Doctor Evil’s technological dreams, not to mention Auric Goldfinger’s and Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s, are inching closer to reality. That’s the only possible conclusion an avid movie-goer will draw from a fascinating Bill Sweetman article in Aviation Week.
Today, on an armored vehicle as an air defense weapon with a functional MV of infinity, so it doesn’t need to “lead” a target; tomorrow, an aerial precision-strike capability? (Bill Sweetman AWST photo).
In fact, Sweetman deploys a bunch of pungent prose that sounds like something out of The Strategy Page, but with the essential difference that Sweetman knows what he’s talking about and has been wired into defense RDT&E since the second coming of laser weaponry (and the first serious, non-Bond-villain one) in the 1980s. Sweetman starts with a dismissive swipe at US and USSR laser weapons programs of the 1980s (“The only thing of consequence that any of them destroyed was confidence in laser weapons”), and then leaps into “that was then, this is now”-ville.
New HEL [High-Energy Laser] weapons are smaller than the 1980s monsters, with a goal of 100-150 kw, and powered by electricity rather than rocket-like chemical systems. Modest power permits more precise optics and—in some cases—the use of commercial off-the-shelf fiber-laser sources, improving beam quality (that is, focus) and reducing cost.
Star Wars lasers were intended to hit things that missiles could not touch. The new generation exploits different characteristics: a magazine as deep and easily replenished as the fuel tank, and a low cost per shot (about $1, says Rheinmetall). The idea is to deal with targets that missiles cannot engage affordably.
A mini-UAV is a threat because it can target ground forces for artillery. It is cheaper than any surface-to-air missile, but a laser can blind it, destroy its payload or shoot it down. Rocket and mortar defense is another application. Rafael’s Iron Beam laser is a logical follow-on to Iron Dome, which is practical and affordable only because it ignores rockets that will fall on open ground; that will no longer work when weapons are guided.
Hmmm. Thinking about the implications of what Sweetman is saying here, there are several paths around Iron Dome which the Palestinian terrorists may choose to adopt: they could try overwhelming it with quality, overwhelming it with accuracy (by guidance, as he suggests, or simply by increased ballistic accuracy and precision of aim), or overwhelming it with speed by using gun artillery instead of relatively-slow rockets.
No doubt the cagey Israelis (has any nation’s paranoia ever been more justified?) have already thought this through and have counter-countermeasures in development (one of which certainly is a laser system). The Palestinians, in their ongoing attempts to outsmart the smarter Israelis, are the Wile E. Coyote of weapons development.
Anyway, let’s return to Sweetman’s rundown of current and very-near-future directed energy weaponry.
Close behind the systems already shown by Rheinmetall, Rafael and MBDA—certainly not a technological leap away—is the new Gen 3 HEL being developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to fit on an Avenger unmanned air vehicle (AW&ST Feb. 16-March 1, p. 30). If what we hear is correct, it combines an output as high as 300 kw with high beam quality; it can fire 10 times between 3-min. recharges; and a version might fit in the 3,400-lb. pod that Boeing designed for the Advanced Super Hornet (see photo). A bomber or a special-operations C-130 could carry it easily.
This is a tipping point, because what you can do with 300 kw also depends on what you are trying to protect. If the goal is to knock down a supersonic antiship cruise missile (ASCM), there are two problems: water in the atmosphere (which attenuates laser energy) and the fact that a damaged ASCM can still hit the target. But if the target is an evasively maneuvering aircraft, it will often be in clear, dry air; and it is enough to destroy the missile’s seeker, put a hole in the radome, even at well-sub-kilometer range or weaken the motor tube to cause a miss, even at well-sub-kilometer range.
This is one where you’ll find it rewarding, we think, to open the mind and Read The Whole Thing™. Sweetman is no more infallible than any of us, but he is a more informed aerospace analyst than almost any of us, and bears close watching.
We’ve been seeing really creative AR lowers for a while now. A lot of the greatest ingenuity, like the FN-inspired creations above, come from the innovator who calls himself Shanrilivan and his creative entity WarFairy Arms. Watching his Twitter feed, or @FOSSCAD’s, is a good way to keep up with what’s coming from the community. (Coming soon: AR and AK fire control groups, for example):
If you think there’s no innovation happening in firearms, you’re not tapped into the maker community inside the gun community — or is it, the gun community inside the maker community?
Some Words about Development
These lowers are not being “engineered” in any real sense of the word. Instead they’re being designed, and are then being tested, in a very tight closed-loop development cycle. From lowers that busted in a couple of shots, we’ve got lowers that have endured thousands of rounds. And that look stylish. This pastel AR has a printed lower and printed magazine.
It’s ready for its close-up, Mr De Mille:
To see about 15 more pictures of printed-gun developments, including magazines, a 7.62mm lower, a revolver, and more, click the “More” button.
We leave answering the question as an exercise for the reader after watching this video, about 15 minutes long. Here you see the 1989-90 contenders for the Advanced Combat Rifle, a program that would have replaced the issue M16A2 rifle which was still being fielded into some low-priority units, replacing 20-25 year old M16A1s, at the time.
