My Rocket Scientist Brother and the Remotely Controlled Gun

US riverine naval boat

Blaine might have been an Engineer but he has always been a designer at heart. Who wouldn’t want to be? But it requires a special temperament, a conflation of technical understanding and practical ability. Blaine possessed both in abundance. Probably because this was a tiny project, it would have been more satisfying than most as every decision was his instead of being split between a multitude of other engineers.

Main picture: US riverine naval boat of the type that was captured by Iran

We all know or have heard of somebody who is exceptionally bright. Often intelligence and practical ability are mutually exclusive. Perhaps for me the first example of this practical ability was having to convert my derelict scrapheap of a Beetle into a functional car at the age of 16.

Blaine Farrington McCleland

Beside this, there are other notable examples such as his house in Somerset West. About 25 years ago Danie van Wyk and I drove down in my 2.1L Kombi to run the Two Oceans. With Blaine living in Cape Town, it was natural to stay there. The interior of the house was restored immaculately to its early 1900s state with the original taps and bath. I was truly impressed. When quizzed, he admitted that he had done it all himself!

What was the inaugural spark that set alight a new avenue of thought for blogs was an email that I received from Blaine about two weeks ago. Despite being close, with Blaine living in Cape Town and neither of us being great communicators as Janine will attest, communication is sparse at best. Consequently an email from Blaine is a rarity. Perhaps this was Blaine’s déjà vu or confrontation with mortality, hence the desire to recall his life. Ironically my musings initially was for a similar reason except that it transmogrified into a blog.

Whatever the motive, Blaine and I reconnected as we recalled the past.

This is Blaine’s story of the Remotely Controlled Gun

Remotely controlled gun#4

The photo shows a US riverine naval boat of the type that was captured by Iran.  What caught my attention was the remotely controlled gun on the top of the cabin.

Way back in the mid 90’s I conceptualised the need/usefulness of a remotely controlled stabilised light gun platform.  I was particularly proud of this as I identified a unique weapon, conceptualised it, sold the idea to Armscor, designed and built it virtually single handedly, including the electronics and control software. 

 Remotely controlled gun#1

The original concept was to provide a defensive gun system for MBT’s that was slaved to the commander’s sight.  The commander’s sight is independent of the gun sight and provides 360 degree rotation.  The gun would follow the sight wherever the commander was looking so that the moment he saw a threat such as infantry with RPG’s he could immediately open fire.  Dependent on the closeness of the terrain in which he was operating, the range could be preset so the gun would always be super elevated by roughly the correct amount.  The weapon was to be either the 0.50 Browning or the South African 40mm grenade launcher.  The great thing about the latter was that some clever person had designed it so that its mechanical interfaces were the same as the Browning so that it could be fitted wherever the Browning was used.  This is one of the most fearsome weapons.  Far better that any machine gun.  I witnessed some of its test firing in a shooting tunnel at Swartklip and even inside a ‘bombproof’ shelter behind the gun I was blown away.  At that point I decided that there was no future for infantry.  It fires a projectile about the size of a small egg.  It comes in 2 versions: hollow charge and high explosive versions.  In indirect mode it has a range of 2000m and direct fire mode out to 100’s of metres.  The hollow charge can penetrate 3” of armour and also has a prefragmented component to provide a lethal radius about 5m so that it can wipe out unprotected infantry associated with the targeted armoured vehicle. The HE version has a lethal fragment radius >10m.  All this at a rate of >300rpm.


Y2 Mk 1 (Milkor MGL Mk 1) 40mm grenade launchers. 6 round cylinder. South African made.

Y2 Mk 1 (Milkor MGL Mk 1) 40mm grenade launchers. 6 round cylinder. South African made.

My concept also had an extended application.  I proposed a further evolution in that the gun could be replaced by a much lighter 7.62mm mg.  The weight saving (<10kg versus >35kg) could be ulitised to mount a variety of other systems on a frame around the gun.  These would comprise the antitank rocket being developed at that time and/or Stinger AA missiles.  It would also have a video camera and was gyro stabilised so that it could be accurately fired while moving.  Somchem reckoned that the AT rocket was accurate to about 300m when fired by a man but there was no problem with accuracy out to 800m if fired from a fixed (or stable) base.  So in addition to the camera and mg, it could carry 4 rockets or missiles in any combination.  The whole package would be about 100kg.  I envisaged that it could be applied to light naval craft, as above, or APC’s.  It would provide such a significant defensive capability that, although it could be defeated by superior or dedicated weapon systems, it would never be a rollover.


The FT5 light anti-tank weapon system is a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon that is used by the South African National Defence Force.

The FT5 light anti-tank weapon system is a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon that is used by the South African National Defence Force.

I completed the proof of concept and briefly did live firing tests at Somchem.  The accuracy was not great and the control system needed tweaking.  Unfortunately I left AMS after that.  A few years later I heard that development continued, mounting up to a 20mm gun, and had been successfully demonstrated to provide extreme accuracy out to >800m.  It also appeared at a variety of overseas arms shows.

 Remotely controlled gun#2

I had about R250,000 for the concept which was quite tough since I was earning about R20,000pm at time and had to contribute a percentage to the firm.  The expensive bought-out hardware comprised 2x high torque brushless dc motors, 2x 80:1 unique backlash free gearboxes, called Harmonic Drives, 2x servo amplifiers, 2x digital encoders, hand joystick, low friction preloaded thin section turret bearing, gyroscope, micro-computer card and various interface cards.

Remotely controlled gun#3

In addition I had to make a strong stand that mounted the power supplies inside and the gun on top and a human interface control box.  So I could not afford to subcontract anything except for machining and essentially worked for free.   Normally when you are involved in such a high tech system, one seldom gets involved with everything.  On this project, I reckon my involvement was ~95% . 

Very satisfying.

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