The Byrna HD PepperBall Handgun
A friend recently obtained a Byrna Technologies HD.
The Byrna is a less lethal PepperBall launcher. It also launches hard plastic impact munitions similar in concept to bean bag rounds from a shotgun.
We shot it a bit at “Robbie” (as in the robot), my edged weapons pell, in my covered archery range. Then I took it to a shooting range and introduced a couple of new shooters, as well as “T,” one of our more experienced, former LE range safety officers, to it. Here are some of our first impressions, as well as some general information to help you decide if something like the Byrna is right for you.
The first thing you must decide, when considering any firearm or defensive gadget, is where it fits into your overall defensive plan.
The Byrna seems to attract people who want the deterrent of a handgun–it’s a hand held projectile launcher that looks and feels and mostly operates like a pistol–without as much of the attendant liability that comes with using deadly force. More on that later.
The Byrna is like a can of pepper spray that can reach out and touch someone at distances up to about 60 feet. In the realm of less-lethal personal protection tools, there is some overlap in effective range, but from closest to farthest, they fall generally in this order:
- Hand-held, civilian electric shock pain compliance devices (these must be in contact to use)
- Aerosol dispensers, such as OC (pepper), CN (Mace) or CS (tear gas)
- Batons / walking sticks
- Stream chemical dispensers / pepper gel
- Law enforcement tasers (that shoot barbs and establish an electrical circuit through the subject)
- Round PepperBall lunchers such as the Byrna (about 60 feet, or 20 yards; optimal range is between 5 and 15 yards)
- Flexible baton (beanbag) rounds from shotguns (about 20 meters or 70 feet)
- VXR (Foster slug shaped) PepperBall launchers (up to 150 feet)
Less Lethal versus Non Lethal
Although Byrna Technologies, Inc–who makes the HD (and a later model, the SD) call it a “non-lethal self-defense and personal security device” on page 2 of their user manual, it is really, like a cop’s baton, a LESS lethal device.
That means is it not AS likely to kill or maim as a firearm, but it still can.
Legally, in most places, lethal (aka deadly) force is force that a reasonable person knows, should know, or reasonably believes could cause death OR SERIOUS PHYSICAL INJURY or PERMANENT DISABILITY or DISFIGUREMENT (the legal definitions in your state may vary slightly, but they’re mostly variations on those themes).
Make no mistake: if you place the muzzle of a Byrna against a man’s temple and pull the trigger, you could very well kill him. If your Byrna projectile hits a woman in the eye, she will most likely lose vision in that eye (i.e., disability).
Legally, both of those are deadly force.
The Byrna comes with some very high profile sights. If you plan to use your Byrna as a less-lethal tool, try to avoid aiming at the head, neck, or spine. In a deadly force situation, if all you have is a Byrna, feel free to blast him in the face; but if lethal self defense is not justified, don’t even hit those areas by accident. And not hitting where you intend to hit can be easy in a confrontation, as real confrontations tend to be dynamic affairs.
Hazards of PepperBalls
Police use rubber balls, and PepperBalls (rubber balls impregnated with OC, which squirts out when they hit something) for riot control.
On 02 Apr 2001, right here in Tucson, things got out of hand on 4th Avenue (the bar district near downtown) after the University of Arizona Wildcats lost to Duke in a Final Four basketball game. Rioters turned over 5 cars, set an RV on fire, broke windows, and looted.
TPD warned everyone–rioters and less rambunctious fans–to vacate the street, several times. Then they came on, firing volleys of rubber riot balls. When the rubber projectiles hit the rioters (and those just hanging out watching the rioters), they caused something we call “pain compliance,” and most of the hard-core decided to leave.
But one rubber ball also hit a store owner who was standing outside his business to protect it from being vandalized, blinding him in one eye.
Analogous to a baton
Like the Byrna, the baton can go both ways. Law enforcement officers (LEOs) are authorized to strike with a baton, say to the outside of the thigh above the knee, in order to knock down a combative suspect who is actively resisting being taken in. Cops are not allowed to hit a person in the head with a baton UNLESS they are in a deadly force situation, e.g., the bad guy is wrestling with their partner over a gun and / or the suspect has displayed murderous intent.
