A bullet leaving the end of a barrel

Target acquired: The future of bullets

Bullets are not just chunks of lead anymore. Today they seem to come straight out of the lab of James Bond’s Q: tracking their targets, splitting into multiple projectiles, disintegrating into deadly shards. We look at the rapid innovation in this very lethal branch of science and engineering.

Consider the RIP bullet. Specifically, consider its nose. The bullet’s body is made up of a standard metal jacket, but the nose is where the action is. It’s split into eight tapered segments, known as trocars. When this bullet hits you, the trocars open up and splinter off, shredding anything they come into contact with, organs included. Its marketing material calls it “the last round you’ll ever need”, and it’s a bullet you really don’t want to get in front of.

RIP stands for Radically Invasive Projectile. It’s not clear if G2 Research, the bullet’s Georgia-based creator, came up with the acronym or the name first. “We market it as a premium self-defence round,” says G2’s president Paul Gombar. “It’s meant to give the gun-owner the edge in a self-defence scenario.”

Gombar says that the idea for the bullet came from medical devices. “The trocars on the leading edge of the bullet actually started as a crude concept from one of the partners, who asked, what if we made something like this? We modelled it using CAD software… when we started seeing some of the performance enhancements due to the geometry, we knew we were onto something, especially when comparing them to the conventional bullet shape.”

The RIP is a perfect example of how bullets are changing. Despite - or maybe because of - the utterly horrific gun violence perpetrated across the planet, bullet research and design has got more and more advanced. The global ammunition industry is expected to be worth $12bn by 2020, according to a recent market report.

America represents the largest share of this market. It’s worth noting that a large proportion of bullets bought in the US are for hunting game, and many of the experts we spoke to for this story derive a large portion of their business from the hunting industry.

As with any industry, big money drives innovation. In the past ten years, manufacturers have got more creative and discovered new technology, driving innovation further. Today’s bullets (and we’re talking rifle and handgun bullets here) are more efficient and more destructive than at any time in human history.

The RIP round is terrifying, but it’s just the start. Here, then, is where bullet technology is at, where it’s going - and what it means.

Bullets and creativity

Let’s put aside the politics for a moment, and take a look at some of the biggest trends in ammunition.

The RIP bullet is a type of projectile known as a frangible, which means it splits up into multiple fragments. The technology for this has been around for several years, but it’s only recently that manufacturers have really started getting creative with it.

Take, for example, Advanced Ballistic Concepts’ Multiple Impact Bullet (MIB). This isn’t a bullet that waits until it hits you to split apart. It’s made up of four parts: a central core and three ‘petals’, which are joined to the core by 10cm of string. No, that’s not a typo. Actual string, like you might buy at a supermarket. The bullet is spinning rapidly as it leaves the barrel, and the outward forces send the petals flying away from the core. Think of a three-bladed propeller, spinning through the air at high velocity. With such a wide zone of impact, aim is barely a consideration.

Designing these bullets is quite a trick. When a new round is being cooked up, ballistics experts need to know what it’s going to be used for. Is it a bullet meant to work at long range, to take down game? Is it meant for protection when a big cat comes at you at 7.5 metres? How about a human, three metres away, wearing denim? A bullet impacting at close range will perform differently from the same bullet that hits at 800 metres, and ballistics experts have to take this all into account.

The creation of bullets, and particularly frangibles like the MIB and RIP, has really been helped along by technology. Ballistics experts use computer-aided design software to build and model new types of bullet, then create prototypes using lathes. “Here in the US, these smaller manufacturers are like microbreweries,” says Chuck Schwartz, a ballistics researcher who has created mathematical models for testing bullets. “They’re taking high-grade copper bar stock, putting them on numerically-controlled micro-lathes, and they’re carving each bullet. They’re cutting the stock to length, cutting special flutes into it.”

