Less Lethal Rounds 101

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Looking for a little less bang for your buck? Ever wondered about so-called "less than lethal" rounds? Well here is a primer.


Since their inception, firearms have designed to be lethal, be it for sporting, or defense purposes. As early as the 17th century unattended so-called Cemetery Guns were set up to fire loud, smoky charges of powder along with a small amount of shot to scare away (and lightly injure) late night body snatchers and grave robbers. In the 19th century, wooden and wax bullets were used in training and practice scenarios fired from both rifles and pistols. Today these rounds have evolved into a dizzying array of loads that, while certainly not designed to be as lethal as modern soft-point hunting and jacketed-hollow-point ammunition, they still pack a heck of a wallop and are often deadly. They can be used in a situation where the destruction of the target isn't required.

In civilian use, it is thought that by using a less lethal round as your first round, courts of law and boards of inquiry will see this as a legitimate attempt to defend without the intent of causing lethal injury, therefore reducing your risk of a lawsuit.


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The humble 12-gauge shotgun has long been the standard delivery platform for less lethal rounds. Back in the old day's farmers to run off stray dogs, hoboes, and the occasional courting boyfriend used a 'healthy dose of rock salt'. Today these have evolved to rubber buckshot and rubber bullets. There is a huge selection of these rounds available today ranging from 15-pellet buck, to fin stabilized rubber rockets, to flying baton slugs, and everything in between. These rounds range from $1-$5 a pop depending on manufacturer and several dealers such as Ammo to Go stock them. One of the neater rounds is ALS Technologies Hornets' Nest which fires 20, .308 diameter, 55 durometer rubber projectiles with about 4 ft./lbs of energy in each.

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Ever seen Jackass: The Movie? Well in the scene where anti-hero Johnny Knoxville takes a 40-grain beanbag to his, um, beanbag, the Mossberg is fired by George Hruska (then the Vice President of Operations of ALS Technologies). It's a good example of how one of these rounds works. Pain, pain, pain.

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Taser's electric shock 12-gauge slug (photo by Paul Wootton popsci.com)

The Taser XREP wireless shotgun round, which is a flying stun gun capable of 100-yard shots, is the top level of less lethal shotgun shells. Unfortunately, it's sold to law enforcement only and is about $160 a pop.

Pistols and Rifles

Less lethal rounds for use in pistols are far less common but they do exist. Paraklese Technology sells six rounds of .40S&W for $15. These rounds are billed as something of the effect of an extended range flying impact weapon, but are very low powered and do not cycle. ALS also makes a similar round for other calibers although the fact that they are no longer on the company's website may mean they are now discontinued.

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Concepts in Ammunition sells besides such established product lines as pistol (eight calibers from 380 to .44) and shotgun rubber composite ammunition, but they also sell it for rifles. Their unique ammo, available in .223, .30-.30, and 30.06, is advertised as being "designed to stop an assailant with less chance of fatally injuring them or innocent bystanders." Regardless of whether it actually proves lethal to the intended target, these rounds are less likely to over penetrate walls in an urban inside-your-house type of situation. They sell a 10-pack for about $20.


Remember, these rounds are only less than lethal at long distances and at short range can (and most likely will be) very lethal. Remember almost all this stuff has a high probability of causing death or severe (read= intensive care unit) damage if used at distances less than 12-feet. You can't just kill someone just a little bit. Law enforcement, corrections, and the military are the best-known users for less lethal rounds because they often fall into scenarios in which it's preferable to incapacitate rather than kill someone. As a civilian, it's a rather risky maneuver to use less lethal rounds. Only use them in an occasion where lethal force is justified or you could be looking at a wrongful death lawsuit and/or murder charge. Most would say that if you bring a rubber bullet to a gunfight, you have a problem. Of course, on the other hand, there is always a mixed load.

For years a good friend of mine has kept his home defense Mossberg loaded with a rubber buck load in the chamber, backed up by three shells of Federal Tactical LE133 00 buck, and a final of 1-ounce copper solid slug.

"If the 15 pellets of rubber doesn't stop em," he explained, "I've got 27 pellets of buck and one big slug to change their mind after that."

It's a thought.

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January 1, 2013  •  02:00 PM
Dear Chris
I am the owner and inventor of the Easyloader Press for wax bullets. Reading your article about same I thought I'd ask you to visit my web site at www.easyloaderpress.com I think you would enjoy it as they are what we use in the CFDA clubs. But beware they are lethal at close range, and since most would be attackers are shot at less then 11' you might like this. Let me know what you think.Dale
April 21, 2013  •  09:21 AM
I have 40 years LE experience and have been directly involved in several incidents were we used less than lethal projectiles and have had training in their use. The first rule is to never use less lethal unless you have lethal force back up, so I would have to totally disagree with your 'friend' (or any civilian) who elected to use less lethal for home/self defense.
If you are justified to use lethal force to defend yourself and/or others do so, leave the less lethal to the professionals.
April 29, 2013  •  10:01 AM
@JimRau As stated in the article, "Law enforcement, corrections, and the military are the best-known users for less lethal rounds because they often fall into scenarios in which it's preferable to incapacitate rather than kill someone. As a civilian, it's a rather risky maneuver to use less lethal rounds. Only use them in an occasion where lethal force is justified" Its standard in LE when using any less-lethal round for a second officer to provide overwatch with a live weapon....but thanks for reiterating
July 31, 2013  •  12:53 AM
Odd as it may seem, the NATO 5.56mm round was in part selected because it was considered "less-than-lethal" compared to the 7.62mm. The idea being that by wounding the enemy soldier, you forced them to use resources (stretcher bearers, doctors, nurses, etc.)to care for him that otherwise would be available for combat. I'm not sure what the final conclusion about the concept was since the Vietnamese usually dragged off their casualties if possible whether dead or wounded.