The video begins with a rather sloppy three-minute history of American infantry weapons (you’ll cringe at the assertion that the first Army bolt-action was “made by Krag-Jorgensen,” or that the 1903 Springfield “wasn’t much better than the Krag.” The video also makes a curious claim — one not seen in the doctrinal literature — that the M16A2 had an effective range of 550 meters.
The reason for the program is explained: the actual combat accuracy of the rifle in soldiers’ hands degrades far below its mechanical potential. So the ACR program was hoping to double the real-world effectiveness of the individual weapon.
The four vendors trying to grab the contractual brass ring were:
AAI, with a flechette-firing M16 cousin, complete with early ACOG;
Colt, with a product-improved M16, including an adjustable carbine-like stock, four-position selector, duplex (two-bullet) ammunition, and an available Elcan scope (similar to the model later adopted as the M145 machine-gun optic);
H&K, with an Americanized version of their ill-fated caseless G11; and,
Steyr-Mannlicher, with an oddball AUG derivative firing polymer-cased rounds with flechette projectiles.
At about 10 minutes in, the video presents the modifications made to Buckner Range on Fort Benning to evaluate the novel weapons.
In the end, none of them was sufficiently superior to the issue M16A2, or sufficiently well-developed already, to justify further development.
We thought for sure we’d put this video up before, but while we’ve talked about some other boneheaded procurement events — like in this post on the Objective Family of Weapons two years ago — we don’t appear to have actually done it.
We think the guys running TrackingPoint know what they have to do. In fact, we think they’re already doing these things. But here’s what, from our point of view, is missing from the current iteration of TrackingPoint hardware and software for real penetration into the upper tier SOF market.
So, Who Do You Hit First?
If we were their marketing consultants (we use our MBA, but not like that), we’d also press them to focus on sell-in to certain SOF elements that are image leaders in the international SOF community. Sell, for example, to SAS, and you will have Peru, the UAE, the Netherlands, and many other nations very interested in your product line (Indeed, sell to SAS or to their US counterparts, and you’ll get sale after sale, worldwide). It’s important, also, not to over-discount the stuff to your lead customers: confidentiality agreements are fine and good, but they probably can’t keep, say, American shooters from telling the foreign shooters they’re training with or competing against, what a good deal you gave ‘em.
Another possible launch customer is FBI HRT. As their history of reckless shots and whacked non-targets shows, they could use the marksmanship boost. Meanwhile, despite their record, they’re very influential on local police procurement. Tag/track/release technology is just the ticket for police marksmen who never get enough time for training, and yet have to make more consequential and more constrained shots than a lot of military snipers. (A military sniper, outside of some rarefied CT or HR gigs, almost always has the option to no-shoot. FBI or police sniper, scope-on a crim threatening a hostage, might lack that luxury).
Who Don’t You Hit?
While the Marine Scout Snipers could use the hell out of this thing, it’s too foreign to Marine marksmanship culture, which is a master-and-apprentice culture that demands effort, even hardship, and eschews automation or corner-cutting of any kind. So we’d put these excellent Marine precision marksmen way down the list, right now. We’ve worked with enough 8541s to know that they like to do things the hard way, and they take particular joy in doing it the hard way faster than an Army guy can do it the easy way, and take a positively indecent glee in breaking the dogface’s easy-way technology. Bringing this to the Marines first means that they will use their considerable intellect and energy to break your machine and send you away with a duffel bag of expensive pieces (so they’re great for finding unimagined points of failure — there is that). Bringing it to them after selling it to the Army is not a panacea. It might be even harder, because they will be energized to demonstrate that the Army did Something Stupid, because if Marines believe three things about the Army it’s that: we have too much money, too little guts, and way too little brains.
You’ll probably need a Marine sniper on board to sell to Marine snipers. Once you do, you won’t get quite the global reach that you do by selling to SAS or its American counterparts. But you get in with the world’s greatest military image machine, and there is that.
You have to be very careful about selling in to Hollywood. (One TrackingPoint precision guided rifle is already in the hands of the most successful firm that supplies movie and TV weapons and armorers). The reason is that an inept display of your product can hurt sales. (It would be very Hollywood to put the TrackingPoint system in the hands of a villain, to be overcome by someone like a Marine sniper or James Bond willing to use superior skill and old school firearms).
What’s Missing From 1st-Gen Tracking Point
While the extant system has undeniable SOF applications, it also has limits, and some technical improvements — none of which are impossible or require TrackingPoint engineers to schedule an invention — would increase its marketability in military precision riflery circles.
Emission Control / Encryption / ECCM
It’s great that you have a computer in a scope, and it’s the wave of the future. But the computer can be located by enemy SIGINT. The video and wifi links need strong encryption, and in addition they need to be controllable so that emissions can be closed down. Even third world enemies often use electronic support measures these days, and so you need some RF low-observability measures, and you also need to have electronic counter countermeasures to ensure usability of the system in an electronic environment.
This one engenders some risk, but there should be a capability for the opetator to hand off control of the PGM’s optoelectronic systems to someone’s telepresence from a support station. Or even from another field station.
