August 16, 2023
First Evaluation by Leroy Thompson
My experience with less-lethal shotgun ammunition has, in the past, primarily been with rounds designed for anti-riot police or military units. This has included the “infamous” rubber bullets as well as rubber buckshot and some gas loads. However, the item I’m discussing here: Byrna’s less-lethal 12-gauge cartridge is designed for the individual home/personal defense market. I’m a great believer in the combat shotgun for self-defense. In many scenarios, it would be my first choice, but I’m thinking of my Remington 11-87 Police Model loaded with #4 Buckshot loads. Byrna’s target market is those individuals who live in places where the authorities are not favorable to individual rights to self-defense or individuals who because of their personal beliefs are reluctant to deploy a weapon to deliver lethal force. There is also a third group that might choose the Byrna Less-Lethal Shotgun Shell: those who believe in defending themselves with lethal force but only in the gravest extreme.
Before discussing its use, however, let me describe the ammunition. The Byrna “Kinetic” 12-gauge shell employs a .61 caliber polymer finned projectile, nested in a clamshell sabot and traveling at 313 feet per second. It is intended to hit with enough force to discourage an attacker, yet not to penetrate the skin. A video from the company, which I will link at the end of this article, shows results of firing at a human subject and ballistic gelatin. I fired 15 rounds of the Byrna shell from a pump Remington 870 tactical shotgun. First, I will note that the shell’s design allows it to feed 100% reliably. The shells also load into the tubular magazines as easily as a standard shotgun shell. The shells feed reliably. I fired one string of three shots quickly and had no problems with feeding or extracting. The use of a clamshell sabot ensures this reliability.
Accuracy for the Byrna Less-Lethal shell is advertised as “to 100 feet.” I would say, “Yes, but.” As long as the user is firing at a human-sized target, he can consistently put three rounds into the center of mass on an average sized man. However, when I fired three rounds from 50 feet at a man-sized target the group was about 15 inches. I should note my shotgun has excellent sights and at 100-feet could group three slugs into a couple of inches. I’m not sure a spread of 15 inches if one had to fire multiple shots to discourage an intruder isn’t a good thing. It would spread the discomfort and hopefully the discouragement!
I did not have any ballistic gelatin, so I improvised. I fired at a watermelon at seven yards and found that the Byrna projectile penetrated the thick rind of the watermelon (barely) but did not seem to set up much internal trauma (i.e. no flesh or juice oozing out). I fired a second round at the watermelon, which was slightly off center, thus causing it to take off just a portion of the rind. For comparison, I then shot the watermelon from the same distance with a load of #4 Buckshot, resulting in watermelon confetti! The penetration of the watermelon’s rind was not surprising as a video from Byrna shows the shell being used to penetrate a vehicle window but not the flesh of their human subject. Neither my shooting buddy nor I volunteered to be the “human subject” in my testing! More telling is that when testing the 100-foot accuracy, a projectile penetrated halfway through the cardboard backing for the target but not all the way through. The softer the target, the less likely to get penetration, it seems. We also put up a cloth coat over the cardboard target and shot it from seven yards with no penetration of the coat.
I drew some conclusions about “tactical” use of the Byrna Less-Lethal 12-gauge Shotgun Shell. First, it offers a self-defense option to those who may only be allowed to own a shotgun. It also offers an option for those who do own a shotgun, but would prefer to de-escalate a situation. If I were going to use the Byrna Less-Lethal Shotgun myself, I would load the first one or two rounds in my shotgun with the Byrna shells, then the rest #4 buckshot. Someone else might choose to load the Byrnas first, followed by birdshot, then maybe buckshot. In many jurisdictions, the attempt to first discourage an intruder with a Less-Lethal option would show intent to avoid killing or causing serious injury if possible. What must be weighed in choosing to engage with the Less-Lethal option first is how likely the intruder is to be armed and return fire with a bullet.
