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A Bit More on Smart Guns

Bob Owens has an excellent open letter to an ignorant reporter about Smart Guns over at Bearing Arms. I hate to specifically single Bob out for this, because I’ve heard it a lot, but I want to put my engineer hat on for a second and comment on this one bit:

I explained that the technology used in the [Armatix iP1] pistol is so fragile that anything stronger than chambering anything more a low-recoiling .22LR would shake the gun’s electronic brains apart in short order.

There’s actually no fundamental reason you can’t make electronics that can stand up to the shock of a firing pistol and make them reasonably cheaply. After all, a laser and its driver are electronic components, and they stand up just fine. If we can put GPS guidance into artillery shells, we can make reasonably priced electronic components that can stand up to the shock of small arms recoil. I suspect the reason the Armatix is a .22 is that it was designed by Europeans who don’t think of self-defense as the primary reason for gun ownership. It’s also much easier to design a .22LR chambered pistol than a more substantial caliber, where you move away from simple blowback operation. I suspect Armatix don’t have a lot of institutional experience with firearms design.

The problem with smart guns are more fundamental than the shock sensitivity of electronics, and have more to do with the limits of biometric identification and radio frequency identification (RFID). The former is unreliable and slow, and the latter is prone to interference and jamming. There’s also inherent mechanical problems with the smart gun that make the technology very easy for a determined individual to defeat. I had a conversation with some of our opponents on this topic, who argued that automobile anti-theft systems became much more sophisticated, but aside from misunderstanding the problem, I thought it was a reasonable point.

But while it’s true you can’t just hot wire a car these days, the reason you can’t is because automobiles today all have electronic ignitions. In order to make a smart gun that is not easily defeated, guns would also need evolve away from chemo-mechanical ignition to electronic ignition. Now, manufacturers have done electronic ignition firearms, but they haven’t exactly torn up the market. I don’t believe Remington even makes the Etronx line of 700s anymore, and the idea can charitably be called a market failure. It was, to borrow a phrase from Tam, an answer to a question that nobody asked. The Etronx 700s take a specialized and expensive primer, and I don’t know about you, but I’d like to know how susceptible those primers are to electrostatic discharge before I would trust them in a self-defense gun. I’ve also read that the Etronx ignition system was not a paragon of reliability.

But even with electronic ignition, you just move from a simple mechanical hack to a firmware hack to disable the smart features. The difference between a gun and a car is that a thief can’t easily take the car with him to fiddle with the security features. A car thief has to be able to act before someone notices, whereas a gun thief has all the time in the world. Hacking automotive firmware is a hobby among car enthusiasts these days, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be so for guns.

Additionally, when it comes to electronic-ignition firearms, I’m sure our opponents would positively love semi-automatic firearms that could be converted to fully automatic with a firmware hack, which would beg the question as to whether semi-automatics with electronic ignition were “readily convertible” and thus Title II firearms out of the gate. It would certainly be a novel theory that could be used to prosecute some unlucky bastard. If you’re going to make a smart electronic ignition system, then certainly detecting an out-of-battery condition is an obvious safety feature. You can see how this then becomes very easy.

The antis really have no idea what kind of can of worms they are opening. They don’t much care because their interest in smart guns only goes as far as making guns more difficult and expensive to own, while simultaneously lowering the value proposition of gun ownership. If the technology actually worked, you’d quickly see interest disappear as it became apparent it was not only easy to circumvent, but could open a whole world of new possibilities for people intent on disregarding the law.

37 Responses to “A Bit More on Smart Guns”

  1. chiefjaybob says:

    “The antis really have no idea what kind of can of worms they are opening.” And that’s why they have been loosing ground for the past 15 or so years. They are militantly ignorant of the entire firearms topic, be it basic design, function, or the potential of smart guns, and will not accept education on it, because it will undermine and destroy their position. Arguing from a point of ignorance is their only option.

  2. Robert says:

    I would think it would be based more on some type of solinoid operated firing pin, that would be sealed to make it tamper proof, but that would require a hefty power source.

    • Sebastian says:

      A primer actually takes a pretty serious whack to ignite. For a solenoid to deliver that kind of force would take a lot of energy. You can store quite a lot of energy in a spring.

      • Sailorcurt says:

        While true, the solenoid doesn’t have to be generating the force to strike the primer, you can still use a spring for that, you simply replace the sear with the solenoid. Then the solenoid needs to generate very little force to activate the firing pin/striker/hammer.

        Which has no bearing on the point of the post…just pointing out that there’s more than one way to excise the epidermis of a feline.

    • Patrick H says:

      But you could just replace the solenoid.

      That’s the problem and difference between a gun, and a car or even a phone. A gun is so simple. You’d have to make it complex, which would then mean more error prone.

