Category Archives: Future Weapons

A New Capital Ship for the Royal Navy: HMS Queen Elizabeth

The story reads like a press release from the Admiralty and the Air Staff, maybe because it is. The signatories are the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford. But the op-ed in Britain’s daily Telegraph also gives some feeds and speeds of the freshly-christened HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest and most capable aircraft carrier to ever fly the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.

class-at-sea_preview

At 65,000 tonnes, HMS Queen Elizabeth will pack a heavyweight military punch.
In the years ahead, she will be equipped with the Lightning II. Placing the UK at the forefront of fighter jet technology, Lightning II will provide a true multi-role aircraft that will surpass the majority of weapons systems in production today, or envisaged in the foreseeable future.
A fifth generation, survivable, low observable, multi-role aircraft, Lightning II will be able to undertake a wide range of mission types from both Land and Sea. In addition to the Carrier Strike role, the new aircraft carrier also has a deck big enough to airlift one thousand Royal Marine commandos or soldiers ashore by helicopter.

The naming of the ship is one thing; her building is still far from complete, and then she must be armed, manned, and equipped. She is two to four years from being an effective unit in the Royal Navy, depending on how things go with the inevitable budget cuts.

The Lightning II is the jet we know in the States as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The RAF/RN version will be V/STOL capable, using technology roughly similar to that in the now-retired Harrier and Sea Harrier aircraft that were the technological marvels of the Falklands War over 30 years ago. (The USMC still operates Harriers, as do some other navies, but the British ). A mock-up of the aircraft was present at the christening.

HMS QE Christening

As well as military flexibility, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her embarked forces provide political and diplomatic choice, from a piece of independent, sovereign territory.

In disaster relief operations, she can be placed close in, to offer help in rebuilding shattered lives.

In times of crisis and tension, she can offer a visible coercive presence or position out of sight, a flexible means of escalating and de-escalating as the national or international will dictates.

And, able to roam across the international waters, she will offer a mobile sovereign air base.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will be the centre-piece of Defence’s Joint approach to warfare.

The air group which will operate from her 4-acre deck will be manned by both Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots. But her air missions will not be confined to fast jet carrier strike.

The embarkation of Army Apache attack helicopters in HMS Ocean for operations in Libya in 2011 already provides a blueprint for other types of inter-Service cooperation in the years ahead.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will not only host UK assets; we will work with our key allies to maximize our future capability.

The US long ago worked out joint maritime helo ops, initially in special operations, but increasingly across all services’ aviation arms. The British used V/STOL fighter-bombers and seagoing helicopters imaginatively and effectively in the Falklands, and they could get up to some quite interesting things with a powerful ship like this.

HMS-Queen-Elizabeth-deck-plan

Indeed, HMS Queen Elizabeth will not only be the centre-piece of the nation’s maritime armada (named ‘the Response Force Task Group’), but the beating heart of the United Kingdom’s Joint Expeditionary Force.

And with her lifespan of 50 years she will enjoy a lengthy reign at the head of the nation’s future joint expeditionary capability.

During this long, value for money, working life she will be a platform for innovative technologies, both manned and unmanned. And, from a nation known for its inventiveness, this will include technology not yet imagined – after all, her last Commanding Officer has yet to be born!

HMS Queen Elizabeth is also serving as a turbocharger for deeper international partnership and coalition building.

Already Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel are being trained in ‘carrier skills’ in the United States. Our personnel are also serving within the French Carrier Strike Group.

These international exchanges — select American and French officers also serve exchange tours with allied air arms — serve the dual purpose of lubricating alliances with bonds of friendship forged on operations, and disseminating operational developments alliance-wide.

Of course, no British ship goes to sea without British traditions. In the case of HMS QE, this plaque shows that joint operations are built into her in the very shipyard:

HMS QE plaque

As part of the arrangements with the US, the first UK Lightning squadron will form up in the United States in 2016, prior to returning to the UK in 2018.

