Less Lethal Lessons

In 1980, Steve McQueen's action flick The Hunter was on movie screens depicting the star as an aging "bail recovery agent." (Think K-9 bounty hunter with more years, less hair, no enhanced muscle mass and no entourage.) McQueen comes up against the proverbial "Bubba" who he has to somehow return to the gray bar hotel. Bubba was the film personification of a type of person who frequents our experiences on the streets, and he was big. I mean really big with bonus serious anger management issues. To get him into custody, McQueen's character first tries hands on and then transitions to pepper spray. Bubba is not impressed and he proceeds to throw McQueen through a door. Our hero then grabs an early, very crude 40mm bean bag launcher. As Bubba closes in, Steve blasts him with a bag to the chest's centerline. Bubba's attack is immediately stopped upon impact as he drops unconscious-but not dead-to the floor. Soon Bubba is on his way to jail.

To my knowledge, that scene was the first cinematic depiction of a bean bag in action. Kind of in keeping with the old adage "you're never too old to learn something stupid," it is a given that, to some degree, it had an influence on law enforcement's perception of less lethal bean bags as their use began to flourish. Along the way, people went to jail thanks to their use but serious injuries and, yes, even death also occurred. With Bubba's base line bean bag battering (sorry, I just couldn't resist), we are going to examine some facts and fiction associated with this use of force tool.

Can You Hit It?

A less lethal-or more specifically, extended range kinetic energy impact munition-starting point is accuracy: If a munition cannot get accurate hits at street viable distances, then why is an agency still using it? I get to shoot and experiment with a lot of different rounds-37/40mm, 12ga, pepperball, FN-you name it. An initial focus is whether or not the projectile will provide accurate impacts. Here's what to look for: Using a silhouette target, can the round hit areas like the thighs or, better yet, the hands? The latter would simulate knocking a knife or pipe out of a suspect's hand. If the particular launcher and less lethal round can provide some consistent accuracy, then the question has been partially answered.


There are a couple of other factors involved in accurate deployment of less lethal munitions. One is the capability of the cop who is preparing to launch a 12ga bean bag or a 40mm sponge round. The frequency-or lack thereof-of marksmanship training provided to less lethal operators can be a significant factor in getting accurate hits. (Let's be honest here: The hit ratio in police lethal force encounters is not as good as it should be and sometimes it is downright dismal. Part of the problem is again marksmanship training.) Some agencies only train with less lethal once a year. Often motivated by a desire to save money, this is decidedly short sighted. It should be understood that these law enforcement tools can create significant cost savings. It's a "You can pay now or you can pay later" issue. If it's successfully used to stop a suspect in his tracks before he forces officers to use more injurious or even lethal options, that's a good thing. Additionally, range training should emphasize getting the hits rather than just firing a number of rounds. If a miss does occur, then the officers should be empowered to fire again to deliver the desired impact.

Training Reality

If officers don't have a trained competency level in handling less lethal launchers, the potential for mistakes increases. Under range training conditions, improper loading and handling along with a lack of awareness and communication can falter unless the program sufficiently ensures these are addressed. The scenario can be worse under real street conditions. Yes, I realize that budgetary issues are attached to increased frequency of training, not just with less lethal but also, for example, Taser training. Such programs eat up training dollars, but in both cases, the money is spent on preparation rather than a financial hit at the end of legal action with the city or county on the losing end. My suggestion is to incorporate less lethal training into regular lethal firearms practice at whatever pace the department uses. Quarterly for both would be a good solution.

Cost or Costly

The cost of the less lethal munitions is also a factor, but not as significant as you might think. Unlike the early days where the only choice was to use costly factory rounds for training, now there are reloadable 12ga and 40mm options. For the former, West Coast Ammunition (WestCoastAmmunition.com) provides training choices, including a "recycling" program. Send them your used bean bags. They will reload and send them back so they can be used again. Both CTS (CombinedSystems.com) and Ten-X Ammunition (TenXAmmo.com) make 40mm sponge round reload kits that will be helpful in reducing training costs.

