This Arizona Sheriff’s Office Returned Most Of Its Russian-Designed “Traumatic Pistols”

Protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as other similar incidents, which are still ongoing in many parts of the country, have reinvigorated discussions about when and how law enforcement officers’ use force. The responses to those demonstrations have similarly sparked renewed debate about crowd-control tactics, some of which are now under formal investigation, including the use of less-than-lethal weapons, such as rubber bullets and tear gas. 

This reminded us here at The War Zone of the unusual case of a sheriff’s office in Arizona buying Russian-designed “traumatic pistols,” capable of firing rubber bullets or other less-lethal projectiles. As it turns out, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office (PSCO) has gotten rid of nearly three-quarters of the 60 Defenzia D09s it originally bought in 2016 and has yet to use them outside training exercises and demonstrations. Pinal County is situated between Phoenix and Tuscon and its southern boundary is less than 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in places, which adds concerns about contending with drug and human traffickers to normal policing duties.

“When Sheriff [Mark] Lamb took office in January of 2017, we immediately discontinued their use and began the process of trying to return them to Defenzia,” PSCO’s Chief Deputy Matthew Thomas told The War Zone. “We eliminated the majority of our inventory with trading in 44 of the weapons and keeping 16. The 16 that we kept, we kept specifically for specialty unit use, i.e. our Search and Rescue, SWAT, and inside our jail.”

The D09 is a stubby, four-barrel pistol with a pepperbox-like configuration that weighs under a pound. Unlike in a traditional pepperbox, the 18.5mm diameter barrels – 12 gauge to most Americans – remain fixed in place and do not rotate like the cylinders in a revolver. The gun’s electronic firing mechanism can determine whether or not a live round in loaded into any of the barrels and will fire it first when the user pulls the trigger, rather than having to cycle through any empty chambers first.

Despite its 12 gauge barrels, shooters cannot load traditional shotgun shells into the pistol. Defenzia instead supplies a variety of proprietary ammunition types. These include rubber impact rounds, flashbang cartridges, ones loaded with pepper spray gel, and distress flares.

The D09 has an integrated laser sight nestled in the center between the barrels, as well as rudimentary iron sights on top. It has a generally accepted effective range of between around three and 33 feet, though Defenzia says it can hit targets out to 90 feet, depending on the type of ammunition employed.

This pistol is an evolution of the PB-4, which Russia’s state-owned Research Institute for Applied Chemistry first brought to market in 1999. Also sold as the Osa, or “wasp,” the gun is described as a “traumatic pistol” in Russia. 

A PB-4 Osa “traumatic pistol” with a rubber bullet cartridge and black projectile seen below., via Modern Firearms

“PB-4 pistols were quite popular about 5-10 years ago,” Maxim Popenker, a Russian firearms expert who also runs a website now called Modern Firearms, told the author back in 2015. “Now people in Russia often prefer less-lethal pistols firing smaller caliber bullets due to their ‘real gun’ appearance and larger ammo capacities.”

However, the PB-4 remains in production and on sale in Russia and the international market. Just last month, Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms broker, announced that a new version with longer chambers for larger rounds, called the PB-4SP, was available for export.

Brazil-based Defenzia developed its D09, as well as its smaller caliber D11 model, from the PB-4 and markets it in the United States via a U.S. subsidiary, Defenzia USA. This separation from the original manufacturer certainly helps get around U.S. government sanctions and other restrictions on the importing of weapons and ammunition from Russia. Defenzia also says its particular versions are in service with security forces in Brazil, Germany, and Israel.

“We returned the bulk because we knew that we did not want to deploy them as an impact weapon for use on patrol by Deputies,” Chief Deputy Thomas explained when asked about PCSO’s decision to get rid of the bulk of their D09s. “We felt that a better use of the weapon system was with the illumination rounds for our search and rescue, noise flash rounds for SWAT and the impact rounds for riot situations in our jail.”

“While the weapons were officially ‘deployed’ to patrol prior to our administration calling them back in, we did not have any uses of the weapons while deployed and we still do not,” he continued. “They have only been used thus far in training scenarios or demonstrations.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that less-than-lethal weapons, especially those that use blunt trauma to neutralize their targets, such as those that fire rubber bullets, can cause serious injury or death if used improperly. There have been a number of instances where individuals protesting after the George Floyd killing, including journalists, suffered major injuries after getting hit with less-lethal projectiles. Infamously, in 2004, a Boston police officer killed Victoria Snelgrove, who had been out celebrating with the rest of the city after the Red Sox World Series win that year, after shooting her in the eye with an F.N. Model 303, which uses compressed air to fire riot control projectiles. An investigation later determined that the officer was not properly trained to use that weapon.

PSCO continues to deploy tasers and pepper spray as less-than-lethal options for its deputies. Critics have raised questions about possible risks to suspects from employing these weapons, as well as whether they lower the threshold for the use for force, to begin with. The ostensible goal, of course, of all of these less-lethal options, is to offer law enforcement personnel a practical alternative to using lethal force.

These debates are unlikely to be settled soon, though various law enforcement agencies are now reviewing their use of less-than-lethal weapons. But at least when it comes to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and its relatively exotic “traumatic pistols,” it had already been decided that it didn’t want its deputies carrying them on routine patrols.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.