Since the early days of the 21st century, the Pentagon has been working to develop rail guns. These powerful weapons would use electromagnetism instead of gunpowder to launch projectiles at hypersonic speeds that would give them far greater destructive power, and a United States defense contractor recently conducted a successful test of one such system.
Not familiar with rail guns? Sound like sci-fi to you? Let's look at some background. As this 1814 treatise on artillery details, for centuries, the world's armies and navies have fired artillery by igniting chemical propellants — i.e., gunpowder — which caused an expansion of gases and force that propelled shells toward their target. But that may soon change, with the development of a frightening new weapon, the rail gun, which uses an electromagnetic field to launch projectiles from a set of rails at super-fast speed.
According to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), shells launched by a rail gun would accelerate to as much as Mach 6, or 4,600 miles per hour (7,400 kilometers per hour). That's several times faster than the 1,260 mph (2,028 kph) that a shell from a 155-mm Howitzer can achieve.
U.S. Navy Adm. Mat Winter, head of ONR, told the Wall Street Journal last year that the rail gun "is going to change the way we fight."
Shells wouldn't need to contain an explosive charge at all, because the projectile's extreme speed on impact would be enough to inflict tremendous damage to a target. That would also eliminate the hazard of carrying a ship full of explosive shells, which could be detonated by an enemy hit, as well as the risk to civilians from unexploded ordnance that litters the scenes of battles long after they've ended.
Rail gun technology took a step forward recently when defense contractor General Atomics announced that it had conducted a successful test of its Blitzer rail gun system at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
"With each new firing, we continue maturing the technologies and performing risk reduction toward a multi-mission rail gun weapon system that supports future operation on land and at sea," said General Atomics vice president Nick Bucci in a press release.