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The Quest for Less Lethal Systems

The straight wooden baton carried by officers was at one time was their only option for controlling individuals who sought to resist arrest other than becoming involved with them in a physical fight. Recognizing that this lack of options was getting officers and suspects hurt or killed, the law enforcement community has for decades sought ways to safely apprehend disruptive and violent offenders from a distance using the least amount of force possible without exposing officers to un-needed risk. This goal has been elusive.

While the quest for ideal less-lethal options continues to the present day, law enforcement officers now have a wide-ranging arsenal of devices to assist in the apprehension of these disruptive individuals. The devices or technologies in current general issue run the gamut from projectiles fired from twelve gauge shotguns and larger bore launching systems to pepper filled plastic balls launched from modified paintball guns and disruptive electrical charges sent along hair thin wires. Each of the systems has a use and each has a place within the overall force continuum.

Questions have arisen concerning the place where the various less lethal devices fit in relation each other and where or more appropriately, which are best deployed in a patrol setting. Agencies will need to make decisions about which products to acquire based upon a variety of factors. These factors include climate as it relates to personal clothing (a concern for impact munitions), economic and political factors, as well as training issues that may arise dependant upon the time available for continued in-service refresher or qualifying courses.

OC Spray

Needing no introduction to most officers, the ubiquitous Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray has made strong inroads into the law enforcement community since the 80s. The use of the naturally occurring OC pepper delivered to the target via a small portable canister worn on each officer’s belt was revolutionary when first introduced. OC sprays represented a giant step forward both in terms of safety and effectiveness from the other various aerosol products that had been used up until that point.

It is the rare agency that does not either authorize or issue OC products. While there is seemingly universal agreement that OC is a valuable asset to officers what remains somewhat of concern or at issue is the way the OC is delivered to the target.

Various companies have produced products featuring a variety of delivery methods such as stream, fog, foam, or gel distribution. There have also been numerous substances used as chemical carriers that allow for the OC to be expelled from the canister and delivered to the target such as water, oil, or alcohol. Each substance has a benefit and each a disadvantage.

In terms of distribution method the stream is valuable as distance to the target increases or when there is any blowing wind during the time that the officer is spraying a target. The stream method of delivery, which primarily effects the vision of a suspect, is able to carry the OC a greater distance to the target than other delivery methods without an overly substantial chance of inadvertent contamination to others.

When the OC is delivered in a fog however the likelihood that overspray or cross contamination is going to become an issue rises drastically. Best used when there are no innocents in or near the target fog products do however increase the chance that OC will be effectively delivered should a suspect move or turn their head at the moment when they are sprayed. OC fog effects primarily the respiratory systems of the subject as it is designed to deliver the product in a cloud, distributing the chemical over a larger area than what does the stream.

The third basic of delivery method, foam and most recently gel, is one of the best choices to use in such confined settings as hospitals, correctional institutions, court buildings or when there is a high degree of need to be sure that the only thing contaminated by OC is the subject. The foam or gel impacts a target area and saturates only that area with a highly lessened ability to contaminate other persons or objects. Officers should however be aware that this method is the only one, which suffers from the ability of the suspect to wipe the OC off and fling it back at officers.

Numerous are the theories concerning the chemical carriers used to aid in the delivery of the OC to the target. Again, each carrier has advantages and disadvantages. Fully research the issues surrounding each prior to issuing any product to officers, since one of the primary disadvantages of some methods is one of flammability.

OC spray is not the antidote to all resistive behaviors. When correctly deployed, OC is effective about 85% of the time. Since OC is nothing more than the oil of a hot pepper, it has been proven quite safe in a tremendous amount of actual street uses and as a result is very well accepted by the courts and public.

Couple this with the overall training, economic and convenience issues as they relate to everyday carry make OC spray the best all around general issue product yet to make an appearance. There is simply no reason that officers should be deployed to the field without some form of this technology available to them.


