When I joined the Border Patrol a quarter of a century ago, I was stationed in New Mexico, along our boundary with Chihuahua, Mexico. Back then, I’d hear about some of the goings-on with illegal aliens over in the El Paso, TX sector and I’d often remark that over in our territory we had a “better class of illegal’s.” That was pretty much the case. Mexico at that time was still largely an agrarian society and the vast majority of “alambristas” that came across the fence on the rural border were farmers looking for agricultural or manual labor-type jobs. They were by and large a rather peaceable, stoic, group of people and rarely gave a Border Patrol agent any trouble. It wasn’t unusual to apprehend groups of them single-handedly. On one occasion, I filled my Suburban to the max with aliens at a windmill “watering hole” and the fan belt went.
It so happened I was in a radio dead spot. Fortunately a couple of the aliens gave me a hand and we got the engine running. They climbed back in the truck for a ride to the border station to be deported.
Changing World And Tactics
Fast-forward to 2008. The demographics are changing rapidly and Mexico/Central America, like the U.S. some 100 years ago, is more urbanized. Consequently, most illegal aliens crossing the border are no longer farmers, but more likely to be city born and bred with street smarts and attitude. Some are associated with street gangs where violence is a way of life. Simply escaping apprehension by the Border Patrol has been replaced with outright resistance. Agents patrolling the border today are often targets of rocks, bottles and other dangerous missiles hurled at them as they try to perform their duties. It’s no wonder that from early 2000 to mid-2008, 17 patrol agents have lost their lives in the line of duty. In early 2008, one BP agent was run over in the southern California desert as he attempted to stop fleeing drug smugglers.
The Mexico/U.S. Border today is as dangerous as it was during Prohibition, as rival drug cartels battle the authorities and each other for control of the lucrative illegal narcotics market. Mexican military incursions into the U.S. are not uncommon and the cartels are openly recruiting soldiers to fight for them instead of for their country. My hat’s off to agents patrolling that boundary line now.
Conventional less-than-lethal devices like OC spray and collapsible batons were strictly limited to “up-close-and-personal” distances. It was recognized that today’s agents needed something with a bit more “reach.” The Office of Border Patrol under the U.S. CBP (Bureau of Customs and Border Protection) of the Department of Homeland Security, took steps to obtain a system offering agents a means of defense at greater distances, outside the range of hand-thrown objects. The FN-303 Less Lethal Launcher was their choice. It’s a device that uses compressed air to launch a plastic pellet containing a paint-like marking compound, or OC (pepper) filler, which bursts on impact.
The single-source contract between CBP and FNH (Fabrique Nacional Herstal) USA is a $2.7 million dollar order for 1,000 FN-303 launcher systems to be deployed or used for training.
The FN-303 was the only less-lethal system that could meet the range requirements of CBP. Its use is less likely to cause serious bodily harm or permanent injury than other weapons. The effective range of the FN-303 is from 10 to 225 feet and up to 300 feet for area saturation use. The device looks science-fiction-like and offers not only visual deterrence, but kinetic impact of a .68 caliber, 8.5 gram projectile traveling at 280-300 fps; giving the user a greater margin of personal safety. It allows a projectile to be fired more accurately and at a greater distance than the previously used PLS (pepper launching system) that had a range of 60 feet.
It’s been in use by both military and LE agencies for several years now and its popularity could be due to its light-weight yet rugged construction. Factory specs weigh it in at only 5 pounds and I doubt it is much more than that fully loaded with 15 rounds of pellets. The base material is fiberglass-reinforced nylon. Other parts like the smooth-bore barrel and air cylinder are of high-strength aluminum alloy. The only steel I could find with my magnet was in the flip-up front and rear sights. The rear sight is a fixed peep-style and the front sight is a post with the upper portion colored white, and is protected by ears. It’s adjustable for elevation by use of a tiny hex-head screw at the rear of the sight housing facing the shooter.
FNH recommends that the sight be zeroed for 30 meters (33 yards) and that the zero be rechecked depending on atmospheric/weather conditions or change in ammunition lot numbers. The top surface has an integral M1913 or “Picatinny rail.” It has a 10-inch barrel and an overall length of 29 inches making it comparable in size to an HK MP-5. The stock is fixed and of a skeletonized configuration, with an AR-15 type pistol grip. The stock forearm has sloping handhold areas in front of and behind the magazine; Both are ribbed to provide a non-slip grip. The magazine release button is located in the lower portion of the forward hand-hold and the safety is inside the trigger guard. It flips rearward, blocking access to the trigger for “safe” and forward, out of the way in the “fire” mode.
