Q&A

How Can I Put Swords in a High Tech World?

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Hello! Is there any way I could combine swords, technology, and magic, while overcoming the problem of guns/why they haven’t been developed/why they aren’t around? Thank you!

-Pearl

Hey Pearl, thanks for writing in!

Unfortunately, there’s no good explanation for why swords would coexist with advanced technology as a primary weapon. The mechanics of it just don’t work. However, this is a very popular trope, so it’s possible to create a scenario where the audience will accept it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Let’s look at a few options.

Guns Are Outlawed

You could construct a world where firearms and other similar weapons simply aren’t allowed, and so characters fight with swords and other weapons. Gun control is a real thing, so this scenario isn’t completely outlandish, but it does have one problem. If the government is powerful enough to actually keep guns out of people’s hands, it’s probably powerful enough to be an issue in the story, and it certainly has guns of its own. It’s also unlikely that any gun control would be 100% effective, especially if the characters have resources and really need guns.

Clashing Worlds

You could construct a situation where two groups of people with vastly different tech levels meet. One of them has guns, the other doesn’t. This is what happens in The 100 between the Grounders and Skaikru. There are two issues with this scenario. First, you’ll need to work hard to make the people without guns relevant in violent conflicts. The 100 does this by making the Grounders better trained and much more numerous.

Two, in any rational world, the lower tech people will start using guns pretty quickly. The 100 tries to put this off by saying that the Grounders have a cultural taboo against guns, but it doesn’t really make sense.

Guns Don’t Work With Magic

This one is pretty easy to accept on the face of it. Swords, shields, and plate armor can be enchanted by magic, and firearms can’t. That will make other weapons much more capable and provide a decent reason for choosing them over guns.

The main problem here is that it’s very difficult to explain why magic works on, say, a crossbow but not a pistol. If you’re pressed to explain it, that explanation will probably feel contrived, so it’s best not to dwell on the matter.

Guns Were Never Invented

I’ve seen storytellers try this one before and it’s just hard for readers to accept. It works up through the Renaissance era of technology, but go any further, and it feels silly. Readers will have a really difficult time accepting airplanes in a world without guns.

Although, for the Age of Sail at least, you could employ steam cannons rather than gunpowder. These weapons use steam pressure to launch a projectile, and can be really powerful, but there’s no practical way to make them hand-held.

Magic Instead of Technology

A final option is to use magic to replicate the functions of technology. Instead of cars, you can have stone platforms kept aloft with levitation magic. Instead of computers, you can have knowledge spirits bound to a special box. You can see some of this in the Discworld books, where Commander Vimes has a box with an imp assistant in it instead of a smartphone.

This allows you to have a world with similar dynamics to our own, but where swords still make sense. It’s just easier for readers to accept that swords exist alongside magitech rather than regular technology. The main downside is that this won’t work for a story set in our own world, so it’s best used for second-world fantasy.

We also have a post about bringing swords to a gunfight, but those solutions still depend on a lot of handwaving.

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    In the Space Usagi comics (which are an addition to Stan Sakai’s regular Usagi Yojimbo series), there’s swords, but they only have very specific uses. The swords, ancient katana, because only those can be adapted to surge (which makes them a little like lightsabers when it comes to cutting through everything), are only used by few people, mostly by the futuristic version of the samurai (the whole culture, despite having sentient animals, is based on ancient Japanese culture, m’kay?). Most of the time, Usagi actually uses his sword as a tool to get out of somewhere or into somewhere, since it can even cut through starship-grade steel. He also uses it in close-quarter combat every now and then and in a duel (where it’s traditional to use it). However, it’s not his main weapon, he also carries a gun and he’s a good fighter pilot. It’s just one more weapon he has and it’s a symbol of his social position (very much like naval officers well into the 20th century carrying a sabre with their gala uniform).

  2. Leon

    Battle Angels Alita (books) pulls it off by having Deckmen and Netmen enforcing gun control via instant death for anybody caught in possession of a gun, there’s a whole story line revolving around the existence of a single gun.

    In any kind of space vehicle or space habitat firearms will be a hard NO! Explosive decompression isn’t really a thing, in reality it’s rapid decompression BECAUSE OF an explosion, but in a space vehicle, there will be something vitally important pretty much anywhere you might want to point a gun.

