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For other uses, see Needle gun (disambiguation).

A needlegun, also known as a needler, flechette gun or fletcher, is a firearm that fires small, sometimes fin-stabilized, metal darts or flechettes.


The first projectiles in early gun systems dating from the 14th century were typically hand wrought iron flechettes wrapped in a leather sabot. However, due to the expense and trouble of making these darts in a pre-industrial society, they were soon replaced with the less accurate stone cannonball.

Flechettes again came into mass use in World War I, when they were dropped from airplanes.[citation needed]

A June 1978 issue of Gallery Magazine[1] quotes L. Fletcher Prouty observing a test of flechette weapons in 1960 and the testimony of William E. Colby in the Church Committee on September 16 to 18, 1975 describing flechette weapons. Charles A. Senseney testified that he was a project engineer of the M-1 dart launcher that was described as resembling a M1911 pistol with a sight mount at the top.

Senseney claimed the M-1 was designed for the US Army Special Forces to be used in the Vietnam war but never got there due to not being able to get into the US Army's logistics system in time.[2] Flechette ammunition encased in a sabot was available for the M-16, shotguns, and other weapons for use in Vietnam.

A June 1965 Esquire magazine story on the making of the then upcoming James Bond film Thunderball featured drawings of dart firing pistols that were not used in the completed film.[3]

At the same time several makes of underwater firearms fired a steel bolt just over 4 inches long (but without fins).

The Special Purpose Individual Weapon was a long-running United States Army program to develop, in part, a workable XM-216 flechette-based "rifle", though other concepts were also involved. The concepts continued to be tested under the Future Rifle Program and again in the 1980s and 1990s under the Advanced Combat Rifle program, but neither program resulted in a system useful enough to warrant replacing the current M16.

Advantages and disadvantages[edit]

Theoretically, the advantages of a needlegun over conventional projectile firearms are in its compact size, high rate of fire, and extreme muzzle velocity. A needlegun leverages the principles of kinetic energy and conservation of momentum, resulting in a low-recoil delivery system capable of inflicting significant damage to a soft target. Although it has extreme velocity, the needle possesses little mass, delivering the equivalent kinetic energy of a larger projectile, but with less recoil-causing momentum. A high rate of fire allows a massive number of projectiles to be fired in a very short period of time, before recoil can begin to affect the user's accuracy.[citation needed] There have been experiments to make guided flechettes that can home in on targets.[4]

Disadvantages include:

  • Terminal ballistics is often at least as important as aerodynamic efficiency. Rather than inflicting their full kinetic energy on a target, needle projectiles tend to pass smoothly through the target with little damage, similar to needles used for textile or medical purposes.[citation needed][dubious ]
  • A powder-based propulsion system requires a barrel seal, which needles have a hard time providing at high rates of fire without damaging the barrels. Sabot systems result in smaller decreases in recoil (which is proportional to momentum). Compared to a full-size projectile, they allow an increase in projectile velocity per unit of barrel length. A typical full bore projectile might have mass of 147 grains, but a typical flechette and sabot combination for the same 7.62×51mm weapon would have mass of only 38 grains, for a substantial reduction in recoil and a very large increase in muzzle velocity.[citation needed]
  • Lead, used almost universally in firearms for its high density and softness which allows it to pass through rifled gun barrels at high velocity, is unsuitable for a needle for this same reason - it cannot hold its shape without a stronger jacket. Steel jacketed, lead-core flechettes are used in some sporting ammunition.[citation needed]
  • Flechette projectiles penetrate typical surfaces more easily than regular bullets due to the longer distribution of mass, which increases the danger to bystanders. In addition to this, many flechette systems use self-discarding sabots that exit the barrel at dangerous speeds which can potentially harm allies or bystanders close by the muzzle. The low mass and large, irregular shape of the pieces of the sabot give them poor aerodynamic qualities and thus danger zone is very short.[citation needed]

Popular culture[edit]

This weapon appears frequently in science fiction. For example, it is featured in:

Drawing their inspiration largely from similarly themed literature, science-fiction role-playing games frequently include needle-guns in some form. For example:

  • BattleTech, as needler pistols and rifles
  • Star Frontiers, as needler pistols and rifles
  • Gamma World, as needler pistols and rifles
  • Traveller, in the form of gauss-pistols and gauss-rifles firing 4 mm darts.
  • Shadowrun, as flechette pistols and rifles; these weapons use chemically-propelled flechette ammunition cartridges.
  • Renegade Legion, as rifles, carbines and pistols. In this setting, needler weapons all share a common ammo type; a block of solid plastic that is shredded at tremendous velocities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sprague, Richard E. and Cutler, Robert The Umbrella System: Prelude to an Assassination Gallery Magazine June 1978
  2. '^ Charles A. Senseney testimony'Church Committee' September 18, 1975
  3. ^ Bond: A Spy's Report on 007's Next Movie Thunderball Esquire June 1965
  4. ^ "Sandra's self-propelled prototype bullet can hit a target a mile away". Sandia Laboratories. Albuquerque, NM, USA: Sandia Corporation. 30 Jan 2012. 
  5. ^ Pringle, David (1987). Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984 (US ed.). Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-88184-259-1.  pg. 133