Tag Archives: firearms

Q&A: Crossbows and DOPE

For a character with a military background and proficiency in modern firearms, would any additional training be necessary for them to master a crossbow? If so, what kind?

For actual training? Not much. They’d need to be run through how to reload, and maintain the weapon. If they were a fairly quick study, that should only take a couple hours. Mastering the weapon would require lots of practice.

The problem is, the crossbow fires a much slower, heavier, projectile. This doesn’t invalidate basic concepts of how to aim and fire, but it does change the parameters where the weapon will be effective. Drop will be far more severe, meaning they’ll need to compensate for that, and the overall range will be much more limited (roughly 50 – 60 meters.)

In order to do that, they’ll simply need to spend time on a range practicing and gathering data on how the weapon performs.

When shooting, it’s very important to collect Data on Previous Engagements (or DOPE) for that weapon. This primarily involves learning how that individual weapon behaves at various ranges. (So, your character would be learning how their rifle or crossbow behaves, not necessarily all rifles and crossbows.) Some will keep DOPE as physical records, others will simply internalize the information based on how the weapon handles. You can collect some of this information online, but ultimately you need to confirm it with the actual weapon before you can count on it.

The end result is, they can probably swap over to a crossbow with a minimum of effort, but they would need to spend time on the range getting a feel for how the weapon handled, particularly in relation to compensating for bolt drop.

Drop is a concept in shooting involving the projectile as a physical object. While it is traveling away from you at high speed (~400 feet per second with a crossbow bolt) it is also falling. Gravity does not give bullets, bolts, or arrows, a pass simply because they’re already going in one direction. This is referred to as, “drop.” When aiming you need to account for this. Drop can be compensated by either zeroing the sights/optics for a specific range, or manually by the shooter.

For example, a shooter who zeroes their scope for 100 meters, will need to aim below the target at closer ranges, and above the target at ranges exceeding that range. To the point that at ranges over 500m the shooter may be aiming several feet above the target.

Factors like relative elevation can further affect calculating drop, with targets above the shooter requiring them to overcompensate for distance, and under-compensate for targets below them.

Another major factor is wind, which can affect a bullet, and may require the shooter to adjust their drop expectations, as well as left to right drift. (If the bullet has a backwind, it will travel faster, and as a result, will reach it’s target sooner, requiring less drop compensation. A headwind will slow the bullet, increasing the effect of drop. Crosswinds will require assessing the speed, and adjusting the aim point to compensate.)

Because the bolt is larger, and slower, all of these factors will be far more pronounced than with a bullet. Meaning a prospective crossbow user will need to collect new DOPE for that weapon. The rough values can be extrapolated from math that can be calculated from available data (the speed of the bolt, its mass, distance to target, ect), but that will only provide a starting point, it won’t be sufficient to really, “master” the crossbow. For that, your character’s simply needs to spend some time practicing, and getting a feel for their weapon.

Incidentally, all of this is also true for a character picking up a new gun. Those will be similar to comparable weapons, but even then, getting highly precise shots off requires spending time with that, specific, firearm. Practicing, and getting a feel for it. Now, with practice on a wider variety of firearms, collecting DOPE for new guns will become faster and more intuitive, but it’s still something your character would need to do.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dynamite and Guns

Is it possible to light a dynamite fuse (1880s, thereabouts) with the muzzle flash from a gunshot at close range, like if they were holding it in their hand.

Probably. It’s also, probably a moot point, because the gunshot might simply detonate the nitroglycerin, turning your character into 180lbs of pulled people pork.

So, dynamite is (or at least was) really simple stuff. You had a mix of nitroglycerin and soft clay (though, other materials were used in some cases), wrapped, and with a fuse going in. Depending on the dynamite somewhere between 20% and 60% of the stick’s mass would be nitroglycerin. The clay? That’s only there to keep the stick from detonating spontaneously because you looked at it funny (or, more realistically, if you dropped it, or, say, fired a gun next to it.) You’d saturate the clay in nitroglycerin, and then wrap the whole thing up. The result is an almost stable version of a hilariously unstable explosive.

This is also why the concept of “sweating” or “leaking” dynamite is so dangerous. That’s the nitroglycerin seeping out of the absorbent medium, reforming in crystalline form on the outside of the tube, and dropping that will release enough energy to detonate it, which will in turn detonate the entire stick.

In very abstract terms, explosives are simply a chemical way to store energy. When you put energy in, you get that stored energy back out. Kind of like a battery… if your batteries decide they want to release their entire stored charge in an almost instantaneous reaction reducing everything in their immediate vicinity to shrapnel and paste. The more energy you need to put into an explosive to get it to detonate the more “stable,” it is, and generally speaking, the safer it is to handle.

On one end of the spectrum, you have things like plastic explosives which require very specific energy triggers to detonate, and can, otherwise, be safely mishandled to your heart’s content.

