Rubber bullets are used for the first time in Northern Ireland on August 2, 1970. Rubber bullets are invented by the British Ministry of Defence for use against rioters in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
Rubber bullets (also called rubber baton rounds) are rubber or rubber-coated projectiles that can be fired from either standard firearms or dedicated riot guns. They are intended to be a non-lethal alternative to metal projectiles. Like other similar projectiles made from plastic, wax and wood, rubber bullets may be used for short range practice and animal control, but are most commonly associated with use in riot control and to disperse protests.
The British developed rubber rounds – the “Round, Anti-Riot, 1.5in Baton” – in 1970 for use against rioters in Northern Ireland. A low-power propelling charge gives them a muzzle velocity of about 200 feet per second and maximum range of about 110 yards. The intended use is to fire at the ground so that the round bounces up and hits the target on the legs, causing pain but not injury.
From 1970 to 1975, about 55,000 rubber bullets are fired by the British Army in Northern Ireland. Often they are fired directly at people from close range, which results in three people being killed and many more badly injured. In 1975, they are replaced by plastic bullets. In Northern Ireland over 35 years (1970–2005), about 125,000 rubber and plastic bullets are fired – an average of ten per day – causing 17 deaths.
The baton round is made available to British police forces outside Northern Ireland from 2001. In 2013 however, Ministry of Defence papers declassified from 1977 reveal it is aware rubber bullets are more dangerous than was publicly disclosed. The documents contain legal advice for the Ministry of Defence to seek a settlement over a child who had been blinded in 1972, rather than go to court which would expose problems with the bullets and make it harder to fight future related cases. The papers state that further tests would reveal serious problems with the bullets, including that they were tested “in a shorter time than was ideal”, that they “could be lethal” and that they “could and did cause serious injuries.”
(Pictured: 37 mm British Army rubber bullet, as used in Northern Ireland)