The Least Lethal Bullet

When discussing conventional bullets, one of the first thoughts that springs to mind is their significant potential to inflict damage or harm. Ammunition manufacturers have focused on ways to improve and optimize bullets to increase expansion, penetration, and consistency. However, there are circumstances under which the use of lethal ammunition may not be necessary or viable. 

Non-lethal, less-than-lethal, or less-lethal weapons are used for a variety of applications, from riot control and mob dispersal to self-defense. In those jurisdictions where access to firearms is heavily restricted or prohibited, less-lethal weapons can also provide a practical alternative to the private citizen.

In this article, we’ll discuss the origins of less-lethal ammunition and how it’s used today. 

What is the Least Lethal Bullet?

The least lethal bullets are riot-control munitions, such as rubber and plastic projectiles, bean bag rounds, and pepper balls. Softer and more compressible, these bullets inflict blunt-force trauma injuries to non-fatally incapacitate or deter criminal suspects and rioters.

Ammunition Lethality

Firearms are classified as deadly or lethal weapons. That is, firearms have a high probability of causing serious bodily injury or death. Metal bullets disrupt tissue by crushing (permanent cavitation), stretching (temporary cavitation), and transmitting high-magnitude pressure waves. The more tissue damage that a bullet causes, the higher the probability that it will inflict a mortal wound. The relative lethality of a gunshot wound also depends on the anatomic structures that it disrupts. This is a function of shot placement. 

While all conventional bullets are lethal, high-velocity, high-energy rifle projectiles (e.g., 5.56mm, 7.62mm NATO) tend to cause more tissue disruption than relatively low-velocity, low-energy handgun bullets (e.g., 9mm Luger, .45 ACP). Conventional buckshot and slug rounds are among the most lethal types in common use, causing devastating wounds at close range.

The Least Lethal Conventional Bullet

The least “lethal” firearm cartridges are commonly thought to be the .22 Long Rifle or .25 ACP. While deadly, both cartridges use low-caliber, lightweight projectiles propelled at subsonic velocities (when fired in handguns). Although a multitude of compact, concealable handguns are chambered in these rounds, neither cartridge is optimal for self-defense. The .22 Short, .22 BB Cap, and .22 CB Cap are probably the weakest. All three crush minimal tissue and penetrate to generally shallow depths.

“Non-Lethal” or “Less-Than-Lethal” Bullets


The terms “non-lethal” and “less-than-lethal” are technically misnomers. While this reflects the objective of reducing harm, many of the weapons that fall into this category are still capable of causing fatal or permanently disabling injuries.

Weapons typically classified as non-lethal or less-than-lethal include electroshock devices (e.g., the Taser), lachrymatory chemical agents (e.g., oleoresin capsicum or OC), and rubber or rubberized baton rounds. It is worth noting that it is not uncommon for rubber bullets, in particular, to cause severe injury, especially when the projectile strikes a target in the face or head. For that reason, less lethal is a much more accurate description. 


The standard electronic control weapon, the Taser uses compressed nitrogen to propel two dart-like probes connected by wires to the hand unit. An internal battery delivers an electric current through these wires to the probes and, thus, the target. This has the effect of disrupting muscle function, immobilizing the suspect for arrest. While the probes are technically projectiles, they only serve to complete an electrical circuit.

Examples of Less-Lethal Projectile Types

Two of the most common types of less-lethal projectiles are rubber bullets and beanbag rounds.

Rubber Bullets

Historically, the standard in less-lethal impact munitions is the rubber bullet. First deployed by the British Army in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, similar riot-control munitions have become common in several countries. 

  • Composition and Use

Typically consisting of a metal core and a rubber coating, these projectiles tend to be heavy and leave launching systems at low velocities (e.g., less than 400 feet per second). Depending on the training doctrine, the user may aim directly at the extremities of a human target or aim for the ground to cause injuries by ricochet. 

Aiming directly at a target can have potentially lethal consequences. It is estimated that about 3% of people die from injuries caused by rubber bullets and 15.5% are permanently disabled. Most notably, this type of munition can cause eye injuries (such as retinal detachment) leading to blindness (~84.2% of cases).

In recent years, plastic has begun to supplant rubber as the metal of choice for less-lethal riot-control ammunition. The reason is simple: plastic, being less elastic than rubber, has a more predictable trajectory. In contrast, rubber, or rubberized, projectiles can bounce in a variety of directions.

