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Metal Storm: Rise of the Machines

How one company is creating guns that fire a million rounds per minute and revolutionizing the way we think about weapons.

12:00 AM, Jul 16, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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A FEW WEEKS AGO, in between segments about a robot that helps dig through rubble and a mosquito-zapper made by a high schooler at a science fair, CNN's Fredricka Whitfield had this tidbit to offer:

"An Australian inventor has come up with a gun that fires a million rounds per minute. It's called Metal Storm and it uses electronics to control the blast of projectiles, which can shred a target or throw up a defensive wall against an incoming missile."

That tantalizing tease was pretty much the extent of CNN's reporting on Metal Storm, and who can blame them? There's so much else in the news. Like the Laci Peterson case.

CNN's website, meanwhile, was a bit more helpful but it still left me wanting more. What is this company called Metal Storm? What exactly are they developing? Besides guns, could they also be working on cybernetic terminators?

Not quite. When I got to Metal Storm's branch office in Arlington, Virginia (main headquarters is in Brisbane, Australia), I was surprised to find how accessible it was. No retinal scans or steel vaults here. Just a simple office with six employees. One of them, G. Russell Zink, senior vice president for business development, was kind enough to spend an hour with me.

Metal Storm is an electronic ballistics technology company created by Mike O'Dwyer, whom Zink, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, likens to Thomas Edison. O'Dwyer's key technological leap concerns the absence of movable parts--in other words, weapons without locking mechanisms, hammers, firing pins, or ammo clips. Weapons that are fired electronically.

Take the O'Dwyer VLE smartgun. It's the world's first completely electronic "solid state" handgun--the only parts that move are the bullets, stacked directly in the barrels (the model I held had four barrels, though the successfully fired prototype is a seven-shot, single-barrel handgun). There is no chance of jamming and the safety features include a coded receiver that prevents unauthorized use by children or criminals. The gun can be set to kill (with bullets) or stun (with bean bags) and features "rapid reload" capability. A recoil barrel allows several bullets to be discharged, one after another, so that you'd feel a kick only after the last shot is fired, thereby improving accuracy. If that isn't enough, the gun can talk.

How do the bullets leave the barrel? The Metal Storm website explains it best:

The bullets are stacked in a barrel, with each bullet separated by a propellant load, such that the leading propellant can be reliably ignited to fire the bullet, without the resulting high pressure and temperature causing unplanned blowby ignition of the trailing propellant load, and without collapse of the projectile column in the barrel. This unique concept has been accomplished through the invention of a bullet which on the one hand expands and locks in the barrel in response to high pressure immediately in front of the bullet. As a consequence, each bullet in turn can be fired in sequence from the barrel, and an individual barrel tube, loaded with numerous rounds and exclusive of any ammunition feed or ejection system, breech opening, or any mechanical operation whatsoever, when provided with an electric priming system is, in effect, a complete weapon. (It's no surprise that O'Dwyer currently owns 51 patents.)

For three bullets to leave the barrel in one shot takes 1/500th of a second--an equivalent of 60,000 rounds per minute. Keeping this in mind, O'Dwyer has taken the notion of in-line stacking to even greater heights. New applications of Metal Storm technology include a successfully tested 6-barrel 9mm system that fires at a rate of 240,000 rounds per minute and a 36-barrel prototype that fired a burst of 180 rounds at a rate of more than one million rounds per minute. But it's not just 9mm weapons being tested. Both 40mm grenade launcher prototypes and 60mm mortar rounds have been fired at similar rates.

SO ADVANCED is the technology that Zink says he isn't worried about possible competition. Indeed, the official "vision statement" of Metal Storm refers not to "next-generation" but rather "generation-after-next" defense systems for Australia's armed forces as well as the United States "to enhance national security." The company's chief concern is to make sure the technology is safeguarded from "potential enemies."