Of course, the bullets then have to be tested. Testing on animals, dead or alive, brings its own ethical dilemmas. So manufacturers use blocks of specially-calibrated ordnance gelatin. Fire a bullet into a block of this stuff, and you can see exactly how much damage it does, as well as how deep it penetrates.

Frangible bullets have their critics. For a start, they’re expensive. Online retailers sell the RIP bullet at around $45 for box of 20 9mm rounds, compared to $20 for 50 regular bullets. But the real problem, highlighted in dozens of reviews online, comes down to one word: penetration.

Make a bullet too powerful, and it will overpenetrate, punching through the body before it can do any real damage. Not powerful enough, and it will never reach those crucial organs and blood vessels. All the energy will radiate out across surface flesh; it’ll hurt like hell, but it won’t bring you down.

Penetration needs mass. Frangibles lose mass the second they hit the body - or before, in the case of the MIB. “The first problem I see with these frangible bullets is that the penetration suffers,” says Schwartz. “Fragmenting designs tend to produce shallow, superficial wounds which, while they might look nasty, and hurt quite a bit, don’t hit the important things they need to stop someone. You could argue that the heart is only a couple of inches below the surface, but when you’re in a gunfight, you’re not standing head-on. You’re often shooting at an angle, at a moving target.

Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on which end of the gun you’re on - there are bullet makers who feel the same way. If frangibles are at one end of the penetration scale, monolithic bullets are at the other.

Schwartz talks about a bullet made by Barnes: a model known as the XPD. “I tell you what, you talk about a stopper, I’d call this thing the finger of God,” he says. “Whatever it hit was dead.”

Designed for killing

Schwartz isn’t kidding. A monolithic isn’t designed to wound. It isn’t designed for surface damage. A well-made monolithic bullet in the hands of a good shooter will do one thing and one thing only: it will kill.

They’re all-copper, so they retain their weight and shape for longer. They’re lighter than lead, so they can attain higher velocities. And like frangibles, they’ve have also become exceedingly popular thanks to developments in technology. Managers at Barnes, maker of that deadly XPD, decline to talk about their ammo, but there’s another name that keeps coming up again and again: Cutting Edge Bullets.

“They really changed the game,” says Phil Massaro, a professional hand-loader and owner of Massaro Ballistics Laboratories. “They’ve got a monolithic, all-copper hollow-point that is turned on a lathe, so the tolerances are very tight. It gives you a much more uniform product. It reliably expands every time, and because it’s all-copper, you can get away with a lighter bullet.”

It’s more than that. Copper bullets have one major problem, known as fouling. This refers to copper residue left in a gun barrel after a bullet is fired, and it’s a considerable nuisance for gun owners. Copper on copper is slick, resulting in bullets that are less stable in the air. What Cutting Edge has done is develop a special band around each bullet which not only prevents fouling by gathering residue, but increases accuracy.

Cutting Edge president Dan Smitchko says that building a good monolithic bullet requires more than just handling copper fouling. “Developing a bullet is different now,” he says. “When we started, we looked at a lot of different bullet designs and read a lot of books by ballistics experts. If you’re shooting long-range, you need a boat-tail that functions at very high velocity as well as at low velocities, so you need a good average configuration. But now we can use computer programs to control the variables.”

What about the military? They do, after all, use a lot of bullets, and are a big portion of that anticipated $12bn market. Certainly some departments are working on some genuinely innovative rounds, albeit under a lot of secrecy. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing sniper rifle bullets known as EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO). These bullets literally track their targets, changing course in mid-air.

DARPA refuses to answer any questions about the technology, but if it’s deployed, it could have a devastating effect. And yet, there’s some debate about how much the military drives innovation. Armed forces are big, clunky, slow to act. The M-16 rifle has been in service since the Vietnam war, and only now is a replacement being considered.

