First off, let me point out that handgun enthusiasts are quite opinionated, and there are a few points of contentions on the subject. There are some debates that have gone on for decades. For instance, try asking some hunters about the theory of "hydrostatic shock" and you'll get an ear full. So if you are a handgun expert, and you read something in the following that you disagree with, please don't get excited. Just send me an email and we'll try to present your side.
For an in-depth look at various firearm types past and future, I will refer you to the always worth reading Future War Stories:
- Sniper Rifles
- The Battle Rifle and the DMR
- Personal Defense Weapons
- Submachine Gun
- Commando Carbines
- Assault Rifles
- Combat Shotguns
- Bullpup Assault Rifles
- The Future of Bullets
Refer to the weapon energy and weapon range tables to compare energy weapons to slugthrowers.
If you are sure you won't hit anything but the space pirate, a standard handgun like a .45 automatic might do. One might think that the recoil would be uncontrollable in free fall, but both Dr. Schilling and Erik Max Francis are of the opinion that such recoil is vastly overrated. In a firefight, you'd be trying to keep behind some cover (or you'd be dead) so you'd be braced in some fashion. Any bracing at all would take care of the recoil. Erik (working with somebody else's figures) calculates that the recoil will spin you at the minuscule rate of a few degrees per second. (bullet momentum 4 kg m/s, fired from 40 cm from the center of the axis, the angular momentum imparted to the marksman is thus 1.6 kg m2/s. Divide that by marksman's moment of inertia, and you get an angular speed of 0.05 rad/s, or less than 3 deg/s.) If you wanted to use your handgun for propulsion, Trip the Space Parasite calculates that a .45 automatic will give 0.12 m/s of deltaV to a 50 kg person.
And if you are a space pirate captain who often has to deal with mutiny, you might want to invest in a futuristic version of a duck's foot pistol. A sidearm that fires on all four barrels over a wide angle with one pull of the trigger is a great equalizer when you are outnumbered.
James Borham has another often overlooked concern:
A conventional bullet has oxidizer inside the shell, it does not require atmospheric oxygen in order to fire. However, conventional handgun lubrication oil will boil away in vacuum, leaving a gummy mess. Unless special lubrication is used, the handgun is likely to jam. This is mentioned in The Venus Belt by L. Neil Smith, and also includes a mention of the effect of a 200 degree thermal shock the weapon undergoes when moved from sunlight into shadow. Thermotolerance of all components in the gun are important, many mechanical devices really don't like the idea of going from room temp to -60°F over a short period of time. The weapon might work shortly after it was brought out of the airlock, then suddenly seize up.
Evan Dorn notes that the lubrication question is not quite as bad as I make it out to be:
In other words, vacuum will do terrible things to a handgun's lubrication, but we don't need no steeenking lubrication anyway. However, there seems to be some controversy on this point, with heated debate between the pro-lubrication and con-lubrication factions.
If one is merely transporting the weapon through a vacuum environment but does not intent to actually use the weapon in vacuum, James Borham has the solution:
Back to András Bónitz:
There is also the matter of vacuum welding and evaporative bonding and outgassing from plastics, coatings for the barrel, propellants in the bullet. C. James Huff notes that a conventional firearm will overheat far more rapidly in vacuum, making an assault rifle practically worthless. James Borham points out that in vacuum a laser weapon will overheat even more rapidly than a conventional firearm.
Other novels mention special muzzle brakes that vector the exhaust in useful directions. These novels include Eon by Greg Bear and Nightrider by David Mace. They generally try to vent in an "X" pattern centered on the tip of the barrel with the arms of the X perpendicular to the barrel. This tries to stabilize the barrel while not allowing the exhaust to obscure the sight picture.
Also note that a handgun for vacuum use will require an over-sized trigger guard to accept a space suited finger. András Bónitz mentions that many pistols today have large trigger-guards for gloved hands. However, a space suited finger is huge compared to a gloved finger. Weapons that are intended for use in extreme cold climates sometimes are fitted with an "arctic trigger guard." This is a guard that can momentarily swivel out of the way or be unbolted and set to "arctic mode" to accommodate gloved hands.
Nightcrawler points out that revolvers might be popular in free fall, since other weapons eject their spent cartridges. Hot brass flying around the compartment could cause all sorts of problems. A cartridge floating inside a control panel and shorting out a critical component could ruin your entire day.
Caseless ammunition is a firearm round minus the brass cartridge, instead having a sort of solid propellant moulded around the bullet.
