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Non-lethal weapon

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Non-lethal weapon

An instruction on Oleoresin Capsicum spray at a Marine Corps Base Camp

Non-lethal weapons, also called less-lethal weapons,[1] less-than-lethal weapons, non-deadly weapons, compliance weapons, or pain-inducing weapons are weapons intended to be less likely to kill a living target than conventional weapons. It is often understood that accidental, incidental, and correlative casualties are risked wherever force is applied, but non-lethal weapons try to minimise the risk as much as possible. Non-lethal weapons are used in combat situations to limit the escalation of conflict where employment of lethal force is prohibited or undesirable, where rules of engagement require minimum casualties, or where policy restricts the use of conventional force.

Non-lethal weapons may be used by conventional military in a range of missions across the force continuum. They may also be used by military police, by United Nations forces, and by occupation forces for peacekeeping and stability operations. Non-lethal weapons may also be used to channelize a battlefield, control the movement of civilian populations, or to limit civilian access to restricted areas (as they were utilized by the USMC's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Somalia in 1995). When used by police forces domestically, similar weapons, tactics, techniques and procedures are often called "less lethal" or "less than lethal" and are employed in riot control, prisoner control, crowd control, refugee control, and self-defense.

Recent history of non-lethal weapons development for military use

Demonstration of the use of Taser gun on US military personnel. The device was originally developed for use by civilian police.

In the past, military and police faced with undesirable escalation of conflict had few acceptable options. Military personnel guarding embassies often found themselves restricted to carrying unloaded weapons. National guards or policing forces charged with quelling riots were able to use only batons or similar club-like weapons, or bayonet or saber charges, or fire live ammunition at crowds. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Non-lethality Policy Review Group at U.S. Global Strategy Council[2] in Washington and other independent think tanks around the world called for a concerted effort to develop weapons that were more life-conserving, environmentally friendly, and fiscally responsible than weapons available at that time.[3] The U.S. Congress and other governments agreed and began an organized development of non-lethal weapons to provide a range of options between talking and shooting.

Humvee with Active Denial System mounted

Recognizing the need to limit the escalation of force, research and development of a range of non-lethal weapons has since been undertaken internationally by governments and weapons manufacturers to fill the need for such weapons. Some non-lethal weapons may provide more effective riot control than firearms, truncheons or bayonets with less risk of loss of life or serious injury. Before the general availability of early military non-lethal weapons in the mid 1990s, war-fighters had few or no casualty-limiting options for the employment of scalable force and were continually at risk whenever lethal force was prohibited during sensitive missions.

In 2001 the United States Marine Corps revealed its development of a less-than-lethal energy weapon called the Active Denial System, a focused high frequency microwave device said to be capable of heating all living matter in the target area rapidly and continuously for the duration of the beam, causing transient intolerable pain but no lasting damage. The skin temperature of a person subjected to this weapon can jump to approximately 130 °F (54 °C) in as little as 2 seconds depending on the skin's starting temperature. The system is nonlethal (the penetration of the beam into human skin is only a few millimeters).[4]

In 2004, author Jon Ronson cited an unclassified military report titled "Non-Lethal Weapons: Terms and References"[5][6] 21 acoustic weapons were listed, in various stages of development, including the Infrasound ("Very low-frequency sound which can travel long distances and easily penetrate most buildings and vehicles ... biophysical effects are projected to be: nausea, loss of bowels, disorientation, vomiting, potential internal organ damage or death may occur. Superior to ultrasound...)", however no such effects had been achieved as of 2002.[7]

In 2011, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) Reference Book was created. The weapons in this book are currently in development.[8]

