By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer

July 6, 2001 — A coalition of international gun makers has agreed to a partnership with the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to develop a smart gun that will only allow approved users to fire it.

NJIT officials say they and their partners will apply for a smart-gun grant funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The upcoming grants, and similar ones announced two years ago by the NIJ, come in response to deaths or


Microsystem technology could ensure that only
authorized users are able to fire a gun. This diagram
shows how a smart gun would work:
1. Low-power MEMS relay;
2. Electromechanical trigger;
3. MEMS switch controlling the locking device;
4. Circuits for pattern recognition, decision making;
5. Integrated MEMS biometric sensor array;
6. Accelerometer/inertia MEMS sensor;
7. 3V lithium watch battery

Will small technology be effective in preventing
gun-related accidents or crime?
injuries suffered by police officers when criminals take their guns away from them. According to FBI figures, 57 officers died in such circumstances in the last 10 years, and another 113 police guns were stolen.

Smart gun technology would also reduce the risk of accidental shootings, which kill hundreds and injure thousands of Americans each year.

With microsystem technology, the grip of approved users — police officers or parents, rather than children, for example — would be recognized by the sensors, based on hand size and pressure applied by various points on the hand.

If an unapproved user – a criminal who had taken the gun away from the police officer, or perhaps a child in the home who found the gun in a drawer – picked up the gun, it wouldn’t fire.

The NJIT coalition includes FN Manufacturing Inc. of Columbia, S.C., the American division of Fabrique Nationale, a Belgium-based manufacturer that supplies handguns and rifles to police forces and military units around the world, including the M16 to the U.S. military; Taurus International Inc., the Miami subsidiary of Forjas Taurus, a Brazilian handgun company; and Alchemy Arms Inc., a handgun maker in Seattle, Wash.

A vice president at Smith & Wesson said his firm will likely join the coalition soon.

“I suspect we’ll end up signing some sort of agreement,” said Kevin Foley, Smith & Wesson’s vice president for product engineering. Last week, Bill Marshall, project manager of NJIT’s smart-gun program, flew to Springfield, Mass., to show Foley plans for a MEMS-based system that analyzes a would-be user’s grip.

“Ultimately, we’d like to have a system fully integrated in the gun and transparent to the user, and that’s what (NJIT is) working on,” Foley said.


Smart-gun systems now being studied involve such technologies as five-digit PIN codes, where a user in effect enters a password before firing his or her weapon; radio-frequency transponders; or fingerprint recognition systems.

Critics say a PIN code is too time-consuming in many emergency situations. And NJIT officials say fingerprint systems currently being tested are not reliable. Humidity, dirt on the grip or other fingerprints already on the gun prevent it from being fired by its lawful user.

The NJIT, which has applied for a U.S. patent for its system, calls for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) pressure sensors to be built into the gun’s handgrip.

Taurus Vice President Robert Morrison called NJIT’s project “realistic and well researched . . . their studies are very convincing and point up the requirement for an R&D partnership with commercial gun companies. We can create a safer product for use by our customers.”

The NIJ is currently funding two other smart-gun projects.

  • Smith & Wesson, owned by the British conglomerate Tomkins Plc, was awarded $300,000 last year and nearly $1.8 million this year for research on two technologies – a fingerprint recognition system and a five-digit PIN code system.
  • FN Manufacturing received $300,000 last year and nearly $1.3 million this year to explore other potential smart-gun technologies like ultrasonic devices that require the shooter to wear a wrist device or badge that sends the proper frequency to the gun. If an unauthorized user holds the gun beyond a very small, pre-set distance, the gun won’t fire.

Marshall, a brigadier general in the Army National Guard and a retired police officer in New Jersey with 29 years of experience, says the NJIT technology solves many of the problems in other systems.

“We’re going to bring this into the realm of reality,” Marshall said. “The path we’ve taken is the right path and will come to market sooner than any other technology. It makes the most sense.”

He said he expects NJIT smart guns to be in the market in about five years. It will take one year to develop a basic prototype, which won’t fire bullets but will measure grip pressure and detail successful responses to authorized and unauthorized users.

