This is another one of those tests that I've wanted to do for years, but never got around to doing. The tipping point came two weeks ago when one of the main characters in HBO's True Detective Season 2 got blasted twice in the chest with rubber buckshot. The first shot, from across the room, sent our hero to the floor. The masked villain then follows up with a nearly point blank second shot. Ray, the receiver of the rubber buckshot, describes his injuries as cracked ribs and a sore heart from the buckshot hitting his sternum. Having a box of rubber buckshot available, I decided to head out to the range and see if rubber buckshot could possibly cause such injuries at the distances shown in the True Detective episode.
Herter's is the house ammunition brand at Cabela's. Since it's a private label, we will never know for sure who manufactures the ammunition, but we do know it was made in Italy. Cabela's describes the ammunition as follows: "Rubber buckshot for non-lethal self-defense and animal deterrence. Not for use in semiautomatic shotguns. Loaded in Italy to the highest standards in consistency and reliability, Herter’s has the perfect load for home defense or practice at the range. Using high-quality powder, shot and hulls, these unique loads deliver excellent dependability and performance at an affordable price."
The shells were exceptionally light in recoil due to their lightweight payload. Very light loads that generate little recoil can't reliably cycle semi-automatic shotguns. This ammunition is suitable for use in pump action shotguns and break open shotguns that do not have an inertia reset trigger.
High brass plastic hull
11.1 grains of powder with characteristic square flake design of Baschieri & Pellagri of Italy.
Two-piece plastic wad column weighing 45.2 grains. The shorter wad piece seals the powder in place against the primer until firing. At ignition, this piece also forms the gas seal allowing the expanding gasses to push the shot down the barrel. The larger wad fills the interior space of the shell while cushioning the shot at time of firing.
Nine .328" diameter rubber shot weighing 6.6 grains each. 59.4 grains total.
7.1 grain clear plastic over shot card that is roll crimped over the buckshot to hold it in place.
Video Documentation of the Actual Tests:
Direct Link to the Test Video on YouTube
This is the value added section for folks that read the test recaps in addition to viewing the video. Some important test results are undiscovered on the range and are found later when putting the video together, or when I'm tearing down the gel blocks. Occasionally, I'll consult with others to make sure my thoughts and opinions aren't totally off base before writing up the recap. The videos are entertaining, but I really hope the recaps are both entertaining and educational.
So were the injuries Ray described realistic? Could a single round of rubber buckshot send a grown man to the floor from 15 feet away? I'll tell you what, I have to give HBO credit for doing their homework. I was really impressed by how realistic some aspects of the show were when compared to what I observed and documented during testing.
I'll start with the not so realistic thing first. Based on the results observed in our test shot taken from 15 feet away, it's not realistic to expect someone to drop to the floor incapacitated from a single round of rubber buckshot delivered center of mass at that distance. After consulting with Charles Schwartz, my guru of all things ballistic modeling related, it is realistic to expect the buckshot to hurt like heck at that distance. Also, individual shot pellets could possibly break, or penetrate, skin at our measured average velocity of 804 feet per second if the shot doesn't come in contact with significant intermediate clothing barriers.
What I found to be very realistic where the injuries described, and the condition of Ray's clothing, after taking the second round of rubber buckshot at a distance of 10 to 15 inches. This photo series came from the high speed camera footage. In the first photo, you can see the stretch cavity forming in the gel from the energy deposited by the buckshot and wad column. The artificial bone has been pushed to the left side of the stretch cavity and has snapped into two pieces along the lateral mid line.
In photo two, you can see the ends of the two artificial rib pieces more clearly. The lateral break can be seen as a gap between the upper and lower artificial rib pieces.
It wasn't really clear to me if the artificial rib had snapped because of contact made by the rubber buckshot and plastic wad, or because of stress applied to the rib by the expanding gel.
What I discovered after removing the rib pieces from the gel, gave me additional insight into the rib damage. In addition to the clean lateral break, I found stress cracks on the rear of the artificial rib. This localized damage, highlighted by the red arrows, matches up with pellet and wad strikes found on the front of the artificial rib. With this additional information, it certainly seems possible that a close range shot could damage ribs.
One final observation on the test results dealing with the number of pellets that actually penetrated the gel in both test shots. Oddly, we had three of nine shot pellets enter the block in both gel tests. I'm left wondering if this was a coincidence, or possibly due to other factors that allow some pellets to penetrate while the others bounce away after impacting the gel. Could the heat and stress of firing cause some pellets to soften, or harden, and make them better suited to penetrate the gel?
The last photo shows the wad column and three rubber buckshot recovered from the close range test shot. The gas seal portion of the wad has shirt material stuck to it. The filler wad was mashed and flattened against the artificial rib. Three rubber buckshot were resting against the front of the artificial rib. Total recovered weight of all projectiles penetrating the gel was 66.5 grains. Most of that weight was the wad column.
At the start of this test, I had no practical knowledge or experience with rubber buckshot. After running the tests, I think it is unrealistic to expect rubber buckshot will send someone to the floor from a center of mass shot taken from 15 feet away. It certainly made for a more dramatic scene, but our test results didn't match up with what was depicted in the show. Most importantly, I also learned that rubber buckshot should be used with care and common sense. Just because the ammunition is labeled as non-lethal, you shouldn't assume that it is non-damaging or non-lethal at all distances. At very close range, the test results showed a much different terminal result with indications of significant internal injury. Our close range test results matched up well with the injuries described in the show.
Disclaimer....This test should not be considered an endorsement or recommendation for the product(s) tested. All tests represent actual performance in ballistics testing media. Terminal performance in all other media will show different results. It is up to each individual to make their own personal decision on which specific ammunition to use for their needs. It's also critically important to test any ammo in YOUR SPECIFIC FIREARM before relying on it for any purpose.
Ammunition labeled as +P or +P+ should only be used in firearms that have been certified by the manufacturer as safe for the additional pressures generated by these ammunition types.