05 June 2012

FWS Armory: Rail Guns

Railgun. The very term comes with all manner of mental preconceptions, colored by inaccurate science fiction, the 1980's SDI program, and first person shooters. While other sci-fi weaponry, like laser swords and blasters still remain in the realm of fantasy, the Railgun is being developed by the US Navy. It is not just some blueprint pie-in-the-sky future weapon concept, but an actually working weapon that is targets for deployment in 2025. While Railguns seem sci-fi,. the concept of launching kinetic energy projectile via magnetic force has been around since the First World War, and the 3rd Reich Luftwaffe even drew up plans for the use of Railguns in Air defense Flak weaponry, but the easiest examples of an electric gun was from 1897, with the sci-fi book A Trip to Venus. Since the 1980's, Railguns have gain much popularity in science-fiction works as either a symbol of the lower technological standard, or a badass knockout punch weapon that tears the living shit out of an enemy target.  

What is a Railgun?
The heart of the Railgun is two parallel electro-magnetic conductive rails that are charged via massive amounts of electricity to propel a sabot at high-velocity speeds with no use of gunpowder or propellant of any kind.  Io9.com called the basic function of a Railgun: "Ejecting pieces of metal at phenomenal velocities" That is the basic idea, and it seems really simple...in theory. The biggest issue with fielding a lethal Railgun is the friction associated with the rail round movement creating  massive heat, and at times, a plasma plumage. Having opposing magnetic charged  rails creates a pulling effect, causing wear-and-tear. The largest issue preventing the fielding of Railguns is the power needed.

The difference between Gauss Guns and Rail Guns
These two different types of magnetic weaponry are often confused. Oddly enough, most Rail guns in sci-fi are actually mislabelled Gauss guns, in Staqrgate Atlantis for example. Rail guns used two conductive 'rails' to propel the kinetic projectile, while Gauss guns uses coils. Unlike Coilguns, Rail guns generate a great deal of heat via electricity and fiction, resulting in a plasma plume. This causes the need for the rails to be replaced after heavy use. Rail guns are being currently experimented with by the US Navy, and have shown to generate high velocities, while most of the military coilgun projects are still attempting to get off of the ground, due to their lack of producing HV speeds and need for switching between stages of coils.

Advantages of Railguns
  • Naval based Railguns will prevent warships from storing hazardous explosive
  • A smaller warship can carry more rail-rounds than missiles, and can be resupplied at sea
  • About 230 mile range for the Naval Railgun projectile that travels at 8,200 FPS
  • The cost of a rail-round projectile is cheaper than a $1.7 million dollar Tomahawk missile
  • Excellent armor penetration
  • Inception capability for hostile incoming missiles 
  • Can be used in space combat situations and asteroid defense.
  • Dual purpose: launching kinetic projectiles or space vehicles (mass driver)
Disadvantages of Railguns
  • Power consuming needs for a military-grade weapon. The US Navy Railgun is planned in the 64 MJ range, and requires 6 million amps!
  • High cost over the current tradition KEW turrets
  • Low rounds-per-miniature due to charging over the current naval turrets
  • ship must be shielded against the powerful EM fields
  • Heat generated by firing the Railgun wears out the rails inside the barrel, causing limited lifespan.
  • The plasma plume can be a dangerous to vehicle and/or local environment if the weapon system is land-based (grass fire or traceable thermal signature) 

Real-World Railguns
Despite the engineering challenges to fielding military grade Railguns, the US Navy is looking at warships being armed with Railguns in the 64MJ range that could propel at 8200 FPS. BAE Systems currently has a 32MJ testbed that fired a seven pound projectile at 5,400 MPH. The hope of the US Navy is to use the Railgun in a similar way to the current seaborne Tomahawk missile system, but to save space, money and increase lethality with the 300 mile range weapon.
Also, the Railgun round would be more effective against the standard counter-measures than a missile-based system, and I believe the damage of an on-target rail-round would be greater than a Tomahawk missile. We have seen the use of Tomahawk against land-based targets since the first Gulf War, and I wonder if the Naval Railgun would be as effective as the Tomahawk. 
 At present, the BAE Systems US Navy Railgun project is the only one close to a military grade weapon, and the US Navy motto for their Railgun project is Velocitas Eradico or "I am speed, and I destroy." Nice.  

