The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
The use of ‘any projectile of a weight below 400 grammes, which is either explosive or charged with fulminating or inflammable substances’ was prohibited under the 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration, applicable ‘in time of war between civilized nations’ (equivalent to international armed conflict). Although the Saint Petersburg Declaration is still formally binding on some states, its practical relevance today lies in the rules of customary international law it sets forth.
The 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration is the first international instrument to set forth the prohibition on the use of means and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Concern about injuries that were unnecessarily severe informed the specific prohibition, under the Declaration, on explosive projectiles below 400 grams.
The prohibition, under customary international law, on the use of means and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering applies in international and non-international armed conflict. ‘Explosive bullets’ have been cited in state practice as weapons that violate this norm in some or all circumstances.ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Rule 70, footnote 46.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), state practice further establishes as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict that the anti-personnel use of bullets which explode within the human body is prohibited.ICRC, Customary IHL Study, 2005, Rule 78.
The personal and temporal scope of application of the contemporary customary prohibition is wider than that of the Saint Petersburg Declaration in that it binds all parties to an armed conflict (states and non-state actors alike), and, according to the ICRC, applies in international and non-international armed conflict. However, arguably, the material scope of the contemporary customary prohibition is narrower than the original prohibition of the Saint Petersburg Declaration:
Principle 1 of the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF) mandates governments and law enforcement agencies to ‘adopt and implement rules and regulations on the use of force and firearms against persons by law enforcement officials’. In developing such rules and regulations, they ‘shall keep the ethical issues associated with the use of force and firearms constantly under review’.Principle 1.
Pursuant to Principle 11 of the BPUFF, such rules and regulations should include guidelines that ‘prescribe the types of firearms and ammunition permitted’ and ‘prohibit the use of those firearms and ammunition that cause unwarranted injury or present an unwarranted risk’.Principle 11(a) and (c).
The UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law (1999) requires that UN forces respect the rules prohibiting or restricting the use of certain weapons and methods of combat under the relevant instruments of international humanitarian law. In this connection it lists, both ‘bullets which explode … in the human body’ and ‘certain explosive projectiles’.'Observance by United Nations forces of international humanitarian law', UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin, UN doc. ST/SGB/1999/13, 6 August 1999, Art. 6(2).
Last updated on: 08 August 2017
After 1850, a number of states developed explosive or incendiary rifle ammunition to be used against material targets, such as ammunition wagons, and for range finding in mountainous areas. In the 1860s, a modification of a Russian projectile of this type resulted in it exploding on contact with soft substance, such as human flesh. The wounds caused by this projectile were more severe than those associated with non-explosive rifle bullets in use at the time. Concerned that causing such injuries would go beyond what is needed to put an enemy soldier out of combat, Russian Emperor Alexander II convened a conference at Saint Petersburg to prohibit this type of projectile by international agreement.See, 'Mémoire sur la suppression de l’emploi des balles explosives en temps de guerre', C. Samwer, J. Hopf, Nouveau recueil général de traités, conventions et autres transactions remarquables, servant à la connaissance des relations étrangères des puissances et états dans leurs rapports mutuels, vol. 18, Librairie de Dieterich, Gottingue, 1873, 458.
Since the 1860s, the development of new armament such as aircraft, tanks, and helicopters brought a change in state practice regarding explosive bullets. With the emergence of air warfare in the early 20th century, use of explosive projectiles by and against aircraft, including by aircraft against ground targets, became widespread. There was little objection to this evolution. This affected the legality under international law of exploding bullets, as reflected in Article 18 of the 1922/1923 Hague Rules on Air Warfare (never adopted in legally binding form).
Subsequent state practice has reinforced the distinction between anti-material and anti-personnel use of exploding bullets. Although controversy exists as to the exact content of the prohibition under customary international law on the use of exploding bullets against persons, the majority opinion holds that the use of exploding bullets against material targets is not prohibited.See, ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Practice relating to Rule 78; See also, HPCR, Commentary on the HPCR Manual on International Law Applicable to Air and Missile Warfare, 2010, 72.
