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I was reading on another question (this one) and was thinking "What if those bullets could return?" What I am looking for is:

  1. Practicality
  2. Cost effective
  3. Combat effective
  4. Manufacturability
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    $\begingroup$ You could put a small rocket/explosive charge in the bullet to fling it back after a certain distance. But then you'd have to be careful about shooting yourself! $\endgroup$ – moonheart08 May 10 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ "Bullets" are by definition inert kinetic projectiles. You may be thinking of some kind of missiles. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 10 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ On the practicality, "Why"? Return to where, and at what speed? $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson May 10 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ You could put a really strong string/rubber band on the bullet... like a cork gun. $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant May 10 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ Just to ask the question apparently nobody else has asked, do you actually mean "to return" like a boomerang returns to it's caster? As in, "I just sent that bullet out with enough E + Δv to destroy my enemy, but I'd like to recapture it and what I want to use is a baseball mitt?" Is that what you mean? Do you intend to use the bullet again? VTC OT:Unclear. I honestly am not sure what you're asking us to comment on or why. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 10 at 23:52

12 Answers 12

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Rather than modern "dumb" bullets, you could replace them with "smart" bullets that are actually tiny robots.

In Neal Stephensens Seveneves, they have to fight in close quarters in space-stations, so they have to have robot bullets that won't puncture the sides of the station, and instead become temporarily inert if they miss the target. Any kind of similar robot/nanobot, depending on what specific conditions, could be done to launch itself back after a certain distance (such as a bola splitting itself off after a while). Since your bullets may not have to kill, necessarily, you could have the gun provide the propulsion forward and the robot has the propulsion system backwards.

  1. Practicality - That is up to you as a creator, based on the situations and specifics you set up in your world

  2. Cost-effective - In a large enough quantity, and given the resources you write into your world, this changes wildly. In the aforementioned Seveneves, they are in space and their first order of business is to attach a giant asteroid to the ISS land it on the moon, giving them as much metal as they need. However, this is something that makes sense given the setting, so you need to figure it out.

  3. Combat-effective - Depends on the situations you write in. Even regular bullets aren't effective at all ranges: you want a handgun for at most 25 yards, a small rifle for 25 to 75 yards, various long rifles for from 75 yards to up to 2 miles, and something mounted to a ship or the ground for past that. You have to ask yourself these questions: When does the bullet start coming back? Is it after a certain amount of time? A certain distance? If it misses a pre-determined target?; Is the impact and penetration of the bullet lethal, or does using it as a bullet only serve to move whatever you actually want to hit the target?; What situations do these bullets get used in?; and finally, Which people use these bullets? It makes very little sense in modern terms for a tiny soldier to use a .50-cal as opposed to a M-16, and as such these are questions you should be answering.

  4. Manufacturability - Again, all in your world. Since it's a space-fairing civilization, they have at least basic manufacturing skills (maybe, one could build rockets and spaceships via craftsman). It could also depend on how new this returning bullet technology is, since having a few made in a lab once is much more difficult than if they found a standardized assembly-line process.

Deciding why you want to have these bullets h=may also help you find a solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Personally, I was picturing ship-to-ship munitions. But, since you bring up preventing hull breaches and non-lethal options, tasers could fill this role with much less complexity. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki May 11 at 18:11
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It is not practical, you would need to launch the bullet/projectile with enough fuel to:

  1. Stop its forward movement
  2. Start movement in reverse
  3. Slow down and stop when it got back.

At each step it would need enough fuel/energy to carry the fuel/energy for the remaining steps.

A person would not be able to handle the gun that held the bullet/projectile that would meet these requirements.

In space there is no atmosphere to slow the bullet/projectile

Newton's Three Laws of Motion

Newton's three laws of motion may be stated as follows:

  • Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.
  • Force equals mass times acceleration [ $ f(t)=m\,a(t)$ ].
  • For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Source

Edit/Maybe it could work?

If it was a short range weapon, with a monofilament wire connecting the projectile to the weapon.

Something like a high tech paddle ball and railgun combination. The projectile is fired with electromagnetic force. The wire stops the projectile and starts it's return. The projectile is stopped in the barrel of the gun with electromagnetic force similar to its launch.

You could rapid fire the same projectile multiple times per second.

The only challenge is collecting enough Unobtainium which is the only substance that that would stand up the strains for the wire and projectile,

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    $\begingroup$ So, basically a gun that shoots yo-yos $\endgroup$ – alexgbelov May 10 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ @alexgbelov I'm now picturing a gun that fires the "anger yoyo" from the TV series Monk. Thank you $\endgroup$ – GOATNine May 10 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ Yo-yo rifle actually sounds like a really cool weapon. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 10 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ psssst harpoons $\endgroup$ – Echox May 13 at 9:53
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This might be a stretch, but I think there's a way to do this and meet almost all of your points.

