Why There Are Still No Real ‘Smart’ Guns Yet

Smart gun prototype

Michael Recce, associate professor of information systems at New Jersey Institute of Technology and inventor of a “smart gun” technology holds a prototype of the gun with grip recognition technology, during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2004. New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey and other Democratic elected officials gathered at the New Jersey Institute of Technology Tuesday to announce a $1.1 million federal grant in a pending federal appropriations bill to help refine what they hope will become the first commercially marketable smart gun technology. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)

Hint: It isn’t because the evil gun industry is refusing to try, gun controllers’ claims to the contrary.

Recently, the Jacksonville, Florida Sheriff’s Office had an embarrassing situation. JSO tweets out a nightly advisory to make sure your guns are out of cars and properly secured. That positioned them perfectly for recent ridicule when someone stole a cruiser… and the guns and gear inside.

The vehicle was recovered. The weapons were not.

Which prompted a well-intentioned person to tweet a suggestion

I know this is a long shot. But should consider some type of biometric scanner for issued firearms. And not to be funny but we should all follow the 9pm routine. I understand that officers take their vehicles home. Or implement some type of in trunk safe for weapons.

I noted that “smart guns” are a lot tougher to do in the real world than most people realize. He responded:

I figured that much. Still something should be implemented to where is secured but then I guess you run the issue when it’s needed you have more steps to get to it.

Part of the problem is that “something” is really “somethings. Here’s a primer on why smart guns, or other “foolproof” firearms security is hard.

Basics of keeping any firearm running

Firearms are over-stressed tools. They are subject to G-shocks as high as the tens of thousands of gravities, temperatures that can take skin off, and pressures that can turn them into grenades. That firearms can continue to operate for dozens of rounds, much less hundreds and thousands, is a monument to metallurgy and engineering.

Besides the torture firearms inflict upon themselves, they have to operate reliably in environmental conditions the urban office-bound human may have trouble imagining. External temps ranging from far below zero Farenheit to well over one hundred degrees. Dust, grit. Corrosion-inducing moisture. Mud. Ice. Even blood on occasion.

Firearms require regular maintenance to keep going. They require lubricants, which vary depending upon expected conditions (oil suitable for high desert becomes a semi-rigid gel at low temperatures).

Anything you add to a firearm to make it “smart” has to withstand all of those same conditions.

“Smart” guns

Part of my professional experience comes into play here. I’ve kept fancy electronics running under some bizarre conditions. I’ve done quality control work on electronics, including components for military weapons systems. It turns out there’s a reason that MILSPEC systems seem over-priced to folks used to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment. It isn’t all price-gouging, graft, and bribery.

Douglas Weiss, who works on the “smart gun” project at Sandia National Laboratories, holds a “smart gun” prototype and a computer chip in his Albuquerque, N.M., office Friday, March 31, 1995. The gun uses technology that recognizes the gun’s owner and prevents anyone else from firing the weapon. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf)

A “smart” gun is going to require electronics. Electronics in a firearm are sensitive to all the conditions that the gun is, and more so. An over-heated gun may stop working until it cools. Over-heated electronics will likely need to be replaced. That’s a bit of a problem if you’re trying to use your handgun to defend your home. Same with corrosion from moisture/humidity.

And then there are the G-shocks. Any electronics you hang on a firearm will have to survive thousands of Gs. Repeatedly. Every round fired.

To demonstrate this, take your fancy smart phone. Throw it firmly onto a concrete floor. Does it still work?

A smart gun will have to work after the equivalent forces. Over and over. You think recoil hurts your hand? Imagine what it’s doing to surface mount technology, large-scale integrated circuit components.

As mentioned, I did some quality control work for components in a military weapons system; little transmitters for which the company charged many thousands of dollars. The reason for the cost was multi-fold.

Each unit had to be hand assembled. That was to ensure every screw, solder joint, and RF connector would withstand serious g-shocks. Each one went on a g-table for testing. Any unit that failed was one we spent money building, but couldn’t sell.

Each unit had to withstand multiple enormous temperature shifts. We literally tested these by cycling them multiple times between an oven set to…hmm, that temperature might be NOFORN… and then to a freezer set to something rather colder than you’d want for ice cream. And back to the oven. Lather, rinse repeat.

Again, a unit killed by thermal shock was money we couldn’t recoup. (And I’ll just skip the part about liquid nitrogen and tuning.)

