Commentary: Dum-Dums For Dummies

Fragmenting Bullets Worsen Gun Violence Issue

Winston Spencer
6 min read
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Stanley Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket, is relevant to today’s gun debate: The descendants of the M16 (AR-15) and AK-47 rifles are on the streets of America. It’s too bad the same ammunition is not. It may come as another nasty surprise that much of the ammunition sold to American civilians is actually considered too inhumane for our own military to use on enemy soldiers.

The American military exercises an unseen hand of control with the types of weapons and ammunition they provide to troops, not least of which is the fully jacketed rifle bullet. Conically shaped lead is sheathed in a thin layer of copper, steel or both because it maintains its shape when striking an enemy and prevents premature wear on barrels owing to lead buildup.

The goal of the professional military is to wound but not to kill. A wounded soldier consumes more resources than one at the front. This is especially important where the resources of an entire society are already stretched thin. Ask Czar Nicholas II about the impact that railway stations full of untreated wounded soldiers have on public morale and recruitment efforts.

The American military was quite satisfied with the .30 caliber (7.62 mm) NATO round used in both infantry rifles and light machine-guns by ground troops, aircraft and ships across the entire Western Alliance, greatly simplifying supply and manufacture. Robert McNamara threw a monkey wrench into this arrangement by mandating use of the military version of the AR-15, the .22 caliber (5.56 mm) M16. Its smaller bullet was overcharged, causing a grievous wound due to tumbling at distance and fragmenting when it hits bone.

A person is much more likely to survive being hit by a bullet that maintains its integrity; the heavier rounds above .30 caliber are liable to pass completely through a soldier, a wound that might be survived long enough to occupy other troops, removing several from combat and consuming immense long-term resources. This tactical and strategic goal was accomplished simply by the types of ammunition issued.

Such rules are codified internationally at great length; the American version is titled, quite logically, The Dept. of Defense Law of War Manual. This singularly complete guide to the management of violence encapsulates all Geneva and Hague Conventions prohibiting the use of poison gas and informing the treatment of POWs and the types of weapons used in war, but most importantly, it stresses the philosophy of using the least application of force necessary to defeat an enemy.

The American Civil War was a genesis for terrible new weapons of modern warfare and efforts to limit war’s destructive effects. President Lincoln commissioned a treatise on the conduct of war by German-American legal scholar and political philosopher Francis Lieber,
Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field—these concepts of military necessity, humanity and proportionality were largely adopted. It was necessary to shoot an enemy but not necessary to cause him to suffer further—should he survive—by having shot him with an exploding, expanding or poisoned bullet. This would violate all three precepts and the strategic goal of wearing down the enemy by their having to take care of wounded soldiers.

Standard, "bullet-shaped" jacketed ammunition is know as ball—a shout-out to Revolutionary War-era muskets. “Dum-dum” is British Army slang for modified ammunition—filing the tip of a jacketed round will cause it to fragment explosively inside an enemy, rather than pass through, making it difficult to remove surgically and the wound even more deadly. The Hague Convention of 1899’s Declaration III prohibits the use of expanding bullets in international warfare. A good drill instructor will point out that besides being against military law and strategy, it will foul the barrel, making a weapon—and therefore a soldier—less effective.

Hollow points are the worst of a wide variety of dum-dums for sale to the American civilian market. A conical depression in the tip of the bullet collects compressed air when fired through the atmosphere; that air is then forced through the body of the bullet when it strikes an object, causing it to expand and fragment. Picture a hole the size of your finger expanding to the size of a golf ball inside a human body. An almost explosive effect results. These types of bullets are not specifically eschewed by the US but are not generally issued either.

Hollow points were supposedly developed for police so that missed shots wouldn’t penetrate walls, but the Air Police at KAFB don’t use them and neither do most city police departments. (We contacted APD to confirm their bullet use policy, but had not heard back by press time.)

Instead, as with many other deadly innovations, they are marketed to Americans under the guise of self-defense. Instead of historically crafted rules by militaries across the world, Americans have NRA-sanctioned advertising, encouraging young white men to "get into the game" and increase "wound channeling" with semi-jacketed hollow point ammunition, which is more expensive of course; after all, the taxpayer pays the surgeons at public hospitals.

Hollow points and other modified ammunition are available for every possible caliber, from small pistols to .50 caliber sniper rifles and are especially deadly when fired from the AR-15. The grievous wounds described by surgeons in the El Paso shooting may have been exacerbated by fragmenting hollow point ammunition. At the Las Vegas concert where 58 people died, one of the girls hit in the back of the head had her entire right eye blown out. A kid at Parkland still had a piece of AR-15 ammunition lodged behind her right eye when she spoke at a March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

When you hear about Gabrielle Giffords or Malala Yousafzai surviving being shot in the head, you can be sure that it was ball—not hollow point—ammunition that caused their wounds.

It is absolutely insane that auto-loading weapons of war are for sale on the streets of America. The fact that they are loaded with bullets that even the military doesn’t use is beyond the pale of insanity.

Welcome to the unholy trinity of auto-loading rifles, pistols and modified ammunition. After all, “dum-dums” is not just slang for modified bullets.

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