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A missile punch at bullet prices
Dahlgren demonstrates electromagnetic rail gun

 Photos courtesy of the Office of Naval Research
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Date published: 1/17/2007

By MICHAEL ZITZ

New VIDEO released: Click here to see the gun test-fired

Normally, new weaponry tends to make defense more expensive. But the Navy likes to say its new railgun delivers the punch of a missile at bullet prices.

A demonstration of the futuristic and comparatively inexpensive weapon yesterday at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren had Navy brass smiling.

The weapon, which was successfully tested in October at the King George County base, fires nonexplosive projectiles at incredible speeds, using electricity rather than gun powder.

The technology could increase the striking range of U.S. Navy ships more than tenfold by the year 2020.

"It's pretty amazing capability, and it went off without a hitch," said Capt. Joseph McGettigan, commander of NSWC Dahlgren Division.

"The biggest thing is it's real--not just something on the drawing board," he said.

The railgun works by sending electric current along parallel rails, creating an electromagnetic force so powerful it can fire a projectile at tremendous speed.

Because the gun uses electricity and not gunpowder to fire projectiles, it's safer, eliminating the possibility of explosions on ships and vehicles equipped with it.

Instead, a powerful pulse generator is used.

The prototype fired at Dahlgren is only an 8-megajoule electromagnetic device, but the one to be used on Navy ships will generate a massive 64 megajoules. Current Navy guns generate about 9 megajoules of muzzle energy.

The railgun's 200 to 250 nautical-mile range will allow Navy ships to strike deep in enemy territory while staying out of reach of hostile forces.

Rear Adm. William E. "Bill" Landay, chief of Naval Research, said Navy railgun progress from the drawing board to reality has been rapid.

"A year ago, this was [just] a good idea we all wanted to pursue," he said.

Elizabeth D'Andrea of the Office of Naval Research said a 32-megajoule lab gun will be delivered to Dahlgren in June.

Charles Garnett, project director, called the projectile fired by the railgun "a supersonic bullet," and the weapon itself is "a very simple device."


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The railgun works by sending electric current along parallel rails. It creates an electromagnetic force so powerful it can fire a metal projectile at tremendous speed.

Because the gun uses electricity, not gunpowder, to fire projectiles, it's safer, eliminating the possibility of explosions.

Instead of gunpowder, a powerful electric pulse generator is used.

The basic concept of the weapon demonstrated at Dahlgren yesterday may be familiar to many from science fiction.

Futuristic space man Buck Rogers used a sort of railgun in a sci-fi novel.

In the film "Eraser," Arnold Schwzenegger uncovers a plot to sell a railgun to terrorists.

Railguns are also portrayed in the "Stargate" TV series and in many video games, including "Halo 2."