It may sound like science-fiction. Able to fire a projectile at Mach 4 that could cut clean through an aircraft carrier with ease, and using only electricity as propulsion. The railgun is truly a weapon to be feared, and we may be getting even closer to seeing it in action in a real battle scenario. A railgun could launch a projectile from Toronto to Buffalo.
Railguns are electromagnetic and therefore use electricity and magnets to fire their projectiles instead of conventional gunpowder ignited explosions.
The projectile is pushed by an armature that slides along the rails at high velocity. This means that a projectile very similar in size and shape to that of a conventional projectile can be launched at a much greater distance and at a much greater speed.
There are two different kinds of railguns. Helical Railguns have two rails that are surrounded by a helical barrel and the projectile is also helical. The projectile is energized continuously by two brushes sliding along the rails, and two or more additional brushes on the projectile serve to energize and commute several windings of the helical barrel directly in front of and behind the projectile.
A Plasma Railgun is a plasma energy weapon which, like a projectile railgun, uses two long parallel electrodes to accelerate a “sliding short” armature. However, in a plasma railgun, the armature and ejected projectile consist of plasma, or hot, ionized, gas-like particles, instead of a solid slug of material.
A railgun projectile is practically a steel dart. They are not filled with any explosives but can do much more damage than a conventional shell. Right after it emerges from the barrel, the projectiles components separate. The projectile itself is not pushed along the rails but is pushed by the armature behind it.
If the U.S does get any railguns out, which is looking more and more unlikely, they will probably be fitted onto large aircraft carriers because they have the power supply needed to fire the weapon. The Zumwalt class cruiser(featured in my last article) might also get a railgun makeover. China seems to want to get in on the railgun action. Seem to have outfitted one of their ships with what looks like a railgun.
The railgun isn’t the only shiny new electromagnetic military gadget either. The Navy now has electromagnetic catapults on their carriers. Its main advantage is that it accelerates aircraft more smoothly, putting less stress on their airframes and as a result, increasing the lifetime of the aircraft. Compared to steam catapults, the EMALS(Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) also weighs less, is expected to cost less and to require much less maintenance and can launch both heavier and lighter aircraft than a steam piston-driven system.