At the time of this writing, computers and related information technologies are a part of almost everything we say and do—a situation arguably both liberating and threatening. Additionally, such a transforming change may be well on its way to becoming an integral part of future small arms development. The once unthinkable fusion of lightweight materials, directional bursting munitions, and even directed energy devices point us towards a new generation of decidedly unique small arms systems. Such a radicalized future may soon be upon us—with additional portents of great change ahead. This article attempts to look at the future of small arms technology historically through the lens of the past.
Incrementalism and Paradigmic Change
Advancement in small arms innovation tends to arrive as a mode of change, incremental and/or paradigmic. The former being evolutionary whereas the latter arrives by way of a sharp disjunction. In either case the change occurs via the means of production and/or weapon design. An example of an evolutionary weapon is arguably that of the dependable, long-serving British Brown Bess musket. It was the individual combatants’ weapon for the British Army for a decidedly long period of time (1772–1838). Other than several variants and product improvements, it was a masterpiece of stasis in a time of preindustrial manufacturing—an iconic evolutionary small arm to be sure.
Turning now to paradigmic change, such is exemplified by the Swedish-Norwegian designed Springfield Model 1892 Krag-Jørgensen rifle. Also known as the “Krag,” it arrived as an abrupt break with American traditional small arms, i.e. the M1873 single-shot breech-loading .45-70 caliber black-powder service rifle (with a muzzle velocity of 1350 fps). No doubt the “Krag” of the 1890s was a consummately modern service rifle. It featured a magazine-fed bolt-action system and fired a 30-40 caliber “smokeless” cartridge with a muzzle velocity of about 2400 fps with a flat trajectory and rapidity with accuracy out to 900 yards.
The Politics of Acquisition
Politics factor into most areas of human endeavor and weapon procurement is no different. So too it might have occurred in the early 1890s had not ordnance officers proved intractable towards matters standing wholly aside from the point. Lacking the credentials of “American ingenuity,” the “Krag” service rifle candidacy quickly devolved into the perfect foil for several domestic American arms makers. Designated as the official U.S. Army service rifle (1892–1899), it was to be mass produced at the National Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. No matter, several major domestic arms makers fought vociferously against the “Krag” selection. Central to which were accusations of it being an insulting creature of Swedish-Norwegian design—a palpable affront to national pride. As a result, two years would pass as Congressional lobbying sought to overturn this “not invented here” foreign rifle. In the end, the “Krag” did seemingly win the day and all claimants ultimately fell silent.
Despite fending off the corrupt politics of the Gilded Age, there were other matters that the acquisition process needed to focus on—first and foremost being the “threat”. The late 19th century was a time of “manifest destiny” as America came to see itself as a global power. The official enemy was a mix of domestic and foreign belligerents. Native Americans continued in their armed struggle against land theft and forced population displacement albeit the struggle was bloody and futile. Mexican bandits and their raids led to Army incursions into Mexico. Interest in European arms making was in vogue as a war with England became a distinct possibly in the mid 1890s. Such threats, real or imagined, fueled how arms developers thought about the “threat.” Such would remain arguably the most potent spur to technological change until World War I wiped that slate clean. To quote German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831 CE), “[one] ought always to keep his eye on the enemy, in order that he may not have to defend himself with a dress rapier if the enemy takes up a sharp sword.” By such reflective thinking, we hopefully anticipate the advent of the best and brightest technologies and seek them out regardless of national origin.
The Past as Prologue
The timeline of this essay concludes upon the 100th adversary of the ending of World War II (2045), a titanic war of such magnitude that it continues to reverberate in the developed and developing world. More so, it begs the seminal question: Will the future produce another three hegemonic wars: World War I (1916–1918); World War II (1939–1945) and The Cold War (1947–1991)? Or will relatively lesser wars such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 or the marathon-like Vietnam War (1954-1975) dot the decades ahead? How might small arms gestate in the prism of such possible futures?
As for contemplating future weapons, we might re-contextualize the past by light of recent outcomes and look to our active imagination as a beacon to guide us. Never an easy task, we stand before a staggering problem concealed by way of a glass darkly and solutions will likely come from miscalculation. To get a hand-hold on such a slippery slope, let us first look backwards to the remote predecessor of small arms—and thereby begin with the original firearm itself.
Small arms began as very primitive terror weapons—a fearsome engine replete with belching fire, thundering reverberations and billowing smoke. Full of sound and fury, they were in essence a psychological weapon of fear and trepidation.
