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Is It Possible to Curve a Bullet? The (Magical?) Science Behind Wanted
That depends on what you mean by curve.
In the 2008 action-thriller Wanted (streaming now on Peacock), based on the Mark Millar and J.G. Jones comic book of the same name, a secret society of killers possess the supernatural ability to control the flight path of bullets. While Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is still grieving the death of his father, he learns that dear old dad was a member of The Fraternity, a secret collective of assassins which controls the flow of human civilization.
Fox (Angelina Jolie) tells Wesley his dad was murdered by another assassin, a man known as Cross, who is now hunting Wesley for reasons unknown. After all, he’s just a workaday average Joe who suffers from panic attacks. He can’t possibly be a threat to Cross. Except, as it turns out, those panic attacks are the beginning of superhuman strength, speed, and more. While most of the abilities of Fraternity members are explained by a sudden, controlled burst of adrenaline, the ability to bend their shots is seemingly magical, but is it?
You Can’t Curve a Bullet, Unless…
The laws of motion tell us that an object at rest must stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. In practical terms, that means the bullet in your chamber will stay there until it is fired or removed. We also know that once it is fired, it will continue to travel along its path unless acted on by an outside force. An object, bullet or otherwise, in motion must remain in motion. Of course, air resistance and gravity are outside forces which eventually bring the bullet to a stop if it doesn’t hit its target before then. Finally, we know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s why a gun kicks back when a bullet is fired.
Whether we like it or not, bullets obey the laws of physics without question or exception, and that’s a problem for curving your shot. For the purposes of this discussion, we can dispense with the first law of motion. We’re trying to curve a bullet and we don’t care much about what it’s doing at rest. The other two laws, however, are important.
The second law insists that a bullet must maintain its present course, traveling in a straight line after exiting the barrel unless something else causes it to move. And the third law lets us know that any force acting on the bullet must be equal to the change you want to achieve. If we want to curve a bullet in flight, we really only have two options: centripetal force and the Magnus effect.
Bending a Bullet with Centripetal Force
The major force acting on a fired bullet is the energy which pushed it out of the barrel. While there might be some movement inside the barrel, caused by imperfection in its internal surface, the bullet’s trajectory is determined by its velocity at the exit. Whatever speed and direction it acquires by the end of the barrel is all it has to carry it through. To affect a curve, you would need a second external force pushing perpendicular to the line of travel.
Consider the Earth orbiting the Sun. Like our imaginary bullet, a planet has forward motion in the direction of its orbit but it’s also being pulled toward the center of the Sun by the force of gravity. A planet under the influence of those two forces working in concert, behaves like a ball on a tether, bending toward the center of gravity. If the Sun were to suddenly vanish and take its gravitational influence with it, the Earth would fly off into space (about 8 minutes later, gravitational influence travels at the speed of light too!) in whatever direction it is currently moving. It would not continue to bend along a circular path.
From a certain point of view, bending the path of a bullet is not only possible, but practically required. Every time a shot is fired on our planet, the bullet curves toward the center of the Earth under the influence of gravity. It’s just not as exciting as what we see on screen in Wanted. If you want to bend a bullet around Angelina Jolie to hit a target directly behind her or shoot around a corner to hit a target outside your field of view, centripetal force isn’t going to cut it.
Bending a Bullet with the Magnus Effect
You’ve probably seen the Magnus effect in action, even if you didn’t know its name before now. It describes a phenomenon in which a spinning object moves through a fluid (including air) differently than the same object would were it not spinning.
It’s often used in sports to control the motion of a ball; it’s the reason baseball pitchers learn to throw curveballs, because they are less predictable and harder to hit. In the simplest terms, the Magnus effect triggers motion in the direction of spin by generating lift in the fluid it's traveling through. For instance, a sphere with topspin (rolling forward in the direction of travel) will curve toward the ground. By contrast, a sphere with backspin (rolling backward, against the direction of travel) will rise, and sidespin causes a sphere to turn in one direction or the other.
With that in mind, it is possible for a bullet to travel a curved path, provided it is spinning in the desired direction. However, you wouldn’t be able to make it curve first one way, and then another. Moreover, because the mass of the bullet is so small and its speed so large, the influence of the Magnus effect is too small to make much of a difference, particularly at short range. To really make it work, you need to generate a lot of spin on a bullet with low mass and low speed. Like a Nerf gun.
Nerf’s Sideswipe, for instance, employs a ridge at the end of the barrel which knocks the foam ball into a spin as it exits the chamber. Players can rotate the barrel to control the location of the ridge and, subsequently, the direction of spin. If you want to curve a bullet on Earth, in the real world, foam balls are really your only shot. But we have to admit that bullet-bending assassins are pretty freaking cool.
Enter a world of wild assassins and questionable physics in Wanted, streaming now on Peacock.