Worldbuilding

Four Ways to Bring Swords to a Gunfight

A Dark Angel Space Marine closes with the Ork Warboss

We see no shortage of stories where heroes and villains insist on using swords despite the existence of guns. It’s used to show how awesome they are compared to everyone else. And to paraphrase Obi-Wan, swords in all their varieties are more elegant weapons. However, if they’re used carelessly by the storyteller, the audience can lose their suspension of disbelief. In real life, there’s only one outcome to a swordsman charging at a henchman with an assault rifle.

It’s still possible to have swords play a role in a modern or futuristic settings. You just need to shape audience expectations, and you can do this a few different ways, each with its benefits and potential pitfalls.

1. Nerf Guns

The cutting edge of foam dart technology. The cutting edge of foam dart technology.

For a straightforward approach, reduce the destructive power of guns in your setting. If firearms are less reliable or there are good countermeasures against them, it becomes more feasible to fight hand to hand. We see this in Pacific Rim, where the Kaiju are armored well enough against the Jaeger’s weaponry that it mostly comes down to brawls. Because the scale is already outside our norm and the movie primes us to see melee as more effective, it seems reasonable when the ultimate Jaeger weapon turns out to be a sword.

This approach requires you to be mindful. The fact of the matter is that a cannon can deliver a lot more energy than a Jaeger’s fist. Audiences are generally willing to ignore this discrepancy when it’s used to put brawling and sword fighting on par with or slightly better than guns. However, if you become overzealous with nerfing firearms, it will start to feel forced.

2. Anti-Kinetics

Dune's personal shields reduce warfare to knife dances. Dune’s personal shields reduce warfare to knife dances.

Another option is to introduce technology that discriminates against the higher velocity of projectiles. Dune has personal shields that deflect attacks with high kinetic energy. Forever War has fields placed over a battlefield that negate kinetic and electromagnetic energy. In both cases the setting is going a step past nerfing guns to take them out of the fight completely. This allows the story to progress as if guns aren’t a factor at all or as weapons that can only come into play if someone first disables the field generator.

The downside to this exotic technology is that it requires more set up and exposition for the audience to understand it. Anti-Kinetics change the rules of the game enough that your audience won’t be able to intuit what is and isn’t affected without you giving some background first.

3. Super Swords

Swing and a miss... Swing and a miss…

You can create swords that are much more than a sharpened metal blade. In Warhammer 40,000 power swords are surrounded by an energy field that acts like a plasma cutter. Star Wars has lightsabers, blades of pure plasma. Both these super swords can slice through the strongest materials as if they were industrial strength cutting tools. Armor and barriers that are resistant to sustained punishment from gunfire are melted with ease.

Introducing super swords doesn’t solve the initial problem on its own, however. The super sword may be very effective, but unless you can survive long enough to close the distance, an opponent with a gun still wins. Armoring combatants against all but the strongest firearms and explosives is the method used in Warhammer 40,000. In Star Wars, Jedi are given super human perception and reaction time to deflect blaster fire, essentially using the sword as a shield.

4. Improved Agility

Okay Viscous you got to Spike. Now what are you going to do about that gun pressed against your sternum? Okay Vicious, you got to Spike before he could shoot you. Now what are you going to do about that gun pressed to your sternum?

If nothing else fits, you can simply have characters skilled enough to avoid gunfire. Marvel’s Daredevil uses his speed and agility to stay ahead of where his opponent thinks he’ll be. In Cowboy Bebop, Vicious manages to avoid gunfire and fight Spike with a sword. Simply being too fast or agile to shoot is always an option in fiction.

When the characters fighting this way have special powers, it’s easy to get away with. Even without powered characters in your story, you might get a pass from some audience members who are used to the convention. But others may find it too unrealistic or gimmicky, so make sure to know who you’re writing for.


It’s definitely possible to make melee weapons feel relevant in a world with guns, lasers, tanks, and spaceships. You just need to create the conditions for it, and be aware of the implications of the technology. Be mindful of how your audience will perceive the technology you introduce and what elements they are willing to suspend disbelief for. Then when your hero brings a sword to a gunfight, everyone will see that they are making the smart choice.

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Comments

  1. Chris

    You forgot stealth. It’s how ninjas and xenomorphs and sometimes Predators beat firearms with only melee attacks. Clearly, not always a viable option, but probably the most realistic when it is set up right.

  2. Jehovazilla

    Also; restricted acesses to guns.

    In my setting, a lot of action happens in space, in stations or small colonies, where both the fragility of the place, and the difficulty of using guns in low gravity makes them less desirable, and banned, for the most part.

    One wrong shot, and everyone dies.

  3. Bobbyziltch

    I would also recommend lowering the technology of the gun.

    It’s only been a few decades since the basis of the assault rifle was invented. Barely over 100 years since semi-auto pistols were even a thing.

    If we go back to musket era then the individual with a gun is half relying on luck to hit, which is why massed volleys were a thing.

    • Fish

      In a post-apocalyptic setting, rarity will also play a big factor, especially in ammunition. (I know, there are x billion bullets floating around there, no doubt, but after ten years? Fifty?)

      This doesn’t even devolve into ‘everyone carries swords’ (in my particular case anyway), because, well, swords were never that common. More like ‘everyone carries aluminum baseball bats and hunting knives’. Though of course this just creates demand for metalworkers to make cheap, sharp pointy things.

      • Cay Reet

        A well-age wooden bat can do a lot of damage, too.

        In a post-apocalyptic world, everything ‘low tech’ is back in high demand, because most of those objects can be made without some kind of industry. A person who can do some metalwork can make knifes, spear heads, arrow heads, and other sharp pieces of metal. Bullets will become a rare item soon, because you need a lot of chemicals (for the gun powder) and precision machines (casing and finishing up) to make them. Muskets don’t use bullets with a casing, though, so those might be an option (if you have a chemist at hand for the powder).

    • Lox

      Even poorly made muskets are accurate up to fifty meters. I dont know about you but i have a hard time putting a hole in a man sized target with a deer rifle at that range. Formaitions and vollys wherf a thing for one reason control of the field.

      • Lox

        My bad ladt article i read was from last month.

      • Cay Reet

        The pure amount of bullets whizzing over the field made it likely for them to hit something. Same with arrows, but a well-made long bow or hunting bow is a lot more reliable. And once the enemy is fifty meters in front of you, you have other problems than the accuracy of the musket – you won’t get more than one shot before the enemy has reached you and will start the melee fight.

  4. The J

    I know I’m a little (a lot) late to the party, but the superhero web serial Worm partially gets rid of guns in a very interesting way.
    Due to other various story elements, most super villains are (according to a certain character) caught up in “the game”. Everyone goes out in costume and fights, and as long as the villains don’t seriously screw up or go way too far, the status quo remains essentially the same.
    Whether the character in question is right or wrong, it translates as very few supers actually using guns at all – it flips the switch, so to speak, between “the game” and everything becoming so much more serious.

    • Cay Reet

      Not to mention that with supers, there’s always the possibility that a gun just might do damage – or do damage to an innocent bystander instead, which brings up the ‘game’ once more.

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