Future Firearms for Writers

Metal Storm AICW - Internal View

Firearms development is a funny thing; for centuries it crept along. A 16th Century musketeer would have had little difficulty understanding and mastering an early 19th Century firearm. Then, in the second half of that century there was an explosion of development. Metallic cartridges, repeating weapons, machine-guns and semi-automatic rifles and handguns. Then things slowed down again. A soldier from World War One would have no trouble figuring out and using modern firearms. The 20th Century was more a time of refinement than of revolution. Designs were optimized and materials science improved, but the basics remained the same.

This trend has continued into the 21st Century. manufacturing methods and materials have improved, but only relatively insignificant refinements to the weapons themselves. Projectile designs have also been refined for greater reliability, but as yet no revolutionary technology has come along.

The US Army adopted the M16 Rifle about fifty years ago, and they have several times made extensive studies of potential replacements. None of those studies succeeded in coming up with anything enough better to bother. The design has been refined and modified into other configurations (like the M4) but the basics are the same.

Firearms are an apex technology; they have reached levels of efficiency and effectiveness that make it very difficult to make significant advances. In the near future all we’re likely to see change are the ‘fiddly bits;’ how the components are arranged and what they are made of. I suppose that is good news for science-fiction writers; we don’t need to worry about the basics. In twenty, forty or fifty years our heroes will most likely rely on guns that use metallic cartridges filled with propellant and a projectile that works pretty much the way these things work now. One less thing to worry about, right?

Well, yes and no.  While the weapons haven’t changed much in recent decades and probably won’t change much for the next few decades something is going to change- the information technology revolution has come to firearms, and this will effect the way that we use them. Information systems, graphics systems, AI and combined arms are all coming together to shape the future battlescape. Here’s an example:

An infantry squad is pinned down by a heavy machine-gun in a bunker 800 meters in front of them. It is beyond the effective reach of either their individual weapons or grenade launchers. They need help.

One soldier flips a monocle attached to his helmet over his eye and extends his weapon. A camera on his weapon transmits the image of where the weapon is pointed to the monocle. He centers the cursor over the bunker and presses a button. Now a lot of things happen very quickly.

A black-box on the gun locates the weapon to within a half-inch using GPS. A laser range-finder ranges the bunker. Another system notes the weapons exact bearing and elevation and uses this information combined with the range to generate an exact GPS coordinate for the bunker, then alerts the soldier. He presses another button and a ‘call for fire’ goes out over the combat intranet.  A computer far behind the lines notes the call and consults an inventory of assets in position to respond. It makes it’s choice and sends an order.

Twelve miles from the bunker a self-propelled howitzer gets the call for fire and stops. An on-board computer consults meteorological data generated by satellites, sensors deployed by artillery or individual soldiers and drones flying between the gun and the target. It takes this data, the gun’s GPS location and consults a database about ballistics and propellant performance. By the time the vehicle has stopped, deployed it’s recoil spades and the crew has loaded the weapon the computer has a firing solution and has aimed the gun.

The gun fires a dumb, un-guided high-explosive shell with an accuracy of plus-or-minus two meters at 13 miles… thirty seconds later the bunker is vaporized and the squad can continue towards their objective. Elapsed time approximately 3 minutes.

Sounds like science-fiction, right? It isn’t; this scenario isn’t even state of the art. It actually happened in 2003 in Iraq.

The gun may stay the same, but the interface between soldier and gun- and other systems in support- will continue to improve and become easier, more intuitive, to use. We’ve seen a lot of innovation in this are already; ‘Smart-Gun’ links that allow more rapid, more precise aim under a variety of conditions by projecting a point-of impact on the soldiers optics. A sight system that does all of the calculations for the sniper and automatically adjusts the point of aim so that even a novice has a good chance of hitting a target at 1000 meters— with their first shot. Compact holographic sights- small enough to mount on a handgun- are available and becoming more affordable, reliable and robust all of the time.

Don’t get me wrong; while many of these systems will allow a novice to use a weapon more effectively skill and experience will still be needed to wring the most out of these systems. We’re a long way from the ‘Monkey pushes a button’ stage.

