Navy Rail Gun Test
Dahlgren, VA. 2006
& 2008

Rail Gun Logo


The Navy is researching rail guns because they would weigh less than conventional ones and since they rely on electromagnetism to fire rounds, you wouldn't need a big, dangerous pile of explosives stored in a magazine. All of that means a lighter ship, and a much more deadly ship: a combat-ready rail gun would be able to fire Mach 5 projectiles over 200 miles with pinpoint accuracy, hitting 5 meter targets.

There is extensive additional information below the videos.

The first of two videos is a report from the Discovery Channel and details the rail Gun concept, its destructive capabilities and some of the challenges ahead.

3 minutes

Click Play, Pause, Stop Buttons on left

To quickly move within the film

Drag slider in center (after giving time to download)

Drag slider on right to adjust volume

The second video shows the test firing of the Navy magnetic Rail Gun at the Dahlgren Proving Ground in Dalhgren, Virginia in 2006.  Since this video was shot, they have achieved higher velocities (5640 mph.)  See below.



 5 1/2 minutes

Click Play, Pause, Stop Buttons on left

To quickly move within the film

Drag slider in center (after giving time to download)

Drag slider on right to adjust volume

February, 2008:

US Navy completed a 10-megajoule test fire of their huge rail gun. For the first time ever, they fired a projectile with a velocity of 8,270 feet per second. That's an amazing 5,640 mph, and the gun is only firing at a third of its potential power. The other video shows you what the projectile looks like when loaded.

Rail GunYesterday's test firing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division used just some of the potential 32-megajoules the laboratory test gun is capable of, and that's only half the 64-megajoules the Navy is aiming at for the final weapon. Expect even more dramatic videos, sometime soon.

The Navy plans a “record-breaking” test shot of its developmental electromagnetic rail gun Thursday at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va. The gun fires a projectile with electricity, rather than gunpowder. A shell is launched at Mach 7 through the electromagnetic rails into the atmosphere for about one minute, flies out of the atmosphere for four minutes, and then descends to Earth toward its target at Mach 5 in approximately one minute. The projectile is guided using the Global Positioning System. In November, defense contractor BAE Systems delivered a 32-megajoule laboratory gun and launcher to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren. A joule is the work needed to produce one watt of energy for one second — a megajoule is 1 million joules. Eventually, the Navy wants to produce a rail gun shot64-megajoule rail gun that will be able to hit targets on land from over 200 nautical miles away. The test firing Thursday will expend far less energy than the lab gun is designed to handle, but will exceed the eight megajoule output attained in a previous test.

“More than 75 [rail gun] firings have occurred at the Dahlgren facility this year, but this firing event is the next step forward in the development of this technology as the gun will be fired at over 10 [megajoules] of energy — a power level never before achieved by an [rail gun],” according to a statement by the Office of Naval Research. The previous record of 9 megajoules is held by the Center for Electromagnetic Materials and Devices at the University of Texas, according to ONR. The Institute for Advanced Technology, also at the university, certifies electromagnetic rail gun launches. As the Navy gun is tested, the amount of energy the gun uses is being increased, Roger Ellis, the EM rail gun deputy program manager for ONR, told Navy Times in August 2007. The program wants to demonstrate more than 100 shots by fiscal 2011.

The objective is to fire 3,000 rounds per gun barrel. The barrels should be changeable onboard ship, according to rail gun hitprogram officials. Officials say an EM rail gun onboard a ship could increase ship design options because the gun weighs less and requires less infrastructure than traditional guns that use gunpowder and magazines. Traditional fire-protection and ammunition-handling requirements are not necessary using an electromagnetic-pulse power system, Ellis said. The end result could be a more cost-effective and highly lethal weapon, program manager Elizabeth D’Andrea said at an industry conference in August, adding that the rail gun program strives to provide “missile ranges at bullet prices.” The Navy plans to have an EM rail gun onboard a ship, potentially its next-generation cruiser CG(X), between 2020 and 2025. The Marine Corps is particularly interested in the EM rail gun because it could provide high-speed, over-the-horizon fire support from the sea.

