By John G. Roos
The Army Times
"The bullet is so controversial that if Thomas, a former SEAL, had been on active duty, he would have been court-martialed for using it."
This 5.56mm Round Has All The Stopping Power You Need - But You Can't Use It. Here's Why.
Ben Thomas and three colleagues were driving north out of Baghdad in an SUV on a clear mid-September morning, headed down a dirt road into a rural village, when gunmen in several surrounding buildings opened fire on them.
In a brief but intense firefight, Thomas hit one of the attackers with a single shot from his M4 carbine at a distance he estimates was 100 to 110 yards.
He hit the man in the buttocks, a wound that typically is not fatal. But this round appeared to kill the assailant instantly.
"It entered his butt and completely destroyed everything in the lower left section of his stomach ... everything was torn apart," Thomas said.
Thomas, a security consultant with a private company contracted by the government, recorded the first known enemy kill using a new - and controversial - bullet.
The bullet is so controversial that if Thomas, a former SEAL, had been on active duty, he would have been court-martialed for using it. The ammunition is "nonstandard" and hasn't passed the military's approval process.
"The way I explain what happened to people who weren't there is ... this stuff was like hitting somebody with a miniature explosive round," he said, even though the ammo does not have an explosive tip. "Nobody believed that this guy died from a butt shot."
The bullet Thomas fired was an armor-piercing, limited-penetration round manufactured by RBCD of San Antonio.
A new process
APLP ammo is manufactured using a so-called "blended-metal" process, said Stan Bulmer, president of sales and manufacturing for Le Mas Ltd. of Little Rock, Ark. Le Mas is the distributor of RBCD ammo.
Various bullet types made by RBCD are designed for different effects, Bulmer said.
The frangible APLP ammo will bore through steel and other hard targets but will not pass through a human torso, an eight-inch-thick block of artist's clay or even several layers of drywall. Instead of passing through a body, it shatters, creating "untreatable wounds."
Le Mas gave Thomas a small number of APLP rounds after he contacted the company.
After driving off their attackers, Thomas and his colleagues quickly searched the downed enemy fighter for items of intelligence value. They also took time to examine the wound.
"There's absolutely no comparison, whatever, none," to other wounds he has seen from 5.56mm ammo, Thomas said in a telephone interview while on home leave in Florida.
He said he feels qualified to assess a bullet's effects, having trained as a special-operations medic and having shot people with various types of ammo, including the standard-issue green tip and the Black Hills Mk 262, favored by spec-ops troops.
Thomas was the only member of the four-man group who had RBCD ammo. He said that after the group returned to base, they and other members of his group snatched up the remaining rounds.
"They were fighting over it," he said. "At the end of the day, each of us took five rounds. That's all we had left."
Congress wants tests
Last year's defense budget included $1.05 million for testing blended-metal bullets, Bulmer said. Fourteen months into the 24-month period during which those research and development-testing funds must be spent, the military has not purchased a single bullet from Le Mas.
Publicly, at least, military officials say RBCD ammo is no more effective than other types now in use and, under certain conditions, doesn't even perform as well. Those conclusions are derived from a series of tests conducted a few years ago in which RBCD ammo's effects were observed in ballistic gelatin, the standard means for testing bullets.
Naval Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Gary Roberts, a recognized ballistics expert and member of the International Wound Ballistics Association, conducted the gelatin tests in March 2002.
According to his findings, "Claims that RBCD bullet terminal performance can vary depending on target thickness, size or mass were not shown to have merit, as bullet performance remained consistent irrespective of gelatin block size."
Roberts found that in gelatin, a 9mm, 60-grain slug exhibited "tissue damage comparable to that of other nonexpanding 9mm bullets and is less than that of standard 9mm [jacketed hollow point] designs, since the RBCD bullet does not create as much tissue damage due to its smaller recovered diameter."