My advice to writers about near future weapons is this- don’t focus on the weapons themselves; focus on the interface between the gun and it’s user, and the off-board systems that will exist to support them. That s where we will see the most innovation in the near-future.

Don’t even get me started on battlefield robots…

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The Hi-Point of Impulse Purchases

HiPoint40

So last summer we found ourselves temporarily living near Tacoma and, being us, we soon happened across the local gun shop and shooting range. We popped in to check the place out and while looking through the pistol case I spotted a .40 S&W Hi Point pistol. To say that this is not a gun that appeals to me would be an understatement. Ugly, bulky, heavy and cheap.

These pistols have been around for a few years now. Made in the U.S.A., these guns main claim to fame is that they are inexpensive. MSRP on the .40 S&W is $199, but they can often be found for rather less than that. They offer two ‘compact’ models, one in .380 ACP and the other in 9x19mm. Neither are particularly compact. Large-frame guns are available in .40 S&W and .45 ACP. All models are rated for +P ammunition. There are also carbine models in the three service calibers. Hi Point makes extensive use of castings in Zymex 3, an aluminum/zinc/copper alloy. The barrel, breech and mechanical parts are steel and the frame is plastic. The finish on the slide appears to be a baked-on enamel of some sort.

While this was not a gun I had any interest in owning I was somewhat intrigued; I had watched a number of Youtube video reviews of Hi Point guns and even an extreme torture-test that was quite impressive. I asked to see it, and it was pretty much what I’d expected- very basic and very, very heavy. Most of that weight is in the slide; it takes a lot of mass to employ straight-blowback in a service-caliber gun. The grip is surprisingly comfortable, with an angle that allows the gun to ‘point’ instinctively and the frame-mounted safety is reasonably easy to operate. the slide serrations are easy to grip and it’s easy to operate the slide. The gun also possessed some surprising features, like the fully-adjustable three-dot sights. Yes, the rear sight is plastic, but it works.

Out of idle curiosity I looked at the price tag- $75. Uh, what? The gun appeared new; surely they meant $175? Nope. I dithered and finally Linda said, “For God’s sake, it’s a service-caliber gun for $75 and it has a life-time guarantee.” So we bought it and I became the proud (?) owner of a gun I never expected to have. They never said why it was so cheap and I never asked. It came with the original box with all the paperwork, a trigger-lock and a Ghost-Ring sight that can be swapped in for the regular sight.

So, the details. The simple striker-fired mechanism is similar to that used in many other inexpensive pistols like the Raven and Jimenez. Unlike some of the other cheap guns of it’s type it employs three different safeties- a magazine disconnect safety, an internal drop-safety and a manual safety located at the top of the left-side grip. Unlike some other guns of this ilk it is theoretically safe to carry this gun with a round chambered and the safety on. The frame-mounted safety is small but easy to engage and disengage. The safety can also be used to lock the slide to the rear.  This is for disassembly; although the slide locks to the rear after the last round in the magazine is fired it does not engage an external slide release. One must grip the slide, pull to the rear and release it to chamber a round when a fresh magazine is inserted. The trigger pull has a lot of creep but eventually breaks cleanly and the reset is acceptable.

The single-column magazine holds ten rounds and is released by a conventional push-button located right where you’d expect it at the base of the trigger-guard. I have a fairly large hand and can easily operate all the controls without shifting (much) from a firing grip, but people with small or medium-hands will need to.  None of the controls are ambidextrous.  The trigger guard is surprisingly small for no apparent reason. there is a single-position accessory rail just ahead of the trigger-guard. Unexpectedly the magazine-well is bevelled, making it very easy to insert the magazine. Another inexplicable feature is the magazine base-plate. It’s enormous and kind of ugly. It makes an already bulky gun even more so for no reason I can see.

This is not at all a small gun; it’s overall dimensions are not exceptional for a service-pistol (excepting that magazine baseplate) but it’s thick. 1-1/4 inches thick across the grips and 1-3/8 inches across the slide. I haven’t weighed it but the term ‘metric butt-ton’ comes to mind.

