Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of interesting questions from my shooting class students and writers who attend my firearms technology workshops. One of the strangest, or at least the most unexpected came at me last Saturday. I was explaining the “anatomy of a gunshot wound,” and going into clinical, if not gory, detail about permanent cavities, temporary stretch cavities and the relative merits of penetration versus velocity when one of the attendees stopped me and asked a question.
“What kind of handgun would you use to slay a dragon?”
|Not the subject of the question.|
Now, just so we’re on the same page here, I’m ME. And, given that I’m me, the first thing I thought of was the M47 Dragon antitank guided missile (ATGM). After all, nobody could be seriously asking about how to kill a large mythical reptile with a pistol. Nobody, that is, except for a romantic fantasy author.
As you might have guessed, an obsolete missile was not the type of dragon that was the subject of the question. A moment later, it registered on me. The question was serious. The nice lady wanted to know what handgun I would recommend for dragon slaying.
|I'm supposed to service one of these with a PISTOL?|
My initial response, was that the more appropriate firearm for dragon slaying was a rifle. And not just any rifle. Something that fires a big, heavy, solid bullet a velocity approaching 3,000 feet per second. The two cartridges that came to mind immediately were the .460 Weatherby Magnum, which will launch a 500 grain bullet at around 2,700 feet per second, generating about 8,100 foot pounds of energy, and the .50 Browning Machine Gun, which will fire an 800 grain Barnes Solid bullet at right around 3,000 feet per second for a stunning 16,000 foot pounds of energy.
|BIG bullets. .50 BMG is on the left.|
The reason for my selection of these behemoth cartridges has to do with dragon physiology. Ok, purists, with my assumption about dragon physiology...(with thanks to www.draconian.com).
Let’s take a medium size dragon, say about 20 feet long, with a wingspan of about 35 feet. This dragon has three key physiological characteristics that matter to the ballistician. First, the dragon’s exterior is covered in scales that, after the first year of the dragon’s life, become as tough and as hard as a mid-grade steel. For reference, many surgical instruments are made from mid-grade stainless steels. Next, the dragon’s skeleton is strong, but hollow and lightweight. It features a thick sternum bone that protects the dragon’s chest, heart and lungs. Finally, the dragon’s muscles are corded and thick, providing additional protection to the beast’s internal organs. Defeating a dragon means punching through the scales, shattering the sternum, and digging a deep trough through tough muscle to penetrate and fatally damage the heart. Most rifle cartridges won’t meet these requirements.
|Not cutting it. .454 Casull ammo.|
I dutifully explained this to my audience. Unfortunately, they were having nothing of it. The storyline called for the hero to defeat the dragon with a pistol. In case any of you were wondering, when it comes to fantasy authors, storyline trumps practical weaponology every day of the week. The dragon would simply have to fall to a pistol. The question was HOW. Pistol cartridges, even the mighty .454 Casull, simply don’t pack enough energy to perforate a dragon’s scales and then penetrate deeply enough to damage the heart muscles.
The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Penetration is directly proportional to a projectile’s kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is calculated as ½ Mass(Velocity2). When applied to a firearm, energy is described using a relevant measure of force, such as foot-pounds. To derive foot pounds from the ½ Mass(Velocity2) formula, we adapt it by dividing it by a constant, which is 450,400. The 450,400 represents 7,000 grains (bullet weights are measured in grains, 7,000 grains equal one pound) multiplied by the acceleration of gravity (32.17 feet per second) multiplied by two to get rid of the fraction at the beginning of the equation. The resulting equation is Energy = (Mass*Velocity2)/450400. Remember that .50 BMG round that generated 16,000 foot-pounds of energy? Next to that, the mighty .454 Casull, and its 1,800 foot-pounds is a featherweight. There was just no way a pistol round was going to smash through scales, sternum and a couple of feet worth of corded muscle.
|Obsolete. Boys .55 cal. Antitank Rifle|
However, the more I thought of it, the more I focused on the word “kinetic.” If only there was a way that the projectile could cut its way through instead of punching a hole by sheer force. And then it hit me. This was exactly the same problem faced by infantry during World War Two. In the early part of the war, man-portable infantry antitank weapons, such as antitank rifles, were a fair match against the relatively thin-skinned armored vehicles of the day. However, by 1942, tanks were being produced with significantly thicker armor, creating a conundrum for the infantry: Weapons based on kinetic energy principles that could punch through a tank’s armor were simply too heavy to be carried by one soldier, and kinetic energy weapons that a soldier could carry just wouldn’t damage the tank.
