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The Straight Dope 

Guns for Assassins, Continued


Speaking of nonmetallic guns [May 19], perhaps you should ask the CIA. I ran across an article in a gun magazine last week concerning an alleged nonmetal gun being developed for or actually being used by federal agents. It was composed mostly of high-tech ceramics and fired a caseless round with a ceramic bullet. (A caseless round is one where a firm cylinder of propellant is stuck onto the bottom of a bullet and itself acts as a casing--when the round is fired the propellant is consumed, and there is nothing left to eject.) --Dan Day, Houston

The article Dan saw appeared in the June 1995 issue of Modern Gun, which hit the streets maybe 15 minutes after my column claiming no nonmetallic (and thus undetectable) guns were currently available. It was headlined "The CIA's Glass Gun." Clearly an agency plant to make me look bad. However, I stand by my column. No nonmetallic guns are available--by which of course I mean commercially available. Whether they're available to CIA spooks is another story.

Allow me to summarize that story. The Modern Gun article is sketchy--no sources, no quotes, no indication how the information was obtained. A subhead archly informs us, "The Agency Could Tell You About Its Amazing Ceramic Full Automatic Pistol. But Then, of Course, They'd Have to Kill You." An editor's note says the gun in the accompanying photos is "a full-sized model made up for this article. The CIA declined to help. Strange ..." The mag is published by Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame and calls itself "Entertainment for Gun Owners." So skepticism is in order.

The article says (well, implies) that the CIA made several prototype nonmetallic guns using "a super-hard ceramic material" originally developed for the exhaust valves in General Motors auto engines. The stuff "literally has the strength of steel," the article says. "The agency considered the material so important to national security that it reportedly had its formula classified, thereby preventing GM from marketing it."

The gun depicted is a small automatic pistol. A magazine of bullets loads into the handle. When you pull the trigger a plastic spring drives the bolt/slide mechanism forward, pushing a bullet from the magazine into the chamber and firing it. The bullet has no case and apparently is the equivalent of a cannonball with a powder charge behind it. The propellant ignites in two stages to keep the chamber pressure low enough that the gun doesn't blow up in your hand. The bullet itself can be ceramic or aluminum.

"The Glass Gun's asset--its innovative material--also created legal problems for the CIA," we read. "The Geneva Accords forbid the use by a nation's armed forces of anything but full metal jacket ammunition, and except for the aluminum bullets, no part of the gun or its ammunition was metallic. To save the Glass Gun project, Agency advocates argued to a Pentagon oversight committee that the Agency was civilian, not military, and the gun would be used by civilians."

We also learn that "counterterrorism, not assassination, was the goal of the nonmetallic pistols. Terrorists and foreign governments protecting terrorists use metal detectors just like we do.... [An agent with a glass gun] could get past magnetometer security into an area where hostages were being held and proceed to shoot the bad guys."

Is this legit? An attempt to reach the editor of Modern Gun was unsuccessful. I phoned the CIA. You'll be interested to know the CIA actually has somebody in charge of public relations. Her job is to tell people like me "no comment." She did. I called GM. They said they don't use ceramics in engine valves because it isn't cost-effective. Yes, but what about the CIA using your material to make guns? "You'd better ask the CIA about that." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said, we dunno, but the CIA is exempt from the federal law banning nondetectable guns. So who knows? Maybe there really is a nonmetallic gun. All I know is John Malkovich can't buy 'em at K mart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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