Research: Futuristic Weaponry: Railguns, Coil Guns, and Mass Drivers

Every Saturday, I offer insight about my current research, or answer reader-submitted questions. Today I examine the possibilities for future weaponry.

One challenge writing science fiction is depicting interesting, far-future devices that nevertheless remain realistic.

One quick aside: People who think that all science fiction is by definition “unrealistic” are idiots (Carlos Mencia included). “Realistic” and “real” do not mean the same thing. “Real” means a thing exists or happened. “Realistic” means a thing could exist or could happen.

This means that fantasy and science fiction must follow their own rules.

What this means is that if Return of the Jedi had ended with Han Solo using Force Lightning to defeat the Emperor, that would be unrealistic. The franchise would not have followed its own rules.

But it’s also important to consider known laws of physics and chemistry when designing far future technology. Works which strongly adhere to scientific explanations for everything and make advanced technology very plausible even given current knowledge are considered “hard” science fiction. Those which concern themselves with story and hand-wave over how things work are considered “soft” science fiction.

My work falls somewhere in between.

…which means I need to understand two things.

1. How modern weapons work.

2. How “hard” science fiction authors expect future weapons to work.


One possibility that was suggested to me was that soldiers in the future would use “rail guns”. Though this term has been substituted for some of the weapons below, a true railgun actually accelerates a conductive projectile along a pair of metal rails.

For this reason, railguns, though quite powerful, would not be portable enough to be used by infantry. However, they would make excellent defensive turrets or heavier siege weaponry. A ship might be equipped with several. But a rifle seems like too small an instrument to house such an involved mechanism.


A coilgun or gauss gun is an electricalmagnetic pulse accelerator, which uses one or more coils to magnetically propel projectiles. This would not require two parallel rails, and coils could be made very small. We can also imagine that future technologies would allow for greater electromagnetic power in a smaller space.

A rifle, being longer, might make use of several “stages” of coil in serial, to further propel a projectile and guarantee greater accuracy.

Mass Drivers

Mass drivers are a third kind of technology delivered by electromagnetic forces. They utilize a linear motor to accelerate catapult payloads up to high speeds using coils of wire energized by electricity.

These need not be limited to weaponry; this technology has been considered as a way to launch spacecraft from earth without explosives.

Usage as weaponry is easy to envision, though. These devices would occupy the niche of heavy ballistics in future weaponry, flinging cannon-sized or spaceship-sized objects through space at high velocity.

A large enough driver constructed in space might be capable of firing asteroid-sized objects at planets. Even if you couldn’t move mass large enough to cause extinction, whole cities could be leveled.

This also raises questions about what kinds of defenses would arise against these technologies.

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