Captain Barton fell breathlessly against the roots of a gnarled tree that seemed older than time itself. The flickering flames of what had only moments before been a $35 million AH64E gunship lit the surrounding jungle in desperate, hungry tones. He looked back at the wreckage now fully involved and choked at the thought of his co-pilot. He was lucky to have clawed his way clear of the wreckage. The tattered arm of his Nomex flight suit and his several burns were mute testament to his fruitless efforts to pull his friend clear. He felt the pain well up in his chest but pushed it someplace else. There would be time for that later. Now he just had to live.
His first priority was to get away from the crash. The fire would attract the Tangoes like moths. Given that whoever had triggered the SA-14 that brought his aircraft down was likely still nearby, distance meant life. Barton glanced quickly at his compass, took a general heading east, and stumbled into the jungle blackness.
He pushed on for maybe an hour, stopping periodically to check his survival radio. He had the earpiece in place so it wouldn’t make any noise, but he had yet to make contact with his wingman or AWACs. He knew they would be looking for him. For now, however, he was still on his own. That thought threatened to conjure panic. Like so many other emotions this surreal evening, he tucked that away someplace. He’d panic later. Now he still had to move.
After another 30 minutes he felt like he could safely stop and take stock of his situation. The glow of his burning aircraft was barely noticeable in the distance, and he had followed rising terrain to a small hilltop. The suffocating overhead foliage enveloped him like a thick black blanket. With fingers trembling in the darkness from a toxic combination of shock and fear, he keyed his radio and made a call in the blind.
“Any station this is Stryker 06, down and evading after being brought down by enemy SAM. How copy, over?”
“Roger Stryker 06, this is Stryker 23,” the familiar voice came back immediately. “Nice to have you back in the world of the living. Can you give me a cardinal direction from the crash site and your status? We have an MV22 that will be onsite in eight mikes.”
The voice of CWO3 Donny Ahern, one of his unit instructor pilots, was like that of an angel. They had clearly scrambled the ready team for CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) when he went down. Barton fought back a sob as he acknowledged the call and fished into the inside of his survival vest for his pen flares. Snapping one of the thumb-sized cartridges out of its holder and slipping it into the end of his pen gun he alerted the other Apache, held the launcher aloft, and cycled the striker. The little rocket jumped out of the gun and snaked up through the jungle canopy to arc another three hundred feet or so before burning out.
“Stryker 06, this is Stryker 23, I have your position. We will orbit and keep the savages at bay until the MV22 arrives. You’re safe now, boss. I’m minding the store.”
As the sound of rotors grew closer Barton let himself sink to his knees and relax for the first time in two hours. The exhaustion and overwhelming emotion caused him to shudder slightly. He knew that Donny in the other Apache could see everything with his Passive Night Vision System. All that remained was to ride the jungle penetrator up to the MV22 and freedom.
Robert Mainhardt and Art Biehl formed a partnership in the early 1960’s to explore a radical new concept in firearms. Biehl and Mainhardt proposed that a handheld rocket launcher could be feasibly produced that would provide better penetration than a conventional bullet with minimal recoil. Originally built in .51-caliber, these revolutionary weapons were called Gyrojets.
In 1962 these two men enlisted Nick Minchakievich to help improve the stability of their projectiles. Nick’s first versions employed retractable fins that were effective but unduly expensive to produce. Initial proposals included pistol, carbine, rifle, and light machinegun variants. The largest diameter rockets tested were 20mm.
Minchakievich ultimately addressed the rocket’s inaccuracy by boring the efflux ports in the base of each round at an angle. Two ports pushing comparable amounts of high-speed gas tended to cause the rounds to spin tightly about their axis, greatly enhancing their accuracy. This method of manufacture was also more economically practical than incorporating a set of spring-loaded fins on each round.
The Gyrojet’s greatest assets were also its greatest liabilities. The solid fuel propellant was hydrophilic. This meant that even scant amounts of moisture tended to deactivate the material and cause misfires. Early versions of the repeater launchers were also unreliable and inaccurate. The very nature of a rocket gun was also such that the round took time to accelerate. While these projectiles ultimately produced a respectable velocity of around 1,250 feet per second, they took about thirty feet to get there. If your target was close to the muzzle he was generally safe.
The 1960’s were heady times in America. The space program was in full swing, and the nation was ripe for a new firearm that looked like it stepped out of a science fiction serial. With stars in their eyes over potentially lucrative government contracts, the fathers of the Gyrojet peddled their wares to the US military.
