Railguns the U.S. Navy Way

Odds are I’m not the only one here who has experimented with a number of (legal) homemade creations. My list runs the gamut from the unique (trebuchet) to the expected (potato gun) but there’s one weapon one should only take on with at least a decent working knowledge of electricity: the railgun. Now, I’m willing to bet there are a few of you out there who have attempted to make your own railgun, large or small, at some point, and others who are heading to Google right now to take a look at how to make one (Disclaimer: no, I’m not encouraging anyone to play with electricity a la Ben Franklin and a kite). Railguns are pretty cool both from a scientific standpoint and from a destructive one, but they can absolutely be dangerous, and I’m not just talking about the speeds at which they deploy projectiles. The science behind them is actually fairly simple at its basest level: an electromagnetic current runs down the length of one of two parallel rails, hops a ride across on an armature, and zips back up the other rail to complete the circuit. The kinetic energy generated launches projectiles at incredible velocities; best of all, said projectile doesn’t need to have explosive capabilities to annihilate targets. There are a lot of possibilities from the most basic railgun, and now the U.S. Navy is taking steps to turn railguns into truly impressive weapons.

The Navy has been working on their railgun for awhile and there have been periodic updates here and there, but now a working model has finally been put on display. At the Future Force Science and Technology Expo over the first weekend of February, the Navy gave a demonstration of their railgun – or, at least, the one they’re willing to show the public. Their electromagnetic railgun is capable of firing projectiles at speeds up to mach 7 at distances of up to 110 miles away. Some of the best coverage of the event came from Foxtrot Alpha, who had the following to say about the impressively destructive display:

“Even though the EM Railgun looks massive to spectators, the truth is that it is finally in a size that will make it applicable to the Navy’s inventory of surface combatants. With this in mind, the Railgun is set for sea trials aboard the Joint High-Speed Vessel USNS Millinocket in 2016, although this will not be a permanent installation. There is some serious talk about integrating the weapon onto the third DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Destroyer, DDG-1002 USS Lyndon B. Johnson.”

There are quite a few implications of these advances but perhaps the most important for myriad reasons is the fact that using a railgun in this manner would do away with the need to create, transport, and handle explosive payloads. Of course, the electricity involved isn’t exactly harmless, but the Navy’s railgun display gives us a fascinating and flat-out cool peek at the future of combat. If you want to see for yourself, take a look at the video below.

Author’s note: Playing with electricity can be more than a little dangerous, so please don’t take this as encouragement to create your own railgun.

TFB Staffer

TFB Staff, bringing you the latest gun news from around the world for a decade.


  • Tassiebush

    Wow! Very cool!

  • Crisara

    one step closer to the m8 avenger

    • Joshua

      Give me a N7 Valkyrie over the M8 any day.

  • TacticalBudgieSmugglers

    I lost it when he called it a flux capacitor. You can’t call it a flux capacitor and have his face and expect to be taken seriously.

    • M.M.D.C.

      That’s his reach-out-and-kill-someone face.

      Seriously though, a face like that would come in handy in a stalled negotiation.

      • Yellow Devil

        Calvin has a similar idea.

      • TacticalBudgieSmugglers

        And a face like this would come in handy when trying to pick up girls.

        • TacticalBudgieSmugglers

          “Hey baby, want to come back to my place and check out my flux capacitor?”

    • gunslinger

      dem eyes.

      • Ethan

        dat railgun tho… I’d make eyes like that if I got to shoot one.

    • Drew Coleman

      I saw that face and almost lost it. What the hell lol.

    • baldeagle91

      Where will you be when diarrhea strikes?

    • spotr


    • Intense huh:-)

  • joe

    Was it the testbed in the pic/vid displayed, or an actual mocked up turret?

  • Texas Jeff

    If a large rail gun can achieve mach 7, a smaller one can acheive meaningful tactical velocities. Certainly somebody has a small caliber (think 30 to 50 cal) with a backpack power supply in development, if not already prototyped. Using current technology a fuel cell with sufficiently high discharge capacitor could fit in a back pack. Seems likely, no?.

    • Ethan

      Weight may be an issue, but like all things it will get lighter, smaller, and more efficient with time. I think this could be the future of small arms.

      Tangent: Could you see a scenario where someday all small arms could be knocked out by an EMP?

      • Texas Jeff

        Great point, not all, but far too many. The US military weapon’s that would be expected to respond to an EMP attack would certainly be hardened and shielded. Thats just my speculation.

        • Joshua

          Generally as long as the electronics do not send or receive signals they will be fine.