On the other end, you have things like nitroglycerin, picric acid, or fulminated mercury, which will wreck your day if you drop them. In particular, all three of those examples are entirely happy to release their energy (and explode) if you apply small amounts of kinetic energy to them.

Historically, the problem with nitroglycerin was that it was too unstable for use as an explosive. Alfred Nobel’s contribution to explosives was finding a way to stabilize the stuff enough that it could be stored and transported safely.

Not, “shot at safely.”

Gunpowder is another uncontrolled energy release. Particularly with black powder firearms there’s a lot of flaming material getting ejected from the gun barrel at high speed. Now, that can light a fuse (potentially), though it’s not 100%. Goofy as it sounds, you can miss, because the burning particles are getting scattered across an area, it’s not a literal cone of fire.

Now, I was talking about nitroglycerin being incredibly sensitive to kinetic shock earlier, thing is, this is a chemical that will detonate if you set it on fire (or heat it up to about 50 degrees Celsius (122F.)) Gunpowder burns at somewhere between 300C and 470C. (That’s specifically black powder, smokeless powders run somewhere around 1850C most of the time.)

Now, convection shouldn’t be quite fast enough to cause it to automatically detonate because it was in the vicinity of a gunshot (though sticking the barrel next to the fuse would almost certainly cause intimidate ignition), but if any powder residue lands on the stick, which isn’t out of the question, that stuff will be burning through the wrapper at more than six times the boiling point of nitro. The stick will go off before the fuse burns down, probably before your character can throw it, and hitting the stick is, ironically, more likely than hitting the fuse because it’s a larger target. (Also, burning powder will usually get ejected around 1-1.5m from the gun barrel, so maybe exercise some trigger discipline around dynamite.)

So, in short, yeah, you could certainly set off a stick of dynamite with a gunshot. Probably not exactly how your character was planning to, however.

I realize it didn’t come up, but putting a round into a stick of dynamite at, pretty much, any range will set it off. That’s more than enough kinetic energy to get nitroglycerin’s party started.

-Starke

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Q&A: Acrobatic Shooting

Guess that using firearms contemporary or futuristic, with acuracy is quit impossible during acrobatics jumps, right?

Pretty much. Even putting a round where you want it while moving is difficult. Doing so while you’re bouncing off the walls is effectively impossible, without some kind of extremely sophisticated auto-targeting system.

That said, if your character explicitly has some kind of superhuman affinity for firearms and ballistics, they might be able to make it work. I’m talking about superheroes or maybe some kind of cyborg or android. Not something a normal person could do, though.

For what it’s worth, the idea of simultaneously firing dual pistols at separate targets is a similar situation. You could, if you wanted, use a pistol in both hands, alternating between them, but firing at guys who are on either side of you with a pair of pistols wouldn’t work without some ability to track exactly where the gun is pointed without looking.

Something like Shadowrun’s Smartguns, which link a camera feed to the user (either with a helmet’s HUD, or cybernetically), could theoretically allow for precision blind firing, and (with additional cybernetics) might allow for precision shots during acrobatics. So, when you open up the gates on future tech, this might be possible, but, probably not in the near future.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shotguns

You talk very often about shotguns and seem to have them in a high esteem. Could you, perhaps, tell us some more about what’s so great about them, what meaningful differences can there be between models and how to make sure the OC will use them to their fullest effect? I’m from a country without easy access to weaponry, so my knowledge is not too good.

There’s a kind of weird irony here. Generally speaking, I’m not a particular fan of shotguns. However, we do get a lot of questions that slot, pretty directly, into the kinds of situations where they excel.

If your character needs to put “weird” things down a gun barrel, then a shotgun is going to be the easy answer. These things will spit out nearly anything you can crimp into a shell.

For mundane uses, this includes things like conventional shot loads or solid slugs. On the more exotic end, this can include things like less than lethal rounds like beanbags or riot slugs. Those will hurt, but they should keep the target breathing (usually), and commercial payloads that can get downright weird, like Dragons Breath (again, highly reactive metal shrapnel which will ignite on contact with the atmosphere), TAZER slugs, or even flaregun shells. This is before you get into the utterly bizarre stuff that people will hand load into one and fire. Spend some time on YouTube, and you’ll see people making and firing shotgun shells loaded with ceramic magnets, silly putty, stacks of coins, glass, whatever they can think up and fit in a shotgun.

So, when someone says they need to decapitate a monster, the first thing that came to mind were bolo shells, which fall under commercial payloads. This expands further when you’re writing with monsters that require specific methods to dispatch. Granted, the idea of someone putting down a vampire with a copper clad wooden slug is a lot less horrifying than if your characters need to administer a stake directly, but it’s is a safer option.

The other situation where shotguns excel is when you have an inexperienced shooter.

