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Or have we reached the limit of what we can do with kinetic energy weapons without resorting to, for instance, electromagnetic propulsion?

Futuristic settings usually depict chemically-powered weapons, when they are depicted at all, as being "bigger" (higher muzzle velocities or muzzle energies), and therefore "better". But is this realistic? Does making a bullet faster or more powerful than the weapons available today yield any tactical advantage whatsoever? More importantly, is it even possible? Or have we reached the limits of the speeds and energy levels attainable with ordinary chemical propellants?

At the core of this is the question, "Are tomorrow's weapons more likely to become stronger or more exotic?", which is a somewhat different topic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ideally you want a bullet that can pierce defenses (body armor, physical material concealment) and remain in the body. Projectiles with enough momentum or piercing ability to pass through are less effective than those that remain. Even better the projectile will twist and 'bounce around' in the chest of your enemy. More piercing and more momentum is primarily just to counter better defenses, or a tad to improve effective range. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Sep 13 '16 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ So a faster bullet would only be more effective if it mushroomed in the body or burst apart like a hollow point (or depending on how fast, a tiny grenade)? $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Sep 13 '16 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ Faster/larger is only more effective if it does a better job of getting itself into the intended target without exiting. Body Armor From the Future(tm) might require bigger/faster projectiles to counter it. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Sep 13 '16 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ Also not exactly tiny grenades, but if you want something more exotic than a hollow point: mic.com/articles/80211/… $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Sep 13 '16 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ Is it just small arms you are interested in? Not artillery shells and such like? $\endgroup$ – DrBob Sep 14 '16 at 18:33
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I completely disagree with most of the other answers. I believe future chemical weapons will be larger and more powerful for a very simple reason: they will have to be. Over the course of human history there has always been a "sword versus shield" balance that has tilted one way or another. The basic question: "does the standard weaponry of the day easily overcome the standard defenses most warriors will have?" is how you decide where you are on that spectrum. If technology has tilted one way and your enemy doesn't realize it yet, you can do some serious damage before he figures out what happened.

Examples: Thermopylae. Spartans knew that the standard defenses of the day (Hoplon/Greek style shield) easily overcame standard weapons of the day. They had a force totally optimized around a small group of elite warriors who are not easy to kill but which required significant money and time investment to field (hence smaller in number). The Persians had a massive army consisting of cheap cannon fodder including conscripted slaves. They were using the opposite paradigm. They "won" but at such a cost that it was a strategic loss.

The balance has shifted back and forth for centuries. In times when weapon lethality is dominant, large armies of cannon fodder are the way to go, in times when defenses are dominant, small armies of professional warriors dominate.

In medieval times, defensive technology had outstripped weapon lethality oncve again. Crusaders encountered armies many times their size and prevailed in many cases. Many accounts wrote of knights returning from battle covered in arrows like a porcupine, but with no major injuries. It was logistics that really stopped the crusaders of the earlier crusades, not technology or battles.

The pendulum came back with gunpowder. Armies organized around a small group of professional elites with good defensive technology were swept aside, but it took a while before someone really organized for optimum performance in the gunpowder era. If you look at Napoleon, it wasn't just that he was a good tactical commander, but what you have to understand is the revolutionary way that France had been totally transformed into a machine for churning out massive armies of cheap cannon fodder. Napoleon could crank out MULTIPLE 300,000+ man armies after burning through them one after another while his enemies struggled to keep one or two forces of that scale in the field. How? He basically created the modern nation state; a machine designed around the draft, which would efficiently crank out expendable soldiers capable of standing in a line and using very simple weapons, marching, and dying on command.

I won't go through WWI, WWII, The American Civil War, etc, but we have CLEARLY been in a "lethality" paradigm for a while now. WWII was almost completely a war of attrition.

What is interesting is that today we are undergoing a revolution in materials technology. Ceramic plates capable of stopping a machine gun round are normal for our military. That is totally revolutionary, and it turns Napoleon's paradigm on it's head. We can now make a warrior totally bulletproof. The only limitation is the weight of the armor. That puts us back somewhere between the Spartans and the European knights, which means that smaller, more professional, more skilled, and more expensive militaries will prevail (and we see this trend increasing, just compare WWII, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the recent war in Iraq).

