The problem has always been how to get the cartridge to load better, load faster, shoot flatter, have more energy, conserve space, conserve weight, or be more reliable. It is very rare to achieve more than a few of these at once. So far, the big advancements in cartridges have been a self contained cartridge, smokeless powder, and necked cartridges. So what of the future?
There has been continuous incremental improvement in conventional ammunition. Better propellant formulations and advances in gun metallurgy have allowed for the creation of cartriges operating at high pressures and producing high velocities from a smaller case. This is likely to continue.
For a while there was a trend to decrease the caliber in order to make shooting more comfortable and to allow more ammunition to be carried. This results in smaller and lighter bullets, which in turn decreases the actual performance of the bullet in the target and the effective range.
Recent experiences in various conflicts highlighted these shortcomings. This led to the development of new cartridges such as the 6.5 mm Grendel. It uses a slightly larger case than the 5.56 but retains an overall length that allows it to be fired out of AR15 platforms without completely redesigning the gun. The bullets fired are of the medium range weights. They have a very high ballistic coefficient so they retain more speed down range. This allows them to be highly adaptable and very effective up close and past the range of the 5.56 without a new gun, high recoil, etc. Other examples of this design philosophy are the 6.5 SPC and the 6.5 Creedmoor.
Caseless ammunition has been experimented with for many, many years. The two best known examples that made it closest to mass production was the Heckler & Koch G11 rifle using the 4.73x33 mm ammunition and the MetalStorm system.
The G11 used bullets encased in bricks of propellant that fed from a magazine. G11 suffered from poor reliability and problems with premature ignition of rounds in a hot chamber. This is caused by excess heat which in a traditional firearm is carried out of the gun by the ejected casing. There is research being done on this.
MetalStorm consists of a number of projectiles and charges in a barrel one behind the other. They are fired in sequence using electricity. MetalStorm is reloaded by replacing barrels. Using setups with multiple barrels it that has achieved a theoretical maximum rate of fire of over 1,000,000 rounds per minute. In a way it is a fancy electronic muzzleloader. It is very reliable, but cumbersome and expensive.
An interesting experiment in ammunition was the Gyrojet that was produced for a short time in the 1960's and 70's. It basically fired small rockets as bullets. Highly inaccurate and expensive and also with reliability issues it never became popular.
There is some development going on dealing with smart ammunition. This would include steerable bullets that could correct for wind or target motion and programmable explosive projectiles. The idea is to be able to shoot over walls and around corners. Nothing has been put into practical use. When it does get made it will be expensive.
Other possibilities for future development include use of liquid propellants, either encased in cartridges or injected from separate compartment and development of projectile materials other than lead. For now, aside from limited use of solid copper bullets for hunting there is nothing in the real world. Copper is unlikely to replace lead due to higher cost.
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