The Hague, 1899: The Prohibition of Dum-Dum Bullets in International Law

When Czar Nicholas II proposed an international disarmament conference in 1898, the aspirationa agenda of the meeting was capacious. Issues up for deliberation ranged from a limitation on the expansion of armed forces, to the application of the Geneva Convention of 1864 to naval warfare, and to a revision of the 1874 Brussels Declaration on land warfare. As part of the disarmament effort, the program for the conference envisioned a list of possible weapons prohibitions, including any new kinds of firearms and explosives, submarine torpedo boats, and vessels with rams.

Hague Peace Conference (1899) [Public domain], Imperial War Museum, Image HU 67224, via Wikimedia Commons

The conference, which met from May to July 1899, did not reach consensus on most of the original agenda items. Delegates issued a declaration prohibiting the throwing of explosives from balloons for five years, however, the attempt to outlaw new firearms, torpedoes, and rams failed. Beyond the initial agenda, the conference issued declarations prohibiting two additional weapons technologies: projectiles filled with asphyxiating or deleterious gases, and expanding “dum-dum” bullets. The declaration on dum-dum bullets stipulated that the “Contracting Parties agree to abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions.” In making this declaration, the Hague Conference followed the precedent of the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration, which had prohibited explosive bullets weighing less than 400 grammes, and was the first prohibition of a specific weapons technology in modern international law.

Histories of international law emphasize the newness of the humanitarian uproar against dum-dum bullets at The Hague, and the politics of imperial rivalry between Great Britain and the Great Powers of continental Europe. Unlike the St. Petersburg Conference of 1868, which received little public attention, the publication boom and increasing interconnectedness of the 1890s meant that the dum-dum question was hotly debated in the press and journals both before and during the Hague Conference. The discussion in the press, as in the chambers of the ‘House in the Woods,’ mirrored the politics of Alfred von Tirpitz’ naval race and Anglo-German antagonism.

In addition to reflecting a burgeoning press and geopolitical friction, the making of the Declaration was notable for revealing conflictual conceptualizations of the relationship between the regulating power of law and weaponry, as well as implicit colonial hierarchies embedded in legal concepts. The argument against dum-dum bullets, first introduced by the Swiss delegate Colonel Arnold Künzli, emphasized how their particular mechanical construction caused excessively heinous wounds. Unlike fully jacketed bullets, dum-dum bullets had an exposed leaden tip or a hollow chamber in the front, causing the projectile to expand and shatter upon hitting soft tissue. Sir John Ardagh, representing Great Britain, opposed the Swiss proposal. The new small-caliber bullets did not stop the advances of what he called “savage races,” which necessitated the use of more destructive dum-dum bullets. Rather than prohibiting bullets based on their mechanical construction, Ardagh as well as the U.S. representatives Alfred Thayer Mahan and William Crozier advocated for an effects-based prohibition of all bullets causing ‘useless cruelty’.

While of conceptually greater reach, the effects-based prohibition of certain bullets left the door open to employing bullets of heightened destructive power when it was deemed militarily useful. As Ardagh put it in a never-issued statement to the conference, the effects-based prohibition would have maintained the legality of employing projectiles “whose shock shall be sufficient to stop the individual struck by it and disable him on the spot, without, however, occasioning any unnecessary suffering.” This argumentative move mostly had implications for colonial warfare, but Ardagh did not preclude the use of dum-dum bullets in wars between European states either. Once great suffering could be constructed as useful, the taming influence of ‘useless cruelty’ imploded. But the construction-specific prohibition that was adopted also had important weaknesses. In the late 1890s, dum-dum bullets were not the only projectiles with explosive effects; tumbling 'Spitzer' bullets, which were not covered by the prohibition due to their full casing, caused similar or even worse wounds by turning around their own axis upon hitting a target.

Dum-dum bullets became a cause célèbre at the Hague Conference through a circuitous route, stretching from British India to Southern Germany and England. They began as an improvised means of increasing the destructive effect of small-caliber British Mark II ammunition in the 1895 Chitral campaign and the 1897-98 Tirah campaign at the north-western Indian frontier. Not satisfied with the ‘stopping power’—a grisly euphemism for the ability of a bullet to render a combatant unable to fight—of their increasingly small bullets, British soldiers started filing off the bullets’ coats at the top to reveal their leaden core. The modification provided soldiers with bullets that combined the speed and accuracy of the comparatively small Mark II’s with the impact of older, larger bullets by expanding upon impact. The British ordnance factory in Dum-Dum near Kolkata adopted and serialized the innovation, and gave it its moniker.

Paul von Bruns (1846-1916). Biographisches Lexikon hervorragender Ärzte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Berlin-Wieden 1901 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The use of dum-dum bullets attracted the attention of military surgeons. Paul von Bruns, professor of surgery at the University of Tübingen in Germany, was especially vocal about the inhumanity of dum-dum bullets. These soft-nosed bullets, von Bruns claimed in an 1898 article, caused vast exit wounds of ripped soft tissue and splintered bones. At short distances, the bullet mushroomed into particularly irregular shapes. Compared to the relatively limited wounds caused by the fully jacketed bullets of the 1880s and ‘90s, dum-dum wounds were not as receptive to the emergent technologies of conservative military surgery, which attempted to replace amputation with restorative approaches. By that logic, von Bruns suggested, the “frightful effect of soft-nosed bullets provided the most obvious proof for the humanitarian significance of fully-jacketed bullets” (Paul von Bruns, “Über die Wirkung der Bleispitzengeschosse (Dum-Dum Geschosse)”, 1898).” Von Bruns’ endeavor to prohibit dum-dum bullets created a hierarchy of violence, which legitimized a certain degree of wounding as normal and even relatively humane.

Alexander Ogston (1844-1929). R.M. Morgan Ltd. [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

British surgeons contested von Bruns’ article. Alexander Ogston — a British surgeon from Aberdeen — pointed out that von Bruns had used bullets similar but not identical to the British service munition. Whereas dum-dum bullets had a tip of exposed lead about 1 millimeter in diameter, von Bruns’ trial ammunition showed 4 millimeters of lead at the tip, thereby precipitating a more forceful mushrooming effect. The faulty set-up of von Bruns’ experiments rendered his findings and recommendations unconvincing. But even granted von Bruns’ argument about the excessive destructive power of dum-dum bullets, Ogston argued that it was unacceptable that “a missile that was permissible against a charging tiger, elephant, or buffalo, was to be forbidden against a charging human enemy, however fierce and tiger-like his onset might be” (Alexander Ogston, “Continental Criticism of English Rifle Bullets”, 1899). Expanding bullets were necessary in wars against “savages,” who he argued would react to wounds inflicted by fully jacketed bullets less sensitively than “white men.” Other British surgeons, such as W.F. Stevenson and J.B. Hamilton, shared Ogston’s views.

The 1899 prohibition against the use of expanding bullets remains contested in twenty-first-century international law. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (adopted in 1998, entered into force in 2002), the use of “projectiles that easily expand or flatten in the human body, such as projectiles with a hard mantle, which does not fully cover the core or is pierced with incisions,” is a war crime. As in the late nineteenth century, however, the prohibition remains contested. The last version of the U.S. Department of Defense Law of War Manual (updated 2016) suggests the value of using expanding bullets in combat against insurgents, noting that “the US armed forces have used expanding bullets in various counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations […].”

Further reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Elena Kempf is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. In her dissertation, she charts the history of weapons prohibitions in International Humanitarian Law from the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration to the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol. Elena was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2018.