So, when you’re talking about something like home defense, a problem with handguns (which I prefer), rifles, and most firearms is overpenetration. You put a bullet into someone who’s trying to kill you, and the bullet usually doesn’t stop there. It will punch through the person your shooting, go out your wall, through your neighbor’s wall, and maybe come to rest in someone’s engine block, concrete, or the ground. Before someone gets defensive about this, this is more of a problem with rifles than handguns, and it is an issue for shotguns. But, the background of where you’re putting a round is very important.

Pull a handgun in an apartment and fire at an intruder and your rounds could very easily kill your neighbor. With something like an AR15, you need to worry about your background out to around 200 to 300 meters. That bullet will not stop until it makes friends with something solid.

So, as I said, this is a consideration with shotguns. Buckshot won’t be deterred by your couch or some plywood, however, for the amount of damage they can inflict, shotguns are remarkably low power weapons.

Shotguns rely on delivering most of their payload into the intended target. Stray balls of shot are still dangerous, but they’re far less dangerous than putting a bullet somewhere over the rainbow and hoping for the best.

Shotguns do not spray pellets everywhere. They do eject shot in a cone, but it’s a fairly narrow one. This means that even if the shooter miscalculates they have a better chance of downing an attacker than if they were using a slug based firearm. Most hunting shotguns will have a 40 inch spread pattern at 35 meters. (To be fair, this is highly adjustable using chokes, so the user can configure their spread to fit their preferences.) If you’re in the same room as your target, you’re not going to see a lot of missed pellets.

Another factor is that shotguns have unusually light recoil. This makes them much easier to operate and control for inexperienced users.

When it comes to selecting the right shotgun, they’re fairly forgiving. A basic pump action will get the job done pretty reliably. In some cases, with exotic shells, a pump will actually outperform a semi-auto variant. Full auto shotguns exist, but are fairly rare, and again will have issues on non-standard ammo types. For example, loading Dragons Breath into a semi-auto or full auto shotgun will require the operator to manually cycle the bolt after each round.

If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward shotgun to give a character, something like a Remington 870, Winchester 1300, Mossberg 500, or any number of simple pump action shotguns will get the job done. (All of the above are used by military and law enforcement agencies. ) The basic pump design has been around for over a century at this point, and there are a lot of functional examples in existence.

So the short version is, I’m not a particularly big fan of shotguns, but sometimes they really are the right tool for the job.

-Starke

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Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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Q&A: (Not) Using Antique Firearms

So I have a character who collects antique firearms. Would a gun from the 1800’s , say American civil war era, still function enough to make it an effective weapon, provided it was well taken care of?

Yes, with some critical caveats.

Mechanically, firearms are destructive. I don’t mean the bullet is harmful; that’s also true. You have a piece of equipment designed to contain violently expanding, burning gasses. Powder is, often, corrosive, and of course, you’re setting it on fire, and sending that stuff everywhere. You’re also grinding pieces of metal against one another.

Guns have an operational life, (usually) measured in rounds fired. As you use them, components will wear out or break. In some rare cases, this can turn into a Ship of Theseus scenario, where you’re replacing the entire gun a piece at a time. (Unlike Theseus’s Pardox, this one has a concrete answer: It legally becomes a new gun when you replace the receiver.)

The important thing to remember is: Every single time you use a firearm, you’re dealing a little bit of irrevocable damage to your gun.

In most cases, you wouldn’t want to actually fire a civil war era antique firearm. Mechanically, they may still be sound, but that’s something you don’t really want to test on a firearm from the 1860s. This is especially true when dealing with some of the more mechanically complex weapons of the era, like the Colt Walker revolver.

I’m going to use the Walker as an example for a moment. There were roughly 1,100 of these guns produced in the late 1840s. 1000 of those were intended for a military contract, and the remaining 100 went up for sale to civilians. The original revolvers suffered a high rate of failure, somewhere around 300 of these were returned to Colt for repairs during the original operational life of the guns. Frequent issues involved soldiers overloading the cylinders, exceeding the intended pressure tolerances, and causing the cylinder to rupture when fired. (Fun fact: Exceeding the intended pressure tolerances in a firearm is a fantastic way to destroy it. Don’t do this.) There were also a number of semi-fragile components which would wear out or break after extensive use.

Walkers saw use during the Mexican – American War, during the Civil War, and in the hands of Texas Rangers after that. In short, there aren’t a lot of these guns left. They are also phenomenally expensive today. At auction, a Colt Walker in functional condition, with original parts can easily fetch $100k, with pistols sometimes selling for between $300k-$600k.

Your character, who is a collector, wants to put rounds down range through something that expensive? Especially given their history for mechanical failures?

Also, for reference, a Walker with a ruptured cylinder will usually sell for somewhere around $1k.

Now, in fairness, this is an outlier. Most guns aren’t going to be that valuable, nor that fragile. But, even if you’re talking about something relatively common, much cheaper, and hopefully more durable, like a Sharps Rifle, it’s still a valuable antique. (Rarer Sharps variants can auction for $10k-$20k.)