One such artifact is traceable to 1100 CE, a bulky weapon designed for defensive usage on castle ramparts. Unearthed in the late 19th century—it lay buried in debris near a castle in Germany. The weapon was little more than a pipe plugged in one end so as to direct the burning gases and facilitate the launching of a stone projectile. Near the breech was a touch hole to take a burning match and ignite the gunpowder inside—as for rate of fire, a good gunner might get one shot off every fifteen minutes. Albeit a humble beginning, every small arm that followed is but a footnote to this seminal system.
Scroll forward now over the centuries into the early 1870s—and note how in the ensuing centuries the crude hand cannon metamorphosed into a rather sophisticated small arms system composed of the lock, stock and barrel. The propellant charge and ball were transformed into a unified cartridge—enclosing primer, powder and bullet. Iron sighting systems aided the shooter in aiming the weapon.
The industrialization of the United States enabled the promise of capabilities to be actualized by machinery and science in the early 19th century. Yet amid this great season of intuitional change came resistance. For example, in the post-Civil War era the U.S. Army retained a legacy rifle—the aforementioned single-shot Springfield Trapdoor conversion rifle. Such legacy muskets saved the budget-focused Ordnance Department many thousands of scarce production and development dollars. In a time of precipitous declining military budgets, the impact might be likened to that of putting a brake on technological change.
The Single-Loader Controversy
One of the essential reasons for retaining the antiquated Trapdoor Springfield was that it was a single-shot system—seen then as a great positive. For the single-loader, technology was considered doctrinally essential, the underlying theory being that it was the only effective way of keeping intellectually challenged and/or jittery troops from wasting precious ammunition. The one well-aimed shot mantra held a nearly religious fixation upon officers in the late 19th century stationed in Trans-Mississippi West. It was not until the mass carnage of World War I that the value of magazine-fed rapid firing bolt-action rifles as well as belt-fed machine guns was demonstrated. Such would change attitudes en masse. Small arms acquisition arguably remains a resistance medium of entrenched cultural attitudes.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
To overmatch a military competitor (or competitors) in arms and armaments is a core enabler in future battle, albeit easily said and hard to do, as one type of weapon rarely fits all combats. For example, in the warfare of the World War II European Theater the M1 Garand rifle was a good instrument in the multiplicity of long range vistas found in the European terrain. However, half a world away amid the hindering terrain abounding in the jungles of the Pacific Theater, the M1 Carbine, the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, M2A17 flamethrower, or even the M1911A1 Colt pistol often proved better suited for the more prevalent close-quarter combats. And so a family of small arms generally eclipsed the jack of all trades small arms system. Developers strive for a foundational logic and system tradeoffs, but exceptions still mar our attempts to make the better into the best.
Unconditional Hegemonic War: The doomsday scenario of unprecedented magnitude entailing the exchange of nuclear weapons—possibly a species-eradicating event or at least one involving protracted collateral damage to the biosphere. As for possible survivors, small arms usage here might be more a law enforcement tool and urban security weapon—the aftermath suggesting an anarchic dystopia with pockets of regional communities and bandit marauders operating in isolation.
Conventional War: Such armed struggle would likely entail some restraints on the usage of chemical, biological, radiological and other variations on weapons of mass destruction. Small arms and conventional ordnance may well take center stage as such wars appear as an updated version of World War II with large armies in multiple locales—updated via the high
ground of outer space.
Unconventional Wars: Arguably the most small-arms-intensive forms of military action, such wars are typically both up-close and brutally personal. Racial, ethnic, religious, political stress and strife combine to destabilize the standing order of power holders. Courses of action may entail offering military support to the morally onerous and others of dubious distinction. An overlay targeting those states processing strategic substances and/or fossil fuels may afford more incentive than justification. Such wars could be protracted and lead to spin-off conflicts in which the exit strategy ends in safe zones.
Occupational and/or Peacekeeper Forces: These are in themselves highly problematic and tend to call for law enforcement and paramilitary small arms and less-lethal crowd control devices. Indigenous people rarely welcome occupation. A fact summed up by philosopher and resistance fighter Jean Paul Sartre (writing in occupied France during World War II), who described his rage towards the German occupiers and thereby explained how the hatred of the Germans was strongest when Nazi officers showed courtesy towards French citizens.
Legacy and New Departures
The future opponent may well be eclectic and vary in styles and practice—and replete with a full spectrum of warfighting possibilities. This is somewhat unnerving as such opponents may come to mirror our own capabilities. Children soldiers might redefine the morality of fighting indigenous peoples. The proliferation of small arms among such combatants is likely to escalate as religious and national forces meld and unify. Such combatants, animated by hate and ground down by intractable poverty, may well stymie even the most diplomatic expeditionary forces.
Can small arms be made to meet a full spectrum of wars and warfare? Not likely, excepting if the defense budget revisits the heady Reagan buildup of the early 1980s. More likely, only the most serviceable legacy small arms will be earmarked for limited funding—with others more promising, but costly, falling below the cutline.
