Railguns: A practical example of science fiction technology

In this article:

The Tauri Battlecruiser Daedalus engaging two Wraith hive ships with its railguns.

  • The railgun, so long a secondary weapon in various science fiction universes, is now a reality.
  • They are a completely different type of weapon and promise to exceed any cannon now in existence.
  • They can be easily incorporated into science fiction stories, and are adaptable to far more than weapons.

Erik has set up this week’s promised post beautifully in his appeal for examples of real, practical science fiction technology. We’ve had one demonstrated for us within the last month: the railgun. I believe that railguns, rather than nukes, will most likely be what humanity carries into space for defense.

Science fiction has made some notable use of the idea of railguns already, but they haven’t really caught on in the “stars”science fiction, meaning the universes with the biggest exposure and cultural impact.* I personally know of no reference to them in Star Wars or Star Trek, though Stargate began to incorporate them with Atlantis. They have been used extensively in sci-fi video games, including the Metal Gear, Red Faction, and Quake series. They have also been featured in Warhammer 40,000 and anime like Gundam and Macross. I have no doubt they are about to get much more popular for a simple reason: They’ve become reality.

An explanation of the science behind railguns from "How Stuff Works."

Railguns are surprisingly simple machines that are also revolutionary in a number of ways. Instead of propelling its ammunition by explosive force, railguns use electromagnetic energy. The devices use parallel rails that form a sort of barrel. A massive burst of electricity is transformed into an huge electromagnetic surge that pushes the projectile to incredible speeds. It is the first time in hundreds of years that humanity has developed a weapon that hasn’t relied on expanding gasses for its locomotion.

Railguns were first conceived back in the 1970s and were pushed forward as a result of President Ronald Reagan and his Strategic Defense Initiative. Over the past few years, the U.S. Navy has been testing a version it plans to use to replace the guns on its surface fleet. They’ve made rapid progress, going from concept to working model in a matter of only a year or two. Over the last few years they operated an experimental eight megajoule weapon, and last month they successfully tested one rated to thirty-three. The final product should be able to produce an incredible sixty-four megajoules.

To put this into perspective, a single megajoule (the unit of measure used to gauge the destructive power of naval weapons) is roughly equivalent to a one ton car impacting a target at roughly 100 miles per hour. When we multiply that by thirty-three or sixty-four, the results are spectacular.

Modern naval guns produce approximately nine megajoules of muzzle energy with each shot. The “baby” railgun produced nearly that amount of energy, and the thirty-three megajoule version tested last month more than triples it. A five inch naval gun has a range of about fifteen nautical miles. The finished railguns should have an effective range of over 250. Muzzle velocity in older weapons is measured in feet per second. (2,690 fps or approximately 1894 mph for a 16-inch heavy turret on an Iowa class battleship). The new railgun should clock in at Mach 7 when fired at sea level (5390 mph or 7905 fps) They will literally be able to launch projectiles into space (allowing them to hit targets all over the globe). The sheer force of impact is so powerful that explosive warheads are not even necessary, though designers are planning on adding guidance fins. Some pundits are arguing that there is no armor heavy enough to absorb an impact from a railgun, so it makes more sense to remove a ship’s armor, allowing projectiles to just pass through while doing the least damage possible. The naval railguns even have a significantly increased rate of fire over their explosive predecessors (though nothing like what we see Stargate: Atlantis…at least not yet).

A still from an actual test-firing of the Navy's railgun featured on Foxnews.com

The potential for a weapon like this in science fiction is nearly endless. Battles between ships over massive distances are completely practical. They might take on a flavor similar to the naval fights of World War II, though in three dimensions. Ships would line up in complex formations designed to maximize “fire”power, raining shells onto their enemies that would shatter structures to pieces and tear gaping holes in steel armor. Explosive weapons could be designed to bury themselves into a ship’s interior before detonation (using an enemy’s own atmosphere against them) and other projectiles might be built with radiological cores designed to disintegrate as they passed through a ship, poisoning the interior. There would always be the danger of over spray, putting planets and installations elsewhere in the system at risk. Interplanetary bombardment would be quite realistic using large, ground based cannons. Planetary defenses against invading fleets could be set up the same way. Further, they could be scaled up or down depending on the need.

But why stop with weapons? The same technology could be adapted to transportation and supply. Bases on other planets could be supplied by pods flung into space by railguns. Railguns could be used in asteroid mining, smashing planetoids into pieces allowing smaller craft to pick through the rubble for useful minerals. They could even be used for travel between systems a la Mass Effect.

I would encourage you to think through many of the smaller details of design that I do not have time to discuss here (i.e. the need for heat shielding on projectiles fired within an atmosphere to prevent them from disintegrating). If you have any thoughts or good examples, please share them in the comments.

*There is an apparent case to be made for including the word “star” in the title of your worlds if you want to make millions of dollars. I need a new title for my first book, since our upcoming e-zine nabbed the one I originally intended to use. Hmmm….








About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on December 30, 2010, in Brian Melton, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Stargate, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I love railguns, but the enormous energy required to operate them limits their applicability. The advantage of gas-based weaponry is that the explosives can be self-contained in separate rounds so that there is relatively little outside energy required to operate the weapon. With nuclear energy, there are very few reasons not to use railguns for heavy weapons, but would be very difficult and expensive to apply them to small arms, even if they would be more effective across the board. Of course, these limitations can be easily explained away in a science fiction story by saying (or not saying) that adequate battery technology and efficiency has allowed them to completely replace conventional firearms, but in our present day it still presents a problem.

  2. Railguns are great fun, and have been for many years in literature. Yes, use to deliver supplies to space has been considered, and is a real possibility. I don’t see how they could be used for people without a StarTrek level of inertial dampeners. Railguns produce massive acceleration for a short period of time, and that tends to be very bad on people. Still, delivering water, or sturdy food, or steel beams, would work.

    Also, Babylon 5 had a weapon called a ‘Mass Driver’. This is a type of railgun that uses a magnetic sling to propel a non-magnetic object (in this case, asteroids) down the barrel. They were banned by interplanetary treaty, as they are exclusively used for planetary bombardment. They were that show’s equivalent of nukes.

    • Good point about the inertial dampening. Turning a crew into chunky salsa is usually a bad thing. 🙂

      I don’t know if you’ve ever played the old Wing Commander series. They also had a mass driver weapon. Moderate power, high rate of fire, but I thought it was quite useful, especially on the Ferret scout craft.

  3. The Halo universe utilizes railguns for planetary protection and large space-faring vessels. They are denoted as Magnetic Accelerator Cannon (MAC) in that universe.

    • Good point. I’ve played all of Halo 1 and about half of Halo 3, but my job keeps me from playing as much as I’d like (not to mention the fact that multiplayer is basically impossible on a satellite internet connection). I’ll have to dive back into that, after I’m finished replaying Mass Effect 1 and 2.

  4. Technically, a bulky sniper rifle is all a railgun is….

    • Well, that’s somewhat analogous from the perspective of power and theoretical accuracy, but I think it misses the point in terms of propulsion. The real advancement is that it isn’t propelled by explosive force and so is, in theory, capable of much more. It’s the first time since the development of “fire”arms that we have a truly new type of weapon.

  5. Actually Star Wars does have railguns, they just aren’t common. They’re generally called “Verpine Shatter Guns” I’m not sure who was the first to use them, but the author Karen Traviss was the one who seemed to use them the most.

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