Category Archives: Future Weapons

Ghost Gunner is Shipping

Cody Wilson sent an update to Ghost Gunner buyers, along with this atmospheric video:

The Defense Distributed email says:

Today [24 April] the first wave of orders has finally shipped for our pre-order campaign that began all the way back in October! It’s difficult to even count the obstacles we’ve faced since almost that very month, but by your patience and support we are today able to announce our product’s shipment and the release of its design files and operation software to the public. We thank you immensely.

Over 100 units are shipping/will have shipped since the end of last week. Our output is at such a pace that we estimate current backorders from the original campaign will all be fulfilled within six to ten weeks’ time. Our manufacturing processes were difficult to engineer and perfect since December because of our troubled part stream, but we now realize our capacity and are doubling our work force to increase throughput even more than in the past two weeks.

They’ve also opened up orders for the first 200 of those on the wait list, as opposed to those who already paid and are in the queue (wait list members paid a small sum for a place on the list).

The biggest news, perhaps, is the release of the design files, software and manual.  These files are contained in a .zip that can be downloaded from here or here. (Note: this does not work with the Safari browser; Safari users will need a Plan B). The manual looks like this:

gg_op_manual_cover

It is 30 pages long, although you only need the first six of them if all you plan to do is run .DD files created by others. The rest of the manual is an intro to creating .DD files and otherwise using Grbl to control the machine.

And we strongly urge you to read it now if you have a GG coming. It contains several things you’ll want to know before unboxing, like system requirements (in this initial version, “it’s complicated”), and what not to use as a handhold when pulling the machine from its box (the stepper motors!).

The machine’s planned cross-platform promise is not delivered yet, with the initial version of DDCut software, the automated software that runs a .DD file off on the router, initially live only on Windows 7 (and, if you’re brain-dead or your computer is, Windows 8). They still plan to make this work on Linux and MacOS, but it’s not there yet.

Users of the unix-like systems are not completely out in the cold, however. You can run g-code on these computers, controlling the mill by using GRBL. There’s much more of a learning code than that.

One of the problems with relying on someone else to write your DD file is that g-code is extremely powerful. A miscreant, then, could, if not exactly brick a Ghost Gunner, at least cause a head or spindle crash — not a good thing. Fortunately, Wilson and his merry men have included a short set of instructions about what g-code commands are usually safe and which are potentially hazardous, allowing any user to evaluate a .DD file’s safety. For better security yet, they suggest using only files from trusted sources.

We’ve been following this for a while (and yes, we have one on order, but we’re well down the list). We see real potential in g-code and .DD files.

UPDATE 0930R 20150425

This post was written rather rapidly last night when we came in from a long drive at 2300 with no 0600 post in the queue, so we have a few more points (both ours, and Cody’s) to get across to you.

How are the machines shipping? The answer seems to be, via US Mail.

When we say we see real potential in g-code and .DD files, here are some of the things we could see people developing and sharing:

  • Profiling files, for converting an M16A2-profile lower to an A1 profile for a vintage/retro repro.
  • Engraving files, to duplicate retro markings or to make custom designs.
  • Lightening files, to remove metal and skeletonize a lower (which, we must stress, saves no significant weight; it’s a style thing. Imagine a steampunk AR… now it can be done, and the design shared).
  • Things we can’t even imagine yet. If that doesn’t make you squee, what will?

Wilson sees that, too, maybe clearer than we do. Re the closed forum for owners only, he says:

As you receive your machine in the mail, you will find in your package a card with credentials to give you access to the Ghost Gunner forums. We expect this will be a place of exchange and development that will quickly travel more adventurously afield of DD to see just the range and extent of Ghost Gunner’s capabilities.

We note that Ghost Gunner does not require internet access to run, unlike some other modern manufacturing technologies. (MarkForged, we’re lookin’ at you, although we’ve been told they will be selling an extension to their software that will let MarkOne buyers opt out of the MarkForged cloud and run their own servers, in that pungent Silicon Valleyism, “Real Soon Now”). Yes, there is a forum for  Ghost Gunner users, but you don’t ever need to go there. You bought the machine, you own it. What you do with it is your business. (We suspect Wilson shares our loathing for hardware and software involuntary “licenses”).

