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Russians have sent guns into space before. Back in the day, Russian astronauts carried a combination rifle, shotgun, and survival axe  designed to keep them alive (and out of enemy hands) should they land somewhere other than Mother Russia. While weapons of mass destruction are banned from being placed into orbit, Russia didn’t have any second thoughts about placing heavily armed space stations into orbit during the turbulent 1970’s. Thanks to a Russian TV program, we’re getting a glimpse at the configuration of Russia’s orbital R-23 machine gun. The gun was intended to . . .

defend Russian spy space stations in orbit, but in practice that probably would have been massively impractical. The gun was mounted on a single stationary hard point, meaning that the entire space station needed to be rotated in order to aim the gun. And when the trigger was finally pulled, the thrusters on the station would need to be constantly firing in order to counterbalance the recoil from the massive firearm.

The gun was only ever fired once — remotely, shortly before the spy space station it was attached to burned up in re-entry. There’s no word on whether the row of beer bottles in Yekaterinburg they were aiming at were damaged.

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68 Responses to Secret Russian Space Station Machine Gun Revealed

  1. I’m guessing it used some sort of oxidizer in the propellant? How exactly did they think that was a good idea in zero gravity?

    Also…. I want one.

    • Plain ‘ol gunpowder has oxidizer in the propellant. Which is why guns will shoot in space just fine, and the scene in Firefly where Jayne has Vera in the space suit in order to make “her” fire has so much fail.

      • Thanks for sharing, I totally didn’t know that. I’m willing to explain the Firefly scene as a universal drop in ammo quality due to being on the frontier, but that is cool to know that guns work in vacuum these days…

      • I have been under the impression that the oil used to make sure the firearm works does not function in a hard vacuum, so after a round or 2 being fired the friction build up would cause thegun to fail. So the suit could be to insure that the gun stays lubed long enough to function as needed. But who know I could have been misinformed.

        • Nah, Joss said in the commentary for that episode that he was just misinformed as to how guns work.

      • And in Serenity when they spot welded a FlaK 38 20mm autocannon to the hull it worked just fine in vacuum. As it should.

    • “I’m guessing it used some sort of oxidizer in the propellant?”

      All modern ammunition propellant contains an oxidizer.

      Hell, you can shoot an AK or a Glock underwater…

      • Not just “modern” propellants. The saltpeter in good ol’ black powder is an oxidizer. Though the firing mechanisms in old-timey guns (like flintlocks and matchlocks) probably wouldn’t work in a vacuum. Percussion caps might, though. I think I need to apply for a NASA grant…

        • ” Though the firing mechanisms in old-timey guns (like flintlocks and matchlocks) probably wouldn’t work in a vacuum.”

          Actually, I bet it would, up to a point.

          You can have sparks in a vacuum, the real trick will be keeping the powder in the pan from floating away in micro-gravity.

        • Hmmm… Keeping the powder in the pan – maybe an electrostatic charge? I really need to get to work on that grant application.

        • Exactly. KNO3 (saltpeter) is an oxidizer – look at the three oxygens in there and one nitrogen. You need no additional air to ignite all the charcoal and sulphur in black powder.

  2. 1 small hole in the fuselage of an opponent would spell disaster in space. Pretty sure there is enough oxygen in the brass case to allow the powder to burn 

    • “1 small hole in the fuselage of an opponent would spell disaster in space.”

      Not unless whatever perforates the cabin hits something critical.

      And in space, most of what you have is critical.

      Manned spacecraft have adhesive slap-patches aboard for just such an occasion like a small high-velocity piece of orbital debris.

    • “Cool it would gave been a huge tactical advantage even with its limits.”

      Eh, debatable.

      I read a write-up recently that had the opinion due to the weirdness of orbital mechanics, what you shoot at high velocity away from you tends to eventually ‘boomerang’ (so to speak) back to *you* in orbit.

      You could end up eating your own 200 g projectile…

      • Yea, because it only takes a super computer to hit the moon with a rocket, so you really have to worry about a bullet going around the world and coming back to hit you.

        • Actually today’s smart phones are more powerful than the computers that got people to the moon.