Another factor is that these don’t use modern ammunition. The Walkers were chambered to a .44 bullet, but these were muzzle loading black powder firearms. (In fact, most of the Walker’s cylinder failures were due to soldiers loading too much powder, and then loading the gun’s conical shaped bullets in backwards, resulting in substantially higher pressures than the cylinder was designed for.)

The mid-19th century did see the introduction of the first metallic cartridges. The Sharps Rifle fired a .52 caliber, black powder cartridge. There might be some place you can buy these prepackaged, but, I suspect, if you want to shoot a Sharps, you’re going to be hand loading your cartridges.

So, if you want to fire something like a Walker or Lamat, you can, theoretically do so. But, you’ll need a lot of associated equipment and preparation time. Loading either is a time consuming process. You need black powder, percussion caps, and the bullets themselves. So, it’s possible, but not a great option.

All of this said, there is another very simple reason to say yes, which bypasses all of these considerations. Modern replicas of weapons like the Walker, or Single Action Army (the Colt Peacemaker, which is not a Civil War era pistol, as it dates to 1873) are fairly common, durable, and functional. In the case of the Walker, there are some significant mechanical changes to allow the  revolver to accept modern cartridges, including the addition of a loading gate. Conversion Walker reproductions are something of a novelty.

In general, reproductions of historical firearms, particularly 19th century ones have a serious enthusiast community. It would be entirely unsurprising for a collector of rare and antique firearms to also keep a selection of replicas for recreational use. In fact, modern Colt Peacemaker reproductions are a semi-common sport revolver, because of the handling characteristics.

Replicas and reproductions also offer an entry point to the hobby, for a lot of enthusiasts. Very few potential collectors can shell out half a million dollars for a revolver, but modern replicas will only set you back around $300 – $400. Given it may also take modern ammunition, that’s a much easier price point for a potential collector.

Personally, I wouldn’t fire a gun that’s over a century old, if I had another option. This isn’t a hard number, but that’s a long time for factors like corrosion, to become a serious consideration. Like I said, I have no issue with modern reproductions of those designs, I’m honestly rather fond of Colt Peacemakers chambered in .357, and slightly less fond of 1911s, but I wouldn’t want to fire an original production version of either, simply because of concerns over damaging it.

A somewhat common problem for gun collectors is, having weapons which are historically or mechanically interesting and significant, but are too valuable to shoot. This is also true of elaborately engraved firearms. The simple answer is, you don’t do it. If you enjoy shooting, and also enjoy collecting antique firearms, those are going to be two separate collections. There may be thematic overlap, via reproductions, or they may also collect modern firearms for shooting, but they’re not going to be shooting their antiques.

There’s also a separate issue that I haven’t really addressed yet. With some exceptions, you wouldn’t be getting a particularly effective weapon. At least, not if you’re facing opponents armed with modern hardware.

The early cartridge rifles were game changing, because you could start producing weapons that could fire 8-10 rounds per minute. Early Revolvers were similarly amazing.

If your opponent has a pistol that needs to be reloaded after each shot, and you can put six rounds down range before having to reload, that’s a significant advantage, even if reloading will take far more time.

Today, most modern assault rifles have cyclic fire rates between 600 and 900 rounds per minute. That, 8 to 10 range doesn’t sound nearly as impressive in context. (Granted, the actual rounds fired per minute would be much lower for an automatic weapon.) Someone armed with an AR15 pattern varmint rifle can be much sloppier with their shots and still get the job done in less time.

Shot placement is critical. If you can get the job done with one bullet, then having extras is just gravy. But, semi-automatic weapons allow you to quickly correct and compensate for errors faster than a single shot weapon will allow. If you try to make a shot with a single shot rifle, you will spend more time, preparing for your next shot, than you will with a semi-auto rifle.

Reloading modern firearms is much faster than with a civil war era weapon. Compounded by the fact that they will need to reload after every shot. Even if your modern firearm has a small 5 or 10 round detachable box magazine, that’s a lot more firepower on a much faster reload.

I’ve said before, the 19th and 20th century saw an explosion in firearms technology. In less than 200 years, we’ve gone from firearms that needed to be manually reloaded, by pouring powder down the barrel, to weapons that can deliver 30 rounds, down range, in under five seconds. Modern guns are more accurate, easier to operate, more reliable, and in general, much more lethal. Now, someone who knows what they’re doing with a Peacemaker, or a Sharps could still come out on top, if they really know what they’re doing, but working with weapons like those, in a live combat situation, is a serious handicap.

It’s also worth noting that there are some, very old, firearm designs that do hold up, in their intended roles. The Peacemaker is one excellent example. It’s not a good carry pistol, but these are still remarkably accurate revolvers chambered in a powerful cartridge. There are better options for a revolver, but these will deliver.