I have to admit that after examining the gun I was rather impressed. It’s definitely made to be as inexpensive as possible and if you run out of ammo you could beat a whale to death with it, but for all that it is surprisingly well and thoughtfully designed.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding so on my next range trip I ran a box of American Eagle FMCFP ammo through it. To my surprise it was rather pleasant to shoot. Recoil was surprisingly mild. It is accurate and double-taps are easy to keep on-target. It was also reliable; everything worked. No malfunctions, the slide locked back when it was supposed to etc. Since then I’ve put a few hundred more rounds through it, including a mixed-bag of hollow points. No malfunctions of any kind.  From all of the reviews that I have seen this isn’t unusual, either.

This is not a gun without flaws, mind you. Recommended maintenance is to blow it out with an aerosol gun-cleaner every 300-400 rounds and run a brush down the bore. I suspect this is because stripping the weapon requires tools and is a bit of a pain. Drop the magazine, lock the slide to the rear with the safety and then drive out the roll-pin at the back of the frame with a punch or screwdriver. Pull the slide further to the rear and lift the back, then run it forward off the fixed barrel. Reverse the procedure to reassemble. It’s not all that hard but it’s kinda fiddly.

So on the one hand it’s cheap, heavy and ugly. The grips are a bit slippery for my taste. It’s bulky. On the other hand it’s tough, durable, reliable and even at MSRP it’s cheap. Would I recommend it? That depends. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a carry gun- it’s just too damn bulky and heavy. For a range-gun or house gun I’d say if you cannot afford better it will do the job.

Oh, and if it does break Hi Point will fix or replace it. Period. They have even replaced guns that were deliberately destroyed in destructive testing. By all accounts their customer service is superb.

Ugly is as ugly does, and from that prospective perhaps it isn’t so ugly after all. Oh who am I kidding? Yes it is… but I can live with that.

 

Oops, I Did it Again… Almost.

S&W28a

Periodically I like to haul myself out behind the wood-shed and kick my own ass over all of the guns I’ve parted with over the years. Largely because some of those guns, once considered common as hen’s teeth, have become so valuable that I can’t afford to replace them now. I can hardly believe the prices of some guns that we took for granted back in the day.

Well, I almost did it to myself again this year. In the wake of the house fire and with the holidays coming on I looked at my S&W Model 28 and thought I should maybe part with it. I was a bit ambivalent about it, but I half-heartedly offered it for sale at a decent price. When no one bit within a reasonable time I quietly forgot the idea of selling it. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did!

This gun isn’t the first time I’ve had a Model 28; back when I was a small-town cop I carried one as my duty weapon for a few weeks. It was big and heavy, but I was a big kid and didn’t so much mind. What I really remember most about that gun was the excellent double-action trigger and how it tamed the .357.

A couple decades on I took one in trade that had belonged to a Sherrif’s deputy. Despite its years of service it’s in fine condition and sports beautiful maple grips that fit my large hands to a T. The trigger pulls in double and single action are excellent too. They may have been worked over at one time or another, but maybe not; some of these old S&Ws came from the factory pretty sweet.

In the years since it’s been hunting with me several times and come within heartbeats of taking a deer, Unfortunately I was deep in the pucker-brush and couldn’t quite make out if it was a doe or a spike buck and had to let the shot pass.

The Model 28 Highway Patrolman is a direct descendant of the original S&W Registered Magnum, made from 1935-1941. This was the first-ever handgun chambered in the cartridge, and it was instantly prized by law-enforcement officers for its power and penetration.

The Registered Magnum was a beautifully finished and polished gun, with adjustable sights and hand-cut checkering on the top of the frame. General George Patton famously carried a nickel-plated pearl-handled 3-1/2” barreled Registered Magnum throughout World War II. Production stopped in 1941 so that Smith and Wesson could focus on the war effort, and when it resumed in the late 1940’s it was known as ‘The .357 Magnum Revolver.’ This worked just fine because it was the only one in production. It became known as the Model 27 in the mid 1950’s when S&W rationalized their naming conventions and model numbers.

