Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part IV)

This is the fourth part of a series. To see Part I, click here. To see Part II, click here. To see Part III, click here.

Hello sci-fi fans, and welcome back for what I think will be the last part of my series on guns in science fiction (but hey, I’ve thought that before). I apologize for the delays that have occurred in this series, and will do my best to make sure such interruptions do not occur again (if only so we can move on in a more timely manner). So, without further to ramble on about, here’s my conclusion and thoughts regarding small arms in science fiction, and the direction I think our own tech will soon be heading.

A Tossed Salad of Death

We’ve gone through several different ideas for weapons for a science fiction story already, but I did not mean to insinuate that sci-fi writers should, in my opinion, stick to one sort of weapon over another. On the contrary, just as it would be rather dull in a fantasy story for everyone to be limited to a particular make of broadsword, it would be a very bad idea to limit your weapons to only one of the types I have covered, or any others that I have not.

While it could be interesting to give specific cultures an affinity for a certain type of weapon (in fact this can be a  useful way of differentiating them), but different types of weapons should have a general presence in your world, depending on factors such as cost to manufacture, rarity of materials, and however you decide to handle the problems inherent in each weapon type. Laws and regulations would likely be different depending on where your characters go, so certain weapons could be rare or absent in any given area as you deem necessary. You should consider the implications of each weapon type in the context of the culture you have developed, as I have described here, if you want to figure out the best and most appropriate ones for each place in your story world. Ok. So, cautionary clarification communicated. Here are my thoughts on where guns will go soon, and how you could use this idea.

Boomsticks for Boba Fett, and Other Such Seeming Anachronisms

steampunk boba fett tophat
I do say, sir, have you seen any young Jedi hereabouts?

So, we’ve talked about a bunch of non-traditional guns that could be used in your story, but what about the regular kind? Can a story ever call itself sci-fi without at least one laser beam? Well, the answer to this question would be “that depends on the flavor you’re going for”, however, I am of the opinion that not only can gunpowder-based small arms be a fun addition to your sci-fi arsenal, they are probably the most practical ones.

I know what you’re thinking: “How can I make the story feel futuristic if everyone’s using modern weapons?” Well, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. It may seem that current generation weapons are at the limits of the technology, and that is in many ways true. However, there is a particular avenue that has not yet been fully explored. The ideas regarding gunpowder-based weapons have not actually yet run out.

Caseless Ammo, and Why You Should Care About it

Currently, modern firearms work by igniting a quick-burning accelerant (gunpowder or other chemicals) in a pre-loaded chamber called a casing, which creates an expanding bubble of gases behind the bullet and propels it down and out of the barrel. The casing is then ejected, either manually or by an automatic mechanism, and a new bullet and casing is loaded into the chamber (for diagrams and some really neat flash animations, go here). The limitations of modern firearms are bound up in that process; rate of fire is limited by how fast the mechanism can load a round, fire it, and eject the casing, the casings must usually be made of metal and thus create a problem of weight and storage, and propellant formulas have more or less reached a plateau as for what kind of velocities can be achieved.

Heckler and Koch g11 rifle with caseless ammunition
Kind of odd looking, but most prototypes are.

This all means that, as far as currently used methods go, we have likely reached the peak of firearms technology. Some of these problems were addressed by an innovative idea: why not mold the propellant around the bullet, and remove the problem of metal casings altogether? Such weapons as the Heckler & Koch G11 rifle (seen right) were invented with this idea in mind, utilizing caseless ammunition without the need to manage “hot brass”. However, this weapon and its ammunition were scrapped when it was discovered that the propellant would “cook off” at high temperatures, firing randomly once the firing chamber of the weapon heated up after repeated shots. The molded propellant also proved fragile, crumbling if mishandled or jostled, which created even more problems. Caseless ammunition has thus been ignored since, thought to be too problematic. Until recently, that is.

