Future Guns — Why SciFi Gets It Wrong

We have all seen it — soldiers in the scifi future carrying their phasers, lasers, disruptors, blasters and so on, yet failing to hit their targets as the hero does cartwheels and back-flips to dodge the fire. The stormtroopers in Star Wars are notoriously bad shots, for example.

In many ways scifi hand weapons are already outdated by the latest in contemporary guns, and the reasons why are quite simple.

First, a slug of metal traveling at a kilometer per second is a very efficient way of delivering devastating energy to the Human body. One thousand Joules, or 737 ft-lbs of energy, dedicated to ripping the body apart is hard to beat.

Second, we are moving into the era where the soldier does not have to aim accurately. There are optical gun-sights being developed which are connected to an artificial intelligence (AI) which controls the trigger of the rifle. The soldier points it in the general direction of the enemy and pulls the trigger — but nothing happens until the AI sees the (Human) target, when it fires the gun for the soldier. Every shot a hit, or at least that is the promise.

So one thing we can assume about guns in the future is that they will not miss. Which brings us to the more interesting question as to where this might lead, and why there is a woman with a jewel in her forehead.

But first…

Lasers are the quintessential Death Ray of science fiction and $billions have been pumped into trying to make them into useful battlefield weapons. We have been trying since they were invented in 1960, and still no luck. That is more than 60 years of trying and failing. Why?

I have worked with lasers, including ones that can emit a beam of continuous power of a kilowatt or so. That is 1000 Joules every second. That is comparable to the bullet described above. So what happens if you hold that beam on a target? Well, if it is something like metal or wood it will partially melt or char it. After ten seconds or so the beam might be able to burn through a few centimeters of oak, or it might not. Compare that to being shot ten times with 9mm handgun rounds. But let’s up the ante. As someone once said, if brute force does not work, you are not applying enough of it. How about ONE MILLION WATTS? Well, military lasers with that power have been tried, and are reasonably effective at shooting down things like drones at a decent range of a couple of kilometers or so. They are rather poor when it comes to anything that can be covered in ablative or reflective armor, or obscured by smoke. If fact, it is better to think of them as accurate long range flame throwers that need to be housed in a large truck with a large fuel supply attached. Not quite such a glamorous image.

Yet there is another type of laser that is more promising than the continuous wave version, and that is the pulsed laser. This is where that hypothetical 1000 Joules of energy is not delivered over one second, but over a timescale millions, billions or trillions of times shorter. When that happens we are looking at something that is almost a slug of light only a few centimeters (or even millimeters) long, and the power delivered to the target is astronomical. The ultimate (so far) in this class of laser is the femtosecond laser, which dumps all its energy in a pulse lasting a fraction of a millionth of a millionth of a second. The power on target is enough to ionize the very top surface surface of the material it hits which results in a plasma explosion where material is ejected at high speed from the target. The back reaction on the target is massive — think your favorite heavyweight boxing champion hitting you as hard as he could with a baseball bat. Yet even that might not be able to kill someone, although it would certainly disable them at least temporarily if not a head shot. It is why these are being examined as part of the less-than-lethal weapons programs. Apparently we could get these down to desk size and they might be effective over a few hundred meters range.

Suppose though we could reduce them to handgun dimensions — what would it look like when fired by hand? Well, first off, no recoil at all. Second, if the laser was in the InfraRed the beam would be invisible, which might be a good thing if it were long enough wavelength that the back-scatter could not penetrate the lens of the eye and blind the shooter (possibly permanently). Third, there would be a very bright flash and a sharp crack from the expanding plasma fireball coupled with whoever is hit flying backwards. Typically, it would not penetrate even a thin layer of clothing — just like a baseball bat.

Now let’s make it even smaller — jewel size. And connect it to an AI triggering and aiming system, as well as using a brain-link (Elon Musk’s Neural Lace?) that knows where the user is looking. Then mount it on the forehead.

Slow mode would be the jewel firing at where the user is looking, with a trigger thought. Fast mode, the AI decides what is a threat and takes care of it in less than a millisecond all on its own. Finally, it has the ability to eliminate several dozen targets almost simultaneously — all the scum and villainy of the Mos Eisley Cantina gone in around a tenth of a second. Sort of takes all the fun out of it…

Sadly I would not expect that kind of technology to be available until the latter part of this century, but it may not matter. The AI, the eye tracking and crude brain link with EEG electrodes could be done now. As could the laser optics for beam steering. Instead of a femtosecond high energy pulse, just a 10 watt pulsed laser diode in the visible light or near InfraRed region, available off the shelf now. Nothing spectacular — it would just permanently blind the target instead of exploding them. It could even be fitted into a headband.

The future is waiting to arrive.

R&D Scientist and Engineer, Transhumanist, martial artist and Asatru. Zero State