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Impact projectiles: Shot placement in death and injury prevention

The single most critical aspect of safe and effective use of impact projectiles — shot placement — continues to be misunderstood by police trainers

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The vast majority of police agencies nationwide are finally fielding some type of impact projectile like bean bag rounds. Various amounts of time, energy, and effort have gone into such programs, in hopes of increasing the probability of a positive outcome at the crisis site.

Unfortunately, the single most critical aspect of safe and effective impact round use — shot placement — continues to be misunderstood by many police trainers and by proxy, the practitioners they ultimately train.

There are no mysteries surrounding the impact round deaths and serious injuries that have occurred in the past. The round hit a point on the body that was unable to withstand the energy present, and something underneath was damaged in the process.

In order to prevent this from happening, we need to avoid hitting vital body parts. Simple enough.

The harder part is figuring out why some folks appear incapable of grasping this concept, and doing what it takes to address it.

Fatal Injury Overview

Police officers in North America have been involved in at least thirteen cases since 1971 where impact projectiles like bean bag rounds were used and a fatal outcome followed. Each case involved unique and varied circumstances, but it is readily apparent that “chest as aiming point” is the most common and recurring theme:

  1. A rock throwing male is struck in the chest with a 12-gauge square bean bag round. No penetration, laceration, or broken bones are documented. The cause of death was not officially reported, but was likely cardiac arrhythmia. This is uncommon but not unheard of when sudden impact energy is delivered to the chest. Examples of this are most frequently observed on the baseball field, where thirty-two youth players have been killed by chest impacts in recent years. It is important to note that a standard bean bag round generates about twice the energy of a little league baseball pitch.
  2. A deranged woman armed with a knife is barricaded in her home. Officers engage her in the kitchen, and she is struck on the chest with a rifled 37mm round. The 77.5-gram plastic projectile delivers 160 foot/pounds of energy. The impact breaks several ribs, and bone fragments result in fatal lacerations to the heart/lung area.
  3. A deranged man barricades in his residence. As officers attempt to breach the door, the suspect opens it and throws several knives. The officers respond by firing rifled 37mm plastic projectiles at the chest/torso. Several ribs are broken, and the sharp edges puncture a number of internal organs.
  4. A mentally deranged man armed with a knife barricades in a hotel lobby. A 37mm bean bag is fired at his chest, but accidentally hits the throat resulting in a fatal injury.
  5. A male subject under the influence of methamphetamine responds violently when officers attempt to take him into custody. A 12-gauge bean bag is deployed, and the subject is struck in the chest. There is no penetration, laceration, or bone breakage documented. The mechanism of death appears to be a cardiac arrhythmia as noted in #1 above.
  6. A nude male subject engages officers after self mutilating with a pair of scissors. He is struck twice in the chest with 12-gauge square bean bag rounds. One of the rounds penetrates the chest and lodges in the heart.
  7. A male suspect armed with a knife advances towards officers, and is struck in the chest with a 12-gauge square bean bag. The round penetrates and enters the heart/lung area resulting in fatal injuries.
  8. A barricaded suspect is exposed to CS gas and white smoke (hexachlorathene) prior to officers entering the stronghold. Upon engaging the suspect, he is struck six times with rifled 37mm plastic projectiles. Impact areas include the chest, face, and extremities. The suspect dies several days later, and the coroner rules that the impacts to the chest were a causative factor.
  9. A psychotic elderly male barricades under a stairwell with a knife tied to his hand. Officers engage him with a wide variety of rounds including rifled 37mm, 37mm foam, 12-gauge square bean bags, and 37mm multi-wood. He is ultimately disarmed following impacts to the chest, head, stomach, and extremities. The suspect has a stroke in the emergency room, and dies 11 months later. The coroner rules the impact rounds were a causative factor in the death.
  10. An armed suspect barricades in a garage. He exits unarmed and is struck on the sternum with a 12-gauge non-square bean bag round. A piece of the bone breaks from the sternum, and strikes the aorta resulting in fatal injury.
  11. A female suspect is armed with a knife, and officers hit her on the sternum with a 12-gauge non-square bean bag round. The bone is fractured, which results in fatal lacerations to the heart.
  12. A female bystander is accidentally struck in the eye with a .60 caliber single plastic projectile, following a professional baseball game. The round penetrates through the eye and enters the brain, resulting in fatal injury.
  13. A male suspect is struck in the abdomen with a non-square 12-gauge bean bag round, resulting in organ laceration and fatal internal hemorrhage.

The fatal case studies do not prove or even suggest that shots to the chest always result in a fatal outcome. In fact, the most detailed impact projectile study conducted thus far indicates that 19% of all shots documented hit the chest , yet relatively few (from a statistical standpoint) resulted in a fatality.