An intruder might well be surprised by being hit with the Byrna round because of the low sound signature of the cartridge. It doesn’t sound like a firearm. Another advantage of the quietness of the Byrna is that it can help alleviate a problem faced in many suburban areas—coyotes. Coyotes don’t face any natural predators in most suburbs and often attack the surprising number of deer in the “burbs” or, more the point, smaller dogs and even children. Where I live, my neighbors, who have tiny dogs, are always happy to see my Airedale outside as the coyotes give her a wide berth. But, to the point, the Byrna could be used to discourage coyotes quietly without anyone noticing the sound of the shot.
Another use for the Byrna occurred to me when talking with a friend about some of our times doing residence security on protective jobs. The Byrna would offer a way of discouraging intruders who appeared a possible threat but who were not showing weapons. In many venues such as concerts or political demonstrations, lethal force would not be justified for rowdiness, but use of one of the Byrna projectiles could be justified depending how violent the crowds get. From a “public relations” point of view, a well-placed projectile hit will be less likely to leave any type of major bruising which could be displayed on social media. The fact that the method of launching the projectile is a shotgun would also likely deter many trespassers without the need to even fire a round. The sound of an 870 being racked is a well-proven “de-escalator”! Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the Byrna Less-Lethal 12-Guarge Shotgun Shell and see that it can have a niche in certain self-defense scenarios. Byrna also offers a version of the shotgun shell that incorporates tear gas and/or pepper spray. I did not test this variant.
The Physics and Physiology By Will Dabbs, MD
The Byrna Kinetic Less-Lethal 12-Gauge Shotgun round is custom-designed ammunition for 12-bore shotguns that is intended to be motivational without being necessarily deadly. Byrna uses only the highest quality components and manufacturing techniques. The science behind this stuff is simply fascinating. This is obviously a joint project between me and my friend Leroy Thompson. As Leroy has pulled real-deal close protection duties for everyone from contemporary rock stars to Arab sheikhs to Moses, I’ll leave the tactical bits in his capable hands. My mandate was to explore the physics, physiology, and theoretical effectiveness of this radically-advanced ammunition.
Why do we carry guns anyway? The point is never to kill or even to cause grievous bodily harm. For the typical cop or responsible armed American, we wield firearms to expeditiously adjust deleterious behavior. Were I to present my concealed carry gun in a life-or-death encounter in the wild, the point is not to harm somebody. It is simply to keep some unwashed miscreant from visiting violence upon myself or my family. The fact that death, or severe injury, might result is simply a terribly unfortunate side effect of the technology available today. Byrna set out to divine a method by which we might dissuade a violent felon without necessarily killing him. There is still an undeniable level of risk, but these Byrna Kinetic less-lethal 12-gauge rounds are hugely safer than your typical one-ounce lead 12-gauge slug or 147-grain 9mm jacketed hollowpoint. Today we will explore why that is.
Lots of smart folks have trod these hallowed trails before. Most of the cops in America use Tasers. These electronic devices fire barbed electrodes on the end of wires and administer electric shocks that will ideally neutralize an assailant long enough to facilitate escape or further tactical action. Various gas-powered devices project irritant-filled projectiles designed to temporarily interfere with breathing. Beanbag rounds also set out to deliver incapacitating levels of blunt trauma energy ideally without creating substantial lasting injury. The Israelis use rubber bullets in attempts to defuse civil unrest on a near-daily basis. These Byrna 12-gauge rounds represent the cutting edge in less-lethal ballistic technology available to civilians.
Bullets are like batteries. You imbue them with a certain amount of kinetic energy at the moment of firing, transfer the vehicle downrange to a target, and then extract that energy in such a way as to create timely incapacitation. The details of muzzle energy, accuracy, and terminal performance all conspire to determine practical effectiveness. A deficit in any of those three attributes can render a system impotent. Leroy addressed accuracy. Let’s unpack the rest. The Byrna less-lethal 12-gauge round fires a hard plastic finned projectile that looks like a scale model of Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. It is 0.615 inches in diameter and weighs 69 grains. Muzzle velocity averages about 310 feet per second from a 20-inch barrel and 295 fps through a stubby 12-inch tube. The rounds are propelled solely by a 12-gauge primer. They make very little noise and are functionally recoilless.