Military Application of Railguns
When I was kid, President Reagan got the entire nation thinking about anti-ICBM space-based weapon platforms with laser and particle beams, but the heavy hitter was the Railgun. So, what can a current military organization do with a military-grade Railgun? In a defensive role, Railguns have been proposed to replace the rocket interception kill-vehicles based in Alaska.
In a future military setting, Railguns could be the primary hard-kill anti-capitol starship offensive weapon system. While explosives and nuclear weapons are less effective, the conditions in outer space lend themselves to Railgun technology, a single Rail-round projectile could slam into hull of a enemy warship, ripping thought the vessel, causing massive damage to the superstructure, and crippling the interior power and life support systems. As the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual put it, no warship could mount enough armor to defend against a direct rail-round hit. It is more likely that future armed forces that need to project power on many worlds, would reserve their Railguns for large armored planetside armored vehicles, like tanks or mobile artillery pieces, or even their space vehicles.
According to Internet rumor, it is believed that DARPA is eyeballing Railguns as a anti-tank weapon platform, similar to the M47 Dragon TOW launcher. This would crew-served weapon that would be stowed inside a APC/IFV, and broken out by the mechanized infantry to take down threats either in-field or in an urban setting. However, due to size and power needed for a Railgun that could propel a sabot at HV speeds to destroy an main battle tank or APC, it is unlikely that normal infantry would unitized a Rail-Rifle like an AK-47, or even as a anti-tank weapon. It is more likely that another EM-based KEW system would get the call for that planetry role: the lighter and more compact Gauss Gun.

The Helical Railgun
Some things are great by themselves, chocolate, peanut butter, then you combined them, and the results are much greater, like chocolate AND peanut butter, and that is the Helical Railgun, the combination of a Coilgun and Railgun. As far as I can research, the Helical Coil Launcher as never been developed in the real world.
Other Applications for Railguns
One of the limitations of space travel is the use of rockets, expensive, explosive rockets, and these chemical burn rockets will only complicate matters when we colonize Luna and Mars with fuel storage, launching pads. If the lunar colony is used to mine ores or Helium 3, than a low-cost delivery system to get the material into low orbit for pickup. That role would fall to a mass driver, which are basically larger Railguns used for other uses than kinetic penetration. Mass Drivers have been theorized for a low-cost launching system for getting manned and cargo modules into orbit, and received some research by NASA and the ESA. One estimate floating around the Internet is that a realistic Earth-based EM launching system would cost $1.3 billion dollars and be limited to 10,000 firings. Mass Drivers can also be used to shot ores into low orbit from pickup, which would be used on any mining colony.
While a Mass Driver was never constructed, the US Defense department fooled around with the idea HARP project in the 1960's for non-rocket spacecraft launching, instead of magnetics, the HARP was a massive artillery piece. The designer of HARP, was a Gerald Bull, and he would go later help the Iraqis develop their Project Babylon, massive hillside cannons to bombard Iran with SCUD NBC warheads.The project was ended by the 1st Gulf War and the Mossad assassination of Bull in Paris in 1990. After the 1st Gulf War, the UN found these massive hillside weapons. Now, on the Fox Mulder side of things, there could be a real planetside magnetic launcher system found on Mars, depending on what you believe. Some three miles from Hecates Tholus. in the Utopia is a 4.9km long with knobs at regular intervals, giving some, like Richard Hoagland to call this a 'linear accelerator'.