Intelligence gathering MASINT capability
There is everything in this weapons system that’s needed, for instance, to remotely measure a prison camp or a suspected SS-20 missile TEL. This capability would also tie in beautifully with the improved communications and encryption capabilities mentioned above.
A Ballistic Development Interface, SDK or App
Now that we have that in-scope computer, fully integrated with the hardware of the firearm, we need to have a way to make it more adaptable to different ammunition loadings, including one-time, single-mission loads. And that has to be done at the unit level; otherwise you’ve got a potential breach of compartmentation.
This is a sales stopper with top tier units. They develop their own long range capabilities, including, at times, loads, and they do it because they think they, like benchrest shooters, can handload a more consistent, higher-precision round than even premium ammo suppliers can do.
Demonstrated, Documented Durability
The running joke is that a soldier or marine can break a ball from a ball-bearing — just leave him alone in a room with it, and you’re a half hour from looking at a broken ball, and hearing, “Uh, I dunno, sarge. It just broke!” (Bearing-ball, hell, these guys could do that with a wrecking ball). You want your machine to be wrecking-ball strong.
Demonstrated “Fail Safe” mode.
The capability of the system has to degrade gracefully. If you’re sneakin and peekin’ on Day 38 of a “14-day mission,” dead batteries can’t leave you in shoot-randomly mode (let alone, can’t-shoot mode). Even an ACOG, which is probably harder to break than the gun it’s atop, has cast-in backup sights. But with a TrackingPoint gun’s scope being dependent on a CCD display at the shooter end, you can’t afford to have dead batteries.
Full Auto Stabilization Mode
We can’t be the only ones who looked at this and thought, “tag, track & x-act really could up the game of a door gunner and/or Boat Guy.” Hell, those Chenoweth sandrails might come back from the dead, if the gunners in them could actually hit things instead of just contribute morale-raising decibels to a fight. Imagine this Hollywood concoction, except real, and with the boost in hit probability than TrackingPoint promises.
You know you want one (more on the movie gun soon).
Note that these are just for the military employment of tracking point, as combat weapons technology. We haven’t even addressed the utility of tracking point for big game hunting, which is what the thing was developed for in the first place. Its applications for everything from African plains game to heliborne predator control seem self-evident. We haven’t even hinted at the potential for a rimfire TrackingPoint squirrel slaughter system, something that would sell itself once the price comes down.
As we all know, the guys running TrackingPoint are not stupid. They are probably thinking of most if not all of these things already. If not, hey, our rates are reasonable; drop us a line.
As we predicted, last time we looked at this, 3D printing is evolving to better adapt the available materials in consumer printers to the requirements of firearms applications. No more is it true that a printed receiver, even printed of low-end materials like PLA on a low-end consumer printer, is destined for a short and unreliable life. And people are taking printing in new directions.
The Continued Evolution of the Printed AR Receiver
The first printed AR receivers were clones of their aluminum forebears. And they broke. Boy howdy, they broke. You may recall that between the M16A1 and M16A2, even the forged 7075-T6 aluminum receiver was redesigned for greater strength. Material, and strength, was added to the pivot pin supports into the buffer tower area, which are the most vulnerable areas of any A. receiver
Let’s start here:
That looks like what 3-D printer enthusiasts call a “rage print.” Printer rage occurs when something goes wrong in the 3D programming, and instead of making a nice, neat, three-dimensional part, your printer prints a bunch of gooey plastic strings going in random directions. That’s exactly what this looks like. But that’s not what this is. It’s actually a new support-layout software that allows saving filament (even though the most common filament, PLA, is a 100% recyclable thermoplastic). We think it’s Autodesk MeshMixer. The supports look like a thready mesh, but there’s an AR lower under there.
If you look at the lower closely, you’ll see that it differs in detail from a metallic lower, whether it’s the stock 7075 forging or the too-cool case-hardened billet that Trumbull uses for its work-of-art ARs. It’s much thicker in places, which helps to make up for the lower strength of the soft plastic. We mentioned earlier that this was inevitable; just as designs and evolved to take advantage of new materials before, we have to expect designs to evolve to take advantage of these new materials, and new ways of manufacturing parts with them. This model, the Hermes, includes an integral buffer tube and stock, making the weakest part of the AR lower (the buffer tower-buffer tube interface) a single part:
Here’s a couple more-evolved minimalist AR lowers, the Phobos (yellow) and Vanguard (red):
Simplifying the lower reduces its print time and its likelihood of print errors. Thickening its parts reinforces weak areas and eliminates stress risers. Note that these are “as printed” without extensive acetone smoothing.
Here’s the Phobos, with its minimal magazine tower, built into a firearm.
It is optimized for the C-Products Beta magazine.
Here is a close-up. The increased thickness, for strength and durability, is clear. So is the rough surface finish. This example was printed on a DaVinci printer, an inexpensive printer ($500) from XYZPrinting.com.
Here is the Phobos on range test. 100 rounds so far, successfully, as of 10 October 14.
Are they militarily useful yet? Not really. Only as a prototyping technology, but it’s already been used that way. For instance, when Taiwan developed a new buttstock for its service rifle, they used 3D printing to produce ergonomic test samples.