Fire your bullets while in orbit at velocities that don't cause them to leave orbit

This would require you to be orbiting a planet/star, but assuming your hypothetical space fighter was already orbiting a planet with the intent of defending it or attacking anything else also in orbit, and you've have a limited range of where you could fire and hope to see that ammunition again. If you can manage that, then any missed shots (that don't hit anything on their way around the planet) would end up back at a point that could easily be calculated upon firing. At that point, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and being ready to catch a bullet effectively being fired right back at you.

One problem with this approach is littering orbit with debris that's potentially much more dangerous than usual, so rounds that aren't caught or tracked instantly become a hazard to everyone in that bullet's path.

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It kind of sounds like you're possibly looking for something entirely different than what you might be first expecting:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_ram

  • Practicality?
  • Cost effective?
  • Combat effective?
  • Manufacturability?

Practicality of weapons in space actually tends towards 'slightly questionable' in reality, but you have unlimited ammo for as long as you have fuel [and that you haven't rammed something bigger and badder than yourself...] with no risk of stray shots going where you don't want them, assuming you retain navigational control.

As far as cost effectiveness goes, your "Ship as a bullet" means that you should be able to double up resource usage in its construction: As long as you're not getting flanked, your ram is pointed towards your enemy, and will double as added armour.

Combat effectiveness will depend on your ship design and what kind of ships you're facing off against, but it holds the potential to be very effective. [And you could also design the 'space ram' as some manner of bolt-driver or power hammer, so that it launches forward just before collision - Reducing the effect of the impact on your ship, while maximizing the impact on the target.]

Manufacturability, well, you're building heavily armoured ships anyway, and no longer need to worry about building guns or ammo to go on said ship... So I guess this might be a practical bonus?

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    $\begingroup$ Relevant: outlawstar.fandom.com/wiki/Grappler_arms $\endgroup$ – Muuski May 10 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Those, combined with a power-hammer bow, might make for some rather interesting and terrifying combat... $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless May 10 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Muuski Just don't try that in D&D. Everyone hates the grapple rules. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 10 at 21:38
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  1. These are explosive bullets: shells. They are fired towards their target and explode on impact or proximity.

  2. If they do not encounter a target within a finite amount of time then they use their explosive as rocket fuel, slowing their forward momentum and setting the shell on a return course along the path it came at an orderly pace.

  3. Returning shells can be collected, reloaded with explosive and used again.

  4. This is worth the effort because these are really awesome, fancy shells and you hate to waste them.

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The book, "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)" has an excellent example of this, although it relies on somewhat futuristic technology. He describes taking the same drive used for space travel (I think it was some kind of "gravitic drive" or other) and just sticking one into a remote-controlled steel sphere and using them like intelligent cannon balls. It gives him an edge against opponents who mostly are still stuck in the use-once exploding missile paradigm, especially since the protagonist decides he doesn't want his ship to be full of explosive materials for his own safety.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice idea! Hrm, like you say it wouldn't work with rockets (delta-V's expensive, and fuel's explosive!). But maybe it doesn't need much handwaving? If Dennis E Taylor's "steel cannonball" were replaced by some radioactive metal, maybe all you'd need is a hyperefficient ion drive venting out of the back of that? Like a depleted uranium cannonball, just less... depleted. No need for shielding, as you needn't bring it too close to your own ship, you could just have it fly alongside when not in use. Though I admit I'm unsure exactly how the ball would power that engine. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan May 13 at 14:53
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If you want it to return without any effort on your part, that's not going to be cost-effective or bullet-sized. You are essentially building an self guided missile (that doesn't carry explosive payload) that rams then returns.

There are two ways to make bullets less "wasteful":

1) What you could do is make it easier to RETRIEVE. You can make it with a special material that only responds to certain force (like certain metal with magnetism). That way, you can fire and then turn on your bullet-collection device and collect all the bullets.

2) Make bullets something you can salvage to create from the environment. You know how people fashion arrows from trees OR how slingshots can be used with random small rocks? Something like that, but more streamlined. Maybe some device that super-cools moisture in air into ice projectiles or a coilgun weapon that shoots any mass that can fit into your gun (so you can literally shoot tiny rocks).

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The projectiles could contain folded solar sail with solar cells and microchip - the controller. These would have to survive the firing intact, which isn't feasible especially in the case of railgun.

