Like lead-filled piñatas: the story of the Frangible Bullet Project, Duke’s largest military-funded research endeavor

For those who have sat in, worked in, or slept in Gross Hall (shout-out to all the Pratt stars), chances are you know very little about the building’s titular figure, Paul Magnus Gross. Particularly the fact that he led a team at Duke to design a novel bullet that would help thousands of American soldiers to more effectively shoot their targets during World War II.

Aerial gunners had an annoying job. Whereas all their pilot, navigator, and radio communications friends could accurately simulate wartime conditions in their training, the gunners were the ones either shooting at fake targets or just standing around with nothing to do. After all, if they were shooting with real bullets during training, let’s just say there would be no army left. However, since they had so little practice, they were wholly unprepared once they went into actual combat---and mortality rates were high as a result. This predicament frustrated Major Cameron D. Fairchild from the Harlingen Army Gunnery School in Harlingen, Texas. In 1942, he sent an impassioned but desperate letter to several major universities, calling for “possible aids in teaching gunnery under conditions simulating actual combat.” 

Of course, as chemistry professor, Chair of the Chemistry Department, and overall well-respected chemist at the time, Gross jumped at the opportunity. He immediately initiated a correspondence with Fairchild, envisioning a bullet that would do the work "of a real live piece of ammunition up to but minus the destructive effects.” But where does one begin in designing a bullet that won’t hurt anyone? Making a project like this work was literally a shot in the dark. 

One idea came from Dr. A. D. Moore from the University of Michigan, who suggested constructing the bullet out of glass. However, when Duke material scientists tried implementing this model, it proved to be far too expensive to be practical. Unsatisfied, Gross, along with his associate in the Chemistry department Dr. Marcus E. Hobbs, turned to none other than Big Plastic for assistance (you could say, to help troubleshoot their problem). Through their collaboration with the Bakelite Corporation, inventor of the world’s first synthetic plastic, by 1943 they put out a prototype for a bullet that could break upon impact, exploding like little lead-filled pinatas that were much less destructive than the standard. Conveniently, they called their product “frangible” bullets.

Over the next few years, Gross would secure a huge contract from the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to fund the “Frangible Bullet Project” in what is still Duke’s largest military research project of all time. Manufacturers at Bakelite produced thousands of “slugs” (lead-filled projectiles), which Duke scientists modified in machine shops for academic use. Duke professors J.H. Savior, Fritz London, Douglas Hill, Karl E. Zener, Fred Kuhn, and Katherine Jeffers, along with several special mechanics and machinists, contributed to the development, designing a special machine gun that could fire the frangible bullets. They even built a practice firing range in the attic of the chemistry building. By December 1944, nine manufacturing companies in partnership with Duke Chemistry churned out an impressive five million lead-filled Bakelite projectiles, ready for military use.

Note that these bullets were not toys, as they could cause damage through regular armor. However, upon contact with an aluminum alloy called duralumin, they were shown to only leave an insignificant smudge. As a result, Hobbs led efforts to cover the practice aircrafts with duralumin, along with installing an electrical nerve system to record hits, triggering a light at the nose of the plane if a hit was successful. So yes, at this point, the scientists had developed their own bullet, machine gun, and plane for American soldiers. Talk about the Duke Difference™. 

By the end of World War II, student gunners had fired 13,000,000 rounds of frangible bullets in seven American gunnery schools - all without injuring a single pilot of a target plane. While the project faded out of existence after the war, it earned Gross the Presidential Medal of Merit, along with a highly prosperous rest of his academic career as the Duke Dean of the Graduate School (1947-1952), then Dean of the University (1952-1958), and then Vice-President in the Educational Division (1949-1960). 

The sheer brilliance (or should I say, high caliber?) of all the Duke scientists and engineers that made the Frangible Bullet Project possible, especially during the worst years of the war, is truly awe-inspiring. This project also marked a crucial point in Duke’s history of establishing strong connections between academia, industry, and government, three monolithic circles that so often establish themselves as separate and non-collaborative. Whereas our dominant culture practically obligates us to pick one of these “lanes” like a fork in the road, it’s stories like the Frangible Bullet Project that demonstrate that most impactful work arises when these seemingly independent industries converge. 

But at the end of the day, while the frangible bullets didn’t injure any American soldiers, their use in training ultimately led to who-knows-how-many deaths in combat. Sure, killing is an inevitable part of battle, but perhaps one could argue that, at least for the last year of the war, the American execution of every, well, enemy execution, can be inextricably traced to the Duke name. It’s interesting because now Duke is much more well-known for its research in firearms law and gun violence prevention, not to mention that our current military-funded research projects are more related to mantis shrimp than weapons production. For Duke to start designing a new line of bullets would be much more heavily criticized now, even in light of the U.S.’s current involvement in numerous international conflicts. The general sentiment among students who are interested in navigating these complex global affairs on the sidelines (as in, not through direct military involvement like ROTC) seems to be more of a policy or security-based approach than weapons-based one. Nevertheless, it was the latter that brought upon great success for Gross and the Duke name, bringing significant post-war benefits to the Chemistry Department including a near $450,000 from the Army's Office of Ordnance Research (over $7 million in today’s money).

So in the advent of the next biggest conflict, will we be the ones advocating and legislating for peace deals? Or will we be the ones supplying the ammunition?

Monika Narain is a Trinity sophomore. Her columns run on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “Like lead-filled piñatas: the story of the Frangible Bullet Project, Duke’s largest military-funded research endeavor” on social media.