Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Momentum and kinetic energy in firing a rifle

The rifle and bullet have zero momentum and zero kinetic energy to start with. When the trigger is pulled, the bullet gains some momentum in the forward direction, but this is canceled by the rifle's backward momentum, so the total momentum is still zero. The kinetic energies of the gun and bullet are both positive scalars, however, and do not cancel. The total kinetic energy is allowed to increase, because kinetic energy is being traded for other forms of energy. Initially there is chemical energy in the gunpowder. This chemical energy is converted into heat, sound, and kinetic energy. The gun's backward' kinetic energy does not refrigerate the shooter's shoulder!

Last Update: 2009-06-21