’s larger than 50 calibers and rifled. This means federal registration with BATF as a destructive device, and all the related paperwork hassles that come with transferring such things across international borders. The process is relatively easy to do, but it takes about twice as long as procuring a U.S.-made weapon.
The SAGE SL6 and Penn Arms SL65 are (in overly simplistic terms) the U.S. made response to the ARWEN 37. The SAGE and Penn systems bare a remarkable resemblance to each other—almost like they were made in the same shop—but differ dramatically from the ARWEN 37. Six rounds as compared to five, mostly steel as compared to aluminum and plastic, revolver-like as compared to auto eject.
But the practical differences from an operator’s perspective are harder to come by. Both systems use the exact same ammunition, both are extremely accurate, both are well made and operationally proven. At the end of the day, this decision might be reduced down to simply personal preference and ease of procurement.
Police Ordnance (ARWEN 37) has a variety of rounds available in the U.S. through Combined Tactical Systems. SAGE manufactures its own and offers the most proven and well documented large caliber projectile in American policing, the KO1. This 77.5-gram flat-nosed polyurethane round travels at 240 feet per second and delivers 156 ft/lbs of energy. Keep that in mind as you consider the 12-gauge beanbag at 120 ft/lbs, the FN 303 at 25 ft/lbs, and the PepperBall at 8 to 12 ft/lbs.
The SAGE KO1 is a real attention getter, one of the primary reasons this is law enforcement’s most popular large caliber round. SAGE recently introduced a modified and much softer tipped version of the impact round called the KO8SST. This round is designed to offer significant impact energy with a reduced potential for tissue damage. Initial field engagements suggest that the round is performing as designed.
Both U.S. companies offer nearly identical weapons in 40mm, and SAGE manufactures a full line of ammunition as well. Some agencies have jumped on the 40mm band wagon, as specialty rounds have been developed for the militaries preferred caliber. Most who are firing multi-shot systems have continued to use 37mm.
It is important to note that BAE Systems / Armor Holdings / Defense Technology manufactures a slightly modified version of the U.S. Military 40mm “sponge grenade” sold under the trade name “eXact Impact”. This round is extremely accurate, maintains its energy (112 ft/lbs at the muzzle) at extended range, and was recognized by Seattle Police as being the safest and most effective round used during the WTO riots.
The large caliber weapons systems are all good. An agency might make a 37mm-40mm procurement decision based more on the round and its proven performance than the launcher itself. Those who can afford multi-shot almost always go this way because immediate follow-up shots often are necessary to stop a threat, and you need a multi-shot system to do that. Likewise, the single shot systems are offered by the major manufacturers in both 37mm and 40mm and are a lightweight, low-cost alternative to small caliber.
An obvious exception to the “always multi” thinking is the under barrel M203PI 40mm launcher systems. These devices are mounted under an MP5 or M16-M4 and allow the tactical operator to have both lethal and less lethal in same delivery system. This is especially valuable in high-risk situations in which an officer needs immediate deadly force capability but might potentially encounter a scenario in which the impact round could be used. A number of progressive teams use the M203PI on their MP5 entry guns and have successfully deployed them when facing aggressive subjects on search warrants.
The large caliber rifled launchers bring additional horsepower to the playing field, along with precision accuracy and almost triple the effective range. The downside is they are expensive to purchase, train with and operate. As such, most agencies reach a compromise between ready access and top-of-the-line performance. They deploy 12-gauge beanbag systems in the field to ensure first responders have an extended range impact option. They then procure large caliber rifled systems for specialty units in hopes of having reasonable access in circumstances where extended range or special circumstances exist.
Policy, procedure, and training protocols with impact rounds are generally well established across the industry. The primary emphasis is placed on end-user training that addresses the technical aspects of safely and accurately deploying the rounds and the decision-making aspects focusing on justification to use and logical points of aim.
Steve Ijames has been an officer for 25 years and is currently a major in charge of all Springfield, MO, police criminal investigations. He is a graduate of the 186th FBI National Academy and is an internationally recognized expert in SWAT tactics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.