The Defence Scientific Advisory Council's report on the proposed new plastic bullet

On April 2 2001 the Government announced that a new plastic bullet would be introduced on June 1 2001. According to the Government the new ‘baton round’ (plastic bullet) will be more accurate, safer and lead to fewer serious injuries. In fact an official report from the Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC) states the opposite. The only basis for the Government claim that the new plastic bullet would lead to fewer serious injuries or even fatalities is the spurious claim that it is more accurate and firers would not aim at the upper body as per regulations. There is abundant evidence over the years that plastic bullets are deliberately fired at the upper body.

According to the DSAC report the new projectile will likely lead to an increase in non-life threatening injuries. In a chilling evaluation however the DSAC states "If the L21A1 (the new plastic bullet) does contact the head, and it strikes perpendicular to the skull ("head-on"), there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head." (18d) This is only one of a number of startling admissions contained in the conclusions. Given that the new projectile is considerably more lethal advice is now being sought on possible legal action against Government Ministers, senior RUC management and members of any future Police Board which authorises the purchase, deployment and use of the L21A1, the new plastic bullet.

We have underlined items of particular importance


Statement on the comparative injury potential of L5A7 baton round fired from the L104 Anti-riot gun using the battle-sights, and the L21A1 baton round fired using the X1 18E3 optical sights.

1) A sub-committee of DSAC (SC,DSAC) offers this statement and conclusions to the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), MOD. It is an opinion on the comparative injury potential in public order incidents of the present L5A7 baton round fired from the existing L104 gun and its proposed replacement, the L21A1 baton round.

2) The L21A1 baton development is a joint requirement between the MOD, Home Office, Northern Ireland Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

3) L21A1 characteristics: The L21A1 baton and the cartridge have been designed to increase the accuracy of the baton system, to reduce the variability in muzzle velocity and the dispersion of the rounds at all ranges. It is assumed that these modifications will lead to a reduction in the inadvertant impact to the head and upper torso of the target, and a reduced incidence of unintended impact to others.

4) To achieve the improvement in ballistic performance, the L21A1 differs in mass, velocity, shape and material from the L5A7: it is lighter, faster, aerodynamically shaped and manufactured from a stiffer material.

5) The average kinetic energy (KE) of the L21A1 projectile at the minimum range of engagement of 20 metres is not different from the average KE of the L5A7 baton round at that range.

6) The L104 gun has been fitted with an optical sight for the L21A1 – the XL18E3 – replacing the existing "battle-sights" used with the L5A7.

7) SC,DSAC’s task: The SC,DSAC was requested by DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) Porton Down to offer a statement upon which recommendations can be made, on the comparative injury potential of the existing L5A7 baton fired from the L104 gun with battle-sights and the L21A1 baton fired from the same type of gun fitted with XL18E3 optical sights. It is assumed that batons will be fired to comply with the ACPO and MOD Policy on the use of the L21A1 baton round

8) DERA Porton Down offered an outline plan of the technical assessment to the SC,DSAC; this was endorsed in February 1999. The SC,DSAC has reviewed the results of the technical programme presented to it by DERA Porton Down. The studies by DERA comprised firing trials and impact modelling, and constituted a considerable body of data.

9) In the firing trials, the velocity, accuracy and ballistic consistency of the two weapon systems were compared. From these data, the probabilities of impact to the upper torso and head were calculated. Limited studies were also undertaken on the post-ricochet trajectories and energy of L21A1 batons. To compare the biomechanical response of the body to impact by the different projectiles, mathematical and physical models developed by DERA Porton and their contractors were used. From the biomechanical data, judgements on the comparative injury potential upon impact were made.

10) Previous statements arising from changes in MOD and ACPO requirements: This is the fourth statement offered by the SC,DSAC. The first statement was written in Oct. 99. The statement addressed the injury potential of the L21A1 baton fired using the XL18E1 sight (formally designated ? 18A1). This sight had three range settings. It also considered the use of the L21A1 baton at a range of 1 metre, the minimum range specified in the Requirement. The SC,DSAC was advised in early Nov. 99 that MOD and ACPO had decided to:

    • Amend the minimum range of engagement of the L21A1 from 1 metre to 20 metres;
    • Modify the L18 sight to have a single fixed setting of 30 metres – the sight was re-designated XL18E2.

11) These decisions effectively undermined the technical basis of the first SC,DSAC statement and rendered its conclusions unsafe. The statement was not formally issued but a copy was sent by DERA to MOD, and to the Home Office. DERA undertook additional trials and modelling on behalf of the SC,DSAC in Dec. 99 and reported to the SC,DSAC in Jan. 00.

12) The second statement considered the use of the XL18E2 sight (formerly designated L18A2), and a minimum range of engagement of 20 metres for the L21A1 baton round. The opinion of the SC,DSAC was that this sight was likely yo have resulted in a high incidence of impacts to the upper torso at short range. The SC,DSAC recommended a review of use of the single fixed sight or the range that the sight was fixed at. The second SC,DSAC statement was sent to CSA, MOD.

13) Subsequently, the SC,DSAC was advised through DERA that:

    • The Baton Rounds Steering Group was not content to recommend to Ministers the adoption of a single fixed sight for the system;
    • A review had re-assessed the requirements of the Users of the system that a single fixed range sight was still preferred; the fixed range setting of the sight would be reduced from 30 m to 20 m in order to lower the trajectory of the L21A1;
    • MOD had specified the belt buckle as the point of aim for the firer and recommended a change in the MOD Guidance for firers; the ACPO Guidance was unchanged.