The Model 27 really only had one problem; with it’s high levels of finish and hand-work it was expensive, and by the early 1950s law enforcement officers and agencies were requesting a less expensive, more utilitarian version. In 1954 S&W obliged by introducing the Highway Patrolman, which soon became the Model 28.

S&W wasn’t in the habit of creating a new model by removing features, but it worked out fine. Gone was the deeply polished blueing and the hand-cut checkering, replaced by a bead-blasted blue finish. But the essentials are still there, and at a much more affordable price. The Model 28 was hugely successful and remained in production until 1985.

We think of these guns as big guns now, but at the time they were made all large-bore guns were big. It was a function of both the physical size of cartridges like .45 Colt and .44 Special, and the metallurgy of the times. It just flat took a lot of metal to hold the pressures generated by the .357 Magnum back in 1935. Time marched on; the metallurgy and heat treat improved and it was possible to introduce the cartridge in the K frame guns like the Model 19, which gave you the power of a .357 in a much lighter and more compact package.

The trend has continued until now you can get J-Frames in this caliber, or their equivalent, from just about everyone that manufactures revolvers. These days the N-frame .357 revolvers justify their size by packing 2 extra rounds into that big cylinder, but all that mechanical complexity and careful fitting comes at a steep price.

If you fancy one of these guns you’d better get it now; just a few years ago when I got mine it was reckoned to be worth $250-$350. Now they are routinely selling at $500-$600, and typically that sort of trend doesn’t reverse itself.

I’m glad this old Model 28 didn’t become one of the guns I kick myself for selling, and I’ll keep it around for probably as long as I’m around. Yes, it’s kind of a dinosaur, but then so am I. We’ll get on just fine.

Realistic Prepping

My friend Lee was a survivalist. He had armor, a full tactical vest system, military-grade weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition, a high-tech backpack, MREs, water, military-grade survival and camping gear and just about every gimmick, gadget and gee-gaw you can imagine. He spent a fortune on all of this stuff; at one point he could have fully equipped a fire-team to operate for a month. The plan was to walk to the ‘safety’ of the countryside. There were a few slight problems with all his plans however. One, that he lived in the middle of a suburb in a major metropolitan area. Two, if he fully geared up he wouldn’t have made it a hundred feet; his health and physical condition would’t have allowed it. Three, for the last several years of his life he lived with his two adult daughters and their children. While his plans, such as they were, didn’t include them there is no way he would have left them behind. Despite all of his preparations he was, fundamentally, unprepared.

Lee was a wonderful, intelligent, nice person and a great friend. I never got his obsession or how his plans could be so completely out of step with reality. Eventually I came to understand that he was a survival hobbyist, living a fantasy rather than preparing for a potential reality. As much as we loved him he was, unfortunately, ‘that guy.’

OK, we’re not all survivalists as such, but if you’re reading this chances are you’ve thought about calamity and what you’d do in a break-down of social order.  There is no one good answer of course; we all have different situations and circumstances, and different sorts of events might impact us. There are simple, sensible things one can do, and hopefully our thinking and preparations, such as they are, might give people some useful ideas.

Here in Seattle a natural disaster is probably the most likely scenario for a break-down of services. The city is on a fault-line, we could experience a Lahar from Mount Rainier, sometimes we have fairly serious storms… a natural disaster could disrupt services for days or even at the extreme weeks at a time.  In combination with social factors a general social breakdown is possible. Unlikely, but possible.

Linda and I have discussed this at some length. Where we live is far enough from downtown that it’s very likely we would survive a catastrophic event that affected the city, but we’re too deep in the urban area to flee after the fact. Also we have dogs; they are our family and they would have to be disposed of before we could move out and we don’t want to- especially for a crisis of limited duration.

Another consideration is that we’re in our fifties and in relatively poor physical condition. Fleeing on foot is seriously not an option; we wouldn’t get far and wouldn’t be able to carry much. So unless we have enough warning to pack the van with what we need and the dogs we’re probably not going to be able to flee. In the unlikely event that we do have sufficient warning we have contingencies in mind, but for the most part realism dictates that we’re going to have to hunker down and try to ride it out.

