From today, new rules make it explicit that baton rounds, as they are officially known, can be used to protect members of the emergency services as well as the general public.
But the bullets can not be fired just to protect property. Instead, they can be used only as a last resort to prevent "loss of life or serious injury".
The new Home Office guidelines will have the greatest effect in Northern Ireland, where 17 people have been killed, and hundreds seriously hurt, by them since 1972.
Use of the ammunition has dropped dramatically as the possibility of an end to sectarian violence appeared likely. In 1997, 2,527 rounds were fired. The 1998 figure was 1,237 but so far this year only 93 rounds have been discharged.
In April 1997, a European Parliament paper called for the banning of plastic bullets as they constitute "excessive force" and breach the United Nations code of conduct for law enforcers.
Announcing the regulations, Home Secretary Jack Straw said: "Baton rounds have in fact never yet been used in dealing with civil disorder in England and Wales.
"But there could be situations where their use is necessary, and it is therefore vital that all officers are very clear about when and how baton rounds should be deployed.
"Misuse could lead to serious injury or worse," he said.Reuse content