          Things like red dots will not be affected by an EMP unless in extreme close confines, which would kill the operator.

          The issue comes from the emp traveling to linked devices.

      • Sulaco

        Tough finding a holster though….

      • darthcoder

        I’m not sure how susceptible to EMP a railgun is. Maybe momentarily, but as soon as you ground it and reconnect the batteries you should be good to go.

      • Kyle_D

        Ship based weaponry can already be knocked out by an EMP even though its considered “conventional” munitions. The entire gun control system is digital.

        • Ethan

          Right. I was thinking in the distant future when handheld weapons are based on this tech. What happens when an army’s small arms (Rifles) are vulnerable to EMP?

          Just some sci-fi speculation.. 😛

          • marathag

            Faraday cage

    • Even if it’s not man-portable, mounting on a AFV or tank would certainly seem more feasible.

      • Jay

        I think this will keep getting smaller and go from ships, to mobile arty, then tank guns, then IFW/AAA guns and then down to machine guns and rifles.
        Within 50 years, if we don’t blow ourselves up, we will see electrically powered assault rifles.

        • Jay

          But thinking about it, we already saw direct energy weapons installed in AAA turrets and on Humvees. For line of sight weapons, there’s a good chance we may see laser assault rifles, before we “rail assault rifles”

    • mcducky

      no – not likely at all. Current battery tech has insufficient power density to be man portable..AFV’s? Maybe…

    • interested

      1.25Kj coilgun. look it up on youtube. its made by ultratek.

    • Mark N.

      These use huge amounts of electrical power–which is why these early models are all ship based so that the necessary generating capacity is available for more than a single shot.

    • n0truscotsman

      No, not even close.

      Currently the only feasible way to power a rail gun’s enormous energy requirements is with a nuclear reactor.

  • Rail gun + SlowMo = ❤

  • CatDaddy

    Excellent against vehicles, buildings, bunkers, etc………..but practically useless against troop concentrations. For that, you still need air-burst cannon rounds…….and regular high-explosive rounds for enemy in foxholes, trenches. All this talk of doing away with explosive rounds is moronic. God help our Marines if they ever have to depend on sea-based gun support without the Navy having conventional cannons!

    Not to mention it will be very easy to knock out a rail gun system on a ship with something as small as a 40mm cannon (since out ships have zip for armor). They BETTER always have conventional cannons on board too!

    • Ben

      There’s no reason that a railgun projectile can’t be filled with high explosive. As long as it is in a steel case, you could launch explosive shells using electromagnetic energy. The important part is that explosives are no longer needed in order to launch projectiles.
      Good luck getting close enough to a railgun-equipped ship to shoot your 40mm at it.

    • marathag

      A Mach 7 round that splits to a beehive round before impact. Who needs HE?

      But you planning to have a couple guys in a Boghammar going to approach a DDG to shoot a mk19 at it?

    • Mark N.

      This is an anti-material, anti-ship weapon. It sinks the enemy’s ships before they can get into effective ship to ship missile range. The warhead–which is a solid–has nothing that can be jammed, like a missile guidance system can. It destroys with kinetic energy. It is not an anti-personnel weapon, nor are most weapons aboard ships. But then, if you sink the ship, you put an awful lot of personnel out of commission. Thus, for its intended shipboard function, it can do away with a lot of explosive material. And there are always Tomahawks when you need them.

    • n0truscotsman

      The inherent problem with railguns is that you can only fire a solid projectile comprised of a ferric rod (because any non-ferrous material cannot be propelled).
      Which means it is a glorified sabot in nature. That rules out any kind of PGM or HEAT round.

      • Ben

        You are thinking of coilguns, not railguns. Coilguns accelerate projectiles using wire loops that create a magnetic field. Railguns accelerate projectiles by passing a current through them and taking advantage of the Lorentz force generated by the interaction of induced magnetic fields.
        Railgun projectiles themselves do not need to be magnetic. They only need to conduct electricity. Because of this, there are a wide variety of metals (and plasma) that can be used as projectiles.

        • n0truscotsman

          No, i was talking about rail guns, but coil guns (aka gauss guns) are a good subject to bring up.

          They still need a conducive projectile, yes?

          My point was that there are several immense problems with using rail guns and another one that I didn’t mention before is that the navy intends to create guided projectiles, but they need electronics that can survive the velocity and recoil produced.

          • Ben

            For a railgun, the projectile must be conductive, but not necessarily ferric. The opposite is true for coilguns; their projectiles must be ferric, but not necessarily conductive. Although no material comes to mind that is ferric but not conductive.