[F]orum membership is not a must! Everything you need to operate the machine comes in the box, software and guide included. No need to connect to the internet to access what you’ve purchased.

And, in a very important and (to us) unanticapated update, the Ghost Gunner will now be offered Internationally, outside the USA as well. Release of the software was held up for months because:

[T]he Feds literally took until last week to give GG a commodity classification.

It’s anyone’s guess where the hold-up was. It could have been Fed animus towards Wilson personally, but Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s just Feds moving at their usual snail’s pace. But an aside of the classification and approval is this:

[W]e will begin selling and shipping Ghost Gunner outside of the United States. Many of you are not from the US and have inquired for months about access to the machine. Well, we now have the clearance to ship to over 30 countries, of which you are likely a citizen. Our international backers will be reached out to individually at this time, but you will note a separate path to get on the wait list if you’re outside the US when you now visit http://ghostgunner.net.

Finally, it seems meet to close with Cody’s own elegiac closing, expressing as it does gratitude to those of us who have waited through all the Ghost Gunner drama.

Above all else, THANK YOU for your support. We’re a small shop of friends and relative kids from Texas (and parts) around who had no business opening a manufacturing operation. But we wanted to see this concept succeed, and we wanted it to succeed on bold and defiant terms.

Though it will still be some weeks before we’re caught up with orders, we know it was you, our backers, with your patience and good will that allowed us to get to this moment.

I for one will not forget it.

It’s unclear from the email when ours will ship. It looks like the first hundred is well in hand, but we’re just barely into the third hundred.

Jets (and Vehicles) with Frickin’ Lasers on They Heads

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 that doesn't need to "lead" a target; tomorrow, an aerial precision-strike capability? (Bill Sweetman AWST photo).

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.

Wile-E-Coyote-Genius-Business-CardNo 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.

MarkForged: Only Government Can Have Guns

A People’s Republic of Massachusetts company, MarkForged, has taken an interesting position in a dispute with, who else, Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed in Austin, Texas: MarkForged has refused to sell a 3D printer, the Mark One, to Wilson or DD. Its reason? According to its attorney, they fear he will make a gun, and “only the US Government or government contractors can make guns.”

Of course, the US Government hasn’t made a gun since Springfield Armory closed its doors in 1968 (absent some closed-door lab tinkering, which MarkForged apparently doesn’t support, either).

It’s uncertain whether this comes from pure anti-gun animus from the staff of MarkForged; or whether this (like the FedEx/UPS attack on Defense Distributed) is driven by some clandestine Operation Choke Point; or whether their attorney is simply the Judas Goat of The Higher Education Bubble, Legal Department, and is rocking a sheepskin (to mix our ovines and caprines) from the Matchbook University School of Law and HVAC Technology.

What is certain? Wilson is pissed. And he’s not taking “no” for an answer.

(You know, that printer looks like it might be violating a 3D Systems patent on the enclosed print area, especially if they’re rocking any form of climate control. It would be amusing for open source advocates to set a couple closed-source firms’ IP attorneys at each others’ throats).

Wired got a similar tale from the company, and found that they were, shall we say, somewhat integrity-challenged:

In a statement to WIRED, MarkForged cited terms of service that “limit experimentation with ordnance to the United States Government and its authorized contractors.” In fact, the company’s terms of service page doesn’t include that statement. But it does reserve the right for the company to refuse sale to anyone, even after an order is placed.

“Our website automatically took Mr. Wilson’s pre-order, and we certainly regret that we did not catch this sooner,” MarkForged’s statement continues. “We are expediting his refund with interest.”

It’s a free country, and they can sell, or not sell, to whomever they please, of course. And everyone else can buy, or not buy.

There are other questions about MarkForged’s equipment. The guys pimping it in the video on the website are more communications and investment dudes than actual developers — the suits, not the t-shirts. That’s never a good sign, when your initial promo video has at least two guys from your venture capitalists in it. The machine, and its software, appear to require cloud connectivity, which means you can’t use it in an airgapped secure site. So much for using it for R&D on a defense contract. (That central control and storage of software will probably kneecap Wilson, even if he gets a bootleg MarkOne — no way these guys, or their “Government and its authorized contractors,” aren’t coonfingering their customers’ files). Also, they’ve been shipping printers for a while, and yet their web site is full of the sort of glowing but nonspecific testimonials that are used to sell phony diet supplements, penny stocks, and other snake oils. Where’s the real satisfied customers doing real stuff with this thing? They’ve been showing the same rice-boy car cosmetic wing parts for 18 months now, where are the applications?