    Hand waving force fields shouldn’t be too much of an issue in a space opera. Your already accepting casual space travel. If you want to move around in a force field you need to be able to tune it so it won’t repel slow moving objects, like you arms and legs, walls and door frames, car seats, the ground, or the point of your spear.

    The main problem with swords in a high tech setting is that swords aren’t really very good, and you would expect a high tech civilization to come up with something better.
    My favorites are;
    Pointy Stick – the spear is better then the sword for pretty much everything, except carrying around all day.
    Telescopic Pointy Stick – now you can carry your spear around all day.
    Gravity Stick – also telescopic.
    Jovian Butter Knife – basically a gravity chain sword, very thin currents pull in opposing directions, it’s quite horrible. The body is aluminum or carbon fiber, which is why it looks like a butter knife.

    If you want swords you don’t have to make guns entirely useless. If your universe has bullet proof force fields, they are going to absorb energy, and the field generator is going to get hot.
    Swords could be restricted to soldiers who are fast enough and brave enough to go into combat with these force fields.
    What you get is bullet proof(ness) – within certain limits, and these must be well defined hard limits – but you can’t use fire arms because the bullet leaving the rifle must pass through the shield. And if a few machine gun teams lay into you, you fall over from heat stroke, so you can’t just go charging an an enemy formation. The swordfighters have to be integrated with the gunfighters.

    I hope you have fun playing with these ideas.

    BTW, where did that gravity sword idea come from? It’s bugging me that I can’t remember the source because it’s such a horrible weapon.

  3. Leon

    … if you had a small bubble shaped force field you could use a pistol, you could also use hand grenades.
    You would also have to wear lots of hard Armour, because every assault rifle would also a secondary weapon for firing heavy, low velocity rounds.
    And a grenade would probably still ruin you’re day.

  4. Martin

    In Dune by Frank Herbert, he solves this by having shields which stop high velocity weapons, but if you set the shield to stop low-velocity weapons such as knives, then you end up suffocating yourself.

  5. Mattia

    “You could construct a world where firearms and other similar weapons simply aren’t allowed, and so characters fight with swords and other weapons.”

    I assure you that we don’t get as many sword fights as you guys in USA get shootings. The world just gets less violent. Best regards from Europe.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      This is certainly true in real life, but in a fictional story about sword fighting, there would presumably be some serious conflict that drives the characters to fight.

  6. Tony

    As mentioned in the article about bringing swords to a gunfight, you can also introduce super-swords, like lightsabers in Star Wars.

  7. Dinwar

    Gun control doesn’t work beyond a certain scale. The regulations of one country simply won’t matter to another. If I use my imperial power to outlaw guns in my country, but your country allows them, my only hope is that I’m so resource-poor that it’s not worth your time to attack me. Even with muskets guns offer an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield, and a country without guns will be run over by a country with them.

    A better option is to counter guns. Make them not illegal, but useless. Dune did this, as discussed above, with shields that didn’t allow objects over a certain speed to pass through. A similar effect can be made by having mages able to counter the fire in the barrel of a gun relatively easily. This would mean that the mage had to know they were being attacked–snipers, IEDs, and other devices would still be possible–but it would mean that guns were VERY limited in use.

    A viable alternative is to simply say they were never invented. Gunpowder predates guns by a fairly wide margin. No one thought to use it to attack people. Some experiments with rockets were no doubt attempted, but the idea of using a small hand-held device to shoot metal balls at other people simply didn’t occur to them. There are other precedents as well. Greece had steam power and coin-operated vending machines around the time of Socrates, but they never considered the wider potential applications beyond “Let’s make our temples really neat”. We could have had 19th century technology 3,000 years ago, but no one thought to do it. So while it seems strange, the idea that a fantastically useful invention can go unrecognized is historically sound.

    • SunlessNick

      Gun*powder* might not have been invented in a particular setting either.

  8. Innes

    You could have ammunition be rare/tightly controlled so that a gun wielding character could fire very few shots per conflict and if a sword wielding character could avoid those few shots through body armor/cover then the fight might be more feasible.
    Even with this though it would be hard to justify why ammunition is so rare or so tightly controlled, and why a uniquely rich/powerful/determined character couldn’t get more of it.

    • Innes

      Or, you could use a fantasy/alien species with regenerative abilities that can only be harmed by a specific type of ammunition, like werewolves and silver bullets, superman with kryptonite, or zombies where you need to destroy all of them/certain weak spots to really stop them.