The following photo of an actual rail gun target was made available through the kind consideration of Raymond Allen, Electrical Engineer at the Naval Research Lab.

Rail gun target

Frequently Asked Questions: Electromagnetic Rail gun

From the Office of Naval Research

Q1. What is a rail gun and how does it work?
A1. An electromagnetic rail gun uses electrical energy to accelerate projectiles to extreme velocities. rail guns do not require chemical propellants to fire the round or explosives to create an explosive effect on impact -- thereby freeing magazine space for other mission areas or additional projectiles. The high-velocity kinetic impact of the round is so great that even a solid metal round can have an explosive effect. In addition, electromagnetic guns provide a highly consistent and uniform propulsion that allows for much greater accuracy.

Q2. Why is this technology being pursued by the Navy?
A2. The system has the potential to provide responsive, long-range, accurate, high-volume naval surface fire support to U.S. Marine Corps units. It also is envisioned that rail guns will also be able to engage surface targets in direct-fire mode. It is estimated that a rail gun will be able to fire 6 to 10 rounds per minute. The rail gun will offer numerous advantages over conventional naval gunfire systems. Most important is an extremely long range, which could extend more than 200 nautical miles. The current Mk 45 5-inch/54 naval gunfire system currently used for naval surface fire support has a maximum range of slightly more than 13 nautical miles.

Q3. At what stage is the Navy’s rail gun program in development?
A3. The Navy’s rail gun program is currently in the science and technology phase of development. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has program lead at this stage of development.

Q4. Are there any prototypes in development?
A4. BAE Systems and General Atomics are currently under contract with ONR as part of the Innovative Naval Prototype Program. Under this 30-month phase, BAE Systems and General Atoms are taking the state-of-the-art electromagnetic rail gun technologies through technology maturation and developing a 32-MJ rail gun Thirty-two megajoules is equivalent to a firing speed in the range of Mach 7 or seven times the speed of sound. This will be an intermediate step on the road to a 64-MJ Tactical System capable of deployment on board naval surface combatant ships. Delivery of the BAE system was in September 2007.

Q5. How long before a weapon system is fielded in the fleet?
A5. It is estimated that is would take at least another 15 years to field a viable rail gun weapon system in the fleet.

Q6. What are some of the advantages of rail guns?
A6. Rail guns offer numerous advantages over conventional naval artillery:

  • Extended range – Rail guns ultimately will be capable of engaging targets at distances in excess of 200 nautical miles. Currently, the Mk 45 5-inch/45 naval gunfire system has a range of slightly more than 13 nautical miles.
  • Higher velocity – Rail gun rounds will achieve hypersonic speeds in excess of mach 7 (5,550 miles per hour). Rail guns can provide more responsive fires than current naval gunfire systems, cruise missiles, or aircraft on strip alert.
  • Safer ammunition handling – Without the need for explosive propellants or warheads, there is no danger of accidental explosions during ammunition loading and magazine storage.
  • More rounds aboard ship – Because rail guns eliminate the need for explosive propellants, logistics for the weapons system is greatly simplified. The additional space can be used for additional rounds or for other uses in the ship. This means a ship can stay on station longer, providing fire support for ground forces ashore.
  • High angle of trajectory - Because rail guns can fire into the stratosphere, they have a high angle of fire that allows them to engage targets on the reverse slopes of hills and mountains along the gun target line. This is an advantage over current naval surface support systems, which have relatively flat fire trajectories and consequently have a very limited capability to engage targets on reverse slopes in defilade.

Q7. What are the specific technological applications or material that allow rail guns to work?
A7. We cannot discuss specific technical details for reasons of national security and classification.

Q8. How do rail gun projectiles destroy their targets?
A8. Rail gun projectiles destroy targets by kinetic energy only. The tremendous velocity of the round on impact releases enough kinetic energy that explosive rounds are not necessary. This prevents the danger of dud rounds being left in place after a battle that would endanger civilian population after the conflict has ended.

Q9. What is the Navy’s budget for rail gun development? How much has it cost already?
A9. The total budget for ONR’s Innovative Naval Prototype rail gun program currently is $237 million from FY 06-FY-11.

