Blowback .223

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can’t help but empathize with the shock felt at the horrifying sniper
killings that have been occurring around the Beltway since late
last week.  The diabolic sniper’s shot at a child will no doubt
be one among many low milestones in the annals of serial killing. 

Many LRC writers have done a good job at pointing out how many international
problems currently finding their way to the U.S. doorstep are actually
the result of what is known as blowback (the law of unintended consequences
applied to foreign policy).  While the valuable lessons of
foreign-policy blowback remain as foreign as ever to Beltway elites,
their small culpability in the recent sniper attacks is sure to
escape their notice as well.  Let’s connect some dots.  

There’s more than a little irony in the disgust of career politicians,
bureaucrats, and law enforcement officials in their reaction to
the grotesque damage being wrought by the .223-caliber bullets that
have hit seven civilians in the sniper attacks (so far).  Once
upon a time in the early 1960s, the military-industrial complex
centered in Washington D.C. was the very institution that initiated
the practice of using relatively small, high-speed projectiles (like
the .223-caliber bullet) in infantry small arms. 

The embodiment of this initiative was the Colt AR-15 (later M-16),
which came of age and was first widely used by U.S. infantry in
the Vietnam Conflict.  It was developed from prototypes created
by small-arms designer Eugene
while he was employed at the Armalite
.  Previous infantry issue (the M-1 Garand prominent
in World War II, the M-1 Carbine, and the M-14 prominent in Korea
to name a few examples) fired relatively large, .30-caliber full-metal-jacket
bullets which (under "humane" conventions of war–the
oxymoron!) entered tissue and exited with relatively moderate damage
provided that vital organ areas were not closely broached. 
[Use of soft lead or hollow-point bullets that were designed to
hit a target, greatly expand, and rip away ounces to pounds of bone,
tissue, and internal organs was (and still is) largely avoided and
has been since international agreements at the Hague in 1899 and
1907, though these have recently been undermined by 1985, 1990,
and 1993 opinions of U.S. armed forces judge advocates general. 
See here
for a debunking of some common gun myths.] 

This all changed with the production, distribution, and infantry
use of Mr. Stoner’s Black Rifle.  As a standard, it was hated
by many troops in Vietnam.  The small, speedy bullets (muzzle
velocity approx. 3300 fps for a 55-grain bullet) bounced off of
the thick vegetation of the Vietnam jungles.  The silly looking
rifle with the built-in carrying handle and toyish, elongated plastic
hand guard was contemptuously dubbed the Mattel Special and the
Boy Scout Blaster by troops for its poor performance in hitting
Viet Cong hiding in thick undergrowth.  Thus some troops left
their Mattel Specials in the undergrowth and used old M-14s left
over from Korea or AK-47s captured from the Viet Cong.

military establishment stuck with the .223 round.  Though problematic
in thick jungle conditions, it was useful in open field (snow to
desert) and some urban conditions in that it was very accurate,
but better yet, when it hit human targets it tumbled forward into
tissue and shattered creating
large, internal wounds
.  This was confirmed in later tests
on special gels that simulated the consistency of human tissue. 
Another "nice touch" was that the bullet would sometimes
ricochet off bone and bounce around inside the body, shattering
in tiny hard-to-remove fragments (which promoted internal bleeding)
and ripping sizable hunks of internal tissue away (for good measure). 

Thus what was nominally a full-metal-jacket bullet had in effect
roughly the same destructive capability as some hollow- or soft-point
bullets.  The letter of the Hague agreements (at least until
1985) was technically followed although the spirit of the agreements
seemed to have been violated. 

With the U.S. leading the way, it was only time before the rest
of the world followed.  Inspired by the .223 (or 5.56 x 45mm),
the Soviets converted their famed AK-47
in 1974 from the 7.62 x 39 mm. round to the 5.45 x 39.  The
new rifle became known as the AK-74
The Germans (Heckler and Koch HK-93
rifle), British (L85
bullpup), Austrians (Steyr AUG),
Italians (AR-70),
and Israelis (Galil)
all later jumped on board as well.  The militarization of what
was essentially a varmint hunting round was now complete. 

Actually, the .223’s use as a varmint round can be said to be more
"humane" (cringe!) than its use as a military round. 
A prairie dog or ground hog is ripped apart and dies quickly. 
A human being can die a slow and horrible death from internal bleeding. 
According to Bob

For a little
bullet, the 5.56 bullet produces quite dramatic wounds.   While
the traditional 30-06 caliber bullet of the M1 Garand and 7.62 bullet
of the M14 rifle would immediately knock a man down, the 5.56 bullet
instead enters the body, quickly turns sideways after passing through
only 4" of flesh, then breaks in two major pieces, as well
as many smaller fragments.  During the Vietnam War, soldiers
reported that shooting an enemy soldier with the M16 did not kill
as quickly as the old 30 caliber weapons. Instead soldiers would
follow a massive trail a blood a few feet away from where the enemy
soldier had been hit to find him dead from massive blood loss.

The fragmentation capacity of the.223 round was seen in the Beltway
sniper’s second most recent victim, a thirteen-year-old boy. 
Surgeons usually don’t attempt to dig out the tiny bullet fragments,
as invasive surgery can produce even more damage to the body’s vital
internal structures.  Thus surgeons attempted and were successful
in removing fragments from the recent boy victim to help further
the current investigation.     

It would be the height of absurdity to speculate that the current
Beltway sniper would be using more "humane" ammunition
in the absence of the .223.  But there’s no doubt that part
of the Beltway played a large role in standardizing the international
use of this horrible round against human targets and that the Beltway
sniper has at least partly learned by example.  In fact, his
delusion that he is "God" is eerily familiar (in deed
if not rhetoric) to many seasoned and perpetually wary Beltway watchers. 

(Also familiar is the blatantly uninformed to biased news coverage. 
An "assault rifle" is a fully-automatic weapon. 
Chances that the sniper is using such a weapon are close to nil
since such weapons have been so highly restricted as to be de
facto illegal since the passage of the National Firearms Act
of 1934.  Nevertheless, the technically misleading term "assault
weapon" has been ubiquitous in current news reporting of the
incidents just as it was during the debate over the Omnibus Crime
Bill of 1994.)   

So the .223 round (like our former allies the Taliban, Osama bin
Laden, and Saddam Hussein – we can really pick ‘em can’t we?!)
is just another tool that has come back to haunt us.  Let’s
pray the evil Beltway killer is quickly nabbed and that Beltway
elites decide to quit playing God with us and the rest of the world.

11, 2002

Steinreich [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a consultant to the investment

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