  9. Tiberia

    You forgot one major solution, and it seems like a major oversight as it comes from one of the most influential sci-fi novels ever written; Dune
    In dune knives, and swords are as, if not more, common than ranged weapons.
    Shield technology in the dune has two attributes of note
    1. it stops fast moving things. Kinetic projectiles hit the field and just stop. So balistics simply do not work.
    2. Laser weapons interact with the shields in a unique manner; the shield generator AND the source of the laser both go up in ‘small’ nuclear explosions.

    The second seems easily circumvented with suicide troops (not an out of place thing in the setting), or remote firing. BUT there is a taboo against atomics, including doing this on purpose. And its a taboo maintained by mutual fear. anyone who breaks the taboo will find all the other great houses turning against them, for fear they will be the next to face such a fate. So doing this would be to win the battle, lose the war, and get exterminated as a consequence. So as taboos go, this one is pretty solidly enforced.

    Its to the point that in Dune the use of any ranged weapons is a notable oddity. The Fremen use pistols regularly, and this is odd. The reason they do is that they live in the open dessert, and shields cause the massive sand worms to go insane and destroy everything around the shield. So no shields, means ranged ballistics are viable, and logical to use. But even then knife combat is common, because ammunition is not so easily replaced. BUT it is notable their method if knife fighting is different than the usual, as explained below.

    Now the reason melee weapons are used is that shields can be penetrated if you move slow enough. they stop fast things. A knife can be pressed slow enough through the shield to kill the one inside it. They practice martial arts specifically tailored for this sort of combat.

    While the above are mechanical solutions for getting an audience to accept prevalent melee weapons in a hi-tech setting, there is another approach; tone/aesthetic.

    To be brief; If a story is the sort where aesthetically melee combat should occur alongside guns regardless of logic, then the reader will accept it. The prime example of this is Warhammer 40k
    In 40k there are guns that fire miniature rockets that explode on impact. These are standard armaments, not special use weapons. It’s their equivalent of an M16. You also have disintegrating balsters, mono-molecualr shuriken launchers, and more that are equally regular armaments in the setting.
    And there are chainswords. It’s a chainsaw, except its a sword.
    Swords, hammers, axes, claws, and more are common sights on the battlefield. There are some who ride giant wolves into battle as cavalry.
    What special role do they play?
    Being Metal. Metal AF

    40k’s setting is more about an aesthetic feel, than it is a cohesive world logic. This is a more in depth than simply rule of cool, and goes beyond melee weapons.
    Consider- would a story about Bruce Wayne using his wealth and privileged to push for reforms in Gotham to solve the systemic problems that contribute to crime feel right in a batman story? It would be logical. So much of what batman does is illogical, but to do the logical thing would be what takes the reader out of the story. The setting is an aesthetic one where the caped crusader and his underage minor go punch crazy people.

    I think that s all my thoughts

  10. FluxVortex

    Dune has been brought up already, and it probably is the most effective example of establishing a technological paradigm where defensive technology has outpaced offensive weapons.

    S.M. Sterling’s series Lords of Creation presents a habitable Mars where the native humanoids have relatively advanced technology, but very little metal to create bullets or durable components for firearms.

    Guns are actually pretty common in both settings, but due to technological or environmental factors they’re a hunting tool or secondary armament rather than a main infantry weapon.

  11. MA006

    Another idea I have is having swords relevant to culture, for example a certain culture may have generals who use swords as weapons. Maybe this is because they believed that this will give them a blessing from a war god first, and now it is just how they do wars, no questions asked (none yet anyways).

  12. Redrikki

    There’s also the issue of range. Guns are distance weapons. Swords are close quarters weapons. Most soldiers traditionally carried both range and close quarters weapons, so swords remained relevant in combat right through World War Two. They only recently started phasing out bayonets in the US military, but there’s a reason they still are issued long knives.

  13. Brigitta M.

    If the OP is willing to keep guns as tech then having swordplay as a viable option in a war-type setting would work up until more recently (when long distance battles via drones make this unlikely).

    It would, I admit, require a specific set of circumstances but I’m basing this off of the fact that in military training I received the bare basics of hand-to-hand with a bandolier.

    If there is a culture in the OPs world that gives high honors to someone who kills someone face-to-face (while still honoring smart military tactics) having each soldier being trained with a sword and have one as part of their gear would make sense. If a bit of loosey-goosey sense because a sword can weigh 5lbs…so hand-to-hand kills need to be REALLY highly honored to lose precious carry-weight like this.