Stephen Sliwa, president of Colt Manufacturing Co., holds a prototype of the company’s “smart gun” at the Colt plant in West Hartford, Conn., Friday, Oct. 23, 1998. The small transponder Sliwa holds in his right hand communicates with a small radio transmitter within the gun to operate the trigger. The weapons are designed to be used only by the people who buy them. Sliwa says that production is still at least two years away. (AP Photo/Bob Child)

The military was willing to pay our prices because they need weapons that will work no matter what. So does an honest private citizen defending his family. To get MILSPEC-style reliability in a “smart” gun, you’d need MILSPEC-style construction, testing…and pricing.

Requiring — reliable, at the current level of technology — “smart” gun technology means the right to keep and bear arms is limited to those wealthy enough to afford a “cheap” handgun priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. Poor people don’t need no 2A, right?

“But people have made successful smart guns,” I imagine hearing someone mutter. “What about the Armatix iP1?”

The iP1 was/is…a very sad joke. It was an RFID-based system rather than biometric (more on why biometrics don’t work later). It was subject to RF interference. To cope with the G-shocks, it was a mere .22LR, a round generally considered inadequate for defense, because anything more powerful was going to destroy the electronics. And it still failed in testing anywhere from 10% to 20% of the time. In no test I read did anyone successfully fire an entire magazine without a failure.

One advantage the Armatix had over most prototypes I’ve seen was the lack of bulk in the handgun. It was compact, while the usual collection of “smart” gun sensors, processor, interlock, and batteries makes concealable handguns not-so-concealable. Armatix got around that by putting much of the hardware in a bulky, ugly watch on the user’s wrist. But the hardware has to go somewhere.

Biometrics

So you want a fingerprint keyed firearm, just like your smart phone. Sadly, those — the tech varies, so the fail modes do as well — don’t work so well when it’s cold out, or if your hand is sweaty. Or if you don’t have time to carefully slide your finger over the scanner. Or if you’re wearing shooting gloves. And it’s still electronic, so see the above caveats.

Other biometric systems that have been tried in the real world, and in fiction, have included wrist tendon sensing (but you have to grip your weapon exactly the same way every time; that takes practice), palm prints (all the same problems as fingerprints), grip pattern, and even voice printing: Lost In Space; “Enable gun for all users.” Now imagine voice printing under stress, in the noisy environment of a gun fight. Have you ever used a voice recognition system word processor? Good luck unlocking your handgun.

Wait…have I mentioned the batteries these things require? Show of hands: whose smart phone has gone dead in the cold? In a gunfight, you do not want to get a “CHECK BATTERY” message instead of a BANG!

Mechanical Systems

One sort-of “smart” system has been around for some time: Magna-Trigger. No batteries, no electronics. It’s a magnetic ring worn on the finger that disables an interlock inside the handgun. Some people swore by them. Others still found it a failure mode, because the ring has to remain properly positioned even during recoil. Or the gun doesn’t go bang again. It also requires custom — read: expensive — gunsmithing. We’re back to 2A-only-for-rich again.

Another electronic system is being developed that also bypasses some of the firing stresses. A “smart” holster. While it will still need to handle ambient environmental conditions, I think it holds a lot more promise than smart guns, if for no other other reason than that a holster can be larger than a usable handgun.

What exactly is the smart gun protecting against?

From the gun control side of the argument, we typically hear that “smart” guns will protect owners from having their sidearm snatched and used against them, keep children from firing it accidentally, and prevent criminals from using it if it’s stolen in a burglary. All things to all people.

Eh…no.

Assuming you’ve come up with a workable “smart” gun, it might help with a snatch & shoot scenario. Unless you’ve based it on a Galaxy S10 fingerprint reader, which will accept anyone’s fingerprint (oopsie…biometrics are hard).

Such a working system might help with small children grabbing an unattended gun and shooting themselves. But putting the darned gun away is cheaper and more effective. Based on complacency I’ve seen with other alleged security systems, I would expect to see idiots placing full faith in the “smart” gun, and failing in basic firearms handling.

What a smart gun cannot help with is the stolen-and-used-later scenario. A gun safe isn’t any guarantee of that. I’ve seen numerous reports of safes being stolen and found later… torched, cut, or bashed open.