Recent history of non-lethal options for employment by police

Until the development of non-lethal weapons, police officers around the world had few if any non-lethal options for riot control. Common tactics used by police that were intended to be non-lethal or less lethal included a slowly advancing wall of men with batons, officers on horses trained to deal with policing situations, or a charge into a riot using the flats of sabers. Other reasonably successful approaches included shotguns with lower-powered cartridges, "salt shells", using bean-bag rounds and ricocheting the shot off of the ground. In the mid-20th century, with the integration of fire-control systems into major cities, police found that high-pressure fire hoses could be effective in dispersing a crowd (the use of water cannons and fire trucks has remained an effective nonlethal tactic to disperse riots). Trained police dogs were also commonly used to scare and disperse rioters and apprehend individuals. In the 1980s the development of the high-tensile plastics Kevlar and Lexan revolutionized personal armor and shields, and led to new tactics for riot squads and other special-purpose teams. Officers could now stand up against violent rioters throwing dangerous projectiles without having to resort to lethal methods to quickly disperse the danger. Coupled with the introduction of effective non-lethal chemical agents such as tear gas and offensive odor canisters, and non-lethal impact rounds such as rubber bullets and "bean bag" flexible baton rounds, riot tactics were modified to rely less on violent response to attacking rioters than on a return to the slowly advancing wall, with supporting officers firing non-lethal ordnance into the crowd to discourage advance.

Police officers on patrol were traditionally armed with a baton or pistol or both, and non-lethal methods of subduing an attacker centered on hand-fighting techniques such as jujutsu and baton use. In the 1980s and 1990s officers began deploying non-lethal personal sidearms such as pepper sprays, and eventually electroshock weapons such as Tasers, which were developed for use by police and also found a market in self-defense by private citizens. However, these weapons were developed for non-lethal resolution of a one-on-one conflict.

During the 1990s and early 2000s (decade) interest in various other forms of less-than-lethal weapons for military and police use rose. Amongst other factors, the use of less-than-lethal weapons may be legal under international law and treaty in situations where weapons such as aerosol sprays or gases defined as chemical are not. Less-than-lethal weapons are also useful in keeping the peace in the aftermath of violent conflict.

Between the years of 1987–1990 after a three-year field study by the FBI's Firearm's Training Unit; In 1990 the use of Oleoresin Capsicum was first issued and used by the FBI as the first official law enforcement agency.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s (decade) police began to adopt a new pepper spray delivery system based on the equipment used in paintballs. A specialized paintball, called a "pepperball", is filled with liquid or powdered capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray, and is propelled by compressed gas using a paintball marker similar to those used for the sport but operating at higher pressure. The impact of the capsule is immediately painful (a pepperball's shell is thicker than a standard paintball and is fired at higher velocity), and it breaks open on impact, dispersing the capsaicin with similar effect to aerosol-delivered pepper spray. However, to be most effective, pepper spray must contact the eyes, nose, or mouth of the target; pepper spray on clothing or tougher skin has a much reduced effect.


Non-lethal weapons ability to incapacitate with minimal lasting effects has made them the weapon of choice for use in civilian populations. However, some analysts describe "non-lethal" as a misnomer and instead define them as "less-lethal".[9]

Area denial

Area denial weapons work by either incapacitating or deterring the enemy.


Iron caltrops

Vehicle stoppers include a wide range of methods and devices meant to disable a vessel or vehicle to prevent attack by an oncoming vessel or vehicle or to stop that vessel or vehicle for evaluation. Vessel and vehicle stoppers may include kinetic, chemical, or electromagnetic means.[10][11][12]


Caltrops are known to have been in use since Roman times and may have been used earlier: the concept was familiar to the 4th century BC Greeks, who used rocks, brush, nets and trees placed in the path of enemy conveyances on land or ensnarement devices hidden under water to achieve the same result: stop the enemy or suspected hostile in his tracks for examination or to prevent or limit incursions. Contemporary caltrops look something like large jacks from the childhood game. Placed in the path of oncoming wheeled or tracked vehicles, they are meant to foul wheels, destroy tires and tracks, and incapacitate vehicles.[10]



Simple rows or clusters of sharpened sticks (also known as punji sticks), and the use of small caltrops have been a feature of anti-infantry warfare for a long time. However, due to the difficulty of mass-producing them in the pre-modern age, they were rarely used except in the defense of limited areas or chokepoints, especially during sieges, where they were used to help seal breaches. Increasing ease of production still did not prevent these methods from slowly falling out of favor from the late Middle Ages onward.[13]

Caltrops are still sometimes used in modern conflicts, such as during the Korean War, where Chinese troops, often wearing only light shoes, were particularly vulnerable.[13] In modern times, special caltrops are also sometimes used against wheeled vehicles with pneumatic tires. Some South American urban guerrillas as the Tupamaros and Montoneros called them "miguelitos" and used these as a tactic to avoid pursuit after ambushes.[14]

