The Corner

Politics & Policy

The ‘Exploding’ Bullet Myth

KERA owes its listeners an apology.

On Saturday evening, KERA, the public-radio affiliate in Dallas, aired a report about homicides in Chicago. It contained an interesting piece of information: While gun-related homicides in Chicago are down from their peak, shootings are up. It isn’t that fewer people are getting shot, but that better medical care is saving more lives.

That’s interesting.

The report also contained a preposterous invention: Chicago’s criminals, the report said, covet something called “R.I.P.” bullets, which are, in the report’s words, “designed to explode inside the body.”

I had the reaction to that claim that any card-carrying gun nut would have: “Exploding bullets? Sounds like fun. I wonder why I’ve never seen any.”

There’s a good reason why I haven’t, of course: They don’t exactly exist.

It is not clear that any exploding bullets are on the market, and it is difficult to imagine what they’d be good for. A few hours of shopping uncovered no examples of exploding bullets for sale or in general military use. There are some exploding projectiles used as anti-matériel rounds, and there were some World War II–era examples of heavy machineguns being loaded with exploding rounds. In modern American history, there is one infamous example of such a bullet being used in a crime, which I’ll get to in a little bit.

Contrary to the public-radio account, exploding bullets are categorically prohibited for the general public. The ATF is pretty clear about this, because the question has come up before: All bullets contain explosives — that’s how bullets work — but bullets that contain an explosive charge in addition to the one that propels an ordinary bullet are not considered ammunition at all for ATF purposes: They are categorized as explosives, meaning that to manufacture them, to sell them, or — here’s the relevant part for the phony public-radio report — to purchase them requires a license. It simply is not the case that ordinary criminals in Chicago, or ordinary people anywhere in the United States, can purchase “exploding bullets.” Further, projectiles containing anything more than a trivial explosive charge (more than 0.25 ounces) are classified as missiles under ATF rules. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that they do not stock missiles down at the local sporting-goods store. But don’t take my word for it — read it in the ATF’s always-riveting Explosives Industry Newsletter:

Persons engaged in the business of manufacturing .50 caliber or smaller ammunition containing explosive materials other than smokeless propellants or other listed components designed for use in small arms must have a license to manufacture explosive materials and abide by all other requirements imposed on licensed explosives manufacturers, unless subject to a separate exemption identified under 18 U.S.C. §845 (e.g., manufacture by the U.S. military). Likewise, persons acquiring such ammunition must have a license or permit unless otherwise exempt (e.g., a government entity). Further, such ammunition would be considered “ammunition” under the Federal firearms laws, 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(17)(A), and any such projectiles with more than 1⁄4 oz. of explosive or incendiary charge would be subject to the National Firearms Act as “missiles,” 26 U.S.C. 5845(f)(1)(D).

There is something on the market known at the “R.I.P.” round, for “radically invasive projectile.” (Gun-marketing guys are the worst; they did a great deal to popularize the meaningless term “assault weapon.”) That round does not — emphatically, does not — explode, contrary to the public-radio claim. The report aired by KERA is a naked falsehood.

Like most ordinary bullets, it expands on impact for much the same reason anything made of soft metal expands on impact with the human body, as anybody’s who’s ever crushed a beer can on his forehead knows. The vast majority of ordinary bullets used by hunters and sport shooters do that, though some manufacturers make exaggerated claims for the lethality of their rounds. (Remember “Black Talons”?)

Bullet expansion makes a round both more lethal and less lethal: Expanding rounds maximize tissue damage, but they also reduce the likelihood that a bullet will pass through something (say, a deer) and hit something else you weren’t shooting at. That’s why police generally use hollow-point or other expanding ammunition, and why many states require the use of expanding ammunition for hunting. As so often is the case, the thing that our media friends want to portray as an exotic weapon of war is an ordinary hunting implement. But of course our ordinary hunting implements are weapons of war, too: Those .30-06 and .45-70 rounds in granddad’s hunting rifles were originally developed as military cartridges. Elmer Fudd doesn’t drive R&D in the firearms world — military contracts do.

This sort of things happens all the time: Television news reports talk about semiautomatic rifles while showing footage of fully automatic machineguns, muddying the waters. Journalists claim that Glocks and other pistols made with high-tech polymers can pass through metal detectors undetected. (That only works in The Dark Knight.) A bullet that expands on impact like most any other bullet suddenly becomes an “exploding” projectile in a public-radio report. This is journalistic incompetence and ordinary stupidity, of course, but it is also precisely what we mean when we talk about media bias. Any public-radio editor (they have editors, right?) with even a cursory knowledge of the issue would have flagged that ridiculous claim rather than misinforming his audience.

Interesting aside: Decades ago, bullets with a small explosive charge in the tip (using the same explosive that fires the bullet) were on the market. They were widely regarded as novelty items, but the idea was that the tiny explosive charge would fragment the bullet on impact, amplifying the normal expansion effect. Some of these bullets were marketed under the brand name “Devastator,” and John Hinkley Jr. used a .22 caliber version in his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Of the six rounds he fired, only one seems to have exploded, the one that struck James Brady. Reagan was hit by a ricochet, and doctors wearing body armor removed an unexploded round from D.C. police officer Thomas K. Delahanty, who was wounded in the assassination attempt. This episode has given rise to a kind of urban legend among doctors and coroners regarding exploding bullets, addressed by a fascinating report in the Journal of Clinical Pathology. The authors of the paper chastise their colleagues for conflating expanding bullets with exploding projectiles.

True exploding bullets were first described over a century ago and, although not actually in use at that time, were prohibited under the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868, which states that explosive or inflammable projectiles, with a weight of less than 400 g, should never be used in the time of war. Examples include the Russian 7.62 mm ×54R machine gun ammunition with an internal charge of tetryl and phosphorus, and later handgun cartridges containing Pyrodex charges, with or without mercury additives. It should also be noted that individuals can easily obtain instructions for the creation of their own bullets. The most infamous use of such bullets was the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 by John Hinckley, who used “Devastator” bullets (Bingham Limited, USA) composed of a lacquer sealed aluminium tip with a lead azide centre designed to explode on impact. Although frequently referred to in works of fiction, they are rarely encountered in forensic practice, because sales have been restricted following the incident in 1981.

I don’t expect the public-radio crowd to be ravenous readers of the Journal of Clinical Pathology or the Explosives Industry Newsletter. But my colleague Charles C. W. Cooke did write his thesis on the Second Amendment (Oxford, I think he said) and is an avid shooter. I’m sure he’d let them put him on speed-dial for a modest consideration.

Or maybe they should consider hiring one or two editors who know what they’re talking about.

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