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The bullets originally prohibited by the 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration were hollowed out projectiles that were filled with gunpowder or an incendiary compound, fitted with an ignition device, and which weighed less than 400 grams.B. Kneubuehl (ed.), Wound Ballistics: Basics and Application, Springer, 2011, 335. Several states, aside from Russia, had developed and tested exploding bullets, including Switzerland, Prussia, Austria and Bavaria.See, 'Mémoire sur la suppression de l’emploi des balles explosives en temps de guerre', C. Samwer, J. Hopf, Nouveau recueil général de traités, conventions et autres transactions remarquables, servant à la connaissance des relations étrangères des puissances et états dans leurs rapports mutuels, vol. 18, Librairie de Dieterich, Gottingue, 1873, 458.
Since the 1914–18 War, a wide range of exploding anti-materiel bullets have been introduced for shoulder-fired weaponry as well as for automatic weapons used on tripods or vehicles. Some of these projectiles weigh considerably less than 400 grams and are used with sniper rifles, effective up to 1,500 metres. According to Di Maio, the 1970s saw the introduction of explosive ammunition for handguns.V. J. M. Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, CRC Press, 1985, 241. The potential for use of some of these bullets against persons continues to generate controversy.The attempted assasination of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981 involved an explosive bullet that failed to detonate. The bullet was reported to be a 'Devastator' brand cartridge (Bingham Limited, USA). The bullet was composed of a lacquer sealed aluminium tip with a lead azide centre designed to explode on impact. According to Swift and Rutty these bullets are rarely encountered in forensic practice today because sales have been restricted following the incident in 1981. B. Swift, G. N. Rutty, 'The exploding bullet', 57(1)(2004) J Clin Pathol., 108.
Certain 12.7mm multi-purpose projectiles, such as the widely-used Raufoss round, produced by the Norwegian company Nammo, are designed to penetrate light armour while enhancing blast and incendiary effects in materiel targets. According to the developer, the calibre .50 Raufoss Multipurpose projectile is ‘a dual-purpose (antimateriel and antipersonnel) munition, but intended predominately for anti-materiel purposes’.W. H. Parks, ‘Annual Report on International Efforts to Prohibit Military Small Arms', 13 August 2001. According to tests carried out by the ICRC in 1998 and 1999, the projectile can explode against or within the human body, especially if the person is wearing body armour.ICRC, 'Ensuring Respect For The 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration, Prohibiting The Use Of Certain Explosive Projectiles', UN doc. CCW/CONF.II/PC.3/WP.6, 18 September 2001. This led the ICRC to convene a small meeting of technical and legal government experts on exploding projectiles of 12.7mm and below to establish how anti-personnel use of such bullets could be prevented, and respect for the object and purpose of the Saint Petersburg Declaration upheld.ICRC, 'Ensuring Respect For The 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration, Prohibiting The Use Of Certain Explosive Projectiles', UN doc. CCW/CONF.II/PC.3/WP.6, 18 September 2001. The ICRC concluded that ‘the proliferation of such bullets is a serious problem and undermines the very purpose of the St. Petersburg Declaration’ and urged ‘States to refrain from the production and export of such bullets’ and to ‘strictly prohibit their use against persons, a practice which violates existing law’. Others have challenged this position.See, UN General Assembly, First Committee, UN doc. A/C.1/54/PV.12, 20 October 1999; W. H. Parks, ‘Annual Report on International Efforts to Prohibit Military Small Arms', 13 August 2001.
More recent developments in explosive weapon technology, including the decreasing size of mortar rounds and the introduction of air-burst munitions, some of which are intended to replace standard assault rifles, further blur the line between the categories underlying the legal prohibition of exploding bullets.For a brief overview of these trends, see J. Bevan, S. Pézard, 'Basic Characteristics of Ammunition: From Handguns to MANPADS', in S. Pézard, H. Anders (eds.), Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, 2006, 29. The XM25 High-Explosive Airbursting round, for example, is intended to explode above a human target behind cover (indirect fire). The potential for such a bullet to be used directly against a person (not behind cover) and set to detonate within a person, rather than in his or her proximity, has given rise to renewed concern about further erosion of the rules laid down in the Saint Petersburg Declaration.See, T. Ruys, 'The XM25 Individual Airburst Weapon System: A ‘Game Changer’ for the (Law on the) Battlefield? Revisiting the Legality of Explosive Projectiles under the Law of Armed Conflict', 45(2012)3 Israel Law Review, 401-29.
