Placeholder Image

A man leaves flowers near the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso. [AP/John Loche]

The Business of Guns

El Paso Shooter Coveted ‘Most Lethal’ Rifle Ammunition on the Market

The Russian-developed 8M3 rifle round is known for its ability to expand and fragment on impact, creating catastrophic wounds.

In a four-page screed suspected to have been released by the El Paso gunman, the author lamented that his WASR 10 rifle, an AK-47 variant, couldn’t match the lethality of an AR-15. So, to boost his weapon’s killing capacity, he sought out 8M3 ammunition, a hollow-point rifle round known for its ability to expand and fragment on impact, creating catastrophic wounds. The gunman described the 8M3 as a “bullet unlike any other.”

Police are yet to address whether or not the gunman successfully acquired and used 8M3 ammunition in the August 3 shooting that left 20 people dead and 26 injured. But if the shooter did, it could have had grave consequences for victims, making the work of emergency responders and trauma surgeons more difficult. And the fact that the 8M3 is available at all to American civilians stems from the deep-seated fervor among both some sellers and gun owners for ever-more lethal technology. 

The 8M3 was developed by the Russian military during the First Chechen War in the late ‘90s. Because of its uniquely destructive properties, the round is banned from use in international conflict under the Hague Convention. Russian forces only officially deployed the 8M3 during security and counterterrorism operations, missions that fall outside international warfare laws.

In the gun industry, military innovation often drives consumer habits. For several years, the 8M3 was imported to the United States and available commercially. But in 2002, production of the round slowed in Russia, and America’s supply all but vanished. 

The round’s devastating power and market scarcity earned it “mythical” status in the gun community. On shooting forums, the bullet has been described as the “jewel for self defense,” with gun owners seeking sources of leftover boxes. On one message board, aficinados described the “particularly nasty” round as perfect for a “SHTF” scenario, a common survivalist acronym that stands for “Shit Hits The Fan.” The poster urges readers to stockpile 8M3. “EVERYBODY should buy a case or two, minimum… you can buy cheap and stack deep!” Multiple sites hype the ammunition as ideal for cataclysmic scenarios. 

The most common type of rifle round is what’s known as full metal jacket. These rounds, comprised of soft metal enveloped in a layer of harder metal, remain relatively solid when they strike a target, often punching straight through the soft tissue of the human body. Bullets like the 8M3 are hollowpoints, and have a dimple at the tip, which encourages the metal to deform and expand on impact. The expansion inflicts more damage on tissue and organs.

Responding to consumer demand for 8M3, SG Ammo, an Oklahoma-based ammunition seller, jump-started the flow of 8M3 bullets back into the United States. In 2016, the company cut a deal with importers to become the exclusive carrier of the round through 2017. The round’s reintroduction to the American market prompted one gun website to ask whether it was the “most lethal” AK round available. 

SG Ammo sells an array of bulk ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds. The company is owned by Sam and Lala Gabbert and has been in operation since since 2001.

“Here at SGAmmo we love 7.62×39 ammo (and guns), and over the years had a large number of requests to locate 8M3 spec ammo that had gone extinct back around 2002,” read a promotional message on SG Ammo’s website upon release of the newly imported round. “We went to the manufacturer and importer of UCW ammo and put our $$$ where our mouth is and had it custom made for our clients.” 

To acquire the 8M3 from Russian manufacturers, SG Ammo partnered with Tulammo USA Inc., a Texas importer of Russian munitions. In May 2018, Tulammo USA came under fire for its close ties to sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Ed Grasso, Tulammo USA’s CEO, told ABC News that his company had no Russian citizens, or people from Russia, serving as board members or officers.

The 8M3 resurgence was met with great fanfare. “Folks, this is exactly what AK owners have been waiting for,” said reviewers at the The Firearms Blog. “The best part is the price.”

Although bloggers, shooting forums, and reviewers swear by the increased lethality of the ammunition, Sam Gabbert, an owner of SG Ammo, downplayed its effectiveness compared to other hollow-point rounds on the market. “There is a lot of misunderstanding, mostly due to internet legend that is more myth than fact,” he said.

Gabbert says that 8M3 ammunition stocks never really dried up in the U.S., and that the bullets were sold unmarked by major retailers. It was SG Ammo’s negotiations that got manufacturers and importers to label the ammo as 8M3 in a direct appeal to the thousands of customers requesting it.

Gabbert claims that the 8M3’s poor performance “led to a lot of consumer disappointment,” driving his company to discontinue the product four months ago. However, SG Ammo still offers the 8M3 bullets for sale on its website. A box of 100 rounds retails for $24.95. A box of 100 rounds retails for $24.95.