Pain Centre

Updated 10 February 2017

Rubber bullets can cause serious harm

Rubber bullets, used in crackdowns on protesters, are far from safe and harmless and can lead to serious injury.

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Rubber bullets are often used by police to disperse crowds during protests. 

But these are not as harmless as one would think . . .

‘A very painful bruise’

Rubber bullets are meant to incapacitate targets without causing serious injury or death, but are certainly not harmless, Prof Gerhard Verdoorn, an independent toxicologist, previously told Health24.

“A direct hit by a rubber bullet may crack a rib or inflict a very painful tissue bruise. Obviously a direct hit in an eye is totally damaging to the eye.”

How they work

According to Wired bullets are either made from, or coated with, rubber – to cause pain but minimise serious injury.

ER24 told Health24 that there are many varieties of rubber bullets that may cause different types of injuries. Depending on the type of ammunition used, one can expect to see circular imprints, rib fractures, lung contusions, lacerations, abrasions or bruises, skull fractures.

“However, rubber bullets in general result in blunt force trauma to the body. There is no doubt that a being hit with one of these projectiles will cause pain, swelling and/or bruising.

“With blunt force trauma, internal injuries are the most worrying. Again, this depends on which type of ammunition is used and how it is used. If a person is shot at close range, in the face or head, the chances are much higher that internal injuries would be present. Tearing of underlying tissue or damages to vital organs and vessels may be present.”

rubber bullets

                                                        The size of rubber bullets. Source: Wikipedia

Don’t shoot directly

According to Verdoorn, rubber bullets should never be fired directly at a crowd, irrespective of how serious the situation.

“We were taught how to fire 308 caliber and 12 gauge rubber bullets on the ground to create a ricochet bullet that will still hurt the person, but with a significantly reduced level of damage due to the loss of momentum after hitting the ground.”

He added: “Even if they take a direct hit from rubber bullet, it is extremely unlikely to kill a person.”

Common injuries

Although not designed to kill, according to Dr Owen Wiese, rubber bullets can cause injuries that eventually lead to death. “Fatalities from rubber bullets have been reported all over the world, yet they are commonly used in riot control.”

Dr Wiese said when shot at close range or even from a distance, rubber bullets can lead:

  • Bone fractures
  • Significant injuries like the loss of an eye
  • Abrasions
  • Concussions

He also advised that ice packs be bused to relieve swelling, with more serious injuries requiring medical attention.