Military Wiki

Left and right: composite plastic/aluminium plastic baton round projectile from L21 round[1][2][3][4][5] and case of L5 round.

A plastic bullet or plastic baton round (PBR)[6] is a non-lethal projectile fired from a specialised gun. Although designed as a non-lethal weapon they have caused a number of deaths. They are generally used for riot control. Plastic bullets were invented in 1973 by the British security forces for use against rioters in Northern Ireland. They were developed to replace their rubber bullets in an attempt to reduce fatalities. If misused they can still cause fatal injury.

An unrelated small-calibre handgun bullet made of plastic is sometimes used for short range target practice (see recreational use).


The plastic bullet was developed as a replacement for rubber bullets in the United Kingdom.


The first plastic bullet was the L5 Plastic Baton Round.[7] It was developed by the British security forces for use against rioters in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. They were to replace rubber bullets, which had been used in Northern Ireland since 1970.[8] Rubber bullets were meant to be fired below waist level, to reduce the risk of lethal injury. However, they were often fired directly at people from close range, which resulted in three people being killed and many more badly injured.[8] If fired too low, rubber bullets would ricochet uncontrollably from the ground. The plastic bullet could be fired directly at targets. It was intended to be a projectile of similar effect on its target as the rubber bullet, but with less risk of ricochet and less risk of serious injury or death.[citation needed]

The first plastic bullet was made of PVC,[9] was 89 mm (3.5 inches) long and 38 mm (1.5 in.) in diameter, and weighed approximately 131 g (4.6 oz). The weight was similar to the rubber bullet but the new projectile had a lower muzzle velocity.

Use in Northern Ireland[]

Numbers of rubber and plastic bullets fired in Northern Ireland 1970–1981[10][11]
Year Rubber bullets Plastic bullets
1970 238
1971 16,752
1972 23,363
1973 12,724 42
1974 2,612 216
1975 145 3,556
1976 3,464
1977 1,490
1978 1,734
1979 1,271
1980 1,231
1981 29,665
Total 55,834 42,669
Total rubber and plastic bullets


The plastic bullet was first used in 1973 by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force,[12] and by 1975 it had replaced the rubber bullet.[7] From 1973 to 1981, just over 42,600 plastic bullets were fired in Northern Ireland. By 2005, 125,000 baton rounds had been fired, most of them plastic bullets.[7] Shortly after their introduction it was discovered they were lethal at certain ranges.[13] Fourteen people were killed by plastic bullet impacts; half of them were children and all but one were from the Catholic community.[14] Most of the deaths were allegedly[15][16][17] caused by the British security forces misusing the weapon, firing at close range and at chest or head level rather than targeting below the waist. In 2013 however, Ministry of Defense papers declassified from 1977 indicated in one case that a single round was fired because the lives of the soldiers were believed to be in danger, and for this reason the MoD was not prepared to accept that the soldiers acted wrongly, seemingly regardless of known weapon misuse.[18] The first person to be killed by a plastic bullet impact was 10-year-old Stephen Geddis, who died on 30 August 1975, two days after being struck in west Belfast.[14] One of the most high-profile victims was 12-year-old Carol Ann Kelly from west Belfast, who died on 22 May 1981, having been struck by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the Royal Fusiliers.[19][20] In 1982, the European Parliament called on member states to ban the use of plastic bullets.[21] However, they continued to be used by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. In 1984 the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets was founded, calling for plastic bullets to be banned in Northern Ireland. One of its founders, Emma Groves, had been permanently blinded in 1971 when a British soldier shot her in the face with a rubber bullet. During rioting in July 1997, a 14-year-old boy was struck in the head by a plastic bullet and spent three days in a coma.[22]

The latest variant of the L5 PBR—the L5A7—was introduced in 1994 along with a new more accurate launcher, the HK L104 riot gun. The L5 was followed by the L21A1 in 2001. The L21 PBR is fired from a rifled weapon which gives greater accuracy when used with an optical sight.[7] The L21 was replaced by the Attenuated Energy Projectile in June 2005.[23]

Use elsewhere[]

In 1990, Kenyan riot police raided a room at the University of Nairobi beating students with batons. A fleeing female student was shot in the stomach with a plastic bullet.[24] Plastic bullets were used against protesters at a protest against globalization in Quebec in 2001.[25] Plastic bullets were approved for policing in England and Wales in June 2001.[26] Plastic bullets were also authorized for G8 summit protests in Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005.[27] In September 2004, seven picketing shipbuilders were injured in a tear-gas and plastic bullet assault in Cadiz, Spain.[28] Foam-tipped plastic bullets were employed by U.S. Marines in a trial in the Iraq War but were determined to be ineffectual.[29] A plastic bullet was successfully used to disarm a hostage taker armed with a machete in Dorchester, England in November 2002.[26][30] Venezuelan police and soldiers fired plastic bullets at student protestors in Caracas in December 2010.[31] Israeli security forces used non-lethal weapons such as plastic bullets in an eviction of settlers in the West Bank settlement of Havat Gilad.[32]