          • n0truscotsman

            Yeah the proposed projectile for this rail gun is supposedly roughly characteristic of a missile, albeit one propelled at ridiculous velocities, that is supposed to be GPS guided.

            This theoretically not only has a opportunity to change the aspect of land target engagement, but also the deployment of ballistic missiles (or ICBMs) in general.

            Like I said before, I’m very skeptical. Addressing the obstacles will be equivalent to shoveling the rocky mountains.

    • Mario AK

      It will function as a weapon of terror, selectively taking out non-military targets deep inland, the same way JSOC and CIA use conventional, shorter range military assets today. Another full scale invasion with Marines leading the charge is unlikely, the US have fully embraced the assymetric strategy, to put it lightly… I honestly fear for my life, you have accepted civilian casualties as something normal, just your basic collateral damage. Sorry for getting political, but this cannon’s terror potential gets me every time

  • West

    Dude taking a selfie with the rail gun. Thats not psychotic at all lol

  • Shifty Bitwise

    How long before a copy is spotted on a PLA warship ?

  • Shifty Bitwise

    Oh yeah. There is no propellent. IT IGNITES THE FRIGGIN AIR !

  • Shadow

    The railgun needs picantinny rails and a bayonet!

    • Adam aka eddie d.

      That would be the USMC version A1 I surmise.
      (With a thicker barrel.)

  • Darrell

    I want to see one on an AC-130.

  • Matthew

    What’s blowing up if you’re just using a gauss gun? Electricity in & of itself doesn’t explode…

  • dan citizen

    If you want to go the DIY route a light gas gun or a plasma cannon are much easier to make.

    • Ben

      I sincerely hope that you are joking. Railguns are easier to build than both of those, as well as coilguns.

      • dan citizen

        Power to build effort, the light gas gun is pretty basic, I have seen an example made from a 20mm vulcan barrel with a smaller barrel sleeved into it, all powered by a 12 guage shell, it produced some some pretty high velocities (above 12,000 fps IIRC). No electricity needed.

        As for a plasma cannon, a good piece of tube, a few drops of water, a couple electrodes…. BAM, you have some epic fun potential. I saw an DIY example in the early 90’s getting something like 14,000 fps out of a 1/4 ball bearing, albeit with horrible barrel erosion and electrodes only lasted one shot.

        I guess for me it’s because the electronics of a rail gun or coil gun are outside what I am familiar with, and perhaps because I really have never read up on them. I guess it says something to my ignorance that until 5 minutes ago, I thought rail guns required a timed pulsing of current timed with the projectile like a coilgun.

        • Ben

          We may have very different skill sets. The 20mm conversion actually sounds like an insanely fun project, but I’m thinking it might get quite a bit of negative attention from the ATF.

          I wish I knew how to make a plasma cannon. Railguns are simple to me, but plasma cannon sounds like something relegated to the realm of Star Trek.

          • dan citizen

            BATFE does not really regulate a light gas gun, it may have a 20mm bore near the breach, but the projectile is usually 5.56 or smaller.

            A plasma cannon is actually really simple. Burning propellants only expand so fast, so without squeeze bores or light gas fluids, you’re only going to get around 5,000 fps. Expanding plasma can propel a projectile up to 15,000 fps.

            To use plasma as propellant all you need is an insulated chamber insert, two electrodes, and a few drops of water as feed stock. A few honking big capacitors provide the juice.

            The arc converts the water into plasma. Originally, petroleum fuels were tried, but water works just as well. The projectile is just a fairly conventional bullet, I have only read of smoothbores.

  • n0truscotsman

    I’ve never been sold that we will see railguns anytime in our lifetime as a practical naval weapon. This has been discussed extensively here http://warships1discussionboards.yuku.com/topic/22118/Navy-wants-railguns-for-missile-defense

    And there are many glaring issues, but the biggest one is energy requirements and recoil. Cost is also another factor.

    We will see continued evolutions in plain old gun and missile tech, as there is still plenty of growth room in those areas. Railguns and DEWs will remain questionable for even the next 30 years.

  • Uniform223

    I read and heard the USN plans to put a rail gun on their new USS Zumwalt.

  • Seth Hill

    I have had a design for a number of years that I have wanted to try to prototype, but haven’t had the machinery to develop it. Now that there is 3D printing, maybe I can develop and refine a design before creating a working prototype.

  • George

    Put wings on it and call it the A-20 Railhog.