If this is feasible regardless (I smell phlebotinum), then after "I haven't hit anything" timeout the controller would deploy the sail and steer the bullet by combination of sailing and orbital mechanics. The trajectory could be preprogrammed, but solar flares may blow it off-track. So maybe there needs to be some navigation equipment included, such as star tracker (a mini-telescope).

With all this, we are speaking of multi-year delays, unless there's vast infrastructure to intercept the bullets nearby.

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    $\begingroup$ This only works if you fire towards the Sun. See sister site question Can you tack against the sun using a solar sail? $\endgroup$ – James Jenkins May 10 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ If the trajectory isn't actually hyperbolic relative to sun, just wait with the sail deployment till descend. Plus, I think space battles will use tactical advantages of planets/moons, this means even deeper gravity wells. $\endgroup$ – Juraj May 10 at 19:04
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Making a bullet return to the user would more than double the size of a bullet for it's lethality while increasing its complexity and cost WAY more than standard munitions because of the high-tech control devices required for such a projectile. So, it will basically fail all 4 of your goals.

Since the cited question expressly shows concern for stray fire causing collateral damage, I think a frame challenge is in order to answer this underlying question of how to limit the range of bullets in space to prevent accidental shooting things in the distance.

By firing explosive shells instead of solid slugs, your bullets could be given a fuse where by they would just blow up after N-seconds to prevent them from hitting something in the distant background. While the bullets will still have some debris, it will now be much smaller fragments similar to the micro-asteroids ships have to be designed to survive anyway. This answers your 4 requirements because explosive rounds are already a viable form of ammunition for mass production. All you need to do is add a simple fuse to existing designs similar to what you see in firecrackers or hand grenades.

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Guns in space with bullets that return?

  1. Practicality - Very impractical unless you can breed (research costs) these bullets to contain all the high quality components that are needed in a spaceship plus an explosive payload or the ability to hold a lot of kinetic energy. Plant based? Something robust that doesn't need a lot of care. Weedy growth?
  2. Cost effective - See above. The main advantage of bullets is that they're cheap and disposable. Autonomously returning bullets goes against that. But if, like above, you can cheaply grow your returning bullets you're golden.
  3. Combat effective - Greatly reduced against something else that spends 100% on its effective mass to be a dumb heavy bullet. Unless this is a bomb which has a lot more complicated guts. However if they function as more of an infection that turns your enemies into bullets then maybe it could be effective. But, again, we're moving away from classical bullet philosophy of "spray and pray" into a more complex paradigm.
  4. Manufacturability - See above. You'll need to grow them. Maybe from crystals? Maybe from your enemies?

Overall, no, whatever you do it's no longer a bullet.

However, self returning munitions opens up a whole complicated nest of problems:

Complexity vs Mass trade off. More complex means less reliable, but more functions. You can't get much simpler than a hunk of lead. You can't get more complex than an autonomous rocket ship.

How do you stop them from killing you? They return, but how fast? What about when they miss? Or when your enemy is able to hack their navigational systems.

Never forget "Using a weapon against your enemy is an invitation for them to do the same." So, if you come up with something to need to, simultaneously, come up with countermeasures.

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    $\begingroup$ Additional combat concern: Returning bullets tell your enemies where you are about to be to collect those bullets. They just have to fire their own barrage alongside your returning ammunition and you either get hit or don't get to collect your very expensive shiny bullets. $\endgroup$ – Muuski May 10 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ That is an excellent point. Overall returning bullets are a huge and unnecessary attack/threat surface. $\endgroup$ – kleer001 May 14 at 0:30
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Boomerbullets are an insect-sized breed of animals from the iron core of Jupiter. They are used to high-heat and high-pressure, and practically indestructible compared to fleshy humans. They feed on heat and if removed from their home planet they will gladly migrate towards a source of heat, such as a gun. Once in the chamber they will eagerly wait to be fired and then gently return for another fix.

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    $\begingroup$ What do they use for propulsion in the vacuum of space if they evolved to fly in a high pressure environment? $\endgroup$ – Muuski May 10 at 20:40
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As you are advanced enough for space combat, i'll assume any guidance issues solved. This makes the answer about energy only. A bullet has kinetic energy mv2, and any retrieval will have to at least match that energy, plus a little extra for the return journey (which should be much slower for safety purposes). As retrieving the bullet implies that there is substantial mass (relative to firing) left, the (chemical) energy content should be much higher, otherwise the whole bullet is rocket fuel, expending itself on the return.

Rocket fuel has energy on the order of (the equivalent of) an object travelling at a few thousand meters per second, which, sadly is probably below what you envision your bullets at. Some handwavy antimatter fuel could return bullets with original speeds way into the 100 000m/s area.

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