14) DERA undertook further firing trials on behalf of the SC,DSAC and presented a report to the Group in Apr. 00. A third statement was drafted based on the data presented in that report and it considered the use of the XL18E3 sight that had a fixed range setting of 20m, and a point of aim of the belt-buckle area. The statement was not endorsed or issued formally because the SC,DSAC required clarification of the cause of inaccuracy in the system at 40 m range.

15) However, in Jun. 00, the SC,DSAC was advised that MOD and ACPO had revised the guidelines for use of the system: a common policy statement had been agreed from which specific training objectives and Guidance to firers would be developed appropriate to the organisations, and operational theatre. The SC,DSAC was asked to revise its statement to reflect the endorsed requirements of the policy statement:

    • Baton rounds may only be fired at selected individuals;
    • Baton rounds must always be aimed so that they strike directly (without bouncing) the lower part of the target’s body, i.e. below the rib cage;
    • Baton rounds may not be fired at a range of less than 20 metres or aimed to strike a higher part of the body unless there is an immediate and risk of loss of life or serious injury.

This is the fourth statement drafted and assumes that the training of firers and the Guidance offered to firers for operational use achieves the requirements of the policy.

The Guidance to firers is beyond SC,DSAC’s remit. The SC,DSAC recognises that it may be difficult to maintain the acceptance incidence of injury at the low level currently envisaged, in all operational as distinct from test and training circumstances. We emphasise that the SC,DSAC’s recommendations are critically predicated on such assumptions of acceptable competent training; this needs to be kept in mind by those who make the policy decisions.

16) Conclusions – accuracy and consistency: The SC,DSAC conclude from the available data that for batons fired according to the joint MOD and ACPO policy:

  1. The L21A1 fired from the L104 gun with the XL18E3 optical sight is more accurate in terms of striking a targeted individual than the L5A7 from the same gun with battle-sights, particularly at long ranges.
  2. The L21A1 is a considerably more consistent baton than the L5A7, in terms of variability in the muzzle velocity and dispersion of the target.
  3. The probability of directly striking the head and upper torso of an upright intended target will be reduced with the L21A1.
  4. The probability of directly striking people other than the intended target will be reduced with the L21A1.
  5. The probability of ricochet within the normal operational range of batons will be higher with the L21A1.

17) The improved accuracy from the L21A1 will lead inevitably to an increase in the incidence of impacts to intended targets, and thereby an increase in the incidence of non-serious (not life-threatening) injuries.

18) Conclusions – injuries upon impact: From the studies on the head, thorax and abdomen undertaken by DERA Porton Down, the SC,DSAC conclude that:

  1. The use of the L21A1 is likely to increase the incidence of some intra-abdominal injuries.
  2. The use of the L21A1 is not predicted to lead to an increase in the severity of thoracic and abdominal injuries, given the impact to these regions.
  3. Both types of baton round will produce serious injuries if they strike the head. There is unlikely to be a clinically significant difference in the severity of skull fracture. The severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to higher pressures on the brain, and greater penetration of the projectile. It is not possible to define quantitatively the patho-physiological consequences of the increased pressure and penetration, but it is judged that the overall clinical outcome will be marginally worse.
  4. If the L21A1 does contact the head, and it strikes perpendicular to the skull ("head-on"), there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head. This is less likely to occur with the L5A7. For glancing blows, there is not likely to be a difference in this respect between the L5A7 and L21A1.

19) The SC,DSAC also noted that the consequences of a deliberate or inadvertent elevation of the mean point of impact of the L21A1 will have more serious medical implications to the target than elevation of the mean impact point of the L5A7. This is due to the imcreased accuracy and reduced dispersion of the L21A1. Elevation of the mean point of impact could occur either through mis-use of the system or ineffective zeroing.

20) Summary: The use of the L21A1 according to the joint ACPO and MOD policy is likely to increase the incidence of injuries that are not life-threatening such as soft tissue contusions and simple bone fractures in limbs. It will reduce the overall frequency of serious, life-threatening head injuries – currently the principal cause of death and serious injury from baton rounds. The consequences of an impact to the head will be more serious with the L21A1, but this is offset by a reduced risk of striking the head, both of the intended target, and of bystanders.

21) The future: The SC,DSCA request that:

  1. they be informed through DERA Porton Down of:
    1. the training objectives and practices developed by all Users to achieve the ACPO/MOD Policy on the use of the L21A1 Baton Round;
    2. any change in the operational use of the gun and sight by any User or n the construction of the baton cartridge or gun.
  2. research should be undertaken on:
    1. energy attenuation features for future kinetic energy projectiles, in order to reduce the severity of head injuries;
    2. post-ricochet trajectories and energy of baton rounds, and steps that could be taken to reduce the risk to non-targeted personnel from ricochets;
    3. the features of a KE-based weapon system that are intrinsic to its use as a deterrent, in order to provide the analysis tools for maintaining the required performance but at a reduced risk of life-threatening injury.
  3. there is a formal review presented to the SC, DSAC by MOD not later than one year after the introduction of any round, of perceived or quantitative changes in the frequency or nature of serious injuries; this will require a thorough review of the short-term and long-term clinical consequences.