Not only is this generosity of partnership enabling the UK to regenerate its carrier strike capability, it is also laying strong foundations with our key strategic partners as we look to share responsibilities in the years which lie ahead.

via HMS Queen Elizabeth: The jewel in the crown of UK Defence – Telegraph.

The ship is the latest in a line of illustrious British capital ships to bear this name. The second carrier in the class, well under construction, also will bear a historic name: HMS Prince of Wales. The most famous prior Prince of Wales, of course, was the ill-fated King George V class battleship which survived a gunfight with DKM Bismarck (unlike her squadronmate, the weakly-armored battlecruiser Hood) only to be sunk in October December 1941 (Ugh. Embarrasing — Ed.) by Japanese land-based torpedo bombers.

The Telegraph also has a more technical description of the ship, likely to be of interest to us, linked in that article. Another excellent source of information on the ship is the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, an industry group of her builders.

While the ship is the first carrier of this size ever built by Britain (she is first of a class of two, and is approximately two to three years from commissioning and service), the USA has been building carriers this size or larger since the late 1940s, and the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov and former Russian carrier Liaoning (China, former Russian Varyag and Soviet Riga) are in this class.

 

Of course, not all the media is, shall we say, on board with HMS QE. The BBC irritated retired sailors and officers by referring to the HMS Queen Elizabeth as a “boat.” Well, that’s what you get with layers and layers of editors, one supposes.

Electromagnetic Pulse, Scaremongering, and You

People keep saying that an EMP attack on America could kill 90% of Americans. Last month, for example, in Investors Business Daily, not usually a fever swamp of paranoia. But it sounds a little paranoid to us:

That dire warning came from Peter Vincent Pry, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

He testified in front of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event could wipe out 90% of America’s population.

These frightening reports and scary numbers are reminiscent, for those of us sufficiently “seasoned” to remember, of the hysteria surrounding nuclear weapons in the Cold War. Hawks amped up the threat to justify our defensive measures, from SAMs to Civil Defense. Doves amped up the threat to justify a preemptive surrender: since resistance is futile, we might as well lie back and enjoy being assimilated. “Better red than dead,” some of them intoned, while one always had a deep-seated suspicion that for many of them the closely-held imperative was “better red than anything,” actually. The Doves were once distributed across parties, with pinks on the Democrat side matched by isolationists on the Republican, and the Hawks were similarly spread. The sixties and seventies, and mostly, the Vietnam War, sped a process of assortation that has made today’s hawk-dove axis a largely partisan one.

RIght now, the EMP threat is being promoted by two groups, those for whom it is a big issue: a mix of scaremongers who have a solution to sell you, and the press, who are always up for a round of predictions of disaster and decline.

Some attention has been paid to the potential cataclysmic effects of a natural phenomenon such as a massive solar storm, an event that has occurred in America’s horse-and-buggy era when it did not matter.

Today an electromagnetic pulse event would be devastating. It wouldn’t need a solar storm, just a solitary nuke detonated in the atmosphere above the American heartland. We would envy the horse-and-buggy era.

As we’ve reported here before, there are qualitative differences between a Carrington Event and a nuclear-generated EMP.

In any event, it would take a complete societal collapse and a passive lack of reaction by institutions and even individuals to produce the sort of societal collapse that these guys fear. One of the more realistic fictional renditions of an EMP attack is William Forstchen’s best-selling One Second After from a couple years ago. But even Forstchen underestimates the degree to which people will survive and recover from such an attack. The human impulse to survival is very strong, and it’s a social impulse: people up against the wall tend to cooperate to the extent that they can, even victims of horrible natural and man-made disasters.

But the EMP fright industry never lets up:

“Natural EMP from a geomagnetic superstorm, like the 1859 Carrington Event or 1921 Railroad Storm, and nuclear EMP attack from terrorists or rogue states, as practiced by North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 2013, are both existential threats that could kill 9-of-10 Americans through starvation, disease and societal collapse,” the Washington Free Beacon quoted Pry as saying.

