A real-life electromagnetic Gauss rifle made by ArcFlash Labs has been generating serious buzz online after being featured in recent videos from firearms expert Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons. McCollum demonstrated how the sci-fi prop-looking contraption is, in his assessment, actually a serious weapon. You can read all about those videos in our viral report on them here. To learn more about the innovation behind this radically different class of small arms, how the gun came to be, and where its technology is headed, The War Zone spoke with David Wirth, co-founder and CEO of ArcFlash Labs.
The $3,375 ‘coil gun’ made by ArcFlash, known as the GR-1 Anvil, fires solid metal slugs by accelerating them with a magnetic field. It does this via a series of high-voltage capacitors charged by a 25v lithium-ion battery, which can propel the ferromagnetic metal slugs to speeds of around 240 feet per second. While not as powerful as most gun-powder-based ammunition used in traditional firearms, they are still perfectly capable of causing serious bodily harm or even death.
Wirth said he got the idea for the electromagnetic rifle while serving as a 1st Lieutenant at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) in Ohio. “I had always been into little weird mad scientist projects as a kid and interested in building little toy coil guns. I got very interested in Sam Barros’ PowerLabs where he built this rail gun and thought well, maybe I can get into trying to make a portable one. So that’s what I did.”
Wirth received a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego focused on nanoscale materials engineering. Despite being trained as an engineer, Wirth told The War Zone that his role at WPAFB was not engineering-related, so he began working on the coil gun technology in his spare time.
“At the end of my first railgun project I was actually working at AFRL [Air Force Research Laboratory] which was a more interesting job for me. The Air Force found out about it and I think I gave a couple of briefings, but nothing ever came of it.”
After leaving the Air Force, Wirth connected with co-founder Jason Murray, also a former officer in the Air Force, who was stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Like Wirth, Murray had developed an interest in coil guns, so the two decided to form ArcFlash Labs in 2017. “It’s kind of a fascinating story if you think about it,” Wirth said. “Two military engineers, working on this kind of stuff in their spare time. It’s kind of unusual.”
The company offered its first coil gun concept for sale in 2018 and filed a patent application for one of the key technologies behind the weapons the same year. By July 2021, the company was taking pre-orders for the GR-1, which was described at the time as “the world’s first and only handheld Gauss rifle.”
Now, Wirth says the company is seeing sales steadily increase. “We just shipped out our first batch of ten GR-1s. We’ve got roughly the next batch sold. We do them in batches of ten currently but we’re looking at scaling up to larger batches and potentially continuous production, but the company is still very small. As this technology progresses, as these systems become more and more field-ready or ruggedized with more attractive capabilities, then we expect our sales are going to increase comparatively with the usefulness of the system. These are still very much prototypes.”
One of the most unique features of the prototypes is a small screen on the stock which displays a variety of menus and read-outs. Wirth said they decided to include the screen because of the unique capabilities and features of the GR-1. Because the system is powered by a battery, users need to know how much charge is left while operating it. The charge of the system is variable, so users likewise need to know how much charge is being applied to the coils for each shot.
Because the materials used to 3D print parts of the rifle are sensitive to temperature, users also need to keep an eye on how hot the gun gets while firing. “As you fire the coil gun, the barrel heats up and the materials that the barrel is made out of have a limited temperature range,” Wirth told us. “If it exceeds that temperature boundary, you need to shut the gun down.”
Because the voltage levels in the weapon’s capacitors can be adjusted for higher or lower muzzle energies, we asked the ArcFlash co-founder whether or not the concept behind the GR-1 could be scaled up or down to create coil guns of varying sizes. Wirth responded that it’s actually more difficult to scale the system up or down than it might seem:
"In theory, that sounds great. In practice, it’s very hard to do because of the control systems involved and how much current is running through these things. You don’t want users having to handle thousands of amps. That’s not something we want users to mess with. It gets very complicated. It’s not as simple as just lengthening the barrel of a firearm to get more velocity. There are a lot more physics calculations that need to go into it. It’s not a linear progression. Each system needs to be designed for the caliber that it’s pushing, the voltage in the capacitors, the capacitance of the capacitors, the design of the coils - these all need to be mathematically modeled and simulated in order to maximize the efficiency of the system. It’s a fairly complicated design process."
While the company could eventually scale the system up, its current manufacturing facilities aren’t designed for large-scale systems.
Ultimately, Wirth said that any of these weapon concepts that use magnetic fields to accelerate projectiles will have a maximum velocity of around 100 to 150 meters per second, according to ArcFlash’s calculations. “That’s the maximum you can get out of one of these systems just because of the material iron, its core saturation point, how fast you can shut down the field in the coils and how fast you can basically dump the energy in those magnetic fields.”
“If you wanted to fire a smaller projectile faster, you’d want to go to something like a railgun, something that fires small projectiles at much higher speeds. “There’s really no theoretical upper limit of the velocity, in a practical sense,” the ArcFlash co-founder said. “You can go much faster with a railgun than a coil gun.”
Wirth says that while the company has had some interest from within the small arms industry, he can’t speak to any conversations with specific companies. The War Zone then asked if ArcFlash Labs has seen any interest from the Department of Defense or U.S. military. “We have,” Wirth told us. “We won a Phase I award from the U.S. Army back in 2018 through the XTech Accelerator. And we’ve had a number of exploratory conversations that I can’t go into.” Wirth told us that while his company doesn’t focus on the near-silent operation of the weapons due to the potential regulations that could come with such a capability, it is “something we’re exploring with the DOD applications.”