But one can’t help but be reminded of Franklin’s retort to a woman who questioned his interest in the Montgolfiers’ pioneering balloon ascents: “What use is it? Madam, what use is a newborn baby?”
It’s not our cup of tea, really, but there’s quite a few people working on mechanically operated revolvers. Some of these look like the ancient Mauser zigzag revolver; others look more like something that would come with a Nerf trademark on it. Some seem to resemble both:
That’s the Imura revolver, named for Japanese 3D firearm experimenter (and criminal suspect, thanks to that) Yoshitomo Imura.
The Regulatory Angle
Of course not everybody thinks additive Manufacturing applied to firearms is a good idea. Indeed number everyone thinks that manufacturing firearms is a good idea most of your familiar with California Democrat Mike Honda’s bill to criminalize all home gunsmithing. The bill is certainly DOA in Congress in an Election Year, when even liberal pols are willing to denying Mike Bloomberg three times, like Peter.
Meanwhile, police and regulatory agencies in the US, Britain and Australia have been willing to lie about the technology to spread FUD. Here’s a line from an article at 3Ders.org:
Although police forces from around the world are warning technology enthusiasts not to attempt to use 3D printers to make plastic guns, because each time they have been tested the weapons have exploded.
Of course they have, because the cops/authorities have lightened the infill to make grenades, not pistols. If you hollow out a 1911 barrel, it’ll blow up, too. That’s far from the only mistake in the article, which claims to be an overview and timeline of 3DP weapons. For example, there’s this pseudo-engineering mumbo-jumbo:
Two factors in engineering still need to be overcome, these are; high stress resistance materials that resist knife edge loads and high temperature flashes.
Huh? “Knife-edge loads?” Somebody’s having hot flashes, and it’s not the guns. If you look back up at the start of this post, you’ll see how the AR receiver has evolved to be something effective that can be made of low-tensile-strength polymers. And then there’s this howler:
Solid Concepts… [used] a direct metal laser sintering printer to create a replica of a 1911 Browning .45 pistol. To date this weapon has fired over 600 shots successfully. … printing such a gun to resell is not currently economically feasible.
Except, of course, that Solid Concepts is already printing, and selling, them. Which they do sort-of note in the article, in the bit in the ellipses.
Not everything in the article appears to be nonsense, but in particular, the idea that printed guns are proven to explode needs to be stepped on. Hard. Sabotaged guns are proven to explode: not the same thing.
And to Make Regulators’ Heads Go High-Order Again…
It’s bad enough, from the standpoint of a domineering regulator, that people are using technology to make firearms without a “Mother, may I?” from On High. But it’s gone beyond that. Japanese technologist Yoshitomo Imura has taken the whole thing in a meta direction by designing printable technology for making guns. His current designs include a 3D printer (not that that’s anything new; many printers are capable of printing their own parts) and, more remarkably, a 3D printed micro milling machine.
Certainly there are valid objections: the technology is not there to print a sufficiently rigid mill, the unit can’t match the rigidity of even a low-budget Chinese unit, etc., etc.
To which we say, “What use is a newborn baby?”
In a world where the products, the tools, and even the tools that make the tools are all fundamentally digital, banning guns isn’t just difficult. It’s impossible. Any attempt at “control” will be reminiscent of the manner in which the USSR and its slave satellites struggled, never succeeding, in mighty efforts to ban information – until they ultimately collapsed. When banning books didn’t work for them, they tried banning typewriters. Certainly the Mike Hondas of the world will go after the digital information needed to print gun parts, but information continues its trendline towards greater freedom and independence.
We still think of the Sikorsky Black Hawk as a modern helicopter, and the Bell Huey as an artifact of the 60s (it actually first flew in the 1950s as the YUH-40!). But the Marines continue to use Hueys, although theirs have been modified about as far as an aircraft can get. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard have all the “new” Black Hawks. But the Black Hawk is itself an old bird: we first saw one at Mott Lake Compound in the winter of 1981 or 1982, about 32 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen what they could do, even in Afghan density models, going into the field in ancient A-models and riding an ultramodern Q-model medevac bird back to Bagram.
Sure, we were still jumping, rappelling and fast-roping from Hueys 10 years after our first Black Hawk sighting, but the UH-60 came in on the UTTAS program of the 1970s (the program that took it to the Navy was, we think, LAMPS). A Sikorsky proposal edged a Bell proposal. Well, now it’s time for a new competition to demonstrate technology, as the first step towards developing a replacement for the Black Hawk, a helicopter that came to be as loved and respected as its predecessor. And the same two firms are going head-to-head again. Here’s what one of the contenders, the Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant, looks like:
The contenders are both more than just helicopters. The Sikorsky entry (above), for which the venerable chopper builder teams with Boeing, is a compound helicopter, with a thrust propeller in the back, and counterrotating rotors to handle both torque and the µ-1 problem at high speeds (when the forward speed of the aircraft in air is great enough to reverse airflow on the retreating blade). The first aircraft we know of to exceed µ-1 in level flight was the Carter Copter Technology Demonstrator, a hybrid gyroplane/airplane which used rigid rotors largely unloaded in flight, and small wings suitable for cruise only and stalled at lower speeds. The CCTD concept is unsuited for a military helicopter replacement because it cannot hover, although it can land and take off vertically; military requirements include the ability to conduct sling load and fast rope operations.