As we reported early last year, Pry, a former CIA nuclear weapons analyst, believes that North Korea’s recent seemingly low-yield nuclear tests and launch of a low-orbit satellite may in fact be preparations for a future electromagnetic pulse attack.

via EMP Attack On Power Grid Could Kill 9-In-10 Americans – Investors.com.

Are the Norks preparing an EMP? Maybe. But how do they test it? How do they know it works?

A copy of a report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security for the Defense Department, obtained by Pry from sources within DHS, finds North Korea could use its Unha-3 space launch vehicle to deliver a nuclear warhead as a satellite over the South Pole to attack America from the south.

But that understates, or fails to state, the Nork problem. Testing an EMP warhead is a tough thing to do, as is testing any kind of nuclear warhead, compounded by the fact that the foreign supporters of the Nork program, who have included at times Russia China and Pakistan, haven’t ever solved this conundrum, either. And even though the Norks have made this their national priority, they’re still a poor, badly-organized, and ill-led country.

Also, there are some American infrastructure elements, including most military weapons systems and command and control networks, that are already EMP-hardened. So you might succeed in taking down the power grid, but you won’t prevent massive retaliation.

EMP links & Videos

Here are a few more EMP resources. All of these are of the Chicken Little variety, including other takes on Pry’s testimony, and his actual written testimony (as opposed to some newshound’s version of what he said).

http://4thst8.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/what-will-you-be-doing-the-day-after-the-emp/

Here’s a brief video showing how an EMP would take place.

This is a longer (and more alarmist) video. Bill Forstchen, mentioned above, is interviewed in this. (His book is a worst-case scenario, but quite readable, unlike most didactic literature). He has some unpleasant comments about Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, a standout even in a Senate where every single member is a crook.

http://4thst8.wordpress.com/tag/peter-pry/

Pry’s testimony:

http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM08/20140508/102200/HHRG-113-HM08-Wstate-PryP-20140508.pdf

http://www.empactamerica.org/2012-05-02_Pry-Homeland-Security.pdf

http://www.ferc.gov/CalendarFiles/20120502132652-Pry,%20Homeland%20Security.pdf

http://www.shieldact.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Senate-ENR-Handout.pdf

But even if the EMP scenario is overstated…

…as we think it is, you might still be well served by preparing for it. One thing to think about is this: most of the measures you would take to protect your family from the consequences of an EMP attack would also protect your family many times over from such more common disasters as flooding, urban riots, or a worst-season power outage that lasts several days. That’s why you owe it to yourself to read Bill Forstchen and other survival writers like John Wesley, Rawles.

Why the Honeycombed Nuts are a Big Deal

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.

lighter M777 howitzer nuts

Let us walk you through it by the numbers:

  1. Until now, it’s been hard to build hollow parts.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)
  5. 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.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Office of Naval Research

Screenshot 2014-05-22 02.27.55Why 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.

WNUS_Rail_Gun_Theory_picSo 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).

 

 

Navy-railgunORD_Railgun_GA_CONOPS_lg

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:

How Railgun works

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.

Here’s the website, and here’s their YouTube channel (warning, annoying autoplay).

Gilboa Constrictor

OK, it’s really called the “Gilboa Snake,” but our name is way better, no?

Gilboa  Snake

Anyway, what it is is a unique dual-upper AR-based weapons system from Gilboa Rifles of Israel; it was a surprise at the NRA Show and people are talking about it, although nobody in the USA has one yet thanks to the political police at the BATFE and the laws they enforce (for which you can thank your Congressman and Senator).

The Snake has a trigger system that only fires the left barrel. The left barrel’s gas system itself then cycles the reload for its barrel whilst firing the right barrel. The right barrel’s gas system reloads the right barrel, and then your trigger is reset to fire again. Since every trigger pull (or press, for you NRA terminology pedants) fires two barrels and therefore two shots, it’s a “machine gun” under the National Firearms Act and therefore it is banned from manufacture and sale in the USA, under the Hughes Amendment.

