The Decades-Long Quest to Build Smarter Guns

We've been trying for years to develop advanced firearms safety tech.

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Jun 10 2014, 8:35pm
Image: Shutterstock

We might (still) not be buying so-called "smart" guns, but the controversial futuristic weapons are nevertheless having a bit of a moment. The idea behind advanced firearm safety technologies, which typically use RFID tags or microchip implants, fingerprint recognition, proximity devices, or magnetic rings to restrict the firing of a gun to only an authorized user(s), has never commanded as much attention as it does today.

And yet efforts to scale up the concept have long vexed both gun-control advocates, who see this sort of technology almost as a magic wand against homicides and accidental shootings, and certain Second Amendment advocates, who say the tech isn't sophisticated enough to ensure that a personalized handgun wouldn't fail when needed most. Still, we've been trying to make guns "smart" for years.

Since the mid 90s, countless research teams have hacked away on smart guns, alternatively known as "personalized" guns, and developed them "to varying degrees of technological maturity," according to a 2013 US National Institute of Justice research report. These weapons are designed to "contain authorization systems which generally combine an authentication mechanism that actuates a blocking mechanism in a seamless process that is designed to take less time than handling and firing a conventional gun," the NIJ report adds. 

To date, three smart firearms have been developed by private companies There's the iP1 handgun, by Germany's Armatix GmbH; the Intelligun pistol, by Utah-based Kodiak Industries; and iGun Technology Corporation's M-2000 shotgun, considered the first personalized firearm "to go beyond a prototype to an actual commercializable or production-ready product," according to the NIJ. The report concludes that these three personalized weapons have reached technological maturity levels that "could at least be described as commercializable or pre-production."

That's not to belie the fact that literally thousands of smart weapons schemes, in various stages of the US parent approval process, came before this trio of commercially available personalized firearms. Search "personalized gun" on Google Patents and you'll get 46,000 returns. To spare you from slogging through page after page of black-and-white diagrams and eerily clinical invention titles, I've pulled out five inventions that should serve as a recent history of smart gun R&D.

For preventing the unauthorized firing of a hand held weapon (US 4467545 A)

Image via Google Patents

This handheld weapon is kitted out with a safety mechanism that's responsive to the fingerprints or palms of one or more users. Filed for patent approval in August 1982, the safety device is triggered by the heat of a user's hand. If that user's palm or fingerprint doesn't align with a pre-stored pattern, the weapon with remain in a "blocking state." In other words, so long as the gun doesn't recognize the hand of whoever's holding it, the weapon will not fire.

Programmable to provide for its firing only by an authorized user (US 5502915 A)

Image via Google Patents

This patent, filed in April 1994, builds on the fingerprint / palm signature idea that functions as a safety in the gun's handle. Should an authorized user relinquish the programmable weapon before firing:

...the release of the membrane switch 20 is sensed and, after a particular period, the microprocessor causes the pin to be actuated to the second position. If the authorized person again grips the handle and depresses the membrane switch before the end of such particular time period, coincidence is re-established and the time period is reset.

When unauthorized users grip the gun's handle no "comparison coincidence" occurs the pin does not actuate to the first position. The gun does not fire. At least that's the idea. 

Gun with electrically fired trigger (US 5625972 A)

Image via Google Patents

A year later, in 1995, a patent request went through on what would foreshadow one of the leading smart gun innovations profiled in our documentary Long Shot: electronically-fired triggers. A removable cartridge, replete with an explosive and a heat-sensitive primer, is affixed to the barrel of the gun. From there:  

A fuse wire of appropriate electrical resistance extends through the primer. A pair of contacts fixed with the gun provide a voltage to the fuse wire in order to ignite the primer and fire the bullet.

To think, 20 years later, the world's most infamous long-range, electronically triggered smart rifle would be equipped with Google Glass to effectively shoot around corners and over hills

For preventing the unauthorized firing of a weapon (US 5946840 A)

Image via Google Patents

This idea, filed in 1999, is a simple safety lock for handheld weapons. Until a personalized code key is slotted into the weapon's grip, the safety device won't budge, thus keeping the trigger in place.

Personalized safety device for a hand held weapon (US 6253480 B1

Image via Google Patents

This invention, filed March 1999, is essentially a housing affixed in front of the weapon's handgrip and trigger. Per the patent's synopsis:

A pair of elongated guard plates outwardly extend from a pair of elongated slots in the back of the housing. A motor is disposed in the housing for extending and the retracting the guard plates from the housing. A computer is provided for controlling the retraction and extension of the guard plates by the motor. A scanner is mounted to the handgrip of the weapon and is in communication with the computer. The scanner obtains an image of the fingerprints and handprint of the user grasping the handgrip. 

You can probably imagine what comes next: Only when a scanned finger/handprint image matches the authorized image stored in the device's computer will the computer spur the motor, pulling back the guarding plates and allow access to the trigger. 

Fingerprint safety lock for firearms (US 6874265 B1)

Image via Google Patents

Filed in 2004, this last patent is yet another example of fingertip-enabled shooting. I won't get into the specifics, but I will say that this one is built of titanium to deter tampering. 

And that's pretty much where we're at today—we've got heaps of prospective smart gun schemes, but still no one agreed-upon tech for domestic roll out. Will we ever reach an agreement? Who knows?

But to be clear, this round up is by no means comprehensive. Hopefully it offers some sort of snapshot of the shape of smart weapon to come. Meanwhile, in Oregon, a gunman ran into a high school this morning, killing one. It's not yet clear what sort of firearm the assailant used.