One picture is worth a thousand words. Seen worldwide in the media was a lone officer atop a Peacekeeper during the “Battle for Seattle” WTO riots. This image put the JTS PepperBall system (now PepperBall Technologies) on the world stage in a big way. Powered by compressed air, and using what is essentially a modified paint ball gun, the PepperBall launcher can hold over 200 rounds of less lethal projectiles. This system is an ingenious amalgamation of existing technology and forward out-of-the-box thinking.

The PepperBall system utilizes a .68 caliber plastic sphere that is filled with one of any number of different substances. At the heart of the system is the actual OC powder from which the system takes its name. The OC, which is disbursed upon impact with the target, is in the form of a fine powder easily carried in the air. Along with the OC filled rounds there are training rounds filled with substances such as talcum powder or water, marking rounds filled with dye and other specialty rounds such as a glass breaking round that is designed to expend all of its energy in a target shattering the glass in the process.

The PepperBall system has been around for quite some time at this point and is a proven piece of technology. As an example of the usefulness of the system is an encounter with a mentally disturbed suicidal subject in Bloomington, IN that was successfully resolved due to PepperBall deployment.

Responding to a housing project officers found a male armed with a double-edged knife stating that he wanted to end his life. Negotiations began but met with little success due to his level of intoxication. The officers continued to negotiate until the subject accidentally dropped the knife while moving it from one hand to the other.

As the subject bent to retrieve the knife officers discharged the PepperBall launcher nine to 10 times striking the subject about the abdomen and chest driving him away from the knife he was trying to retrieve and ultimately to the ground. The subject was taken into custody without any further resistance with no injuries to the officers and only the minor bruising that accompanies the PepperBall impact to the suspect.

While each PepperBall round delivers relatively little kinetic energy they are capable of being launched at an incredibly rapid rate. Each impact is reminiscent of being stung by a bee. Multiple impacts have been likened to being stung by multiple bees, which can be quite debilitating, or at least distracting long enough for other force options.

Overall the PepperBall system is an excellent, very low level, less-lethal device. It features not only the proven effects of OC but also the debilitating effects of very rapid multiple impacts coupled with a large magazine capacity. Some agencies have been so favorably impressed with this system that they have authorized each officer going on patrol to be equipped with a PepperBall launcher.

Like all less-lethal options today, PepperBall is not the do all, end all in all situations. If an individual is willing to fight through the pain of multiple impacts it is possible for them to successfully close the distance and physically engage the officer. Within its given scope of viability however it is truly one of the best general deployment systems available.

In addition to the CO2-powered launcher, PepperBall Technologies offers a 12 gauge launched projectile. This Badminton-style slug has the OC or PAVA payload in the front of a frangible, fin-stabilized plastic housing. Called the Impact Plus, this offers a real alternative in terms of distance and impact energy as compared to their standard systems.

One of the big advantages of the Impact Plus is the round can be deployed from any 12 gauge Cylinder Bore shotgun. No special launcher is needed. Obviously, strict transition protocols must be followed for shotguns loaded with lethal ammo. Better yet, of course, is a dedicated less-lethal shotgun.

The launcher-fired PepperBall projectile holds three grams of agent. The Impact Plus holds 5.5 grams, almost twice the payload. The PepperBall projectile delivers about 10 ft-lbs of energy at close-ranges, while the Impact Plus has 20 ft-lbs at 15 feet and 15 ft-lbs at 60 feet. From a 14-inch shotgun, we kept the Impact Plus inside a 12-inch circle at 60 feet.

FN 303 Less Lethal Launcher

Working under a principal similar to the PepperBall system, the Fabrique Nationale (FN) 303 Less Lethal Launcher is a more rifle like device than others of this ilk. The FN 303 fires an 8.5gram, .68 caliber projectile designed to impact with a target providing low level blunt force trauma. The FN 303 projectile uses a fin stabilized polystyrene body that is capable of containing any number of substances including OC and washable or permanent paint used as marking rounds.

Weighing in at five pounds the FN launcher is fired using compressed air and is fed by a detachable 15 round magazine. Due to the shape and construction of the projectile the FN system is capable of accurately delivering its rounds at a much greater distance than other less lethal launchers of this type. The FN is also capable of being detached from its stock and being mounted under other weapons such as an M16 in a nature similar to how the military’s M203 grenade launcher is attached.