So Gilboa, which is a gun-making branch of an Israeli defense firm, Silver Shadow, started by retired paratrooper LTC Amos Golan, is redesigning the gun to have two separate triggers, one for each barrel. This loses some of the benefits of automatically firing two rounds with a delay measured in (says Gilboa) nanoseconds: the slight dispersion around the single aiming point that increases hit probability, and the ability to put two rounds very close together in space and time to defeat barriers like auto windshields.

The mechanism sounded at first like some update of the old siamesed Gast machine gun, but it’s really quite different; the Gast’s twin barrels and twin mechanisms were mirror images of one another, and the gun operated by recoil.

The receivers, upper and lower alike, are machined from billet 7075-T6 aluminum. The two barrels are set 3 centimeters (a little over one inch) apart, and are harmonized to converge on the single point of aim at 100 meters (although this can be altered). Each side of the gun ejects to its side and has its own ejection port, ejection port cover, and cartridge deflector. There is a single central Picatinny rail along the top of the receiver and forearm. There is no buffer in the stock, so a pistol Snake is a possibility, as are all kinds of detachable and folding stocks.

 

Gilboa Snake

According to an Israeli magazine article (.pdf) hosted on Gilboa’s website, the gun fires from an open bolt, another thing that must change for US sales.

The Gilboa is no lightweight. With 9.5″ barrels it weighs a good nine pounds, and that’s not counting two loaded magazines. Normal 20- and 30-round box magazines will fit, but most drum magazines will not.

Gilboa’s initial design was the well-publicized Corner Shot add-on for the Glock pistol. Their initial Gilboa Assault Rifle was a much more conventional single-barreled AR-based rifle. All in all, they offer 11 different major versions of the rifle, most in either piston or direct impingement variations. One can be excused for wondering if they have more variations than actual serial numbers so far, but Gilboa has one of Israel’s top weapons men in Efraim Yaari, formerly of IWI. Yaari is, as we understand it, principally responsible for the design of both the single-barrel Gilboa and its siamese-twins sibling, the Snake.

To close, here’s a look at another one of the other Gilboa variations: a 9mm SMG using Glock magazines.

Gilboa 9mm

 

The Gilboa guns have a certain aesthetic to them, one that’s a little bit reminscent of the Glock itself. Certainly Amos Golan will be gladdened if his guns are anything like as popular as the once-oddball Austrian pistols. Thirty years later, polymer pistols are normal. In 2044, will most rifles have double barrels and actions?

When is 42 Smaller than 26? When it’s a Glock!

Matt at Jerking the Trigger has an interesting analysis of a Glock teaser:

I went all CSI on the teaser photo and adjusted the brightness and contrast of the image (below). You can see that the entire outline of a pistol is visible and, if it is to scale with the Zippo lighter shown, it would be roughly the size of other compact, polymer frames .380s on the market like the Ruger LCP and S&W Bodyguard.

Here’s Matt’s adjusted image. You could go Read The Whole Thing™ to see the before and after versions, and much more informed specularion (including in the comments).

Glock-G42-Tease-Adjusted

A Glock 42 that’s a .380 would be big news. A Glock that’s a .380-sized 9mm would be even bigger news. “January” is the least surprising time for a new-gun introduction: the 2014 SHOT Show will run from from January 14-17 at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. In fact, Glock has been letting the community know that the G41 and G42 are coming at the show.

A guy who attended Glock Armorer recert recently posted the following:

I was doing some ordering for the shop this evening, and found that the new models are already in our distributor’s system.

One model will be the Glock 41. SKU numbers are PG4130101 and PG4130103, which indicate adjustable sights, and a low-cap and hi-cap version. The Glock 41 is more expensive than any of Glock’s other pistols to date; based on the wholesale cost I’m seeing, street price will be $779.95 at my shop. Given that, my official guess is that the new Glock Model 41 is going to be an optics-ready, competition-oriented pistol to compete with the S&W M&P CORE and FNH-USA FNX-45 Tactical.

