Gun Laws & Legislation

Ballistics Expert: Understanding The M855 Round And The Political Implications Of The Ban

Guns and Gear Contributor
Font Size:

By Jason Baird, Ph.D.  Lt. Col. USAF, Retired

Why are so many enthusiasts in the shooting sports angry about the proposed ATF ban on some seemingly obscure military surplus ammunition (5.56 x 45mm M855 Ball)?

You may be asking yourself, “What’s wrong with those people – what’s the big deal?” Even President Obama’s Press Secretary said last week that the ban was a good step toward better protection for law enforcement personnel.

Some background – on Friday afternoon of the February 2015 Presidents’ Day Federal holiday, the ATF (common label for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) released to the public its “ATF FRAMEWORK FOR DETERMINING WHETHER

CERTAIN PROJECTILES ARE ‘PRIMARILY INTENDED FOR SPORTING PURPOSES’ WITHIN THE MEANING OF 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(17)(C)”, a long title (that I will abbreviate as “Framework”) for a long tome presenting the ATF’s justifications for its intent to ban M855 Ball surplus ammunition. I’ll not bore you with the details of the document (obviously written by attorneys and staffed by bureaucrats), but you can access it online here.

The applicable laws are the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) and the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986 (LEOPA). These acts say if the projectiles from a certain type of ammunition can penetrate “armor” (a protective vest) when fired from a handgun, it’s up to the Attorney General (AG) to determine if the ammunition is “primarily intended for sporting purposes.” By the way, the acts originally gave this authority to the Treasury Secretary, but after the ATF was transferred to the Justice Department, the acts were amended to give authority to the AG. The AG delegated responsibility to the ATF Director, subject to direction by the AG and Deputy AG. I quote from the “Framework,” (from 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(17)(B)) :

“(B) The term “armor piercing ammunition” means—

(i) a projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper or depleted uranium; or

(ii) a full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.”

Notice the specific material definition and lack of any exclusion due to design or intent in paragraph (i), and that nasty little “or” at the end of that paragraph. An attorney (and in this case, the AG) makes his bread and butter off of this sort of grammar. More importantly, the ATF specifically points-out that the “designed and intended” in paragraph (ii) is totally excluded from consideration of the paragraph (i) terms by that little “or.” The ATF spends a lot of effort hammering home the fact that, according to law, the AG does not have to consider design or intent in the application of his “Framework” to the M855.

Apparently in order to shortstop criticism that they already exempted M855 from being banned as “armor-piercing” (I use quotes, because as I point-out later, M855 is no more armor-piercing than other full metal jacket centerfire rifle ammunition), the ATF admits they gave this exemption in 1986. I believe they also mentioned the exemption as a way to avoid having to argue whether M855 is actually armor-piercing.

Why? So that one of the three reasons for a ban would be a fait accompli. Next is to show that the other part of paragraph (i) that I quoted from their “Framework” is now in effect. The current popularity of (very large and heavy) handguns based on AR-15 receivers fulfills the “may be used in a handgun” portion.

At this point, the AG and the ATF pull a “Brian Williams” and conflate “primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes” and protection of LEO. The attorneys and bureaucrats responsible for this “Framework” went to great lengths to justify ignoring the goals of the statue regarding design and intent because the letter of the statute left them out, even though the ATF admits that was the intent of Congress at the time.

Nevertheless, they are happy to cite other goals of the statute as justification for a ban. Within the “Framework” the ATF continually emphasizes what they argue were the intent and desires of Congress when they passed the GCA and LEOPA, while ignoring other obvious areas of intent.

Finally, the writers of the “Framework” get to the point; they state what they argue are “objective” criteria for ammunition “otherwise appropriately classified as armor piercing” to be termed “primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes.” At this point, they pull a trick that is a favorite of the ATF – take a prescriptive law (“don’t do this, or this, but everything else is okay”) and turn it into a proscriptive rule (“you may only do this, everything else is forbidden”). Ammunition determined to be “armor-piercing” will only be considered “primarily intended for sporting purposes” if:

–        it is .22 caliber, below a certain weight, and loaded in a rimfire cartridge, or

–        the projectile is loaded into a cartridge for which the only handgun available is a single-shot handgun.

Therefore, the admittedly anti-gun AG Holder, his crony B. Todd Jones (ATF Director), and their boss the President will have taken a prescriptive law and converted it into a “Framework” that allows them to effectively ban all uses of a particular class of ammunition AND strangle the associated semi-auto handguns out of existence for want of ammunition to shoot.

It’s amazing we’ll allow them to rule that, if it fires a particular type of ammunition, only a single-shot handgun is good for “sporting purposes.”

Regarding the “armor-piercing” M855 Ball ammunition, the projectiles of this ammunition have a lead slug enclosed in a gilding metal jacket. Also within the jacket, immediately in front of the lead slug, is a steel insert. As I understand it, the hope 30 some-odd years ago was that the insert would increase penetration of the standard military helmets of our Cold War opponents. It may have. What I do know is that recently I tested this ammunition under contract in scientific ballistic tests against mild steel plates, and it doesn’t penetrate as well as standard .30 caliber Russian lead core, full metal jacket ammunition. And, by the way, it doesn’t even meet the legal definition of “armor-piercing.” If you re-read the legal definition I quoted earlier in the article, you’ll see what I mean. So, AG Holder is going to ban M855 by a fait accompli.

About the author:

Jason Baird, Ph.D. Lt. Col. USAF, Retired, Associate Professor, Explosives Engineering, Deputy Director, Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T), President, Loki Incorporated

Dr. Baird works in the areas of blast and ballistic testing of barriers and composite material/masonry construction retrofits, structure demolition, development of new blasting agents, energetic materials, advanced polymeric and composite materials, explosive taggant research, and most recently, explosive-driven pulsed power applications.