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Author Topic: How Could a Steam Rifle Work?  (Read 17308 times)
Ponzu
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« on: May 12, 2011, 02:44:48 pm »

Hi, hope you don't mind if I introduce myself here real quick.  I'm a newcomer to the Steampunk scene after having read Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I've been hooked on the genre since, and as someone who likes creative writing, I'm going to try my hand at writing steampunk.

I've been doing research into how steam power could be used for personal weapons.  I've seen a lot of great steampunk inspired rifles, which make for great art pieces but leaves me to wonder how they would work if they were real.  I'm wondering if anyone could help me with the technical aspects of this, I was never very strong in science  Undecided

Talked with someone about it on another forum, and here's the closest I got to a concept for a steam powered small arm:

Composed of a furnace (which would be worn like a backpack), air tube and breech loading rifle.  The furnace has four compartments. The top is empty, the second is the water. The third is the stove, and the lowest is compressed air storage.

The stove boils the water, turning it to steam. The steam travels up to the top chamber where it condenses back to water. in the process, it operates a pneumatic pump which draws air from the surrounding area and fills the lower container. This could be a simple piston, like a bicycle pump.

Once the water mass in the top reached about 3/4, a valve opens and sends the water back to the second chamber to be heated again. You'd still lose water, but nowhere near as quickly.  When the steam is released through the tube to the loaded gun, it would provide the force to shoot the bullet.

After talking it over there were three issues, considering everything else works.  The first was how to keep the operator from getting burned by the furnace.  The second was if the gun could be fired from the prone position.  The third was how much water could be carried, though it wasn't specified if that meant inside the pack or on the firer's person.

If personal steam weapons aren't practical enough to take seriously, I've also been looking at pneumatic weapons.  The Austrians experimented with a short lived pressurized air rifle called the Girandoni.


In case anyone is wondering, I'm familiar with a few of the steam powered gun attempts, such as the Winans steam gun in the American Civil War.  The problem is that those weren't miniaturized, and I need something an individual could carry on their own for my story.
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« Reply #1 on: May 12, 2011, 03:06:45 pm »

I think the issue with this has always been the transportability of the furnace required to provide the steam - as you have already identified.

This is something I struggled with in one of my own stories, when I wanted to use a character with a steam rifle... but in the end I couldnt think of a way to do it.  I considered the idea of "charging" the rifle from a furnace - by creating some sort of vessel that could trap steam under pressure. But of course, as soon as the steam cools down it simply reverts to water and the pressure is lost.  So you would need the rifle to contain a heated, pressurised steam vessel.  And even this would only give you limited shots, if more than one.

I suppose if you created this vessel, it could almost be like a magazine on a modern rifle - you could have a bandolier of them, and have to reload between shots.  The rifle would have to be very powerful to make this slow and limited firing pattern worthwhile.  However I do think that this is likely to move into the realms of fantasy!

Alternatively, you could look into a different way of producing the heat required, but then this will move away from the steam element.

Sorry, I dont actually think, as my rambling as proven, that I can help you! 

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Just call me Rob
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« Reply #2 on: May 12, 2011, 03:07:23 pm »

Unless you're actually shooting steam at a target then the steam is likely going to be used to create pressure or move mechanics.

Personally I'd go for some sort if air rifle style of thing – like a paintball gun.
But you could use a small steam engine to re-pressurise the gas canister.

Alternatively (using quazi science) it could be a gunpowder weapon, the waste heat from the firing could be used to heat a small amount of water which would push through a small steam engine and load the next cartridge – or perhaps used to push a piston onto a weighted wheel to counteract the recoil.
This steam would condense back to water in the chamber and await the next shot to heat the chamber again.
Perhaps some solution of water and stuffium that has a very low boiling point.

The steam would not be the energy that causes the shot, but a by-product that is used in a repeating action or perhaps to charge a second barrel.
If the second barrel was to fire a grenade then it would benefit from steam powered propulsion rather than a gunpowder shot as there would be less chance of an accidental explosion in the barrel.
« Last Edit: May 12, 2011, 03:13:01 pm by Just call me Rob » Logged

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The Abiliegh
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« Reply #3 on: May 12, 2011, 03:11:54 pm »

Steampunk, at it's very core, is retro-futurism. Don't be afraid to play a little fast and loose with your science.

And don't forget the glories of clockwork.
« Last Edit: May 12, 2011, 03:33:12 pm by The Abiliegh » Logged

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« Reply #4 on: May 12, 2011, 03:14:23 pm »

Also, this is way cool!