Another pair of examples are the M1903, which is a very accurate bolt-action rifle, and the M1911, which has become an iconic handgun design. (Though, modern 1911s do have some significant design changes, to make the weapons more reliable, and user friendly.)

So, you have a gun collector, who has a lot of civil war antiques. They need to pull something from their collection to shoot someone. The best option would be if they have guns the use recreationally or for other purposes. These may be reproductions, or they could be more modern firearms. Your collector wouldn’t reach for one of their antiques, even if the gun was technically operable.

-Starke

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Q&A: Lightweight Firearms

I have some characters that need to have lightweight firearms. Research is telling me that while aluminum guns HAVE been made, they require special ammunition to avoid misfiring. What other material options do I have? Carbon fiber?

There are a lot of firearms that incorporate aluminum alloy components to reduce weight. This is fairly common, though not as popular today as it was twenty to thirty years ago. There are still a lot of popular, well respected, aluminum frame pistols and rifles on the market, including the Baretta 92s (including the M9), and the SIG P226 (though there was a heavier stainless steel variant sold in small quantities). With rifles in the AR15 family, there’s a lot of aluminum lower receivers in circulation.

So, if you’re wondering how that works out, there’s a critical piece of information to remember: The Barrel, bolt, and battery will be steel. In most handguns, that means the entire receiver will be, though with rifles that’s less certain.

Weight is, already, a huge consideration for firearms. This is why a lot of pistols used aluminum frames, and their manufacturers have since moved on to polymer frames. Similarly, a lot of rifles have moved over to polymer furniture to reduce weight. Carbon fiber is an option for some common firearms, for example, you can replace the walnut stock of your Remington 700 with a carbon fiber variant. This will set you back around $600 dollars, though the actual weight reduction is debatable.

Off hand, I’m not aware of any pistols with carbon fiber frames standard. (Only a few high-end “designer Glocks.”) Though, that’s probably a matter of time as well.

There’s also some oddities like the Professional Ordinance Carbon-15. This was an AR-15 pattern rifle that had a bunch of its components replaced with plastics, including the lower receiver. The early examples were rather fragile, but it did deliver a 5.56mm rifle at around four pounds.

Beyond swapping out the materials, there are a couple things someone can do to reduce the weight of a firearm.

Porting is the practice of cutting out unneeded material. This may range from simply cutting into a slab of metal or plastic, or it may involve cutting full slots through it.

On rifles, one option is to remove or redesign the stock. At the extreme end, this can involve replacing the stock with a simple wire structure, or a sling system. Worth noting: this is not an option with AR15 pattern weapons, including the M4 and M16. These rifles incorporate their gas return system into the stock.

In contrast, the AK family of rifles have gas return systems that run over the barrel. This means you can completely remove the stock from AK pattern rifles without ill effect. To be fair, the AK takes this design decision from the StG44, and any other rifle that patterned off that design, like the FN FAL, or H&K G3 will (usually) have a similar gas system.

One quick way to do some of your work for you would be to look for paratrooper variants of existing rifles. These are designed to cut as much weight from the weapon as possible, without sacrificing structural integrity. These often feature shortened barrels and collapsible stocks to reduce the weight.

Another option, depending on your characters’ objectives, would be to use SMGs instead. These are (usually) going to be considerably lighter than full rifles, though you’re losing the power, and range of a rifle, in exchange for a lighter, more compact weapon. For example, an H&K UMP45 is a little over half the weight of a full sized assault rifle, and is already firing a subsonic round. You can’t use it at long ranges, but if your characters are slipping in undetected, it will be far easier to conceal and much lighter.

There are, also, already a wide range of weapons intended for clandestine use. It’s easy enough to come up with a scenario and say, “well, this is unusual, I don’t know how I can equip my characters for this.” But, when it comes to military hardware, it’s often helpful to remember that weird scenarios with strict equipment requirements are something special forces groups plan for. Beyond that, it’s often easy enough to find out that, “oh, this rifle variant was designed specifically for situations like the one I’m looking at.”

Hell, if your special forces operator needs a completely silent tool for picking off sentries they can request a crossbow or mechanical compound bow from the armory. These same guys are going to know not to use it in a firefight, but the tool is available to them.

Lightweight firearms are a real thing. In part because no one wants to be carrying around a 30 lb rifle, unless that puppy can put a round through the engine block of a ’57 Buick.

I mean, if it’s me, and I was looking at this, I’d check what their nation of origin actually uses for hardware, and then pick something like a SIG553, H&K G36C, or an AKS-74U. For reference, my laptop weighs more than any of those three rifles.

There’s an, unusual, example that fits your suggestion at the top, and it might be what you’re thinking of, even though it’s not exactly relevant to the discussion. In the mid-60s a company called MB Associates designed and sold a 13mm pistol and carbine using a self-propelled cartridge called a Gyrojet. These are fascinating historical footnotes. The weapons had a minimum kill range of around 10 meters. (This number is a bit fuzzy. The rounds might get to a lethal velocity before this, but getting reliable ballistic data for these pistols is a pain.)

