I never knew this until a couple of weeks ago, but both Russia and Germany developed exploding rifle bullets for use in World War II. The Germans had one called “B-Patrone”, while the Russians referred to theirs as “PZ”. The bullets had a small floating firing pin inside, which detonated a small amount of priming material which in turn detonated some white phosphorous.
In both cases the bullets were designed to be fired out of the standard service rifles of the day (Mauser and Mosin-Nagant, respectively.) The original intent was to use the rounds as spotters for artillery; the rifleman would fire one of these bullets at the intended target and a spotter would look for the telltale explosion as the round detonated. From that they could deduce the range (and probably also designate specific targets.)
Why not use the more common tracer round for that job? Presumably to eliminate the two-way nature of the tracer: yes, you can see where the bullet is going, but the enemy can see where it’s coming from! This is not conducive to laying any sort of surprise attack, nor is is likely to result in a longer lifespan for the crews manning the artillery.
The exploding round, in contrast, only made a flash when it detonated as a result of hitting something. The person firing it could tell what it hit and get all the information he would normally get from a tracer, and while enemy would know they’d been targeted and ranged they wouldn’t know from where.
At some point some sharpshooter got the bright idea of testing it on an enemy soldier, and apparently the results were quite…impressive, at least to the shooter. The rounds would in fact detonate inside a human body, and the accounts of their effects are as gruesome as they are fascinating. I’ll save you the gory details, but the records show humans being blown up from within.
Ian McCollum and Karl Kasarda at InRange TV got hold of some of this ammo (it’s legal to own, but extremely rare and quite costly; according to Ian, even during the war it was extremely hard to get) and tested it in some tissue simulant. I won’t give the results away, but it’s an episode you just have to see (unfortunately I can’t embed the video, so you’ll need to click the link to watch!)
The Russians and Germans gladly used it on each other, but when the sharpshooters moved to the Western Front they had to turn in their exploding bullets; apparently they didn’t want the U.S. and Great Britain to know about the stuff. The reason, presumably, is because it violated the Hague Convention of 1899 — but that may not be all there is to the story!
The Hague Convention Declaration IV (none of which was signed by the United States) deals with munitions, and Section 3 specifically prohibits bullets which “can easily expand or change their form inside the human body”, which was written to disallow the use of bullets which “flatten” (their term) on impact. This would seem to not apply to the PZ or B-Patrone.
However, the Hague Convention was a successor to the Saint Petersburg Declaration of 1868, in which Russia, Bavaria, Greater Prussia, and the Kingdom of Württemberg (these latter three being the states which would end up being known as Germany) agreed that they wouldn’t use any exploding ammunition of less than 400 grams (roughly 14 ounces.) (We weren’t even invited to that one, so naturally we never even had the option to sign.)
So why the use of what would seem to be treaty-violating ammunition in WWII? I suspect the war on the Eastern Front was simply so brutal (and to the Russians so personal) that a treaty signed by men likely long dead didn’t mean a whole lot to anyone. The PZ and B-Patrone were quite effective and no doubt did psychological damage to those who witnessed the aftermath, both probably seen as a win by those firing the bullets.
It’s also important to note that they didn’t see widespread use; the German snipers, especially, had a very limited number of these special rounds and couldn’t afford to use them regularly; the surviving accounts show that they were only fired when the shooter determined that the target warranted using one of the scarce number he was issued.
Some will argue that in war anything is fair; others will opine that limiting our ability to do personal mayhem is a necessary civilizing act amidst a nearly complete lack of humanity. That argument has gone on for ages and shows no sign of abating.
I’m just glad that these rounds weren’t more widely employed in a war that would have ended up being more destructive than it already was.
-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-