No “smart” gun can be designed to work against someone stealing a gun, who now has hours/days/weeks to figure out how to disable the sucurity features. In the case of the iP1, it was someone fiddling with a magnet who discovered how to instantly bypass the safety. With some gun safes, it was nothing but the foil wrapper from a stick of chewing gum.

Come the day that someone manages to build a useful, reliable, and affordable “smart” gun, I’ll be interested. But the limits of existing technology presently make “useful” and “affordable” incompatible.

comments

  1. avatar Del Schitt says:

    Why didn’t colt make that polymer frame gun without the lame circuitry?

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      It would have to compete with other polymer guns of the time.

      They would have gotten their ass handed to them.

      The Colt AllAmerican 2000 felt great but had a trigger that made a Sigma seem like a glass rod breaking.

      In the late 90s, Colt had quit being a gun company and was trying to be a preffered government vendor.

      1. avatar Guesty McGuesterson says:

        I had a Sigma for a number of years. The durned thing had continual failures to feed, and the front end of the polymer frame literally warped over time. I came to understand why S&W manufactured them with such a hideously large gap between the lower and the slide assembly. I got rid of it.

        1. avatar HEGEMON says:

          No joke, I had a Sigma that I threw into the ocean just to get rid of it, I really, really detested it. WORST firearm that I ever purchased.

  2. avatar I Haz A Question says:

    Oh good grief. Anyone who’s ever trained at 3 yards from the silhouette knows that you draw/fire from the holster within only 1 second as you back up to gain distance and acquire a better sight picture. If a smart gun/holster delays for only 1 second to permit access, yer dead as your opponent lunges forward to grab your neck/shirt/gun and overpower you.

    These people are idiots. One of the newbies I took to the range was completely astonished at how the entire experience was not only exhilarating, but completely different than he always imagined it would be. All fear of guns left him, and a lot of respect for gun owners was gained that day.

    “Smart” requirements will never work (only in the Judge Dredd universe). I say the crap-for-brains politicians who mandate this stuff take the step of first implementing it in their LE Depts. Then they’ll experience the failures and the resulting lawsuits.

    1. avatar SoCalJack says:

      Haz, thanks for doing your part in bringing in new shooters. I’ve been slacking off; the Obama years, when gun sales were great, that the last time I was able to bring in new folks, or re-acquait them into shooting a gun.

  3. avatar Victoria Illinois says:

    You know those cars that have an unlocking mechanism in the door handle? They don’t work for me when it’s cold out.
    Those sensors on the side of the car to alert you to blind-spot traffic? When they’re covered in sleet they Beeeeeeeeeeeep the whole ride home. (Going into menu to turn off didn’t work.)
    I’m guessing those smart sensors won’t work either.

    1. avatar Specialist38 says:

      Have you started carrying yet, Victoria?

  4. avatar GS650G says:

    Guns that are as controllable as teslas. What would the left do with that control?

  5. avatar Dale Menard says:

    California courts have ruled that just because something is physically impossible (microstamp), does not mean the law requiring it is invalid. I am surprised they have not pushed smart guns harder for this very reason.

  6. avatar Darkman says:

    Why? Simple answer. No Market No Build. If consumers will not buy a product. Companies will not waste money and resources on manufacturing. There is also the 737 Max issue. If the technology fails. The related expense and possible litigation makes the whole idea a push at best.

  7. avatar Shire-man says:

    Same reasons self driving cars aren’t on the roads.
    For all the hype they don’t work and current estimates project they may be viable sometime in the 2030’s for the low low price of $250,000.
    Reality meet expectations.

    1. avatar neiowa says:

      Yes and to prove they can make it work we must go directly to 80000 tractor-trailers.

    2. avatar tsbhoa.p.jr says:

      i thought they were…
      either way, i did see a testing guy at a substation who spoke into his phone, “come to me” and his tesla did. pulled up with the driver’s door adjacent. the video is pretty undrwhelming until you see there’s no one behind the wheel.
      take an uber home, call for your car in the morning?

    3. avatar GluteusMaximus says:

      The hype on those have been insane. I suspect it will not work for 50yrs. On our roads? It’s amazing how many have bought into that. Maybe in prescribed routes like a trolly car it could work

  8. avatar GunnyGene says:

    Machetes are dangerous also, never run out of ammo, and are in widespread use around the world. How about making a biometrically controlled machete? 😉

  9. avatar enuf says:

    I’ll add a bit to the author’s experience. As a multi-discipline engineer and tech I have worked in product development and testing multiple times over a long career. Also used very advanced electronics everywhere from broiling deserts to the ice caps, frozen seas of Antarctica. I can and do attest to the intense testing required of technology upon which lives will depend. I continue to deal every day with the failure analysis of failed devices that did not survive routine production testing. Or worse, failed in customer screening.