The other model will be the Glock 42. SKU number is UI4250201, which indicates US-made, fixed sights and a low-capacity (10 or less) magazine. Wholesale price on this is only slightly above the Gen3 models, so street price should be $539.95. I think this is a new single stack .380 or 9mm of some sort.

For those of you not retail-savvy. SKU or “stock keeping unit” is the basic unit of inventory in modern retail informatics. It means the item in its box as will be delivered to a retail customer. What this guy has done is parse the Glock SKUs, comparing them to existing models’ numbers.

Downthread in the same discussion, someone has this alleged data pull:

GLOCK UI4250201 GLOCK 42FS 380ACP 3.26″ FS 764503910616 0 $352.00 $399.00

And one retailer already has this up, although without a picture.

GLOCK 41 GEN 4 45ACP 5.3 AS 13RD GLOCK PG4130103  $645.00 $774.99

 

Glock has been hinting at a competition-ready pistol for some time. If they’ve been hinting at a compact carry Glock, we haven’t seen the hints, but the customers have been bellowing their desire for such for many years now.

If the price of $399 retail and ~$350 street is remotely correct, a number of pocket pistol manufacturers just got a jolt of ice water to the heart.

ATF blows up some guns

kaboom3D printed guns. Well, they blow some up, and they try to blow others up. These four films (one is “above the fold,” and three more are visible if you click the “more” button)  are the product, we read with some alarm, of an interagency group led by ATF reacting to the “threat” of 3D weaponry. Few things could be more chilling to future technology that government agents looking to ban or criminalize it. On the other hand, the Powers That Be tried to ban those noisy, stinky motorcars (or impose “common sense measures” like having a guy walking ahead with a red flag) and became technological roadkill; many 3DP adherents, like Cody Wilson, think that the technology simply can’t be banned — it’s too widespread, too distributed, and too useful. We’re more inclined to see this technological development as orthogonal to the law: the law will treat a 3D printed firearm or firearm part no differently than one cast from ingots, milled from a forging, or sawn from bar stock.

ATF’s statement with the videos does not go into any detail, and does not in itself justify either complacency or alarm. The bureau says, verbatim:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) led a multi-agency working group testing the use of 3-D printing technology in the making of firearms. This test focuses on the Liberator design.

The first is made of VisiJet material, which is the stuff that kids’ Invisalign braces are made from. As you might surmise, material capable of providing slow steady pressure to Junior’s jaws is less suited to containing a .380 ACP shell. So, here’s the Kaboom:

The catastrophic failure of the gun is evident. The barrel shatters, with at least one short length of it seeming to share off along what was probably a manufacturing faultline. The burst casing flies up, spinning; the nail-sourced firing pin dances in a cloud of plastic fragments. It is evident that this material is not something you are well advised to load a cartridge into and put in your hand.

The kB! gun is numbered 4 with a I with subscript X. The meaning of these numbers is unknown. The other printed guns in ATF’s released videos were printed of ABS plastic and numbered 2 and 10.

Continue reading

Here’s a Solid Concept: 3D Printed 1911

Solid Concepts of Austin, TX, the company that made this first known 3D printed metal gun, calls it the “1911 DMLS” — the letters stand for Direct Metal Laser Sintering. Here it is put to the test:

3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Low-Res-Press-Photo-1024x638Most of the gun is made of 17-4 Stainless Steel, but some parts including the hammer, grip safety and mainstring housing are made of Inconel 625, a high-temperature, high-stress alloy commonly used in jet turbine hot section shafts. DMLS can also produce titanium alloy parts, although this technology demonstrator contains none. The grips are composite and were themselves produced by Selective Laser Sintering. Springs and, we believe, fasteners, were the only non-printed parts. All parts were printed to net shape and no printed part required machining (although there was a little hand-fitting and -finishing). The printed parts are visible in the image on the left below.

