Extend the Range and Lethality of your Shotgun with Flechettes

There’s more than one way to neutralize a threat and these novel, thin, finned steel projectiles can put on a hurt at greater distance than buckshot

Story by Jim Dickson
Photos by Sabot Designs LLC

A comparison of flechettes and buckshot.
Flechettes were first used as small bomblets dropped from airplanes in World War I and World War II. Their use in small arms began in February 1951, when Irwin R. Barr of Aircraft Armaments Inc. came out with the concept of firearms flechettes. Initially, the emphasis was on firing one flechette instead of a standard rifle bullet. This led to the Army’s Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program, as the concept was tested. The first flechette shotgun loads were made in 1953. These held 32 flechettes, which were smaller than those loaded today.

During the Vietnam War, the ability of the flechette to stretch the range of the cylinder-bore riot shotgun out to 82, and even 100, yards saw their widespread deployment alongside the traditional buckshot loads. The troops were pretty well evenly divided in their preference between the two loads. Flechettes gave longer range when shooting across rice paddies, but in heavy jungle, nothing is more resistant to deflection by the foliage than a round ball. It should be noted that the M16’s 5.56mm round is the most easily deflected of all the cartridges our government has ever standardized, and that caused a lot of trouble for those using it in jungle warfare. At one time I represented a company that armored regular cars for use in third world countries where civilians needed extra protection. One thing that impressed me about the 5.56 cartridge was how easily it was deflected. It was hard to stop if it did not deflect, but it was awfully easy to deflect. Too easy for me to want to use it in combat.

Flechettes shot into ballistic gelatin (above and below).
During the Vietnam War, many of the flechette-loaded 12-gauge shells were marked “Whirlpool” because that company was involved in their development. Both Western and Federal cartridge companies loaded 12-gauge flechette rounds for the military. The Western shells had 20 flechettes per round and the case mouth was closed with a standard star crimp. The Federal shells had 25 flechettes and the tips of the flechettes were exposed at the case mouth. Both loads had the flechettes loaded in a plastic cup with granulated white polyurethane to maintain alignment with the bore. A metal disk at the rear prevented the penetration of the overpowder wad when the shell was fired. All the shotgun flechette loads of this period were for cylinder-bore riot guns only. The incompressible steel flechettes would do severe damage to a choke and the choke would disrupt their pattern.
Some folks load surplus flechettes taken from artillery beehive rounds into shotgun shells. These are the cheaper canister-grade flechettes. Typically, some are loaded forwards and some backwards. Firing these in a shotgun can severely score the barrel and damage any choke in it, resulting in a new barrel being required for that gun.

TODAY, FLECHETTE SHOTGUN loads are made by Sabot Designs LLC, a registered defense contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense. They have been doing this since 1998 and the head of the company, John Flanagan, is today’s top expert on flechettes. He made experimental tantalum flechettes for the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s cargo round, and he designed and made tungsten flechettes for the NSWC’s EMRG, or electro-magnetic rail gun, submunition. Flanagan also collaborated with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems for the development and testing of the high-density packing canister for the M1 Abrams main battle tank, resulting in his getting the patent for the HDP canister. He served as a consultant to Lockheed-Martin for the fin design of flechette projectiles for the Hydro-7 mine clearing system. The Marine Corps has also got him developing a flechette round specifically for shooting down drones.

Flanagan also holds the patent on the M1 flechette sabot, which enables them to be fired through any shotgun without damage to the gun. That said, the cylinder bore still gives the best performance and .725 inch is the minimum choke diameter recommended for choked guns, as tighter chokes disrupt the pattern. His flechettes have the latest subtle improvements, including fins shaped to give a stabilizing spin to the projectile. They are all new manufacture, with a hardness of 45 on the Rockwell C scale. The sabot is also designed to be suppressor-friendly, so these shells can be fired in shotguns with silencers.

Load specifications of Sabot Designs’ 12-gauge flechette:
Sabot: M1A8
Projectiles: MIL-F-8167 flechette, 8-grain
Packing: 19 flechettes
Muzzle velocity: 1,925 feet per second
Powder: Flake (3 dram equivalent) Primer: Waterproof 209 equivalent
Chamber length: 2¾ inches
Quality standard: MIL-C-48656 cartridges, shotshells

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Engagement ranges:
  • Average point target range: 50 yards (45 meters)
  • Maximum point target range: 82 yards (75 meters)
  • Maximum area target range: 164 yards (158 meters)
  • Maximum effective range: 328 yards (300 meters) – this being the longest range that a single projectile will produce a casualty.
A watermelon is hit by a 12-gauge flechette load.
A COMPARISON OF buckshot versus flechettes shows some significant advantages to the flechettes. Buckshot depends on its weight and frontal area for stopping power. Its round balls are the shape that is least prone to deflection in jungle foliage. Flechettes depend upon their velocity, penetration and energy. Each flechette has the same energy signature as a 9mm Parabellum round. It will penetrate over 20 inches of ballistic gelatin or go through a car door to take out an opponent on the other side. e flechettes transmit their energy to the target by creating an expanding supersonic cavitation wound channel as they yaw off course, going through the target. is wound channel is approximately 800 percent larger than the flechette’s own diameter and averages .58 caliber. ey may also bend or break, creating a secondary wound channel. ey shatter bone on contact.

A major factor for the soldier is the fact that the flechette rounds weigh about half as much as the buckshot rounds, enabling you to carry more ammo into combat. e size and weight of 12-gauge ammo has always been a limiting factor on deploying shotguns in combat.
Another big plus is the fact that the standard military 00 buck load is nine balls, while the flechette load has 19 flechettes. at’s 211 percent more projectiles for a denser pattern. is gets critical as ranges increase, where the aerodynamic shape of the flechette is nearly perfect, while the round ball is the worst aerodynamic shape. is is the reason flechettes consistently made kills at 82 to 100 yards in Vietnam, whereas hitting at that range with 00 buckshot took a lot of luck.

A human cadaver femur bone is shattered by a 12-gauge flechette load.
IT SHOULD BE noted that the flechette round is not reliable in automatic shotguns. John Flanagan has one that is reliable that will be marketed as soon as the patents are secured. On game, the flechette has proved effective on deer, bear, turkeys, wild hogs and coyotes. Due to their extreme penetration, you usually do not have to deal with them in the meat. ey will penetrate the thick skull of a 1,000-pound hog or a steer when 00 buckshot will not. at can be a matter of life or death to you if you suddenly are faced with an enraged bull or oversized hog. A lot of farmers carry a shotgun to shoot coyotes and wild dog packs attacking their livestock, yet when farmers are killed by animals, it is almost invariably their own livestock doing the killing. It’s just common sense to carry something that is able to deal with that, should it occur. One Sabot Designs customer used a 12-gauge flechette round to take out the heart and lungs of a wild hog that was chasing his friend at a range of 7 yards. ey do work dramatically.

For personal defense, Flanagan also sells a 2½-inch .410 load with seven flechettes for use in .410 shotguns. Today, the flechette has taken its place alongside birdshot, buckshot and slugs as a standard type of shotgun load. ey are available from Sabot Designs LLC by calling (541) 770-6047 or visiting sabotdesigns.com.