    It is no small and cheap task to come up with gadgets and gizmos that anyone can trust their life too. The idea that some circuit board will go into a gun and make it perfectly protected from ill use and will work instantly for the owner is a silly and uninformed pipe dream.

    One more point, propagation delay, processing and reaction time.

    Every electronic device takes some amount of time to react to a stimulus. Anything you add in the way of “smarts” is going to take time to decide the stimulus is correct for removing whatever safety device is in place. That device is going to be electro-mechanical. A lever, a pin,, a connecting rod, something must be moved by a little motor or a solenoid.

    So, you have processing time for the embedded brains of the thing to detect the stimulus, digitize the signal into data, process the data in a decision making algorithm, approve the desired response, send a signal to a power transistor of some type, enabling power to flow thru a solenoid or other electro-mechanical device and finally move the safety thingy out of the way.

    So, time passes. May not seem like much in the calm of a gun shop sales demo or for a politician showing it off in a speech.

    But if you are in a gun fight where fractions of a second may decide life and death, all this crap is time you do not have. A second is an eternity. A half second is half an eternity.

    That’s a long time to wait to shoot back.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      enuf,

      Meh, I am not worried about processing time. Even modest microprocessors by today’s standards will be able to evaluate stimulus and energize their output in less than 1/1000th of a second. (Assuming the very low clock speed of 500 MHz and three clock-cycles per instruction on average, that processor could run through 166,666 instructions in 1/1000th of a second).

      I am much more concerned about a tiny servo motor or solenoid and the associated battery to drive it. Even if the actuator can survive the G-forces of recoil (which is anything but guaranteed), will it be able to function when caked full of the lint and gunk that finds its way into handguns? Will it be able to function after five years of humidity and sweat? Will it be able to function at -40 degrees Fahrenheit? And will it do all that with 99.99% reliability? I seriously doubt it.

  10. avatar Andrew Lias says:

    Give me 4-6 hours with any of these smart guns and basic hand tools and I’ll have it reverse engineered and on YouTube for everyone to see. I don’t think I’d be unique either. In the end there’s still a firing pin hitting a primer.

    One thing that the article writer did not mention is when it comes to a smart gun what constitutes “failing safe.” That’s a REALLY complicated design question with two contradictory outcomes. You could have the smart gun fail where it will shoot but all you’d have to do is pull a battery or fry the circuitry and boom you’ve got a dumb gun again or you can have it fail where it won’t shoot without the circuitry intervening but you’re going to then have the risk of forgetting to charge your battery and getting shot up when you try to pull your smart gun on the robber/home invader/perp/whoever needs a killing. Due to the design functionality and purpose of a gun these differences can not be reconciled, at least not easily.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Andrew Lias,

      Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!!! We have a winner.

      Aside from the insurmountable technological hurdles, you just defined an irreconcilable requirements problem.

      This is the same as a “smart” door lock on a home. What is the fail-safe state? If the fail-safe state is “locked”, then the homeowner cannot enter NOR EXIT his/her home when the lock fails. If the fail-safe state is “unlocked”, then anyone can enter the home and that is equally problematic.

      There are some critical functions that we can accomplish with simple mechanical devices which have astronomical reliability. We should never attempt to replace those simple devices with “smart” contraptions.

    2. avatar Jim from LI says:

      The very definition of “fail safe” is open to interpretation. I’m sure that all of us reading TTAG consider it to be reverting to a non-smart gun in the event the smart system fails. The anti-2A people think that in the event of a failure, the gun is rendered unfireable, because they consider that the safe condition.

      1. avatar ZBM-2 says:

        It’s also a liability consideration. Currently, gun manufacturers aren’t terribly open to lawsuits, because like all manufacturers, they’re only liable for manufacturer and design defects (and it’s kind of sad that it required legislation to make sure that that was the case) and not misuse of their product.

        Enter smart guns. If the gun fails “open”, the manufacturer gets sued when a criminal uses a stolen gun to shoot someone, and the mechanism doesn’t work. If the gun fails “shut” the manufacturer gets sued when someone tries to use their gun to defend themselves, and the mechanism doesn’t work.

