January 29, 2014 | 6 Comments

Green Bullets (U.S. Military)

From the curators: The so-called “green bullet” was developed as the successor to the older M855 ammunition, hence its extended title: 5.56mm M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round. The bullet was designed over a period of five years by the U.S. military’s Integrated Product Team at the Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey (though not without legal dispute from Florida-based Liberty Ammunition over its patent). The bullet is the same weight and shape as its M855 predecessor, so it fits existing weapons. Importantly, though, it swaps out the traditional lead core for copper, ensuring that bullets do not contaminate the food chain or water supply—just their intended target.

I come late to this party.

Assigned, in the category “Penetrate”(!), Green Bullets—”developed by the U.S. Army [that] are lead-free, [and] good for the environment, but still deadly when used properly” (the terms are the invitation’s, not mine)—I have hesitated to write.

Partly, it was envy of the language of the invitation itself. Who, when you read the text linked with this object [see above] could improve on the sarcasm of the last two phrases? Or at least I assumed it as such since the conjunction of these words could not, surely, be written with a straight face.

But design, we know, is a curious field. Like the Catholic Church of old it encourages, even demands, (a false?) innocence in its participants.

The title of this project does not escape this injunction. It is not, one should note, design as violence. The conjunction “and” carefully preserves the separation, and thus the absolution, of design.

To be sure, the connection is toyed with, there is the tease of slumming it, of playing on the other side. But to take the language of my assigned category, there is no penetration, no real “infiltration” of the boundaries, no “breaching.”

As with speaking about violence itself, decorum is maintained.

Oh, you can look at Wikipedia, and be gratified perhaps that the entry on “bullets” has a section on design.

But we know, do we not, that this is not “real” design.


But to return to my assigned topic: the most provocative aspect is the name. Otherwise, it is simply a bullet—and what is there to say about that? In fact, “green bullets” are the real product, one suspects, of a larger increase in the market price of lead in the last few years relative to that of copper. They are cheaper, in other words.

But they are perhaps also more truly lethal. The use of copper allows for a lighter bullet, hence a larger numerical carrying capacity by the average GI, and thus a faster rate of fire. Firing is, after all, significant. Bullets we could say, wish to be shot. It is what they ask us to do with them.

And the world has many. You and I—meaning the global population at large—pay for something like 14 billion of them to be made each year.

And more of them are getting fired. The rate at which U.S. forces fire rounds of small-bore ammunition has doubled over the last five years.

Yet, one wonders, at what? One astonishing statistic that crops up on the Web is the estimate that since 2002 U.S. forces have fired 250,000 rounds for every insurgent killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But bullets are contagious. Everyone wants one—or rather many.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently hoarding more than 1.6 billion in its arsenal. To put that figure in perspective, during the height of active battle operations in Iraq, U.S. soldiers were using 5.5 million rounds of ammunition each month. Any doubts concerning scenarios for the future for cross-border refugees at the Federal level should therefore be laid to rest.

What is true at the federal level is also true at the popular level. The nation’s gun owners are hunkering down, hoarding. The popular domestic bullet of choice is increasingly what is called “hollow point,” so called because it has a small dip in its tip. As it enters the body, this causes the bullet to open up, umbrella-style, and fragment. This decreases the chance of the bullet “going through the attacker and striking the loved ones you are trying to protect.” It also ensures that almost any shot to the torso will be fatal.

Cavitation, caused by the kinetic force of weapon-grade bullets as they rip through and out of the body when fired by assault rifles, is how the modern bullet destroys the body.

The children murdered in Sandy Hook had appalling internal and exit wounds caused by the force of the bullet hitting their bodies. None of them could have survived the traumatic shock even if their vital organs had not been hit. (As another website puts it, “Ballistic trauma is sometimes fatal for the recipient, or causes long term negative consequences.”)

But this has been the case for more than 150 years. The astonishing casualty rate of the U.S. Civil War—600,000 dead out of a population a little over 30 million—was a direct consequence of the rate of fire that the modern rifle allowed.

Together rifle and bullet offer a temptation that cannot be resisted.

Here is an account from one of Henry Morton Stanley’s peaceful expeditions in Africa around 1887:

“It was most interesting, lying in the bush watching the natives quietly at their daily work. Some women were making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas, men we could see building huts…boys and girls running about, singing…. I opened the game by shooting one chap through the chest. He fell like a stone…. Immediately a volley was poured into the village.”

Is this the product of design? Of course.