Riot Guns

Generally, rubber bullets are fired from dedicated riot guns or adapters attached to conventional firearms. Riot guns tend to be 37 or 40mm single-shot, break-top weapons, similar in appearance and operation to grenade and flare launchers. A low-pressure charge, or the force of the primer alone, is sufficient to propel these projectiles.

One notable exception regarding capacity is the ARWEN, introduced in 1977. The ARWEN (Anti-Riot Weapon Enfield) uses a rebated-rim 37mm cartridge and a 5-shot rotating cylinder, similar to a revolver. Featuring a rifled barrel, the ARWEN has an effective range of up to 100 meters. 

When the projectile strikes a target, it delivers a heavy blow, relying on non-penetrative blunt-force trauma to incapacitate or repel rioters. Despite this objective, rubber bullets can still penetrate the skin under certain circumstances, causing additional injuries. In fact, rubber bullets are the leading cause of permanent disabilities out of all types of less-lethal weapons.

However, it’s important to note that the solid or rubber-coated projectiles that are available to private citizens are not always the same as those used by police and military personnel. These projectiles are lighter and less powerful but can still cause pain to deter an assailant. 

Beanbag Rounds

A beanbag round is a shotgun round in which the payload is a charge of lead shot contained in a fabric bag or sack. Leaving the shotgun barrel at a low velocity, the payload inflicts non-penetrating blunt-force trauma to compel surrender or immobilize an assailant. The shotguns that police typically load with less-lethal munitions have brightly colored orange or yellow furniture to identify their less-lethal status. This serves to prevent police officers from loading lethal ammunition into these weapons. 

Should You Consider Rubber Bullets?

In some states, cities, and countries, civilian access to firearms is prohibitively difficult or expensive. As a security-conscious individual, you have several options for self-defense that do not require the use of lethal force. 

In some EU countries, it’s legal to purchase rubber bullet guns for self-defense. An example would be a handgun, resembling a semi-automatic pistol or revolver, that uses compressed CO2 to propel a .43- or .50-caliber rubber ball. These projectiles are not heavy or fast enough to cause serious injury, for the most part, although you should still exercise caution regarding shot placement. Any projectile, no matter how light or slow, has the potential to blind your opponent.

Specialized Ammunition

Specialized balls containing marking agents or chemical irritants are also available, either for the same handgun-type weapons or for paintball guns. The first, a marking ball, transfers colored chalk or dye to the target on impact, helping to identify suspects to the police. Pepper balls, on the other hand, contain a chemical irritant, such as the same agent used in pepper spray. When the ball hits a target, it breaks apart, aerosolizing the OC and causing eye, skin, and throat irritation. You can also fire these at the ground to have the same effect.

Police Applications vs. Private Citizen Use

Less-lethal munitions serve a specific purpose in the police arsenal. It’s important to understand that the priorities and duties of a police officer are different from those of a private citizen interested in self-defense. 

If a suspect is out of range of a Taser, he can still pose a threat to an officer that does not warrant the use of deadly force (i.e., the sidearm). The same set of circumstances rarely applies to a private citizen, who is not expected to pursue and apprehend a suspect. At the same time, you should be prepared for the possibility that a less-lethal weapon will prove inadequate, failing to stop a determined aggressor. As rubberized projectiles do not generally penetrate, they do not disrupt anatomic structures, such as the cardiovascular or central nervous systems, in the same way. 

For these reasons, you should not necessarily discount traditional firearms as last-resort emergency weapons, provided they are available to you. By the same token, if you carry a concealed firearm, you should consider carrying a less-lethal weapon as a backup for those situations that do not require the use of lethal force.

In Conclusion

Whilst everything that has kinetic energy can cause damage to the human body, there are some bullets that are less lethal than others. Used mostly by law enforcement, rubber bullets have proven to be the most popular but are definitely not harmless.

If you’re planning on purchasing a less-than-lethal alternative as a private citizen, it is worth remembering that, despite the claims, even less-than-lethal munitions can cause disabling injuries, especially if fired from a distance shorter than specified by the manufacturer. 

Conversely, you might also find that those types of projectiles are not enough to deter an assailant. For those reasons, it is important that you research your options extensively and be aware of their potential risks and shortcomings.


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