Hollow Point Bullets: How History Has Hijacked Their Use in Combat and Why It Is Time to Reexamine the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets

Author:Joshua F. Berry
Position:Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
[P]ublic opinion . . . would never sanction the use of a
projectile which would cause useless suffering . . . but
we claim the right and we recognize the duty of
furnishing our soldiers with a projectile on whose result
they may rely,—a projectile which will arrest, by its
shock, the charge of an enemy and put him hors de
combat immediately.1
I. Introduction
Specialist Jonas Hayes was conducting a presence patrol in Mosul
with his platoon. It was mid-morning in June and the temperature was
already near 100 degrees. Specialist Hayes strained underneath the
weight of his equipment: an outer tactical vest loaded down with
ammunition, body armor, and communications gear. Specialist Hayes
was anxious; two weeks ago, the platoon was ambushed in the narrow
streets of the Old City and a soldier in 2d squad was killed. Not only did
the platoon lose a soldier, but one civilian was killed and two civilians
were wounded by stray bullets. As Specialist Hayes’s squad moved up
the street through the crowded market, he noticed what appeared to be a
* Judge Advocate, U.S. Army. Presently assigned as Regiment Judge Advocate, 160th
Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Kentucky. LL.M.,
2010, The Judge Advocate General’s School, U.S. Army, Charlottesville, Virginia; J.D.,
2005, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; B.S., 1998, U.S. Military
Academy. Previous assignments include Trial Counsel, Office of the Staff Judge
Advocate, III Corps and Fort Hood, Fort Hood, Texas, 2008–2009; Chief of Current
Operations, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Multi-National Corps–Iraq, 2006–2007;
Operational Law Attorney, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, III Corps and Fort Hood,
Fort Hood, Texas, 2006; 1st Battalion, 82d Field Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort
Hood Texas 1999–2001 (Fire Support Officer, 1999–2000; Fire Direction Officer, 2000;
Platoon Leader/Executive Officer 2000–2001); Member of the bar of Ohio. This article
was submitted in partial completion of the Master of Laws requirements of the 58th
Judge Advocate Officer Graduate Course.
(1921) (quoting General Sir John Ardagh in a declaration before the First Commission of
the Hague Peace Conference on June 22, 1899, defending the use of the “Dum Dum”
bullet by the British Army).
woman in a black burqa, about fifty meters away, moving toward them.
The person appeared taller than the average woman and seemed bulky
around the midsection. The platoon had received an intelligence brief
that al Qaeda was conducting suicide bombings in northern Iraq using
men disguised as women to avoid suspicion. Specialist Hayes shouted
Kif! Kif!” (Stop! Stop!), but the woman kept coming toward the squad.
Specialist Hayes then aimed his M-4 carbine at the woman and again
yelled for her to stop, but she kept advancing and broke into a jog.
Specialist Hayes now saw what appeared to be wires protruding from the
woman’s burqa.
Specialist Hayes felt that the woman presented a hostile threat so he
fired one round, hitting the woman, but she did not stop. Specialist Hayes
hesitated because there were dozens of civilians in the market, but then
fired another round, staggering the woman, but she kept coming. The
woman was now about thirty meters away and was still on her feet.
Specialist Hayes now engaged the woman with several rounds of 5.56
millimeter (mm) ball ammunition from his M-4 carbine. The rest of the
squad had also leveled their weapons on the woman and numerous
bullets began zipping down the street. Time seemed to stand still as the
woman finally crumpled and then the earth went white as a deafening
explosion roared through the street.
Specialist Hayes blinked as he looked up at the blue sky; his ears
were ringing and his body felt numb. He pulled himself up and checked
his extremities. He was okay. The rest of the squad got to their feet and
they were ordered to cordon the area and provide security. As the squad
fanned out past the area where the bomber had attacked, Specialist Hayes
saw numerous dead civilians and blood and body parts littering the street.
He had seen the aftermath of a bombing before, but he was not prepared
for what he saw next. As he moved about thirty meters past the bombing
site, he saw civilians shouting for help and he rushed over to see what
was wrong. There were two wounded women and a boy, all with
apparent gunshot wounds. Specialist Hayes began to perform first aid
and yelled for a medic.
Back at the forward operating base (FOB), as Specialist Hayes
cleaned the blood and dirt from his hands and clothes, he could not get
over what happened that day. He had survived a suicide bombing and his
platoon leader was telling Hayes he was a hero for stopping the bomber.
But Specialist Hayes did not feel heroic—not when he thought of the
dead civilians. Even though Hayes knew the bullets he fired were
directed at a legitimate target, he could not dismiss the probability that
some of those same bullets had killed innocent bystanders. Specialist
Hayes did not know whether those bullets were misses, ricochets, or
bullets that had passed through the bomber, but he knew he felt guilty.
“Collateral damage” said his platoon sergeant. “You didn’t mean to kill
those people; they were collateral damage. Besides, what else were you
going to do? These are the only bullets we’ve got to use. It’s not like
we’re the cops back home with hollow point ammo. You’ve heard those
ROE [rules of engagement] briefs; we aren’t allowed to use hollow
point.” Specialist Hayes wished he could meet the people responsible for
this rule and tell them what it felt like to shoot bullets that killed innocent
bystanders. Maybe they could explain why he could not use a different
Although this scenario is fictional, based loosely2 on situations
American servicemembers have faced every day in Iraq and Afghanistan
for the last eight years, the complaints about the effectiveness of the
standard M855 5.56 mm bullet used by American forces are real.3 The
M855 has a steel penetrator core that was designed to pierce Soviet Body
Armor, not “lightly clad insurgents.”4 Perhaps surprisingly, the M855
round has been described as a “weak spot in the American arsenal” that
is “not lethal enough to bring down an enemy decisively” and “puts
troops at risk.”5 Since the beginning of combat operations in Afghanistan
and Iraq, the number of complaints about the effectiveness of the M855
2 See, e.g., Mudhafer Al-Husaini & Richard A. Oppel, Jr., Suicide Bomber Is Spotted and
Shot, but Kills 3 in Baghdad, N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 18, 2008, at A4 (describing an Iraqi
response to a suicide bomber).
3 See, e.g., Major Glenn Dean & Major David LaFontaine, Small Caliber Lethality:
5.56mm Performance in Close Quarters Battle, INFANTRY MAG., Sept.–Oct. 2006, at 26
(summarizing efforts to research and address complaints with the performance of the
M855 bullet in combat); Matthew Cox, Deadlier Round Denied, ARMY TIMES, Mar. 8,
2010, at 18 (describing complaints about the current M855 round and why the Army will
not field the new Special Operations Science and Technology (SOST) 5.56 mm round);
Do U.S. Bullets Pack Enough Punch?; Ammunition Designed for Cold War Battles
Doesn’t Fit Iraq Fighting, GRAND RAPIDS PRESS, May 27, 2008, at A1 (arguing that the
smaller M855 bullet was designed to kill Soviets wearing body armor at long distances,
not insurgents at close ranges in urban environments); C.J. Chivers, How Reliable Is the
M-16 Rifle, http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com (Nov. 2, 2009, 9:29 EST) (discussing
complaints with the effectiveness of the M16/M4 rifles and the possibility that the M855
bullet is to blame).
4 Chivers, supra note 3; Dean & LaFontaine, supra note 3, at 29–32.
5 Do U.S. Bullets Pack Enough Punch?, supra note 3. Some soldiers complain that when
the M855 round strikes an enemy “wearing only a shirt it can travel through him like an
ice pick.” Chivers, supra note 3.

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