While the FN 303 is a very capable less lethal launcher, it is also quite expensive. Initial acquisition of the system as well as the continuing cost of projectiles are fairly substantial when compared to other systems that offer similar results albeit with reduced range capability. Where the FN 303 really shines is in its ability to accurately engage targets of opportunity at greater ranges than others. This in and of itself may be the key to its long-term success.

The 303 is very good within its operational envelope and it is amassing a track record similar to other systems. These systems should not be looked upon as completely non-lethal in nature. Like all other higher energy impact projectiles, they are capable of causing serious injury or death in certain circumstances. Training is crucial to their proper use.

12 Gauge Impact Projectiles

Confirming that the shotgun, specifically the slide action 12 gauge, as perhaps the most versatile weapon ever created, shotgun launched less lethal projectiles were one of the first of the less lethal ballistic impact technologies to enter widespread service.

Many differing version of the shotgun launched projectile to become available over the years. Several rounds including the rubber ball, rubber sabot and wooden baton round have been tried and, in most cases, discarded for general issue to most officers due to a variety of factors not the least of which has been the potentially lethal effects at some ranges.

The round that has risen to the forefront of less lethal shotgun projectiles and has seen widespread use in American law enforcement has been the beanbag. Even the beanbag projectile itself has been refined over the years to the place where it now bears little resemblance to its fist incarnations.

First fielded in a square, one-inch by one-inch flat fabric bag encapsulating lead shot, the bean bag is now fielded in a variety of configurations with the drag stabilized sock type bag being one of the top choices. Nearly all companies marketing a bean bag offer some kind of stabilized, “sock” style beanbag. These munitions have been in service long enough for a large pool of data that shows that they are a highly effective tool when used in field conditions by officers trained in their use.

Problems with the original square configurations failing to fully open after being fired caused problems with accuracy and target impact. More concerning than accuracy problems were incidents where bean bags have either penetrated into a suspect or where the fabric that holds the shot has ruptured allowing it to penetrate the target.

Even with these early concerns this technology was allowed to mature and training has been changed to address some of these issues due to the tremendous potential of this system. As a result of this ongoing research and development effort these round have seen widespread distribution with many agencies.

At less than five dollars per round when bought in bulk the shotgun launched beanbag is perhaps the least expensive less lethal option currently available. In addition to the low cost of the round a factor contributing to this is the fact that almost every agency in the United States has numerous 12-gauge shotguns already in inventory.

Agencies must however be aware that for a less lethal 12 gauge shotgun program to be at its safest and most effective the weapon used to fire these rounds should be dedicated to less lethal projectiles only. The weapon should be denoted in a way such as different color stocks or completely different model shotguns so as that it is readily identifiable under stress to officers that the weapon in hand is for less lethal use only. Policies and procedures should be in place that do not allow for anything less.

Lest anyone believe that these concerns are overblown, there have been several tragic incidents where officers fired buckshot or slug rounds instead of the less lethal projectiles that were intended when a single shotgun was used for both purposes. Despite these incidents or incidents where malfunctions of less lethal projectiles have occurred, the vast majority of the actual street uses of beanbags have been very positive and many subjects have been safely taken into custody by their use.


The latest advancement in less-lethal options is the Taser. Arguably the safest and most effective (94%) option, the Taser actually dates back to the 1970s. The Taser, however, has really come into its own since the release of the 26-watt, 50,000 volt M26. The current version, the smaller and more compact X26, also produces 26-watts.

Using compressed nitrogen, the Taser fires two probes that contact the subject or engage the subject’s clothing. Each probe is connected via a fine wire back to the main housing. When the two probes contact the subject, the electrical circuit is closed and an automatic five-second discharge cycle starts. This cycle can be manually shut off.

The Taser uses electrical pulses (15 to 19 times per second for up to five seconds) to cause an uncontrollable muscle contraction. Called “Electro Muscular Disruption,” the Taser impulse prevents the muscles from operating. This is not pain compliance like the 1980s “stun guns.” Instead, muscle function is interrupted. Properly deployed, the effectiveness is immediate—in far less than a second. Importantly, the recovery time is also immediate, as thousands of officers have experience during training with the Taser.