The pistols themselves were made from a zinc alloy, and were incredibly light weight. This was partially because the pistol didn’t need to deal with the explosive forces a conventional firearm.

To the best of my knowledge a little over one thousand of these were produced. There’s at least four variants, two pistols (chambered in 13mm and 12mm) and a few rifle and carbine variants. I know of a few other prototypes, though I have no idea how many of those existed.

These days, unspent cartridges are exceedingly expensive ($100-$200 a round), and the extremely light weight can leave you feeling like you’re holding a toy, rather than a real, functional, firearm.

MB Associates was hoping to land a military contract, and some of the pistols did see use in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the minimum lethal range was a serious flaw. Beyond that, the rounds themselves suffered from production issues, resulting in wildly inaccurate shots. The bullets had four angled ports, which, once the propellant was ignited, would keep the round moving, and would cause the round to spin, stabilizing it. Unfortunately, on some production cartridges, one of those ports would be partially obstructed, meaning the round would corkscrew unpredictably in flight. I’m honestly unsure if this is more horrifying or hilarious.

I don’t have hard data on exactly when MBA went under. I want to say it was in the early 70s. Either way, this remains a weird historical footnote. It might be what you’d heard about, even though it’s not exactly relevant to your question.

-Starke

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Q&A: Gauss Rifles

So, how would a gauss sniper rifle work in real life (i.e. What kind of kick would it have, would it make a sound, what would the energy consumption be, etc)

Well, you’ve hit on the problem with all energy weapons, there. Power consumption is obscenely high. The entire reason that modern rail guns are ship mounted is because they are extremely energy intensive.

I’ll stick a caveat here that I may be doing the math incorrectly in my head, but: a handheld gauss weapon may actually have a substantially higher energy requirement per shot than a ship mounted weapon.  The energy used is based on getting the projectile to speed. With rail guns this creates two factors. First, a handheld one will have a shorter barrel, meaning it needs to accelerate the object faster, and small arms have, nominally, higher muzzle velocities than artillery meaning, in theory, you’d need to get the round to higher speeds than you’d need with a ship mounted system.

I say, “in theory,” because the muzzle velocity of the prototype rail guns the US Navy is using are somewhere in the range of 2400m/s. Which is ludicrously high speed, and gives the weapon an effective range of around 100 miles. In practice that is a bit overkill for an infantry weapon, and you could scale that back somewhat. But, you’re still left needing to accelerate an object to several times the speed of sound in a tiny fraction of a second.

I’m going to make a guess and say that recoil would be slightly more severe than with a modern gunpowder firearm. The problem is still basic physics. You’re accelerating an object into motion, which means Newton’s Third Law will take vicious revenge on your shoulder one way or the other.

What I’m not clear on is exactly how much, because of two factors. First you’re probably talking about a smaller round, and second, it will probably be going much faster than a modern firearm. A 2mm tungsten needle would have less recoil than most conventional firearms today, but muzzle energy is calculated (in part) based on the velocity and mass of the bullet when it leaves the barrel. (This is an easy point of reference for how destructive a bullet will be on impact.) In order for that 2mm spike to be more destructive than a modern bullet, it would need to be traveling significantly faster. So any recoil you saved on the lighter round would be replaced by requiring a higher muzzle velocity to do the same work.

One minor perk is that, while the projectile would have a higher velocity after exiting the barrel, it would build up speed in the barrel, meaning the recoil would be spread out a bit further. Does this matter? Maybe, but on a handheld weapon, probably not. If the overall length of the barrel is 36″ and you’re talking about a velocity of a projectile leaving it somewhere north of 1500fps, the difference between that and ignited powder would be mostly academic.

While I’m not sure what the rifle itself would sound like, I’d guess some kind of electric humming, simply because the magnetic coils would pull a lot of energy, (the prototypes sound a bit like someone shorting out a transformer), the actual gunshot would sound a lot like a modern rifle at long ranges. Again, physics is here to apply unfortunate limitations.

The speed of sound is, roughly 343m/s (or about 1125 feet per second). Any physical object that exceeds that limit will create a small air shock as it passes. (Technically, the exact point an object will create a sonic boom varies based on elevation, humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, and probably a few other factors I’m forgetting.)

Most modern rifles send rounds down range at speeds of at least 600 m/s. Even most handguns will exceed the 343m/s threshold. At long ranges, the loud crack from a rifle is a result of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. Now, if you’re operating a gauss rifle, that’s still going to happen. You’re dealing with basic physics. Firing the rifle will produce a loud crack along the path of the bullet.

Probably worth remembering the term, “rifle,” is a bit of a misnomer here. There’s no actual rifling in the gun, and bullet stabilization would probably occur via fins on the projectile itself. Probably with some kind of sabot system.

