Sponsored by Alternative Ballistics
By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
To the lay public, lethal and less-lethal force can be a neat distinction. When you’re developing a new less-lethal technology for law enforcement, it’s not that simple.
Consider the variables involved in using projectile-based weapons. There’s distance: Too far away, and you might not take down your subject; too close, and you might injure or kill them. There’s body part impacted: A face, for example, can be damaged in a way a thigh might not. And there’s intervening material: A subject in multiple layers of heavy winter clothing has protection that an individual in a simple t-shirt doesn’t.
What manufacturers are searching for, then, is a middle ground – incapacitating but not injurious, across all those variables. And while there’s no guarantee of either of those outcomes with any individual deployment, Alternative Ballistics invested in extensive testing to make sure The Alternative could achieve a consistent force range that’s likely to down suspects while limiting the possibility of harming them seriously.
“It’s a difficult middle ground to reach,” said Rob Kinsler, a ballistics expert who worked with the company to conduct key testing before bringing The Alternative to market. “You want it to be forceful enough to someone in Alaska to stop a potential threat, but not so forceful that down in Miami an individual would be subject to a critical injury or fatality.”
Early tests provide a baseline
Initial evaluations of the earliest version of The Alternative began at National Technical Systems’ (NTS’s) Chesapeake Testing facility in Maryland in 2021. There it was put through three well-established processes: ASTM’s E3276 testing protocol for less-lethal rounds, the Penetration Assessment of Less Lethal Munitions (PALLM) and the National Institute of Justice’s NIJ-STD-0101.06 standard for the ballistic resistance of body armor, which was used to gauge the protective effects of different clothing configurations.
This produced some positive data. The Alternative’s 90% CEP (circular error probability) values – the circular diameter within which 90% of shots can be expected to land – were tight from both ends of its recommended usage range. The tests also produced some early baseline measurements of impact energy and projected AIS (Abbreviated Injury Scale) scores that ranged between 2 (predictive of moderate injury) and 3 (serious injury).
But more testing was needed. “There was simply no possible way our executive team would have been comfortable with putting out a product that wasn’t fully tested, and our law enforcement team was certainly not going to put their names on The Alternative until this process was complete,” said Jason LeBlanc, Alternative Ballistics’ COO. “That was the one thing that we prided ourselves on doing, first and foremost for public safety reasons, but also for credibility reasons. Before putting The Alternative in the field, we needed to make sure we took every possible measure to obtain the scientific data needed for our team to draw conclusions and base our training and deployment guidelines around them.”
The company connected with Kinsler, whose nearly four decades of ballistics experience involved work with the ASTM and numerous government bodies. He reviewed the NTS data. “It was a good start,” he said, “but it didn’t really tell us enough about injury survivability and lethality.” In part that was because the ASTM standard dealt primarily with precision, rather than energy, and body armor tested to the NIJ standard can absorb and disperse an impact in a way a jacket or t-shirt can’t, limiting the applicability of that data.
But Kinsler also prompted an even more important change: to a larger slug that reduced impact energy and spread it over a larger area. “It was determined that the first projectile was too small and too fast,” said LeBlanc. “We needed to make the surface area bigger to slow the velocity down, and it was clear that additional time and testing were going to be required to develop this new model.”
“Think about a pool table,” Kinsler explained. “If you put a bowling ball up there and shoot the cue ball at it, you can make the bowling ball move. But because it’s a much greater mass, it’s not going to move nearly as fast as the cue ball was. Same with The Alternative: When you put a larger mass on the end, that significantly degrades the initial velocity, and it also spreads out the area that ultimately absorbs that kinetic energy.
“A larger surface area is better,” he added. “If you have a needle and a rounded pencil eraser with the same amount of kinetic energy, one’s going into your skin, and one’s not. That’s one of the variables to consider when you think about terms like energy.”
Consequently, Alternative Ballistics made its slug larger (1.3 inches in diameter, vs. the earlier 1.17) and heavier (a combined bullet/slug mass over 50 grams, compared to the earlier 38). This reduced its velocity by 50–70 feet per second.
With that change they conducted additional evaluations at NTS, repeating the ASTM protocol from distances of 21 and 27 feet. At 21 feet – roughly the near end of The Alternative’s recommended usage range – a 9-mm gun/ammo combination produced a 90% CEP of 3.52 inches and an average impact energy a meter from the target of 105.1 joules. At 27 feet – roughly its midrange – those values were 4.77 inches and 104.8 joules. At 21 feet a .40-caliber combo produced a 90% CEP of 2.12 inches and an average impact energy of 129.8 joules. At 27 feet those values were 3.37 inches and 129.1 joules. These impact energies fall within the broad range of forces typically delivered by common less-lethal weapons today.