The military was ramping up for Vietnam during this time and felt that this would be a come-as-you-are war. With no measurable benefit above conventional firearms, the Army and Air Force soon lost interest in the novel little weapons. Frustrated with their inability to market their wares conventionally, the Gyrojet Company reached out to Hollywood.
Gyrojets on the Big Screen
James Bond seemed the logical recipient of the most advanced rocket gun on the planet. In You Only Live Twice, the fifth installment of the fabulously successful series, Bond’s ninja support team is armed with Gyrojet rocket rifles. They use these guns to dispatch Spectre agents with vigor.
Nick Minchakievich approached Gene Roddenberry about including Gyrojet rocket guns in his radical new science fiction TV series Star Trek. Though he was enamored with the concept, Roddenberry felt that the crew of the Enterprise should be armed with a ray gun rather than a rocket pistol. However, had things gone just a bit differently Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock might have explored their strange new worlds with Gyrojet rocket pistols dangling from their belts instead of the more familiar phasers.
Typical Gyrojet projectiles possessed about twice the kinetic energy at their maximum velocity of a standard .45ACP round. However, at the apogee of their development Gyrojet rocket guns could still only boast about 17 MOA accuracy. This equated out to about 4.5 inches at 25 yards.
About 1,000 Gyrojet rocket pistols were produced during the course of the production run. These lightweight zinc alloy guns were about the same size as a 1911 yet weighed a mere 22 ounces. These pistols featured an internal magazine that had to be tediously reloaded from the top one round at a time.
The Gyrojet Finds Its Mission
The real problem with the Gyrojet rested in the fact that it simply did not offer a substantial improvement over conventional firearms. Gyrojet weapons were less accurate, less robust, and less convenient than comparable firearms of similar dimensions. However, where the concept truly excelled was in the field of survival flares.
The A/P25S-5AFoliage-Penetrating Gyrojet Signal Kit consists of a pen-sized launcher and a plastic bandoleer containing seven rounds of rocket ammunition. Flares are available in red, blue, white, and green. The bandoleer and launcher are typically tied together with a length of nylon lanyard. All of the flares I encountered while on active duty were red.
To operate the device one would simply extract a flare round from the bandoleer and insert it butt-down into the open end of the turned aluminum launcher. There is a small disposable metal disk that rides underneath each round in the bandoleer presumably to protect the primer from the inadvertent ignition. The flare is held in place by friction driven by a small spring-steel collet.
To fire the gun you simply point the launcher upward, manually retract the striker knob, and release it. The striker rides forward under spring pressure to ignite the cap in the base of the flare. There is no trigger or lock position for the striker. You just pull it back and let it go. There is also no manual safety.
Unencumbered the flare will rise about 1,500 feet. When fired through overhead foliage the little rocket will tend to bounce from limb to limb yet still follow a generally upward path. I have fired these flares through modestly heavy spruce trees and found them to do a surprisingly good job of penetrating light foliage. Total burn time is 9 seconds, and the flare produces about 2,500 lumens. While not quite silent the flares don’t make a great deal of noise when fired.
The flares are indeed brilliant in the dark and fairly easily acquired in bright daylight. Military manuals list the signal as being visible for three miles in bright daylight and ten miles at night. The entire apparatus is adequately robust and quite lightweight. They always rode in an inside pocket of our SRU-21/P survival vests with the flare bandoleer toward the skin. In this configuration, the vest remained comfortable even during vigorous movement.
Though I never directed one of these pen flares toward a terrestrial target, they would seem intuitively nasty though inaccurate on the receiving end. The lack of a barrel of any sort would make them an area weapon at best. Our instructors in survival school did caution us vigorously regarding the dangers of discharging these devices and counseled us to treat them like the weapons they were.
The Gyrojet is little more than a footnote to the evolutionary arc of military firearms over the past century. Brilliantly conceived yet fatally flawed, the Gyrojet lacked the performance to compete with contemporary conventional firearms in either handgun, rifle, or light machinegun roles. Had it not been of the unconventional application of this technology as a survival tool the Gyrojet would be all but unknown today.
First introduced operationally in 1970 and ably serving downrange even today, the Gyrojet pen flare kit is compact, lightweight, and effective. In this guise, military aviators have undoubtedly consumed untold thousands of these clever little rockets in the forty years that the device has been in service. For this particularly unique application, nothing else can really compare to the radical effectiveness of the Gyrojet rocket gun.