The choice of tungsten above wasn’t (completely) at random. The atmospheric friction will create a substantial muzzle flash. Where normal firearms eject burning powder, a rail gun would be ejecting flaming steel or whatever the sabot was made of. Having a projectile that can withstand the heat generated by atmospheric friction, and ferromagnetic enough to respond to the coils seriously limits the options. As mentioned above, you can’t fire a steel slug at 2400m/s because it will melt. Tungsten on the other hand has one of the highest boiling points for a metal. (It might actually be the highest, I don’t remember off hand.)

While I’m not 100% certain, it’s entirely possible the projectile may produce a visible tracer effect from atmospheric friction alone.

Now, there is another caveat here. I’m assuming you use similar velocities to a the navy’s prototypes. That’s not strictly necessary, and projecting a cartridge at, say, 800m/s would have vastly different characteristics, and may not generate enough heat to melt steel. It would also require roughly 1/3 the power per shot. However, the power consumption would still be extremely significant.

Some other details worth considering.

Because the barrel is responsible for the speed of the shot, it may be possible to fine tune how fast the resulting bullet leaves the gun. Depending on the design, this could allow for a kind of multipurpose assault/marksman rifle that isn’t really possible with modern firearms.

As I mentioned earlier, the navy’s prototypes have an effective range of 100 miles. (Or 160 km). At those ranges it would be basically impossible to fire accurately without extensive computer control, and possibly some kind of satellite aided targeting system. However, there are a couple reasons to tune one that high.

First, drop and drift. Bullets are, as we’ve said before, physical objects. There’s an old physics experiment where, if you fire a gun (parallel to a flat surface) and drop an identical bullet simultaneously, both will hit the ground at the same time. Depending on the cartridge, this does become a factor sooner or later. Spitting a round out at Mach 7 will have very limited drop in the first mile or two, meaning it will be somewhat easier to predict where the round will land at those ranges. This isn’t fully necessary, but it helps.

The second thing is transonic speeds. As a bullet travels through the air, it loses speed. When it gets down close to 343m/s, it will drop through transonic speeds. When that happens, it will be overtaken and hit by its own sonic boom. This destabilizes the bullet’s flight, and effectively destroys accuracy beyond that distance. The initial speed determines when that happens, and by extension, how far you can fire the weapon. If you can radically increase the initial speed of a bullet, you extend the effective range. This is part of why that prototype is so impressive.

Incidentally, if you get the velocity over, about 11.7k/s (so a little over four and a half times what the prototypes fire), you can put a round into orbit. Not particularly relevant for the question, but worth knowing. (Also that’s Earth’s escape velocity. It wouldn’t be the same for other planets. For example: those same railguns can achieve lunar escape velocity now.)

Of course, the biggest issue with these is still power consumption. Regardless of the factors, you’re still using electromagnets to propel a slug of metal to hypersonic speeds. With modern energy technology, that’s not really feasible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Blanks

Hi! I wanted to know if a gun loaded with blank ammo would weight the same as one loaded with real bullets? and if someone with a lot of gun training could tell the difference? (sorry if you already answered this!)

Objectively: yes. Depending on the cartridge, more than half of the weight can come from the actual bullet itself. So, a blank would lack that weight.

However, being able to tell when you pick it up is a lot harder to pin down. With a smaller magazine, the overall weight difference will be much lower. With a larger magazine, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a partial mag with live rounds, and a full magazine of blanks (going by weight alone).

However, it’s worth knowing, blank rounds do not look like live ones. They do not produce recoil like live rounds. They do not sound like live rounds. In short, this kind of a ruse only works if you hand someone a loaded gun. Even then, if they do a press check, the ruse is over.

Modern metal cartridges have a shell casing, with a bullet seated into open end. Blanks don’t. Their shell casing is there, but the bullet is missing. Instead, some wadding is inserted in front of the propellant and the case itself is crimped shut.

The important takeaway is that, if someone who knows what a bullet should look like, actually sees a blank cartridge, they’ll know something’s wrong.

Also worth remembering that blanks can be lethal at short ranges. (Up to about five feet or six feet, as I recall.) You’re still spraying ignited gunpowder out the barrel, which can result in serious burns at close range. Firing while in direct contact with tissue, will force the rapidly expanding gas into the victim causing serious tissue disruption.

Blanks are useful for a few things. Theatrical performances, magic tricks, starter pistols, and if you need to put the force of a bullet behind something… strange.

Let me explain the last one in a bit more detail. Blank cartridges have utility in allowing you to propel non conventional payloads. This is how some nail guns used to work, by the way.

There have been more inventive uses for blank cartridges. Off hand, a couple M1911 attachments were designed during WWII. One would mount an impact grenade over the barrel, while the other tried to use the pistol as a grappling hook launcher.