No one who has ever fired a rifle (or a pistol) can deny the exquisite pleasure of placing the bullet in the target, live or dead. Here is an instrument perfectly attuned to the desire for effect at a distance—for action that one both is, and is not, responsible for.

We know that killing at distance is essentially irresponsible—that is part of the vestigial horror we feel at mass bombing campaigns, at the use of nuclear weapons, and, today, at the ever-expanding program of drone assassinations. Yet at the same time we can say that it is not only us; the gun “leans towards” being fired; it wishes—this is its affordance, its affect—to prove its capability in the act of having us squeeze the trigger and hit the target, dead or alive.

Bullet and rifle conjoin in perfect partnership.

In that sense, design as violence, and violence by and through design. There is no “and.”


Can violence ever be sustainable?

  1. January 31, 2014, 11:22 pm

    Raphael Sperry

    Brilliant Essay!

    Thank you Clive for these thoughts. It’s hard to add to them, but I can echo them with a piece I recall from the BCC, quoting a spokesperson for weapons manufacturer BAE that was touting its green bombs and landmines: “We all have a duty of care to ensure that from cradle to grave products are being used appropriately and do not do lasting harm”. ( Again, one must wonder at the sincerity behind the choice of words.

    Perhaps the insistence on decorum and the need to maintain a safe difference from design _as_ violence explains why there are no prisons or other artifacts of state violence in this collection (at least to date). Of course the potential amount of material there might be overwhelming, but an investigation of the harshest prisons might be in order, whether those be Soviet gulags or American execution chambers and “supermax” prisons.

  2. February 4, 2014, 3:18 am


    “Perhaps the insistence on decorum and the need to maintain a safe difference from design _as_ violence explains why there are no prisons or other artifacts of state violence in this collection (at least to date). Of course the potential amount of material there might be overwhelming, but an investigation of the harshest prisons might be in order, whether those be Soviet gulags or American execution chambers and “supermax” prisons.”

    In terms of state violence, for what its worth, the exhibition has included a visualisation of the economics of the prison industrial complex, some military insignias, and Republic of Salivation is about government food rationing. Regardless, however, I think there is still a point to be made about the relation between the artefacts selected and the way they are spoken about. In this sense there is no necessary relation between examining ‘harsh’ examples of violence and a progressive understanding of the designing of violence. Although good examples are important (and here I agree there are serious problems with this exhibition) the question of how we present and discuss artefacts – the politics of theory – also needs to be considered.

    In this respect I think we should accept but reframe the call to examine prisons. To start with, the implied binary between ‘harsh’ and ‘humane’ should be reconsidered. What seems ‘harsh’ or ‘humane’ is often a matter of political context and intensity. In Australia, for instance, the government is conducting a ‘war on people smuggling’ which is in part marketed as a means to prevent people drowning at sea. The policy, however, is one of deterrence, whereby people attempting to claim asylum are incarcerated in offshore detention facilities. New reports suggest that the navy are now physically forcing people on to ‘life boats’ which are then towed back and ‘released’ into Indonesian waters (three people subsequently drowned crossing a river where one of these boats eventually washed up). This is only one example, but it demonstrates quite well how ‘harshness’ is still penetrated with ideas of ‘humaneness’.

    The other reason to refuse the binary is to acknowledge the wider relationality of prisons. They are of course a technique of social discipline that emerged as a response to capitalism’s tendency to expel labour from the wage system and to discipline alterity (i.e. to create people who have no means of sustaining themselves other than through criminalised behaviour). Even a ‘humane’ prison, therefore, is a means of sustaining a more systemic and unsustainable violence and is not something to celebrate.

Cece McDonald, a trans* anti-prison activist in the US puts this point in concrete terms. The systemic violence in this case is obvious and extreme. 16% of trans* people in the US have experienced incarceration, statistics which includes 47% of African American trans* people and 30% of American Indian trans* people. A question that can be posed in this case is the right of trans* people to choose whether to spend their sentence in either a male or female prison on the basis of what would be consider ‘safer’. While this question is not inconsequential, McDonald and her friends refuse this as what is most important. Rather, they argue that no prison can ever be safe, and that the question of safety really needs to be thought in terms of the problems that trans* people face with the health system, poverty, and the criminalisation of drugs and sex work.


