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Book excerpt: Concepts of Nonlethal Force: Understanding Force from Shouting to Shooting

Exploring the ever-growing array of options and implements that promise to restore order to out-of-control situations

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The following is excerpted from “Concepts of Nonlethal Force: Understanding Force from Shouting to Shooting” by retired LASD Commander Sid Heal. Order your copy here.

Chapter 8: The Search for the Magic Bullet

The search for more effective nonlethal options has gained more momentum in the last three decades than in all previous history. Law enforcement agencies across the globe daily encounter situations that justify the use of lethal force and so any nonlethal alternative is appealing. In domestic law enforcement applications, this situation has resulted in nonlethal alternatives that are immature or have side-effects but that are still fielded. There is no better example of the desperate desire for better options because even with little or no testing they are still preferable to the pitiless nature inherent in lethal force options. This has created an ideal market for the development of nonlethal options since the standard is not perfection, it is the alternative. And, the alternative is usually deadly.

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In his latest book, Sid Heal examines the history of non-lethal interventions and the many ambiguities and difficulties associated with employing these items so as to minimize casualties.

On an even grander scale, innumerable contentious social and political issues ranging from pollution and global warming, to the reunification of Korea or Palestinian nationalism, have erupted with violent protests and so created a global impetus to find options short of deadly force. The need has been so desperate in some circles that it has been compared with the search for the Holy Grail.

Notwithstanding any altruistic motivations, any developer who finds a nonlethal technology that is even moderately effective while remaining truly nonlethal will immediately become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. In the field of nonlethal technologies, the common expression is the search for the “magic bullet.” [1] It is not known when or where the term “magic bullet” was first used to describe a truly effective and completely nonlethal solution. It is based upon a metaphor for any straightforward solution, especially some new technology perceived to have exceptional effectiveness. Its roots have been attributed to both the “silver bullet” in folklore effective against werewolves and such, and the “silver bullet” used by the main character from the radio and television “Lone Ranger” series.

Undermining this impetus, however, are two powerful countervailing influences. Both deal with the risk accepted in employing a nonlethal option, which admittedly, is always less than perfect and often less than effective. The first is the risk in being first. Given that every nonlethal device has some drawbacks, not the least of which is that none can claim with absolute certainty that they are always nonlethal, they will be subject to criticism and civil attack for a failure. This is especially troublesome with new devices, which are not only intensely scrutinized but are more prone to failures and shortcomings than mature technologies. This latter issue is particularly problematic for the law enforcement community in that the pathways through the legal quagmire are well charted for lethal force but fraught with pitfalls for nonlethal options. Nobody wants to be the one to “bell the cat.” [2]

A second problem is termed the “revenge factor.” This condition was first identified by American sociologist, Dr. David Klinger. [3] After studying a number of tactical operations in which nonlethal devices were used, Dr. Klinger noted that because of their primitive nature, [4] the person who attempts to use them also accepts the risk that they might not work and result in the death of either the adversary or the user. More poignantly, persons who elect to employ nonlethal options can find themselves in a position of attempting to spare the life of the person trying to kill them. [5] A paradox is revealed because the application of a nonlethal device can result in what it is trying to prevent. [6] Together, these counter-influences present formidable challenges and are often enough to dissuade even the most intrepid commanders from accepting the additional risk required to employ nonlethal options.


In deciding what the “magic bullet” might look like it is useful to identify some meaningful metrics. The most critical one is that truly effective nonlethal options must provide adequate protection against their lethal counterparts. Any force option that fails to meet this high standard will not provide an adequate advantage for universal application [7] and so will always be reconciled as a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.” A second requirement is that the option must be affordable. Nonlethal force options are subject to the same market constraints as any other technology and even an ideal device that is prohibitively expensive will not gain widespread approval. Generally, this means that a nonlethal device must be priced competitively to the lethal device it is attempting to replace. [8]

I’m not so presumptuous as to assume that I have any more insight into what the magic bullet will eventually look like than the learned scientists who are diligently seeking some solution but having personally benefitted from the Marine Corps’ tour of third-world countries in crisis, not to mention my years in law enforcement on the streets of Los Angeles, I have developed some rather strong opinions. It would then seem appropriate to provide what guidance and direction I can.

