Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part II)

This is the second part in a series. To see the first part, click here.

Hello and welcome back! This week we’ll be continuing my series on small arms in science fiction, and after talking about how you might use lasers to fill this role, this time let’s talk about railguns and how they might work in your story. To start, let’s briefly take a look at how they work.

Sort of Like an Electric Model Train, Except With Bullets

Image credit goes to the great HowStuffWorks article on railguns:

Ok, not really. A Railgun is a projectile cannon that launches its ammunition through the use of electronic pulses and electro-magnetism, instead of the typical charge and bullet method seen in traditional firearms. Using two “rails” or long guiding tracks made of conductive metal, a railgun can launch a projectile at very high speed and penetrate several feet of armor by way of kinetic force alone, with no explosive warhead (although one may be used if desired).

The system works by a trick of physics where magnetic fields are generated around each rail when the electricity is applied to them, and the current flows through the “armature” (a sort of metal bridge, the U-shaped end shown at 1:30 of the video below) behind the ammunition between the rails. As the current flows, a force is generated in the direction of the end of the barrel, and the projectile is pulled down the tracks.

The In’s and Out’s of Electric Guns

As Dr. Melton has already discussed in one of his own posts, this weapon is already being researched by the U.S. Navy for use on its battleships, but can this unique technology be employed for small arms? Well, here are some considerations involved with using this method, that would affect railguns both large and small:


  • Hard Hitting: The kinetic forces generated by the impact of a projectile from this weapon can be devastating, acting almost like an explosive simply due to the friction and air pressure involved. The video above offers an example (actually fires at 3:10) of the kind of destruction possible with this weapon (notice the explosion- that’s all just the air igniting as the projectile strikes the target), and as you can see, it can be incredibly powerful. The “bullet” still has a travel time as in traditional firearms, but its delivery of force is much more direct and can have a much higher penetration power.
  • Long Range: The U.S. Navy’s current Railgun project is estimated to achieve a range of about 230 miles, compared to its current weapons which reach less than 20 miles inland. Scaling this down for small arms (assuming the energy required and other factors make this possible), it is possible that such a more than 10-fold increase in range, all with a higher velocity and accuracy than is possible with conventional firearms.
  • Compact Ammunition: In the case of Naval weapons, the rounds fired out of those tree-sized guns take a lot of propellant per shot, which adds up to quite a lot of room needed to store shells. With railguns, there is no propellant, and so the rounds are much more compact. This could translate to small arms as well, allowing weapons to hold much more ammunition than typical modern weapons.


  • Energy Source: just as with laser weapons, railguns take a lot of energy to fire. The Navy’s prototype currently requires millions of volts of electricity to operate, and on a smaller scale the weapons would be similarly limited.
  • Resistive Heating: When you’re trying to pump that much current through something, the material starts to heat up due to resistance (examples: incandescent lightbulbs, electric stoves, electric ovens). This can be a major problem with railguns too, as the more powerful they are the more heat they generate. Think about what your characters might have to do to mitigate this issue.
  • Magnetic Forces: Since railguns work by using forces of magnetism, that could be a problem for many reasons. It could be a hazard to equipment, it could be detected by many kinds of sensors (so snipers would have to be adequately shielded so as not to be easily found), and the stresses in the gun itself from the conflicting magnetic fields could be dangerous. These potential dangers could add a certain note of tension to the use of these weapons, with characters afraid of but prepared for inevitable weapon failures.
  • Recoil: Fired at sea, the recoil of large guns gets absorbed by the water. Recoil is directly affected by the velocity of the projectile being fired, so railguns could have a pretty hefty kick. This could be solved with smaller projectiles and the energy of the shot would still have devastating effect.

These are just a few things to think of if you wanted to adopt railguns as your small arms of choice. From this list there appear to be more cons than pros, but the benefits of railguns are significant enough as to outweigh many of the problems. Generally, current technology makes larger, mounted railguns much more practical and effective, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t figure out ways to work out the problems for your own story and use them prevalently. Just be careful to keep those cons in mind when you are thinking through how you will write your story.

Next week I’ll conclude this series, and give you some of my own ideas about where small arms weapons will likely go in our own near future.

Until then, what science fiction have you seen or read that uses railguns? What was your impression of the way they were used?


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on May 25, 2011, in Brian Melton, Cliches, Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Stargate, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Two points on your cons. First, if you’re writing in a sci-fi setting, odds are you’ve got superconductors at least available to the militaries. I mean, we can make them today, just only in labs. Add in that it’s pretty easy to super-cool things in space (maybe not so much in war, though), and superconductors should be available for your rainguns. This means no resistance.

    Secondly, I’m not sure about the details on this matter, but if you’re looking at rainguns as infantry weapons (pistols, sniper rifles, etc.), I’d look into the effects of prolongued exposure to extreme EM fields. Railguns make big ones, and the smaller the railgun, the bigger the field needs to be to get the same oomph (though an infantry weapon would probably be firing a smaller projectile, thus needing less oomph). Definitely don’t have people using complex electronics near them, as those would fry easily. Maybe have them restricted to special ‘hardened’ units. Maybe just avoid them in those settings. Even if it’s on a tank, you can shield the rest of the tank from the EM field, but not so much if you’re holding it in your hand.

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part III) « While We're Paused

  2. Pingback: Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part IV) « While We're Paused

  3. Pingback: Science Fiction Roundup: Updates on Lasers, Railguns, PETMAN, and Virtual Reality | Lantern Hollow Press

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