  3. KevinC says:

    I have absolutely nothing against the idea of integrating electronics into a firearm, as long as it’s used to enhance, and not detract from the intended use of the gun. A “smart gun” lock fails that test, because it only claims to help deal with the *unintended* uses of a gun: It brings nothing to the table that good trigger discipline, retention and/or safe storage can’t solve.

    It’s a bug, not a feature, and a “solution” in search of a problem.

    By all means, let’s let the integration of electronics and guns continue down the path towards making guns better. Because of the way that electronics are integrated into cars these days, I can walk into Ford dealership and drive off in a Focus ST that delivers the same performance as a Porsche 911 from my teen years.

    What happens when Google Glass, Tracking Point and a host of other innovations get integrated with firearms without getting in the way?

    Dunno. But I’ll bet it’ll be cool.

    • BC says:

      I’m envisioning a HUD-like overlay inside your Google Glass indicating where your muzzle is pointing. Like a laser sight without the visible laser.

      • Patrick H says:

        Now that would be really awesome.

        • Toastrider says:

          Funny thing: that sort of interface is what I usually see when someone says ‘smartgun’, because it’s a staple of several cyberpunk fiction tales. An integrated system that paints a targeting reticle onto your field of vision.

          It’d definitely make zeroing your new firearm a lot more interesting…

  4. terraformer says:

    I would argue that comparing the electronics capability in a guided artillery shell with the electronics needs in a firearm is not a good comparison. In an artillery shell, there is plenty of space to create a shock absorbing cavity for the ride to the target.

    There is far less space available in a handgun. This is not a problem that can be solved with time and Moores law. This is a fundamental issue with the inclusion of electronics in a firearm. You have limited places for the electronics. Effectively only in the grip, which needs to be relatively open for the inclusion of the magazine. Moving the electronics into the slide would be insane and moving the electronics into the frame under the slide is almost as bad if you are looking to isolate them from shock.

    No, I actually think they needed to do this gun with .22s in order to keep the shock down.

    I will point out, this company hasn’t been upfront about the this gun’s features but if you check out the website, you will see this gun has a target identification feature that only allows you to shoot at approved targets. It’s not clear if this is a standard feature or an option, but that alone should scare the crap out of all of you. Here is the link. http://www.armatix.com/TRS.781.0.html?&L=7

    • Sebastian says:

      Electronic components aren’t that remarkably sensitive to shock. As long as you package them correctly to handle it, there’s not much of a problem.

    • Sebastian says:

      Though, you’re right that it’s not a great comparison because the forces on something riding an artillery shell are much much higher than being in a recoiling firearm. Looks like they encase the electronics in the shell in a putty, about the size of a hockey puck:

      Article here

      • The Jack says:

        What about cyclic fatigue?

        An artillery shell may have greater stresses and vibrations, but it only has to last for one mission.

        How sensitive are electronics to these repeatable stresses over many years? (Honest question).

        • Sebastian says:

          Based on experience with automotive electronics, which also get subject to a lot of shock and vibration, not remarkably. Lasers and night vision scopes seem to stand up pretty well, as examples of electronic parts routinely put on firearms.

          • Patrick H says:

            Wouldn’t there be much more force in a gun going off than cars? A exploding round is a hell of a lot of force, which is much different than a car vibrating.

            True, optics usually are fine. But they are mostly dumb devices, aren’t they? On and off.

            Maybe long term its not a issue, but its definite a concern.

            • Sebastian says:

              Cars deal with strong vibration, and in truth I’d rather deal with a more occasional and random impulse, if that impulse were manageable, than vibration. In truth the recoil of a handgun in the grip is not all that great a force.

              • Ian Argent says:

                I’ve been given to understand that automotive electronics have to deal with some of the harshest conditions outside of some milspec stuff; heat and vibration, mainly.

    • RP says:

      That page strikes me as creepy and almost Owellian.

      • Sebastian says:

        The only purpose that would serve is to make it unable to fire at people.

        • RP says:

          This stuff is only Smart Gun Generation .001. If this gets to a viable Gen1, generations 2, 3, and 4 will only be a matter of time. States like NJ, CA, and NY will create large captive markets through legislation. And it will be like any other market. There will be competition and further development. The manufacturers will damn well know that legislatures will mandate anything that makes guns “safer” thus creating a profit motive. And God knows what “safer” will entail as the tech evolves.

          Or maybe my tin foil hat is on too tight.

    • Allen says:

      If the weapon has a targeting system, they don’t explain it

    • NukemJIm says:

      Linky no worky :-(

    • Zermoid says:

      Bigest difference between cars and guns is cars have a reliable power supply, massive battery and onboard recharge ability, just try to do that in a handgun.
      Until they can come up with a fail proof power supply any electronics on a gun are a liability IMO.

    • TS says:

      Terraformer: “This is a fundamental issue with the inclusion of electronics in a firearm. You have limited places for the electronics. Effectively only in the grip, which needs to be relatively open for the inclusion of the magazine.”

      ah, but this ties in with another agenda of theirs- limiting magazine capacity. They’ll just lower it to five rounds to make more room.