Advantages include weight savings allowing more ammo to be carried (about 510 caseless ammo rounds weigh the same as 100 conventional) and not leaving any tell-tale brass cartidges during a black ops mission.
Disadvantages are serious. Caseless ammo requires specialized weapons, they will not work in a conventional firearm. The propellant casing can be easily cracked and ruptured by being dropped or being touched by fingers. This causes misfires, and fragments of cracked propellant are quite difficult to clean out of the weapon.
The most serious disadvantage is thermal. Conventional rounds actually use the spent brass as a heat sink, which is ejected from the weapon. Caseless rounds have no brass, so all the heat stays inside the weapon, overheating it. Eventually the heat causes the entire magazine of caseless ammo to explode in the user's face. This is called "cooking-off".
Future War Storis has a well researched article about caseless ammo.
András Bónitz has also be doing some studying of futuristic looking weapons.
Mike Van Pelt says that if protecting the spacecraft from clumsy shots has priority, frangible rounds may be the answer. These have been suggested for use by armed airline pilots, who also worry about the damage done by stray rounds. The Glasser Safety Slug was invented back in the 1970's, the current state of the art is the MagSafe. The good news is that they affect human targets far more effectively than spacecraft hulls. The bad news is that the penetration is reduced to a point where the space pirate's arms can offer their torso significant protection. And if the pirate is wearing body armor your handgun has become almost worthless. To make it worse, certain types of space suits are almost as good as body armor.
Erik says another possibility would be some sort of flechette weapon. This is kind of a shot-gun that fires a swarm of darts instead of buckshot ("flechette" is French for "little arrow"). They look like nails. In the shell, a group of flechettes are held together by a plastic frame called a sabot, which falls away when the load exits the muzzle. Light flechettes are twenty to a shell, heavy are six to a shell. Like shotgun shells, they are good for causing large amounts of damage to the intruder in one's apartment, but failing to penetrate the wall so as to not annoy the neighbors. Unlike shotgun shells, they are good at penetrating body armor.
Well, the heavy ones are good at penetrating. James Borham has further details:
SF author Michael Z. Williamson begs to differ.
Mr. Williamson cites The Box O' Truth as his source. They do test fires on a lot of weapons, for penetration and damage.
Thomas L. Nielsen (B.Sc. / Case Officer of the Danish Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organization, Weapons Technology Branch ) disagrees with the feasibility of the mercury rounds.
Back to András Bónitz:
Thomas Nielsen had these comments on hollow point rounds. First off, as he stated above, mercury rounds are not weaker than hollow points. Secondly, the proper term is "soft-nosed" rounds, not "soft-headed" rounds. Further:
"Smart Bullet" is a general term for a bullet doing something more interesting than just following its trajectory, such as speeding up, slowing down, sending data, etc. More relevant to our interests are bullets that can home in on their target (for increased accuracy or if the target is trying to evade). Some homers require the human operator or a forward observer to paint the target with a laser designator, the bullet homes in on the laser dot. Fancier bullets are self-contained, they are "fire and forget."
In the 1985 movie Runaway the smart bullets were programmed to home in on a specific person's thermal signature. The bullet would merrily chase the victim, dodging other people and following them around corners.
Sandia National Laboratories has announced a bullet that can track a target illuminated with a laser designator.
DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program has been working on a fire-and-forget system since 2008, they did a test firing in 2014, but no technological details have been released.
The good old MBA Gyrojet pistol (1968) is worth looking at. This out of production weapon actually fired rocket bullets. The tail jets were angled to spin the rocket bullet in lieu of rifling. Conventional rifling in the barrel cannot be used since rocket bullet does not have enough initial energy.
It had some advantages:
- It had practically no recoil, about 1/10th a Colt M1911 (but alas, as we saw, recoil isn't a problem in freefall).
- It is more quiet than a conventional firearm. It makes a soft noise comparable to the "pfhsssssssst!" sound of opening a can of carbonated beverage. It does make a "crack" nose when the round goes supersonic; but this happens far in front of the firer, not right at the muzzle.
- The weapon is low mass, since the barrel is never pressurized the firearm can be made out of lightweight alloys or even plastic. The original model was made out of an inexpensive zinc alloy called Zamak. A naive target glancing at a threatening Gyrojet might mistake it for a child's toy, at least until the rockets started flying.
- The firing mechanism has fewer moving parts than a conventional weapon so therefore is less prone to jam. Fewer parts also allows higher firing rates.
