The Irish Origin of Rubber Bullets

Ireland is famous for many things. Rolling green hills and natural beauty, monolithic tombs, castles, faeries and lore, wool, turf, and whiskey are just the first that come to mind. But it has many more dubious claims to fame as well – and one of those is the notorious rubber bullet.

The rubber bullet

The rubber bullet

This little guy was designed by the British government specifically for use in Northern Ireland as a crowd control tool against rioters. Those pesky people who wanted civil rights were causing problems and just wouldn’t stop. Because the British soldiers had fired on them numerous times and caused a significant number of deaths in the region, the government decided to give them a different option. They unveiled these totally better, non-lethal rounds (eye roll) so that they could hurt people but not kill them. The rounds were created to cause scars and pain, but in theory, they would not cause death. They were used for the first time on August 2nd, 1970.

One should never believe everything they’re told. Rubber bullets do in fact kill people. In the five years they were used in the North, at least 3 people were killed outright by them, including an 11 year old child. Thousands were seriously injured, paralyzed, blinded, and permanently damaged. These rubber projectiles may not have been quite as deadly as their cousins, but they were definitely a close second.

Perhaps that was the Army’s fault. Maybe they didn’t get the memo about aiming for ground level.  Most of the serious and fatal or near fatal injuries occurred when someone was shot directly at close range, in areas well above the waistline. In order to use the rubber ammunition correctly and to break the habit of targeting a body, they would have had to have a lot of training – or untraining – which simply didn’t happen. They were supposed to be shooting at the ground so that the rubber bullets would bounce up to hit their targets, causing severe pain but not death but what may have been originally created as a ricochet weapon was never truly used as one. More often than not, people were hit directly by them and no matter what velocity it has, if a projectile fired from a gun hits you at close range, you will suffer an injury. Simple logic can attest to that.

Turns out, so could the Ministry of Defence, even though they wouldn’t admit it. Last year documents were uncovered proving that the government knew that the bullets were more dangerous than they had previously disclosed but they issued them anyway. The papers from 1972 stated that further tests would have revealed serious problems with the bullets, and they admit that the bullets were tested “in a shorter time than was ideal”. It acknowledges that they “could be lethal” and that they “could and did cause serious injuries”. The papers were part of a court case and they strongly encouraged all attorneys in any cases involving the ammunition to settle without a trial, as “the bullets should not be discussed in open court”

By 1975 the rubber bullet gave way to the plastic one but not before over 55,000 had been fired and thousands of people were injured. The injuries persisted with plastic bullets as well.

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2 thoughts on “The Irish Origin of Rubber Bullets

  1. In some ways plastic bullets are more lethal than rubber ones precisely because they are so accurate at close range. It’s extraordinary to think that in just one year of the conflict, 1981, up to 30000 were fired causing literally thousands of recorded injuries, most to the heads and upper torsos of children and under-25s. The British media now calls them “plastic baton rounds” on the instructions of the British government. It sounds nicer…

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