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Thread: Will Rail Guns Ever Replace Gunpowder Firearms?

  1. #1
    The User DemonDragonJ's Avatar
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    Default Will Rail Guns Ever Replace Gunpowder Firearms?

    A rail gun is a weapon the uses electromagnetism to fire a projectile, rather than gunpowder. The advantages of such a weapons are numerous and significant. First, with far fewer moving parts, there is less chance that the gun shall jam, and, in theory, it could have a far faster firing rate than a gunpowder firearm, if the technology were sufficiently advanced. Second, with no ignition of gunpowder, a rail gun generates less noise, heat, and recoil than a traditional firearm (obviously, there will still be some noise, heat, and recoil, due to the laws of physics, but they shall not be as great as those in a gunpowder firearm). Third, the velocity, and thus force, of a projectile fired by a rail gun can potentially be far greater than that of a bullet from a gunpowder firearm, and, even better, the velocity can be adjusted to suit the needs of the user.

    Of course, there are some problems with rail guns, however. First, the amount of electric voltage and current required to power them is so great that they are not yet feasible as commonplace weapons. Second, they are very large, and thus can fit on only massive vehicles, again limiting their use as handheld or otherwise portable weapons. Third, they still are very expensive, but that, plus the first two problems, may eventually be solved as time passes and the technology improves.

    What does everyone else say about this? Will rail guns ever replace gunpowder firearms?
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    Default Re: Will Rail Guns Ever Replace Gunpowder Firearms?

    i hope not, i enjoy my gunpowder guns! although even if they did replace them in the military gunpowder would still be around.
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    Anodized. Again. Konrad's Avatar
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    Default Re: Will Rail Guns Ever Replace Gunpowder Firearms?

    Kinetic railguns and ye olde gunpowder guns are both - in my mind - inferior to laser-based weaponry in terms of range, accuracy, and raw energy (damage) delivery over a distance.

    Electromagnetic acceleration and high-output lasers both require massive amounts of surge power. Capacitors and batteries capable of delivering such power have much less energy density than volatile gunpowder-type chemicals. Soldiers just won't ever lug around costly, bulky, heavy, limited-shot, slow-recharge, Star Wars weaponry when they can literally get more happy bang for the buck out of standard ballistic peashooters. A few dozen kilos of chemical battery backpack just can't put out as much hurt as a pocketful of ammo clips. And what hunter would want to eat a deer meat that's been blasted into videogame gibs by a spray of relativistic needles? People who might object to the technical inefficiencies inherent in gunpowder technologies are likely to be outvoted by horribly practical police and military demonstrations.

    Another important consideration is that basic firearms can be field stripped, repaired, and reassembled by (almost) any well-trained monkey. Professional gunsmithing craftsmanship, tools, precision CNC mills and lathes, etc, are not readily accessible nor understood nor even of much interest to most gun-toting rednecks (TBCS modding crew excepted, of course). Energy-based weaponry would have high failure rates in the field (electronics vs constantly abusive water immersion, temperature, and shock extremes) but would not be easily serviceable by the vast majority of users. I could see special-purpose large deployments on vehicular platforms, basically just industrial cutting tools welded into a tank or naval turret, but otherwise it's just not really viable compared to the popular alternative.
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    Will YOU be ready when the zombies rise? x88x's Avatar
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    Default Re: Will Rail Guns Ever Replace Gunpowder Firearms?

    Before I start in, let me first say, as much as the below might sometimes sound like I am tearing your arguments apart, I promise, it is in the best of intentions. This is a very interesting subject, and an area that I think there will be a lot of advancement over the next few decades.

    To answer your question as you seem to have intended it (ie, personal, hand-held, kinetic projectile weapons), the answer is "not for the forseeable future". Konrad already addressed most of the reasons why (energy density, portability, etc), so I'll focus on other applications.

    To take a few other applications into consideration, and address a few of the points raised so far, long version below.

    Quote Originally Posted by Konrad View Post
    Kinetic railguns and ye olde gunpowder guns are both - in my mind - inferior to laser-based weaponry in terms of range, accuracy, and raw energy (damage) delivery over a distance.
    Never underestimate the efficacy of a slug of metal travelling several times the speed of sound. Seriously. I'll go into numbers in a bit. Also, keep in mind that there are serious challenges with delivering a strong, coherent, laser through atmosphere at very large distances.

    Serviceability issues are simply a matter of maturing the technology. The issues you cite (special machinery, training, etc) could just as easily have been applied to firearms in the early days of any given technological revolution therein (matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, cartridge, repeated fire, etc). The early Gatling guns were notoriously prone to failure, for example.

    Quote Originally Posted by DemonDragonJ View Post
    A rail gun is a weapon the uses electromagnetism to fire a projectile, rather than gunpowder.
    Careful now, you could be describing two different things here.

    There are two different general design patterns for electromagnetic kinetic weapons: railguns and coilguns (also known as Gauss guns, linear accelerators, etc). These two designs operate on fundamentally different concepts.

    Coilguns are essentially a set of electromagnetic coils arranged in a row. The coils are pulsed in such a manner as to generate a moving magnetic field, pulling a ferrous projectile along the center of the coils, until it is finally released from one end. Unfortunately, because these fields operate over a distance, and due to the need to constantly switch on and off the various magnetic fields, they are often rather inefficient. According to a 2006 paper from Sandia National Laboratories, at the time they had created a design which had achieved a "high" level of efficiency at 22% efficient.