Walls of Lead and Bullet Drills

electrically-fired caseless ammo multi-barrel pistol
A pistol using Metal Storm's stacking caseless ammo.

Enter Metal Storm, an international “defense technology company” headquartered in Australia. Their keystone product is, in fact, their caseless ammunition, which they have designed to be electronically fired. What this means is that not only do guns using this ammunition not need to eject metal cases, there are essentially no moving parts at all. Because the propellant is electronically fired, the usable chemicals can be made tougher so that they hold their shape, and are more heat resistant, so they won’t cook off.

Metal Storm currently only displays their stacking MAUL shotgun and 3GL

Metal Storm 3gl grenade launcher cutaway
Their grenade launcher with its rear-stacking 40mm rounds.

grenade launcher, but I see no reason why this technology couldn’t be utilized across the board in assault rifles, heavy weapons, and other forms, and you certainly wouldn’t be stopped from doing so in a science fiction story. So, now that I’ve introduced the idea and the tech, here are those Pros and Cons you’ve all gotten used to seeing:

Pros:

  • Low Cost: In wartime and peace, machining all those bullet casings for ammunition is expensive and resource-intensive, using up expensive metals only to be thrown away on the battlefield. Without cases, ammo could become much less expensive, especially in comparison to the other weapons we’ve already discussed.
  • Power: Weather firing explosive shells or specialized bullets, caseless ammo would have middling power in comparison to some of the other weapons we’ve already talked about, however, it does have a few tricks. Because the bullets are fired back to back at tight intervals, each shot hits at almost the same time, causing each successive bullet to “drill” further in. This means that even ordinary lead slugs gain an armor-piercing quality which can punch through thick plating and body armor. The bullets are also fired so quickly that they can be used to blanket a target, and strike at almost the same time when fired out of the barrel rapidly.
  • Flexibility: Not only is the ammo light weight, but the weapons are too, and since the charge of propellant is contained on the bullet and not in a casing, it might even be possible to make a weapon with an extendable firing chamber, meaning that one rifle could potentially fire several different lengths of round for different applications and powers.
  • Low Energy: Even if they might not seem as cool as lasers or rail guns, firearms are more efficient in their use of energy- every charge is expended directly in firing the bullet, and little is wasted in the shot. Aside from battery packs to operate the weapon’s firing system (which would need to be nothing more than conventional rechargeable lithium batteries, like what we have today), the weapon would need no external energy source to operate.

Cons:

  • Relatively Limited Power: Even with the advantages stacked ammunition would allow, the punch of one of these weapons would be limited to the size and type of round being used, and even then, a high-powered particle acceleration cannon or rail gun could probably outmatch any firearm of the same size for penetration and damage.
  • Recoil: Depending on the design of the weapon, this negative could be reduced, but with the nature of firearms, kickback is inevitable. The larger the round, the more recoil the user has to deal with, and that can be very problematic.
  • Ammunition: This could only be a relative con depending on how you choose to handle energy in your story, but firearms could potentially need to use up their ammo faster than other weapons, without the benefit of a nuclear generator or other such device to draw practically unlimited energy.
Metal Storm modular weapon pod combat weapon
Each barrel contains stacked grenade rounds, which can be fired single and rapid fire.

These are a few notes to consider, but the rest would come out in your writing process. Other than the specific problems of modern weapons that caseless ammunition solves, the pros and cons would be similar, and you should keep in mind that even if the weapons might feel high-tech, they will still feel relatively familiar to the reader, and so should not be used in places where you would want to cultivate a feeling of wonder or of the alien. These weapons would be ideal for a near-future type story, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be used in a further future or alternate history.

Well, I think that finally concludes my thoughts on small arms in science fiction, tune in next week to see what I come up with next, and happy writing!
Until then, has anyone read or seen any sci-fi that used (or tried to use) firearms as their main armament? Any with caseless ammunition-based weapons? Let me know in the comments below!