In this article, the railguns seen throughout the Command & Conquer series will be put under the spotlight to see how they compare to the railguns of the real world.
Railguns have become a notable feature of the GDI arsenal within the Tiberium universe from Tiberian Sun onward, although they showed up in Nod’s hands in Renegade, which came first chronologically.
- Tiberian Sun: Ghost Stalker, Mammoth Mk. II
- Renegade: Railgun
- Tiberium Wars: Sniper Team, Zone Troopers, Commando, Railguns Upgrade
- Tiberian Twilight: AT-22 Hunter
At the time railguns were first added to the series, they were still mostly a thing of science fiction. As such, their properties are somewhat fanciful or exaggerated, though perhaps less-so than some of the other technologies throughout the series that were well understood even at the time of their additions.
Railguns are a type of electromagnetic weapon that accelerates a projectile down two electrically conductive rails to reach muzzle velocities of around 2-3 km/s (1.24-1.86 mi/s). If the weapon doesn’t have these two rails, it isn’t a railgun. Due to this requirement, railguns should not feature round barrels, rather rectangles or ovals would be more appropriate to accommodate both the rails and the path for the projectile. In this respect, the square barrels of the tanks and Guardian Cannon in Tiberium Wars with railgun upgrades may be the most realistic depiction of the weapon’s outward appearance in the series.
The projectile effect of railguns in Command & Conquer took on a few different designs, but most were represented with a thin trail of smoke. Presumably this arose from a belief that railguns accelerated their projectiles so fast, they ignited the atmosphere itself. For high velocity objects moving through the atmosphere, the heating primarily comes from the compression of air in the shock wave at the nose end, friction heating is mostly negligible as the passing air removes heat at about the same rate as friction generates it. Since railgun projectiles would be shaped like a dart to reduce as much drag as possible for maximum flight efficiency, the compression heating would also be smaller than something like a meteor or reentry vessel. To achieve a glowing hot shock wave, the projectile would need to reach around 8.5 km/s (5.29 mi/s).
Although real railguns do not leave a glowing smoke trail, they do cause enough friction while leaving the barrel to ignite small particles from the rails and contacts, causing a fireball to erupt from the aperture that is not particularly dissimilar to a conventional gunpowder cannon. Additionally, the energy released upon impact against a solid target will also generate sufficient heat to cause small explosions. With the notable exception of Tiberian Twilight’s Hunter, the muzzle blast and impact are not depicted in the games, making the railguns more closely resemble some sort of energy beam weapon.
The sounds made by the railguns within the series are completely fabricated. Since railgun projectiles would be supersonic, they would also generate a sonic boom. The sound of the sonic boom would likely mask or blend in with any sound caused by the electrical discharge used to launch the projectile.
Now, of course, damage inflicted must be considered. In Tiberian Sun, railguns could penetrate any target and damage rows of units or buildings with a single shot. This is very unrealistic, high velocity alone is insufficient to increase penetration significantly. As a point of fact, explosively formed penetrators can impact a tank at a much greater velocity than a railgun. Projectile speeds against a tank hull higher than about 2 km/s (1.24 mi/s) may only increase the width of the impact crater rather than the depth. The advantages of railguns over conventional weapons does not necessarily include damage, rather they can have better range, accuracy, and storage safety.
The final point that must be covered is railguns in the hands of infantry, as there are some major issues with handheld railguns.
The first problem is the amount of power needed to fire a railgun. How much a railgun can accelerate its projectile is determined by the rail length and electrical energy, and since the barrel length on infantry weapons would be severely limited, this would require an even higher electrical charge to achieve any meaningful speed. Given enough time to charge, it might be plausible that a person could carry a railgun, but they would need to make sure their first shot really counted, because they will be hiding behind cover waiting for their capacitors to recharge long enough for the rest of their forces to finish the battle without them. One possible method to partially circumvent this would be what is known as pre-injection, where a conventional accelerant is used to get the projectile started. However, during the Renegade campaign, Nod soldiers can be overheard discussing the railgun, saying it has no internal propulsion.
The second problem is recoil. Despite a common myth that claims railguns don’t have recoil, railguns do not defy the third law of motion, and they absolutely do. This means that a handheld railgun putting enough kinetic energy into a slug to penetrate the side of a tank would throw its user backward with equal force.
Tiberium Wars diversified infantry railguns by including custom variants for the Sniper Team that had very long range with little damage against hard targets, and the automatic railgun wielded by the GDI Commando that sacrificed damage per shot for a high rate of fire. Although by no means realistic, these variants might actually be more plausible than regular handheld railguns as achieving a velocity sufficient to penetrate flesh is far more attainable than that required to penetrate a tank hull.