  • First and foremost, the device must have universal application. For whatever reason, any nonlethal device that cannot be used inside buildings, or in rain, darkness, or cold weather, or against smaller people, is not, by definition, completely effective.
  • Second, it must be discriminating. This means that the effects must be precise enough to affect the intended target and only the intended target. Any device that cannot exclude innocent bystanders may preclude it from being used whenever they are present. Such a device would not be practical.
  • Third, it will need to be environmentally benign. This means that it must not only not alter the environment; it must remain safe and effective in altered environments. The use of conventional riot control agents, for one example, alters the environment and requires harsh “trade-offs.” For that reason, the use of tear gas is often forbidden in the proximity of schools, hospitals, shopping centers, airports, major intersections, and the like. Conversely, devices that are sources of combustion, such as flashbangs, stingballs and many launchable projectiles, cannot be used in altered environments that may contain flammable vapors or liquids such as drug laboratories, passenger aircraft, factories, and so forth.
  • Fourth, it must be highly portable. Even the most effective device will have little value if it cannot be easily and quickly employed. Situations that will most likely benefit from the use of nonlethal options are highly volatile and can quickly escalate to a point where nonlethal options are no longer adequate. If it is not available when you need it, it doesn’t matter how well it works. Frequently in military situations and nearly always in law enforcement situations, this means man portable.
  • Fifth, it must be reusable. This means that the device must remain serviceable and usable on more than one suspect or multiple times on a single suspect. [9] This may require multiple projectiles, charges, applications, sprays or whatever method employed, but the critical aspect is that it must not commit the user to a single course of action by a failure. [10]
  • Sixth, the effects must be completely reversible. This means that a person affected by a nonlethal force option will completely recover with no aftereffects. Thus, the device can neither cause permanent injury, nor have lasting medical problems such as disease, mutations, scarring, permanent discoloration, etc.
  • Seventh, the effects must be nearly instantaneous. Generally, this refers to human reaction time—about three-quarters of a second. The use of any nonlethal force option that allows time for a suspect to have a reaction before becoming effective must then consider a counteraction by the suspect. This increases the complexity of the problem logarithmically because the suspect’s counteraction must then also be considered as part of the reasonable and likely consequences. [11] And, because our counter-counteraction then becomes a factor, the problem becomes infinitely difficult.
  • Eighth, it must be 100% effective. This means that it must prevent or incapacitate rather than just debilitate. Currently, the only nonlethal option available that even approaches a level that might be considered incapacitation is the TASER, and even these have had many instances in which a belligerent has remained functional even with repeated exposures. To be 100% effective a nonlethal option must render a belligerent either physiologically or psychologically incapable of resisting.
  • Ninth, it must be completely safe. This means that any application, or repeated applications, must work equally well on the 325-pound professional bodybuilder and the 100‑pound high school student without increasing the likelihood of injury. Likewise, it must be safe for all genders, sizes, ages, races, weights and medical conditions.
  • Finally, it must be effective at ranges that do not require undue risk on the part of the user. Depending on the circumstances, there are generally two ranges that provide reasonable thresholds of safety. The first range is 21 feet. [12] This is the range considered to be potentially lethal if the force used to deter a combatant armed with an edged weapon or club is not immediately effective. [13] Consequently, any nonlethal option that falls short of that requirement means that the user is forced to accept the consequences of failure when employing the nonlethal force. [14] The second range is 60 yards. [15] This is because only about 3% of the population can throw an object large enough to cause severe injury [16] beyond this range. [17] Like the 21-foot rule, any nonlethal option employed with the intention of preventing rioters from hitting the user, or nearby personnel, will require a range of 60 yards or more. It is equally important for adversaries because without a nonlethal option capable of being effective at ranges of 60 yards or more, rioters attacking with Molotov cocktails [18] are just as likely to be engaged with lethal force.

The De Facto Standard

Somewhat surprisingly, these requirements are well-known to the public and have become a de facto standard against which all available nonlethal force options are compared. This remarkable phenomenon was first observed on a Thursday night in September of 1966. For three years afterward, the public was treated to the use of the ultimate nonlethal force option in the form of the phaser on the television series, “Star Trek.” There is hardly a person in the western hemisphere who can’t describe the appearance, sound and effects of a “phaser on stun.” Admittedly, there has never been an actual phaser, even in a primitive form, and the fact that the script is set three hundred years in the future makes it truly a development solely residing in science fiction.

Notwithstanding, the public readily accepted the phaser as the ultimate nonlethal force option, and in an era of scientific advancement it seems not so out of reach. To be sure, these standards based on a device that has never existed are unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean that they can be ignored. As former U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, said in testifying before Congress after the Branch Davidians fiasco, “If we can send a man to the moon, we ought to be able to develop nonlethal technologies…" [19] As frustrating as the search has been, notable progress has been achieved in recent times because for the first time in history, the need exceeds the risk.

Sid Heal discusses his book on this episode of the Policing Matters podcast:


1. I had heard the term “magic bullet” a few years before using it in a presentation for the 1st European Symposium on Non-Lethal Weapons, September 25 & 26, 2001 in Ettlingen, Germany. A narrative version is available in hardcopy at Charles “Sid” Heal, “What Will the ‘Magic Bullet’ Look Like?” Non-Lethal Weapons: New Options Facing the Future, Fraunhofer Institut Chemische Technologie, Ettlingen, Germany, September 2001, p. 15-1.