MIT Steamcannon
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« Reply #5 on: May 12, 2011, 03:30:24 pm »

Oddly enough, I'm 80% done on a (non-working) steam musket - I'm using the 'steam reservoir' approach, with a back-mounted set of linked pressure vessels providing my steam supply, charged from a steam plant of some description, perhaps horse (or steam wagon)-drawn and held a wee ways behind the front line and to which I'd have to return when my steam supply ran low. Mine's (currently) a muzzle-loader, so the trigger would be a simple lever to operate a slide or piston valve to release a set amount of steam to propel the ball out of the barrel.

Haven't yet done the calculations around working pressure, reservoir capacity (though I know that's around 10l) or steam loss per shot. (Okay, it's a non-working gun, but it's good to have the back-story ready, right?  Wink )

Mine's inspired by the muskets from the anime series Last Exile, though those were fed from a mains-type steam supply on the aerial dreadnauts using long hoses, possible because they were fired from fixed firing platforms, rather than independantly on open ground.

And 'Fireless' locomotives are basically large steam pressure vessels, charged from a suitable steam supply and capable of several hours use before needing to be recharged.
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« Reply #6 on: May 12, 2011, 03:52:32 pm »

All of my steam weapons operate on the idea of instantly creating the steam through a chemical reaction of two (sometimes three) special liquids.  The reaction when they combine fires out raw super heated steam for many or a projectile for some models.  Part of the premise is that this was discovered in the 1870s and perfected by Bernard Maets, who not only made weapons with this approach, but time machines, rocket packs, and more.  The exact formula has been lost, but research is on going at this time to rediscover what Maets knew over 100 years ago.  The reason my pieces don't actually work is because we don't have the secret formula, yet.  I welcome you to read all about it on my website www.TheSteamEmporium.com.  Look in the Maets section.  Thanks.
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Dr Fidelius
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« Reply #7 on: May 12, 2011, 04:22:44 pm »

A steam rifle can work quite well, thank you very much.  I can drop a Martian Mammoth at over five hunderd yards with a standard production model, much further with "sniper" modifications.

Oh, and I believe Maets was insipred by an encounter with "bombadier beetle" which defends itself by igniting its own flatulence with a chemical mix.  Occassionally they blast their own hinderparts off with an unfortunately timed sneeze.
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« Reply #8 on: May 12, 2011, 04:28:13 pm »

I rather like Maet's idea. Having the water vaporize instantly could give the momentum to shoot a projectile.

What about having a very hot chamber inside the rifle ( heat source unkown??? ) into which a measured amount of water was introduced. This would vaporize and expand rapidly, moving a piston to amplify the motion which would then shoot the projectile.

Cocking the rifle would then involve reseting the position of the piston and maybe forcing the condensed steam back into a water resevoir to mimize water loss.
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« Reply #9 on: May 12, 2011, 04:28:50 pm »

In some contexts, it might make more sense to use a small, semi-portable steam engine to run an air compressor, and maintain a decent-sized tank-full of air under high pressure. This would then be a base station from which pneumatic weapons could be charged, or perhaps from which swappable reservoirs for weapons could be charged. Fixed-mount weapons could simply run an air-line to the tank.
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Ponzu
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« Reply #10 on: May 12, 2011, 07:27:07 pm »

Thanks for the replies, it was pretty insightful.  Abiliegh made a good point about going light on science considering the genre, but I don't want to take that to an extreme.  I like the idea of an air pressure station that soldiers could go to replenish their pneumatic weapons.  I also like Maet's instant steam idea.  That might be the perfect way to depict a steam rifle semi-realistically.
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Dr. Sniderbunk
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« Reply #11 on: May 12, 2011, 08:10:08 pm »

What about using something similar to those water heaters that are in MRE's.  Capturing the steam to build the pressure for the chamber.
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pakled
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« Reply #12 on: May 13, 2011, 07:38:04 am »

it would be horribly inefficient, but just for the 'hey y'all, watch this' value...Wink We do have steam catapults, on aircraft carriers...
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« Reply #13 on: May 13, 2011, 08:18:34 am »

We all know what happens when you try to put out a fryingpan fire with water.
Huge flame!!!
Why not use this principle in a smaller scale. Heat up a small amount of oil inside a barrel and detonate it with a drop of water. The nozzle have to be short to prevent cooling down and condensation.