The trigger itself is smooth-faced and with a fully charged air tank has a pull weight of about 8 pounds. The round magazine adds to the sub-machinegun appearance. It is constructed of synthetic and the rear portion facing the shooter is transparent, so the operator can see how many and what type of rounds they are carrying. The entire device is flat black in color and my test FN-303 came fitted with a tactical sling.
Reliably Air Powered
The heart of the FN-303 is the aluminum air cylinder that attaches to the right side of the forearm, just ahead of the magazine. The cylinder mounts on the right side of the receiver and has a steel reinforced tube with a quick-detachable coupler that feeds air from the tank into the unit’s firing mechanism. The cylinder is rated at 8,000 psi and has a 5,000 psi overcharge safety disk. An adapter is available that allows the cylinder to be filled from a compressed air tank and this can be done at most dive shops or using an FNH produced air compressor system. A fully charged cylinder will allow about 105 shots and a cylinder has an average life expectancy of 500 refills.
The FN-303 is just inert metal and plastic without ammo, and this unit has a variety of projectiles available that make it a versatile tool for self-defense and riot-control. Unlike paintball launchers, FN-303 projectiles are not spherical, but shaped like small slugs.
The front of the projectile’s round, with a short cylindrical portion for a bearing surface in the bore. Small fins are molded in the polystyrene body, adding flight stability. The leading, rounded portion of the projectile is filled with non-toxic, Bismuth dust shot, adding weight. This contributes to accuracy and causes traumatic impact. Behind the shot is the payload area, which can be filled with non-toxic, environmentally-safe chemicals. The clear liquid round contains propylene glycol which is used for training and there is a pink washable round for temporary marking or an indelible yellow paint round. FNH has recently begun producing a round which is orange in color and contains PAVA powder.
PAVA (pelargonic acid vanillylamide /desmethyldihydrocapsaicin) is a synthetic substance widely used by authorities in the U.K. In performance is similar to that of pepper (OC). It has the effect of causing the eyes to involuntarily shut and may cause breathing difficulties. This round is good for individual shots or for saturation firing, as the powder will become airborne and make the immediate area quite intolerable for groups, ideal for riot control. For training, a new inert white powder projectile is available simulating a PAVA powder round. These rounds, like all the other projectiles made for the FN-303 launcher system, shatter upon impact to release their payload. To achieve proper breakage, the maximum effective distance for use is 50 meters (55 yards). FNH USA strongly recommends a shooter “never target a person above the shoulders.” Shots to the neck and head could prove lethal. I was instructed from the folks at FNH to aim for the limbs if at all possible. The projectiles come packaged in sealed plastic tubes of 15 rounds each.
Simple To Master
I tested the FN-303 with the FNH USA training staff; we fired the pink rounds at a flat rubber, man-shaped target 25 yards away. Standard factory sights were being used and I was told that the FN-303 was accurate enough that I could be assured of good hits if I did my part. I certainly found this to be true as I was able to hit both hands of the target along with arms and the thigh area; body hits were almost too easy. There was no recoil to speak of and rapid fire shooting was as effortless as pulling the trigger and getting the sights back on target. The rear sight aperture is small and the rear sight itself is small, so that when looking through it, it almost disappears. Of course, the sights fold down and any of a considerable variety of red-dot optics can be used, which just might be the most effective method.
One of the best features is the ergonomic stock fit. With the launcher properly shouldered and held, my support hand grasped the sloping forward hand-hold area actually pushed the butt of the stock into my shoulder for an excellent stock weld. I wish that I had other guns with that stock design. The magazine loaded positively and was easily extracted using the index finger of the support hand to press the release while the other digits were used to pull it down and out. I had no malfunctions and the immediate action drill is “tap, shake, assess and re-engage,” if needed. The shake action is to be done with a side-to side motion to ensure the magazine is loaded correctly; if that doesn’t work then change-out the magazine while seeking cover.
Cleaning and breakdown is relatively easy. You can utilize the same cleaning rod and nylon brush that you use to clean your 12-gauge shotgun, just substitute common rubbing alcohol for bore cleaning fluid. With the stock removed, the FN-303, using an accessory undercarriage-mounted system, can be attached to the forearm of an M16/M4 rifle, giving the user both lethal and non-lethal capabilities with the same weapons system.
For certification, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent is required to take an 8-hour training course. To maintain certification, a yearly 4-hour refresher course is required. FNH USA can provide a one-day Instructor/Armorer Course that prepares a student to certify other operators. It’s valid for three years.
Finally, what does the USBP have to say about the FN-303? “It has become a very effective tool,” said Border Patrol spokesman Ramon Rivera. “It has helped agents dramatically.” For more information contact FNH USA 703-288-1292; fnhusa.com.
When I joined the Border Patrol a quarter of a century ago, I was…
by Nick Jacobellis / Nov 30, 2008