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If mankind in ~ 1000 years would still use chemical propellants for handheld weapons and their ammunition, how would they improve, given the following:

  • There has been no dark age, but constant research.
  • Energy weapons exist, but they are not as effective / too big/heavy to be hauled around by people.
  • The guns can not use advanced AI, which means target assist would be ok, but not a chip for instance, which detects all enemies around you (able to distinguish friend/foe) and shoots them automatically.
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  • $\begingroup$ Where's the cutoff for 'advanced' AI? After all, tracking bullets already exist. $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Jan 17 '15 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ That would be the point where the AI chooses the target (out of many) or shoots without human interaction. $\endgroup$ – openend Jan 17 '15 at 21:15
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Some suggestions:

Caseless ammunition

Caseless ammunition works and is lighter and more compact, the difference does not justify breaking compatibility with your existing ammunition types, but with a 1000 years of changing standards... Why not?

Explosive ammunition

Banned by convention and not really necessary against unarmored humans it is much more effective at getting energy to the target. Shaped charge ammunition works for enemies with heavy armor. Armor piercing explosive ammunition is lethal against targets with lighter armor. Shrapnel might replace shotguns against unarmored targets. Electroshock ammunition that uses piezoelectric effect to convert the bullet impact into high voltage electric shock might be available for non-lethal use. Low penetration shrapnel with pellets coated with chemical or biological agents might be an alternative. Most likely people would use some entirely separate system for non-lethal use.

Assisted aim

A range finder and a simple ballistic computer can adjust aim to match range and allow use of heavier ammunition in hand-held weapons. This is because the computer can help retain accuracy while the muzzle velocity is reduced. The computer would also calculate burst timing for shrapnel allowing a shotgun effect at relatively high range.

Situational safety

With slightly improved sensors the weapon might be able to recognize when you are trying to shoot a target with friendly transponder, empty space, a wall, the ground, the sun or moon. It might be able to recognize its current location and compare it to a stored map of areas containing hazardous materials or critical equipment. You can reasonably expect all licensed weapons to be able to recognize police and military transponders. Maybe even government buildings. There might be an international treaty that requires all manufactured civilian weapons to fail to shoot at police transponders.

Authentication

If the police and military have transponders and the guns can recognize it to prevent friendly fire, there is no reason why police or military weapons should fire without a detecting a transponder with the proper type within reach. Weapons could store any relevant data every time the gun is fired and automatically forward it to the relevant authorities. Most likely this would happen when the gun is returned to storage, but in urban areas this could happen immediately and allow the police to be automatically notified of any gunfights using licensed weapons within their jurisdiction.

Scopes

If the gun has sensors the sensor data can be shown on any display. This allows aiming the gun to more flexible with proper accessories. And even at default it might give superior low-light and long distance operation.

Evolutionary

Guns would have evolutionary improvements to recoil, flash, and noise suppression. In thousand years these unspecified improvements might have a noticeable effect. All the described technology would also be extremely mature and reliable by this time.

Note

These are general food for thought suggestions that skip lots of detail that I think is better left to the world builder. For example, I am skipping the civilian and political side of things as it depends of the political situation. Also skipping details of the security of the transponders and other "the devil is in the details" issues.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, thanks! This is really valueable food for thought and plot alike :) $\endgroup$ – openend Jan 17 '15 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ Re transponders, I think the problems are that a) transponder signals could be hacked/duplicated; b) anyone with a decent machine shop could build weapons without the transponder detection, or figure out how to bypass the detection system. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 17 '15 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf a) That is a matter of how good the security is. The point is that it prevents friendly fire accidents and killing of police with licensed weapons. If somebody can also hack it to protect themselves from being shot, well that's kind of cool, but the potential use and abuse would be pretty limited as very few people deliberately put themselves in a position to be shot, and the ones that do die pretty soon. b) Seeing as the only use is to shoot police officers, it would only be useful to criminals willing to risk long prison sentence to have a gunfight with the police. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 17 '15 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Transponders of any kind are really meant to reduce accidents and casual abuse and they can do that without being "hack" proof. Organised crime, terrorists, and covert agents would probably be the groups that abuse the problems you pointed out. And those groups are generally better dealt by professionals with some body armor and lots of training who make no assumptions about transponders working. Hacks of the system might be decent story elements, though. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 17 '15 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi: Transponders which are set up to protect civil servants go diametrically opposite of the way gun owners think today, and I'd be surprised if that would change, even in 1000 years. They are far too technologically complicated to be put in the chain between trigger-pull and bullet-moving. However, the challenge of designing a transponder system which DOES fit with the mindset of a gun owner and provides as much protection for civil servants as possible would spawn countless interesting plot points to explore. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 17 '15 at 21:29
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Gauss Guns

