This article is primarily concerned with advanced forms of standard handguns, but many of the ideas discussed within can also be applied to weapons such as machine pistols and sub-machine guns.
As a whole, handgun technology has not changed significantly in the last century or so. There have been many refinements, but these have been mostly incremental improvements on the base systems as they stood in the early twentieth century. This trend is sure to continue into the near future until radical new technologies emerge, and even then the prominence of modern firearms is sure to continue for decades after.
Customization and versatility seem to be two of the great driving forces in modern pistol design. As a machine, the modern pistol is very well optimized for its function, so manufacturers tend to focus on secondary and tertiary elements such as ergonomics, compact design, modularity, and customized functions. This trend is sure to continue into the near future.
Improving ergonomics is always one of a gun designer's chief considerations. Making a weapon more comfortable to hold and operate helps with both aiming and recoil compensation. One innovation currently being introduced into the wider market is the idea of a customizable pistol grip, complete with sliding panels, adjustable back strap, interchangeable grip sheaths, and so on. Within a few decades, such an innovations could become automated; upon purchasing the gun, sensors within the grip would take a reading of the contours of your hand and adjust the various elements of the grip automatically.
Future handguns are also likely to be constructed of advanced composite materials, decreasing weight while simultaneously increasing the overall strength and durability of the weapon. The composite materials could also allow for stronger and higher-burning ignition charges and a corresponding increase in muzzle velocity.
One of the major innovations discussed for the future of pistols is the idea of electronic ignition systems. These systems would do away with mechanical firing actions and replace them with a purely electrical means of igniting the firing charge. This would reduce weight and wear on the weapon, as it would have far fewer moving parts. It would also increase rates of fire as instead of traditional clips of ammunition, the rounds could be pre-stacked already in the barrel and fired off in rapid succession.
A great deal of specialized ammunition already exists for handguns, from shot shells used in small game hunting to armor-piercing explosive rounds to non-lethal rubber bullets. Innovation in ammunition types is a trend likely to continue in the coming decades.
One major ammunition advancement often discussed by future gun enthusiasts is caseless ammunition. Caseless rounds use a projectile surrounded by a core of intermixed primer and solid propellant held together with an advanced binding agent. This eliminates the need for metal casings, reducing bulk, weight, and cost of the ammunition.
One of the main advantages of caseless ammunition is that it simplifies the mechanical action of the rifle by eliminating the need to eject casings. This in turn reduces the weight and recoil of the weapon and allows for a greater cyclical fire rate. Caseless ammunition can also be loaded more compactly into clips, giving weapons greater magazine capacity.
Early prototypes of caseless ammunition had problems with durability and heat tolerance, but more advanced version have mostly solved these problems. In fact, in stress tests, caseless ammunition has held up to wear and tear better than standard cased ammunition.
Another ammunition advancement being discussed for use in advanced handguns is carbon composite casings, bullet casings which use lightweight but very tough composites in place of the usual heavier brass and steel. This reduces both the weight and bulk of conventional ammunition, as well as allowing tolerances against higher-burning ignition charges, which can allow greater muzzle velocity and ultimately a greater penetration ability of the round.
Most pistols have fittings for sights and many have attachable rails for add-ons. Many guns also accept silencers and flash suppressors.
Integrated electronic sights, such as those found on combat rifles but smaller, seem to be a natural outgrowth of current sight and scope trends with pistols. Smaller and more versatile scopes integrating features such as low-light targeting, night sight reticules, thermal imaging, laser rangefinders, and IR laser target designators seem inevitable as electronics for such systems become cheaper and more compact.
One future innovation occasionally mentioned is the idea of an uplink cable or wireless modem leading from the handgun's scope to the operator's HUD or data eyepiece. This would allow precise targeting of the gun no matter where it was pointed, including around corners.
Barrel rail systems allow the attachment of small modular subsidiary systems to the weapon. Unlike rifles, which have a greater length and can make use of a wide variety of under-barrel attachments, pistol attachments need to be lightweight and compact enough so as not to throw off the balance of the weapon. Two popular attachments are the laser target designator and the optical targeting scope. Future attachments may include laser dazzlers, tasers, and pepper spray cartridges to give the user a non-lethal option without the need to switch weapons.
Electronic pistol recognition grips is an often-cited desirable feature for future handguns. Specialized sensors in the weapon's grip would take a reading of the user's hand upon acquisition, after which the weapon functions only if that person's hand is on the grip. Alternately, such grips may work with only certain types of gloves issued to friendly troops.
Sealed-system weapons are occasionally mentioned in speculative fiction sources. These weapons would have precisely-fitted seals and interlocking redundant joints allowing the weapon to function in extreme environment, including underwater and space.
Traveller RPG, et al
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