Common target focused on safe aiming points.

Likewise, we know that relatively few police baton strikes to the head cause fatal injury, but the inherent risk in such behavior has caused every police agency in the nation to direct officers to avoid hitting such targets.

Smart folks avoid risky behavior, and that thinking applies to “chest as aiming point” with impact rounds as well. This should especially be true when considering that the chest is an ineffective target as well as a dangerous one.

The sternum and ribs do a remarkable job of protecting the heart/lungs from external attack, as noted by the fact that professional boxers find little value in hitting the chest. It simply doesn’t contribute to incapacitation.

Unfortunately in the impact projectile realm, when the chest does fail, it tends to fail fatally.


Avoid the chest, unless the need to stop the behavior justifies the risk (however slight statistically), and you do not have a more appropriate targeting option available.

As with many situations in law enforcement, the apparent solving of one problem actually creates another. Such is the case with the “single aiming point-belt buckle” mentality. This position is endorsed by a number of agencies—some rather large—and is their solution to concerns raised about aiming at the chest. The upside of this argument is that it effectively deals with the chest issue, and is easy to train and understand. The downside is that it ignores how non-penetrating impact injury occurs in the soft tissue area below the sternum, which played a significant role in the death outlined in case study #13 above, and will do so in other cases if this issue isn’t addressed.

Impacts to the abdominal region can displace and deform the internal organs, potentially stretching them to the limit of their elasticity and beyond. This can result in critical injuries, especially if it involves the easily damaged liver, spleen, pancreas or kidneys. This type of injury is caused by BOTH the speed and depth of body deformation, and herein lies the problem with this aiming philosophy. The speed of body deformation is directly related to round velocity, and this remains constant from target to target. The depth of body deformation is a percentage of available body mass, which varies in every case from target to target.

Consider the following scenario:

A 5'6, 230-pound man holds a knife to his throat, threatening suicide. His avenue of escape is cut off, and officers are negotiating from 30 feet away. Deadly force cover is in place, and a decision is made to use a 12-gauge bean bag round in an effort to disarm him.

The officer has been trained under the “single aiming point-belt buckle” philosophy, and accurately delivers the round to that area.

Now consider the exact same scenario, but insert a 5'6, 100-pound female suspect. A 40 gram bean bag traveling at 300 feet per second generates approximately 120 foot pounds of energy, and displaces a block of ballistic gelatin approximately 5 inches.

Assuming that this medium is an accurate representation of the abdomen, consider the implications of the “single aiming point” mentality. The 230-pound male measures 12 inches from front to back, while the 100-pound female measures just 5 inches.

If they are both hit with the same round on the same spot (i.e., “single aiming point”), will they experience the same potential for injury?

The answer of course is no. They would both experience the same speed of body deformation, but would experience dramatic differences in displacement due to the dramatic difference in actual body mass present.

What this means is that the round to the 230-pound suspect would displace approximately 5 inches of tissue, which constitutes less than half of his available body mass. The round delivered to the 100-pound suspect would screech to a halt against her spine, and anything caught in the path (liver, spleen?) would suffer the consequences.

Same fact pattern—dramatically different risk. For most folks, that simply does not compute.

“Single aiming point-belt buckle” philosophies are simplistic and easy to train, but they create a disproportionate and inappropriate level of risk for smaller statured suspects.


Determining where you aim an impact projectile has never been easy, but determining where not to aim has proven less problematic. In general terms, avoid the chest unless you have no other viable target, and the risk of a fatal outcome is acceptable. Avoid “single aiming point-belt buckle” philosophies, because they create a disproportionate level of risk for smaller suspects, which is hard to defend when officers are facing the basic same fact pattern. I’m not suggesting that you would never shoot a smaller statured suspect in the solar plexus, just that you should not do it based simply on it being your only aiming point consideration.

Most contemporary agencies believe that impact rounds should be directed at target areas based on the circumstances presented, and a balance between the need to stop the suspect behavior and the acceptability of the potential injury outcome. This has resulted in a number of agencies using their impact instrument training chart as a general guideline for determining aiming points for impact projectiles, with the primary focus being on areas such as the arms and legs. A secondary focus is on areas such as the lower abdomen and solar plexus, when an escalation of force above primary is necessary and appropriate, and there is recognition of the increased potential for causing death or serious physical injury.

This is a long way from perfect, but is reflective of the known risks we are facing, and the processes that have proven most safe and effective.

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This article, originally published 3/22/2006, has been updated.

Steve Ijames was an original member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board of directors, and the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP less lethal “train the trainer” programs, addressing impact projectiles, chemical agents, and noise flash diversionary devices. Steve has provided such training across the United States and in 31 foreign countries, and frequently provides litigation consultation when the use of such tools are called into question.