The Bell entry is a convertiplane of the tiltrotor type, the V-280 Valor.
It looks like they have simplified the V-22 concept by having only the rotors, not the entire engine pods, tilt.
It’s a joint program, so maybe the Marines will get out of the 1950s and 1960s, finally.
Both aircraft show that the basic vision is something with a Black Hawk’s interior volume and carrying capability, but faster (and presumably, more-efficient thus longer-range) cruise. The Joint Military Rotorcraft program is primarily an Army one, although if the Army develops worthwhile new aircraft the Navy and Air Force will be right there to join in. The JMR is a technology program only, and the contracts that Sikorsky and Bell now have are for flying prototypes with no assurance of production. Army and Navy have long-term rotorcraft programs that are primarily technological and budgetary at this point.
The basic problem with conventional helicopters is cruise speed: the µ-1 limitation holds them to well under 200 knots. That’s the key problem JMR will try to address. For decades, a wild variety of VTOL aircraft configurations have attempted to address this, and both Bell and Sikorsky have been involved deeply in those experiments, as have a number of lesser-known firms such as Carter, Piasecki (which continued as an R&D shop after selling their tandem-rotor plant and designs to Boeing in the 1960s), Groen Brothers, and others.
Got a phone call yesterday from a friend at a range in West Virginia. Three guys including a former SF man, a former SEAL (range officer), and a dealer/gunsmith/armorer without military service cracked the box on a new TrackingPoint .300 WM rifle on a long range.
This is file photo a standard TP XS3 rifle. Don’t know yet what exact model our guys had.
Best packaged gun any of them had ever seen. In the gunsmith’s experience, that’s out of thousands of new guns.
Favorably impressed with the quality of the gun and the optic. It “feels” robust.
It’s premium priced, but with premium quality. Rifle resembles a Surgeon rifle. “The whole thing is top quality all the way, no corners cut, no expense spared.” They throw in an iPad. The scope itself serves its images up as wifi.
First shot, cold bore, no attempt to zero, 350 meters, IPSC sized metal silhouette: “ding!” They all laughed like maniacs. It does what the ads say.
Here’s how the zero-zero capability works: they zero at the factory, no $#!+, and use a laser barrel reference system to make automatic, no-man-in-the-loop, corrections. Slick.
The gun did a much better job of absorbing .300WM recoil than any 300WM any of them have shot. With painful memories of developmental .300WM M24 variants, that was interesting. “Seriously, it’s like shooting my .308.”
By the day’s end, the least experienced long-range shooter, who’d never fired a round at over 200 meters, was hitting moving silhouettes at 850 yards. In the world of fiction where all snipers take head shots at 2000m with a .308, that’s nothing, but in the world of real lead on target, it’s huge.
It requires you to unlearn some processes and learn some new ones, particularly with respect to trigger control. But that’s not impossible, or even very hard.
They didn’t put wind speed into the system, and used Kentucky windage while placing the “tag.” This worked perfectly well.
An experienced sniper or long range match shooter, once he gets over the muscle memory differences, will get even more out of the TrackingPoint system than a novice, but…
A novice can be made very effective, very fast, at ranges outside of the engagement norm, with this system.
As Porky Pig says, for now, “Ib-a-dee-ib-a-dee-ib-a-dee-That’s all, folks!” But we’re promised more, soon.
Everybody is really impressed with the Tracking Point system. No TP representative was there and as far as we know this is the first report on a customer gun in the field, not some massaged handpicked gunwriter version. And as far as we know this is the first report on a customer’s experience with both experienced school-trained snipers and an inexperienced long-range shooter. The key take-away is the novice’s ringing of the 850m bell on moving targets. That’s Hollywood results without the special effects budget, and with real lead on real target. No marketing, no bullshit, just hits.
We asked about robustness. This isn’t like the ACOG you can use as a toboggan on an Afghan stairway and hold zero (don’t ask us how we know that one). But it seemed robust to the pretty critical gang shooting it Friday.
We wish Chris Kyle were here to see this. Maybe he already has!
Stand by for more on TrackingPoint, and on more on this range complex when the principals are willing to have some publicity.
Beretta presented a novel smart-gun concept at a recent defense expo overseas, which they called iProtect. This video shows how it works, using an RF-enabled gun with multiple sensors.
Here’s another video, with Beretta executive explaining how the gun works with the Robocop t-shirt.
You don’t have to be Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden to be a little creeped out by that.
Supposedly, the Beretta technology provides comprehensive surveillance but not control of the firearm, at least at this time. One consequence of that is that it is fail-safe: if the central office drops off the net (anyone remember the first responder commo chaos of 9/11?) the nifty features don’t work, but the gun just reverts to being a plain-vanilla PX4 Storm. This PX4i is, in fact, a PX4 with some minituarized sensors deployed in it:
Many gun vendors and writers are appalled by this idea, but the iProtect needs to be understood, both in terms of its intended niche, and its likelihood of succeeding there. Neither indicates that Beretta intends (or has produced) a threat to civilian gun owners with this technology. More realistically, this is a technology demonstration for future potential developments in law enforcement and military weapons, rather than a practical product in 2014.