A .45-caliber bullet "offered average terminal performance in bare and denim-clad gelatin, similar to that noted with the 9mm bullet. ... The RBCD bullets do not appear to be a true frangible design, as significant mass is retained after striking a target."
Not surprisingly, Roberts' assessment remains a major impediment to getting RBCD ammo into military hands. Considering his standing in the ballistics community, his findings are accepted as gospel by many influential members of the special-operations community.
But Bulmer insists that tests in ballistic gelatin fail to demonstrate RBCD ammo's actual performance because the gelatin is chilled to 36 degrees. Their bullets seem to shatter most effectively only when they strike warmer targets, such as live tissue. Bulmer said tests using live animals clearly would show its effects. Despite his appeals for such testing, and the funds set aside by Congress to conduct new tests, the military refuses.
Bulmer said authority to spend the testing funds initially went to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which delegated testing responsibility to the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Queries to the command confirmed that it was aware of the testing requirement but had not decided when, or if, the tests will be conducted.
Bill Skipper, president and CEO of the American Business Development Group, is a lobbyist representing Le Mas on Capitol Hill. "When I heard of the ballistic characteristics of this ammo, as a retired military officer, I realized it has to stay in the good guys' hands," he said, adding that SOComís reluctance to test it is "irresponsible."
"This is an issue of national security," he said.
Some supporters of RBCD ammunition suggest SOCom officials may be reluctant to test the ammo because it threatens "in-house" weapons and ammunition programs underway at the command.
Special-operations forces long have sought a more potent standard round than the 5.56mm, which lacks the punch needed during the long-distance engagements that frequently occur in Afghanistan and Iraq. In response, SOCom is working with weapons and ammunition manufacturers to develop a new round and new upper receivers for M4 and M16 rifles.
The command apparently has narrowed its search to a 6.8-by-43mm round.
Indication of industries' involvement in this effort was seen in October during the annual Association of the U.S. Army exhibition in Washington.
If Le Mas' 5.56mm APLP round delivers the performance SOCom is seeking in the new 6.8mm ammo - and Bulmer insists it does - the rationale and the potentially lucrative contracts for producing a new ammo type and modifying thousands of weapons used by special-operations forces would disappear.
Thomas said he isn't familiar with the reasons that might keep RBCD ammo from getting a realistic test within the military.
"The politics, that's above my pay grade," he said. "All I really care about is that I have the best-performing weapon, optics, communications, medical equipment, etc. I'm taking Le Mas ammo with me when I return to Iraq, and I've already promised lots of this ammo to my buddies who were there that day and to their friends."
When military officials in the United States got wind that Thomas had used the round, he quickly found himself in the midst of an online debate in which an unnamed officer, who mistakenly assumed Thomas was in the service, threatened him with a court martial for using the nonstandard ammo.
Although Thomas was impressed by RBCD ammo's performance, he feels it should not be the standard ammunition issued to all U.S. forces.
"The first thing I say when I talk to people about Le Mas' ammo is, make sure that 22-year-old infantrymen don't get a hold of this, because if they have an accident ... if they have a negligent discharge, that person is dead. It doesn't matter how much body armor you have on.
"This is purely for putting into bad guys. For general inventory, absolutely not. For special operations, I wouldn't carry anything else."
A video clip on RBCD ammo that was shot at the annual Armed Forces Journal Shootout at Blackwater is online at www.armedforcesjournal.com/bullets.
- John G. Roos is editor of Armed Forces Journal.
Good article. Thanks for posting it.
Why does this round remind me of the "Black Rhino"?
Stan Bulmer, Le Mas, RBCD, and their "blended metal bullets" (which actually contain ZERO blended metals) have all been totally and completely discredited by the best American ballistic scientists.
These magical, unicorn-mutilating bullets are all hype. Anyone who buys Bulmer's double speak probably also believed the "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky" lie, as well.
The best performing 5.56 round is the Hornady TAP. RBCD doesn't even come close.
Can someone please explain to me how a frangible bullet could penetrate steel plate?