The fact that using a Byrna CAN be lethal force does NOT make it, or a baton, a tool of choice for lethal situations. If you have a Byrna and a Springfield XD, and some maniac three booths down stands up and starts killing everybody in your restaurant, go with the Springfield–just make sure you have a clear line of fire. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a real pistol, you’re better off blasting him in the face with a Byrna than waiting around to be killed.
The Byrna shines in “gray” areas when deadly force is almost justified, or might be if you let the situation continue to escalate.
If you have a protection order against your psychotic brother-in-law, your spouse is on hold with the 911 operator, brother-in-law won’t leave, he’s bashing things with a baseball bat between you and the exit, and you’re concerned he will take the bat to you and your spouse, popping him in the solar plexus with a .68 caliber “kinetic” round (see below) will probably be more conducive to the survival of your marriage than blasting him with a .44 mag.
Let’s be clear: the .44 magnum would be more conducive to your physical survival. Neither one (lead and copper bullet, PepperBall, nor plastic kinetic round) is guaranteed to stop his aggression, but .44 mag bullets are more likely to make him stop. See You Must Have a Backup Plan below.
Bullets would be less conducive to your legal / financial / marital survival afterward.
Treading the Line Between Lethal and Less Lethal
Police use PepperBalls and bean bag rounds for those “grey” areas. The most common is “suicide by cop.”
Contrary to popular belief, if a guy is running around threatening people with a knife or pointing guns at them, the police do NOT usually have the option of leaving just because if they try to stop him he might get hurt.
In the bad old days, their options were kind words and a gun. If they got within baton or chemical spray range they would get stabbed or shot. So the gun was the tool of choice.
During the 1995 Frontier Days rodeo in Cheyenne, a drunk cowboy would not drop his knife. One of my CPD comrades hit him in the solar plexus with a beanbag round from a shotgun. The drunk dropped the knife and gasped for breath till he got his wind back–by which time he was in cuffs.
Not coincidentally, the word got around, and after that, it was one of the least rowdy Frontier Days in living memory.
Beanbag rounds can (and have) killed suspects who were too close. It has happened, for example, when used for cell extractions of non-compliant convicts in prisons.
One problem with using shotguns to launch less lethal projectiles is that they can also accept lethal projectiles. The gun isn’t smart enough to to know the difference, and unfortunately (contrary to popular opinion) cops don’t get surgery at the Academy to install X-ray vision. Most departments have gone to color coding dedicated less lethal shotguns, so they will only be loaded with less lethal munitions. But then, Alec Baldwin’s pistol was SUPPOSED to be loaded with blanks . . .
The Byrna can also be had in bright orange (see Daunte Wright below).
You Must Have a Backup Plan
ANY TIME LEOs USE LESS LETHAL OPTIONS, THEY SHOULD HAVE “LETHAL COVER” STANDING BY, in case the less lethal doesn’t work and enrages the suspect into a murderous frenzy. You, too, should be prepared to escalate or de-escalate, depending on the subject’s response.
The Border Patrol found that their FN-303 PepperBall launchers were an effective way of deterring “human wave” mass runs on the border line. For a while, PepperBalls became their “opening gambit” for potentially hazardous situations.
On 14 Dec 2010, BorTac (Border Patrol SWAT) operator Brian Terry was “laid in” waiting to catch heavily armed border bandits, “rip crews” who steal drug loads from other drug smugglers.
Pretty bad hombres.
When Terry and his partners encountered enforcers with AKs, Terry may have lit them up with a PepperBall launcher, hoping to achieve compliance through “surprise and violence of action” (the Green Valley News said Terry fired a bean bag round, and of course, the media never gets anything wrong).
There is some controversy as to whether he actually fired the FN or if that was just his assigned two-hand tool that day (others were almost certainly armed with two-hand guns, specifically M4 carbines, and all of them had one-hand guns, i.e., pistols, as well). What we know for sure is, Brian Terry was shot and killed. Other agents returned fire with real bullets, but not soon enough to save Terry’s life.