Soon, the dominant paradigm will be VERY elite and professional lifelong warriors wearing 100% complete bulletproof armor suits and operating very complicated and high tech weapons, at a very high cost per warrior (so there will be few of them). In this environment chemical weapons will have to get more lethal (as melee weapons did all through the middle ages as engineers sought to penetrate ever better armor).

How? Given the limitations of chemical propellants already mentioned, think about some options:

1 If we solve the "armor weight" issue using some sort of robotic exoskeleton (as the US Army is currently working on) we have also allowed an infantryman to carry something closer to a .50 cal machine gun. We have also created a need for him to have more firepower since his opponents will probably be "bulletproof" to a typical light round like the .225 currently considered NATO standard.

2 Chemical propellants might have maximum expansion velocities, but we have already figured out how to optimize the technology in a few ways that aren't cost effective for a "cannon fodder" army but will be used in the new paradigm era. DU rounds drastically increase the mass of the bullet and thus it's ability to carry kinetic energy to target. As a side benefit, they also create burning gas sometimes, which increases lethality.

3 Discarding sabot ammunition minimizes the drag on a projectile while maximizing the power of your propellant. This is the direction "infantry" weapons will probably take as warriors have to overcome one another's ever better armor in years to come.

4 Rocket assisted ammunition can continue to accelerate after it has left the weapon. Advanced designs include the ability to mix and match rocket assisted and "conventional" ammunition in the same weapon.

5 Advanced "supergun" concepts designed to launch satellites have experimented with multiple, sequential firing chambers. Chamber one cooks off, bullet moves down the barrel, at a certain point, chamber 2 (halfway down the barrel) cooks off, and bullet gets even more energy. This could be miniaturized.

6 Explosive payloads can be integrated into larger caliber infantry weapons as a standard feature (once again, to overcome armor). Think miniaturized HEAT rounds (High Explosive Anti Tank) that form a plasma "jet" when the round comes into proximity with the target's armor.

7 Some nice new concepts like "metal storm" -electrically initiated conventional chemical projectiles and helical ammunition storage promise to radically increase the firing rate and ammunition storage possibilities of small arms.

Most of this stuff is already being done at the scale of vehicle weapons, tanks, etc. The difference is; as infantry get more armor, they are also going to start adapting these sorts of tactics to OVERCOME that same armor. This is already happening today. Unless there is a major technological sea change, expect the future to be more "starship troopers" (the book, not the idiotic movie) and less "red badge of glory".

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    $\begingroup$ A very good analysis. A shame it's so long. A bit of editing might garner more votes. In particular, the history lesson is great, but not required. Still, you get my vote, and an extra nod for the real Starship Troopers. $\endgroup$ – Lord Dust Sep 14 '16 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ I totally get it. I knew it was pretty long, but there is a historical case being made, and I looked over some of the long and detailed scientific explanations for things on some of the other posts here (in areas like physics, genetics, etc) and I thought: "why not history?" I do realize that 99% of the population does NOT like history nor want to read it, but it is still good for some useful insights, even if it isn't a hard science. $\endgroup$ – JBiggs Sep 16 '16 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer and yes, long, but "too long"? IMO no. I'd say it's fair to assume that anyone interested enough will read the entire text, and for the rest: well, there's lots of dumb-downed versions of everything on the Internet. That said, if you are looking for points, a TL;DR at the end is a good way of striking a balance between information and getting out to as many readers as possible. With drones and AI evolving at a massive rate I am more interested in what flesh-and-blood soldiers would actually do on a battlefield in the future. Programmers? PR-agents (hearts n' mind, etc)? $\endgroup$ – fantasia Sep 17 '16 at 3:32
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Short answer: Not really.

Longer answer: There's basically no chance of a revolutionary redesign of weaponry that'll give you higher muzzle velocities. Why? Because the maximum speed the propellant (the exploding gas in the barrel) can travel is tied to the speed of sound of the working fluid.