He says it will take two more years to develop prototypes of actual bullet-shooting guns. And then comes two years of testing by police agencies, which will also be targets of a marketing campaign.

“Before you’re going to be able to sell this product to Mom and Pop, someone in law enforcement is going to have to anoint it,” Marshall said.

Marshall said previous grant research has focused solely on the mission of the NIJ grants – to prevent the death of police officers by criminals who have taken their guns away from them. Marshall said those other technologies may solve police needs – but won’t solve accidental home shootings or deaths and injuries caused by thieves who have taken civilian handguns.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 866 accidental firearm deaths in 1998, the last year for which there are complete numbers.

The reason the grants cover only police needs, says Marshall, is that an officer may use – or be ordered to use – a weapon involving PIN codes or cumbersome technology. But the civilian market won’t – it will continue to use existing weaponry unless the technology behind the smart gun is invisible and enabled automatically.


NJIT’s research on smart guns began two years ago, when the New Jersey Legislature discussed a proposed law that would have made smart guns mandatory for new sales in the state once the technology was feasible.

Though the law failed, NJIT was then commissioned by the state to study the issue — to evaluate current research, list possible technologies and decide barriers to market.

“We sought to see if the human being could be used as the biometric,” said Don Sebastian, NJIT’s vice president of research and development. By that he means measurements based on biology, such as hand size and the pressure applied by various fingers when a gun is fired.

“And we determined early on that we could use grip recognition. The approach we’re developing uses a combination of hand size and squeeze pressure.”

He said that tests in NJIT labs with local police show that handgrip sensors are more reliable than fingerprint analysis and are much faster than punching in codes.

The system involves a variety of MEMS devices. An accelerometer determines that the gun has been picked up and wakes up other components, which go into sleep mode when the gun is at rest. Another sensor determines pitch, making sure the gun doesn’t fire at the ground. Pressure sensors determine hand size and squeeze strength.

The grant application by NJIT follows original state funding of $1 million and a follow-up grant of $500,000 by the state to fund prototype work.

Wendy Howe, program manager for the upcoming smart gun solicitation, said the grants could be of varying lengths longer than a year, with funding totals to be determined based on the scope of research and number of awardees.

She said applications would be reviewed by researchers and others familiar with the technology, and by “firearms experts in the criminal justice community.” She said the grants likely will be announced in November or December.

Marshall said he is hoping for about $2.5 million over two years.


Foley, the Smith & Wesson vice president, said that the company’s goal is to invent an all-new weapon, not just to embed small tech into its current gun line.

Foley said that whether it joins with NJIT or not, its smart gun will use an all-electronic firing system to replace the mechanical system of a hammer, spring and firing pin that has been used in guns for centuries.

A publicly traded Australian firearms company, Metal Storm Inc., has designed prototypes of an electronic handgun but has yet to bring a product to market.

Smith & Wesson is designing its smart handgun in cooperation with the Remington Arms Company Inc., which has an electronic rifle now on the market, a .22-caliber called the EtronX.

Foley said that a MEMS-based system would be too easy to bypass if it is overlaid on a mechanical firing system. He said an all-electronic gun would be much more difficult to foil.

“With a mechanical gun, it’s really easy to remove a smart system. You just go in and cut some wires and the gun is fully operational.”

He said he expects the company to test a prototype by the end of the year. He said bullets would look similar to the casual observer but instead of being fired by a firing pin that detonates the kinetic energy primer, an electronic pulse would cause the primer to explode.

All of this is a part of the fulfillment of a promise the company made to the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and the Treasury that it would pursue smart-gun technology as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit against gun manufacturers over gun deaths and injuries during crimes.

The success of a smart gun won’t depend on technology, per se, but on the marketplace. If small tech drives up the cost of a smart gun very much, it won’t sell.

“We’d like to bring it in at the same cost as a conventional weapon. We’re bringing some hardware out and replacing it with electronics,” said Foley. “But certainly there will be a cost increase. We’re trying to keep that to a minimum.”


Tom Henderson at [email protected] or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.


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