Every police force in Britain is being armed with guns that fire plastic bullets, as part of a drive to equip officers with less lethal alternatives to firearms.
Police chiefs are also expected to adopt a range of other new weapons, including rubber bullets filled with CS gas and pepper spray, water cannons, and electric stun guns.
The huge expansion in the police's armoury follows a three-year study by the Home Office and chief constables, which is due to be published in the next few days.
Bedfordshire police became the first force in Britain yesterday to routinely equip their armed response units with guns that fire plastic baton rounds. Other forces, including Greater Manchester, Kent, the Metropolitan Police, West Mercia, and Surrey, have also trained and equipped many of their firearms officers with the new guns. The weapons have been deployed on dozens of occasions but they have yet to be fired.
The police and Home Office confirmed yesterday that all 51 forces in Britain would be armed with the single-firing plastic baton guns by April 2002. The rounds deliver a powerful punch and can knock a man down at 30m. They have been introduced as an alternative to shooting people and are intended to be used against hostage-takers, offenders with knives, and violent and drug-raged individuals.
The 3in by 1.5in rounds can kill if fired incorrectly at a person's head or heart rather than the belly, and plastic bullets have killed 17 people in Northern Ireland.
Peter Neyroud, the deputy chief constable of West Mercia, who heads the Association of Chief Police Officers' firearms committee, said: "By April all forces in Britain should have the new weapon."
He added: "It's like being hit with a police baton. It is aimed at the buckle area – the idea is to give a blunt hit which will knock most people down. You then have the opportunity to disarm the person. It is a fearsome looking weapon." He said that a new, more refined model, known as LA2, had been introduced in June that allowed firearms officers to hit a suspect with far greater accuracy.
The deployment of the baton gun is part of a major review of less lethal weapons. The 130-page report, details of which have been obtained by The Independent, will give backing to at least four new weapons.
This includes the ring airfoil projectile which is a rubber ring-shaped missile, 2.5in in diameter, that contains CS powder or synthetic pepper. Fired from a gun directly at a suspect, it produces a cloud of incapacitant that covers the victim and causes them to choke and their eyes to run.
High-pressure water cannons that are mounted on the side of vehicles are considered effective in breaking up violent public demonstrations without putting officers in danger.
"Sponge" rounds or grenades containing CS or synthetic pepper can be fired into crowds or at individuals, scattering the choking powder.
The electric stun gun, or Taser, fires a dart connected to a power pack that is capable of paralysing offenders with 50,000-volt electric shocks.