Since the 1840s, fire control has enabled the improved viewing of the battlefield though an optical scope. This is only a bellwether of things to come. For as the old verities advise: “To be seen is to be hit, and to be hit is to be killed.” Such homilies will likely take on added credibility as transparency technologies transform the un-seeable into the exacting illuminated. For in the future, remarkable amplification may provide the God’s eye view so packaged in a diminutive fire control system.
Evolution in manufacturing economies of scale spiked during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and thereafter. Small arms went from a handicraft item to machine production—whole armies could now be armed in ways that only the nobility could during the Renaissance (14th–17th centuries). No matter, small arms of the future could become so costly as to make manufacturers delimit their mass production—if one reflects upon an F-117 Nighthawk aircraft as a model for extreme costs coupled with great capability, might not small arms also go exponential in a similar manner?
In World War I, the U.S. entered the war with about 1,450 outmoded machine guns residing in the Army inventory. When the war ended in 1918, American machine guns numbered (purchased from allies or American manufactured) in the hundreds of thousands. The resultant American casualties born of poor planning created a vitriolic public outcry following the War’s ending, a result of which led to the creation of the “American Preparedness Movement”—albeit the U.S. would still enter World War II martially underequipped and arguably absent adequate production capacity for small arms. Thereafter the industrial defense base aspired to become a peacetime reality.
Size, weight and configuration matter. And when it comes to small arms, less is often more. Decades from now, getting around the battle areas will likely remain challenging. However, human musculature might be supplanted in the future by exoskeletons or propulsion hardware shrunken in size via remarkably small machines. Autonomous carryall packs might replace the ammo pouch. Back to the future, aero transport may mimic the jetpacks and flying gadgets of President Eisenhower’s New Look Army circa the 1950s.
The human body arguably remains the default position as the designated platform—but that too could change. Given that the former assumption remains the case, the dimensions of small arms will remain somewhat at traditional levels (the M1 Garand rifle of WWII weighing out at about 9.5 lbs.—the heaviest Army-issued standard combat rifle).
With each new addition to the soldier’s kit the added weight impairs mobility. This simple truism is often overlooked as the capability of the new addition is deemed so worthy as to render the soldier’s additional burden a military necessity. Miniaturization of equipment and user-friendly configurations may well alleviate the stacking problematic of an appetite that grows in the feeding. Given the trend towards micro-machines and the near infinite scaling down of communication systems and information technologies, fire control may well be the mega recipient of such advances in reductions. So too, the receiver group to muzzle may be in for an analysis by which small arms might be made anew, all of which implies greater movement and enhanced agility on the part of the combatant. Rapidity in movement may remain a corollary to survivability in battle even out to midcentury.
Why put a soldier in harm’s way when a robot can be employed? Armed robots are not new, but their application across a wide spectrum of war-fighting is a growing reality in combat. Such machines can act as the commander’s eyes and ears on the battlefield or a monitor in peacekeeping/occupational duties. Armed robots are also a way of extending reach without exposing one’s soldiers to attack. To date the attending problem is the matter of innocent noncombatants being killed as a function of area targeting. Unintentional casualties will likely prompt inquests into the morality of the how and why of armed robot attacks.
Death Rays and Disintegrator Beams
Kinetic energy weapons have been the norm of small arms weaponry for hundreds of years. Familiarity over time has given us a comfort level with it. Yet stasis is a precursor to change, for we arguably stand on the cusp of a new age of advanced weaponry possibly powerful beyond belief and scalable down to be handheld or shoulder fired. Some of these esoteric technologies have been examined and tested for more than a few decades now. At the time of this writing, most seem problematic for a variety of reasons. The weather might scatter a beam or otherwise degrade target effects. Huge power and/or scarce strategic substances requirements can dim developer or user enthusiasm. So too such fanciful technologies remain mythic. Maybe so, but they are not unprecedented, for example, the transistor compacted tube radios. Information technologies offer us creative use and/or insidious abuse. So too the possibility of yet-to-be-developed beam or wave technologies might yet shake all traditional warfare to its foundations.
This prolegomena is but a gloss on status of small arms development at midcentury, the central claim being that future small arms will bear a family resemblance to today’s weapons. And that, such metrics will hold as long as human carrying-capacity is overtaxed by weapon, ammunition, equipment and etc. Standoff is thought a premium for further unpacking the issue of being able to hit while remaining safe from being hit in turn. This capability might well meld force protection with force projection. In summary, our striving to secure enhanced lethality and improved stopping power will likely remain a journey and not a destination. And so, we the living of the year 2015 squint to get a glimpse at the small arms of 2045—knowing full well that the military professionals of many years hence will smile knowingly at our smugness.