Sandia’s New Smart Bullet

In case you haven’t seen it, Sandia National Labs is working on a self-guided bullet for small arms that can hit targets a mile away. Kinda like a small version of the Army’s Excalibur smart artillery round.

The four-inch, dart-like round uses tiny fins and an optical sensor in its nose to follow a laser beam all the way to its target, similar to the way a laser-guided bomb finds its target.

Think you can build it, then Sandia’s two researchers who are developing the round, Red Jones and Brian Kast, want to talk to you.

Click through to watch a video of the round and read more on it from a Sandia National Labs press release:

Most bullets shot from rifles, which have grooves, or rifling, that cause them to spin so they fly straight, like a long football pass. To enable a bullet to turn in flight toward a target and to simplify the design, the spin had to go, Jones said.

The bullet flies straight due to its aerodynamically stable design, which consists of a center of gravity that sits forward in the projectile and tiny fins that enable it to fly without spin, just as a dart does, he said.

Computer aerodynamic modeling shows the design would result in dramatic improvements in accuracy, Jones said. Computer simulations showed an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000 m away) by 9.8 yards (9 m), but a guided bullet would get within 8 in (0.2 m), according to the patent.

The prototype does not require a device found in guided missiles called an inertial measuring unit, which would have added substantially to its cost. Instead, the researchers found that the bullet’s relatively small size when compared to guided missiles “is helping us all around. It’s kind of a fortuitous thing that none of us saw when we started,” Jones said.Plastic sabots provide a gas seal in the cartridge and protect the delicate fins until they drop off after the bullet emerges from the firearm’s barrel.

As the bullet flies through the air, it pitches and yaws at a set rate based on its mass and size. In larger guided missiles, the rate of flight-path corrections is relatively slow, so each correction needs to be very precise because fewer corrections are possible during flight. But “the natural body frequency of this bullet is about 30 hertz, so we can make corrections 30 times per second. That means we can overcorrect, so we don’t have to be as precise each time,” Jones said.

Testing has shown the electromagnetic actuator performs well and the bullet can reach speeds of 2,400 ft/sec, or Mach 2.1, using commercially available gunpowder. The researchers are confident it could reach standard military speeds using customized gunpowder.


  • Mark

    Let the Bullet bending begin.

    • tiger

      You thinking Angelna Jolie & her curving bullets too?

      • blight

        I guess. I was thinking more Avatar: The Last Airbender, where people with special powers can control the elements, or physical objects comprised of their particular element. Thus earth-benders could throw rocks, and the more advanced metal benders could tear ships open.

        Or Angelina Jolie works too.

  • Eric

    my guess would be a customized weapon 12.7mm or larger. (That’s a .50cal for the rest of us)

  • howard

    if no one told me…i’d think 50Cal immediately.

  • Raraavis

    What is the application for this? A sniper with a .50 cal can already hit precision targets at a mile. This is a larger, infinitely more expensive rifle to do the same thing. There is no rocket or explosive payload on the round so what are you trying to destroy with it.

    What ever happened to the individual mini-rocket concept that would let each soldier carry several self-guided mini rockets. Basically a stick grenade size launcher that could fire a small explosive precession rocket a couple hundred yards.

    • tiger

      With the ability to guide a bullet you take out the wind calculation & make a hit on a moving target easier.

    • David

      I agree that this tech lends itself more towards mini-rockets (like old gyrojet weapons), solving the problem of acuracy. Guided 20-30mm rocket propelled round would make great long range sniper rifle with negligible recoil and muzzle blast.
      With sufficient fast moving target tracking, this tech may be applicable to aircraft cannons too.

  • Skyepapa

    Just because it’s limited to (presumably) 12.7mm now doesn’t mean that refinement won’t get it down to 7.62 or 5.56 within some reasonable amount of time.

  • Puncheur

    I’m guessing this isn’t for room clearance.

  • crackedlenses

    Cue the personal laser jammers…..

  • blight

    A beam-riding bullet would make machineguns really scary…and probably compensate for weapons that are less-than-accurate, such as the AKM. Not like AKM users will have magazines of laser-guided rounds any time soon…

    • Jacob

      Wouldn’t rapid-firing these things from a machine gun be a waste of expensive ammunition as opposed to using them in a sniper rifle?

      • PMI

        It would definitely mean no cone of fire/beaten zone.

    • Awesome

      I doubt AKM users would want it/ could afford it anyway. They are using an AKM afterall.

  • mpower6428

    anybody see that movie “runaway” with tom selleck and the blonde from “dirty dancing” ?

    • TinkersDam

      Recall that it was a fire-and-forget IR round, though. Like a tiny AIM-9.

  • Lance

    That’s just so fun and awesome. Soon a foxhole will be a death trap for enemy solders.

  • chris

    This is ment for tanks isn’t it?

    • blight

      ATGMs have no problems finding tanks.

      • Jim37F

        but a 120mm sabot has slightly longer range, plus a tank typically carries a lot more main gun rounds than ATGM carriers carry missiles

        • blight

          Does it? A TOW can engage (at great risk) at ranges roughly equivalent to a tank main gun; the risk mostly because wireless TOW was not funded in the ’90s.

