How Rail Guns Work

Photo courtesy Sam Barros of PowerLabs

Gunpowder has long been the propellant of choice to launch a projectile from a weapon. But the fine gray powder does have three major limitations:

  • Gunpowder must be carried with the projectile, making the entire round heavier.
  • Ordnance based on black powder is volatile, and so difficult to handle and transport.
  • The muzzle velocity of projectiles propelled by gunpowder is generally limited to about 4,000 feet (about 1,219 meters) per second.

Is it possible to overcome these challenges? One solution is the electromagnetic rail gun, or rail gun for short. Using a magnetic field powered by electricity, a rail gun can accelerate a projectile up to 52,493 feet (16,000 meters) per second. And while current Navy guns have a maximum range of 12 miles, rail guns can hit a target 250 miles away in six minutes.


In this article, we'll discuss how rail guns work, how they can be used and the limitations of this technology.