Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On the Invention of the Boltgun

Those who are new to warhammer 40k may not recognize the significance of the iconic design of the now ubiquitous bolter.  The icon of space marine supremacy it is a standing testament to imperial weapon design.  Though the Ork Shoota and the Eldar Shuriken Catapult have been with us almost as long none has captured the futuristic essence of Warhammer 40k as well as the Boltgun. 

Within the 40k mythos Bolters are said to be relatively rare.  The fact that the entirety of the Adeptus Astartes and Adeptus Sororitas are equipped with these weapons is meant to imply the eliteness of their individual combat prowess over the more common Imperal Lasgun.   The boltgun’s Strength 4 power is often used as the “average” for Warhammer 40k in the same manner in which a 44 Magnum is the “average” weapon for action movies. Though its background is intended to be incredibly rare its implementation is comically saturated in game.
The term “Bolt Gun” first appeared in Laserburn by Bryan Ansell.  Games workshop began using the term boltgun before the rogue trader days as part of their promotion of the “dark future” line of products. The term has stuck since then with the addition of expanded terminology such as its colloquial name “Bolter” and its pistol and heavy variants.  The exact source of the boltgun as developed by the design team is unknown.  Indeed, I personally experienced some confusion among gamers as to whether the Boltgun was indeed a cased rocket ammunition weapon or a pneumatic metal slug projector.  This confusion from my days gaming in the 80s rested largely with my exposure to metal workers who referred to their pneumatic drivers as boltguns on occasion.  Games Workshop has since defined the Boltgun in a much clearer sense making its intended lineage much clearer. 
Early models which could be considered “space marines” often wielded boltguns with a squared off body made of a single print plate (like below).   This highbred somewhere between a Mac10 and AK47 was a significant aspect of the culture at the time.  Both weapons were key playing pieces in 1980s warfare from escalating gang violence to constant warmongering in Africa they were icons in the news regularly. 

Later designs would evolve further along the path towards modern boltgun we recognize today.  They kept their blocky shape but added technical details which we see in modern weapons such as multipart construction.  The intent of the design is clearly meant to convey both durability and power by making the weapon design bulky and oversized.  Like a head and a half bastard sword in the hands of a barbarian the weapon is intended to be intimidating on sight and add extra gravitas to the wielders awe inspiring presence.

Perhaps more intriguing is the source of the actual weapon idea.  Bob Naismith sculpted the original weapons but the idea for a “boltgun” pre-existed games workshop for 20 plus years.  The essence of the boltgun is a weapon that fires rockets instead of traditional bullets.  This is an idea that began to be envisaged following WW2.  Scientists experimenting with jet proportion following the war theorized the idea of miniaturized missile weapons.  The race to develop rockets that could deliver payloads overseas grew at pace with the tensions of the cold war.  As jet engines began transition to commercial activities in the late 50s the military began experimenting with micro missile design that could take advantage of smaller and smaller jet propulsion systems.  The result was the Gyrojet family of weapons patented and perfected in the early 60s and produced commercially throughout the following decade.

Gyrojet weapons used a 50 caliber caseless rocket round that was stabilized by an internal gyro system.  These dumb rounds had greater range than conventional bullets of similar caliber with considerably less recoil. Early hopes for the weapons included delivering specialized payloads such as explosive rounds.  As well as extra atmospheric operation in the event of conflict in space.  They proved unreliable for military use due to the precise nature of rocket fuel mixtures under various conditions.  However their space age design became quite popular with the public keeping them in production long after military funding had been withdrawn.
Gyrojet rifles were particularly popularized in science fiction.  Many TV shows depicted weaponry with elements of gyrojets.  Weapons from 60s and 70s tv shows often have conspicuous thermal vents and seem to fire caseless rounds propelled by gouts of smoke.  Many popular movies including those in the James Bond series used gyrojet weapons as set props.  Unfortunately the real world intervened with technology.

Running tests on gyrojet weapons proved they reacted poorly to changes of climate and altitude.  The burn potential of rocket fuel varies based on a variety of factors, including temperature and air pressure.  Weapons tested in humid climates proved to be the nail in the coffin however.   Extreme humidity can dampen the firing capabilities of the weapons making it impossible or at least impractical to deploy to the Vietnam conflict.  The result meant that any hope of future military funding was over.  Weapon manufactures scaled back production and the gyrojet faded from lethal weapon to a collectors item.

Of course modern technology could revive the design.  At the time of their development rocket and missile technology was in its relative infancy.  Modern missiles and bombs are much more sophisticated and the science of rocket fuel has come a long way in 30 years.  The military has already developed impressive smart bullets and fire control systems capable of deploying explosive rounds that explode after penetrating walls.  Weapons such as the OICW could greatly benefit from gyrojet’s low recoil and lighter weight construction.
Where is this going? Well I’d like to introduce my new gyrojet series. Astute individuals will recognize the design as an expansion on a one off design I had made some months ago.  The original model was lost but I’ve spent the last three weeks working on reconstructing and modularizing the design. Developing a selection of variants including rifles, pistols, and heavy weapons. 

More than a simple redesign of basic weaponry the chassis of these weapons will become the basis for my future weapons.  I’ve begun ideation of weapon variants to include plasma weapons, lasers, meson particle beams, flame throwers, grenade launchers, linear accelerator rifles, and machine cannons.  I’ll be creating hand held weapons first followed by turret, sponson, and pintle mounted variants.
I’d like to say this is a fast process but it is not.  I’m carefully selecting what design elements I choose to develop and utilize from existing sources such as modern and historical weapon designs.  The first sets will appear shortly with subsequent designs appearing as I have time.
As I have time? Yeah well, I’m making this too…

I’m not done yet, but I’m not down and out either.

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