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So first a bit of background. This universe I've created over time is a bit of a space opera military fiction, with enough science to make it seem plausible in specific circumstances.

Now the most common personal weapon is a sort of plasma projector. Generally these plasma rifles fire a bolt of plasma that travels quickly but has relatively low penetration. Due to the specific mechanics of these weapons, they have a hard cap on range, where the plasma dissipates, and they also have a recommended lethal range. Due to their relatively insignificant penetration and hard capped range, I'm thinking they may not be the most practical sniper weapons.

Instead for this role I've chosen a small, personal electromagnetic railgun, firing a small slug at hypersonic speeds. This could penetrate nearly any cover not reinforced against that exact sort of thing, and its range would be more than enough to cover most practical combat applications. So, is my logic sound?

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    $\begingroup$ This has got to be one of the least-implausible implausible scenarios I've seen here on worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ – iAdjunct Jul 4 '16 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate the input, but elaboration would help. $\endgroup$ – LUnacy45 Jul 4 '16 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ How far plasma shoots, 500m is good enough - specially taking in to account fact, it will toast tanks, aircrafts, vehicle's. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 4 '16 at 3:30
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An electromagnetic railgun, or its close relative the coilgun, would make excellent weapons for a military force so long as soldiers have access to high density energy storage devices to power them. Consider the railguns proposed for US Navy warships require essentially the entire power output of the ship to be diverted to power the weapon.

These weapons also have issues with power efficiency, especially railguns. The huge cloud of plasma you see following the round from this test weapon is heat energy eroding the rails behind the rapidly moving round:

enter image description here

While none of these issues are insurmountable, they do add a large level of difficulty which military commanders generally try to avoid. The best possible use for railgun would be as a heavy support weapon that would provide anti tank and bunker busting capabilities. A recoilless cannon could serve as an interesting model. The chemical energy of the explosive drives an MHD generator in the venturi (and kicks the round into the rails with some velocity to start the process), so the round can have the kinetic energy of a 120mm tank round in a man portable package.

enter image description here

So instead of using a railgun as sniper rifle (a Barrett or Mac .50 will do just fine), amp up the device to a support weapon and it will serve just fine.

As an aside, plasma weapons are essentially impossible since the plasma bolt will dissipate far too quickly, and generating plasma also involves generating a massive amount of energy very quickly, much the same objection to a rifle calibre railgun or coilgun.

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  • $\begingroup$ You know, I did see the video you got your first picture from, and if I recall correctly, what you see it the bullet after it penetrated the steel board you see as a dark shape in the background, and not the bullet eroding its rails (a good railgun-projectile wouldn't even touch its rails); still the process is far from being this silent as one would expect from a gun without powder... $\endgroup$ – Confused Merlin Jul 4 '16 at 10:06
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Seems good to me. The major issues with railguns are power systems both at the power source and the actual driving coils or whatever. But if you have plasma weapons, you should have the necessary power technology available.

And yes, solid slug would generally have better penetration and damage for the same energy. (Larger mass of projectile means lower velocity, which improves ratio of momentum to energy.) So if we assume that the power systems remain the main issue a railgun would have better damage and penetration. The benefit of energy weapons would be not needing to carry ammunition in addition to the power source, but with sniper rifles the goal is generally to make every shot count, so this is less of an issue than with most infantry weapons.

A benefit of solid projectiles worth mentioning is that they come in different types. You can have better armor penetration, better damage on soft targets such as people, incendiary effect for setting things in fire, and so on. These are available for anti-materiel rifles already. Range can be extended by adding a gas generator or even a rocket engine. Accuracy can be improved by adding a guidance system. These are available for cannon, but might be available for anti-materiel rifles in the future.

A railgun would probably also be harder to see, which is of value to snipers of all kinds.

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To elaborate on what some of the others have touched on, the real issue here in terms of plausibility will be the amount of energy it takes to operate railgun technology. It's very difficult to see how to generate that sort of power staying mobile in the field.

Still, from the point of view of fiction, if you can have a solution for this, there's no reason you can't offer portable railguns for sniping. Projectile weapons remain far more plausible than anything except augmented lasers (which, ironically are less plausible although more possible with current tech) and of these, the railgun is the most accurate, powerful, and sexy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! I'm guessing you don't yet have enough Reputation points to add comments. Most of your text would be better as a comment on existing solutions, in my opinion, but new users don't have access to comments because of the problem of drive by spam. Ah, the Internet. When answering a question that already has solid answers, try to focus on answering the question in a new way... in the future, if you're just elaborating on existing, prefer to add comments. When you get enough points to comment, consider coming back to fix this answer. For now, I'll let it stand. Welcome! $\endgroup$ – SRM Feb 5 '17 at 6:34
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What's wrong with conventional firearms? Modern sniper weapon systems are reasonably reliable, powerful, and accurate to over a kilometer depending on caliber. A rail gun that can be safely fired from the shoulder isn't going to be any more powerful than existing chemical propellant rifle technology simply due to Newton's third law. If you increase the amount of kinetic energy going down range and you'll increase the kinetic energy being transferred into the shooter's shoulder by the same amount. The energy going into the shooter is just transferred at a slower rate due the inertia of the gun itself. Force = Mass * Acceleration. The bullet has low mass relative to the rifle, so it is accelerated to a much higher velocity and thus delivers its energy to the target at a concentrated point in a very short period of time. The rifle has high mass relative to the bullet, so it is accelerated backwards into the shooter with an equal force, but at a much slower velocity, and it is spread out over a much larger surface area.

Additionally, until batteries come to match the energy density of modern smokeless propellant(even including the mass of the metal casings), your snipers are going to be lugging around more weight per shot (all else being equal) than if they used conventional ammunition cartridges.

However, if you really don't want conventional firearms for whatever reason, maybe you can look at micro-rocket propelled projectiles. Bullets are unpowered, they start dropping as soon as they leave the barrel/rails/coils of the weapon, so the shooter has to compensate by either zeroing the sights for a specific distance or using hold overs for various distances. A gun that fires microrockets would, in theory, have a flat trajectory. This was tried in real life in the 1960s with abysmal results. The Gyrojet had to accelerate to lethal velocity over several dozen meters (if you shot someone at spitting distance with it, the projectile would bounce off harmlessly) and suffered from wild inaccuracy. However, if the concept were revised to use a conventional firearms cartridge to initially propel the projectile to lethal velocity, then engage its rocket motor and fly the rest of the way to the target under its own power, you might have something. The rocket projectile might even be guided.

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