          And as for a bullet coming around to hit you, unless it runs into something that will change its course, that’s exactly what it will do: it’s called an “orbit”, where things go around and around in the same course.
          Simple high school physics, to be honest.

        • If the bullet has the velocity it’s possible. But it has to have the exact velocity so it doesn’t increase orbit, or decrease orbit. Also your aim would have to be perfect over about 30,000 miles.

        • And smart phones are smarter than the computers on Apollo, much smarter, but the computers that calculated the orbits were all on earth.

        • “And smart phones are smarter than the computers on Apollo, much smarter, but the computers that calculated the orbits were all on earth.”

          Incorrect.

          The Apollo Guidance Computer on the LM was fully capable of calculating an orbital intercept with the Command Module orbiting above in the event of an emergency blast-off from the lunar surface. (There was an even cruder backup for the lander aboard, the Abort Guidance System (AGS))

          That was the point in developing them in the first place. They were referenced by star sightings.

          During flight, every calculation was double-checked by the mainframes on the ground, there were no significant errors found.

          There is a really excellent book on the subject, well-written and keeps your attention.

          ‘Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight’, by David A. Mindell. *Highly* recommended.

          http://www.amazon.com/Digital-Apollo-Human-Machine-Spaceflight/dp/0262516101

        • For that matter, our high school advanced math class teacher walked us through calculating those orbits using slide rules. The results were sufficient to guide a return to earth from the moon.

          The only problem is that it takes so long they’d have had to do a few more laps around the moon before making the transfer burn if doing it for real in the capsule.

    • It would only be a useful defense if your enemy was trying to board your station (a ridiculously unlikely proposition). If you wanted to destroy the station, you could just lob small objects at it from the other side of the planet and let orbital mechanics do the rest.

  3. Any attempt to make space a “gun free zone” is such incredible fail…

    An armed society is a polite society, even in space. Every space going vehicle should be armed, just as all humans on earth should be armed. Those who are not polite get ventilated…

    • “Any attempt to make space a “gun free zone” is such incredible fail…”

      The Russians used to keep a survival gun in their re-entry spacecraft after one way off-course landing had them fearing the wolves that greeted them on landing.

      TTAG had an article on that awhile back…

  4. Maybe I’m just dense, but I always wondered how it is that a bullet or any other object can have much effect when striking another object in space, as there is no “weight” to the object??

    • There is mass though, and it’s mass * velocity that determines energy applied.

      I would think that a smaller caliber gun with a higher velocity would be more valuable. Less recoil, less delay to impact (meaning less leading of the target), and the same amount of force. You could also shoot large round flat projectiles to make bigger holes since there is little to no friction in space due to the vacuum.

    • “Weight” is just a measure of the force of gravity on an object. In orbit, there is no weight, but everything still has mass, and most of the laws of physics are concerned with mass, not weight.

      We say “weight” when we mean “mass” all the time, but the two are distinctly different things in scientific terms.

    • A piece of tiny space junk or meteor could kill an astronaut if it hit them or punch a hole in a station. Things in orbit weight exactly the same as here on earth. If you could stop the space station relative to earth’s orbit and suspend it somehow gravity would be as noticeable as here on earth. Weightlessness comes from the constant falling of the station or ship around the planet. Same as you experience on a rollercoaster or in a jet during a steep dive.

        • No, JD has it right. The reason for “weightlessness” (actually more correctly called microgravity, because there are still some tiny gravitational forces at play) is because the orbital object is moving fast enough, relative to the surface of the earth, to “free fall” over the curvature of the earth. The reason it’s so expensive to get stuff into orbit isn’t because you have to go so high, it’s because you have to go so fast. A hundred thousand dollars could probably build a rocket that would reach low-earth-orbit altitude, but it won’t be moving fast enough laterally to achieve orbit, and it’ll come back down in a hurry. Heck, high-altitude balloons can reach the edge of space, but they’re not weightless when they get there, and will come crashing down quite fast if they are ruptured.

          The distance to low earth orbit has a very small effect on the force of gravity there. To lessen earth’s gravitational pull to what we’d call weightless, you’d have to be a few million miles away.

        • I always thought it was the distance more than acceleration, had it backwards though! My physics teacher would be all over me. Weight reduction is only 11% from distance effect.