Active Denial System

The Active Denial System is a dish that projects electromagnetic radiation just powerful enough to penetrate human skin and make the nervous system think the victim is on fire although no physical damage is done. Future combat vehicles such as the American GCV Infantry Fighting Vehicle will incorporate non-lethal weapons.[15]


Non-lethal weapons are intended to minimize injury or death. While people are occasionally seriously injured or killed by these weapons, fatalities are relatively infrequent. Causes of death from non-lethal weapons are varied and occasionally uncertain. Misplaced or ricocheting shots, pre-existing medical conditions, inadequate user training, repetitive applications and intentional misuse have been implicated in different cases where death has occurred.

As different parts of the body differ in vulnerability, and because people vary in weight and fitness, any weapon powerful enough to incapacitate may be capable of killing under certain circumstances. Thus "non-lethal force" does have some risk of causing death: in this context "non-lethal" means only "not intended to kill".

Several groups maintain there is great room for improvement in non-lethal weapons and procedures for their use. Claims for the relative safety of such weapons are usually contingent on their being used "properly". For example, the rubber bullets developed during the 1960s were supposed to be fired at the ground and hit the target only after ricochet,[16] and other non-lethal bullets are designed to be fired at the lower body; they can be lethal if fired directly at the head, as commonly happens.


Non-lethal rounds are firearm rounds which are designed to incapacitate, but not kill, a target. The rounds rely on the transfer of kinetic energy and blunt force trauma to accomplish this incapacitation. Rubber bullets, wax bullets, plastic bullets, beanbag rounds, ring airfoil projectiles (both kinetic and tear gas projectiles) and rubber bullets with electroshock effect (e.g. Taser XREP rounds) are less lethal than conventional metal bullets, and are also propelled at lower speed by using less propellant. "Bean bag" type bullets are sometimes referred to as flexible baton rounds. More recently, high-velocity paintball guns are also used to launch less-lethal rounds, including the FN 303 launcher and PepperBall commercial products.[17] There is also the Variable Velocity Weapon Concept, for which a propulsion energy source may not yet have been clearly established and/or finalized.[18] In any case, all of these technologies apply the same basic mechanism, which is to launch a mass at the target that interacts kinetically.


Hand grenades come in several less-lethal varieties, such as "flashbang" (stun) grenades, "sting" grenades with rubber shrapnel, and grenades designed to release chemical irritants (described below).

In 1972 stun grenades were used to capture the hijacked Sabena Flight 571, allowing the Israeli forces headed by Ehud Barak and including Benjamin Netanyahu to storm the plane and take it over within 10 minutes while capturing two terrorists and killing Ali Taha, the leader of the terrorist group and his aide, while rescuing all passengers (three were wounded, and one died of her injuries several days later).

A stun grenade was apparently used by members of the IHH against the IDF soldiers during the Gaza flotilla raid at the beginning of the IDF storming of the Mavi Marmara.[19]

In June 2010 in Kenya, a stun grenade was used to draw attention, and then a real grenade along with an explosive package were used, killing many people. In April during the 2010 Kyrgyzstani uprising police attempted to use stun grenades to stop a demonstration but the crowd overwhelmed the police. In March stun grenades were used by Belorussian police in Minsk against demonstrators, and again in September they were used by Greek police in Athens. In both cases the demonstrations were dispersed with no injuries.

In February 2011 stun grenades were seen used by Egyptian police against rioters.

Gases and sprays


Water cannon during a German demonstration, 2001

Water cannons are commonly used in crowd and riot control, for dispersal or to prevent movement on a particular position. These water cannons are like pressure washers, but not quite as strong. Water-filled rounds for small arms are in experimental stages.

Scent-based weapons

Malodorants produce smells so horrible they cause people to leave the affected area. In 2008, the Israeli Defence Forces began using Skunk for crowd control. It is a form of mist sprayed from a water cannon, which leaves a terrible odor of rot or sewage on whatever it touches, and does not wash off easily.