Kinetic energy is ½ mass times velocity squared. That gives this peculiar little round a muzzle energy of some 15 foot-pounds. By contrast, a typical 115-grain 9mm ball round produces 355-foot pounds of energy. A 230-grain .45 ACP makes about the same. A modest punch with a human fist is maybe 35-to-40-foot pounds. However, there is a great deal more to it than that. A well-designed jacketed hollowpoint round is much more effective at stopping a threat than is a full metal jacketed bullet of the same size and weight. That’s because the hollowpoint bullet does a better job of extracting the available energy and translating it into destructive force within a target. If a bullet passes through a target, then obviously any energy retained at that point is wasted. For the sake of today’s discussion, we need to discuss surface area.
A twenty-pound force distributed over the area of a hubcap is mildly uncomfortable if that. That same force behind a Gerber Mk II commando knife will run a man through. That’s a function of surface area. In the case of these Byrna less-lethal slugs, there is a good bit more surface area than might be the case with a conventional bullet. That ensures that all 15 foot-pounds are delivered into the target without penetrating into the delicate gooey stuff underneath. The leading edge of this projectile is a uniform hemisphere (half a sphere) with a diameter of 0.615 inches. That gives us a surface area of about 0.59 square inches. For the sake of comparison, the surface area of a 9mm ball round is 0.22 square inches, while that of a .45ACP is 0.33 inches. That means the force behind this projectile is distributed across a relatively large surface area, allowing near-complete energy extraction with minimal risk of penetration.
Another factor in determining energy transfer concerns the material science behind the projectile. Less-lethal blunt force rounds can be categorized as flexible and nonflexible. Soft, flexible projectiles like beanbag rounds spread the impact energy out across both time and surface area. Nonflexible projectiles like those in the Byrna 12-gauge Kinetic round deliver a sharper, more intense mechanical shock. These rounds are advertised to reliably break auto glass at close ranges. How an actual human responds to this insult is based upon a myriad of factors, some of which are innately unknowable. Some less durable members of society are rendered combat ineffective by a paper cut. By contrast, I have seen folks hopped up on drugs who were shot all to pieces and just couldn’t seem to be bothered.
Most of the important stuff in our chests, heads, and bellies is actually pretty fragile. A sharp blow to the head can precipitate a lethal bleed. A comparable insult to the belly can bruise organs and literally take your breath away. Even modest trauma right over the heart can induce potentially dangerous cardiac dysrhythmias. Commotio cordis is the technical appellation. This is what happened to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during a preseason game in August of 2022 that gripped the nation. Shot placement is everything. How a person is shot with one of these rounds can indeed be a significant factor. A shot to the leg might leave your target enraged, where the same blow to the chest, belly, or head could result in something altogether different. As practical effectiveness is at least somewhat dependent upon an individual’s constitution, this is innately unpredictable. However, after a little trigger time I certainly wouldn’t want anybody shooting me with one of these things.
While downrange effectiveness is indeed dependent upon some unpredictable variables, the theory behind this ammo is sound. I am sorry, but I don’t love you guys enough to let somebody shoot me with one. Having terrorized some cardboard, however, it looks like getting thumped with one would indeed suck. The Byrna Kinetic less-lethal 12-gauge will never be as effective as might a one-ounce slug or charge of buckshot. However, it also sports a much lower probability of an armed encounter resulting in a funeral or some ghastly lawsuit. If there are serious concerns about friendlies in the area or if your constitution is such that you really, really, really don’t want to hurt anybody, then this is your ordnance. It is not exactly safe, but it won’t tear your head off like a conventional 12-gauge round might, either. The Byrna Kinetic strikes an interesting and useful balance. They sell in boxes of ten rounds for sixty bucks.