    This would make a world where sword fights are rare but when they happen they’d be spectacular and brutal. If this country with the swords wins the war…it’d then follow that other countries would begin training with swords because of the relatively high casualty count. More sword fights…but still rare in comparison to other tactics…therefore, still spectacular and brutal.

    Going further back in time, a sword is a quieter kill than a gun so there could be stealth regiments that really heavily on the sword (while still wielding a gun when absolutely necessary).

    –Bri

  14. That Dave Guy

    I explicitly wanted a wuxia setting where combustion/chemical technology languished, while electromagnetics were more common, so I decided it was set on a world where the chemical makeup leaned away from combustibles and toward magnetics. Regular storms, so lots of magnetite. Radio communications. Maglev rail travel and maglev sleds pulled by farm animals. Lightning farms full of metal towers with huge battery banks. Electric lights but very little fire. Only one nation with access to gunpowder, which they employ slaves to mine because it’s highly toxic.

    Then I decided to combine that with the qi that martial artists harness, so I called it all “telluric energy”.

    There was a whole thing about some people being furries because they had fragments of animal spirits, too, because some of my players wanted that, but that’s neither here nor there.

  15. Julia

    In the RPG Fading Suns nobles carried swords for tradition but also used them in duels. As I recall, space ship combat was more reliant on melee weapons because projectile weapons could penetrate a hull or sensitive computer equipment.

  16. Bubbles

    When you say that “guns don’t work with magic” has the problem of explaining why magic can work with crossbows and such, well, what if magic doesn’t work with crossbows either, or indeed any ranged weapon? For some specific ways to implement this, perhaps all possible weapon enchantments only benefit melee fighting, or an enchantment stops working when you’re not holding the enchanted object. Of course, if you want to have lower-tech ranged weapons (which a lot of people apparently do want in their fantasy) but not guns, this may not work for you. Also, ranged attack is a powerful capability, so I think it might still be possible for ranged weapon development to go on even in that case, which is likely to eventually lead to guns. (Well, unless some melee weapon enchantments themselves can give powerful ranged abilities – laser swords, anyone?)

    Also, I was thinking of something else – what if magic doesn’t work on metal? That idea is found in some fantasy already. Of course, I just realized, you couldn’t have metal swords, but you could have wooden weapons. Perhaps you could have even wood enchanted to be like metal in some ways to make useful swords, but it couldn’t be enough like metal to make (very) functional guns out of (I’m thinking about making it harder through magic, but unless you add other conditions, I’m not sure whether harder wood could make effective guns or not). While wooden cannons have existed, they were apparently often strengthened with metal and were far weaker than metal cannons in any case. I’ve heard of polymer-framed guns, but I think they still had a lot of metal in them. Recently, plastic 3d-printable guns have been created, but currently at least, I’ve heard they can only fire a few shots at most. Meanwhile, I *think* crossbows can be made with no (or at least very little) metal. Anyone who knows more about this stuff, feel free to discuss it.

    I think a cultural taboo on guns could work in very specific settings. For instance, duels could be sword-only – but then you would have to have everyone important in the plot, including any villains, following such rules in your story. I think you could actually write a very interesting story like that (with both the heroes and the villains having a conflict while trying to stay within a certain set of rules/customs), but it would have to be particularly well-thought out.

    I was also thinking about having some powerful technological or magical restriction being placed on guns and futuristic weapons while allowing less “advanced” weapons. (Because it needs to be very effective – likely more than present-day gun control – this might be an area in which the more advanced technology is, the better it serves your effect!) This could make the aforementioned cultural restrictions even stronger. I had also been wondering in my specific world whether a magical restriction could have been involuntarily implemented on everyone as a way of preventing the particularly severe violence that can occur from highly advanced weapons. However, if you’re using that kind of thing, you would need to think of a reason why it can’t just prevent all usage of weapons/violence, or why someone chose not to make it do that. I’m not sure whether you can do a sound reason, but I’m thinking.

    • Dinwar

      Have gunpowder be affected by magic, instead of metal, and the problem goes away. Say that the manufacturing of gunpowder has alchemical consequences that preclude it being explosive. Or just set the rules of your world such that gunpowder specifically doesn’t explode; no need to go into details.