3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Components-Disassembled-Low-ResIn Laser Sintering, powdered material is fused or welded into a 3D shape by a computer controlled laser beam. This German-engineered technology is not the province of desktop printing for reasons of power, safety, and cost (“This machine costs more than my college education!” one of Solid Concepts’ well-educated engineers marvels), but costs are expected to come down beginning in 2014 as key patents on the technology expire.

Solid Concepts has a manufacturing FFL but doesn’t intend to join the glutted market for 1911s-with-a-twist. Their remarkable gun is meant to showcase the technology they have mastered and its ability to form fully usable, durable prototype parts. While the firearms industry is an obvious customer, DMLS is already widely used in aerospace and other high-end manufactures. For example, Formula 1 teams jealously guard the technology they use, Racing Engineering magazine reports that every team has used 3D printing for parts in their actual race-day cars. Such early adopters tend to be those entities that can immediately exploit the advantages of a new technology, those for whom a small increase in performance (whether in weight savings, ability to iterate a design, or some other advantage) justifies a large expenditure.

Where Solid Concepts’ additive-manufacturing prowess comes into play is not in series manufacturing, but as a service bureau for would-be gun designers. It’s also extremely useful for anyone working on a firearms accessory or part conceptual design — you can rough it out on your MakerBot or what have you, and then let Solid Concepts produce the durable metal prototype for preliminary testing.

Where Small Arms R&D is going next

It's probably not going to be a disintegrator ray gun. Dang.

It’s probably not going to be a disintegrator ray gun. Dang.

Because the XM248 segment of the story is taking longer than we had hoped, we’re going to go for a practical first down again (an American football analogy, for our overseas readers: we’re going to do something easy, but possible, instead of something extremely difficult). As we’ve been immersed in the surprisingly lively RDT&E world of the 1970s, where weapons systems with roots as far back as WWII and Korea were being uprooted by new technology, we began to wonder, what’s going on today? 

And in the world of small arms, the answer is, surprisingly little. The Army is somewhat satisfied with the weapons that they field now. This is partly because the current suite of weapons is pretty good. It’s also because the Army has other priorities that are higher. Army leaders have said that their problem areas for science and technology are as shown in the slide (source .pdf).

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 11.30.27 PMYou’ll notice that most of these have no bearing on small arms development. They’re all very serious problems, but with one exception, tinkering with guns isn’t going to solve any of, say, the top ten.

The exception, the place where small arms is going next, is weight reduction. This is nothing new: for 4,000 years infantrymen have bitched about their burden, and for 4,000 years commanders have admitted that the grunts have a point but have done little to alleviate the problem.

There’s a dynamic at work here: when advances reduce the burden, new gear gets stacked on the rifleman (as it did on the fusilier, musketeer, arqebusier, pikeman, or hoplite in days of yore). If the command doesn’t replace the 20 pounds’ respite that science and procurement brought you, the GI himself will, usually with ammunition.

What sort of technology will reduce weapons weight?

The last time it was successfully done, it was done by applying aerospace technology to weapons design. We refer, of course, to the crusade of the original ArmaLite from its Hollywood offices and later Costa Mesa plant, during the long pregnancy of the Space Age in the 1950s. Stoner, Sullivan et. al. drafted a variety of industrial materials and processes for guns that had been little used in the industry before, and never used explicitly for weight reduction as an initial design objective.

It was radical then, but it’s old hat now. The space age technology of 1960 — forged 7075 aluminum alloy and fiberglass, later molded Fiberite® plastic — is now not too exciting. Even the exotic material of 1960, the titanium structure of the secret A-12 spyplane, is now much more widely used. A few things that are likely to see more use in the years ahead:

  • Aluminum-lithium alloys. Used in F-15 wing skins and Airbus 380 skins. May be too light for gun structures without new processes.
  • Aluminum-scandium alloys. These are already showing up in lightweight pistols.
  • Titanium alloys. These have come downmarket — and small arms systems have gotten so expensive — to be within reach. However, Scandium alloys approach Ti alloy strength, and are more easily machined and welded.
  • Carbon-fiber and carbon-carbon structures. These could reduce the weight of stocks by 50%. ATK, which is no stranger to small arms, has achieved 20-40% reductions by redesigning metallic aerospace structures in carbon composites.