    Railguns, on the other hand, operate on a fundamentally different principle. Railguns are formed from a pair of parallel conductive rails (thus the name), between which a conductive projectile is placed. The rails are energized, and a current passes through one rail, across the projectile, and down the other rail. This current creates a strong magnetic field behind the projectile, pushing it forward. As the projectile moves forward, the magnetic field pushing it grows stronger and stronger, until finally the projectile passes the end of the rails and flies free. Due to the nature of the design, railguns tend to be more efficient than equivalent coilguns. Unfortunately, in my brief research I was not able to find any numbers on this...I suspect that all the interesting ones are probably classified.

    Quote Originally Posted by DemonDragonJ View Post
    The advantages of such a weapons are numerous and significant.
    You are making quite a few assumptions here, some of which are not all valid.

    Quote Originally Posted by DemonDragonJ View Post
    First, with far fewer moving parts, there is less chance that the gun shall jam, and, in theory, it could have a far faster firing rate than a gunpowder firearm, if the technology were sufficiently advanced.
    Fewer moving parts, yes, but not less complicated. The firing rate of any automatic projectile weapon is going to revolve around the firing process. The only part of the process which would be missing in an automatic fire electromagnetic kinetic weapon (EMK) would be the discharge of the spent round. Even this step is not needed in firearm designs which use caseless ammunition.

    There would, in fact, be an additional step for EMKs: charging the relevant energy storage devices. This could be addressed in several ways (multiple "rotating" banks, charging while the projectile is being loaded, etc), but it is something to consider.

    Quote Originally Posted by DemonDragonJ View Post
    Second, with no ignition of gunpowder, a rail gun generates less noise, heat, and recoil than a traditional firearm (obviously, there will still be some noise, heat, and recoil, due to the laws of physics, but they shall not be as great as those in a gunpowder firearm).
    Nooot exactly. From the videos I have seen, railguns do tend to be quieter than similarly powerful firearms (ok, cannons), but they are far from quiet. The sound is the least of your concerns though. The primary concerns of those that you raise are heat and recoil. If you watch the videos of some of the US Navy's railgun tests (I'll provide links later on), you can see that there is still significant recoil. And one of the issues that held up railgun development for decades was the immense heat that is generated as the projectile moves along the rails. From what I remember, the rails on early designs would only last for a few firings, by which time they were ablated from the: heat, friction, and electrical discharge that the projectile causes as it moves down the rails.

    Quote Originally Posted by DemonDragonJ View Post
    Third, the velocity, and thus force, of a projectile fired by a rail gun can potentially be far greater than that of a bullet from a gunpowder firearm, and, even better, the velocity can be adjusted to suit the needs of the user.
    Possibly, but not yet. With current technology, comparing modern naval weaponry, the muzzle velocity of the 5 inch guns used on existing US ships are in the same ballpark as the muzzle velocity of the first generation production rail guns that are starting to be deployed (there might just be one so far; not sure about that one).



    Now, having said all that, let's look at where the technology is currently (or, at least, the technology we're allowed to know about..not paranoid, just spent too much time close to the US DoD).

    Mark 45 5-inch artillery:
    Designed in the late 1960's, and put into production in 1971, these are currently the heavy guns of the many navies around the world. These guns deliver a 70-lb shell with a muzzle velocity of 2,650 ft/s, for a potential impact energy of ~33MJ. These guns have a range of ~12 nautical miles and can fire up to 20 rounds per minute.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/?title=5%22/...er_Mark_45_gun

    Railguns:
    The US Navy is currently fielding the first generation of production rail guns. These beauties deliver a 23-pound aerodynamic slug at a velocity of Mach 7 for an impact energy of roughly 32MJ. This gun has an estimated range "exceeding 100 miles", and each round costs ~$25k.

    http://arstechnica.com/information-t...il-gun-to-sea/
    http://www.wired.com/2014/04/electro...lgun-launcher/
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFCTzIGYeMk

    Lasers:
    The US Navy just last week announced that they have put into operation the first generation of production laser weapons. A 30kW laser, designed to "be used both as a blinding warning shot or as a weapon capable of setting fire to anti-ship arms or other threats to US warships, especially small, fast-moving targets". The reported firing costs vary, but they vary from $0.39 to $1.

    http://rt.com/usa/213583-navy-laser-gun-drones/
    http://arstechnica.com/information-t...n-this-summer/
    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2...ian-gulf-ship/

    Keep in mind, both the railgun and the laser mentioned above use enormous amounts of energy. There is a very good reason they are only deployed on what amount to floating, nuclear powered, cities.

    So, to summarize the long answer:
    No, I don't think that railguns (or lasers) will replace traditional, explosives-based, kinetic projectile weapons any time in the forseeable future. I think that there will be a place for both for a long time to come. In the examples above, the laser is used to take down small, close-by targets, while most of the discussion I have seen of the railgun is regarding it replacing missiles, not artillery. Furthermore, the use of lasers looks to be driven less by range or damage dealt, but rather by reaction time and cost.
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