A plastic bullet or plastic baton round (PBR) is a less-lethal projectile fired from a specialised gun. Although designed as a less-lethal weapon, they have caused a number of deaths. They are generally used for riot control. Plastic bullets were invented in 1973 by the British security forces for use against rioters in Northern Ireland. They were developed to replace their rubber bullets in an attempt to reduce fatalities. If misused they can still cause fatal injury.
An unrelated small-calibre handgun bullet made of plastic is sometimes used for short range target practice (see recreational use).
The plastic bullet was developed as a replacement for rubber bullets in the United Kingdom.
The first plastic bullet was the L5 Plastic Baton Round. It was developed by the British security forces for use against rioters in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. They were to replace rubber bullets, which had been used in Northern Ireland since 1970. Rubber bullets were meant to be fired below waist level, to reduce the risk of lethal injury. However, they were often fired directly at people from close range, which resulted in three people being killed and many more badly injured. If fired too low, rubber bullets would ricochet uncontrollably from the ground. The plastic bullet could be fired directly at targets. It was intended to be a projectile of similar effect on its target as the rubber bullet, but with less risk of ricochet and less risk of serious injury or death.
The first plastic bullet was made of PVC, was 89 mm (3.5 inches) long and 38 mm (1.5 in) in diameter, and weighed approximately 131 g (4.6 oz). The weight was similar to the rubber bullet but the new projectile had a lower muzzle velocity.
Use in Northern Ireland
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The plastic bullet was first used in 1973 by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force, and by 1975 it had replaced the rubber bullet. From 1973 to 1981, just over 42,600 plastic bullets were fired in Northern Ireland. By 2005, 125,000 baton rounds had been fired, most of them plastic bullets.
Shortly after their introduction it was discovered they were lethal at certain ranges. Fourteen people were killed by plastic bullet impacts; half of them were children and all but one were from the Catholic community. Most of the deaths were allegedly caused by the British security forces misusing the weapon, firing at close range and at chest or head level rather than targeting below the waist. In 2013 however, Ministry of Defence papers declassified from 1977 indicated in one case that a single round was fired because the lives of the soldiers were believed to be in danger, and for this reason the MoD was not prepared to accept that the soldiers acted wrongly. The first person to be killed by a plastic bullet impact was 10-year-old Stephen Geddis, who died on 30 August 1975, two days after being struck in west Belfast. One of the most high-profile victims was 12-year-old Carol Ann Kelly from west Belfast, who died on 22 May 1981, having been struck by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the Royal Fusiliers. In 1982, the European Parliament called on member states to ban the use of plastic bullets. However, they continued to be used by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. In 1984 the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets was founded, calling for plastic bullets to be banned in Northern Ireland. One of its founders, Emma Groves, had been permanently blinded in 1971 when a British soldier shot her in the face with a rubber bullet. During rioting in July 1997, a 14-year-old boy was struck in the head by a plastic bullet and spent three days in a coma.
The latest variant of the L5 PBR—the L5A7—was introduced in 1994 along with a new more accurate launcher, the HK L104 riot gun. The L5 was followed by the L21A1 in 2001. The L21 PBR is fired from a rifled weapon which gives greater accuracy when used with an optical sight. The L21 was replaced by the Attenuating Energy Projectile in June 2005.
In 1990, Kenyan riot police raided a room at the University of Nairobi beating students with batons. A fleeing female student was shot in the stomach with a plastic bullet. Plastic bullets were used against protesters at a protest against globalization in Quebec in 2001, where one individual reportedly underwent an emergency tracheotomy after being hit in the throat. Plastic bullets were approved for policing in England and Wales in June 2001. Plastic bullets were also authorized for G8 summit protests in Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005. In September 2004, seven picketing shipbuilders were injured in a tear-gas and plastic bullet assault in Cadiz, Spain. Foam-tipped plastic bullets were employed by U.S. Marines in a trial in the Iraq War but were determined to be ineffectual. A plastic bullet was successfully used to disarm a hostage taker armed with a machete in Dorchester, England in November 2002. Venezuelan police and soldiers fired plastic bullets at student protestors in Caracas in December 2010. Israeli security forces used non-lethal weapons such as plastic bullets in an eviction of settlers in the West Bank settlement of Havat Gilad.
A typical plastic bullet weighs around 130 g. The bullets were originally intended to be effective from 33–64 m.
Speer plastic bullets, the only widely available brand, are hollow based plastic cylinders, and are available in .357/.38/9 mm, .44, and .45 calibers, and are designed for use in handguns, primarily revolvers, as the flat nose of the bullet does not feed well in most magazine fed actions. The propulsion is provided only by the primer, and the slow moving plastic bullets may be captured undamaged and reused numerous times if a suitable backstop is used. For use in revolvers, .38 Special and .44 Special versions also include plastic cases, which can be primed and de-primed by hand with minimal tools. For other calibers, standard brass cases are used.
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