Clothing tests go an extra step
For some final evaluations the team moved on to the Wayne State University Biomechanics Injury Research Lab in Michigan.
Throughout their testing, Alternative Ballistics investigated the protective qualities of various clothing layers. Unsurprisingly, heavier clothing affords more protection against projectile weapons than lighter clothing. But the consideration of clothing differences at all was unique, and it continued at Wayne State.
“That’s something no one else has done,” Kinsler said. “There has been work done with intermediate barriers, but no other less-lethal company has really tried to investigate that. They went an extra step.”
These tests used a pneumatic air cannon to propel projectiles into a torso surrogate. The value of interest was viscous criterion (VCmax), an index for potential soft tissue injury derived from the automotive industry. A VCmax of 1.0 corresponds to a roughly 76% chance of an AIS 2+ thoracic injury, which could include the fracture of two ribs or a sternum fracture.
In the first round of tests, the velocity of the fired projectiles was incrementally increased until reaching a VCmax of 0.6. For these tests Alternative Ballistics evaluated both its earlier small projectile and its newer larger one. Each was tested against the target in two different conditions: “heavily clothed,” with two layers of fabric and a midweight coat, and “lightly clothed,” with a single t-shirt layer. The team conducted 78 firings with the cannon barrel 60 inches from the target.
It found the combination of small projectile with heavy clothing resulted in the fastest velocity tolerance (236.9–243.2 feet per second), followed by the large projectile with heavy clothing (222.4–227.7), small projectile with light clothing (221.4–227.0) and finally heavy projectile with light clothing (198.9).
They then narrowed their focus to the larger projectile, advanced the cannon barrel a foot and notched up the VCmax threshold to 0.8 meters per second. A VCmax of 0.8 corresponds to an AIS 2+ injury risk of approximately 50%. These results showed a higher velocity tolerance for the heavy clothing (200.7–201.9 feet per second) over the lighter (185.2–186.3).
Putting the results in context
What does all this mean? Kinsler’s company, New York-based Sydor Technologies, experts in ballistic testing and precision measurement, interpreted the data.
Sydor noted average muzzle velocities for The Alternative of 219 (9-mm) and 235 (.40-caliber) feet per second. To produce a VCmax of 0.8 using the 9-mm required a velocity of 262–288 feet per second against heavy clothing and 228–247 against light. For the 9-mm, the actual velocity from muzzle to 35 feet is between 219 and 205 feet per second; therefore, Sydor concluded, in either clothing condition, there would be much less than a 50% probability of AIS 2+ no matter the distance involved.
For the .40-caliber those VCmax ranges were 193–208 for heavy clothing and 180–194 for light. The .40-caliber produces a heavier projectile, and thus the VCmax range is reached at a lower velocity. Given the minimum velocity needed to produce a VCmax of 0.8, Sydor determined, a target would have to be farther than 35 feet away regardless of clothing level when using the .40-caliber projectile, because with a faster muzzle velocity at 235 feet per second, it poses a higher risk of injury.
For further context, the 0.8 VCmax figure is regarded the highest level of acceptable risk for less-lethal projectiles. For departments with more risk tolerance, however, deployment distances become more important when using the .40-caliber model. At 20 feet its impact energy generates a VCmax of 1.09 with light clothing and 0.98 with heavy clothing, which is an 84.92% and 75.31% chance of AIS 2+ skeletal injury, respectively.
Other research has looked at ballistic impact and the potential for heart and lung injury. At 20 feet from the muzzle, the VCmax of 1.09 with .40-caliber use against light clothing yields a 2.18% chance of severe lung injury and a 2.62% risk of sudden cardiac arrest or commotio cordis. At the same distance, with the 9-mm at 20 feet, those risks drop to 1% and less than 0.01%, respectively.
While this all demonstrates a high degree of relative safety within The Alternative’s recommended usage range, it’s worth reiterating that less-lethal technologies aren’t an exact science. Depending on the circumstances and subject they’re used against, they may fail to do their intended job, or they may inadvertently injure or kill despite the best precautions of makers and users. A responsible approach to avoiding both extremes requires assessing the force they deliver scientifically – breaking it down to math.
“That’s what people should understand,” Kinsler said. “We can do the math, but we’re dealing in probabilities here. Nothing is 100%.”
All less-lethal munition impacts can result in death, but departments facing the hyperskeptical, supercritical public of 2023 are looking for ways to reduce this outcome in policing encounters. The Alternative poses a controlled, reduced risk of serious injury to suspects in violent encounters – and has a paper trail to demonstrate it.