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A Bullet That Can Find Its Target

Sandia National Labs is advancing ammunition technology

Battlefield conditions at times call for weaponry with overwhelming firepower, pinpoint accuracy and perfect timing. Sandia National Labs is looking to add new ammunition technology to that mix by testing a small-caliber guided bullet—a “smart bullet” that can steer itself toward a laser-designated target from over a mile away.

An optical sensor in the nose of the bullet “watches” for the laser on the target while electronic guidance and control systems transfer electromagnetic energy into motion. A counterbalancing mass and stabilizing stakes help steer the projectile to the target. Sandia aims to finish further testing of the prototype and bring a guided bullet to the marketplace once a partnership with a private company has been confirmed.



– Plastic sabots (supports) safely carry the bullet down the barrel and protect its delicate fins by sealing gas in the cartridge behind the projectile as it is released and its fins drop off.

– Electromagnetically controlled fins steer the bullet straight, similar to the fins on a dart.

– Accuracy improves at longer ranges. At half a mile away, the smart bullet can potentially reach within 8 inches of a target.

– The bullet reaches speeds of 2,400 feet per second (Mach 2.1) with commercial gunpowder. Sandia researchers say it could reach standard military speeds using customized gunpowder.

– Flight-path corrections are made about 30 times per second.



The smart bullet is designed to be fired from a small-caliber, smooth-bore gun barrel. Because of the optical sensor and forward-weighted design, the smart bullet is like a laser-guided dart that’s fired from a smooth-bored barrel.

What’s significant about firing from a smooth bore? Bullets fired from rifles have barrels with grooves (“rifling”) that cause the bullets to spin as they exit the barrel, ensuring a straighter flight. Since the smart bullet needed to be able to turn toward a target in flight, any means for spinning the round had to be eliminated.

– Story by Mark Kakkuri; Photos from Sandia National Laboratories