Projectiles: Rocks, Impact Munitions, and Bullets
A few weeks later (05 Jan 2011), a BP agent near Nogales (miles away but in the same general region where Terry was killed) shot a bullet at a rock thrower, killing him.
Rocks, of course, have killed thousands of people throughout human history. Sticks and stones were likely the first lethal force tools.
The ancient Hebrews executed heretics by stoning. The first Christians were often martyred that way. Today, human rights advocates decry modern incidents of Islamist extremists stoning females to death for engaging in sinful behavior (like wearing lipstick, dating boys, or seeking an education).
I decry such foul treatment of women (and men) as well. I like to think of myself as a God-fearing man, but in my own faith, stoning stopped being a viable behavior modification tool about 2000 years ago. As Maj Forrest E. Morgan, Taekwondo and Jujutsu master, wrote,
Jesus once faced scribes and pharisees who wanted him to condemn a woman they caught in adultery. He said, “let he among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” Indeed, as more and more of life passes behind me, I find myself growing ever less eager to throw stones at others. There are professionals in our society who carry the responsibility to investigate, charge, judge, and sentence. I gladly leave the burdens of condemnation to them.
—Living the Martial Way, p. 158
Human rights advocates also decry the shooting of rock throwers. This is not because they are hypocrites; more likely, it’s because they don’t understand use of force, and may not have been on the receiving end.
I once had a rock whizz past my head so close, I felt the breeze of it passing on my face.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a Joint Intake Center (JIC), through which all internal affairs complaints are routed before they are assigned to one of the three (count ’em, three) internal affairs organizations that police the police in DHS (not counting the FBI, who police all the police in the US).
The JIC had some extra end-of-the-fiscal money one year, so they decided to send some JIC call center employees out to the field to get a better idea of what complainants are on about. A few of them were recent Georgetown grads, with big, deer-in-the-headlights eyes, and the JIC was their first post-college job. They couldn’t understand why some of the Border Patrol rigs had steel mesh over the windshields . . . till they were doing a ride-along next to the border in “Nogadishu” (in and around Nogales, AZ) and some good-sized rocks–small boulders, really–got heaved over the fence onto their rig.
Most BP vehicles are not so equipped. Agents in SUVs have the option of driving away but can get glass in their eyes from rocks hitting the windows.
I invite anyone who claims a rock thrower is “unarmed” to participate in a simple test. I’ll set a gun on a table next to them. Then I can throw rocks at them till they feel like they’ve had enough. When they pick up the gun, I’ll stop. So far, I have yet to get any takers among those who feel it’s a Border Patrol Agent’s job to be hit in the face with rocks.
Force is Unpleasant at Best
The takeaway here is that there is no nice, clean, neat, painless, politically correct way to use force stopping those who unlawfully use force. There is no nice, clean, neat, painless, politically correct way to subdue someone who doesn’t want to go to jail.
Force is a messy business, but sometimes a necessary evil. The best you can do is educate yourself, train, and prepare so that when the use of force is necessary, you do it well enough to stay alive, and succinctly enough to avoid collateral damage, to bystanders, your freedom, or your bank account.
It helps, also, to have different options. If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. The Byrna might be one option for you.
About the Byrna
It’s bigger and fatter than the average duty pistol. It doesn’t weigh much, but it’s still not exactly concealment material. It can be concealed, just as a Beretta 96D can–but not nearly as easily or undetectably as, say, a can of pepper spray or a SIG 365.
Legal Considerations re: Ownership and Transportation of the Byrna vs. a Handgun
Federally, your Byrna is not a pistol. Different states (and even political subdivisions of states like towns and counties) have different definitions of what constitutes a firearm. If your state law law defines a firearm as driving a projectile with “expanding gasses” rather than burning or exploding gasses or with gunpowder, you could get jammed up. Check your local laws to stay out of hot water. But most places consider the Byrna exactly what it is: a glorified pellet pistol or paintball launcher.
There’s very little new under the sun, and it’s hard to come up with original trademarks that have never been used before. Because the OC / PAVA from the projectiles causes a burning sensation in one’s eyes and throat, the creators of the Byrna named it like a fighter pilot from New England would say “after burner,” e.g., “aftah burnah.”
