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The Assault Rifle of the Near Future:

An Essay on Modern Firearms Developments

By Mikael Halila

Edited by Lowell R. Matthews for The Guild Companion

Copyright 2000

For all of us who are planning on running Black Ops, Cyberpunk, or Spacemaster games, and to those with a general interest in the topic, I have drawn up this short study on firearms development.

Firearms development is still advancing, and I must say it is going in some very interesting directions. However, the fundamental problem is that we are nearing the end in conventional firearms. True, we can still do new things with them, but soon we will reach the limit where huge amounts of money and R&D work would have to be poured in to get even a slightly better performance.

This is why advanced weapons like energy weapons are being studied even now. At this stage, they are very impractical, but it has been recognized that the limit of regular weapons is getting closer. The same kind of situation came about in the aircraft industry in the late 1930's; it was recognized that they were going to have to work miracles to get more power out of a piston engine—hence, the jet engine.

The most practical results so far have been obtained with tanks; mainly because they're a lot bigger and can lug a lot of stuff around. Liquid propellants seem to be the next thing, but they are unlikely to work with firearms. Back in the 1980's, extensive experiments with electrically driven projectiles ("rail guns") were conducted and the idea is feasible.

The latest firearms developments (U.S. OICW project, French advanced combat rifle) have involved "crossfire" weapons, which can fire shotgun shells and rifle rounds from the same barrel with the flick of a switch. These new projects invariably include grenade launchers in M203 style, so if they ever come to fruition the regular infantryman will have three kinds of firepower.

The U.S. project also includes ambitious proposals for computerizing the weapon; inserting a microchip to calculate humidity, wind, temperature, and so on, and at the advanced stage the rifle could even include a laser rangefinder and ballistic computer. Night sights and magnifying optical sights seem to be standard. Personally, I think the idea of mounting a scope on every single assault rifle has some considerable failings, but the British army has already taken that step; the M16A3 is being fitted with an integral scope.

We'll soon be nearing the limit of gunpowder weapons. Here are some alternative solutions:

(1) Electricity: Rail guns work, which is to say that the idea of propelling a projectile with electricity is feasible. The problem is that the grunt would have to carry his electricity with him.

(2) Directed Energy Weapons: Phasers! While modern laser rangefinders can very well blind people, the dissipation of heat into the atmosphere is such that beam weapons would need immense energy to do significant damage. Then again, it wouldn't have to be heat. Alternatives would include densely concentrated radiation, lightning, sonics, and practically anything.

Those are the two most usually discussed alternatives. They both seem completely surrealistic, but the truth remains that alternatives will at least be seriously researched in the coming decades. It will take many, many years for firearms to be replaced, but just in case somebody wants to go overboard with a Black Ops game….

Therefore, the assault rifle of the future is a crossfire weapon with a grenade launcher and a ballistics computer. Even energy weapons or rail guns are not so far in the future. Sonic weapons and weapons that sent out pressure waves were being researched in the Third Reich, with some successes. The U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (Reagan’s "Star Wars") explored laser and particle weapons, and the Soviet Union was conducting research in the area that some Western experts called "very alarming."

Nevertheless, for the next half-century or so, expect a nearly conventional firearm. They can’t get much more complicated, so alternatives will come, although they seem relatively unrealistic now. Just wait... .

Editor's Note

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