A more safer way: cola/mentos gun!  Grin
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« Reply #14 on: May 14, 2011, 10:32:04 am »

Have a rifle cartridge filled with water instead of gunpowder, then dump a massive dose of electricity through the casing, enough to heat it up quickly enough to flash-boil the water. That ought to work.. in my mind at least..
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« Reply #15 on: May 15, 2011, 04:11:26 am »

Maybe you should consider steam powered artillary instead.  Sort of a land based torpedo system would work fine; another would be a steam powered rail gun.  A barrell, propelling a shell using up to ten side power assists.   Grin
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« Reply #16 on: May 15, 2011, 01:08:06 pm »

another would be a steam powered rail gun.  A barrell, propelling a shell using up to ten side power assists.



Steampowered rail gun with six side assists

Have a rifle cartridge filled with water instead of gunpowder,



Steampowered cartridge gun

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« Reply #17 on: May 15, 2011, 07:29:07 pm »

I have a similar idea in my novel where one of the characters uses a semi-automatic crossbow which is re-cocked by means of a pressurised canister. Generally a system using such a canister would be the best option for a personal weapon like a rifle.
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« Reply #18 on: May 18, 2011, 02:11:28 am »

Have a rifle cartridge filled with water instead of gunpowder, then dump a massive dose of electricity through the casing, enough to heat it up quickly enough to flash-boil the water. That ought to work.. in my mind at least..
to me that seems perfectly plausible.

its an idea i havent really thought about alot, guess it will give me something to think about when im at work.

Ananias S. Wildwire
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« Reply #19 on: May 18, 2011, 07:25:52 am »

Gunpowder is simply too efficient for the size than anything else.

Air power does work. I've seen a Girandoni, both in Austria and in San Marino, used in combat in the 1800s. The air tank was in the stock, much like a modern paintball gun.  Lewis and Clark used one on thier expedition as well.

Steam would best be limited to light field artillery, or as aboard an airship, as a method to power mounted weaponry. Using it to charge up air to fire the weapon, not use the steam itself.

The French used an air-powered mortar for trench warfare in World War One before everyone settled down to what they would use, as well as a large arbalest (crossbow) for flinging mortar bombs quietly.
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Gunner Gregson
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« Reply #20 on: May 18, 2011, 02:16:56 pm »

i was thinking today about a larger weapon, powered by steam. similar to a water rocket (im sure we have all tried it) place the 'fuel' in the projectile, the 'fuel' being water. now normally you feed in air pressure at this point, but im unsure wether or not you can replace the air pressure with steam pressure.
in my opinion steam power is going to be more feasible on larger, fixed position guns. Steam cannon (wasnt this a Mythbusters episode?) would be a nice idea. i had ideas ages ago for a cannon, but like all my other projects they never get going.

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« Reply #21 on: May 18, 2011, 04:32:12 pm »

Many years ago when Evil Kneivel attempted to jump the Snake River, he used a steam powered rocket.  Basically, a compressed gas cylinder was partially filled with water.  The cylinder was heated with a propane burner.  A massive valve was opened and the super heated water escaped as steam and propelled the rocket.  Unfortunately, Evil pulled the parachute too soon. 

Same principal easily turned into a weapon.  A cylinder of what ever size is appropriate has some water in it.  When ready to fire it is super heated (very quickly ideally) and the end opened so that the projectile is a miniture steam rock.  In many ways the same as your basic water bottle rocket.
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Mr. Boltneck
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« Reply #22 on: May 18, 2011, 04:39:39 pm »

Another way that people have generated steam rapidly is by decomposing concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the presence of a metal catalyst. If you can use it in rockets and "jet-packs," it will probably work in a gun barrel as well.
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« Reply #23 on: May 18, 2011, 06:55:32 pm »

With really long hoses.

That's "Electrocuting the Enemy", from The Electrical Experimenter during WWI. They're shooting streams of water charged up from a generator somewhere behind them. Note the hoses connected to each gun. Not one of the better ideas in the history of weaponry. Especially against machine guns.

As discussed in this thread, steam guns were actually deployed around 1880-1900, but in fixed fortifications, driven from a central boiler.

A steam rifle with air-rifle performance should be quite feasible, although the backpack boiler and hoses probably make it somewhat impractical.  "Compact", "lightweight", "portable", and "steam-powered" do not go together well.

Some kind of air rifle where the discharge gives off a puff of water vapor ought to be possible.
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« Reply #24 on: May 18, 2011, 11:21:07 pm »

If you want to throw electricity into the works, I've seen an idea for converting a lawnmower motor to run on water by replacing the spark plug with a microwave magnetron and using the ignition to fire the magnetron with enough power to instantly vaporize the water.  Granted I don't think there's any way that could work in the real world, but with a bit of tweaking to the laws of physics and/or materials science the concept could be used to explain the workings of a steam rifle.
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