Toy rocket inspires variable-speed bullets
16:43 21 July 2008
NewScientist.com news service
A gun that fires variable speed bullets and which can be set to kill, wound or just inflict a bruise is being built by a US toy manufacturer. The weapon is based on technology used to propel toy rockets.
Lund and Company Invention, a toy design studio based near Chicago, makes toy rockets that are powered by burning hydrogen obtained by electrolysing water. Now the company is being funded by the US army to adapt the technology to fire bullets instead.
The US Army are interested in arming soldiers with weapons that can be switched between lethal and non-lethal modes. They asked Company Invention to make a rifle that can fire bullets at various speeds.
The new weapon, called the Variable Velocity Weapon System or VWS, lets the soldier to use the same rifle for crowd control and combat, by altering the muzzle velocity. It could be loaded with "rubber bullets" designed only to deliver blunt impacts on a person, full-speed lethal rounds or projectiles somewhere between the two.
Bruce Lund, the company's CEO, says the gun works by mixing a liquid or gaseous fuel with air in a combustion chamber behind the bullet. This determines the explosive capability of the propellant and consequently the velocity of the bullet as it leaves the gun. "Projectile velocity varies from non-lethal at 10 metres, to lethal at 100 metres or more, as desired," says Lund.
The company says that the weapon produces less heat and light than traditional guns. It can also be made lighter and could have a high power setting for long-range sniping.
Police already fire non-lethal projectiles from standard shotguns. These are known as "beanbag" rounds, bags of lead shot which will knock down a suspect at ranges of up to 10 metres. They are termed "non-lethal", but can cause bruising or even broken ribs.
'Handgun to Howitzer'
Lund says that the new weapon system will use different types of bullet for lethal and non-lethal use. Police forces already use separate shotguns for non-lethal loads – typically marking them with bright orange tape to prevent any confusion – so this shouldn't be an issue.
The existing VWS design is a .50 calibre (12.7 mm) rifle weapon, but Lund says the technology can be scaled to any size, "handgun to Howitzer".
Steve Wright, a security expert at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK warns of the potential risk of variable lethality.
"In a high-stress, high-personal-risk zone, there will be a real temptation for soldiers to turn the tuneable lethality switch up to 'kill' mode so that all doubt is removed."
A demonstration version will be ready within six months, and the VWS could go into production within 18 months of approval, according to Lund and Company.