A kinetic energy penetrator (also known as a KE weapon) is a type of ammunition which, like a bullet, does not contain explosives and uses kinetic energy to penetrate the target.
The term can apply to any type of armour-piercing shot but typically refers to a modern type of armour piercing weapon, the armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS), a type of long-rod penetrator (LRP), and not to small arms bullets.
The 'Fin' round travels at around 975 m/s (3200 ft/s), resulting in the generation of a force of 34,000N when it comes in contact with a weighted and/or fixed object. Speed, and therefore energy, inevitably decreases during flight; however, it is still very deadly at ranges up to six kilometers.
The opposite technique to KE-penetrators uses chemical energy penetrators. There are two types of these shells in use: high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) and high explosive squash head (HESH). They have been widely used against armour in the past and still have a role but are less effective against modern composite armour, such as Chobham or Kanchan, as used on main battle tanks today.
The principle of the kinetic energy penetrator is that it uses its kinetic energy, which is a function of mass and velocity, to force its way through armour. The modern KE weapon maximizes KE and minimizes the area over which it is delivered by:
- being fired with a very high muzzle velocity
- concentrating the force in a small impact area while still retaining a relatively large mass
- maximizing the mass of whatever (albeit small) volume is occupied by the projectile—that is, using the densest metals practical, which is one of the reasons depleted uranium is often used.
This has led to the current designs which resemble a long metal arrow.
The first cannon fired kinetic energy ammunition. First these were round balls of worked stone, then round balls of metal. From the beginning, combining high muzzle energy with projectile density and hardness have been the foremost factors in the design of such weapons. Similarly, the foremost purpose of such weapons has generally been to defeat armour or other defensive structures, whether stone castle walls, ship timbers, or modern tank armour. Chemical energy ammunition in its various forms has consistently been the choice for those weapons which due to various factors of their design could not generate the high muzzle energy needed by a kinetic energy weapon.
The development of the modern KE penetrator combines two aspects of artillery design; high muzzle velocity and concentrated force. High muzzle velocity is achieved by using a projectile with a low mass and large base area in the gun barrel. Firing a small size projectile wrapped in a lightweight outer shell, called a sabot, raises the muzzle velocity. Once the shell clears the barrel, the sabot is no longer needed and falls off in pieces. This leaves the projectile traveling at high velocity with a smaller cross-sectional area and reduced aerodynamic drag during the flight to the target (see external ballistics and terminal ballistics). Germany developed modern sabots under the name "Treibspiegel" ("propulsion mirror") to give extra altitude to their anti-aircraft guns during the Second World War. Before this, primitive wooden sabots had been used for centuries in the form of a wooden plug attached to or breech loaded before cannon balls in the barrel, placed between the propellant charge and the projectile. The name "sabot" is the French word for clog (a wooden shoe traditionally worn in some European countries). According to one theory, the word "sabotage" is derived from this specific meaning of "sabot".
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