Non-lethal weapons are growing in popularity with police forces and even the military in recent years. Police most commonly use them for crowd control and riots, but they can also be instrumental in demobilizing or disorienting enemy military forces without killing them. But what exactly are non-lethal weapons, and in which contexts can they be useful?
A non-lethal weapon, or a less-lethal weapon, is a means of combat or protection that is less likely to kill the target compared to the conventional weapons that can kill the target, such as knives, guns, and other similar objects. Non-lethal weapons are most widely used by the police force to control crowds of protesters or rioters to minimize the risk of getting people killed. These sorts of weapons are handy when there is no need for casualties, or where the risk of fatalities should be as low as possible. Some of the most popular forms of non-lethal weapons include pepper spray, tear gas, sleep agents, and other various chemical non-lethal weapons, riot guns, police batons, electroshock weapons, LRADs, and other similar weapons.
Here, we will analyze the concept of a non-lethal weapon, and we will also examine some of the most famous and widespread non-lethal weapons. We will also inspect how some of these weapons developed throughout history and what their purpose was.
What is a Non-Lethal Weapon?
The primary goal of non-lethal weapons is to control or immobilize crowds or individuals in a manner that doesn’t cause death. While the majority of uses of these sorts of non-lethal gadgets result in a peaceful resolution, deaths can occur, even if the goal is not to cause them in the first place. Throughout history, these weapons have become more sophisticated and less likely to cause deaths, which improved their usability and effectiveness at the same time.
Some weapons have been used for police and military use, while others were to be used by individuals as well. They often play an essential role in crowd and riot control, as well as for self-defense. In modern warfare, these weapons are critical for disturbing communication without casualties, which has become a vital aspect of war. In general, these weapons can have moderate to severe physiological effects and some side effects. The most common effects on the recipients of non-lethal weapon treatment are:
- eye effects
- neurological effects
- toxic effects
- auditory effects
- psychological effects
- electrophysiological effects
The morality and usefulness of non-lethal weapons have been a hotly discussed topic throughout history. While these weapons are most commonly used by governments to control more massive crowds and bigger escalations, many people and humanitarian personalities have questioned these weapons primarily due to their misuse in some instances. That is especially the case where their use is not as necessary as in more violent riots. One example that has brought bad reputation is the 1997 misuse allegations, where two American policemen unnecessarily sprayed pepper spray directly into the eyes of protestors where such use was not necessary.
Despite some cases of misuse of these non-lethal weapons, the most common consensus is a positive one. Non-lethal weapons were popular towards the end of the 20th century, and these were known to prevent both civil wars and potential larger-scale wars. As opposed to the earlier 20th century and many years back where such weapons were almost non-existant, conflicts would often escalate. There is no doubt that non-lethal weapons have saved many lives and have helped to keep peace in many cases.
Types of Non-Lethal Weapons
Now that we know what a non-lethal weapon is, what are some of the most common types of non-lethal weapons? The best way to look at the types of non-lethal weapons is to sort them by the way they work. The effects of these weapons are very different, and their severity can differ massively. The primary goal of non-lethal weapons is to immobilize or disorient people or a crowd to elicit behavior changes; however, the way how these weapons achieve that goal can differ massively.
There is a vast range of options with non-lethal weapons, ranging from more loud and obvious ones like flashbangs and non-lethal rounds to more sophisticated and hidden ones like scent-based weapons. These included tear gas, pepper spray, sleep gas, the active denial system, LRADs, focused speakers, and many more. Over the years, these weapons became more and more sophisticated and required more thought, and also minimized the risk of deaths.
So what are some of the most common types of non-lethal weapons?
Batons and other similar devices
Batons are clubs made out of rubber, plastic, or metal. They have been in use for a long time, and the first mention of rods dates back to mid 19th century, where batons were used by the London police to hunt down burglars. Police sticks are one of the more primitive non-lethal weapons, but their lethality is questionable. Although their intention is as non-lethal weapons at first, they have often been subject to misuse and overuse at times. Many beatings with batons have been brutal, and some have even resulted in death.
As a non-lethal weapon, a baton is nowadays still in use, especially in more uncontrolled crowd settings. Often, police officers are taught to target larger muscle groups on targets, such as the legs and biceps, and are encouraged to cause no serious harm, but rather to discipline and discourage the delinquents from further actions. Note that baton is on this list as a non-lethal weapon only when it is used in that way and because police often incorporate it for crowd control.
Non-lethal rounds are handy in situations where there is a high risk of danger, but where the desire is not to kill the target, but rather, to disable it. These bullets are loaded to guns (most often shotguns) and are fired at the destination to cause blunt force trauma. These projectiles are made of rubber, or they can also be plastic rounds, bean bag rounds, wax bullets, and other types of shells. As one can imagine, these bullets can be very painful and can seriously harm the target, but these will rarely kill a person.