        • Look at the weather balloon camera videos on YouTube. Some of those get to the edge of outer space. When the balloon finally bursts from lack of atmospheric pressure they come down quick. They are actually falling much faster in the first several minutes than they are when they get down to breathable air. If they were inside a giant vacuum chamber that high the velocity would stay constant until impact. Gravity is the only constant force on earth. If you were to level a rifle and a snubby pistol barrel relative to perfectly flat ground and fire them at the exact same time both bullets would hit the ground at the same time. Only difference would be the impact point.

        • Gravity is about 11% less at the altitude of Leo satellites. So much for constant. The gravity between two objects abates with distance.

  5. From what I understand, the survival gun on Soyuz capsules was not intended to keep cosmonauts “out of enemy hands”, it was designed for protection against wild animals in Siberia. It came about after one Soyuz mission landed way off course and the crew opened the hatch only to find themselves surrounded by hungry wolves. I can see how that might be somewhat disconcerting.

  6. Firearms make very poor space station weapons for the simple fact that bullets are heavy and it cost a fortune to get weight into space. Hitting anything will be a challenge as well.

    The laser systems the navy is developing are much more useful, not this 70 year old Russian junk.

    • “The laser systems the navy is developing are much more useful, not this 70 year old Russian junk.”

      100 year old Russian Mosins will kill just fine, Spanky.

      As for the laser system, the capacitor bank used to power those things is massive in size and very heavy.

      That’s a deal-killer in spaceflight. In aviation weight is everything. It dominates *every* decision you make when designing and flying.

      A few rounds of 23 mm cannon weighs a feather in comparison.

      • Well it kinda depends on quantity too. Want to fire one shell, once? 23mm cannon all the way. Plan on an environment where the weapon will need to fire lots of times? Then the mass penalty of something like the navy’s laser starts to make sense- you only carry it up once. It masses the same to fire once or bunches of times (not valid in some areas, your mileage may vary depending on what you use to power the darn thing, but it’s plausible to power it in a manner that is either long lasting or renewable without needing to ship more mass up to it).
        The traditional cannon will need to have mass shipped up to it continually, if it was ever needed to fire bunches of rounds- which obviously it wasn’t so moot point

        • So apprently I can’t edit stuff. Intended to include this in original post

          Also- orbital mechanics is super non-intuitive. Want to speed ahead of an object in the same orbital plane? Slow down. Slowing down causes your orbit to shift to a lower altitude. Lower orbits, orbit faster. You’ll “speed up” to your target- but now you’re below it. Speed up again to match orbits. Pointing directly at a target, at even short distances and firing will cause misses, in ways that are totally at odds with experiences from living in a gravity well. Lasers have the not so minor advantage of being line of sight weapons, regardless of orbital mechanics.

          Quasi related- ever want to have the most frustrating fun? Get a copy of Kerbal Space Program, and try docking with objects in orbit without computer assistance, it can totally be done (citation: late Gemini and all Apollo flights by NASA where they docked vehicles with orbits worked out on sliderules… Man those guys were cool…)
          Anyways can be done but generalizing, everything you intuitively want to do, is wrong.

        • “Well it kinda depends on quantity too.”

          Annnnnnnnd, that’s another deal-killer.

          A generator and fuel or a big-assed solar panel array for the electricity to charge those heavy capacitors are also gonna be heavy. Spaceflight ain’t cheap.

          And 100 percent right on orbital gymnastics. Completely non-intuitive. Thanks, I’m gonna track down the programs you mentioned and play with them some…

    • Actually it should be easier. Brace yourself against kickback. Need more physics than I have but the bullet should travel in a much straighter line. So what you aim at, you should hit, no matter what the range. And I know that’s not 100% accurate, but close enough to be useful.

      • This cannon is very old news, though this vid may be more current, I saw a vid piece on this at least 10 years ago.

        This was the very tail-end of taking actual film-based photos in space for surveillance purposes. The bottom line is we got to the point where we could just beam it down electronically, the Soviets weren’t quite there yet. This was going to be the defense if there was a manned-craft-short-term-picture-taking-battle of spies in the sky.

        No new new here.

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