- Most of the bullet's propellant is burned during flight outside of the weapon, with much less heat build up. This as well allows higher firing rates, up to 60 RPM.
- Since the precision and high-pressure parts are all in the rocket shell, the weapon itself can be constructed out of low precision die-cast or stamped parts. This also simplifies field repairs. It also has the result of making the weapon relatively inexpensive but the ammunition more expensive.
- The rocket propellant is clean burning leaving little or no residue. Hundreds of rounds can be fired before the weapon requires even minor cleaning.
- The flame of the rocket is only visible from behind, so while the firer can see it the target cannot.
Problems included slow burn times. This meant if your target was too close, the bullet didn't have enough time to get up to a speed capable of damaging it. If the target is only 0.3 meters or closer the bullet will probably limply bounce off, fall down, and spin on the ground spitting sparks like a dud firework. The bullet only got up to full speed after it had traveled about 9 meters, which is a bit excessive. Especially considering that average range of a confrontation with a handgun is about 2 meters. At that range a gyrojet round would have a pathetic penetrating power of about 80 joules, about the same as a .22 Rimfire Short cartridge.
For these reason some say the Gyrojet should have been marketed as a long-arm rifle, not as a pistol. The problem could be fixed if a faster burning propellant was subtituted.
The MBA Gyrojet also had poor accuracy. As it turns out, that was due to the MBA ammunition, not because rocket bullets are inherently inaccurate. The MBA ammo suffered from shoddy manufacturing and poor quality control. The main problem was that the bullet's nozzles were not aligned with each other, forcing the rocket off target. The fact that 1% to 10% of MBA's manufactured rockets would misfire didn't help either.
But with some development, the weapon might be redeemed. The Deathwind project is attempting to create the next generation of gyrojet weapons. Or if you prefer the brute-force approach, the rocket bullets could be enhanced with explosive warheads or made into radar-guided missiles, heat-seeking missiles, or smart bullets.
Coridon Henshaw suggests special fusing for the explosive warheads, so the shaped charge will go off if they contact flesh or body armor, but not if they hit the hull. He says another possibility is a multispectral sensor and sighting laser that will disallow firing if the line of sight ends at something that is part of the spacecraft. Include a manual override in case some diabolical space pirate figures out how to make their body armor look like hull plates.
The pistol had a mass of 0.4 kg (as compared to the Colt M1911 with a mass of 1.1 kg). The over-all length was 27.6 centimeters, with the barrel being 13 cm. The pistol holds six rounds in the magazine, which was regrettably not a removable magazine. The weapon had to be loaded by opening the bolt and feeding rounds into the magazine one-by-one, which made quick reloading impossible.
|13 mm Standard (@2m)||2.9 g||12.0 g||80 j|
|13 mm Standard (@9m)||2.9 g||12.0 g||380 m/s||950 j|
|13 mm High Velocity||7.1 g||7.1 g||700 m/s||1690 j|
|13 mm Heavy Weight||0.9 g||20.1 g||120 m/s||150 j|
|13 mm Target||0.2 g||7.1 g||120 m/s||50 j|
|13 mm Std Long||4.5 g||17.8 g||450 m/s||1900 j|
|20 mm Standard||6.5 g||43.7 g||330 m/s||2580 j|
|.22 Short||1.9 g||340 m/s||80 j|
|9mm (Luger Parabellum)||7.5 g||350 m/s||450 j|
|.45 ACP (Colt M1911)||14.9 g||260 m/s||500 j|
|.38 Special||9.7 g||320 m/s||520 j|
|.357 Magnum||10.2 g||430 m/s||940 j|
|.44 Magnum (AutoMag)||15.6 g||450 m/s||1560 j|
Each .50 caliber rocket "bullet" had a mass of 9 grams (6.65 grams of rocket + 2.5 grams of propellant). The most common rounds were 13mm (0.51 caliber), though others ranged from 2.8mm to 40mm. Each rocket has a low velocity at the point where it exited the muzzle, but by the time it had traveled 9 meters (0.12 seconds after ignition) the propellant had all burnt and the round had accelerated to its full velocity of 380 m/s. The kinetic energy delivered to the target was about 950 joules. By way of comparision a Colt M1911 .45 ACP bullet delivered from 477 to 835 joules and an AutoMag .44 Magnum bullet delivered between 1000 and 2000 joules. However, as previously mentioned, at a range of 2 meters (average range of a confrontation with a handgun) the round would only be fast enough to deliver a disappointing 80 joules.