Railguns in Science Fiction
Railgun is a badass term that seems to convey its power and effectiveness across the public imagination with very little explanation, unlike Gauss Guns. This has worked for the concept of Railguns being placed in many sci-fi works. I recently read an article on Railguns on giantbomb.com that showed 90 video games featured Railguns. 90. The concept of propelling a projectile at high-velocity via magnetic fields without the use of gunpowder has been around since the just after the First World War, and some science fiction stories featured Mass Drivers/Railguns like 1966's the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, however it would take President Reagan to push the Railgun into the international spotlight.
 During the 1980's, the Reagan Administration made much out of the SDI and its future weapons systems, one being Railguns, causing a generation to grow up with the term, like me. Then were some who believe that Railguns would deployed for land combat. I can remember in military magazines at the time, artists renders of Railgun tanks. This caused Railguns to receive attention unlike any time before, fuelling its appearance into paper-and-pen RPGs, like Traveller and Rifts. Another piece of Railgun history in mass media was the badly designed, but badass-cool EM-1 Railgun from the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Eraser. According to IMFDB.org, the EM-1 fires aluminum rounds from a magazine at near the speed of light, which is such Hollywood bullshit if you stop to think of it. There is no way, now or most likely ever, than an infantry man-portable KEW system could fire an projectile at the speed light without need of  a HMMUV-sized battery pack! Then there is the heat/plasma plume from such a discharge, and the best...need. Why would you need to accelerate a projectile at the speed-of-light to kill normal humans? However, the coolness factor of the EM-1 caused the man-portable Railgun to be created from many shooters video game for years to come, like Quake, Red Fiction, and Prefect Dark. Railguns are features in the Revelation Space Universe Alastair Reynolds, the Fallout series of games, and the X-COM universe. There was also another hand-held Railgun featured in 1993 Demolition Man, which was a redressed H&K G11casless rifle.
At times within sci-fi works, Mass Drivers are used for dual-purposes, like the Sun-Gun from the 1993-1994 ALIENS: The Colonial Marine limited Dark Horse comic series, where old toxic waste from Earth is fired into the sun via a massive Railgun. This dual use is also seen in HALO:Reach with the Mass Drive cannon at the ship-breaking yard, its original purpose was to fire nuclear waste into the Epsilon Indi star, however, it was repurposed by Noble Team to defend the Pillar of Autumn. There has been debate about the nature of the main cannons on the Galactica and Pegasus, some sites list these massive manned battery cannons in the reimagined series as being Railguns, however, some sources claim that they are traditional chemically propelled shells.
Mass Driver being used as a  launching systems are seen in  the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are used rarely in sci-fi today, such examples are seen in the magnetic launchers in Battlestar Galactica, the NX test space plane vehicles used in early  2140's were launched from Earth via magnetic launchers as seen in the episode "First Flight" from Star Trek: Enterprise. The mining aspect of Mass Drivers usage was seen in the second season episode of Andromeda "Exit Strategies", when the Maru crash lands and falls through into a cave complex. The crew discovers that the tunnels were actually used to harvest ores via organic mining organism called Squorm, then the refined ores are launched into orbit via a underground magnetic acceleration rings. The first term I heard the term 'Mass Driver' was in the the Marvel comic Alien Legion issue number 16 from the second series, when Force Nomad is deployed to root out terrorist inside a massive Mass Driver complex.

Examples in Sci-Fi

 Asymmetric Recoiless Carbine 920 From HALO 4
In the upcoming HALO 4, the UNSC has fieled a man-portable Railgun, the  Asymmetric Recoilless Carbine-920 constructed by Acheron Security. This new additional to the UNSC armory is take over the role of the SPARTAN Laser, but will not able to take down vehicles in the same way. Since the game is months out, we still know very little about this weapons. Here is the official word on the ARC-920:
"The ARC-920 Railgun is a compact-channel linear accelerator that fires a high-explosive round at incredible speed, delivering both kinetic and explosive force to both hard and soft targets alike."

Tau Rail Rifle from Warhammer 40K and Firewarrior (PS2)
My favorite species in the Warhammer 40k universe is the Tau, and they are the only species to use the magnetic heavy hitters in the games. These are mounted on their battlesuits and gunships, but also used by their infantry. The Tau Rail rifle is one of the more realistic designs for an man-portable Railgun, and is used for punching through Imperium powered armor and in a sniper role. In the 2003 PS2 Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior game, the player is a Tau warrior, and uses all manner of weapons, including the Tau Railgun in the latter stages of the game, and best used for taking down the heavier targets, like Chaos Space Marines. I was impressed on the design and realistic nature of the Railgun in the game, especially how the electric arches between the rails.

SDF-1 Rail Cannons from Robotech Macross Saga
Zor's personal armed science vessel, the Visitor was retrofitted by the Terrans into the SDF-1 and launched in 2009 with combinations of Earth and alien robotechnology. Much like the Earth warships in the Stargate TV series, where the starship itself is alien and far beyond the Terran technology level, the weapons for the most part is current technology. The RDF mounted the heaviest Earth-bound weapon in their arsenal, the Railgun.
According to the Robotech RPG, the four long shoulder cannons are Railguns that fire an explosive shell...which is completely scientifically wrong. The kinetic impact of the rail projectile would be more than enough.

SA-43 Hammerhead from Space:Above and Beyond
How could there be a FWS blogpost without at least one reference to either Space: Above and Beyond or Starship Troopers? The standard attack jet in 2063 is the SA-43 Hammerhead and mounted to the front firing arch, is a single barreled gimbal-mounted rapid fire railgun. On its back, defending the rear arch of the fighters is a  dual-barrel aft-mounted railgun, and was auto-target seeking and tracking. I would think that in reality, the Hammerhead would actually be equipped with Gauss cannons, due to on-screen usage of the cannons.