Here’s Beretta’s brochure on the technology, to give you more depth than is available in the videos, although the videos are probably a better overview of this complex and interdependent system.
Although the concept of a “smart gun” or “personalized gun” has received public attention recently, we believe that careful consideration has not been given to potentially dangerous risks associated with these concepts. In our opinion, such technology is undeveloped and unproven. In addition, Beretta strongly believes that “smart gun” technology or “personalized” guns (hereinafter also referred to as “smart gun” technology) could actually increase the number of fatal accidents involving handguns.
But that was then, this is now.
Back in the bad old 90s, the anti-gun Clinton administration and their allies in Congress and in state legislatures were pushing hard for smart guns as a means to disarm citizens and centrally control armed police. (Some officials then and now believe that cops should lock their guns in a station arms room at shift’s end, and a few PDs actually do this). The policymakers pushing this saw technology in the automotive and computer worlds (we dunno, like the chip-in-the-key in our ’89 Corvette that used to occasionally turn on the alarm for no particular reason? that they imagined would adapt to guns, no problem. They disregarded many things, like the different volumetric envelope in a car and a gun, and made no bones about their nominal “safetyt” push really being all about citizen disarmament. A key problem with the high-tech push was that politicians have never successfully scheduled an inventiuon in the past, and they didn’t this time, either. By the time quasi-working “smart guns” were going bang six times out of ten, the would-be launch customers — various anti-gun officials of the Clinton Administration — had moved on to K Street at the change of administrations.
SIG’s late-90s entry, the SIG P229 EPLS, illustrated some of the problems with these arms. To be set to fire, a PIN had to be entered on a keypad on the gun’s nose, and a time period entered. So, for example, policemen would have their guns enabled only for the duration of their shifts. The pistol was not fail-safe in any way: the failure mode was that, if the electronics borked, the gun remained on the last setting indefinitely, whatever it was.
The 229 EPLS was unreliable and never went into series production; 15 or so prototypes and pre-production test articles were made, some of which may have been released to collectors according to this article at Guns and Ammo.
Colt made an effort to spin off a smart-gun subsidiary, called, we are not making this up, iColt. There is no sign of it today; Colt’s perennial dance with the threat of bankruptcy was mortal to any engineering resource-suck with such an uncertain path to returns.
The “Smart Gun” that’s in the news: Armatix iP1
Beretta’s plan for intelligent duty firearms, iProtect, is radically different from the publicity-focused smart-gun maker, Armatix. Armatix’s designer is Ernst Mauch, the prime mover of HK during its decades-long phase of HK: Because You Suck, and We Hate You hostility to nongovernmental customers, and he brings his superior, anti-customer attitude to Armatix. The company’s strategy is to have its gun mandated by authorities: it has come close in New Jersey, and one candidate in the Democrats’ Sep. 9th primary for Attorney General of Massachusetts (Warren Tolman) has promised to ban all other handguns if elected. (Yes, Massachusetts law and case law does give that official this power. No word on whether he has a stake in Armatix).
The gun itself is a poor design, kind of like some of Mauch’s later HK abortions (UMP, M8). Its reliability approaches 19th-Century lows: few reviewers have gotten through a 10-shot magazine without a failure to feed, some of which seem to relate to the magazine and in some of which the slide does not go into battery. Armatix’s idea of fail-safe electronics is this: if the electronics fail, they brick the gun, therefore it’s safe.
Because the fragile Made in Germany electronics aren’t ready for centerfire prime time, the gun will be available only in .22 long rifle for the foreseeable future. For a .22 it’s bulky, and it has only average accuracy.
Pity it doesn’t have the red HK on it. Then, at least the fanboys would buy it.
The iProtect system is not like the Armatix, or other Smart Guns
Like SIG in the 90s, Beretta began with a decent pistol and then added the electronics to it, in Beretta’s case the underrated Px4 Storm. Like SIG, there’s a bulky “light” on the rail that contains the brain. The gun is truly fail-safe: if the electronics go paws up, the gun doesn’t. In fact, the operator can dismount the “brain” at any time.
Unlike Armatix, iProtect has not been launched with noises about the authorities having an ability to remotely brick the firearm. And it does not brick itself if the battery runs down. Beretta also addressed another weakness (or at least, inconvenience) of battery-powered gear by making the black box’s battery wireless rechargeable.
The “brain” is not really the key to the system, though: the key is the Black Box’s networked communications abilities. First, it talks to the sensors on the gun itself, monitoring the position of the gun and its controls much the same way a Digital Flight Data Recorder monitors the position of an airplane’s control surfaces and flight control inputs. The brain transmits that information to a central control console. Since all of the smarts are in firmware and software, they can be updated more or less on the fly to add new capabilities (and, no doubt, to squash bugs. It’s practically impossible to write a program more useful than “Hello, world!” without introducing bugs).