So- the events we are planning for involve a breakdown of services (and possibly social order) lasting several weeks, after which services and social order will gradually be restored. Anything else is either unsurvivable for us in this location or will have to be played by ear; in either case the preparation we are making won’t hurt.

So, what does that entail? Food and water for starters. OK, forget all the survivalist BS. You don’t need specially sealed and prepared survival rations or sterilized distilled water. You just need to keep soul and body together until things start running again. That’s pretty easy; we have a bargain market nearby and when I am shopping I grab a few cans of whatever is on sale. Yes, canned food can be a little short of nutrition and high on sodium. But it’s cheap, readily available, keeps practically forever and does not require cooking. It also tends to contain a lot of liquid which helps to stretch out the water. By grabbing a few cans at a time we get variety and can build up stocks without breaking the budget. Meat will be a bit in short supply as that’s more expensive, but hell, we eat too much meat as it is.

Water is easy too. Turn on the tap and there it is. Clean out empty pop or juice bottles, fill them with water and freeze some of them. The frozen bottles not only thaw and provide potable water, but when the power goes down they can be shifted to the refrigerator and keep things cool long enough to consume all the perishables. The others can simply be stored. Yes, I know, they leach chemicals into the water that have negative long-term health effects. Frankly if we need them we’ve got bigger problems, they are free and readily available, and you can cycle fresh water into them a couple of times a year. Don’t forget the hot-water heater; forty-five gallons of potable water right there.

So what else is needed? Fuel? Start stashing propane bottles for the camp stove and a few good-sized bags of charcoal for the barbecue. If the opportunity to cook is there and it seems prudent that should cover it. As long as we’re mindful of ventilation issues the stove can be used as a source of heat too. Candles are cheap and easy, but you do have to be mindful of the fire danger. Candle-lanterns are a good option; they’re cheap and they help limit the fire danger. No, they don’t throw the levels of light we’re accustomed to, but enough to get around without tripping over the furniture. We have a couple of propane lanterns for camping that can be pressed into service at need.

What about weapons? A lot of people stock military-style weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, super-advanced high-tech handguns, knives, swords, big wrenches and god knows what else. Frankly if we need that stuff we’re probably doomed anyway. We have firearms and more ammunition than we are likely to be able to survive needing; we can even arm neighbors if necessary. That’s a whole other discussion though. Suffice it to say we feel OK with what we’ve got.

What about forting-up? Let’s face it, our house isn’t bulletproof and there is no reasonable way to make it so. If we come under serious assault by an organized force we’re cooked. There is no way whatsoever to stand off a determined assault so it makes no sense to try. Attempting to fortify our home would call the attention of just such people. A far better option is to work with out neighbors, be vigilant and keep a low profile. Fight if we have to, but avoid the necessity if possible.

While actually forting-up isn’t practical it seems prudent to have some stout sheets of plywood on hand to use to limit access to the house. These are pretty cheap and can be bought one at a time. These would be put up inside the house behind the curtains of certain windows. This allows us secure the house somewhat without announcing to the world that there are things here worth the effort of trying to get them. We have a rechargeable drill and long wood-screws on hand for household use and maintenance, so mounting the plywood will not be a problem.  These will not make the house impenetrable, but they will make it more difficult to get in. More importantly it will make it very, very difficult to access our house by stealth.

There are a thousand other things, but they can mostly be acquired piece-meal without making a capital investment. A good industrial first-aid kit. Some compress bandages and tampons ( a great field expedient for bullet-wounds.) We have a wind-up radio in the shop. LOTS of tools. I also have a fully insulated workshop with limited access for storage or to put people up in if necessary. A water-purification system could be useful.

I suppose the point is that prepping for a worst-case scenario doesn’t need to cost a fortune or be an all-consuming obsession. Think about what you have and what you might need. Keep it simple. Above all be realistic- what is likely and what is survivable? What are your physical limitations, and what can you really do?  Keep your feet on the ground, use your common sense and think. There’s no guarantees in life, but you can increase your chances without going overboard… or going broke.