And finally, there’s the fact that they might just pull the plug on you, and then lie to you and to the press about what their own paperwork says, without even giving you the merest iota of respect that would induce them to Orwell the paperwork into what they’re now saying it always said.

There’s a shakeout coming in the 3D printer world, and few tears will be shed if this firm is one that gets shaken out. But hey, they can always sell to “the United States Government and its authorized contractors.” The ones whose labs are all on the public internet. Oh, wait.

3D Printed Fire Control Group

We’ve seen several of the WarFairy designed 3D-printed AR lowers being put through their paces, but here’s something we weren’t expecting to achieve test-fire status so soon — the Deimos 3D-printed fire control group.

The printer used was a Rostock Max V2, a deltabot style printer. An E3D hotend was used. The material was ABS filament and was treated with acetone vapor after printing. The same printer printed the lower receiver (which had mods to accept this FCG) and the FCG itself.

The FCG design is based on general best practices, adapted for 3D printing and for ABS plastic as a material. Before it is manufactured, it is rendered, both bare:

Deimos FCG rendering no receiver

And in a rendering of the lower receiver:

Deimos FCG rendering

By “general best practices,” we mean a trigger with hook or hooks, hammer (with places for the hooks to engage) and disconnector (also with hook) of the type designed by Browning over 100 years ago for such semi-auto firearms as the Auto 5 shotgun and the Remington Model 8 rifle. This general Browning design was adapted by Garand, Kalashnikov, Stoner and many other subsequent designers. (If you examine an AK and AR closely, you’ll see their kinship in this area. Both inherited the Browning fire control, the AR via Garand and the AK via Remington Model 8). This FCG has three parts in semi-auto form: a trigger, a hammer, and a disconnector.

Deimos FCG parts w springs

By”‘adapted for 3D printing and ABS plastic” we refer to changes required by this material and means of manufacture. Each of the parts is printed on the Rostock Max before getting its acetone vapor bath. And each part has some base and support material that must be removed.

Deimos FCG disconnector as printed

ABS is a strong plastic, but a brittle one. Nylon may be better; an FCG printed in white nylon (presumably Taulman 618) is shown here. It’s unknown why this version has not been given the test-fire treatment, yet; perhaps there are yet undisclosed problems with it. But the nylon works better “on paper.”

Deimos FCG nylon

Here’s the FCG in the lower, cocked:

Deimos FCG in place

And here it is, decocked:

Deimos FCG in place hammer down

The “wet look” of the plastic is a result of the acetone-vapor bath.

Home manufacturing is just getting started, and right now, it’s still for tinkerers and fiddlers, not for end users. It’s a bit like computers were in the early years — it’s in the hands of a shadowy priesthood, guardians of abstruse knowledge. But it turns out the priests are very friendly and helpful once you show a sincere interest.

It’s still harder than (and easier to go wrong with), say, starting up a new Mac or assembling an Ikea table. But so were earlier versions of the same products.

Some people will try to stop this. Lotsa luck. You can’t stop the signal.

This isn’t just about one single design for an AR fire control group. It’s about putting the tools of design, testing, and iteration — the whole RDT&E cycle, really — into the hands of anyone who’s got the nerve to pick them up.

John Browning had to file metal into shape, largely by hand, to transfer his ideas into real prototype firearms. But that was a century ago. Today, we don’t have to any more.

What’s Up in the 3D Printed Gun World?

Time for an update, eh?

WarFairy Lower Banner

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):

AR fire control group

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.

printed lower and mag

It’s ready for its close-up, Mr De Mille:

printed lower and mag closeup

To see about 15 more pictures of printed-gun developments, including magazines, a 7.62mm lower, a revolver, and more, click the “More” button.

Continue reading

Some Sniper Rifle Happenings

There’s a few things going on in the world of sniper rifles.