Rather than using chemical propulsion, as battery technology improves projectiles might be accelerated using electro-magnetism. One obvious benefit is simpler ammunition. Its just metal slugs. No cases, no propellant, no primers, no grime build-up on the weapon. If you look on YouTube, you can already see videos of hobbyist-built functional - though perhaps not military grade - gauss guns.

Rail Guns might also be in use. I don't know if they can be made small enough to be man portable, but they are very feasible as heavier weapons that might be mounted on vehicles or eventually tri-pods. The US Navy already has one deployed for trial purposes. Rail guns also use electricity, but they pass the current through the projectile, which causes the projectile to accelerate down a pair of rails.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks GrandmasterB. If I remember correctly, there was a limitation to the speed of the projectile, even with a massive energy source, which depends on the length of the accleration distance? I am actually very interested in both of these, but I imagine them beeing weapons mounted on vehicles/spaceships and not as personal weapons. $\endgroup$ – openend Jan 18 '15 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @openend: But that acceleration distance limit applies equally well (or perhaps more so) to gunpowder weapons. The bullet is being accelerated by the expansion of the hot gasses created by the burning propellant. Once it leaves the muzzle, the acceleration stops. Depending on barrel length and burning time, it might even fall off due to expansion as the bullet travels down the barrel. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 18 '15 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ What would be the advantage of handheld railguns/coilguns over chemical propellants with regard to prenetration/power? $\endgroup$ – openend Jan 18 '15 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ It seems to me that the only advantage would be that the projectiles would be easier to source and manufacture. Anything of suitable size which conducts electricity and has an aerodynamic shape could be used. $\endgroup$ – joeytwiddle Jan 18 '15 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @openend: I don't think there'd be much advantage, at least if we're sticking to power sources that are reasonable extrapolations of current technology. For naval weapons, the advantages are many: you can power them from the ship's reactor or turbines so don't have to store propellants, don't have the side-effects of hot propellant gasses, probably a higher rate of fire because you don't have to consider barrel heating, &c. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 19 '15 at 4:29
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Every round, once fired would function as a tracker and a surveillance device with audio, video and health-monitoring inputs. Telemetry and surveillance feeds would be collected in the bullet's memory and broadcast by radio using encrypted packets, every few seconds. This would be useful not only to confirm that your target is dead, but might also gather useful logistic and strategic information when his body is found and recovered by your enemy.

Each round would also carry a very small explosive charge, not enough to do much additional damage and not set to explode on contact. Rather, the charge would lay dormant whereever the bullet lodged itself until a digital radio signal from the rifle set it off. More of a ground tactics tool than a weapon, this on-call noise maker could provide just the right level of distraction during a prowling/hunter-prey scenario.

Simultaneously, rounds could be made durable. Using as of yet unknown metal handling techniques, bullets could be made so tough that they don't deform when fired. The advantage to having indestructable ammo is that it is reusable. After an area has been secured, use each bullet's integrated tracker to find it. Attach a new cartridge or non-cartridged propellant insert to each bullet, and put it back in the gun. The gun would then run some diagnostics on the bullet, check for unlikely but still possible deformation and then, if acceptable, return it to its inventory. Reusuable ammo would not always be a major asset, but in some long-term/low-supplied scenarios, it would be vital.