Such bullets come useful in situations where there is a high level of risk, for example, where a suspect carries a lethal gun or other possible dangerous and life-threatening weapons. These bullets use kinetic energy that transfers on impact and should not penetrate. Most commonly, the effect of such rounds is a physical one, and it can cause severe pain and bruise, which is much more significant if these bullets are fired to a person’s chest. While they are not lethal in most cases, they can be, especially if they hit human body parts that are more vulnerable, such as the head or the neck.
The LRAD and other acoustic weapons use high-pressure audio beams to cause pain in a person’s ears and body. This uncomfortable audible deterrent tone that travels very long distances within a narrow beam of focused soundwaves. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is a popular crowd control tool used by government agencies, law enforcement, and marine companies worldwide. The warning tones produced by the LRAD are in the normal audible range of hearing and driven by multiple high-efficiency audio mid-range compression drivers.
The general perception of bombs is one of the big explosions and many casualties during the process, but not all explosives are that way. Non-lethal explosives are meant to control and to disorient or immobilize crowds of people, but their primary intention was for military exploits. Non-lethal explosives include stun grenades, sting grenades, and other grenades that produce chemicals upon explosion. Even smoke grenades can be included in this section, although they are not common. Another very unique type of non-lethal explosives is sponge grenades, which are fired by a grenade launcher and can immobilize a person. Rubber grenades are also exceptional, as they propel shrapnels of rubber upon explosion.
Stun grenades, or flashbangs, were first introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were at first, mostly used for covert operations, such as the 1972 hijacking of the Sabena Flight 571, where terrorists hijacked the plane. Flashbangs were used by a team of commandos to apprehend the terrorists. In recent years though, these types of explosives are tossed by the police in crowds of protestors. The goal is for them to disperse. These protests include Belorusian, Egyptian, and Greek riots.
Weapons that cause electrophysiological effects
Such weapons can cause electroshock, which completely immobilizes and disables the target. These create a short burst of electrical energy, and it passes through the body of the recipient to disable the peripheral nervous system. The amperage of these weapons is usually very low, but still enough to immobilize a human being. The longer the burst, the more the target will be immobilized. Just a short blast is enough to disable a person’s limb, while a 5-second shock can immobilize the target for 15 minutes or more.
Electroshock weapons, or tasers, as they are commonly called after the brand that produces these weapons, can have wide-ranging effects. They can cause respiratory problems and cardiac issues, which can be light to quite severe, depending on the effect time of the weapon. If the taser is in operation for long enough, it can even cause death. Tasers are a frequent way of self-defense, but the legality of such weapons differs from state to state and from country to country.
Sprays or gases
Sprays and gases are prevalent non-lethal weapons that are useful in situations where there is a need to control a crowd of people. These sprays and gases emit certain chemicals that vary in toxicity, but they aim to disable recipients rather than killing them. But anyone who was ever a victim of these gases or sprays will tell you just how unpleasant they were. The primary intention of these gases and sprays is for riot control, but are suitable for personal self-defense. Most of these gases were created from the more toxic gases and chemicals that were deadly in WWI.
Tear gas is undoubtedly commonly seen where there are riots or big crowd unrests. It is common to see them at sports events, where there may be hooligan unrests and other similar events. It is a chemical that often induces tears, which is why it is called tear gas, but it also has some other unpleasant effects, such as eye pain, irritation, and in severe cases, blindness. Tear gas comes in the shape of a canister that then releases the tear gas, which can help for crowd control. While these cartridges can kill a person upon impact, the primary concern is that these gases can cause blindness.
Pepper spray is another famous non-lethal spray that can induce severe pain, discomfort, and temporary blindness. More severe effects included asphyxiation and death due to pre-existing medical conditions that the pepper spray can worsen. Often used in riot control, it is not uncommon to see it used against animal attacks such as bears and dogs, and even for personal safety. Agents such as tear gases and pepper spray are prohibited for use in warfare but are allowed for crowd and riot control.
One of the more unpleasant crowd-control non-lethal gases is the CR gas, which, upon contact with one’s skin, can cause severe pain and feeling of discomfort and respiratory issues. Some describe its effects as walking through stinging nettles while blindfolded. It can cause a feeling of burning and skin irritation, especially in moist areas, as the CR gas can create a potent chemical compound with water.
A more elegant type of non-lethal gas is the sleep gas, which is highly effective in situations where there is a significant threat from the offenders, such as in some terrorist operations. One such case was the terrorist upholding of hostages in the Moscow theater in 2002, which was resolved by sleep gas. Another interesting gas is the Malodorant Gas, which exudes very unpleasant odors in the affected area, causing rioters or crowds to disperse in the field of effect because the smell is too much to bear. One such example was from 2008 when Israeli forces used it for crowd control effectively.