Remington

We hear that Remington has abandoned its plan to sell the M24 sniper rifles in its inventory to serving soldiers and veterans, and sold the remaining inventory to a Sturgis, South Dakota FFL who is auctioning them off to all bidders, a couple at a time. Reportedly, Remington unloaded the guns because the pressure of layoffs (which continue) at Ilion, NY, made it impossible to continue the veterans program. This image is one of the auction guns:

M24 SWS on GunBroker

 

We recently saw one of these rifles, acquired by a friend through the complicated Remington paperwork drill. It was indistinguishable from a new rifle, with a new barrel, receiver and stock and a nearly new scope; only the rings and case looked used. He’s only fired some ball ammo through it, but it’s more accurate than the ones we had at the unit, so far.

Because the dealer is selling them to collectors and hobbyists, he’s making a lot of money on each one and they’re selling for a premium over what Remington was charging. But part of Remington’s deal with the Army was, apparently, that they weren’t allowed to sell the parts they reacquired from decommissioned Army M24s directly to “the public.” By selling to an FFL they get around that restriction, inserted into the M2010 contract by antigun US Army lawyers.

US Army

The Army (especially SOCOM elements) is generally pleased with the KAC M110 Semi Automatic Sniper System (SASS), but the guys in the field have been bitching about one thing — the gun’s size, and especially its length, which ranges from “too long” to “ridiculously long with the suppressor on.” (This has also driven the popularity of the Mk17 SCAR-H to some degree). Even in Afghanistan, where there’s a premium on long-range terminal performance and where much of the country has been deforested by lack of land management,  there are places where you have to maneuver the thing between trees (the locations used for the movie Lone Survivor really do resemble a lot of the terrain in RC-East, for example). And it’s always a bear to get in and out of vehicles.

The FN entry is based on the SCAR-H. Images taken at AUSA by Soldier Systems Daily.

The FN entry is based on the SCAR-H. Images taken at AUSA by Soldier Systems Daily.

So naturally, there’s a solicitation for a CSASS, a Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System. Basically, what they’re looking for is a short M110. We learned of this via The Firearm Blog (update here on the FNH contestant, which is SCAR based) which you really should be reading regularly, and have been following it idly, only to find the solicitation closed on 6 November 2014 (Note that this may not be up indefinitely; sooner or later they take solicitations down). A number of vendors are submitting ten sample guns. There is a bit of a crapshoot in it, as the guns will be tested with M118LR ammunition, and the vendors wanted to tune their guns to the specific lot to be used — which was pointedly not made available to them.

FN, at least, got "Compact" largely from a shorter suppressor than the M110.

FN, at least, got “Compact” largely from a shorter suppressor than the M110.

Because these weapons are semi only, expect the losing bidders to put some of their ten sample entrants on the market, sooner or later. (Knight’s, at least, has done this in previous years, as well as make small quantities of contract overruns available). FNH has already pledged to sell their version, a very similar version of which is in production in FNH’s South Carolina plant as the SOF Mk20, to the public). The package will be an NFA weapon because of the suppressor.

USMC

The Marines have decided they want a modular stock for their M40 sniper rifle, and they’ve granted a contract to Remington. There is some Marine tilt on it here and there, but basically it’s  the short-action version of the modular stock that Remington developed back in XM2010 days for the Army’s .300 Win Mag sniper rifle, which replaced the M24s that Remington rebuilt for the GI and vet market, before letting that project drop to chase more GI contracts.

This is typically Marine frugal. They’ll hang on to their old .308s, but they have been casting envious eyes at the Army’s and Navy’s modular chassis guns.

What’s the Opposite of “Advanced”?

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.

What TrackingPoint Must Do to Sell to SOF

Tracking Point ProductsWe 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?

SF Recruiting Poster pick it upIf 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.

Two-way communications

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.

tracking_point_trad_mode

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.

What’s After Black Hawk?

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:

Future Helicopter JMR

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.

Bell-V280

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.

Folded Ammunition of the 1970s – It’s FABRL!