Wirth told us last year that the company had received interest from law enforcement agencies who are looking for non-lethal weapons with scalable effects, meaning they could deliver higher or lower muzzle energies depending on each specific use case.
As to whether the Department of Defense or any of its associated laboratories might be able to develop a combat-relevant system with heavy investment, given the current state of the art, Wirth says, “that depends on a number of things. It depends on whether the state of the art in the commercial sector is the same as the state of the art in the government sector. If they’ve got a method of energy storage that’s not commercially available then absolutely they could make a field-ready system. Absolutely.”
“As far as what we’re seeing right now on the market in terms of energy storage,” he added, “we think ArcFlash Labs is approaching the upper limit of what’s doable with current capacitor technology. We could, if the sales numbers were looking promising, if there was a significant use case for these devices, then absolutely we could put more investment into ruggedizing them and making them more practical.”
Wirth says the company is also exploring ideas to use ferromagnetic sabots to enable their coil guns to fire a wider variety of projectiles than the current metal slugs that we’ve seen demonstrated. “There are some ideas we’re exploring but I can’t speak to that at this time. It’s a little too proprietary.”
There are some new concepts that Wirth could tell us about, though. He said because these rifles have no moving parts and don’t depend on air, they could be podded in insulating materials for use underwater. “That’s actually one of the main applications we’re looking at. These things could be significantly useful either for launching torpedoes out of tubes or some potential small arms weapon for underwater use like a tranquilizer dart for animal research or some small arms variant.”
There is also a long history of underwater small arms used by frogmen around the world. Those types of units may find such a capability intriguing. “Theoretically if you were to fire a Gauss rifle underwater, assuming you could figure out a way to get the water out of the way fast enough,” Wirth explained, “it could travel much farther than a conventional firearm [projectile] could underwater.”
Wirth said the coil gun technology of the GR-1 would also work in the vacuum of space. “It accelerates projectiles using only electricity so it would work just fine.” Such weapons could hypothetically be used on the surface of the moon or fired from orbital platforms, and with zero aerodynamic drag, the projectiles could retain their maximum velocity for much longer than they could when fired inside Earth’s atmosphere.
Given the unique nature of the coil guns, The War Zone wondered what type of legal or regulatory issues ArcFlash Labs has encountered when developing and selling their weapons. “At the federal level it’s not considered a firearm,” Wirth replied. “A firearm is defined as a device that expels a projectile by means of combustion. Because this doesn’t use combustion it’s not a firearm and federal firearm legislation doesn’t apply to it.”
“There are some states that define what a firearm is differently, some states that are extremely restrictive, and we can’t ship to those states. But the majority of states mirror the federal definition of a firearm and under those conditions these Gauss rifles or coil guns are unregulated.”
Those regulatory issues may pop up as the weapons gain more popularity and exposure, especially after last week’s viral video review, which has over two million views on YouTube. “It was a great review,” Wirth said about the video. “He did a very thorough review and was very honest about his thoughts.”
The review shows several instances of the rifle encountering an issue in which the metal slugs were not successfully being fed into the weapon’s receiver from its magazine. “On one of the magazines that he had, there was a known defect,” Wirth told us. “We’re fixing that issue on future batches. There were some feed issues he experienced with some of the rounds toward the end of the magazine but we’re working through those issues with him and think we’ve got some pretty good fixes for him.”
Overall, despite the small issues and overall early prototype stage the coil guns are still in, Wirth said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I think people recognize how different this technology is. We kind of make the analogy that it’s like the first blunderbuss after the bow and arrow. It’s a completely different technology and it has the potential to change the way people think about propellants.”
“But really what we’re focused on is the ability of these systems to exceed the energy density of gunpowder and other applications of that. If you can propel a projectile, can you propel fuel into low-Earth orbit, can you propel satellites. There are applications for these propulsion technologies other than just shooting slugs.”
We then asked what coil gun or other magnetic mass accelerator technologies might look like in a few decades’ time. “The question is whether capacitor technology is going to progress at the rate we think it’s going to progress, or if there’s going to be a knee point, if there’s going to be an acceleration of capacitor tech, or if there’s going to be a wall. We just don’t know.”
“It comes down to material science, it comes down to economics, but the future of this technology is going to depend on the future of energy storage and the density at which you can store electrical energy,” he continued. “Whether that’s via more efficient capacitors or room-temperature superconductors or if it’s just an incremental progression in the storage of electrolytic capacitors. That’s kind of what it all hinges on. If it hits a wall, this technology is going to peter off and there’s not going to be a future in this business. There’s no significant market for oversized airguns ”
However, Wirth told The War Zone that if current trends continue, the technology could see a sudden leap in capability. “If it keeps progressing incrementally, then absolutely there will be a future for this. It’s eventually going to surpass the energy density of firearms if it continues on this trend. Potentially in between 20 to 30 years, these things are going to exceed the energy of firearms. Easily. If there’s a knee point, we could see that crossover point in as little as five years, six years.”
While the GR-1 is still very much a prototype, it’s clear from our interview that the company has no plans of stopping there. It’s ultimately impossible to predict how the related science and technology will evolve, but if the predictions made by ArcFlash Labs pan out, we may see this class of weapons reach some sort of combat-ready capability in the not-so-distant future.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com