Speculative Futuristic Warfare: Mass-Driver Weapons


There is a good chance that the weapons of the future will still be projectile and/or combustive and there are ways to make them terrifyingly awesome in fiction, where often the idea of a highly advanced weapon creates a deeper impact on the psychology of both the reader and the characters within the story. Perhaps it is the advancement of current technology in the form of Mass-Driver Weapons (M.D.Ws), instead of a highly advanced weapon like D.E.Ws, that create a more realistic setting for the reader.

Ever wondered just how plausible those far-future guns are? Let’s take a look at the types of M.D.Ws that can possibly exist, some of which already do:

It’s Electric

Predictions and hope of the future tend to move toward eco-friendly solutions and applications, it is without surprise that our weapons should follow along with the same thought. While not entirely green, electromagnetic weapons provide an alternative to chemical combustion, using fewer fossil fuels and leaving less harmful pollutants, depending on the content of the projectile.


You’ve seen them in Battlestar Galactica and on the news with the U.S Navy1, their applications certainly appeal to the imagination. Railguns work with electromagnetism, using rails along the barrel to propel a projectile. An eco-friendly alternative in weaponry. So how does it work?

Along the barrel are two conductive rails in parallel. These serve to push a current down one and up another, allowing a sliding conductor (an armature) to accelerate the projectile down the barrel. The armature carries current and generates an electromagnetic field (EMF) and once the projectile is loaded into the base of the barrel completing the circuit, the railgun can propel it at a high velocity (~3km/s).

Railguns can propel explosive and non-explosive conductive projectiles, whichever suits your needs, making it a powerful weapon. Its drawbacks include requiring a power supply to keep the current, a pulsed DC for our current level of technology, and the gun itself its bulky, heavy, and large, not to mention the wear-and-tear on the rails themselves. Of course, these can be remedied in speculative fiction and futuristic technology.


Like the railgun, a coilgun’s name explains a lot about how it works. Also called a Gauss rifle (though the barrel is not ‘rifled’), the coilgun uses wire coils connected to an electromagnet powered by a battery. The coils can be one or multiple in a barrel, using a system to maintain the precision required for the switching of coils to propel the projectile. Such systems can be programmed electronics or simpler methods such as the spark gap.

A coilgun can be designed to use magnetic projectiles (ferromagnetic in our current chemistry) or non-magnetic projectiles with the installation of an armature that acts as an electromagnet instead of the projectile. While coilguns tend to last longer in regards to friction wear-and-tear, they are not the most energy efficient option currently, with superconduction coilguns reaching around 30% efficiency in current technology2. Once efficient, however, it can launch projectiles faster than chemical combustion weapons of the same size.

They’re Exhausting

Let us not discard gas weapons. While less ‘green’ than electromagnetic guns, gas-propulsion provides an effective and practical alternative to chemical combustion weapons. Such an example is the light-gas gun.

Light-gas guns utilise a piston to force the gas from its chamber into a more narrow barrel which contains the projectile. The force of this pressure propels the projectile through the barrel, much like an airgun. What powers the piston can be anything from combustion weapons like cannons, through to motors or gas compression. It is a highly versatile weapon that uses light gases such as hydrogen and helium, or even air if you so wish, as fuel.

The projectiles it fires can reach very high velocities as well, a non-explosive projectile can potentially create sufficient damage to the target3. However, the friction causes significant wear-and-tear to the barrel and the projectile’s speed is limited by the sonic range. The speed of sound limit, of course, can be increased by heating the light gas either with chemicals or electricity.

Utterly Explosive

Don’t be too quick to rule out combustive weapons, they remain the more reliable and practical choice after centuries of warfare. One such futuristic weapon, highly destructive and rather intimidating, is the pulse detonation gun. First created by Nazi Germany during World War II to fire large projectiles across the sea into England mainland, this pulse detonation gun has been dubbed the London Gun.

Using multiple charges along the barrel, a projectile is propelled by timed explosions to increase its speed and range. At 1,5 km/s, it could fire at a rate of 300 projectiles an hour however, this gun was immensely large and fixed in one position. Not quite the most practical, but definitely intimidating and potentially highly destructive, a candidate for ground defense weapons against invading ships entering the atmosphere.

Tension’s Rising

Maybe chemicals and forces aren’t your idea of a fun time and you’re looking for something more economic and quick to build? Enter the ballista. While not as impressive as its futuristic counterparts, the ballista is by far a cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative, easier to build and deploy. This versatile weapon uses tension to propel its load at potentially high velocities.

Projectiles can be explosive or non-explosive, organic or inorganic, and of various sizes, if you so wish it to be. Ballista can be mounted to vehicles or fixed to a stationary position, and its structure built from any material capable of handling the immense energy it generates and releases4. The limits on its muzzle velocity and range of fire depend on gravity and the size of the weapon, the sky’s the limit, so to speak.

These are only a few examples of mass-driver weapons for the speculative future and one need not only look to the future to find them; the past, as seen above, can be a great source of inspiration. Next is the third and final part of speculative futuristic warfare, looking at melee weapons and their applications.

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