        No matter which failure mode their engineers choose, the manufacturer is going to get sued out of business if their “smart guns” get bought in bulk as anything other than technical novelties.

  11. avatar Southern Cross says:

    Smart guns are a dumb idea promoted by those who barely know technology and know almost nothing about firearms.

    1. avatar "keep yur paws off ny dead guy" possum says:

      Id just go with snart gunms are dumb

  12. avatar American Patriot says:

    Wayyy to much to read on a subject that I have no interest! When the Feds, military & state LE’s are using them Well I’ll probably be dead & still have no interest……..I just hope when I’m dead I’m not voting Democrapic!

  13. avatar Imayeti says:

    Let’s face it. Smart guns are a stupid idea.

    1. avatar SoCalJack says:

      Whenever this topic comes out it’s the same stuff. Biometrics, who cares. Where’s the Lawgiver? https://youtu.be/2NsjFfdQKLU

  14. avatar Hannibal says:

    It’s not as unusual as you might think for cop cars to get stolen… usually by crazy or drunk people, but still. Leaving an unsecured weapon inside is insane and should be grounds for severe career punishment. That is… if the department even has policies about it.

    No gun rack is fully secure but you want to have one that takes time to break into.

  15. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Being an electrical engineer and a gunsmith, I can tell you in one word “why there are still no real ‘smart’ guns yet:”

    Reality.

    Most of this ‘smart gun’ nonsense has sprung from the minds of lawyers, politicians and other people who know nothing about reality – nothing about electronics, nothing about guns. I would echo everything said about mil-spec electronics above – my first job out of school was for a defense contractor and we used mil-spec components in our comm systems. They were expensive – very expensive compared to consumer-grade components. One of the things the military worries about the most in electronics/electrical assemblies are the connectors – a seemingly mundane area of design that, when your design “must work” in a harsh environment, the connectors suddenly become one of your most challenging areas of design.

    Then we come to the issue of “will it prevent a gun from firing?” Maybe with the low-IQ voters who vote for these fools, and certainly smart guns would absolutely defeat these idiot liberal arts majors turned politicians and ‘journalists – these people are so stupid, they can’t operate a claw hammer correctly.

    But for the person who steals the ‘smart’ gun and then has the luxury of time to deal with the ‘smart’ design? No ‘smart’ gun will stop that gun from being used – just the same as ‘no gun safe will survive being stolen.’

  16. avatar "keep yur paws off ny dead guy" possum says:

    If that gunms so smart why do I have to feed it?

  17. avatar Mad Max says:

    Biometrics (at least consumer grade biometrics) don’t work.

    I have had iPhones and Android phones with fingerprint and/or facial recognition that failed to recognize me or my fingerprints after a few days.

    I’ve tried setting them up multiple times only to have them fail again. The facial recognition works longer than the fingerprint technology but neither gets past a week without relearning.

  18. avatar HEGEMON says:

    There is no such thing as a smart gun. This is a fentanyl induced dream by the anti-gun left. They don’t work, which is a FEATURE not a flaw in the design.

  19. My cellphone shuts down if I leave it in the car on a warm day due to the built in thermal protection. Imagine your gun doing that.

  20. avatar Jim Warren says:

    Picture this scenario… home invasion, multiple actors. I get one or two before getting taken out, gun falls to floor. No one else in the house would be able to use that gun to continue the fight. Smart gun? More like intentionally stupid gun.

  21. avatar toomanyhobbies says:

    those morons must have watched the movie “Judge Dread” and thought OH YEAH we will do that; next they will expect flying motorcycles….

  22. avatar Doug McElwain says:

    Uncommom_sense mentioned smart door locks and their fail-safe. I have battery powered electronic door locks that use a combination on my exterior doors. Of course if the batteries are dead they don’t work. So naturally they have the key backup so you can get in the house. So are they going to build the “smart” gun with a mechanical override to allow it’s use if the electronics are dead? Doesn’t seem feasible and for sure you would be long dead before getting it unlocked in a self-defense situation.

  23. avatar Anymouse says:

    Damn, it was writing a reply and invented what could be a critical piece of technology for a practical smart gun. Now I have to decide what to do about it.

  24. avatar Henry says:

    And of course, 60+% of all firearms deaths are suicides. “Keying a gun to shoot for nobody but its owner” isn’t doing to do squat about that.

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