5.56 Folded DummyWhen you find one of these cartridges — like a black plastic commemorative one, made for a cartridge collectors’ club, now up for auction on GunBroker, or the blue dummy on the left — it just looks weird. Made in several calibers (at least 5.56, 7.62, and 30mm) and simplex (one bullet) and triplex (three) versions, it offered benefits from both the standpoint of internal ballistics (in theory, more complete combustion before projectile exits from the barrel) and packaging (a substantially shorter round, a big deal with aerial cannons and other on-board weapons), and potentially lighter weights.

Andrew J. Grandy, Circa 1975.

Andrew J. Grandy, circa 1970s.

The conceptual designer, Andrew J. Grandy, of Philadelphia suburb North Hills, obtained several patents on his technology: 3,857,339 of 31 Dec 74, which described both the rounds and a variety of belts, revolver chambers, and other feeding mechanisms for the unusual rounds; and several that appear very similar if not identical to to the 31 Dec 74 patent, including at least three from 24 Jun 74: 3,890,730,  3,890,732, and 3,890,878, plus 3,913,445 of 21 Oct 75. (There are other seemingly duplicative patents under Grandy’s name).

Grandy made quite a few other patent claims, either while employed at Frankford Arsenal or after he left and founded his own company, “GTG”. One of his more unusual claims was a pivoting/folding stock, illustrated on an M14, that folded up and over the receiver, with the belly of the skeletonized stock forming a carrying handle; another was a prestressed-metal-lined fiberglass barrel. It’s unknown if either of these inventions ever rose off the drawing board to be reduced to practice. Most of his patents grant free use to the Army, suggesting that his research remained Army-funded even after he left the staff.

As the design of the folded ammunition matured, the cases, originally problematic steel weldments, came to be made of a polymer, which offered the well-known weight advantages over a brass case, despite the folded ammunition’s more complex shapes. (This was a serendipitious benefit; the complex shape required the cases to be made by a process like injection molding; it was not a simple drawn cylinder that could be made of brass by 19th-Century processes).

But the benefits of the round were hard up against the costs they imposed on manufacture and functioning of the weapon, and the limitations of the materials. The manufacture problem relates to the odd shape of the chamber, the functioning issues (which were worked out) relate to the fact that an axisymmetric item of ammunition, a round that is indeed “round” in section, doesn’t have to go into the barrel in any orientation except point-forward; a folded round has only one right orientation, and the other 359º of the compass are wrong.

If the folded round itself wasn’t odd enough for you, Grandy came out of the SPIW and SALVO era and would design a triplex version that appears to have fired three bullets from three barrels, using a single combustion chamber. We know little about these rounds, but the ammo collector who is selling a few individual folded-ammo rounds has pictures of the triplexes, too. First, compared to a SPIW-era triplex tandem round:

Folded triplex ammo

And then, a whole line of colorful triplexes:

5.56 Folded Live ammo

We’d really like to know more about this. It looks like that sort of 1960s invention that was the Thing of the Future™ then, and still is today. “Dude, where’s my jetpack, and my triplex blaster?”

The cost problem is, as the auction hints, largely in the development of compatible firearms. We have nearly 200 years’ experience with fixed ammunition in an axial arrangement of round cross-section and cylindrical or polycylindrical form. That’s a lot of catching up to do.

Today, polymer cases are again drawing interest as a way to reduce ammunition size and weight without taking on the complexities of caseless ammunition. But today’s polymer cases are axisymmetric. If they’re folded, they’re symmetrically folded, with the combustion chamber around the projectile, giving some of Grandy’s promised benefits without some of the loading and ejection challenges.

The Achilles’s heel of polymer cases is and has always been obturation, or lack of it; militaries that can afford it continue to stay with brass cases for the safety, storage integrity, and increased barrel life it brings, compared to plastic and steel alternatives. Despite that, many engineers and designers think we may see effective synthetic cases of some type replacing brass sometime in this century, and if that happens, designers will be freed from the limitations of brass-drawing in cartridge (and firearm) design. So pay attention, as your teachers said; you may see this again.

