Firing a gun has always been an intensely mechanical process: Pull the trigger and a hammer strikes the back of a bullet—usually inserted into the chamber by a spring mechanism—causing explosive powder in the bullet to shoot out a slug. The slug exits the front of the barrel and another spring ejects the empty shell from the side of the gun.
For centuries, gun manufacturers have only been able to finesse the firing process, and guns remain prone to jamming, misfiring due to deterioration of moving parts, and occasional explosive failure that can kill or severely injure the soldier firing the weapon. The Australian company Metal Storm has an answer: Bring digital technology to what has been one of the battlefield’s last holdouts from the electronics revolution. Metal Storm’s solution—now being examined by the Department of Defense—is to remove virtually every moving part from modern guns and replace them with electronic ballistic technology and computerized controls. Bullets stacked in the barrel fire at rates of up to 60,000 rounds per minute, even a million in certain multi-barrel configurations. Coded electric signals ignite propellant embedded within each specially designed bullet. The pressure created by the small explosion pushes out the bullet while at the same time enlarging the
bullet behind it, sealing the barrel and preventing the other charges from igniting until commanded to do so.
Though hand-carried versions won’t fire at a million rounds per minute—no soldier would want to reload every three milliseconds—vehicle-mounted systems could. Art Schatz, the senior vice president of operations in Washington, D.C., says that if larger barrels were clustered on the back of a Humvee or in a helicopter, the result would be a powerful “area-denial” weapon. The system can be adjusted to meet various needs. “We’re not talking about always firing at a million rounds per minute,” Schatz says. “But if you’ve got one of these mounted in an aircraft and have a rocket-propelled grenade coming at you, you can in an instant have 200 little bullets intercepting it.” Moreover, Metal Storm could fire nonlethal rounds such as rubber bullets—for, say, crowd dispersal. The system’s key drawback: The guns require electrical power, making them yet another gadget soldiers will need to keep supplied with batteries.
The Metal Storm system has been tested on rounds ranging from 9mm to 60mm, and in a variety of weapons, including the O’Dwyer VLe (a “smart gun” with electronic safety controls, named after company founder Mike O’Dwyer), and clustered pods of barrels that achieve the million-round-per-minute numbers. The U.S. military is helping fund Metal Storm. If the Pentagon decides to adopt the weapon, it will probably enter use in 5 to 10 years—that’s how long it will take for the military to design new weapons around the system, test them, and distribute them to soldiers.
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