Q10. What types of targets can the EMRG be deployed against?
A10. Currently, plans call for developing three different rounds for the EMRG: a unitary round for engaging “hard” targets such as prepared positions, bunkers, and buildings; a rod-dispensing round for vehicle targets; and a pellet-dispensing round for personnel targets.

Q11: What are the Navy’s partners on this project?
A11. The primary partners are:

  • BAE
  • Boeing
  • Charles Stark Draper Lab, Inc.
  • General Atomics
  • Department of Energy (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
  • U.S. Naval Academy
  • Naval Postgraduate School
  • Naval Sea Systems Command (PMS 500)
  • NAWC -- Rhode Island
  • NSWC -- Carderock
  • NSWC -- Dahlgren
  • The United Kingdom

Q12: Is this system being developed for any specific future naval platform?
A12. No. With the planned timeframe of having a deployable weapon system by 2020-2025, we are working on understanding rail gun system impacts for ships of different sizes. Integration could occur on new vessels or by retrofitting on existing platforms.

Q13. What are the major scientific hurdles to making such a weapon possible?
A13. The most important developments that will take place during the lifetime of the rail gun Innovative Naval Prototype program fall into four key categories: the materials that will comprise the bore and containment system of the launcher; the projectiles; the pulsed-power network; and ship integration.

Q14. Will the projectile have any internal guidance system?
A14. Yes, the projectile will have a guidance system.

Q15. How does the gun’s power (range/velocity) compare with common weapons used for the same general purpose?
A15. See diagram showing comparison with current and historical naval guns. Compare with SR-71 (mach 3.5 maximum -- 2,500 mph) and launch of the Space Shuttle (two minutes into the ascent, the space shuttle is about 45 kilometers [28 miles] above the earth's surface and is traveling nearly 5000 kilometers per hour [3,000 mph]).

Q16. If, when a rail gun fires, an electromagnetic pulse is emitted, how will that affect people and equipment around it?
A16. All DoD and industry-standard safety procedures for electromagnetic radiation are currently in place at our test facilities to protect personnel and equipment. Although it is likely that an operational shipboard system would be unmanned, we are closely monitoring electromagnetic emissions and will continue to do so throughout the life of the program to understand better the effects in a future shipboard environment.

Q17. Without any kind of warhead, how will a non-explosive projectile cause any real damage?
A17. With an impact speed of Mach 5, a projectile will use kinetic energy alone to destroy a target. In essence, damage is caused by the thousands of fragments -- each one of them traveling at lethal velocities -- created by the impact of each projectile.

Update: February 18, 2009

Weapons megacorp BAE Systems announced it has inked a deal with the US Navy to build a new electromagnetic hypercannon.

The $21m deal will see BAE's recently acquired American operations build a new and more powerful prototype rail gun for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The US naval boffinry (by the way, "boffin" is Brit speak for scientist) operation has already demonstrated a record-breaking 10 megajoule magnocannon (see the video), but it wants more. Specifically, the ONR wants a 64-megajoule hypervelocity job, able to lob its projectiles 200 miles or more and have them arrive still going at Mach 5-plus.

These irresistible magnetic thunderbolts would be very hard to defend against, perhaps restoring the surface warship to its lost dominion over the seas and coastal areas of the world. (Surface warships are pretty much the only mobile systems which might be able to supply enough electricity to run a combat-grade rail gun.) Perhaps more relevantly to the USN - whose dominance of the oceans is not, after all, in much doubt at the moment - there would be logistic benefits.

The shells would be solid metal, delivering their violence kinetically rather than explosively, and there would likewise be no need for the dangerous chemical propellants (gunpowder) used in today's cannon. Shipping munitions about, keeping them in date, avoiding them catching fire and so on are all big issues for modern navies. Harassed supply chiefs would much prefer to be dealing merely with inert projectiles and extra supplies of fuel for the ship's power plant. As the ONR note, "one of the greatest potential advantages for the rail gun program is the safety and logistics aspect". The new prototype magnocannon is expected to start shooting in 2011.

Additional historic video of Dahlgren's work.