Makes about as much sense as naming your tactical training company “Heloderm LLC” because you like Gila monsters, I suppose.
Running the Byrna
No Need to Rack the Slide
. . . because there isn’t one. When you insert the magazine (see below), the top round is already chambered and ready to go.
The top of the Byrna is fixed in place. You may try to “run the slide” by accident, out of habit, but it won’t go anywhere.
Proprietary Gas-power Source
The HD, or Home Defense, version only takes CO2 cartridges that are a different size than standard CO2 cartridges. Apparently that wan’t a selling point, so I understand a later version, the Byrna SD, uses standard CO2 cartridges.
The manual says to NOT use aftermarket N2 cartridges.
Regardless of which sized CO2 cartridge your Byrna takes, it goes in from the front, just under the barrel, with the nozzle end pointing back toward the shooter. There is a tool on the back of the magazines to help you remove and reinstall the cover of the CO2 compartment (the “CO2 cap”).
You should put 2 -3 drops of oil in the CO2 system every 500 shots or so.
Move the safety down to fire.
The trigger feels like a double action only.
Historically, one problem with CO2 pistols is that the gas leaks out slowly once the cap of the CO2 cartridge is pierced. Byrna solves this long-term storage problem by NOT puncturing the cartridge nozzle till your first trigger pull. That makes the first pull heavier, and allegedly a little wonky, but I didn’t have any issues working the trigger, transitioning from the first “break the seal” pull to the subsequent standard trigger pulls, or hitting at distance with it.
The magazine release is where it is on most American pistols–in the frame near where it meets the back of the trigger guard.
The magazine itself is very similar to a pistol magazine, complete with witness holes (“load count indicators”) that tell you how many rounds are in it (and even what color they are; see below for projectile color codes).
One thing that makes the Byrna magazine different from your SIG or Glock mag is a bale (the “Ball Retainer”) that holds in the top round. Bumping this bale during insertion will cause the rounds to fly out, so a few fractions of a second making sure you don’t bang the bale on the edge of the Byrna magwell can be time well invested.
If one pops out AS you insert it, it will keep the mag from inserting all the way, and will gum up the works. You’ll have to remove it, let the rogue projectile fall out, and re-insert the magazine, hoping it doesn’t happen again.
The bale can also be used to unload a magazine.
When you insert a charged (loaded) magazine, the top round will become lodged in the chamber. It will push up on a trapdoor-like loaded chamber indicator Byrna Technologies call a “breach indicator.” If it’s up as in this photo, that means there’s a ball in the breach.
Be advised: THE TOP PROJECTILE WILL STAY IN THE BREECH, EVEN IF YOU REMOVE THE MAGAZINE.
To get it out, hold one palm under the magwell and press down gently on the loaded chamber indicator. The projectile will fall into your hand.
You can NOT leave the projectile in the chamber then top off the magazine. We tried it; the mag won’t lock in if you do. You’re stuck with whatever capacity it says on the mag, not the “+1” you can get with a real pistol.
Operating Temperature Range
The Byrna is mostly plastic, as are its projectiles. According to Byrna’s literature, its operating range is from 20 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
I wouldn’t leave it in my trunk in the summertime, if you live in the American Southwest.
Byrna HD projectiles come in several different types, listed below, and differentiated by the following color scheme:
- Inert projectile–filled with talcum or similar powder: White and Green
- Kinetic projectile–solid plastic: Grey [CAN BOUNCE]
- Pepper Projectile–oleoresin capsicum (OC, aka “pepper”) only: Red and Green
- Max Projectile–OC and / or ortho-chlorobenzamalonitrile (CS aka “tear gas”) and / or nonivamide (Capsaicin II / PAVA): Blue and Green
According to Byrna’s literature, the chemical projectiles remain potent for 5 years, although their optimal shelf life is around 18 months or less.
The Byrna comes with optional colored markers you can insert in your baseplates to indicate what’s (supposed to be) loaded in the magazine. You might have the orange makers on your PepperBall magazine and plain black baseplates for your impact munitions mag, or vice-versa.