Like all uses of force, the charge from the Taser is a stressful experience. While no deaths have been caused by the Taser, per se, some deaths have occurred following its use due to this stress. Of course, subject deaths have also followed wrestling a subject to the ground to handcuff him.

The Taser is available in three lengths: 18 feet, 21 feet, and the newly introduced 25 foot XP cartridge. The new Taser cartridge is compatible with both the M26 and the X26 series Tasers. The ballistics performance at 25 feet from the XP cartridge is comparable with the standard cartridge performance at 21 feet. The XP cartridge is identified by bright green bay (also known as blast) doors and tabs.

The Taser X26 is also available with an audio-video recording system using the Video Digital Power Magazine (VDPM), which also contains a storage bay for a spare cartridge and utilizes a rechargeable power source, a first for the Taser X26.

Taser products are used by over 7,000 police departments in the United States and abroad. Hundreds of police departments, including Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Albuquerque, and Reno, have purchased Taser products for every patrol officer.

37mm/40mm Projectiles

Like larger versions of the less lethal 12 gauge projectiles, the 37mm and 40mm less lethal systems have proven themselves to be quite effective. While it is unusual to find the 37/40mm less lethal system in mass, patrol level issue the rounds are perhaps one of the safest and most effective of the ballistic impact projectiles.

Recently one of the most popular rounds for these systems has been what is known as foam or sponge rounds. These rounds are impact munitions that strike a target with kinetic energy comparable to a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher. Make no mistake these impact munitions attempt to control individuals through pain compliance as they are designed to inflict blunt trauma.

The use of a rigid foam nose on the projectile allows for energy to be transferred when the nose itself begins to deform at impact. The velocity of these rounds is such that they are designed to be used at distances between 20 and 100 feet. The rounds are quite accurate at these distances and should be direct fired at a target intended to impact safe but effective target areas such as the legs and hip region.

While the sponge rounds have been one of the newest technologies to make a splash there are other older technologies that are still available which remain viable alternatives. Beanbags and other products such as canisters filled with multiple rubber balls or rubber baton style rounds are still produced and are capable of supplementing a less lethal impact munitions program.

Benefits and concerns with these products closely mimic those of the 12 gauge launched munitions. Just as with any other less lethal product or device agencies and officers need to closely evaluate what their particular need and or situation is to determine the technology which is the most viable for their application.

One of the biggest detractions to the 37/40mm systems is that of cost. The rounds are quite expensive as are the launching systems in comparison to others. There are two common systems for launching these rounds. A single shot break open style launcher similar to the older Smith and Wesson tear gas launchers or the US Military’s M79 grenade launcher is offered by several manufacturers. It is relatively inexpensive to acquire and is about as foolproof as any mechanical device can be.

Representative of the second common style of 37/40mm launchers is the Penn Arms SL6. Holding six rounds in a rotating cylinder ala a giant revolver, the Penn Arms launcher is a state of the art, manually operated weapon very similar in operation to a pump action shotgun. The launcher comes complete with several Picatinny style rails located at various points on the launcher suitable for mounting optics, lights or lasers. The weapon, while heavy and quite bulky, is easy and quick to use offering a high degree of accuracy and effectiveness.

While they are quite expensive the 37/40mm impact systems represent what is currently the ultimate in impact technology. Very useful in many settings these systems will continued to be handicapped by high acquisition and projectile cost which could eventually relegate them to use only by special teams or in highly unusual circumstances.

Technology has progressed at a pace that has often outstripped the ability of departments to adequately evaluate and acquire the latest or greatest less lethal system. While the search for the perfect less lethal system will continue it is vital that agencies evaluate for themselves what situations their officers routinely face, what fiscal price they are able to support in total and how much training they will be able to afford their officers.

Less lethal systems that are not supported by training will quickly become lethal systems when used inappropriately. Departments who fail to adequately support any such program do no one any favors as they subject their officers, the public and suspects to unnecessary risks that can be easily avoided.

Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the City of Bloomington Police Department where he serves as the tactical team leader for that agency. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

Rating : 10.0

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