Pepper spray

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), an acrid irritant chemical derived from cayenne pepper plants.[20]

A 1998 estimate by the International Association of Chiefs of Police suggested at least 113 pepper spray-related fatalities had occurred in the United States, all with aggravating factors such as intoxication, pre-existing health problems, or from the police use of airway-restrictive immobilizing holds that can cause positional asphyxia.[21] The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recommends against maximal prone restraint techniques following pepper spray application, and they caution that anyone sprayed should be monitored to ensure effective breathing.[22]

Tear gas

Vancouver Police Department officers in anti-riot gear and armed with tear gas grenade launchers confront Stanley Cup rioters.

The use of chemical weapons such as tear gas (CS) and pepper spray (OC) has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism due to studies showing serious long term side effects. Many police forces are no longer exposing their members to the chemicals during training.

Journalist Rubén Salazar was killed in Los Angeles in 1970 by an errant CS gas canister during the Chicano riots.


Often promoted for self-defense, mace is a spray of various formulations, that may include tear gas, pepper spray, and phenacyl chloride.[23]


Psychochemical weapons are psychoactive drugs, such as BZ, LSD, Kolokol-1, EA-3167, and 3-Methylamphetamine designed to have a disorienting effect when used during combat or interrogation.[24]

Sleep gas

During the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, Russian special forces used an unidentified gas (thought to be 3-methylfentanyl or another fentanyl variant) in an attempt to induce sleep in both hostages and terrorists. Many of the hostages and terrorists (including all of the suicide bombers) were anesthetized, but some terrorists donned gas masks and thus were able to avoid the effects of the gas. Approximately 700 hostages were rescued, while 130 died from exposure to the gas. All the terrorists were ultimately killed by Russian forces through some combination of gas exposure and gunfire.

Other chemical agents

Blister agents, including CR gas, are less often used riot control agents. Other irritants include CS gas and nonivamide (PAVA).

Sticky foam

Sticky foam was tried by the U.S. Marine Corps in the peacekeeping Operation United Shield in 1995 with some success, but as a result various complications in its field use were also discovered.[25]

Electroshock weapons

Electroshock weapons are incapacitant weapons used for subduing a person by administering electric shock aimed at disrupting superficial muscle functions. One type is a conductive energy device (CED), an electroshock gun popularly known by the brand name "Taser", which fires projectiles that administer the shock through a thin, flexible wire. Other electroshock weapons such as stun guns, stun batons, and electroshock belts administer an electric shock by direct contact.

Directed energy weapons

An NYPD officer stands ready with a sonic weapon, the LRAD 500X, at an Occupy Wall Street protest on November 17, 2011 near the New York City Hall

Directed energy weapons are weapons that emit energy in an aimed direction without the means of a projectile. They are non-lethal and can immobilize people as well as machines (e.g. vehicles).[26] Directed energy weapons include electromagnetic weapons, (including laser weapons), particle beam weapons, and sonic weapons.

Safety and legal status

In the United States of America, the University of Texas-Austin Institute for Advanced Technology (IAT) conducts basic research to advance electrodynamics and hypervelocity physics related to electromagnetic weapons.[27]

Although generally considered 'non-lethal weapons', electromagnetic weapons do pose health threats to humans. In fact, "non-lethal weapons can sometimes be deadly."[28]

United States Department of Defense policy explicitly states that non-lethal weapons "shall not be required to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries."[29] Although a Human Effects Advisory Panel was established in 1998 to provide independent assessment on human effects, data, and models for the use of 'non-lethal weapons' on the general population,[30] the TECOM Technology Symposium in 1997 concluded on non-lethal weapons: "Determining the target effects on personnel is the greatest challenge to the testing community," primarily because "the potential of injury and death severely limits human tests." However, "directed energy weapons that target the central nervous system and cause neurophysiological disorders" may violate the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1980. And weapons that go beyond non-lethal intentions and cause "superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering" could violate the Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1977."[31] Safety and evaluation of the physical and psychological effects of the long-term or repetitive uses of the pain-inducing non-lethal weapons on humans have not been well understood or studied in any great details. Any such studies require explicit consent of all participants so as not to violate the UN Convention against torture and other cruelties.


