Toying With Guns


When it first came out, back in the 1960s, the rifle known as the M16 was dismissed by some soldiers as being “made by Mattel,” which, more famously, manufactured Barbie dolls. For a time, there was even a rumor that the gun had been made by Mattel. While its plastic grips and stock were actually highly advanced polymers that considerably lightened the weapon, they felt cheap and flimsy to men accustomed to handling the M1 Garand and the M14 — both sturdy guns constructed from wood and metal. 

Strangely enough, then, the New Scientist and Wired are reporting — by the same guy, David Hambling — that a toy company really is attempting to manufacture a military rifle. Thus (in the words of the New Scientist):

“A gun that fires variable speed bullets and which can be set to kill, wound or just inflict a bruise is being built by a US toy manufacturer. The weapon is based on technology used to propel toy rockets. Lund and Company Invention, a toy design studio based near Chicago, makes toy rockets that are powered by burning hydrogen obtained by electrolysing water. Now the company is being funded by the US army to adapt the technology to fire bullets instead.The US Army are interested in arming soldiers with weapons that can be switched between lethal and non-lethal modes. They asked Company Invention to make a rifle that can fire bullets at various speeds. The new weapon, called the Variable Velocity Weapon System or VWS, lets the soldier to use the same rifle for crowd control and combat, by altering the muzzle velocity. It could be loaded with “rubber bullets” designed only to deliver blunt impacts on a person, full-speed lethal rounds or projectiles somewhere between the two. Bruce Lund, the company’s CEO, says the gun works by mixing a liquid or gaseous fuel with air in a combustion chamber behind the bullet. This determines the explosive capability of the propellant and consequently the velocity of the bullet as it leaves the gun. “Projectile velocity varies from non-lethal at 10 metres, to lethal at 100 metres or more, as desired,” says Lund. The company says that the weapon produces less heat and light than traditional guns. It can also be made lighter and could have a high power setting for long-range sniping.”

I don’t know whether this technology is ever going to work. Achieving accuracy, for instance, is going to be tricky if soldiers have to learn to compensate for variable velocities at various ranges with different types of ammunition. So, a shooter may very well end up killing someone with a non-lethal round by aiming at, say, his torso but hitting his head by accident. Likewise, soldiers could mistakenly use non-lethal rounds during, shall we say, urban-combat situations requiring lethal force. If this rifle ever comes out of the initial planning stage, users are going to have undergo lengthy training.

Those are tactical questions, however. On a broader level, ever since 1945, armies have been looking for ways to integrate the close-quarters, high-volume firepower of the submachine gun with the long-range, high-accuracy ability of the semiautomatic rifle — to no avail. Some machines, in other words, are better suited to single-use capability (or doing one thing well) rather then weakened by making them serve in multiple roles (or doing many things not-very-well).

Variable-velocity weapons are the latest attempt to bridge the gap, only with non-lethal and lethal bullets rather than syncing firepower with marksmanship. In this case, it is posited that the same gun will be used for both crowd control and combat. These are widely different tasks, and I wonder whether it might not be simpler to just keep using separate tools for each job. 

Of course, it’s possible that, owing to onboard computers being able to calculate range, speed, and a host of other factors, a variable-velocity, non-lethal/lethal rifle is likely in our future. Maybe soldiers, like the Federation crew in Star Trek, will soon be able to “set phasers to stun.” But, nevertheless, the problem with such advanced technology is that when existing technology — e.g., the lowly gunpowder-and-metal cartridge — is so efficient, cheap, and widely available it’s very difficult to effect such a wholesale replacement as rapidly and as easily as the new technology’s proponents like to imagine. Change instead comes very, very slowly, often sputters or diverges in unexpected directions, or just halts and maybe even reverses. There are political, financial, social, and military considerations at every stage, and all it takes is a single decision by a middle-ranking administrator of some kind and the entire project can be terminated or postponed indefinitely.

As I pointed out in a previous posting (on the future of the M4), the army has been searching for a quantum technological leap forward for its next generation of rifles. Variable-velocity may very well be the Next Big Thing, but don’t bet your mortgage on it.

Posted by Alexander Rose,


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