      This was done in the Amber series–they focused on swordplay because most explosives simply didn’t work in Amber. Finding one that did was a major shock to their system, though ultimately of little consequence to the overarching story. This also is done in the “Venturers of Aerth” roleplaying game–explosions specifically are forbidden by magic, so while crossbows work (springs aren’t affected), guns don’t.

  17. Jim

    The other obvious one is the route taken by Dune. In that, the same technology that allows FTL travel also provides for personal forcefields that can deflect bullets but not swords, which are slower moving.

    This means that guns have become generally obsolete for warfare or against important targets. Just like how throughout history, improved armour on troops or vehicles has made certain weapons a waste of time.

    Although how useful guns are for personal defence or crime in the Dune setting is dependent on how cheap forcefields are. I never felt that was really explored.

    • Jim

      Oh, someone mentioned it by the time I hit post xD

  18. Jim

    One of the best settings for this has been a UK larp I used to play in, called Pioneers.

    Guns exist. Shields exist that can stop a couple of direct shots before needing to cool down for 5 minutes. Shields are cheap and also serve as a spacesuit. Many people wear them most of the time as personal air conditioning. They don’t stop melee attacks because of the risk of false positives from your own limbs, chairs you want to sit down on, etc. Shields can block long range shots all day long as they can calculate the bullet’s path and catch it, rather than trying to harden the entire bubble as soon as something fast moving shows up.

    Melee weapons exist. Effective armour exists that can stop a melee blow from a normal human. However, the armour is very expensive so most people can’t cover their whole body. And bullets will go straight through it. Also, some alien claws, combat robot power saws and special weapons could cut through it.

    So guns aren’t very good up close because even a civilian forcefield will give someone a chance to run away or stab you

    What this led to was fairly close range fights (around 20m) where people would use cover to get close, and charge when they thought it would be decisive. Even dedicated melee characters carried a pistol for either dangerous wildlife, volleys on one person, or for enemies who hadn’t brought their own guns.

    • Jim

      As an addendum, the fact you want to include magic means you can just have the “forcefield” be a cheap application of an existing “ward agianst projectiles” spell. Which means no worries about “how does it deal with this edge cases of my scifi physics”.

      Either you can enchant an item at a trivial price, or it’s permanent, meaning anyone who’s ever served in an army is arrow-resistant. Which means there’s a population of arrow-resistant veterans for the town watch and gangs to recruit from even before they start putting it on their own people. You could even give it the drawback that it makes your own shots hopelessly inaccurate, driving people even further towards hand-to-hand weapons.

      I apologise slightly for the long double-post, but this is a topic that comes up a lot in combat-focused larp design.
      – People like using their rubber swords.
      – A fight with those is a lot more dynamic than just standing around yelling BANG at each other, and airsoft comes with safety, aesthetics and access issues.
      – Designers come up with a LOT of reasons why swords remain a practical weapon in their setting of choice.

      • Bubbles

        Of course, the issue with including a “ward against projectiles” spell is that it blocks all projectiles, making arrows and such useless as well. This doesn’t matter if that’s what you want in your world or you don’t really mind. If you *only* want guns to not be used but crossbows and such to be useful, though, you’ll have to have a different solution.

        Incidentally, the original Mythcreants answer seemed to just assume that crossbows would be useful in the OP’s fantasy world, even though technically, the OP never discussed them. I suppose it’s because a lot of fantasy uses them (and ranged weapons that aren’t modern tech/guns), but that technically isn’t *necessary*. Given how many plausible solutions have been proposed in the comments (granted, most of them involve magic, but the OP explicitly mentioned magic), I’ll just note that this kind of thing is one reason why you should always analyze the assumptions you’re making. I don’t mean to be rude to Mythcreants writers or anything (and in fact, there are quite a few good articles here about analyzing and critiquing various common assumptions), it’s just a nice example.

  19. Jenn H

    There are a few ways to do this, inspired by real life.

    1. In many areas it is far easier to get a sword or knife or machete than it is to get a gun. (Where I live I need a license to own a paintball gun, but I could walk around in public with a broadsword and the cops don’t care.)

    2. Speaking of cops, guns are noisy and attract all sorts of unwanted attention. Your character might be an assassin or ninja type, and shun guns in favour of stealth.