  5. Eck! says:

    First the Vtfuze was done during WWII with glass vacuum tubes!
    It was bit tricky but once they understood it they made many
    many thousands of them and they were very effective.

    Hes the yabut… They were leas than 80% reliable, good enough as many were lobbed at the enemy.

    So called smart gun is not smart, its a lock and key and the hey being Biometric or RFID. Both are unreliable as in they would never be allowed by the FDA for things that could fail and cause loss of life. I didn’t sya the electronics are unreliable only the whole of the technology. Batteries had finite life, the most fame of the premature battery failures were the Bios battery (good for 10 failed at about 5) of PCs of the 90s and some heart pacers. RFIDs can be jammed, easily. So now we have something that can and likely will fail and more than likely head to the loss of life though inaction (gun fails to fire and criminal wins). The other place its useless is suicide.

    Sorry its a lot of wishful thinking that this will prevent the dreaded GUN DEATH!

    A spring can still do the firing, but a low power solenoid can prevent it from moving the firing pin. The electronics/mechanics does not have to bust the cap only prevent it from happening.

    Eck!

    • Kirk Parker says:

      …glass vacuum tubes…

      Sure those tubes didn’t have metal envelopes?

  6. RP says:

    I remember reading about a Ruger earnings call where someone asked the CEO about smart gun development, and the CEO literally laughed and dismissed it. He clearly knew his customers would destroy the company. Not even the fuddiest fudd wants this crap. Established gun companies won’t make them, wholesalers won’t buy them, retailers won’t sell them, and customers will go apeshit on anyone who tries.

    So I think a very relevant question is: how established does smart gun tech have to be before anti-gun politicians can make a credible effort to start mandating them?

    I think they face a bit of a catch-22. Development will be limited as long as there’s a negligible market. And the pols can’t manufacture a market until a certain level of development is reached.

    • Sebastian says:

      They overplayed their hand on smart guns by mandating them when they were still science fiction. We know now that the plan is to mandate them. They are only offering to repeal the mandate now so that the tech will come to market, at which point they will just remandate them.

  7. Kirk Parker says:

    If we can put GPS guidance into artillery shells

    Heck yeah! We were putting vacuum-tube-based proximity fuses into artillery and AA shells 70 years ago!

  8. Allen says:

    I want to see them mandate this for the police.

    • Toastrider says:

      Ding. Give that man a cigar.

      Of all people, police forces are the ones needing this the most. Are they asking to have their service weapons fitted with this system?

      Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

  9. Allen says:

    Also, genesis.

  10. Woodchuck says:

    There could be a huge liability issue with smart guns. If random RF interference could make them shut down or worse go “bang” without anyone touching the trigger then who would be considered responsible?

    • Matt says:

      I have raised that as major concern which the proponents of the technology seem to be ignoring. What happens when you pull the trigger in a self-defense scenario expecting “BANG!”, get “click” instead and someone dies as a result?

      Regardless of whatever immunity the State may promise legislatively to the “smart gun” company, even the PLCAA doesn’t exempt manufacturers from defects in workmanship or function. So I would expect liability lawsuits to follow shortly thereafter and in the American legal system, I expect many would succeed. That is all it would take to end “smart guns” until the tech matured because the liability risk would bankrupt any company not bringing 99.9% reliable “smart guns” to the market. That would be the standard they have to meet too since that is the low end of a typical well-made pistol today (failure rate of 1 in 1000 or less with 99.99% expected). “Smart guns” are still to the left of the decimal point and no one should gamble their life on a firearm with a 1 in 10 or greater chance of failure.

      Too many bits and decision making hardware/software between the trigger and the end of the barrel. Too many people associate high technology with being “better” than older technology. “It’s newer, it *must* be better!”. There’s a reason why firearms work well and it isn’t because it is “new” technology. It is proven, ruthlessly worked over time, well-established and understood 100+ year old technology. Hell, people don’t believe the AR-15 is 50+ year old design! That’s one of the reasons for its reputation as a reliable, capable rifle. Many, many years (and lives) to iron out the kinks in its design.

      Electronic systems don’t get multiple decades to iron out the “kinks” to achieve reliability. Too many people want to “tinker” and “improve” them. I don’t want my gun to have to get firmware updates and factory recalls (decided against sending my R700 back to Remington, for example). I want it to work. Every time.

  11. Jeff Dege says:

    I just keep thinking back to a story I read back around 1998. An old guy in San Francisco had bought a .38 special revolver around 1950. He’d last fired it around 1968. He’d last cleaned it around 1989. Since then, it’d been in a shoebox under his bed.

    In 1998, some drugged-out thug broke through his door armed with a crowbar and a machete.

    The .38 special worked.

    I’m fine with the idea of battery-powered electronics in my self-defense firearms, just as soon as someone can come up with a design that has 99.9999% reliability after 40 years of zero maintenance.

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