If you would have asked a World War I combatant what a soldier would wield one hundred years down the road, few would say “about the same as we have now!”
Let’s take a look at the weapons of World War I and compare them to their modern equivalents:
Not much has changed in pistol weaponry. Yes, magazine capacities have increased, modern materials have made them lighter, but essentially the same Colt M1911A1 pistol in US service during the first world war is still in service today. That’s pretty amazing.
Many would say the largest change in personal weaponry has been in the soldier’s rifle. By and large the primary weapon was the bolt action rifle. From the Enfield .303 to the Mauser 98 to the M1903 Springfield they were the dominant weapons from a numbers perspective. However, numerous personal automatic weapons were also in use. Most notable was the outstanding Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR. While limited in its use, this precursor to the modern assault rifle remained in military use around the world throughout most of the 20th century. Additionally, the Bergmann MP18, the first combat , saw significant service with the German army and was widely regarded as a success – so much so that it was specifically called out as a a weapon in the Treaty of Versailles. So while the percentage use of automatic weapons has skyrocketed and the combat effectiveness has increased in the last 100 years, the core capability has not substantially changed.
Tripod mounted heavy and light machine guns were in extensive use in World War I. Able to spit out large-caliber rounds at a high rate of fire they were primary contributors to the tactic of trench warfare. Not until armored vehicles made their appearance could the machine gun be effectively countered. Similar to automatic rifles, the core capability has remained the same, but the weapons themselves have become more effective with higher rates of fire, better portability and better peripherals like cooling and targeting. While not quite a World War I weapon, the Browning M2 heavy machine gun entered service in 1933 and remains a primary US weapon today.
While incremental improvements have been made to military small arms over the years which have increased combat effectiveness, the core functions and designs have essentially remained unchanged for the last 100 years. So what will the next 100 bring?
There are two ways small arms will change in the coming decades: Additional incremental improvements, especially in peripherals; and a core design change that fundamentally changes the form and function of weaponry.
Going with the premise that weapons will still fire bullets propelled down their barrels, numerous small improvements will make a soldier’s weapon far more effective in the coming decades. While recent attempts at creating an “all-in-one” style weapon with integrated grenade launcher, sights, etc. have been largely scrapped, like the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW), it is only a matter of time before peripheral weapons like grenade launchers and ammunition become small and light enough to allow such designs to be operationally feasible – the assault rifle from the movie Aliens will likely become a reality. Certainly one can see sighting mechanisms vastly improving, but some additional improvements will also work their way into weaponry. Already weapons that “break” in the middle so they can see and shoot around corners are in use. Enhancements which dramatically reduce recoil are being designed in to the next generation of weaponry. Ballistic computers will automatically compensate for windage, elevation and range to allow shooters to put more rounds on target at longer ranges. One might also see significant changes in ammunition. Imagine a “Seeker Round” which acts like a guided missile and changes course to impact its target – maybe even around corners or over walls. Or perhaps a “Smart Round” which has the capability to alter its properties nearly instantaneously and can harden to go through armor then soften to cause maximum damage to the target. Other capabilities will sure advance as well. Already we see Less Than Lethal (LTL) rounds used in shotgun shells which mimic the effect of a Taser.
Major Changes in Form Factors:
A traditional staple in science fiction novels is the laser rifle. I would find it hard to believe we’ll see such in the next hundred years – the power required would be difficult miniaturize for a personal weapon. However, one concept I’ve thought of is to use a “cartridge” like a bullet which contains two highly reactive agents. When mixed they create enough energy for a single burst of energy. Even if that is not possible, if miniaturization in power storage continues it is probable we’ll see a squad mounted energy weapon. Already larger weapons are being tested for ships, aircraft and vehicles. It is not hard to see how in the future a few soldiers could carry a portable version. Another form factor I could see entering service is the electro-magnetic slug thrower. The US Navy has been testing a rail gun that it expects will be able to launch a projectile at 5,000 mph by 2017. Again, assuming miniaturization of power sources continues, a squad mounted version of a lesser-powered rail gun is well within reason. It is even conceivable we could see personal weapons using electromagnetic fields instead of gunpowder to through slugs down range. The benefits of reduced ammunition weight and capabilities are obvious. As soon as the weight of the power supply falls below that of a standard load of ammunition, this concept could become reality.
There is no doubt small arms technology will continue to advance as it has for thousands of years. The benefits will likely be small until a major form factor change hits which introduces a fundamentally different way for one man to take down another.