Police departments across America are under increased scrutiny after a series of highly controversial police shootings — many caught on video. Most recently, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald to death. Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times and continued to fire rounds while the teenager was on the ground.
Given this current climate, it’s no surprise that police departments are looking closer at less-than-lethal weapons. Electroshock weapons — marketed under the brand Taser — are now practically universal among American police forces.
In Arizona, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office is buying something unusual next year — the M09 self-defense weapon. It looks a lot like a pistol for shooting distress signal flare, but the Russians have a more colorful name for the hand cannon. They call it the pistolet travmatichyeski, or “traumatic pistol.”
Above, at top and below — PB4 series pistols. Via world.guns.ru
Designed by Russia’s state-owned Research Institute for Applied Chemistry in the mid-1990s, the first version appeared on the market in 1999 as the PB4 or Osa, meaning “Wasp” in Russian. Engineers steadily improved on the basic design, leading to the M09.
The stubby handgun has no barrels to speak of and no sights, save a laser pointer. The less-than-lethal pistol holds four 18.5-millimeter cartridges — 12 gauge to most Americans — ready to fire in separate chambers.
However, the rounds are shorter than traditional shotgun shells. The color-coded cases can hold a single steel-cored rubber bullet, a small explosive charge to stun opponents, pepper spray gel, a bright flare or a distress signal.
The PB4’s most impressive feature is its electrical firing mechanism. Regardless of which chambers are loaded, the gun can “see” if there is a live cartridge and fire it first without having to cycle through the positions individually like a revolver.
Right now, Pinal County is only planning on buying the rubber bullet rounds for the M09. “We may decide at a later date to purchase additional capable rounds,” Mark Clark, a public information officer with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, told War Is Boring in an email.
Despite the current chill in foreign relations between Washington and Moscow, there doesn’t seem to be any concern about the weapon’s Russian origins. A private Brazil-based company called Defenzia will supply the pistols for Pinal’s officers.
The sale is Defenzia’s first major contract in the United States, Defenzia managing partner Leao Gitirana told War Is Boring in an email. “At this point, we have no reason to question the vendor’s ability to provide us the weapons and ammo we need,” Clark added.
Defenzia hopes the deal will allow the company to expand into the American marketplace. The Russian manufacturer has already sold versions to Israeli and German police, among other European, Central Asian and Middle Eastern customers.
Inside Russia, civilians have been the biggest customers, according to Maxim Popenker, a firearms expert and operator of the website World Guns. “PB-4 pistols were quite popular about 5–10 years ago,” Popenker wrote in an email to War Is Boring. “Now people in Russia often prefer less-lethal pistols firing smaller caliber bullets due to their ‘real gun’ appearance and larger ammo capacities.”
Defenzia is the only licensed supplier of the type in both North and South America. The contractor will assemble the guns in Sao Paulo. The company’s only other office is in Scottsdale in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which borders Pinal.
“The M09 offers a less lethal option with greater accuracy over a greater distance than any other less lethal weapon available to us,” Clark explained. “It is a unique option in that it is a pistol that the deputies can have ready on their gun belt if the need arises.”
The M09 can reliably hit targets up to 90 feet away. The pistol weighs less than a pound — lighter than the popular Taser X-26 stun gun.
“We pull out this device and shoot him with this impact weapon, right then and there, we get instant compliance and then no one has to take a life,” Chief Deputy Steve Henry told the local NBC affiliate KVOA in November.
Unfortunately, no such weapon is ever entirely non-lethal. Officers must be carefully trained to shoot rubber bullet or other less-lethal projectiles in order to avoid inflicting serious injuries or even inadvertently killing people. In 2004, a Boston police officer killed Victoria Snelgrove with an F.N. Model 303 — a sort of high-powered riot control air gun — as the city celebrated the Red Sox’s win in the World Series.
Snelgrove bled out after the projectile hit her in the eye. A unintentional hit to the face from the M09’s hard-hitting rubber bullet could be just as dangerous.
Pinal County is no stranger to police shootings. In January 2014, deputies shot and killed 40-year-old Manuel Longoria after a car chase. Police tasered him and fired less-than-lethal “beanbag” rounds from a shotgun. When Longoria put his arms into the air with his back turned, an officer shot him with an AR-15 rifle.
In October, a Pinal County cop shot and wounded a 16-year-old boy after he claimed to have a gun and lunged at officers, according to the sheriff’s office. Family members questioned why officers didn’t use a less-lethal option.
Less than 100 miles from the border with Mexico, Pinal authorities have to contend with groups of migrants, human traffickers and drug smugglers on top of these more local concerns. “For U.S. police using the PB-4, I think it might be useful in some situations,” Popenker added.
“But like any other weapons, its proper use requires training and adequate tactics.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed the effective range of the M09 was a mere five feet. This was a misreading of the Defenzia website, which reports an effective range of “1..35 meters.” The pistol actually has an effective range of 1 to 35 meters, or up to approximately 90 feet, not 1.35 meters.