The Art of War

Why do commandos use paintball guns?

Israeli commandos onboard a flotilla vessel. Click image to expand.
Israeli commandos onboard a flotilla vessel

When Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged vessel Mavi Marmara headed for Gaza last week, they used paintball guns against the pro-Palestinian activists before resorting to more lethal defensive tactics. Why would commandos use paintball guns?

To mark, scatter, or hurt aggressors. Military-grade, paintball-style launchers can carry three kinds of payload: ordinary paintballs, “pepperballs,” or impact balls. Paintballs are a great way to brand the most disobedient members of a rioting horde so backup officers can sweep in and cuff them or track them when they try to flee. (Both washable and permanent paints are available.) Pepperballs contain a small amount of pepper spray to irritate the eyes and noses of the targets and help disperse menacing crowds. Impact balls consist of metal powder in a plastic case and are much harder than a typical paintball. Commandos use them to drive back approaching mobs. Israel hasn’t said which of the munitions its commandos were carrying.

Law-enforcement officers don’t carry commercial paintball guns, but their weapons use the same compressed-air technology. There are two general categories of paintball-style systems. High-capacity pepperball guns carry 150 rounds of pellets in a top-mounted hopper, giving the appearance of a recreational paintball gun. U.S. forces prefer the more versatile FN 303, which can also fire impact and paint munitions. While the FN 303 offers only a 15-round, tommy gun-style magazine, it delivers three times the force of the typical pepperball system. (You can tell which system hit you by the shape of the welt: The pepperballs leave a rounder mark than the FN 303 ammo.) Of course, if you’re looking for stopping power, neither of the compressed-air weapons can compare to more traditional bean bags or plastic bullets, which deliver 10 and 13 times as much force, respectively, as the pepperball. None of these munitions will stop the most motivated protesters, but they help police separate the merely unruly from those bent on violence.

Law-enforcement types used to refer to all of these tools as nonlethal weapons, but a series of tragedies has given rise to the less-lethal moniker. In 2004, Boston police, attempting to disperse a crowd of jubilant Red Sox fans, accidentally killed a college student by shooting her in the eye with a pepperball from the FN 303. According to Amnesty International, 351 people in the United States have died after being Tasered since June 2001. (Experts disagree on how many of them were actually killed by the Taser.) Bean bags and plastic bullets have killed more than a dozen people in the U.S. since 1971.

While a complete picture of what happened on the Mavi Marmara has not yet emerged, video from the incident indicates that the Israeli forces failed to clear the deck and form a proper skirmish line to prevent the protesters from outflanking or surrounding the soldiers. The helicopters could have fired tear-gas canisters, small water cannons, or plastic bullets to clear a landing area for the commandos. Despite a possible failure in tactics, the Israelis had the right tools for the job. None of the more exotic less-lethal weapons would have worked well on the Mavi Marmara. Tasers are effective against individual suspects but not against crowds. High-tech noise-makers and skunk spray keep space between rioters and police, but are ineffective in very close quarters. Both the U.S. and Israeli militaries are developing a so-called pain beam, which uses a focused energy beam to give suspects an intolerable burning sensation, but it hasn’t yet been deployed in the field.

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Explainer thanks Maj. Steve Ijames of Watch House International, LCDR Lance Lantier of the U.S. Navy’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, and Col. Andrew F. Mazzara of the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies at Penn State University.

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