Directed Non-lethal weapons
Under this category, there is a whole host of modern and unique weapons. The main thing they have in common is that they use a projected beam of energy of some sort that can disarm, disable, confuse, or immobilize the target. Some of these can also be used on vehicles and larger targets, and even against air vehicles. Sometimes, some of them can distort communication or communicate at longer distances. Under this category, fall laser weapons, microwave weapons, plasma weapons, directed sound weapons, and many more.
One of the most commonly used directed non-lethal weapons is a laser weapon, such as the ultraviolet laser weapon. Such devices can be used on longer distances, and can distort the vision of an individual, and can cause blindness and other quite severe physiological and even psychological effects. These directed beams can be potent, especially at closer ranges. It doesn’t take a lot to cause damage to a person’s retina, and often, even less powerful beams can cause real damage. They can work at longer ranges, and in severe cases, can cause retinal bleeding, permanent blindness, and at the very least, disorientation and discomfort.
Like the laser weapon, many directed weapons aim to distort one of the senses of a human being or to disorient them. The LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), which we mentioned before, is a type of loudspeaker that is efficient at projecting sound over long distances. While LRADs are not primarily useful only to impair the hearing ability of an individual, they are used to address crowds and to disperse them. They can get quite loud and can be quite intimidating, especially at higher volumes. But their use is also crucial in military situations and to communicate on long distances as well. Directional speakers are also useful for similar purposes.
One of the latest developments in the directed non-lethal weapons scene is the ADS or the Active Denial System. This type is beneficial for crowd control and as a non-lethal weapon to disperse groups of protestors. The idea of ADS is a dish that is operated by a controller. It is mounted on top of a vehicle of some sort projects concentrated beams of electromagnetic radiation to a specific area. More precisely, where an operator points the dish. The electromagnetic radiation is strong enough to give the target a sense of being burned and is often described as the feeling when one opens an oven door. Although these radiation beams do not cause any severe damage, as it only affects the upper layer of the skin, they are very unpleasant and handy for dispersing protesters, for example.
Another exciting technique, or a non-lethal weapon, is the Pulsed Energy Projectile, or the PEP. It is currently still under development by the US military, and it uses an invisible laser beam to cause the targets to get stunned. They also feel an excruciating sensation. It can reach up to 2 miles in range.
History of Non-lethal Weapons
The history of non-lethal weapons is not very long; in fact, it is a trend that has developed mostly in the last 50 years with the improvements in technology. While there have been some instances of non-lethal weapons before, most come from an era of peace. To preserve the order and to resort from using more lethal ways of controlling riots and for military means. For example, tasers, which many people believe to be almost ancient with all the recent technology, were only begun to be developed in 1969 and used since the 1980s. There are many more examples of non-lethal weapons that are still in development, and we can expect even more inventive and elegant types of non-lethal weapons in the future.
During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, police officers had to use batons and form walls of police officers to push protesters away. In many cases, physical force was used by the police to control rioters. The trend began to change slowly in the 1970s and 1980s, where more and more useful ways of controlling crowds were developed and tested by police. We already mentioned tasers, but non-lethal rounds and kevlar vests were designed during that time, which enabled police officers to deal with protesters easier.
Also, several gases and sprays began in the 1980s and 1990s, such as tear gas and pepper spray. These weapons are still very much in use, but they are getting more and more obsolete with the recent techniques that are coming, such as various chemicals and directed non-lethal weapons. With those, non-lethal weapons are more useful than ever and minimize the risks of deaths and injury massively.
In the military sense, non-lethal weapons are still very much in development, but they are certainly getting more and more popular. While it might be hard to imagine warfare and wars without casualties, they can certainly minimize the risk with non-lethal weapons, and several directed weapons, especially acoustic weapons, are already in use. These can cause nausea, internal organ damage, and can cause deaths.
Are non-lethal weapons legal?
The morality and the safety of non-lethal weapons are often a hotly discussed topic, and some of the types of devices have been seriously questioned, especially by pacifists. Their “non-lethality” has frequently been asked by people, as some can cause death or physiological severe effects and damage, as well as psychological. Some of the non-lethal weapons are internationally prohibited or limited, at the very least, by the Protocol I of the Geneva Convention from 1977.
For self-defense, some of these weapons are legally allowed in some states and countries. In some, the law prohibits them. Tasers and various stun guns and pepper sprays are useful for self-defense, but the legality of some other ones is questionable. Some territories and states require the owner to register non-lethal weapons, while other countries strictly prohibit them in the first place. For example, the UK strictly prohibits its residents from owning an electroshock weapon, while in the US, 34 states allow tasers to be used for personal use, while some have unique restrictions for them.
Non-lethal weapons can be highly-effective for crowd control and self-defense and are often used during riots to control crowds. While their acceptability and legality are disputed by many, the consensus seems to be that they are the right way of preventing deaths in unnecessary situations when used in moderation, of course. Excessive use is often a concern, and it is those cases where police officers irregularly use non-lethal weapons that shed a bad light on them and can lead to more aggression.