Centauri ship-mounted Mass Driver from Babylon 5
Nothing says pounding back to the stone age more than the example given in the 1994 episode, the long twilight struggle of Babylon 5, when the Centauri Republic finally reaches the Narn homeworld, and unleashed illegal mass drivers. These were banned by the League of Nonaligned Worlds due to their destructive power, but the Centauri mounted mass drivers to their Primus class warships to accelerate asteroids for orbital bombardment of Narn. It took four days until the Narn Regime surrendered the planet to their former overlords. This use of Railguns was of the more memorable in sci-fi, and Babylon 5 producers may have gotten the idea from the film The Last Starfighter where the Ko-Dan use Mass Drivers to propel meteors at HV speeds.

The Sulaco Rail cannon turrets from ALIENS 
According to the 1996 ALIENS: Colonial Marine Technical Manual, the USASF Sulaco mounts two Railgun turrets that fire two types of kinetic penetrators both around the 200grams at the speed of 12 kps and normally used at 100 kilometers range during orbital ship-to-ship engagements. In the ALIENS universe, the Railgun is primary anti-ship weapon, but since the Railgun is not a DEW, and cannot move at the speed of light, the target ship is able to avoid the killer-blow. However, like the laser and particle DEW systems onboard the Sulaco, the Railguns are able to be fired at 30 rounds-per-minute, creating salvos of lethal incoming shells, attempting to counter a dodging warship.

Railguns from Stargate: Atlantis
The idea of high-technology, like portals to distant worlds, FTL warships, coupled  with low-technology, like current human technology was one of the ascept about the Stargate universe that always fanastianed me. No where can that be seen more clearly than when than the very advanced Earth Daedelus-class warships that was fitted with advanced Asguard energy shielding and FTL drives, but it used current human weaponry, like nukes and Railguns. I have issues with the way that the show projected the Railgun. Unlike HALO or even 1988's Earth Star Voyager, the Railguns on the Daedalus are rapid-fire, and have little effect on the enemy vessels. Even with energy shielding, Railguns would possess a serious threat, and Atlantis just dropped the ball. I could see a connection between the Mass Drivers in the Wing Commander universe and the Atlantis ship-based Railguns.

 Mass Accelerator Weapons technology  from the Mass Effect universe
Some of the most inventive weaponry in the last few years in MSF has been in the excellent Mass Effect series (all expect the fucking ending to 3!). and the vast majority of weapons seen in the games are a far-future Railgun that uses mass accelerator fields to flung a shaved piece of dense metal at HV speeds for kinetic damage to the target. Element Zero is used to lighten the mass of the projectile, much like the GFGs in Andromeda TV series, and different projectiles are used through the games. Thermal buildup is still an issue in the first game, but the second game that takes place years later, thermal clips are used to capture the heat and eject it via capsules.

Metal Gear Solid
Some themes run throughout the Metal Gear games, and besides smoking, stealth, walking mecha, there is Railguns. The Metal Gear known as REX used Railgun technology to magnetically launch nuclear weapons without the telltale launch signature of the rocket. It was considered a first-strike weapon. Man portable variants would appear in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as a prototype with bugs, and then a more finished combat weapon in Metal Gear Solid 4 

Homebrew Rail cannon from Earth Star Voyager (1988)
In 1988, Disney aired on ABC, a made-for-TV movie pilot called Earth Star Voyager. The basic plot had a sick Earth in 2088 on its last legs, fuelling an expedition to the Barnard's Star system to survey  an atmospheric standard world called Demeter for colonization. Due to the limitations of FTL systems (called the Bowman Drive), the crew was mostly made up of very young astronauts. The crew soon finds themselves involved in a massive plot by Earth's military and cybernetic pirates from the last great war on Earth. To defend themselves, the original unarmed Earth Star Voyager constructs an homebrew Railgun that fires rather small projectiles at the Earth Warship the Triton Corsair, who use a solar-powered laser system. The battles ends with the Triton Corsair moving off, and the Earth Star Voyager returning to Demeter. Earth Star Voyager may be the first live-action show to show a realistic Railgun used in space warfare.

Railgun from the QUAKE universe
Eat my Rail-round, mother frakker!
In the original Playstation 'port of the PC Quake 2, this KEW mega-damage weapon was called a 'coilgun', however on the computer and later games, this man portable EM KEW system were called Railguns. To be honest, I don't thinks it makes much of a difference, and it planted both EM weapons  terms into the minds of gamers, and this FPS weapon was a joy to use against the Strogg and other players. However, the Railgun is just not as cool as the nailgun from the original 1996 game. Pity.


  1. Good post, William- this is rather well researched!! You proofread it well, too, which makes it easier to read. I find railguns and mass drivers fascinating because such weapons take one of the oldest concepts in warfare- hurling a massive object at a foe- and make it exotic and futuristic.

