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The Navy has spent seven years testing out the components of a way futuristic weapon: a shipboard cannon that blasts bullets over vast distances at hypersonic speeds using bursts of electricity. But so far, that weapon, known as the Electromagnetic Railgun, has been more of a lab experiment than an honest-to-God weapon. It didn’t even have basic gun-like features, like a barrel. Now, however, the Navy is unveiling the first actual railgun guns, which it’ll test for another five years, in the hope of winning over legislators who consider it a waste of time, money and electricity.
Previous versions of the railgun have been laboratory test models, stored in a hangar at Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center in southern Virginia. They look like shipping containers or schoolbuses put up on blocks, hooked up like Frankenstein’s monster to giant generators that pump dozens of megajoules of energy necessary to fire the bullet. You couldn’t fit any of that onto a ship, and it wouldn’t actually be a real weapon if you did.
At least not until January 30, when BAE Systems sent its first actual gun-shaped railgun to Dahlgren. Competitor General Atomics will send its own design there in April. Both designs have 12 meter barrels. “Now that looks like a real gun,” said Roger Ellis, the railgun chief for the Office of Naval Research, which has inaugurated the next phase of tests to determine the gun’s practicality — something many in Congress doubt.
The Navy released video of the first tests, viewable above, on Tuesday. The dramatic mini-inferno in the wake of the slug fired from the railgun is the result of “1 million amps flowing through” the gun, said test chief Tom Boucher, the hypersonic speed of the shot, and the actual aluminum of the bullet — “reactive in the atmosphere” — burning off.
It’s the next step in a process the Navy hopes will lead to a whole new era of self defense for ships, and way, way long-range strikes from on deck by the early 2020s. The Navy’s current 5-inch deck guns top out at 13 kilometer ranges. By 2017, the Navy wants the railgun prototypes to fire several shots per minute without soaking up a ship’s juice.