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19th century exploding bullets prohibited under the 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration were intended for use against ammunition wagons and for range-finding in mountainous areas.F. Kalshoven, 'Wartime use of weapons: legal history, 1868 to 1934', 191(1985) Arms, armaments and international law, Collected Courses of the Hague Academy of International Law, Martinus Nijhoff Online, 205-6. Such bullets were introduced to increase the energy of the projectile, which, due to the kinds of rifles and gunpowder in use at the time, was quite low.P. Joenniemui, A. Rosas, International Law and the Use of Conventional Weapons, Tampere Peace Research Institute, Research Report no. 9, 1975, 29.
Modern exploding bullets can be fired from a wide range of platforms such as armoured vehicles, helicopters, fixed winged aircraft and can be used in sniper rifles or anti-aircraft guns.
They can be used to penetrate lightly armoured targets (ships, light-armoured vehicles or helicopters) and to cause damage to the target and soldiers inside the target. Impact with a hard surface (armour) ignites the incendiary mixture in the projectile, setting off the high explosive component, which causes damage and injury through blast, fragment projection, heat, and fire. Some exploding bullets are also advertised for use against persons, especially by snipers.See, e.g., L. Moosberg, Does the Swedish Use of the 12.7mm Multipurpose Projectile Undermine the St Petersburg Declaration, Master Thesis, Uppsala University, NOHA, 2003, 52; See also, United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, The Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict, 1 July 2004, §6.10.2.
Severe wounds inflicted by exploding bullets cause grave human suffering and are likely to be fatal or result in long-term disability. Bullets exploding upon impact with the human body were found to cause much more dangerous and more painful wounds than non-explosive bullets used in the second half of the 19th century. States subscribing to the Saint Petersburg Declaration considered that such bullets caused extreme suffering or rendered death inevitable, and hence went beyond what was necessary and justified to put an enemy soldier out of combat.See, 'Mémoire sur la suppression de l’emploi des balles explosives en temps de guerre', C. Samwer, J. Hopf, Nouveau recueil général de traités, conventions et autres transactions remarquables, servant à la connaissance des relations étrangères des puissances et états dans leurs rapports mutuels, vol. 18, Librairie de Dieterich, Gottingue, 1873, 459-60.
Exploding bullets with incendiary effects can also cause burn injury to persons.They can also start fires, which can lead to extensive material destruction.(See incendiary weapons for more information.)
When exploding bullets fail to detonate and remain in the body they can endanger surgeons and pathologists.B. Swift, G. N. Rutty, 'The exploding bullet', 57(1)(2004) J Clin Pathol., 108; B. Knight, 'Explosive Bullets: A New Hazard for Doctors', 284(1982) British Medial Journal, 768.
Concerns have also been voiced that exploding bullets that contain tungsten or depleted uranium for better target penetration could have toxic and carcinogenic effects through inhalation of dusts or through shrapnel fragments embeded in the body.For a discussion, see, e.g. J. F., Kalinich, ‘Heavy Metal-Induced Carcinogenicity: Depleted Uranium and Heavy-Metal Tungsten Alloy’, in G. Banfalvi (ed.), Cellular Effects of Heavy Metals, Springer, London, 2012. Such projectiles also raise concerns around the longer-term environmental and health risks posed by toxic remnants of war.See on this issue, M. Ghalaieny, 'Toxic Harm: humanitarian and environmental concerns from military-origin contamination', The Toxic Remnants of War project, Discussion Paper, February 2013.
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The Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight (the 'Saint Petersburg Declaration') prohibits the use in international armed conflict of any projectile of a weight below 400 grammes, which is either explosive or charged with fulminating or inflammable substances.+ More