- "The bullet is so controversial that if Thomas,
a former SEAL, had been on active duty, he would have been court-martialed
for using it."
- One-Shot Killer
- This 5.56mm Round Has All The Stopping Power You Need
- But You Can't Use It. Here's Why.
- Ben Thomas and three colleagues were driving north out
of Baghdad in an SUV on a clear mid-September morning, headed down a dirt
road into a rural village, when gunmen in several surrounding buildings
opened fire on them.
- In a brief but intense firefight, Thomas hit one of the
attackers with a single shot from his M4 carbine at a distance he estimates
was 100 to 110 yards.
- He hit the man in the buttocks, a wound that typically
is not fatal. But this round appeared to kill the assailant instantly.
- "It entered his butt and completely destroyed everything
in the lower left section of his stomach ... everything was torn apart,"
- Thomas, a security consultant with a private company
contracted by the government, recorded the first known enemy kill using
a new - and controversial - bullet.
- The bullet is so controversial that if Thomas, a former
SEAL, had been on active duty, he would have been court-martialed for using
it. The ammunition is "nonstandard" and hasn't passed the military's
- "The way I explain what happened to people who weren't
there is ... this stuff was like hitting somebody with a miniature explosive
round," he said, even though the ammo does not have an explosive tip.
"Nobody believed that this guy died from a butt shot."
- The bullet Thomas fired was an armor-piercing, limited-penetration
round manufactured by RBCD of San Antonio.
- A new process
- APLP ammo is manufactured using a so-called "blended-metal"
process, said Stan Bulmer, president of sales and manufacturing for Le
Mas Ltd. of Little Rock, Ark. Le Mas is the distributor of RBCD ammo.
- Various bullet types made by RBCD are designed for different
effects, Bulmer said.
- The frangible APLP ammo will bore through steel and other
hard targets but will not pass through a human torso, an eight-inch-thick
block of artist's clay or even several layers of drywall. Instead of passing
through a body, it shatters, creating "untreatable wounds."
- Le Mas gave Thomas a small number of APLP rounds after
he contacted the company.
- After driving off their attackers, Thomas and his colleagues
quickly searched the downed enemy fighter for items of intelligence value.
They also took time to examine the wound.
- "There's absolutely no comparison, whatever, none,"
to other wounds he has seen from 5.56mm ammo, Thomas said in a telephone
interview while on home leave in Florida.
- He said he feels qualified to assess a bullet's effects,
having trained as a special-operations medic and having shot people with
various types of ammo, including the standard-issue green tip and the Black
Hills Mk 262, favored by spec-ops troops.
- Thomas was the only member of the four-man group who
had RBCD ammo. He said that after the group returned to base, they and
other members of his group snatched up the remaining rounds.
- "They were fighting over it," he said. "At
the end of the day, each of us took five rounds. That's all we had left."
- Congress wants tests
- Last year's defense budget included $1.05 million for
testing blended-metal bullets, Bulmer said. Fourteen months into the 24-month
period during which those research and development-testing funds must be
spent, the military has not purchased a single bullet from Le Mas.
- Publicly, at least, military officials say RBCD ammo
is no more effective than other types now in use and, under certain conditions,
doesn't even perform as well. Those conclusions are derived from a series
of tests conducted a few years ago in which RBCD ammo's effects were observed
in ballistic gelatin, the standard means for testing bullets.
- Naval Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Gary Roberts, a recognized ballistics
expert and member of the International Wound Ballistics Association, conducted
the gelatin tests in March 2002.
- According to his findings, "Claims that RBCD bullet
terminal performance can vary depending on target thickness, size or mass
were not shown to have merit, as bullet performance remained consistent
irrespective of gelatin block size."
- Roberts found that in gelatin, a 9mm, 60-grain slug exhibited
"tissue damage comparable to that of other nonexpanding 9mm bullets
and is less than that of standard 9mm [jacketed hollow point] designs,
since the RBCD bullet does not create as much tissue damage due to its
smaller recovered diameter."
- A .45-caliber bullet "offered average terminal performance
in bare and denim-clad gelatin, similar to that noted with the 9mm bullet.
... The RBCD bullets do not appear to be a true frangible design, as significant
mass is retained after striking a target."
- Not surprisingly, Roberts' assessment remains a major
impediment to getting RBCD ammo into military hands. Considering his standing
in the ballistics community, his findings are accepted as gospel by many
influential members of the special-operations community.
- But Bulmer insists that tests in ballistic gelatin fail
to demonstrate RBCD ammo's actual performance because the gelatin is chilled
to 36 degrees. Their bullets seem to shatter most effectively only when
they strike warmer targets, such as live tissue. Bulmer said tests using
live animals clearly would show its effects. Despite his appeals for such
testing, and the funds set aside by Congress to conduct new tests, the
- Bulmer said authority to spend the testing funds initially
went to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which delegated
testing responsibility to the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg,
- Queries to the command confirmed that it was aware of
the testing requirement but had not decided when, or if, the tests will
- Bill Skipper, president and CEO of the American Business
Development Group, is a lobbyist representing Le Mas on Capitol Hill. "When
I heard of the ballistic characteristics of this ammo, as a retired military
officer, I realized it has to stay in the good guys' hands," he said,
adding that SOComís reluctance to test it is "irresponsible."
- "This is an issue of national security," he
- Some supporters of RBCD ammunition suggest SOCom officials
may be reluctant to test the ammo because it threatens "in-house"
weapons and ammunition programs underway at the command.
- Special-operations forces long have sought a more potent
standard round than the 5.56mm, which lacks the punch needed during the
long-distance engagements that frequently occur in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In response, SOCom is working with weapons and ammunition manufacturers
to develop a new round and new upper receivers for M4 and M16 rifles.
- The command apparently has narrowed its search to a 6.8-by-43mm
- Indication of industries' involvement in this effort
was seen in October during the annual Association of the U.S. Army exhibition
- If Le Mas' 5.56mm APLP round delivers the performance
SOCom is seeking in the new 6.8mm ammo - and Bulmer insists it does - the
rationale and the potentially lucrative contracts for producing a new ammo
type and modifying thousands of weapons used by special-operations forces
- Thomas said he isn't familiar with the reasons that might
keep RBCD ammo from getting a realistic test within the military.
- "The politics, that's above my pay grade,"
he said. "All I really care about is that I have the best-performing
weapon, optics, communications, medical equipment, etc. I'm taking Le Mas
ammo with me when I return to Iraq, and I've already promised lots of this
ammo to my buddies who were there that day and to their friends."
- When military officials in the United States got wind
that Thomas had used the round, he quickly found himself in the midst of
an online debate in which an unnamed officer, who mistakenly assumed Thomas
was in the service, threatened him with a court martial for using the nonstandard
- Although Thomas was impressed by RBCD ammo's performance,
he feels it should not be the standard ammunition issued to all U.S. forces.
- "The first thing I say when I talk to people about
Le Mas' ammo is, make sure that 22-year-old infantrymen don't get a hold
of this, because if they have an accident ... if they have a negligent
discharge, that person is dead. It doesn't matter how much body armor you
- "This is purely for putting into bad guys. For general
inventory, absolutely not. For special operations, I wouldn't carry anything
- A video clip on RBCD ammo that was shot at the annual
Armed Forces Journal Shootout at Blackwater is online at www.armedforcesjournal.com/bullets.
- - John G. Roos is editor of Armed Forces Journal.
- Copyright © 2003