A typical plastic bullet weighs around 130g. The bullets were originally intended to be effective from 33–64m.[9]

Recreational use[]

Speer plastic bullets, the only widely available brand, are hollow based plastic cylinders, and are available in .357/.38/9 mm, .44, and .45 calibers, and are designed for use in handguns, primarily revolvers, as the flat nose of the bullet does not feed well in most magazine fed actions. The propulsion is provided only by the primer, and the slow moving plastic bullets may be captured undamaged and reused numerous times if a suitable backstop is used. For use in revolvers, .38 Special and .44 Special versions also include plastic cases, which can be primed and de-primed by hand with minimal tools. For other calibers, standard brass cases are used.[33]

See also[]


  1. Nick Lewer (2002). Advanced Book Search The future of non-lethal weapons: technologies, operations, ethics and law. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-7146-8265-9. Retrieved 17 December 2010. 
  2. "Written Answers to Questions [7 Jun 2004"]. 7. Retrieved 22 December 2010. 
  3. Chris Talbot (26). "Sectarian riots in Northern Ireland". World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 17 December 2010. "who retaliated by firing rounds of a new type of plastic bullets, L21 A1," 
  4. "A Draft Chronology of the Conflict -2001". Retrieved 17 December 2010. "During the riots the RUC fired a number of the new 'L21 A1' plastic baton rounds." 
  5. LAURA FRIEL (11). "Victims and their families take action". Retrieved 22 December 2010. 
  6. Yearbook of the European Convention on Human Rights. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1989. ISBN 0-7923-0207-9. Retrieved 15 December 2010. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Anthony G Williams. "Less-lethal Ammunition". 
  8. 8.0 8.1 A Chronology of the Conflict - August 1970. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Jonathan Rosenhead (16 December 1976). "A new look at 'less-lethal' weapons". Reed Business Information. pp. 672–674. ISSN 0262-4079. Retrieved 16 December 2010. 
  10. The Royal Ulster Constabulary acquired plastic bullets in 1978, but the figures for 1978, 1979 and 1980 refer only to the number of plastic bullets fired by the British Army. The 1981 figures include plastic bullets fired by the RUC
  11. They Shoot Children: The use of rubber and plastic bullets in the north of Ireland. Ivor Place, London: Information on Ireland. 1982. ISBN 0-9507381-2-3. 
  12. A Chronology of the Conflict - August 1973. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  13. Coker, Christopher (2008). Ethics and war in the 21st century. Routledge. pp. 129. ISBN 0-415-45282-1. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 List of People Killed by 'Rubber' and 'Plastic' Bullets. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  15. "Dispute over plastic bullets use". BBC News. 2001-07-18. Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  16. "Victims of Plastic and Rubber Bullets". 
  17. "Plastic and Rubber Bullet Victims". 
  18. "Rubber bullets: Army kept real dangers in NI hidden". 11 June 2013. Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  19. Relatives for Justice
  20. Human rights in Northern Ireland By Human Rights, pg. 159
  21. A Chronology of the Conflict - 1982. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  22. A Chronology of the Conflict - July 1997. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  23. The Work of the Committee in 2005: Second Report of Session 2005-06; Report and Appendices House of Commons: Northern Ireland Affairs Committee The Stationery Office, 2006 ISBN 0-215-02763-9. p15
  24. "Kenya:Brutal Seventh". 17. Retrieved 4 February 2011. "a female student was shot in the stomach with a plastic bullet as she tried to flee" 
  25. KAREN W. ARENSON (28). "When Scholarship and Politics Collided at Yale". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 16 December 2010. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 "Police disarm machete attacker with plastic bullet". Mail Online. Retrieved 2010-012-24. 
  27. Macdonell, Hamish; Gray, Louise (29 January 2005). "Ring of steel to protect city from G8 mayhem". Edinburgh. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  28. "Shipbuilders in Spain strike in privatisation protest". World Socialist Web Site. 17. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  29. "Non-lethal technologies—an overview". 2005. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  30. "Police plastic bullet ends siege by machete man". The Daily Telegraph. 2002-11-25. Retrieved 2011-08-09. 
  31. Fabiola Sanchez (23). "Students protest Venezuelan law strengthening government powers over universities". The Associated Press.,0,7814263.story. Retrieved 24 December 2010. 
  32. Yair Altman (2011). "Settlers: 15 injured in Havat Gilad".,7340,L-4035338,00.html. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  33. "SPEER Specialty Products". Speer. 

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