2. Taken from Aesop’s fables, this metaphor is based on a story of mice deciding to put a bell on a predatory cat to provide a warning when it approached. While sound in concept, the application is full of danger, since there is a great risk to the one assigned to attach the bell. The parable succinctly identifies the problems with being first in any risky undertaking.

3. Dr. David Klinger is currently an associate professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St. Louis

4. In comparison with lethal force.

5. This situation is far more prevalent in law enforcement circles than in the military.

6. Klinger D. “Revenge Effects and Less-Lethal Munitions,” Command, 1998, p. 6-9.

7. And there are none to date!

8. This also includes nonlethal devices. Over the years I have been involved in countless discussions with developers and manufacturers of nonlethal weapons who have a usable device but are unable to attract customers. Eventually, I developed a list of all the currently available force options by what it costs to employ them for one “dose” so that comparisons became more obvious. This included the cost of the launcher and munitions, as well as the number of “applications” required to be effective. Using the same criteria for the new device it became conspicuous as to what nonlethal weapons it was competing with. For one example, a dazzling laser was being offered at well over $3,500. While repeated applications were free, the cost of the “launcher” was still prohibitively expensive when compared with a TASER, which cost more than $800 and an additional $30 per dose (cartridge). Thus, the only strong selling point was that a device provided some advantage over the competition that justified the extra expense. This was often a showstopper.

9. Admittedly, this requirement will set my civil libertarian friends on fire since they suspect that people like me will use it for torture. In point of fact, there are just too many things in a real-life situation that we don’t control. We’ve had TASER darts ricochet harmlessly off the snaps on a windbreaker, sudden gusts of wind divert streams of pepper spray, and stun bags that struck a paperback in a pocket, rendering them completely ineffective. To be sure, these are exceptions but not so rare or exceptional that those of us inheriting the aftereffects will ever discount them.

10. This is one of the reasons that directed energy weapons are so popular. Called the “deep magazine” concept, it refers to the ability of repeated, even indefinite, applications as long as there is power available.

11. The application of force is always unpleasant, and belligerents will go to great lengths to avoid it, as well as to negate the effects whenever possible. They can be as simple as sliding a thick magazine inside his shirt to nullify the pain from impact munitions or wearing safety glasses to fend off pepper spray.

12. For you folks on the metric system, this would be about 7 meters.

13. I was introduced to this rule as a young rookie in South Central Los Angeles in 1980 but it has been around since at least the mid-1970s. I have heard it called the “Tueller Drill” after Salt Lake City, Utah police instructor Dennis Tueller, who did extensive research to verify it. It has withstood the test of time, the scrutiny of science and the judgment of courts. For more information on this factor see Is the 21-Foot Rule Still Valid When Dealing With an Edged Weapons? Part 1, Force Science News 17, April 22, 2005, and Part II of Special Edged Weapons/21-Ft. Rule Series, Force Science News #18, April 29, 2005, and Less Lethal Weapon Effectiveness, Use of Force, and Suspect & Officer Injuries: A Five-Year Analysis, a report to the National Institute of Justice, Florida Gulf Coast University, Weapons & Equipment Research Institute, September 2008, p. 23. While there are also a number of court cases, one of the more recent that deals with the danger related to distance is Estate of Larsen v. Murr, 511 F. 3d 1255 (10th Cir. 2008)

14. For those of you civil libertarians hearing this for the first time it is also why a lot of the suspects armed with knives and clubs don’t survive the encounter.

15. About 55 meters.

16. Admittedly, this is somewhat arbitrary. In this case, severe injury was defined as those that might prove permanently disabling or life-threatening. The weight was set at 530 grams, or about 1.2 pounds, or for us street cops, about the weight of one-third of a brick. It needs to be noted, however, that smaller objects are capable of being thrown as much as 100 yards. Because Los Angeles is nearly all paved, rioters would bring their own missiles, such as spark plugs, wheel weights and golf balls, to throw at us. (They are cheap and can be purchased in bulk.) These may not kill, but you can still end up with some pretty serious cuts and bruises.

17. This is a general guideline since the weight of the object is only one of the factors involved. Where it hits the body and how fast it is moving are also important. The guideline was determined by a study done jointly by Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in the fall of 2000. For more information see Kenny J, et al, The Attribute-Based Evaluation (ABE) of Less-Than-Lethal, Extended-Range, Impact Munitions, Pennsylvania State University, Applied Research Laboratory and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, State College, PA, February 15, 2001, p. 16.

18. Also called “gas bombs” or “petrol bombs”

19. Testimony before the joint hearing of the Crime Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee and the National Security International Affairs and Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, August 1, 1995.

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