There are even more exotic materials on the horizon. Nanomaterials in particular offer benefits that will probably require complete systems redesign to be fully exploited. Indeed, they’ll probably require new basic research in the nanoscale dynamics of the mechanism inside the gun and the projectile inside the barrel.

Materials have the potential to reduce the weight of ammunition as much as weapons. The low-hanging fruit here is polymer cases. They’re hard to do because brass does a lot more than just hold the case together; so far, plastics have failed miserably at providing the gas seal that brass case obturation does. But a polymer case would get 90% of the weight-savings benefit of true caseless ammunition. Caseless, of course, would get 100% of the potential, which is why the idea won’t die, but as everyone who’s tried to make caseless guns (notably H&K) knows, that extra 10% of potential costs you several multiples of 100% of your original effort.

Another way to reduce ammunition weight is simply to ensure that more rounds fired are hits. Future ways to improve this tend to focus on electro-optical systems, but more mechanical accuracy in the service firearm is possible — and desirable.

Finally, new manufacturing technologies make possible manufacturing with a precision previously unimaginable. Additive manufacturing processes enable the design of parts previously unimagined, including parts with blind hollows inside. (It sounds like this would weaken the part, but most loads are carried on or along surfaces).

The bottom line: we’ll see a weapon again as light as the 6.6 lb. (3 KG) M16A1. But it will have much greater capabilities.

Dueling M25 / XM25 Stories

XM25-in-actionTwo different stories were making the rounds about the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement system — AKA the 25mm smart grenade launcher — recently. One says it’s cancelled and the other says it’s about to be generally fielded: about as  far apart as two tales can get.

Story 1: it has been canc’d due to a February accident.

This is partially true. There was a mishap in which there was a double feed and that caused a primer initiation with the gun out of battery. The soldier was injured, gun destroyed. The Army pulled them all back from theater in early March and sent them back to the manufacturer, ATK (H&K and L3/IOS Brashear have also taken part in system development). The reason for doing this this was: an accident like that was supposed to be impossible, therefore they need to inspect all fielded XM25s. There were, if we recall correctly, three double feed incidents but in only this one was the GI injured (not very seriously), and in one previous one the primer and propellant fired out of battery, destroying the gun with no injuries to the GI. The February mishap happened on a training range in Afghanistan.

XM25

XM25

Prior to the accident, the gun was popular with the troops that carried it. It was hard to point to a specific combat success or even identify a single Talib whacked by it, but its capabilities have been used for suppression and to permit small patrols to break contact and continue mission. The guy who carries the XM25 carries it as his main weapon, giving up his carbine for the exotic ability to put airbursts on defiladed targets in direct fire more rapidly and precisely than mortars can.

This led to the Senate Armed Services Committee, controlled by anti-military liberals, to zero out the gun’s future budgets in a vote which made a big splash of news in June. Here’s the press release from Carl Levin, the thoroughly anti-soldier committee chair, about the wonders of this committee mark-up. And here’s what he says about the XM25, which he calls a “troubled or unnecessary program,” in it.

Cuts $69.1 million in procurement for the XM25, Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) due to system unreliability and an Army decision to reconsider other weapons available to meet its requirement for a grenade launcher system that can fire programmable air burst munitions.

Frank Gaffney saw Levin’s intentions in 2009:

The anti-military chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, has gleefully announced that he intends to strip funds for weapon systems from the budget. Likely consequence: the armed services will be unable either properly to “reset” the equipment and capabilities that have been used so intensively over the past seven years or be prepared for the next conflict. History teaches that such a posture invites foreign aggression and costs far more than is saved through short-term and short-sighted cuts.

Well, Levin is who he has always been. Can’t change that. And our democratic processes have put him in the driver’s seat on the Senate side of the military budget. So expect things to be cancelled and money to be redirected to redistributive activities. Can’t change that, either.