Pepper spray is one non-lethal weapon alleged to have been misused by police. In two incidents in California in 1997, police swabbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of protesters.[32] Amnesty International condemned these actions, and claimed that they were likely a violation of the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture.[32] Incidents of alleged police misconduct were also logged during the Occupy Oakland Movement where a military veteran had his skull fractured whilst another man was shot by a rubber bullet or beanbag.[33]

Terrorism concerns

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute in Virginia states that: "The relevant (electromagnetic weapon) technology is well within the grasp of some countries and transnational terrorist groups", and further states that U.S. hardware is susceptible to microwave and other directed-energy weapons.[34]

Suitable materials and tools to create electromagnetic weapons are commonly available. "The threat of electromagnetic bomb proliferation is very real."[35]

See also


  1. ^ Michigan State Police Training Manual 2012 (pp. 68-70): same effective definition for LL as what DoDD 3000.03 (2013) has for NL
  2. ^ Nonlethality: A Global Strategy
  3. ^ War and Anti-War, Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, Little, Brown (1993), Chapter 15, p.125–136.
  4. ^ Wired
  5. ^
  6. ^ USAF Institute for National Security Studies: Non-Lethal Weapons: Terms and References
  7. ^ National Defense Magazine
  8. ^ Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) Reference Book
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ E2V RF Safe Stop allowing to stop cars
  12. ^ SAVALEC, another project building car stoppers
  13. ^ a b "Weaponry: The Caltrop", Reid, Robert W., originally in Military History, August 1998
  14. ^ Jorge Zabalza historical leader from the MLN-Tupamaros urban guerrilla mentioned this use against official vehicles as a main tactic on book "0 from the left"
  15. ^
  16. ^ Study Says Rubber Bullets Too Dangerous For Civil Crowd Control, from AP, 2002
  17. ^ Pepperball Technologies homepage
  18. ^ Variable Velocity Weapon Concept
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Bunker 1997, page 25
  24. ^ Rózsa L 2009. 172-178.44, Substance Use & Misuse,A psychochemical weapon considered by the Warsaw Pact: a research note. accessed: 27. 11. 2009.
  25. ^
  26. ^ HPEM Active Denial System disabling vehicles
  27. ^ Exploiting Technical Opportunities to Capture Advanced Capabilities for Our Soldiers; Army AL&T; 2007 Oct-Dec; Dr. Reed Skaggs Exploiting Technical Opportunities to Capture Advanced Capabilities for Our Soldiers
  28. ^ Air University Research Template: "NON-LETHAL WEAPONS: SETTING OUR PHASERS ON STUN? Potential Strategic Blessings and Curses of Non-Lethal Weapons on the Battlefield"; Erik L. Nutley, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF; August 2003; Occasional Paper No. 34; Center for Strategy and Technology; Air War College; Air University; Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; PG12
  29. ^ Department of Defense; DIRECTIVE; NUMBER 3000.3; July 9, 1996; Certified Current as of November 21, 2003; ASD(SO/LIC); SUBJECT: Policy for Non-Lethal Weapons; References: (a) Title 10, United States Code; (b) DoD Directive TS-3600.1, "Information Warfare (U)", December 21, 1992; PG. 3
  30. ^ Human Effects Advisory Panel Program; presented to: NDIANon-Lethal Defense IV
  31. ^ Non-Lethal Weaponry: From Tactical to Strategic Applications; Colonel Dennis B. Herbert, USMC (Ret.), program developer, Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State University; pg. 4
  32. ^ a b USA: Police use of pepper spray - tantamount to torture. Amnesty International, 4 November 1997.
  33. ^ CBS News U.S. Experts: "Occupy" video shows excessive force November 9, 2011
  34. ^ Inside the Pentagon; Cebrowski calls for cultural changes; DEFENSE OFFICIALS URGE COMMON FRAMEWORK FOR PRECISION ATTACKS; April 3, 2003 [1]
  35. ^ The Electromagnetic Bomb - a Weapon of Mass Destruction

External links

  • [2] Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force Report on Nonlethal Weapons
  • [3] (Non-lethal weapons)
  • [4] Weapons of Mass Protection, Air Force Journal article on Nonlethal Weapons.
  • The Sunshine Project, 'Non-Lethal' Incapacitating (Bio)Chemical Weapons (website)
  • The European Parliament Directorate General for Research, The STOA - Scientific and Technological Options. An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control
  • Centre for Conflict Resolution, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project (BNLWRP), Research Report No. 8
  • Time - Beyond the rubber bullet
  • - Non Lethal and Less Lethal Law Enforcement Technologies. Hosted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
  • US Deptment of Defense Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
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