For hundreds of years the only non-lethal weapons available to American law enforcement and corrections officers were fists and the immediate impact weapon - either the butt of a handgun, a variation of a baton, or some kind of sap.
Then in the last century rubber and plastic bullets were developed. These specialty munitions gave law enforcement the ability to inflict trauma and pain compliance at standoff distances without killing the bad guys but they weren't very accurate.
Today, police have a wide variety of tools and munitions for exerting less-lethal force on individuals at greater and greater distances. The standard X26 TASER is best used from about 15 feet or less, beanbag munitions pack an accurate punch at about 50 feet, and after that most agencies start looking for another option.
And they are in luck. Extended range less-lethal impact weapons have been refined to the point that they are both accurate and extremely effective when deployed correctly.
The Air Gun
One very popular extended range less-lethal weapon, especially with tactical units, is the FN303 launcher. Designed to be used as a standalone launcher or fitted on an M4 carbine, the FN303 launches a .68 caliber fin-stabilized munition using compressed air.
Most people are dismissive of air guns. But Capt. Joseph Garcia, of U.S. Corrections Special Operations Group, says they wouldn't be so quick to dismiss them if they were hit with a round from a 303. "Its primary purpose is kinetic impact," Garcia explains.
According to Garcia it's the power and accuracy of the FN303 round that sets it apart from other air-powered less-lethal launchers. He says hardened inmates tend to laugh at many less-lethal weapons used behind prison walls but they don't laugh at the 303. "When you show up with the 303 with the lights and optics, many of them are intimidated just by the look of it," he says.
But Garcia, who has personally fired more than 30,000 303 rounds, is quick to add that the 303 is more than just a mean-looking weapon, it's also very effective and versatile. "We have deployed all of the FN303 rounds in multiple operations and we are very pleased with the performance," Garcia says. He explains that his team uses a wide variety of less-lethal tools, including 12-gauge rounds from Lightfield Less Lethal and A.L.S. Technologies, but the FN303 is one of their preferred tools because of its accuracy and toughness. Garcia has even shot the weapon inverted.
In corrections, the 303 is being used in a wide variety of operations, including dynamic cell extractions, riot control, and high-risk security patrols. It's also used in some situations where traditionally corrections officers would have no choice but to use deadly force such as escape during transport. "The initial engagement will be with the FN303," Garcia explains. "It reduces the potential for collateral damage."
Garcia even says he wouldn't hesitate to use the 303 as a primary tool for hostage rescue in certain situations out to 35 feet. "It can deliver the trauma that we need but with higher survivability," he says.
Of course, such a hostage scenario would require officers to use more force than they would to take down, for example, a rioting inmate. While the rioter would get a round in the lower extremities, the hostage taker would probably get hit in the face.
Garcia realizes that such a head shot violates standard operating procedure for the weapon, but he's quick to point out that lethal force is justified in such a scenario. "I know that the trauma that's going to cause is going to incapacitate the hostage taker and he will need serious medical attention," Garcia says. "But by law I have the authority to put it to an inmate's head to save a life, as I can with any technology."
Besides its corrections applications, the FN303 is also being used by Garcia and his team on the streets, and he urges other tactical units to consider adding it to their arsenals. For example, he says it can be very effective in so-called suicide-by-cop situations. It's also very effective against barriers. "It's a great way to take out a light or a window," Garcia explains.
The 40mm less-lethal launcher has been around for decades. And today 40mm munitions are available from numerous manufacturers in a wide variety of designs, including extended range less-lethal projectiles.
Two of the most popular less-lethal 40mm munitions in the Safariland line are the eXact iMpact and the Direct Impact.
The eXact iMpact is a soft foam round that has a base of hard plastic. Retired Houston SWAT operator and team leader Sandy Wall says the popularity of this munition is because of its versatility. "It has the widest operational range of any round in the industry," says Wall, who directs less-lethal munition training for Safariland. "You can use it to impact someone as close as five feet (in the lower extremities away from the vital organs) or as far away as 40 yards."
Another variation of the eXact iMpact available from Safariland is the Direct Impact. It has a crushable Styrofoam nose that carries a payload of OC, CS, or marking dye.
Wall says tactical law enforcement teams are using these munitions in a wide variety of operations, including "suicide-by-cop" scenarios and riot control. But the most popular tactical deployment is on the perimeter to end confrontations with people who have edged weapons. "Using less-lethal, you can engage that individual at a distance where the weapon he has is not a lethal threat to you and prevent him from getting so close that he could be a lethal threat to you," Wall says.
He adds that he's even seen these impact munitions used against people who are armed with handguns. "Depending on the scenario, if the officers are behind ballistic protection, they have lethal cover, and they are at a proper distance, and the subject isn't actively pointing the gun at them, then it can be an option to try to incapacitate the subject and avoid a deadly force incident."
A lot of people envision the ideal less-lethal weapon as some kind of electric gun-either one that shoots bolts of manmade lightning or multiple charged electric bullets. That's still science fiction. But 20 years from now we may have them, and TASER's eXtended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP) may be the granddaddy of those future weapons.
The XREP is a 12-gauge impact munition with a range of about 100 feet. And as impact weapons go, it doesn't have much punch. But it does pack a shocking surprise.
Upon exiting the barrel, the electronic circuit in the device becomes active and fins pop out of the side putting the XREP into a tight spin. The spin orients the XREP so that its four front probes impact with the target. Then on impact the XREP seemingly falls apart, dangling a set of wires that carry the TASER charge. When the probes on these wires make contact, when the subject touches one of these wires, or when the subject grabs the XREP to pull it off, the TASER circuit is complete, and the subject gets zapped.
The XREP was announced in 2007, but it's taken a few years to get it on the street. Now it's become part of the arsenals of some of the nation's top tactical law enforcement units. And in recent months, XREPs have been employed by SWAT units to end scenarios involving barricaded emotionally disturbed subjects and suicidal subjects.
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