    Kinetic weapons like railguns will be extremely damaging in space combat due to the high speed of the projectiles. However, the long lag between when the weapon is fired and when the round hits the target increases the chance that the shot will miss. One of the major problems in space combat will be weapon lag, and physical bullets don't move at the speed of light like lasers or chase targets like missiles. Then again, a railgun round is cheaper and smaller than a missile, so a spaceship can carry far more railgun shots than missiles.

    Ordinary chemical cannons are probably not very useful in space combat, since the shells they fire move so much more slowly than the target spacecraft do. The shells cannot outrace the gas molecules that push the shell down the barrel, and the gas produced by modern day smokeless powder is far to heavy and slow to fire a bullet at useful velocities. At typical interplanetary velocities, the target spacecraft will move several kilometers by the time the shell even emerges from an ordinary cannon's barrel!! So much for the BSG packing ordinary guns- you can take "naturalistic SF" to far. Hypervelocity electromagnetic railguns and coilguns are the only feasible choice for space cannons.

    Atomic Rockets mentioned two articles on space warfare published in the 1930s. One of them proved to everybody's satisfaction that spacecraft would carry guns, not missiles, because a spacecraft could carry far more shells than missiles in the same amount of space. The other article pointed at the problems I stated above, and suggested the real rocket cruisers will deploy kinetic mines and missiles, which the physics shows will work. However, if we start mounting hypervelocity electromagnetic cannons on our spaceships, the equation may shift toward gun-packing spacecraft again. Railgun rounds weigh less than missiles.

    Handheld railguns are problematic due to the power requirements and rail erosion. Perhaps we would want one if we ever need to penetrate futuristic armor, or something like that. The barrels could be designed to be easily replaced, a bit like how a machine gun operator will quickly remove a worn barrel and replace it with a new one.

    I could imagine that some kind of personal hyper-velocity weapon might be designed by someone who really, really wanted a ray-gun but never got one. If you fire a small bullet at very high speeds, it might erode into plasma and make a nice trail of fire before piercing a target, a little like a pulp SF ray-gun.

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. I see your point about chemically driven KEW in space and the replaceable barrels for handheld Railguns. That is one of the reason that I didn't put railguns in my novel. Barrel replacement would be too difficult with armored power suits. The last thing I want to be hit with in space is a railgun...I'll take a raygun any day!

  3. Unless it is a five megawatt microwave pistol- you'd explode into a pink mist. Star Trek and it's ilk tend to show beam weapons as being so clean and sterile- either stunning people, knocking them over dead without any visible wounds, or conveniently vaporizing objects and occasionally cutting through inanimate objects- but the reality of a lethal death beam would be much uglier. Imagine some kind of beam burning a hole in your body, or boiling your insides until you burst- I think it is much better to not be hit by any of these weapons!! Did you arm the soldiers in your novel with coilguns instead of railguns?

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. Set phasers to boil!
    The main unit in Endangered Species is an armored power unit, ODA-229, and within the 32 suits, most are shooters, armed with 25mm caseless KEW cannons, like the M2 Bradley Bushmaster. The Gauss Guns used by about four suits in the team are used for specialized purposes, like specific targets, interception work. The few times when the drivers of these suits use small arms, they are mostly 6mm caseless carbines, and a specially developed PDW for APS units. The final draft of the book will be done by August.

  5. HELO!!! Railguns WILL NEVER be used in space. With out an atmosphere. Like my star ship using the MAC canon would rip through your hull. And your railgun wan`t do the dameg that you think. I love railguns but in reallity the railgun is strongest in atmosphere while the MAC canon is strongest in space. By the way nucks have not lost it`s title of the strongest weapon and running 2nd in space because of no friction.

    1. All I can find on MAC cannons are from halo. Can you show sources

    2. MAC does stand for Magnetic Accelerator Cannon (Coil/Gauss Gun or Railguns). it is often used term in the HALO universe, he probably thinks that because MACs are used in Spaceships and the Railgun
      (ARC-920) in atmosphere in HALO that they are the best in their dedicated environment.

  6. You have explained rail Gun with complete demonstration. Good job

  7. would an explosive even work in space? There is no oxygen or gases to fuel the fire (trigger, explosion)...

  8. The primary issue is that effect of explosions gets its teeth taken out in space, like nukes, and most explosions could be bright flashes, not fireballs in the traditional sense.
    Here is a great answer:

  9. Have you looked into explosively driven flux compressors? These devices are completely real (and easy to make), and the military would most likely use them to power a man portable railgun to kill tanks and what not.