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Less Lethal 40mm Options Better Than 12 Gauge

By R.T. Wyant, M.S.

With the current political climate and increased scrutiny of police departments, there is an expectation that at least one less lethal option be available to moderate use of force scenarios. Since the late 1980s, the 12 gauge beanbag shotgun has been a prevailing extended range less lethal option. This force option was intended to inflict blunt injury, like a baton strike, but from a safer standoff distance. 12 gauge less lethal impact munitions have provided tactical teams and the patrol officer a bridge between batons and firearms with minimal cost and training. With issues of safety, accuracy, effectiveness, and ammunition confusion, some agencies have reconsidered this platform choice as negative outcomes have led to significant settlements. Progressive departments are opting to toss the beanbag and adopt a more accurate, versatile and albeit more expensive 40mm platform to address their less lethal needs. This assessment has been echoed through scientific testing that proves to be helpful when justifying additional costs to a department risk manager.

Evolution of the Beanbag

The initial design of the beanbag consisted of a square Cordura bag filled with #9 lead shot. Dubbed the “ravioli” round as it sat rolled in the shot shell, it didn’t take a physics degree to predict potential problems with a square shaped projectile unrolling as it flew downrange. There were dozens of documented serious injuries including lacerations and broken bones. At least eight fatalities occurred when the square tipped on edge and penetrated the chest cavity. As injuries and deaths occurred, so did changes in design. The next generation of beanbags, called “sock” rounds, hit the market with claims of increased safety and effectiveness. The sock round is typically a lead shot filled Kevlar bag with a tail, which forms a uniform flight profile striking the target with a spherical shape, reducing injury potential. As with the ravioli round, the sock round begins as a cylinder shape and it expands in flight as it travels toward the target. Injuries were reduced as the sock had no sharp edges to penetrate skin. Other types of 12 gauge less lethal ordnance began to emerge with varying degrees of effectiveness versus sock rounds.

Beanbag Troubles

The police slide-action shotgun, such as the Remington 870 with a smoothbore, was the reigning long gun of choice for many years. As shotguns in the patrol setting were gradually phased out by some departments and replaced by patrol rifles, many of these shotguns were assigned to a less lethal role. Personal testing and published research has demonstrated that a rifled bore will increase accuracy and performance of beanbag rounds, but police agencies infrequently endure the extra expense. High-speed video validated that the tail of the “sock” often does not have enough mass to truly stabilize the round and it will regularly fly end over end out of a smooth bore. The unstable round will miss point of aim and occasionally fly wildly. In addition, over load and over powder wads will not always drop off and will fly with the sock downrange, sometimes striking the target. These additional projectiles can cause additional injuries. Furthermore, the standard shotgun can be loaded with either less lethal ammunition or traditional 12 gauge ammunition. A large metropolitan police agency recently reached a significant settlement after a man was shot mistakenly by buckshot from a less lethal shotgun.

The 40mm

As with the 12 gauge, the 40mm offers several types of launchers, including single, double and multi-shot platforms. For the single aggressor, foam or sponge rounds are particularly accurate as the round engages the rifling creating a gyro-stabilized spin, much like a traditional bullet. The wounds inflicted are generally consistent and predictable as they strike the subject. Due to their design, there is no change in shape as it leaves the barrel or as it flies downrange. There are no additional projectiles from wadding to unintentionally strike the target. In addition, a multitude of ordnance is available for the 40mm platform including multiple projectile, chemical irritant, and barricade penetrating rounds for a variety of tactical and crowd control applications.

Energy Density

Much like the difference between the ravioli and the sock beanbag rounds, where and how a round strikes the body can govern the severity of injury. A key advantage of the 40mm over the 12 gauge is that its large size allows dispersion of the impact energy (reduced energy density) over a greater area. Distributing the energy of the round over a larger surface lessens the injury potential (penetration, broken bones) and also excites more nerve endings on the skin for more pain stimulus. More pain stimulus increases the likelihood of compliance.


When studying the capabilities and performance of the two platforms, it becomes obvious why some police agencies are choosing to switch from the 12 gauge to the 40mm for their less lethal applications. In addition to increased accuracy, safety and effectiveness, agencies eliminate the risk of ammunition mismatch. There is also the psychological effect of gaining compliance from an unruly individual as an inch and a half sized bore is pointed at him. As with any tool used by police, it should be stated that the 12 gauge platform can be an effective tool if one fully understands its capabilities, limitations and the operators are properly trained. Tactics and training must be heavily considered. Some less lethal deployments have incurred negative results simply because the operator did not fully understand the effects of the round. Subjects have been struck in the head by a second shot as they have bent over reacting to the first shot. From a risk management point of view, the added costs to outfit a department with 40mm could easily offset the liability incurred from an unintended outcome from a less lethal deployment. With either firing platform, the key to a successful less lethal program and limited liability comes with smart deployments and thorough documentation.

(About the Author: R.T. Wyant, M.S. is a supervising forensic scientist for a ballistics crime laboratory in the state of Washington. He has studied less lethal weapons for over a decade has provided scientific analysis, product research, training, and expert witness work for all over the U.S. and abroad. He has also served as a level-one reserve deputy for a major Washington county for 14 years. Recently, he was the principle author of the text: Risk Management of Less Lethal Options.)


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