Ammo loading options:
- “Dutch loading” by alternating, say, OC or Max projectiles with impact (“Kinetic”) projectiles
- First two or three to come out of the mag (i.e., the last two or three loaded into the mag) solid impact balls, to keep the air in your castle chemical free, with the bottom of the stack in the mag being the more potent chemical munitions, should the bad guy fail to get the message in the first few rounds.
- Or, you could simply choose to load one mag with Kinetic ammo, and another one with PepperBalls.
Personally, I like the latter option. That way I know what I’m going to be flinging at the bad guy. Although the Byrna comes with a visual way to differentiate between mags (orange inserts for the base plates), it might be a good idea to come up with a tactile way, or to always store one load in one location, and another load in another.
You can obtain multiple magazines for your Byrna. As with firearms magazines, it might be a good idea to set some aside (once they’ve been tested) as “alert” or “duty” magazines, and some others (usually your older mags) for practice. You can drop practice mags in the dirt or kick them out from underfoot without cringing.
The last gun battle I was involved in was in a rural area. The round count went into triple digits. Police officers and the bad guy went through multiple magazines. I imagine with the Byrna, though, he will either get the message in the first magazine or two, or you will have to come up with a Plan B.
Penetration: Not Much
Penetration is not a desirable trait in impact or PepperBall projectiles.
We did not set out to test for penetration, but did make the following observations:
We shot practice (talcum powder) rounds at a manikin, and “kinetic” rounds at a steel target, with a cardboard target in between. The solid plastic impact rounds cut clear through the two-layer corrugated cardboard before clanging against the steel.
Conversely, a wooden 2×4 behind the target, when hit, caused the grey plastic balls to bounce back. As expected, they did not penetrate through wood to reach the steel.
Color Options: Remember Daunte Wright
Byrnas can be had in black, or in orange with black trim (see Source below for what that looks like).
People who want the deterrence of a firearm without any of the inherent legal or civil liability (other than the physical liability to your personal safety that either one, bullets or plastic balls, might not work) will probably choose a basic black model (my friend did).
Personally, I would choose the blaze orange Byrna. Ideally, that would help to keep me from shooting a PepperBall when I wanted a bullet, or or vice-versa.
“Slip and Capture” Errors
It’s pretty well established, though, that in tense, life-or-death situations, human beings tend to “tunnel in” on the threat, giving it their (literally) undivided attention. “Weapons confusion” and “slip and capture errors” are very real things, and the reasons for them are well documented.
It’s rare, but it does happen. What did Eric Clapton sing in Bob Marley’s reggae classic “I Shot the Sheriff”?
“Reflexes got the better of me.”
Officer Kim Potter’s taser being bright yellow didn’t save Daunte Wright from her tragic mistake.
Wright, 20, was pulled over for traffic violations. During the stop, officers learned he had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on charges stemming from an aggravated armed robbery and possession of a firearm without a permit. When they tried to arrest him, he struggled and jumped back in his car.
Officer Potter, who had a piece of paper in her left (taser side) hand, pulled her Glock with her right hand and brought it up mostly into her field of vision. She yelled “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before trying to tase Wright with her duty pistol–only once, but it was one time too many.
She had probably used that taser a bit on the street, but she had probably been trained far more with her sidearm. Firearms get a high percentage of LEO training time because, even though they are shot with low frequency, they are pulled from their holsters with greater frequency, and are very “high consequence” tools.
It’s likely she had pulled that pistol from her holster so many times in training (and also on the street) that the draw was reflexive, bypassing her conscious mind.
“Poppycock,” you think. “I would never make a mistake like that.” And you would probably be right. Even if you’ve been around guns for a while, most civilians (and even many military personnel and newer cops) haven’t handled guns enough to make their skills reflexive. When they “fill their palm,” it’s still a relatively novel experience that captures their active attention. Further, you probably don’t get into violent confrontations on a daily basis.
But you do behave reflexively to certain stimuli, whether you know it or not.
It happens to you when you pull up to a red light. Do you consciously think, “I need to take my right foot off the gas pedal and place it on the brake pedal”?