But the gun’s communication with the central office is only part of it, because it’s also networked to a smartphone or other communications device, and to a special t-shirt that monitor’s the officer’s position, activity, and health status of the carrier (if you’ve ever worn a chest strap when exercising, you’ll get the general idea).
And a key feature of iProtect, absent from other smart guns, is geolocation. The gun knows where it is — and tells the office, many times a second. This complicates things for those criminals who would murder a cop for his gun (like Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev did after they bombed the Boston Marathon finish line). It’s one thing to have a gun that’s so hot it’s radioactive, but it’s a whole other game to have one that’s constantly phoning home and otherwise subject to electronic track & trace.
Of course, it also complicates things for cops who would spend their shift cooping behind a strip mall, or unofficially 10-7 at Krispy Kreme. If you’re That Guy, the relative smartness of your gun is not going to affect your police work in any way, anyway.
Problems with iProtect?
Unlike Armatix, iProtect is not a play to disarm the public; it’s a play to increase the information flow in police dispatch offices. There it runs into a problem, in US law enforcement: the Beretta system is best used by intelligent cops and intelligent, expert even, dispatchers. But many large metro departments in the USA — exactly the target market for iProtect — have upper as well as lower bounds for cop IQ. (These departments also tend to have low closure rates on cases requiring in-depth, imaginative investigations, oddly enough). But at least the typical cop is a man or woman of average smarts. The dispatchers are a different thing. It the USA it’s a low-paid, low-status occupation, and it tends to attract people who are a half-step above the welfare lines: the same sort of people who work, if that’s the word, in the DMV or other menial clerical jobs in local government. One consequence of this is the periodic dispatch scandals like this one, a rather trivial violation that went, as usual, unpunished; or this more serious one that ended with a dead caller, a fired dispatcher, and one more illustration of the sad fact that when seconds count, police are minutes away. Literally none of the dispatchers at a modern urban police department has a place in the high-tech, high-demand dispatch center envisioned by iProtect.
The 80-IQ dispatcher is a mountain that iProtect must climb if it is going to sell here in the USA — and it’s a mountain it probably can’t summit. But even the dispatcher problem is secondary to the real Achilles Heel of iProtect: it’s a proprietary, closed system. It not only works with the PX4i, it only works with the PX4i. It only works with Beretta’s own high-tech undershirt. It only works with the Beretta communications and dispatch system. It requires the agency to recapitalize everything at once. Line cops don’t think of budgetary and logistical problems, but chiefs and commissioners spend most of their time on them.
It’s also self-evident that iProtect has no real utility at this time for the private or individual owner, or even to the rural sheriff’s office or small-town PD: it’s only of interest to large police departments, the only users that can resource it properly. (In the long run, the sheriffs of sparsely populated counties might really like the geolocation capability, though; it goes beyond geolocating the police car, something modern tech already can do,and tracks both the officer and his or her sidearm. That’s a big deal for situational awareness if you’ve got a wide open range and very few sworn officers).
So what’s the verdict?
In sum, the iProtect system is an ingenious adaptation of modern communications technology to the police defensive-firearm sphere. It poses no direct threat to gun rights, although cops may find being monitored all the time a little creepy. (Welcome to the pilot’s world, pal). But as it sits there are obstacles to its adoption. These obstacles are organizational, cultural and financial — we don’t yet know how well the system works, but assuming arguendo that all Beretta’s claims about it are true, there don’t seem to be technical obstacles holding it back.
Like the plain old dumb guns that just sit there until animated by human will, the good or evil of a smart gun is in the intent of the mind behind it.
It dawns on us that in our announcement of the honeycombed howitzer nuts developed by New Jersey firm Imperial Tool with SLM additive manufacturing, we did not elaborate on why we think it’s a big deal.
Let us walk you through it by the numbers:
Until now, it’s been hard to build hollow parts.
Most of the loads borne by steel parts are borne by their surfaces and perimeters. This is true of loads in tension and compression alike.
What that means is: most of the loads bearing on the internal metal of the part (say, a nut or bolt) are just the shear forces between the different surfaces that are bearing different loads.
Therefore, the vast majority of this internal structure is superfluous. An optimum shear web would not be solid and fill 100% of the space between, say, tensive surfaces and compressive surfaces (that is why buildings are built with I-beams rather than square solid beams)
The internal solidity of, inter alia, a nut, only exists because manufacturing processes have always subtracted material from a solid (and, to a lesser extent, engineering analyses have been little developed for hollow and honeycombed parts).
So additive lets us save weight — in the case of the nuts, honeycombing the interior rather than making it solid saved 50% of the net weight of the part — and lets us save material.
The advantages of weight savings should be obvious. If you can reduce weight for the same strength, almost any application benefits. There’s also the flip side of weight savings: you can make a stronger part within the envelope of the original weight budget.
If your part is a common aluminum or steel alloy, material saving probably doesn’t offset some of the disadvantages of using additive: given present technologies, subtractive methods and precision casting are much faster and produce a superior surface finish. But material savings are a different thing with exotic alloys such as Inconel or titanium alloys.
