2015/02/03

Bulletry (HESH bullets and shit)

In 1899, the first Hague Convention was passed. In it, and its 1907 ratification, it introduced many rules of war people often ascribe to its more famous cousin, the Geneva Convention. For this post, I want to concentrate on the 1899 section IV 3, stated thusly:
"The Contracting Parties agree to abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions.
The present Declaration is only binding for the Contracting Powers in the case of a war between two or more of them."
And so on.

This is one of many reasons bullet technology has not advanced in the last hundred years. Other reasons include:

  • Bullets kill people and regular rifle rounds penetrate body armour fine already
  • Bullets are produced and used in such massive quantities even a small increase in cost would affect logistical flow considerably
  • Bullets are extremely simple, and thus any changes would increase the costs per bullet dramatically
However, since the 60s, we have seen a reduction in the number of bullets used per engagement or opponent. Bullets used in training (which use up the vast majority of the 15,000 bullets per enemy combatant or whatever stat is trotted out, I honestly have no idea why it's included other than to point out how inefficient modern war is) could remain simple and ballistically identical to any hypothetical complex round that is produced.

More complex bullets (and even quite a few very simple bullets) tend to expand easily, even if that is not their primary purpose. While, personally, I agree with having rules for war to minimise casualties and avoiding overly cruel methods is neutralising enemy combatants, some of the rules should be re-examined such that their historical intentions be separated from their ethical ones.

For instance, it is a war crime to shoot a surrendering soldier. And for good reason. Were soldiers not discouraged from this practice, soldiers would also be discouraged from surrendering entirely. And fights to the death result in fairly horrific casualties and experience (more so than in more civilised warfare) for troops on both sides. Encouraging soldiers to surrender if they have been outmaneuvered or simply tired of command decisions results in a shorter war with less casualties.

In the case of expanding bullets, the reasoning is more historical. European troops facing against the Ottoman Empire or some other Muslim empire would use square bullets or cut an X into their bullets so they would expand, thus causing more pain. The practice was banned when such practices, particularly their racist or religious discrimination, resulted in wars going for longer due to the outrage of the Ottomen or whoever.

Regular rounds are relatively indiscriminate. Viewed across an army, expanding rounds should be. That isn't to say that one should simply disregard the declaration, but rather should be aware that it was written in a significantly different time facing (some) different issues.

Even within the relatively short period of time I've been thinking about it, I've thought of a decent number of fanciful rounds that have utility over the standard copper jacket rifle rounds. Some of them have been developed in other areas, others have not. Let's go over two of them now:
HESH Bullets
High Explosive Squash Head rounds have been used with some success in large tank rounds, for disabling medium to light vehicles as well as fortifications. But what if the technology could be miniaturised?
Obviously, it would violate the Hague convention. It's in the name. In this game I played, we internally justified it by saying we were going to war against a non-human foe (who obviously wasn't present for the Hague convention).
The basic set up of a detonator, priming charge, and main squash charge is also relatively hard to miniaturise. Within the game, we fluffed that as only being able to use relatively large low velocity rounds, perhaps on the order of 20 mm. In my head, our guns look like industrial nerf guns.
Today, I thought of a much more miniature way to do it.
  • The main portion of the round would be a plastic explosive, roughly a little bit harder than lead. This will squash on impact, resulting in a relatively flat cake of high explosive
  • The rear end of the round will be a very stable high explosive that only detonates under an electric charge. Its hardness should be enough such that it doesn't deform under regular use.
  • Running through the main portion of the round will be a loop of piezo-electric wire, that will produce a charge if it is deformed quickly enough.
When the bullet strikes a target, the main portion of the round will squash out. This will result in the wire loop warping particularly quickly, setting off the detonator. Numbers would have to be played around with until you got a satisfactory (and safe) detonation.
When I first read an article about piezo-electric materials (when I was around 11 or so), the initial musings were all about making forms of metal "muscle" capable of moving based on electric charge put through it. Years later, I remembered that little factoid and applied it in reverse.
I honestly have no idea how much damage a 7.62 mm round (ten to twelve grams) would do if it were made of high explosive. Probably not much. However, the form of explosive could send a pulverising shockwave through a target's body, even through armour!

So, if this were hypothetically more lethal, what considerations would this bullet have? Well:
  • HESH rounds would be less likely to over-penetrate.
  • HESH rounds would be more likely to destroy cover rather than penetrate through it
  • HESH rounds would be more expensive
  • HESH rounds are more likely to kill rather than wound, particularly on head or torso shots
The last one is probably unfounded and would require further testing. But the first point requires some reflection. In urban combat, where contact ranges from kilometres to within metres, a missed bullet can still pass through several walls to strike non-combatants. This has tremendous implications when deploying troops to any urban area. In a short range firefight, which is far more disordered and has many more stray rounds, troops don't have the time to contemplate whether someone who is shooting at them has a family or orphans behind them.

Using HESH rounds in such a short range firefight reduces the possibility of overpenetration, allowing soldiers to defend themselves rather than needing to weigh up whether their weight of fire will result in civilian casualties (a major cause of PTSD).

Now, what if I were to ignore ethical considerations entirely. This idea is a little more fanciful, and perhaps out of our technological reach (but only just).
A common argument for using 5.56 mm rounds is that they are more likely to cause a wound rather than outright killing someone. This was against its rival, the 7.62 mm round. I don't know how much testing there has been on this, very little of it has been publicly available. However, I highly suspect the real reason for the popularity of the 5.56 mm round is simply due to soldiers being able to carry more.

Ah, but why would wounding be better than killing? Most armchair generals know the answer. A wounded man on the battlefield takes several more out as they manage/protect/mobilise him, unlike a dead man.

This, however, isn't the full story. Once back at hometree, a single trained medic or doctor can maintain quite a few wounded, who will most likely be rotated out. In a situation of total war, those wounded may end up being re-integrated! Thus, your 1:4 hit to out of action ratio is reduced and reversed to an X:1 ratio. Not ideal.

What would be ideal is a bullet that wounded a man, but killed him over the course of a few hours. Thus, you gain the immediate combat advantage of removing a soldier from combat and his compatriots that try to aid him. Then, you gain the attritional advantage of removing a soldier from the war permanently. But how might one achieve this round?

One thought I had was for the bullet to be made up of a number of appropriately tessellating flakes. When a bullet entered a body (or whatever else), flakes would shave off the mass of bullet flying through liquid. These flakes would be designed such that as they suffer some sort of reaction (from entering a body and being in a relatively consistent predictable environment), they would writhe and twist and dig their way through the victim's body.

This would be tremendously complex and expensive. It would probably also violate quite a lot of things, least of all the Hague Convention.

Another thought was a bullet made up of a toxin that could be formed into a relatively tough bullet shape, but dissolve in blood. Upon entering the body it would shatter, scattering its lethal payload .

Anyway, that's probably enough for tonight. I'm off.

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