What Are Rubber Bullets?

Israeli soldiers are shooting rubber bullets at Palestinian rioters. Bolivian soldiers shot rubber bullets at farmers protesting the destruction of coca crops last month. Los Angeles police aimed them at anarchists disrupting the Democratic National Convention in August. Just what are rubber bullets, and what are they designed to do?

Rubber bullets describe about 75 types of “less than lethal devices” that are designed to deliver a stinging blow that incapacitates but does not kill or penetrate flesh as do regular metal bullets.

The first less-than-lethal bullets appeared in the 1880s when Singapore police shot sawed-off broom handles at rioters. By the 1960s, riot control police in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong were using more sophisticated wooden bullets. (Wooden bullets still in use today are called “knee-knockers.”) British colonists brought the idea back home to England, where they replaced the wood–which could shatter and possibly penetrate–with rubber. Tens of thousands of rounds of rubber bullets were fired by British soldiers at citizens of Northern Ireland starting in the 1970s. By the 1980s the British had switched to more accurate plastic bullets, solid polyvinyl chloride cylinders about 4 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. The bullets are supposed to be shot at the lower half of the body; about 19 people have been killed by them in Northern Ireland mostly because of injury to the head. Numerous groups from the European Parliament to Human Rights Watch have called for a ban on plastic bullets.

In response to the Palestinian uprising that started in the late 1980s, the Israeli military developed its own rubber bullets designed to disperse crowds, to injure but not kill. These small rubber-coated metal pellets are supposed to be shot from a distance of about 130 feet and aimed at people’s legs. But they can be lethal if shot at the head at closer range, and dozens of Palestinians have died from such injuries. Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi titled his book examining moral conflicts in his country Rubber Bullets.

Rubber bullets were introduced in the United States to quell anti-war and civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s. A fatality in 1971 stopped their use until their reintroduction in the late 1980s. Though famously deployed against recent protesters, they are most often used by individual police officers to subdue armed, mentally ill people. The most common kinds are the bean bag bullet, a cloth pouch with about 40 grams of lead shot that delivers the equivalent of a punch from Mike Tyson, and a plastic cylinder like that used in Northern Ireland. There have been seven known fatalities in the United States and Canada from the weapons.

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Explainer thanks Major Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., police department. For more on plastic bullets, see the Humans Rights Watch Web site.