The answer was to abandon kinetic energy generated by projectile impact velocity in favor of kinetic energy generated by explosive blast. Specifically, kinetic energy generated by the use of a shaped charge. A shaped, or “hollow” charge is an explosive charge that has been shaped to focus the explosive’s energy on a very precise point on the target surface. The net effect of focusing the energy is penetration of seven to ten times the diameter of the original explosive charge through steel armor plate and much, much further through less tough materials.
|1) Ballistic cover, 2) Cavity, 3) Metal Liner, 4) Detonator, 5) Explosive, 6) Trigger|
|US Bazooka - Shaped Charge Principle|
A projectile carrying a shaped charge is little more than a cargo device or bus whose responsibility is to get the charge to the target surface. Since velocity doesn’t matter, propelling charges can be much smaller and, as a result, can be contained and controlled in a man-portable device. The American “Bazooka,” the British PIAT (“Projector, Infantry, Antitank”) and the German “Panzerfaust” were all lightweight anti-armor devices that could be carried by a single soldier whose relatively low velocity projectiles delivered shaped charge warheads to the target.
|MPAT - Fins pop out on firing.|
Now that I had the answer as to how to slay a dragon, I needed to devise a launcher and delivery system for the shaped charge payload. The obvious choice was a shortened, double barreled twelve gauge shotgun, a la Mad Max. A specialized shell launching what was effectively a miniaturized version of the shaped charge based M830A1 Multi-Purpose Anti-Tank (MPAT, pronounced “em-pat”) would be devised. The M830A1 is fin stabilized, so a significant degree of accuracy could be expected. The obvious choice, however, lacked a degree of style and panache. In other words, it just wasn’t cool enough to pique my gun-geek factor.
What I needed was something that could deliver a twelve gauge shell’s payload from a pistol platform and, meet my demanding technical, aesthetic and “intangible” (read that “gun geek”) standards. After some thought, I identified the LeMat revolver as my ideal point of departure.
The LeMat was a .42 caliber cap and ball revolver with a twist. Instead of revolving around a central pin, like conventional revolvers, the LeMat’s cylinder revolved around a large central sixteen gauge shotgun barrel. A quick flip allowed the shooter to choose between the pistol and the shotgun barrel. Designed in 1855 by Dr. Jean Alexandre LeMat of New Orleans, it saw service with the Confederate Army, becoming a favorite of such famous Confederates as Generals Braxton Bragg, J.E.B Stuart and Richard Anderson. In the end about 2,900 were produced.
|Modern LeMat (Bienville Studios)|
My improved LeMat would be a similar, but substantially different beast. Crafted in stainless steel (you wouldn’t want the finish damaged when dragon blood gets all over it, would you?), with a six or eight shot cylinder rotating around a central twelve gauge barrel, it would be double action and have adjustable sights. Barrel length would be six inches, it would be available in .454 Casull, and the sights would be optimized for the 360 grain Cor-Bon Hunter Flat Point Penetrator ammunition. Both barrels would be ported for maximum control.
When confronted with a dragon, the hero would unholster, flip the selector to the shotgun barrel, and fire an MPAD (Multi-Purpose Anti-Dragon) shaped charge shell at the dragon’s chest. The charge diameter of roughly 0.72” would yield a penetration in armor of 10 charge diameters, or about seven inches. Since the dragon’s scales are approximately an inch thick, the blast jet will have little difficulty punching through the scale layer. The sternum bone, being significantly less dense, will offer far less resistance, and the muscle layers will be cut through almost as if they weren’t there. The destructive force of a 20,000+ foot per second blast jet will impact the dragon’s heart, and that’s all she wrote.
The existence of dragons is debatable. However, literature has provided a very consistent portrayal of their capabilities, biology and physiology. With this data, and a bit of technology and engineering, the challenges of dragon defense with a handgun can be overcome. At least for fantasy authors. As for me, the next dragon I have to face will be my first!