---edited to add one more ammo feature---

Brakes! Every round could be set to only travel a specified distance before deploying fins which stop spin and create bullet slowing drag. Then, in the microsecond after the bullet has stopped spinning, the top most fins bend all the way back, removing their drag effect and causing the bullet to change course and slam into the ground. The gun would give each round a maximum range as it is fired, allowing for a variety of curved trajectory uses such as firing over a intervening obstacle and having the bullets slam down into the people standing right behind it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indestructible rounds would go along great with liquid propellant stored in the gun itself. $\endgroup$ – Zan Lynx Jan 19 '15 at 2:29
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To complement to VilleNiemi's answer, I'll throw some ideas on gun and cybernetics. Those ideas only really work for active users like soldiers or police officers. They assume that the user is equipped with a special helmet or has cybernetic implants. That equipment could also be part of the weapon package sold to a civilian.

You might want to look at the military rifles from John Scalzi's Old man's war, most of those ideas are inspired by them. Those guns are basically telepathically controlled (from cybernetic technology), the owner must submit an electronic confirmation to shoot or input any command. They have no AI to speak off, but the weapon is completely computer controlled.

Authentication : This is something Ville already covered. So I will only add that, if cybernetics are in your world, they would be used for that and possibly to access other function.

Automatic monitoring

The gun can monitor how many ammunition are left and signal problems as they happen. Depending on the level of electronic technology available, they could be sent directly in the user's vision. Sent to a portable screen similar to google glasses. Or displayed on the gun itself.

Scope sight

If the communication and camera technology are advanced enough, the scope's image could be sent directly to the shooter's view. Like before, how it is seen depends on the level of cybernetics available.

Multiple ammunition types

If the gun is computerized, it can have more than one firing system or ammunition mechanism. For example, a military rifle could carry both standard rounds for soldiers and explosive rounds for armored targets. A rotating part similar to a revolver's barrel allows switching between them. The command could be a switch on the weapon or a mental command. This would surely quickly increase the weight of the weapon.

About computerized guns.

It might also be a good idea to take a loot at how mobile devices are developing. As more and more electronics are packed around a weapon, I could see the same kind of evolution happening in a much more focussed and utilitarian way. Here's a few ideas I have off the top of my head :

Synchronised weapons

A squad's guns synchronise so that only 1 person is controlling the firing of all of them. I could see each person having to pull the trigger to allow his gun to fire, but all weapons would only fire when the leader orders it.

I am not quite sure how this could be applied in a realistic setting. As the only way I see such a level of synchronisation being needed is for the opening volley against highly armored targets. Or against automated defences. These really depends on your world. This application would probably be limited to military settings.

Shared view

This is moving slightly away from the weapon themselves. But if the scope is sent to the officer's view directly, the same could be done to another officer's view. This could be used to show a target and to make sure everyone is ready to fire.

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Vernor Vinge's Peace War novel had smart guns with some cool features. In the story a character who doesn't know much about guns at all and isn't a good shot takes out a bunch of the enemy. He does it by holding down the trigger and waving the gun across the fight.

This works because the gun was computer controlled fully automatic. It sensed the targets coming under the sight, programmed the target data into the round and fired. Each round had the ability to track the target and guide itself. I definitely see that being doable.

Eye tracking and targeting. Very popular in cyberpunk novels and I can see this working easily. In fact, TrackingPoint is already nearly there. So you'd be wearing your Google Glass, or far more advanced contact lens version. It would have a Bluetooth link to the gun. It would show your gun's current bullet path in one mode. In the other the gun would aim itself at your eye's position, via servo motors on the barrel or using bullet guidance.

The servo motors will also be used to provide full stabilization. Just like the main gun on the Abrams tank. Firing accurately while running will be a thing. Making incredible sniper shots will also be something anyone can do. The range limitation will become based on line of sight and bullet velocity and stability. Breathing, heartbeat and hand jitter will be a thing of the past.

In 1,000 years I expect a lot of humans living in space. There would be a need for zero-G fighting. Many guns would include recoil cancellation using various techniques so that their user does not go flying around while shooting. Gun scopes may include orbital dynamics modes so that you don't miss while shooting at a target 10km away, and also so you don't shoot known satellites or even yourself 90 minutes later. The gun might also track all projectiles fired during the fight for later cleanup and avoidance. A gunfight in orbit could still be killing people years later otherwise.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Mr. Zan Lynx. I will use your info as a 'what to avoid list' :) They sound entirely plausible, but they are not in the direction I want this to turn out. $\endgroup$ – openend Jan 19 '15 at 16:37

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