Probably not, if you’ve been driving for any length of time.
Instead, your right foot’s actions are reflexive, i.e., done without conscious thought, in response to a stimulus or more conscious thoughts like “The light’s been yellow for a while; I won’t get to the intersection in time to beat the red.”
Often times, if you’re thinking about what your spouse just told you or your boss’s critical comments right before you left work or whatever, you don’t even consciously think about the light; you just stop.
Some people are so focused on the very real racial injustices that still exist around the world (not just here in the USA), that they actually believe Officer Potter shot Daunte Wright on purpose, and that this allegedly pre-meditated murder was racially motivated.
They are deluding themselves.
That, or they know what’s going on and they are trying to delude you by blaming every police use of force on race.
Make no mistake: the one person on Earth who had absolute control over how the police treated Daunte Wright was Daunte Wright.
Wright was far from a model citizen, but he shouldn’t have been killed. He WOULDN’T have been killed if he’d taken responsibility for his previous actions and let the police arrest him.
If he had, Wright probably wouldn’t have even been held in jail before his trial. Chances are, he’d have been back out on the street the next day. We live in what may be the only country on Earth where a person can “bond out” (or even no-bond out) of jail on a failure to appear in court charge.
Think about that.
Close Quarters use of the Byrna
Often times the assailant, or a wanted subject, is so close, the less lethal device doesn’t get up into the operator’s line of sight, and is discharged, instead, from a bent elbow retention type position. All the more reason for a less lethal device to be blaze orange, or bright yellow, or some other color that might look different from a sidearm in your peripheral vision.
Lord only knows how many subjects were NOT killed when an officer didn’t see yellow when they pulled their pistol by accident, thinking it was their Taser, and corrected the mistake before accidentally using lethal force in a less lethal situation.
If you only carry a Byrna, and no firearm, you won’t be making that mistake, but you will be limiting your options.
Keep in mind that the kinetic (solid plastic impact) rounds bounce when they his something hard. If you are up close and personal with the bad guy, and you blast him in the belt buckle, don’t be surprised if the ball bounces back and strikes you instead.
How will he react to your Byrna?
Your assailant’s mentality is also important. Seeing something black that looks like a pistol in your hand, and feeling the pain of a hard-plastic impact projectile hitting him, might lead him to believe they’ve actually been shot (by a bullet), possibly causing what’s known as a “psychological stop,” at least temporarily.
Or, seeing something that looks like a real pistol might cause them to pull their own, very real, pistol.
Or, seeing something brightly colored that looks like a toy pistol might embolden them instead.
There’s no way to predict or control what’s going through his mind. We can control some of the information (intel) we give him.
Like pepper spray and other chemical dispensing canisters, the Byrna is probably best used as a surprise, rather than as a visible deterrent.
Keep in mind that the effectiveness of any pain compliance tool or technique depends upon the bad guy’s perception of pain. Pain compliance that works just swell on wussies like me may not work as well on people who are drunk, drugged, or deranged.
Thumbs Up or Down on the Byrna?
The bottom line: the Byrna is a viable use of force option. It can give you the advantages of pepper spray with less likelihood of getting some of that love yourself–but only if the assailant is kind enough to make his intentions known when he is still at a considerable distance from you.
More than half of all assaults take place at close range, where the same retention principles as for a handgun would apply.
The Byrna is not a panacea. No defensive tool works 100% of the time.
But IF YOU TRAIN TO USE IT, the Byrna (or a similar PepperBall launcher) can give you more options, and even be a force multiplier.
–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm LLC
Disclosure: The author of this test and evaluation report has ZERO fiduciary interest in Byrna Technologies Inc, or any of its affiliates. Heloderm LLC is not associated with Byrna in any way, nor did we receive any financial compensation or “free samples” from Byrna Technologies or any of its affiliates to conduct this test and evaluation. My friend just happened to have one, so we tried it out.
If I thought it was a piece of crap, I’d have said so.
Source for Tech Data
Most of the technical details in this analysis are from Byrna HD Manual, version 7.13.20.
For more info, see www.byrna.com