OSD 94: Tom Swift and his electric rifle

In 2021+, let's have more step-changes in weapon technology.

The podcast 99% Invisible did an episode about a young adult sci-fi novel from 1911 called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land.

Here’s why you’re reading that in this newsletter:

In the 1960s, that began to change, as police departments looked for new weapons to control large crowds. Many of these, like tear gas, came straight from the military. But some departments started using a new electrical weapon: the cattle prod. Often used in the South during the Civil Rights movement, the prods became especially offensive and contentious to many in the public.

But there were also proponents of electrical weapons. In 1968, Richard Dougherty, a former Deputy Police Commissioner of New York City, said, “better a few jolts of electricity than a knockout blow on the head…. What is a nightstick after all? It’s a club…. Why in this age of science…do our police have to use a weapon right out of the stone-age?”

As it turns out, a scientist and inventor named Jack Cover was thinking about similar questions. Cover worked as an aerospace scientist and had been involved with NASA’s Apollo program. In the late 1960s, as images of protests and police violence saturated the nightly news, he thought a weapon that temporarily immobilized a person, at a distance, using electricity, might be the solution. Cover’s idea for the weapon came after reading about a hiker who became stuck to an electric fence — unable to move, but otherwise relatively unharmed.

After several years of development, he invented a weapon that he named after a science fiction novel from his childhood called “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.” To name the weapon, Cover took the initials from the book title (T.S.E.R), then he added an A to make the word easier to say: Taser.

The first firearms showed up around the year 1250. Those evolved into muskets, which across the 16th–19th centuries iterated on various designs and ignition methods. The invention of metal cartridges in the 19th century kicked off what remains history’s most densely-packed period of firearms innovation. The period from the mid-19th to early 20th century started with muzzleloaders and some early experimental repeating rifles. That’s it, that was the sum total of available firearm technology. But a mere ~60 years later, the period ended with lever-actions, bolt actions, full auto, semi-auto, magazine feed, belt feed, and, oh, the invention of nearly every single design for autoloading functionality in use today.

Modern manufacturing and design is awesome. An entry-level AR is in every respect a superior weapon to the finest repeating rifle that money could buy in, say, 1911. But there is something strange about the fact that the underlying mechanics — the basic working principles — really haven’t changed.

Sure, Tasers aren’t perfect. But they were a fundamental step-change in technology. Something honest-to-goodness new, rather than a better version of a century-old design.

Today the gun industry is built on making refinements to pre-existing tech. That’s not necessarily bad. Incremental refinements are awesome, they’re what evolved the Wright Flyer into the B-2. But they’re not what created the Wright Flyer. Or, for that matter, the repeating rifle. Or the Taser. The guns we’ve got today are awesome. But hopefully there are more companies out there that aren’t just making a better thing, they’re making a better sort of thing. If you know of any, drop us a line.

Have a great week, gang.


This week’s links

It’s like How It’s Made, but for AR lowers

Machinist’s breakdown of a video of a CNC machine finishing a lower.

Gunjobs: find a job in the gun industry

Let us know if you or anyone you know get a job through this. We’d love to chat with you about it.

Barrel length, trajectory, and learning your zero

Do you like math, parabolas, and guns? Then buckle up.

A high school teacher in France is asking for gun owners to come talk (via prerecorded video) to his class

One of the OSD cofounders is participating, we’ll let you know how it goes.

Mother Jones highlights some ascendant gun rights orgs

They focus on Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organized the big gun rights protests in Virginia back in January (and has been doing an annual Lobby Day for 17 years), and on Gun Owners of America. Ahem, we’re standing right here 😉.

Seriously, one interesting thing about the piece is how casually (and inaccurately) they conflate gun rights with right-wing authoritarianism.

Zenith spills the beans on the collapse of their partnership with MKE

Not often that a company takes the gloves off in public like Zenith does in the blog post above. E.g. “In 2015-2016, MKE’s factory manager, Mr. Tanriverdi, attempted to elicit a bribe from Zenith’s owner…”

It’s linked here not for the popcorn.gif drama, but because it’s full of educational details about what it actually takes to import firearms at scale.

Facebook publicly posts the notes from their monthly(-ish) content policy meeting

TIL. The most recent meeting considered some not-very-exciting changes to firearm content rules.


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