          Most ATGMs today are smaller because we place a greater importance on portability, and in some cases, soft-launch than we do long range.

          • major.rod

            TOWs are at 4500m (unclassified) now. They exceed main gun range.

          • blight

            Even better. I knew they outranged WP 125mm (but they have ATGMs…)

  • Liam

    Hey Ahab….you can run but you can’t hide

  • jrexilius

    Missing discussion of the optical sensor, motors for fin movement, processor for calculations, power source for processor..

    While I can think, off the top of my head, of a few solutions to some of those components, I’m still curious what they used.


    “Computer simulations showed an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000 m away)”

    Really? They needed a computer simulation to tell them this? Everyone knows it “could” make a difference depending on WHO is pulling the trigger.
    And on that note, half of a mile is roughly 800 meters, not a 1000. Also, you could make it even cooler with bigger numbers if you give it to us in inches!
    Sorry for the sarcasm but the article deserves it.

  • major.rod

    Interesting tech but its has issues. One not discussed is that the laser is an issue. Anyone knows that recoil impacts your point of aim. The laser is going to have to be independent of the shooter especially for a large caliber weapon. Anyone who’s fired one knows how difficult it is to get back on target especially if you have to do it before the bullet gets there.

    • Will

      Or put the whole thing on a tripod

      • major.rod

        Have you fired a .50 from a tripod? Restablishing sight picture BEFORE the round hits is no small task. It’s the primary reason snipers have spotters and tank commanders provide spotting corrections to their gunner.

        • PMI

          That’s why god invented sand bags. ;)

          FWIW TOF at a click is just over a second and half.

          That being said I wouldn’t focus on the 1,000m quotes in the release. Think more along the lines of the ability to make those 2.5K shots commonplace. At that range TOF is pushing 7 seconds.

  • stephen russell

    Being laser guided can be a real pain to hit.
    Cant point & shoot.

  • Uncle Bill

    I really don’t get the what’s the application comments. Your in a JLTV, the RWS is fitted with a rapid firing gun designed for this new round, the gunner designates the targets with his touchscreen and the gun slews hitting each target with out hitting anything else, gunfight over. Use some imagination.

    • William

      They’re right, though. What’s the point, other than being a kewel new toy? What does it do for us that, say a networked laser target designator on an M-16 doesn’t? This is not a bad idea for long-term development, but in the short run, pointless. Exciting to read about, but doesn’t really change anything yet. And how much money is it going to soak up before we decide it’s not technically feasible yet?

  • Warthog

    A-10 equipping these rounds and a SniperXL targeting pod would be interesting, though it might require a 2 seater conversion for a RWO.

    There was a CalPoly AIAA student competition design for an AC-130 replacement called Firefox that shows a possible future with rounds like this. Used laser guided 40mm CTA (which would roughly equivalent to 25mm) for the small guns and a 105mm CTA cannon on the belly fixed forward, firing the equivalent to an Excalibur round. The PDF’s are near the bottom of the following URL.

  • NeocConVet

    Interesting, perhaps in the future we can fire one from Ft. Carson and take out an idiot in Iran.
    Think about it..stepping out the arms room door… giving it the address and a photo… bang… “go get em”! Whats for chow today Sarg? A short time latter a news broadcast of one less A-hole in thiis world.

  • Doubtom

    Just another of our many “stand-off weapons” proving that we’re losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to face each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, (indiscriminately I might add) snipers can do the job from over a mile away, aircraft can down the enemy from over the horizon (without even seeing the enemy plane except for a radar blip) ,,, we’re missing out on all the romance of killing, the blood spattering, limbs separating from the body, guts all over the place.
    Does this mean that we’ll start pinning medals on drones, or sniper rifles? The more our technology is responsible for successful kills the more we have to recognize its contribution by glorifying it with medals, right?? Isn’t that how the game is played? All “War is a racket”.

  • Rich McKinney

    Fox News just posted a photo of it.…

    Looks smaller than 50 cal.

  • Doubtom

    Just another of our many “stand-off weapons” proving that we’re losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers murder from a mile away and pilots can down an enemy aircraft while its beyond the horizon. The less we have to do with direct combat, the closer we come to awarding those “hero” medals to machines. There is no glory in war but this new warfare makes it almost like a child’s electronic game; we are becoming totally detached from our butchery and this makes us feel good.

  • Doubtom

    Just another of our many “stand-off weapons” proving that we’re losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers fro a mile away, and planes can down the enemy before he clears the horizon. Guess we should start awarding the hero medals to the machinery.

  • Patrick Busche

    Wonderful technology for small arms. I’m sure that 5.56 NATO rounds with this capability will only cost about $400 per each bullet.

  • Doubtom

    Just another of our many “stand-off weapons” proving that we’re losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers from a mile away and planes can down an enemy before he clears the horizon. Next is awarding hero medals to the machines of war.

  • TomUK

    Basically, you’re still going to miss quite often - particularly if the laser wobbles a bit. (More collateral, I suspect).

  • test

    This post is worth everyone’s attention. How can I find out more?