But this cancellation is not all that it appears. Note that, due to the snags attendant to the mishap and its investigation and any required design remediation, production in FY 14 wasn’t going to happen anyway. So this is a kind of typical Washington sham cut. Funding for RDT&E is still in place.

Thanks to Levin’s cut, there have been numerous news stories in the general and trade press — some of them just this month — declaring the gun dead. (We’re told one was in the dead-tree Aviation Week, but we can’t find it online. But the budget is far from finished, the Senate is only one house of a bicameral legislature, and who knows what strange chaos will come out of the inevitable conference committee. After all, it’s not like any of these guys are any good at budgeting.

Story 2: It’s about to go to general issue.

Now recently, the story has burbled up that the XM25′s type classification and general production and fielding was imminent. Like the above story, it’s partially true. Here’s an example of this story at The Firearm Blog, which was a snippet of a much more comprehensive article at SOFREP. And here’s a similar one at Defense Tech, and one at Military.com.

All of those stories (and a number of their clones) are rewrites of an Army press release from 9 Aug 13, that the original writers did not link to for whatever reason. (TFB actually excerpted and linked the SOFREP article, which seems to have gotten the PR through the military.com rewrite, but added lots of SOFREP’s own content). Here is the Army release so you can read it yourself, rather than us too rewriting and inadvertently transmogrifying it somehow.

Our take on it is a little different than these other respected journalists and bloggers, after going back to the Army release.

The Army said something rather different from “imminent”. They said that a year from now they may be able to go to LRIP and produce 1,100 of these things and field them to infantry and SOF. The combat units would not have them until 2015. The Army press release was 9th August, and is clearly the source for the Military.com and Defense Tech posts (they both use the quotes and attributions in the release).

So what we have here, with the best intentions, is a kind of journalistic game of Telephone with the message getting distorted a little as it’s passed along.

Low Rate Initial Production is essentially a production shakedown phase. Right now, the XM25s have been built by hand, and each very short run of prototypes has been different than the one before as both the gun and ammo makers & system integrators, ATK, and the electro-optic system makers, L3, respond to troop surveys and comments, and react to incidents, deficiencies, and maintenance difficulties. It’s one thing to make a gun in the lab, something else to make something your techs can take to the flat range and shoot, and then it’s a whole new world of hard to make something you can issue to your median Army rifleman. (Especially if your intent is to issue it to the next 11B when this one turns it in).

XM25 at a technology display.

XM25 at a technology display.

As you might imagine, being gun guys, something crafted individually by hand is crazily more expensive than something built in series production, even if the whole process is distorted by the cost-plus inflation escalators built into defense procurement regulations. So one reason the Army wants to move this along towards production is to make it “affordable”: which in this case means $35k for a gun and $55 per round. The current costs are more like mid six figures per gun and four figures per round, but then, there have never been more than a dozen or so of these hand-crafted prototypes in the field so far.

So for several reasons, LRIP is a big step up from hand-crafted prototype guns and craft-brewed ammo. At that point, you know the GI isn’t going to break it by looking at it, you’ve got the identified failure modes out of it, and you have a design that’s stable enough you can commit to producing hundreds or a thousand of. They’re not saying they’re at this point now, but they say they expect to be at this point in a year, in August 2014, which means the LRIP will happen mostly in the 2015 budget (which kicks off 1 Oct 2014). The budget the Senate is grandstanding over is the 2014 budget, which runs from 1 Oct 2013 to 30 Sep 2014.

The Army brass sniffs a little at the soldiers’ nickname for the gun: the Punisher. So who’s out of touch here, the guys who carry the thing and hope to punish the enemy with it, or the deskbound officers that fret that “punish” connotes images too atavistic for “staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel movements or their colonel’s piles….”

One more thing…

We would call attention to one more thing that has not been highlighted in the other stories: the XM25 is back in action in Afghanistan, with the Army reporting five guns in the field.