If you’re unfamiliar, a railgun is a type of weapon that uses electricity instead of gunpowder to fire a projectile. Leveraging a phenomenon called the Lorentz Force, rail guns work by delivering a high power electric pulse to a pair of conductive rails, which in turn generates a magnetic field and rapidly accelerates the bullet situated between them.
Smyth’s gun is a bit different, though. Rather than using straight rails, his build features a pair of rails that are twisted to form a double helix. According to Smyth, this gives the projectile some spin and extra stability, just like the rifling on a firearm barrel would provide for a normal bullet. The only difference is that, in lieu of a regular metal projectile, Smyth’s gun is designed to fire glass vacuum tubes filled with neon gas. In theory, the electromagnetic fields created by the rails will ionize the gas to create plasma, which will be released when the glass projectile breaks.
“The projectiles I made for this to fire are 10 by 60 millimeter,” Smyth explains. “What they are is a glass vacuum tube that’s full of neon gas, with a copper sleeve around it. So the current goes through the rails and accelerates the copper sleeve through the double helix, so it gets some spin to it. Then, the electromagnetic field in there ionizes the neon gas, so it should glow bright red. The hope is that this will be accelerated, hit the target, the glass will break, and the plasma will dissipate — hopefully blowing up one of the pumpkins.”
The pumpkin doesn’t quite explode, but apparently the projectile manages to punch through a piece of steel behind it — although the video is too dark to see the evidence.
In a separate video, Smyth concedes that he doesn’t know if his projectiles actually work as intended, but they’re still a pretty badass idea. “I’m not sure if the neon gas is actually ionized into plasma or not since I can’t see it in flight. But ionizing gas into plasma isn’t too uncommon,” he says.
Unless this is an elaborate and well-executed hoax, Smyth’s gun bodes well for the future of weaponry. Rail guns aren’t practical as handheld firearms quite yet — they’re generally quite large, unwieldy, and need to be recharged between each shot. However, if they could be shrunk down to a manageable size, users would theoretically be able to dial down the lethality of their weapons just by adjusting the current that flows through them. Ironically, the biggest promise of rail guns is that they could actually be less lethal than traditional firearms.