Hollow, weight- and material-saving parts take advantage of the fact that additive manufacturing enable parts with topologies and structures that are literally impossible, using manufacturing methods used from antiquity through the 20th Century. One other current use of this potential is in rocket nozzles, allowing parts to be manufactured with internal cooling channels.
This suggests some possibilities for future small arms:
A lightweight, insulated barrel comprising an outer sleeve and inner honeycomb compression web, printed around a thin hammer-forged liner.
Stronger, lighter stocks and furniture.
Weight of rails interfaces reduced by half.
Weapons that include printed-in electronic circuitry for fire control (further reduced lock time) and target acquisition and designation. (Imagine a Tracking Point rig, built into the weapon, and the size of a conventional ACOG).
50% reduction in the weight of a heavy machine gun.
MG with an evaporative-recovery liquid cooling system built into the rear area of the barrel.
75% reduction the weight of a mortar’s cannon (tube) and baseplate.
Improved fragmentation sleeves in grenade launcher and mortar rounds.
Built-in recoil compensation for instantaneous second shots or sustained on-target bursts.
Some of these technologies will require engineering not yet done, but none of them appears to require an invention not yet made.
Why do a bunch of gun guys want to look at what the ONR is doing? Because the ONR is working on one of our favorite themes: what’s next? By that we mean that current projectile weapons technology is a very evolved version of late 19th century breakthroughs such as breech loading, smokeless powder, fixed ammunition, gas- and recoil-operated automatic weapons, and (for artillery) recoil-managing carriages.
Those inventions revolutionized the weapons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they continue to be exploited even in the latest designs, but the pace of innovation is slower, the effect of innovation is more peripheral or marginal, and the character of innovation is evolutionary, not revolutionary. We could say we’re at a technological plateau, or apogee. (Think of where the internal combustion piston engine was circa 1945 — at a pinnacle of power and efficiency.
Some other trends can be perceived if you look at things in the long (real long) haul. These include a centuries-long trend for projectiles to be launched with smaller calibers, higher velocities, and greater accuracy. But these trends too have hit a plateau.
So the ONR is looking for breakthrough technologies. One thing that they, and the Army, have explored in the past is liquid propellants. We may write something about that, but the bottom line there is that the great potential runs up against insuperable (so far) safety issues. There are many things the next great gun should do, but one thing it should not do is blow itself up.
So the breakthrough currently being explored is the electromagnetic rail gun. Here is their overview of the program on a single page and here’s a web version. The potential is staggering: 50-100 nm range initially (230 nm stretch goal); Mach 7.5 (5,600 mph). In gunnery terms, feet per second, that’s 8,370 (2550 m/sec for those of you still using Robespierre’s revolutionary units). The fastest common To give you some velocity comparisons, that’s not quite as fast as the X-43 scramjet experimental platform, and not quite the orbital speed a geostationary satellite is going. It covers a kilometer in 392 milliseconds. (For comparison’s sake, the fastest guns issued today are smoothbore tank guns firing discarding-sabot fin-stabilized subcaliber penetrators. The APFSDS round in the 120mm M256 gun on the Abrams is pretty fast at 5,500 fps, and the Russian 125mm makes 5,900 fps).
This is the most recent test video ONR published (last month). Their gun accelerates an irregular shaped projectile to hypersonic speed.
This image, from RIA/Novosti (!) shows the principle of operation in more detail than the image above:
Its current weakness is its power consumption, but the Navy has the most experience in the world with one potential source of unlimited power: shipboard reactors. The Army, too, is working on railguns, but doesn’t have that handy reactor in its tanks.
The ONR railgun program is now well into Phase II. The Phase I objectives were set, and the Phase II objective is, broadly stated, to transition from a research and development program to an evaluation and acquisition one.
But the railgun isn’t the only thing the ONR is up to, by any means. Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, ONR head RADM Matthew Klunder reports that, while the railgun will be going to sea in a couple of years, the Navy is already planning to test a laser cannon at sea this year, and is working on other innovations, like unmanned helicopters for supply delivery or medevac.
Advanced technologies that were once the stuff of science fiction are also in the pipeline. This summer the Navy will deploy a laser cannon at sea for the first time and plans to test an electromagnetic railgun on a ship in 2016. The laser cannon delivers an invisible beam of energy with pinpoint accuracy that can take out an incoming plane, drone or boat. The electromagnetic railgun—using electricity rather than gunpowder—will defend against incoming missiles and opposing ships, and project power far inland by launching low-cost guided projectiles hundreds of miles at hypervelocity speeds over Mach 7.
Breakthrough technologies like these give commanders the option to deter, disable or destroy threats from greater distances. In addition, there is no limit to how many rounds a laser can fire, and at just $1 per shot, laser cannons will save the Pentagon (and taxpayers) many millions once fully deployed.
Both the railgun and the laser have the potential to save future ships from the fate of such naval tragedies as HMS Hood, or the USS Maine for that matter, where detonation of a ship’s magazine was a key factor in the loss of ship and men. The railgun can be effective with dumb metal kinetic-energy projectiles, and the laser fires a beam of light — neither is as hazardous to store as plain old HE shells.