The final point to consider here is to draw out what I think is the most important point that Dilnot makes in this entry. For me, this is not about which guns are ‘harsher’ than others – something that would not really reveal anything significant about designing as such. Rather, I think Dilnot’s point was that it is the designing of the gun that affords both a certain kind of violence and a will or tendency to amplify and extend that violence. In this sense the question to appropriate and apply to prisons is, by virtue of their designing ‘what capability do they wish to prove?’. This requires a great deal more explication but thinking about capabilities such as warehousing, security, bureaucratisation, and conformity might be good places to start. This also lends itself to comparison with similar formations around things such as logistics or mass aged care facilities. If a gun is attuned to the desire for ‘effect at a distance’, equally we should be asking what desires the designing of prisons expresses and produces, an element of which of must include the desire for more of what prisons show themselves to be capable of doing.

  3. February 10, 2014, 11:39 am

    Selçuk Balamir


    been there, done that! :)
    sadly the website is down, but here’s one the products of GreenWar, our “sustainable military development” company:


    “Bullet for the Earth is a bullet to make war in a more environmentally responsible and poetic way.

    This bullet made out of eco-friendly materials (wood, cardboard and recycled aluminum) contains seeds that grow after use. Thus every shot gives a chance to make a tree grow. Dierent scenarios are possible; lost bullets, bodies left in battle”elds and mass graves might all potentially give life to whole forests. An oshoot can also be sent to the soldier’s family along with his ID tag, making it possible to plant it in one’s garden, keeping the memory alive for generations.

    The seeds contained in the ball can be of dierent species. Hence a large variety of forests will take place after every war. One can also imagine that the soldier can choose the seed that will kill his opponent in terms of aection and esteem in him. For example in a fratricidal war he will opt for magnolias rather than thistles.

    From now on man will have no qualms about going to war, he will even have a good reason: ecology.”

  4. September 30, 2014, 5:48 am

    […] posts on topics such as:  Five Classified Aircraft, The Box Cutter (slash) Utility Knife, Green Bullets, Concealed Carry Signage, and the Anti-Pirate Water […]

  5. January 27, 2015, 4:28 pm


    As I understand the question, it’s asking whether there is some form of violence that is beneficial to the environment. I come from a rural area, and here, there has to be some cutting back of growth, burning of grass, weeding out of certain crops to favor others, and culling of certain animal populations in order to maintain a harmonious ecosystem. It’s a balance between Man’s will and Nature’s, but I believe that evolution itself has always needed some “violent” acts–they’re part of Darwin’s description of natural selection, even though we may shy away from that. However, applying this thinking to the human landscape rather than “nature” demonstrates the way in which most of us prize human life above all and apply a completely different moral code. Violence to nature, or as a part of the natural world, is the stuff of David Attenborough documentaries and, as such, is presented as entirely reasonable and ecologically balancing; the thought of violence towards humans can never be “sustainable” to someone with any moral compass–and yet, it still occurs so often at Clive Dilnot describes, despite the better nature of most of us, and because of the darkest nature of a few.

  6. January 28, 2015, 2:12 am

    Colleen Doyle

    Parsons Transdisciplinary Design MFA student, No Trash Project

    As Clive points out, heightened environmental stewardship was surely not the impetus for the switch to copper, but rather the consideration of resource material/manufacturing costs and efficiency of intended use preceded the comparison of metal toxicity. The name itself is the only designed element that discerns the bullet ecologically speaking, but who is the audience of this assigned attribute and why should the United States Military promote it? Does the term “green bullet” allay scrutiny about the volume of ammunition used in training and combat? Of course it is a nickname to the official title: 5.56mm M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round. It suggests a choice that was previously unavailable or that we were perhaps just previously unaware of. The green label asks us to prioritize ethics in addition to need/purpose when considering a choice of rounds. But who utters the nickname and does the implication affect hearts and minds? Does it do anything to exonerate the designer, producer, or user of violent intent if we believe that green bullets fight pollution while fighting the enemy? In a 2013 article about its manufacturing, posted to the United States Army website by the Picatinny Arsenal military research and manufacturing facility, there is no mention of the bullet’s greenness. But the article does reference environmental policy. “The M855A1 EPR’s new bullet design provides Soldiers with better hard-target penetration and more consistent soft-target performance at increased distances. Additionally, because it is lead-free, the M855A1 allows training exercises to occur on ranges where lead projectiles are no longer permitted.” Here it seems the shift to copper is spurred by environmental compliance, not ecological conviction. By definition, design is the purpose or intent behind an idea, action, or object. The discipline is not independent of its impact. The nickname “green bullet” only confounds our understanding of that impact.

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