“The military is not a big driving force in the development of bullets,” says Bryan Litz, a ballistician for Berger Bullets. “The whole system is meant to use Nato standard cartridges, and there are battlefield considerations about commonality in the ammo. It has to be able to work in every rifle. The military isn’t going to be able to make use of the latest bullets, because they’re not going to change their rifles every time there’s a better bullet. The civilian and commercial side is what is driving the cutting edge of bullet performance.”

Lethality and ethics

Several times a year, a shooter walks into a crowded area somewhere in the US and kills people. Nobody knows how to stop it happening. Or rather, they know how to stop it happening, but there’s a significant proportion of the population that don’t want to take those steps, for reasons ranging from a sincere belief that anyone should be able to own and use a firearm to the idea that foreign terrorists are about to come screaming over the borders. Bullet manufacturers, whether they like it or not, are part of this issue.

Ballistic design is a science: it’s rigorous and scholarly and driven by a desire for knowledge. No getting away from that. But ballistics researchers are still dedicating their time to creating something with the express purpose of taking a life. They’re not developing something that will better humanity, they’re making tools designed to be used in aggression. How do researchers deal with this thorny aspect of their job?

Litz has a fascinating take on this: he says that his ethical duty is to make bullets that kill as efficiently as possible. “If you’re at the point of firing a gun at a person or animal with the intent of killing,” he says, “then I think that the more effectively the bullet is able to accomplish that, the more ethical and humane the whole thing turns out. If you’re hit with a bullet designed to shred and expand and fragment and wreak havoc on a living creature, that might sound bad and not give you a good feeling, but ultimately, the alternative is a bullet that kills more gently. They’ll spend more time suffering. It’s better it all happens quickly.”

If it’s game being talked about, then Litz is correct: ammo has to be instantly lethal. He’s also arguably correct where someone has to defend themselves against an attacker out to harm them. But of course, many human-?on-human situations don’t work like that. Sometimes an intruder or an attacker turns out to be a loved one, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Sometimes, innocent bystanders get in the way.

The entire debate is set up against the backdrop of utterly horrific gun violence, at least in the US. 2012 saw the killing of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and every year more than 30,000 people in the US are killed by gunfire (including accidents and suicide).

Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, does not accept that bullet makers need to create deadly ammunition. “The small arms industry has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about lethality,” he says. “We’ve had a steady movement towards more lethal firearms and more lethal ammunition. I, for the life of me, cannot figure out ethically how this industry can’t spend some of its time on figuring out how to make their weapons and ammo less lethal and safer for people who are invested in weapons for home defence. It’s a failure of both morality and imagination.”

It’s not as if there aren’t solutions available, though they are more about the guns than the bullets themselves. Working models of smart guns, that won’t fire unless they are within a few inches of an RFID-tagged watch worn by the owner, are available - but not in the US.

Stephen Teret is the director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and someone who has spent considerable time lobbying for smart guns, only to be defeated by powerful organisations such as the National Rifle Association, which doesn’t want manufacturers to pick up the cost of complying with restrictive laws. “The reason is pure politics,” he says. “If you had asked me a dozen years ago, I would have said that the technology is not yet fully developed. That is no longer the hurdle.”

The future of bullets over the next ten, 20, 30 years is hard to predict. At least, according to the ballistics experts we spoke to.

Smitchko predicts increasing demand for fragmenting technology, arguing that the real game-changer will happen when frangible and monolithic technology combine more routinely. “I think people don’t quite understand how devastating fragmenting technology is. It isn’t new, but it’s becoming more controlled now. We can make our fragmenting monolithic bullet do exactly the same thing every time.”

Another school of thought is that as bullets become so advanced, the weaponry itself needs to catch up. Litz, for example, wants to see computer-assisted targeting. “We’re working to get more of the aiming systems integrated into computers, to provide a complete fire-control solution with a rangefinder, possibly an optical wind-measuring device. Aiming the shots precisely and accounting for all the variables. When I look into my crystal ball, ten or 20 years down the line, that’s what I see: more technology on the rifles that is able to more effectively steer the bullet and put it on target.”

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