London, July 22 : The US army has commissioned a Chicago-based toy-making company to make a gun that can fire bullets at variable speeds, and serve the dual purpose of killing or wounding.
The army chose Lund and Company Invention for the project after being inspired by its toy rockets that are launched using liquid hydrogen as a fuel.
The impulse the rocket receives at launch can be controlled by varying the fuel-air mix in a combustion chamber, say reports.
Bruce Lund, the company's CEO, has revealed that the US army wants them to adapt the technology to fire bullets instead of toy rockets.
He says that the US Army has always had difficulty in persuading soldiers to swap rifles for non-lethal weapons.
Once they have a rifle that can be used to fire bullets at various speeds, he adds, the soldiers will not have to change their weapons over and over.
The new weapon will be called the Variable Velocity Weapon System (VWS), says Lund.
According to him, the VWS will enable soldiers to use the same rifle for crowd control and combat, by altering the muzzle velocity.
Lund says that the gun will work by mixing a liquid or gaseous fuel with air in a combustion chamber behind the bullet, which will determine the explosive capability of the propellant, and consequently the velocity of the bullet as it leaves the gun.
"Projectile velocity varies from non-lethal at 10 metres, to lethal at 100 metres or more, as desired," New Scientist magazine quoted Lund as saying.
The company claims that the weapon will produce less heat and light than traditional guns, will be able to be made lighter, and will have a high power setting for long-range sniping.
The existing VWS design is a .50 calibre (12.7 mm) rifle weapon, but Lund says that it can be scaled to any size, "handgun to Howitzer".
Steve Wright, a security expert at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, warns of the potential risk of variable lethality.
"In a high-stress, high-personal-risk zone, there will be a real temptation for soldiers to turn the tuneable lethality switch up to 'kill' mode so that all doubt is removed," he says.
The company says that a demonstration version of the gun will be ready within six months, and that it may go into production within 18 months of approval.