FOLDED, U-SHAPED OR ENCAPSULATED AMMUNITION WAS ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING EXPERIMENTAL PROGRAMS CONDUCTED DURING THE 1960s and 70s AT FRANKFORD ARSENAL. Invented by Andrew Grandy (seen below in this FA publicity photo) the concept provided a separate combustion chamber. This allowed gases only to be conveyed to the base of the projectile instead of the unburned powder and gases which are typical of the traditional “in line” cartridge design. The concept was tried in several calibers. Production and chambering problems for a nonsymmetrical case undermined the development. Mr. Grandy was a long time ICCA member. The ICCA – International Cartridge Collectors association was the prior name for the current IAA – International Ammunition Association. In 1984 he produced commemorative sets of his folded ammunition design for the ICCA. After retiring from Frankford Arsenal Mr. Grandy went into business for a short time as GTG Inc. to promote his designs. THIS AUCTION: This is a LIVE black plastic ball with .55 grain projectile and GTG headstamp. Includes a descriptive flyer which explains the concept and a CD copy of the original design report.

via 5.56(.223) EXPERIMENTAL FOLDED U-SHAPED AMMO-2 : Vintage Ammo at GunBroker.com.

In addition to that auction, the same retiring collector is auctioning one identical round, and numerous other ammunition collectors’ items in his full set of auctions. He is also auctioning these rounds at GunAuction.com (We cite GunBroker a lot more than GunAuction out of force of habit, but we have nothing against GunAuction).

The feasibility of this folded ammunition in 5.56 mm was studied by Frankford Arsenal in the 1970s. The study was Document Number FA-TR-76061, available on DTIC as Document ADA039156.

The benefits the Frankford investigators, Reed Donnard, Richard Rhodes and Thomas Hennessy, saw in the ammunition included reduction of ammunition packing volume, length, and weight, and several benefits that flowed from that, including vehicle space utilization and reduced logistic costs. The abstract of their paper explains why:

Folded Ammunition is a unique concept in ammunition design that relocates the propellant charge from the conventional position behind and coaxial with the projectile to one beside the projectile. For a given energy output, conventional axially symmetric amiltlnLtlon cartridges do not provide the most efficient geometrical shape for a minimum system parametric profile (system length, weight and bulk). Reconfiguration of the cartridge using the Folded Ammunition approach makes possible now what had previously been unattainable in the way of weapon/ ammunition system optimization. This report describes the concept, outlines its advantages and presents the results of a short-term analytical and experimental program that successfully demonstrated the feasibility of Folded Ammunition.

Andrew Grandy, the inventor of the folded-ammunition concept, was credited for “concept description” in the study.

At first, the capsule/cartridge design was wide open, with many possibilities under consideration.

Folded ammo concepts

The final decision was to use an oval-section capsule with the projectile on one arm of a U and the powder container on the other. This experimental 30mm round illustrates the general arrangement, as does the blue dummy 5.56 at the head of the article.

30mm Folded Ammo Frankford Arsenal

This picture shows the packing volumetric efficiency advantage of the folded 5.56 over a conventional round with the same projectile (you will also note that the projo is a lot longer than the then-issue M193. This bullet is an experimental low-density bullet Frankford was experimenting with at the time).

folded_round_volumetric_efficiency

They named the 5.56 round the FABRL (Frankford Arsenal – Ballistic Research Laboratory) 5.56. The report is interesting for, among other things, one of the earliest small arms uses of finite element analysis, something that even at a crude 2D level required a big mainframe computer in the 1970s.

The early experiments used test barrels in test fixtures, but they graduated to M16A1 and Belgian FAL rifles modified for the FABRL cartridge.  Unfortunately, because DTIC’s copies come from binary-pixel microfiche, the pictures of the firearms in the tech report are illegible .

Initially, they decided to use steel for the cartridge cases. This didn’t work out entirely well. And by the end of the testing they’d made a grim discovery: while they could make a 5.56 round that was essentially a clone of the then-issue M193, they couldn’t make one that was enormously better. They could make some marginal improvements in the parameters that folded ammunition promised in theory, but not significant ones; not improvements big enough to justify a huge changeover, even if engineers could be sure there were more performance improvements to come.

And by then, it was the late 1970s era of the Hollow Army, and there was no money for research. Frankford Arsenal itself would soon go the way of Harper’s Ferry and Springfield before it. Folded ammunition “coulda be a contenda” but wound up, instead, as a curiosity for ammo collectors and readers of WeaponsMan.com.