To shoot a projectile faster, you need to swap to a substance with a higher speed of sound. The gas with the highest speed of sound is Hydrogen. There's already a proposed Hydrogen canon for launching satellites into space. This is the most exotic change I can think of, and even then it's just a simple case of engineering the canon down to hand-held sizes. We use gunpowder today because it's good enough, and can be safely and conveniently carried about. That's not the case with Hydrogen.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this is true, there are several rifles today that have a higher muzzle velocity than 340 m/s (the speed of sound). For the bullet to go faster than the speed of sound doesn't the propellant have to move as fast? $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Sep 13 '16 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ That's the speed of sound of air. Specifically, air in approximately laboratory conditions (25C, 1 atmosphere pressure). Burning gunpowder is not air. $\endgroup$ – user6511 Sep 13 '16 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ The speed of sound increases and the pressure on the fluid increases right? So then a faster burning gunpowder will create more pressure and raise speed of sound in the chamber allowing faster propellant and faster shells right? How does this limit the top speed? $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Sep 13 '16 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ I'm no chemist, but I believe your logic is correct. Higher pressure means higher speed-of-sound, which means higher projectile velocity. At this point, it's probably best to ask a rocket scientist. $\endgroup$ – user6511 Sep 13 '16 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think the laws of nature are a perceived barrier so much as an insurmountable one. Heavier gases have slower speeds. I cited the fastest known gas, which not coincidentally is the lightest known gas. Find me an atom that has zero nucleons and I'll gladly update my answer. $\endgroup$ – user6511 Sep 15 '16 at 1:23
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Higher muzzle velocity or heavier bullet would mean stronger recoil. We already are at the limit. I'm a big guy, and I had trouble holding good old Colt. Professionals can use guns bit stronger, but there is only so much your hands can take. See this article to see how strong guns can get. And video at the end shows what happens when recoil is too strong.

Anti recoil mechanisms are complicated. They aren't popular in common guns. Patents were filled (https://www.google.com/patents/US7343844 https://www.google.com/patents/US3483648 https://www.google.com/patents/US7231944 etc) but apparently didn't get much market. And recoilless riffle is not practical for a hand gun - hot gases in the face are not acceptable.

The only way to make "bigger" acceptable in a hand gun would be to make recoilless acceptable: cheap, reliable, and light.

TL;DR Recoil. We don't want higher energies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Quite the contrary; for certain applications, we just keep making rifles bigger and bigger: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-materiel_rifle. Similarly, recoil compensation research also marches on: see newatlas.com/aa-12-combat-shotgun-frag-12-automatic/11393. These things aren't even cutting edge; there are still places to which chemical firearms can evolve. $\endgroup$ – Lord Dust Sep 14 '16 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @LordDust I said that anti-recoil systems must evolve for further progress. You say that contrary, anti recoil systems will evolve... why contrary? It looks we agree on that point? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Sep 14 '16 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ "We already are at the limit." No, we're not. Recoil compensation tech continues to evolve. "We already are at the limit." is the polar opposite of "We continue to make progress". How is that "agreeing"? "We don't want higher energies." Yes we do; we keep inventing more powerful rifles. "Anti recoil mechanisms are complicated. They aren't popular in common guns." No, they don't have to be complicated, and yes they are very popular in common guns, particularly handguns. If your answer is "Yes, guns can keep evolving", you've chosen a very bizarre and backwards way to say it. $\endgroup$ – Lord Dust Sep 14 '16 at 22:14
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The weapons of the future are in fact likely to become less lethal, more targeted, and less oriented toward killing, but more closely linked with information (tracking hostiles), capturing hostiles and controlling them.

This projection is in line with actual historical trends in reductions in violence while modernization and global connectivity progress across the globe.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/history-and-the-decline-of-human-violence/


Long Answer

It is concievable with some very sophisticated technology that the projectiles of future weapons could be formed merely of energy or operate based on stranger phenomena, perhaps travelling at close to light speeds.

Consider how the Earths magnetic field deflects solar ejecta and small, charged high-speed particles. In a similar fashion, a projectile which generates a very strong field, or a "node" projected in front of a projectile from the source location of the weapon, which operates on the same principles as an ultrasound tactile display, could be used to ionize and disperse matter in front of the projectile as it travels. This has the effect of providing the energy taken away from the projectile in the form of drag as it moves through the air or whichever substance presents a frictional barrier to reaching the target.

Granted, this is all very hand wavy and impractical, but one day that may not be the case.

Advantages to this? Your guess is as good as mine, but presumably, the increase in speed would level the playing field. In current warfare, with long range tracking, radar and visual, long range observation, we can detect the firing of weapons moments before impact, providing valuable lead time when the projectile is targeted at the observer. Faster moving projectiles, close to the speed of light for example, would have a velocity curve that does not decay and so lead time would be minimized to the point where the firing of the weapon and any signal that a weapon has fired would arrive at approximately the same time.

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