The alternative are dud or dummy rounds. These look like live bullets, and are much closer in weight. The distinction here is that there’s no powder or primer, just a bullet, and shell casing. You can press check these without realizing you’re not loading a live round, and can dry fire the gun without having to worry about shooting someone (with some important caveats).

If you’re thinking of one of those loyalty tests, where someone hands a character a gun, and tells them to execute a captive, dummy rounds are the way to go, not blanks.

Dummy rounds are also how you’d set up a shot for a film, where the camera needs close ups of the round being fed into the chamber, or you want to get a shot up the barrel at the bullet itself.

The important caveat with dummy rounds is, it’s still a bullet. Dry firing can’t propel the round out of the barrel, but it can sometimes knock the bullet into the barrel, (called migrating). Switching from dry firing a dummy round, to loading a gun with blanks can create a situation where you have a round in the barrel, and the blank cartridge will propel it like any other bullet. One of the more famous examples of this happening is the death of Brandon Lee.

During shooting of The Crow, the armorer had gone home for the day, and a prop assistant was handling the weapons (which is a very bad idea to begin with). He used a dummy round for close up shots of the bullet moving into chamber on the revolver (which is fine on its own). Then, when setting up for the next shot, dry fired the revolver (never dry fire a gun), and ejected the dummy rounds, before loading a cylinder of blanks (apparently without making any attempt to inspect the barrel, or even to check if the dummy rounds were intact). Then, when actor Michael Massee fired the prop, the blank propelled a live round into Brandon Lee killing him.

The tragedy came out of the prop assistant not following basic safety procedures. This included the production “making” their own dummy rounds by dumping the powder from live rounds. (Without realizing that there would still be a primer charge in the cartridge.)

When it comes to training? No. Your training on firearms (at least in general) wouldn’t let you know if you were just handed a firearm full of blanks, based on the weight. As I said, executing a press check would.

Press checks are where you partially cycle the weapon manually to verify that there is, in fact, a round in the chamber. For most handguns, this is achieved by partially drawing back the slide. For most rifles, you’ll partially cycle the bolt. When handed a gun, it is one of the first things any experienced operator should do. There’s an edge case with revolvers or break open weapons, where opening the breach won’t actually tell you that you’ve got blanks, since you’ll only see the back of the cartridge.

If this is your gun, you can tell if it’s loaded or empty based on weight. You could probably tell if it was fully loaded or partially loaded. You can’t tell if it’s fully loaded with blanks, or partially loaded with live rounds.

If you’re handed a gun, you can’t tell. You don’t know if the Glock you were just handed has one of those 10 round low-cap mags, or if it’s a high-cap mag fully loaded with blanks. In fact, with Glocks in particular, unless you inspect the weapon carefully, you may not even know what it should weigh. The company uses the same pistol frames, and chambers those in a wide range of rounds, from 9x19mm, up through .45, and even 10mm Auto.  This is, to varying degrees, a common problem with a lot of handguns that are available chambered for multiple rounds. This is before you consider the weight differences caused by modifying the weapon with aftermarket parts. This is also true of some rifles, to varying degrees.

This is also true with the whole, recognizing if a gun is empty by weight. If it’s yours, then yes, you should know what it weighs, roughly. Though honestly, it’s more the weight distribution that you’d notice, rather than the overall weight. If you’re simply handed a gun, you won’t have a reliable baseline (even if you think you’re familiar with that model). Still, the first thing you should do, when handed a firearm, is to press check it, and visually inspect the magazine. That would expose if the gun had been loaded with blanks.

-Starke

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Q&A: M14 Wounds

What do you think he damage from an M14 if a person was hit in the shoulder from the front would look like? I’m trying to make the damage from the hit as realistic as I can! [if distance is needed, it is about 4 to 5 rooftops away. tight old city blocks rather than larger apart] Thanks for the advice!

No offense, I don’t particularly want to look this one up, but wound channel charts are available for most common rounds. It’s a little harder to find ballistic data for unusual rounds, like 5.7mm, but the M14 is chambered in 7.62mm NATO. It’s a very common round.

Off the top of my head, you’re looking at a fairly small entry wound. The exit wound will depend on if the bullet hit bone on the way through or not. If it did, it it will shatter the bone, and take that with it, leaving a sizable hole on the way out. (I’m going to spitball that at around 2″-3″), if it goes through clean, which is kinda unlikely, but not impossible, you’re looking at an exit wound not much larger than the bullet.

It’s also possible, on a bone impact, for the bullet to shatter resulting in multiple exit wounds.

Generally speaking, when you have deeper penetration of meat with a 7.62, it will start to expand. Someplace after about 10-15cm of penetration, it will actually produce a much larger tissue displacement. This isn’t really an issue if you’re pumping rounds into a person, but if it’s something larger, or if the bullets are hitting center mass, it can be a factor.

-Starke

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