WASHINGTON -- The FBI today examined the .22-caliber bullets that wounded President Reagan and three other men to determine if they were explosive fragmentation slugs designed for police use.
Officials disclosed late Thursday that the bullets fired from a 'Saturday night special' may have been a special type of ammunition manufactured for law enforcement use, but also sold to the general public by legally licensed firearms dealers.
The 'Devastator' bullets resemble regular .22-caliber hollow points, but the hollow cavity carries a matchhead-sized aluminum container filled with a compound used in cartridge primers.
Upon impact, the primer compound is supposed to explode, thus accelerating the fragmentation of the hollow-point bullet. They are meant to create shallow surface wounds, and are not intended for deep peetration.
The FBI ordered an examination of the bullets taken from Reagan's lung and the bodies of the other victims of the assassination attempt after agents searched the hotel room of the accused gunman, John W, Hinckley Jr., and found an ammunition box labeled 'Devastator.'
This prompted surgeons at Washington Hospital Center to call for volunteers to perform unscheduled surgery Thursday to remove a bullet from District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty. Hospital officials believed that if the bullet was indeed a Devastator, there was a chance if would explode at any time.
The head of the company that manufacturers the Devastator ammunition said, however, the bullets were designed to explode on impact and that only intense heat or a sharp blow could cause the primer compound to ignite.
There was no immediate evidence, meantime, that any of the bullets that struck Regan, Delahanty, White House press secretary Jim Brady and Secret Service man Tim McCarthy exploded on impact. The bullet that struck Reagan, and reportedly removed from his body in a mangled condition, is believed to have ricocheted from the presidental limousine.
Sandy L. Brygider, head of Bingham Ltd., in suburban Norcross, Ga., told United Press International the Devastator cartridges were produced by his firm chiefly for police use.
He said they were 'developed for defensive use and were were intended for quick fragmentation on impact rather than for deep penetration, and to 'stop' rather than kill.
'It would not create a very deep wound and yet it would be an effective wound as far as stopping someone,' Brygider said. 'It transmits all the energy of the bullet itself to the target and practically eliminates the chance of ricochet and thus eliminates the chance of striking a bystander.'
Brygider said his firm stopped making the Devastator about eight months ago, but that some of the ammunition remains on the shelves of some retail stores.
He said the Devastator bullets do not carry a large explosive charge but 'it does have a small element in the bullet itself which does ignite and creates a gaseous pressure. This pressure in turn causes the bullet to mushroom and fragment.'
Brygider said the FBI asked him Thursday if there was any chance a Devastator bullet still lodged in the neck of officer Delahanty cold explode during surgery.
He said he told the FBI that because the bullet requires a certain velocity to detonate, there was 'almost a zero chance that the bullet could ignite.'
After the FBI consulted with Brygider, surgeons removed the bullet without incident from Delahanty's neck and he was listed in good condition today.
Brygider said his Devastators were manufactured from regular hollow point bullets, the common expansion bullet normally used for hunting.
The explosive compound placed in the hollowed points, he said, is the same material used in cartridge primers -- the part of the cartridge that is struck by the firing pin of a rifle, pistol or shotgun. At the fall of the firing pin, the primer is ignited and sends a hot flame against the power charge and the gun is fired.
Primers, and presumably the primer charge in the Devastator bullets, cannot be ignited expect by sharp blows or intense heat.