Officially, it’s known as an electrically-powered artillery gun, a system that uses high-powered magnets and electrical charges to accelerate a conductive projectile to hypersonic speeds. The projectile runs along a set of magnetic rails and is then hurled at targets at a velocity of 2.4 kilometres per second (or 5,400 mph).
For years, the US Navy and other national militaries have been experimenting with the concept. The benefits are obvious, and range from the lack of propellants, to range, to sheer destructive power. Unlike an explosive shell, a railgun projectile can punch through walls of concrete and steel with ease while also ensuring less in the way of collateral damage.
As a concept, the railgun has a solid presence in the field of science fiction. It’s first mention was in the 1897 science fiction novel A Trip to Venus by John Munro. In this story, Munro describes a device known as an “electric gun” which is used to launch spaceships from Earth into orbit. In the 1955 novel Earthlight, Arthur C. Clarke described how an electromagnetically gun was used to defend a fortress from an attacking warship.
More modern examples include Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds, the TV series Babylon 5, and the Wing Commander and Halo gaming universes. Here, as in elsewhere, EM guns make an appearance as either railguns, “mass drivers”, or “asteroid guns”.
And let’s not forget movies like Eraser, Demolition Man, and Transformers II (ick!). In these films, the concept was also used, either in the context of a futuristic infantry weapon or as a ship-mounted weapon. However, outside of science fiction and pop culture, the concept was considered purely experimental. As far as developers and civilian administrators were concerned, the technology was too theoretical, too expensive, and too… well, science fiction-y.
But as of the new millennium, the US Navy began conducting actual tests under the name of Project “Velocitas Eradico,” which roughly translated is Latin for Killing Speed. As of January 2008, the Navy began conducting their first true field tests, which involved the firing of conductive projectiles to test their overall velocity.
And then, in February of 2012, the US Navy unleashed the first true railgun, meaning an electromagnetic artillery weapon that actually resembles a deck gun. Video evidence showed the weapon being test fired within a lab and eviscerating a target located on an outside test range. I’ll think you agree, the footage is impressive, but that was the point! With these most recent tests, the Navy hopes that Congress will approve funding for further development.