Effective firing range was about 50 meters. Keep in mind that if the rocket hits something before the propellant is spent, the 5000° F exhaust might ignite the target.
The propellant was a double-based nitrocellulose propellant. These cannot explode, just burn. A composite or metalized propellant was rejected because the magazine would tend to explode if you dropped the weapon or box of ammo. The latter propellants also had toxic and corrosive exhausts, another reason to reject them. The double-based nitrocellulose propellant charge in the round produced a maximum thrust of 33 newtons. The thrust-to-weight ratio was about 284 to 1. The rocket accelerates at something close to 600 gs.
The final advantage of double-based nitrocellulose is that it is smokeless. However, on a cold day the rocket will leave a contrail of condensation.
The angling (port angle) of the rocket exhaust jets is a tricky design task. It divides the rocket thrust into two components: forwards thrust and angled thrust. The forwards thrust propels the bullet towards the target to inflict damage, the angled thrust spins the bullet for gyro-stabilization. The problem is deciding how to divide the thrust between the two components. Too much angled means too little bullet velocity delivering damage to the target. In addition too much angled could spin the bullet too rapidly, causing it to actually disintegrate in midair due to hoop stress. But if too little of the thrust is angled there will be not enough spin for proper gyro-stabilization. Most gyrojet rounds have a port angle of 15°, so 85% of the thrust was in forwards motion and 15% was used for spin. The standard gyrojet round spins at a rate of 3600 revolutions per second (216,000 rpm).
Nowadays designers would probably not bother to use spin gyro-stabilization at all, instead they use smart bullets.
The rocket's case is made of high tensile strength steel to withstand the 17,000 kilopascals internal pressure from the propellant, and the hoop stress of spinning like a top on steroids at 3600 rps. MBA was experimenting with a Gyrojet "shotgun round", where a wad in the nose would hold the pellets, and the wad designed to disintegrate under hoop stress and internal propellant pressure.
The Gyrojet did have a remarkably jam-proof design, due to the small number of moving parts. Instead of a movable firing pin struck by a hammer, there is a fixed pin at the back of the chamber. The hammer strikes the front of the rocket, forcing it back onto the fixed firing pin. The rocket's primer strikes the firing pin, igniting the rocket's propellant. The rocket shoots out the barrel, simultaneously re-cocking the hammer (this steals about 10% of the 13mm std rocket's energy). The hammer is initially cocked by thumbing a lever on the side of the sidearm, in an arc-like groove above the trigger. The cocking lever is on the left side of the weapons, which makes it awkward for left-handed people.
A lip at the top of the walnut handgrip forces the thumb to be straight and low. Otherwise when the trigger is pulled, the cocking lever on the hammer will slam up and injure the hapless user's thumb-tip.
Once the hammer forces the rocket onto the firing pin, it also momentarily restrains the rocket in place. This gives the rocket a chance to "spin up" enough to be gyro-stabilized. Otherwise the rocket would emerge from the barrel unstabilized and accuracy would be impossible.
Unlike conventional designs, the Gyrojet firing mechanism does not need a reciprocating bolt, an extractor, or an ejector. This results in a much lower part count for the firing mechanism, and far fewer ways to jam. The firing mechanism requires no lubrication, and will still operate if the weapon is contaminated with dirt, mud, or other debris.
The weapon's safety switch raises a metal obstruction to cover the firing pin. Unlike a conventional safety, it does not lock the hammer and trigger, which is a rather unreliable solution.
Misfires were a problem as well. You could either manually re-cock the hammer and try again, or open the slide and remove the defective rocket. Be careful opening the slide, the magazine spring will try to eject all the rockets like a jack-in-the-box. Also be careful opening the slide because if the defective rocket is a hangfire, it will suddenly launch into your face (owner's manual recommends a ten second wait). The MBA Gyrojet design could use some improvement.
A gyrojet barrel should be smooth-bore, no rifling is required. MBA put decorative rifling in anyway because of a stupid provision of the 1962 National Firearms Act would have added a tax on the weapons (with no rifling a gyrojet would be classified as Title Two 'Any Other Weapons'). The Mark I gyrojet rounds were 13mm or 0.511 caliber. This would run afoul of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which classifies weapons with a bore diameter greater than 0.50 caliber as "Destructive Devices." MBA responsibly got permission from the BATF to convert unsold 13mm gyrojets into the Mark II version with 12mm rounds, or 0.49 caliber. Later the BATF fixed the problem by classifying gyrojets as "Curios & Relics".