So Degraded

Another accuracy-related issue is understanding the less lethal optimum range. The question begins: "At what distance would your less lethal round fail in its mission to deliver an accurate, pain producing impact?" This is tied into the concept of trajectory degradation. We all understand that lethal bullets are designed to travel a fairly long distance, often at supersonic speeds. A less lethal operator should know that gravity and drag, in combination with the larger, slower and less aerodynamic projectiles can influence accuracy at distance. There's a corresponding effect on where the impact takes place: Intended or unintended human body parts or even falling short with no impact at all. As distance increases, these effects require an officer to adjust point of aim so that a less lethal round's impact is still accurate. Less lethal officers should be trained to think in terms of less lethal-not lethal-trajectories. Without this awareness, an inappropriate 5.56mm thought process while using a 12ga or 40mm launcher at 30 yards could result in a wasted, ineffective deployment. It's not intuitive. It has to be taught and trained. Less lethal shots should be precise and the only way to accomplish this is through practice. The above issue-and a lot more-is addressed in the excellent book, Risk Management of Less Lethal Options by R.T. Wyant and Thomas Burns. If you are a student of your profession in this context, then it is a default must read.

Officers should have an understanding of a less lethal munition's effective range. This is the optimum "sweet spot" for use. Manufacturers generally make recommendations in this respect. I would suggest that your training confirm these figures. Typically, this is the effective "ouch" zone between the closest and farthest distances for a particular round. Again, the latter is related to the reduction in kinetic energy a less lethal munition can create as it travels further. The issue of how close is another matter. First, officers should be trained to gauge distances not from their eyeballs to the target, but rather from the muzzle to the target. The reason for this should be obvious-the muzzle is closer, perhaps too close. Under some circumstances, too close could constitute an excessive force issue. But this is not as cut-and-dried as it might seem. The actions and behavior of the suspect prompting the contact have to be considered. While we are using, in essence, a firearm to deliver less lethal impacts, the energy and potential injury is often similar to that of a handheld impact weapon. A muzzle close deployment can be justified if based on circumstances that are reasonable for such a use of force. This is a tactical issue rather than one dictated exclusively by a manufacturer's parameters. It is suggested that department policy recognize this fact.

Sitting Still?

While an officer's less lethal marksmanship is one determining factor, what the suspect is doing also has an effect on less lethal accuracy. Typical range training has a stationary suspect target facing the shooters. This is not always the case. Suspects may have their backs or sides toward us, and they definitely don't stay in one place. To address this, less lethal instructors who incorporate targets depicting different positions and even a moving target system into the training would get the "Gold Standard Extra Mile" award from me. Some criminal clients are well schooled-due their "frequent flyer" status-in the less lethal tools we may use against them. For example, it is not uncommon to find professional criminal protestors-not folks just peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights-padding themselves with protective layers of foam and/or newspapers to reduce the effects of extended range kinetic energy hits.


The types of targets used for less lethal training should be an instructor concern. Paper targets on cardboard backers are not my favorite. They will work in a pinch but to me there is a disconnect of sorts there. We do not want less lethal impact rounds penetrating into a human body, yet that's what happens with paper targets. Call me crazy (I'm not-I was tested and passed!) for this concept, but it is just me being anal about less lethal training, including making it more legally defensible. I've used a lot of alternatives. One that may already be at your department is a "Numb John" impact dummy. We use these for handheld impact weapons so why not less lethal impact munitions as well? I would suggest wrapping old, out of date ballistic vests around the chest, back, arms and legs to extend the life of the Numb John. Another alternative is to use large truck mud flaps or sections of hard rubber conveyor belts with target areas painted on them. For example, if there is a concrete factory nearby, they replace their conveyor belts every so often. Asking the factory boss for some of these just might work. They might even cut them into sections for you. The best option I have found comes from DoJo Toys, Inc. (DoJoToys.com). These are more pricey than the conveyor belt option (free is good, right?) but mine have held up very well with literally thousands of impact hits during the classes I teach.

Not Less Lethal

A related topic that should be understood by officers and managers is the lethal alternative. Cmdr. Sid Heal (Los Angeles Sheriff's Dept., ret.) has told us that the purpose of less lethal munitions is "to deliver temporary and reversible effects." He is right. However, suspects don't avidly read his material like I do and may not always be in tune with that goal. The reality is that these munitions can be used as a reasonable deadly force alternative if the suspect's actions compel such a response. In one such case, a knife wielding individual partially hidden behind a door started to slash at an officer. Recognizing this, a second officer-armed with a 12 gauge bean bag shotgun-immediately transitioned from the anticipation of a temporary less lethal resolution to delivering a bean bag head shot for a more permanent one. Rounds fired by the first officer also added to the solution.

We will be hitting more of these less lethal lessons next month. Until then, train safe. God bless America.

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