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The Silent, Armour Piercing Spec-Ops Rifle

This one's not exactly futuristic - it's a technology development that happened quietly in the 1990s, and could have (maybe did) get implemented a lot earlier than that. But we here on the Reg crazy-guns desk think it's an interesting development in ballistics, and there's an angle into super-secret special forces units, so it's made our list today.

Your final viewpoint job change gives you a tricky task. You're no longer a hitman as such, but rather a super-elite special forces operative tasked to make a stealthy surprise attack on something pretty tasty: rogue-nation presidential palace compound, secret nuclear-weapons plant, evil billionaire's superyacht, something like that.

Unfortunately the opposition have a sentry posted in your path and you can't get within striking distance of the objective without taking him out. You need to drop him silently, though, to avoid tipping off his chums and sounding the alarm.

Sneaking up on him with a view to employing knife, garrotte or little-known Oriental furtling technique is a bit old-fashioned, and anyway the lay of the land is such that it won't work: you can't get near him unseen. Normally you'd simply reach for your silenced pistol or submachinegun, but you're out of luck here on two counts.

First, you simply can't get close enough without being spotted. The low-velocity pistol slugs from your silenced Heckler & Koch MP5SD-N1 (often the choice of the discerning direct-action operative) just aren't accurate enough at this sort of distance.

Second, these villains are well-equipped and the sentry you need to knock off is wearing decent body armour and a helmet. Slow and comparatively fat pistol slugs wouldn't penetrate his protection even if you could get close enough to hit him with them.

The normal solution to problems of short range and poor armour penetration is to use a proper rifle firing intermediate- or high-powered ammunition, as opposed to a submachinegun firing low-power pistol rounds. You can in fact fit a suppressor to the business end of a rifle, squelching the sound of the actual muzzle blast to the point where it won't be very noticeable at a distance (and won't be very recognisable even if it is heard). Unfortunately the bullet will still be travelling at supersonic speed, generating a miniature sonic boom rather as the tip of a whip can. As anyone who's been shot at - or been in a butt party* - can testify, the supersonic crack of rifle bullets passing nearby can be as loud as or louder than the noise of the gun itself going off.

You can always reduce the powder charge in the rifle cartridges to slow the bullets down to subsonic speed, but this robs them of their range and penetrating power, rendering them little better than pistol rounds.

It's a puzzler.

In recent times, however, American gun-fanciers have come up with a solution. As any fule kno, a bullet's kinetic energy is calculated by the formula ½ x mass x velocity2. If velocity must be cut down to below the speed of sound, one can compensate and restore energy by increasing the slug's mass. Provided that one does so by making the bullet longer rather than fatter, the energy will still be delivered onto the same cross-sectional area and (all other things being equal) the same penetrating power should be achieved.

This has led to so-called "Whisper" cartridges, generally featuring a long, heavy bullet and with a powder charge loaded to achieve a muzzle velocity just below the speed of sound. The well-known Whisper .300 delivers as much energy as a fat .45 pistol bullet, but onto an area less than half the size for much better penetration - and at much greater range. It can be fired through an integrated silencer from a suitably configured AR-15 automatic rifle**, and rumour has it that a shorter submachinegun- or carbine-style weapon has also been produced for it, presumably intended for US special-forces units or similar customers. The famous British sniper-rifle maker Accuracy International offers something along these lines also: a suppressed rifle firing .308 subsonic ammo which it says is accurate to 200 yards. Given AI's past history, one can reasonably expect that this weapon is in the armoury of Britain's 'Tier One' special ops direct-action units, the SAS and SBS***.

If these slugs won't do the job, the .510 Whisper probably will. This very heavy bullet, again shot from a silenced rifle just below the speed of sound, is apparently accurate to no less than 600 yards.

According to makers SSK, Whisper rounds and weapons for them have been purchased by "numerous governmental agencies, military units and police departments". In the case of the police the Whisper ammo is presumably being bought for its virtues in avoiding "overpenetration" - where fast supersonic slugs pass through the things they were aimed at and fly on to cause unintended consequences further away - rather than its usefulness in silent assassination.

Silencers don't, of course, make guns silent. But they do reduce muzzle blast noise very significantly - bolt action .308 suppressed rifles along the lines of the SAS weapon mentioned above are claimed by some to be quieter than an airgun, very hard to hear at any distance. America being America, these guns are quite popular with civilian enthusiasts there, as well as secretive military units. It's quite legal for ordinary citizens to own silenced weapons (and fully automatic ones) in large parts of the USA, though it involves a fair bit of pesky federal paperwork.

So it would seem that your problems as a secret super-trooper have been solved: shooting quietly from hundreds of yards away with silent bullets that make no "crack" as they pass, you can still drop that armour-clad presidential guardsman or evil billionaire's henchman without being noticed. That's a pretty crazy weapon, even if something very like it could probably have been designed at almost any point in the last century or even before.

And with that we're done with the Thanksgiving futuro-weapon roundup for another year. Enjoy your weekend. ®


Lewis Page weaponry CV:

I had to stay qualified on the SA80 5.56mm rifle and the Browning 9mm pistol for most of my 11-year service career, and latterly as 2ic or boss I would shoot more than strictly required as I liked it and nobody could stop me. I used to be in the revolver and pistol club at university, mainly shooting .22 target weapons, back when that was legal (the club mainly shoots air pistol nowadays I believe). I have occasionally fired other things such as the Lee Enfield .303, 12-bore shotguns a couple of times, 7.62mm GPMG during Commando training, the H&K MP5 submachinegun and Sig Sauer 9mm pistol on the SBS ranges at Poole (during a visit only!), airguns when a lad, an acquaintance's .45 during a trip to the States etc. Not much shooting compared to some Reg readers, and I've never been in a firefight, but I'm not totally ignorant.

As an Explosive Ordnance Disposal operator I also had to learn about the inner workings of just about anything that goes bang. So while I've never personally fired any guided missiles, rockets, mines, artillery shells (well, I did fire a 30mm cannon once), phosphorus flares, aircraft bombs, torpedoes, chemical weapons etc, I have detonated, low-ordered or otherwise dealt with literally hundreds of such things and I do know a fair bit about them and their effects.

*Not as exciting as it might sound to some: It just means working in a trench handling the targets at the end of a rifle range. The bullets from the people who are shooting pass over your head.

**The AR-15 is much better known under the names of its most common variants, the M16 rifles and M4 carbines carried by most US troops ever since the Vietnam War. The basic design is often used for making custom weapons as it was intended from the outset to be easily modified for different barrels and ammo types.

***Everyone knows about the Special Air Service, but not everyone knows the Special Boat Service (formerly Special Boat Squadron, even more formerly the Special Boat Sections). SBS operators are usually (though not always) drawn from the Royal Marines rather than the Army, and the unit was formerly naval rather than military like the SAS (both are now removed from the supervision of the army and navy heads and belong to the Directorate of Special Forces). Wouldbe SBS swimmer-canoeists undergo the same selection and initial training process as SAS troopers, and then learn diving and other maritime special-ops techniques before going operational. The SBS has a special focus on maritime operations, but in recent years has been fighting mainly in landlocked Afghanistan. Until lately the SAS would operate primarily in Iraq alongside US forces, leaving the UK's Afghanistan special ops contribution largely to the SBS, but this division of responsibility is now believed to have changed.

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