Firearm Tech – Are Smart Guns Even Realistic?


At frustratingly regular intervals, the debate around gun control crops up, and every time there is a discussion about smart guns. The general idea is to have a gun that will not fire unless authenticated and authorized. There’s usually a story about a young person who invents a smart controller and another company that is struggling because they just can’t get “Big Guns” to buy into the idea. We aren’t going to focus on the politics; we’re going to look at whether the technology is realistic, and why a lot of the news stories about new tech never pan out.

Let’s start with an example of modern technology creeping into established machines: the car. These are giant hunks of metal with nearly constant explosions, controlled by sophisticated electronics that are getting smarter and more connected every day. Industry is adopting it with alacrity, and the vehicles are getting more efficient and powerful because of it. So why can’t firearms?

There are some giant differences between a car and a gun. First, failure is just not an option with guns. They are expected to function flawlessly and are judged on their ability to do so. It’s a stretch to say the same thing about vehicles. If a car won’t start it’s a disappointment. But cars are judged on their reliability, not on their ability to operate flawlessly.

Second, cars are big and have lots of room for electronics, and ample power to keep them running. With a smart gun every millimeter matters, and you can’t press pause on life because your gun battery is dead.

Finally, despite the constant explosions and motion, vehicle electronics aren’t subject to as many stresses as a firearm may be.

Reliability

The biggest concern from people is that at the critical moment, a firearm cannot fail. With that in mind, designing a piece of technology gets more difficult by an order of magnitude. Wireless becomes tricky because of the possibility of jamming, biometrics becomes tricky because of gloves, dirt, sweat, and all kinds of things that usually prevent biometrics from working, and timing becomes tricky because it has to work just as quickly as taking the safety off. Guns already fail for lots of mechanical reasons, but adding in electronics and electromechanical components adds dozens more points of failure.

Room

Firearms are designed to be ergonomic,space efficient, and light. There are extremely small and carefully machined components between the trigger and the firing pin. Introducing a circuit board with components as well as a mechanical component that prevents or enables the trigger to fire the weapon will take up space.

Additionally, a battery may be necessary, and that takes up space as well. On a handgun the grip has a magazine inside it, so there’s not much room there, and keep in mind that any design will only work for a single gun; getting it to fit into other brands or types will be a significant redesign.

Take a look at the Colt 1911 cutaway as it fires and try to figure out where you would put electronics, batteries, and actuators without interfering with the operation of the weapon or adding significant bulk.