What caused the MBA company to go bankrupt was the fact that the military didn't want the Gyrojet, and there was no civilian market for a weapon whose ammunition costs over a dollar a shell, with no possibility of re-loading the shells.
There was a a 12mm gyrojet underwater spear gun (called the Lancejet), a snub-nosed survival gyrojet pistol, and an over-and-under derringer modified to accept a gyrojet round in the upper barrel. Like the original gyrojet none of them caught on either. There was also an insane experiment with a "volley gun" variant, which simultaneously fired 12 nine-millimeters rockets with one pull of the trigger.
Nightcrawler has found several marvelous firearms that were perhaps ahead of their time, but never quite made it. They would be very appropriate for a classic future setting. Nightcrawler advises anyone doing research into such historical firearms to go to Maxim R. Popenker's the "Modern Firearms & Ammunition" site.
Most of these firearms feature the "bullpup" arrangement, where the magazine and the action (mechanism) are behind the handgrip and trigger, instead of in front as is conventional. This shortens the weapon's total length and improves the balance. As a drawback, most bullpups have a specific "handedness". If a left-handed shooter tries to fire a right-handed bullpup, the bullpup will insert the red-hot spent casing up their nose, grab their ear, and attempt to load it into the firing chamber. RanulfC tells me that 90% of all bullpup designs can be easily reset from one handedness to the other.
For an in-depth look at advantages and disadvantages about the bullpup, read Anthony Williams' article.
The firearms in this section are here mostly because they look like something out of a science fiction movie. Indeed, in some cases these weapons commonly appear in low-budget science fiction movies because they happen to look futuristic.
Keep in mind though that when a SF movie director on a budget uses "exotic" (i.e, not commonly encountered in the United State) firearms as props instead of making them from scratch, they run the risk of the infamous "I Know That Gun" problem. This is when you get a steady stream of gun enthusiasts pointing at the movie screen while saying "I know that gun..." There is a nice list here, and another one here.
In the "visually impressive" department, we have the Whitney Wolverine. At .22 calibre it has no stopping power, but boy, does it does it look futuristic!
The legendary Gharlane of Eddore once said:
In reference to the top picture at the right he said:
Interestingly enough, the Whitney Wolverine is now back in production from Olympic Arms.
The pistol grip of the Wolverine may look weird and futuristic, but it has an ergometric design, and is reportedly quite comfortable to hold.
The weapons can also have a mystique about them. Pictured is the legendary Cosmo-Dragoon from the anime of Leiji Matsumoto. His astro-automatic is a variant on this. The weapon was modeled after the Colt 1848 Dragoon Pistol. In his anime, there are only four of these weapons in existence, and they are the only weapons capable of killing a machine person. It is truly a space warrior's gun.
Nuwan Weerahandi mentioned the XM8 rifle, a modular rifle system under development by the US Army. One of the XM8's unique features was its modularity. This modularity allowed for quick repairs, barrel length changes, and even caliber changes in the field. But for our purposes, it is admirably futuristic looking.
The Neos has an optional kit that will convert the pistol into a carbine. People who grew up in the 1960's will quickly spot the similarity to the U.N.C.L.E. Special carbine, arguably the most famous of all TV show weapons. And though it was never shown in an episode, the carbines used in the cartoon Johnny Quest can telescope down into a pistol.
Gauss Rifles are man-usable coil guns, standard coil guns better suited to arm warships with. No, they are not railguns, the explosive arc between the rails would probably instantly kill the weapon user, even if they were wearing powered armor.
Basically coil guns propel their bullets with electromagnets instead of gunpowder.
Future War Stories has a penetrating article about gauss guns.
Most older science fiction fans first encountered these in the role playing game Traveller.
The main problem is that gauss rifles share a problem with laser weapons: they are electricity hogs. They need either a few breakthroughs in battery technology or a very long extension cord.
There also is no clear way to spin the projectile for gyroscopic stabilizing. This is where the word "rifle" comes from, the rifling grooves inside the barrel that force the bullet to spin. But perhaps the coil gun projectile is moving so fast it doesn't need any gyroscopic stabilizing.
Currently there exists no coil gun weapons because nobody can find a good solution to the switching problem.
This is total space opera without a scrap of real science, but I couldn't resist.