    3. Your character really likes swords, or maybe is just kind of nuts. They’ve probably survived as long as they have due to a combination of skill and luck. Plus nobody expects someone to bring knives to a gun fight, so they have the element of surprise.

    Google Jack Churchill if you want an example, that guy somehow managed to die of old age.

  20. Erynus

    Just take out Christian Friedrich Schönbein from your universe and it’s done.
    That man discovered by pure accident what is called nitrocellulose or guncotton. Without that, they would never achieve the capability to get high velocity rounds and your universe would get stuck into the late XVIII century, with guns as accurate as a single shot revolver (which weren’t at all, hence the importance of being the faster drawer).

    Also, if you remove both World Wars from your timeline, you’d cut the modern weapons technology in half, to the point to the airplane being barelly developed.

    • Cay Reet

      Developments in technology usually aren’t just about one person. A lot of inventions were made by several people around the same time, even though they are generally connected to only one of them – in more modern times usually the person who first got a patent on them.

      Is there a single shot revolver? Since the revolving wheel is the actual point of a revolver, as far as I understand it? There’s single shot guns, a lot of them from small to big (or pistols with two or three shots due to several barrels), but a revolver, I think, always has several shots.

      I doubt that cutting out the wars would mean less development for planes (or we might have other transport instead of planes, such as airships … or entomopters, a girl can dream). The plane has many civillian use and military uses apart from war (for scout missions and long-distance transports). The plane was in development before WWI, the development might have been done differently and it might have taken longer, but it would have happened.

      • Dinwar

        It’s also important to note that advancements in technology are not linear. The ancient Greeks developed a version of steam power 3,000 years or so ago–they used it to make their temples more impressive. No further development was made for 2,500+ years, because society was focused on other things. At a more abstract level: There are only a limited number of ways to make a 2-dimensional pattern. Only one society has ever, to the best of our knowledge, found them all; all other societies have found subsets, but never fully explored this. 2D art is the oldest art in the world.

        It’s entirely possible to have gunpowder and simply not develop guns. It seems weird to us, but this sort of thing happens all the time. If you set up a society that has, say, a highly ritualized form of combat (see feudal Japan and some African cultures), guns may not be invented; there’d be no perceived need. Or they may advance other aspects of technology while ignoring military advancements; if diplomacy works, and there’s not a strong drive toward individual valor, combat may not be significant. Most Medieval wars saw surprisingly little actual combat, they were successions of sieges more than anything else.

        The trick with this is that you’re really going to have to work on your society. It has to be relatively urbanized, or include a hunter/warrior group to keep wild animals at bay. It’ll likely be fairly ritualistic in many aspects, not just combat. It may be resource-poor (Japan doesn’t have great iron ore supplies, so it used them VERY conservatively). Maybe it had a horrific experience with full-scale industrial warfare (say, a nuclear war) and everyone mutually agreed to never let that happen again. Whatever the reason, it’s got to make sense in the context of that society.

      • Erynus

        Sorry, i meant single action revolvers.
        As for development, it could happen sooner or later, or not at all. I usually think about why a discovery happens when it does and not sooner or later, and i don’t have an answer.
        I don’t think that changing the setting the development choices would be the same.
        In feudal Japan they used the same weapons, armor and tactics from V century all the way to XVI century, in the same period Europe went from chain mail to plate armour across all the single variation of armour in the whole middle ages. There were too many different weapons to just name it all.

        • Cay Reet

          As far as Japan is concerned: Japan is one group of islands which was early on under the control of one ruling class. Europe is a continent where several rulers fought bitterly for small additions to their countries. It stands to reason that weapons will develop much faster in such a place.

          So, yes, without the world wars, some weapon development might not have happened – or happened more slowly -, but the world wars are too late a marker. While biological warfare was developed strongly in WWI and WWII saw the invention of guns big enough to shoot across the channel, most of the technology was already well developed. Planes were there already as well – and most of the development for civilian use came after the wars, when people realized that planes weren’t just for raining down death on your enemies (which is a viable use as well).

          Developments surely would have changed, but I doubt modern bullets and something at least on the level of a revolver wouldn’t have been developed over time. The problem with guns only having one shot (wonderfully demonstrated in the second episode of Sleepy Hollow, when Ichabod throws his pistol away after one shot, only to be berated for it, since a modern automatic has something akin to twelve) has been considered several times. If one person didn’t get the basics right, another one would have. Just as if one person didn’t get the basics about telephones right, another would have (another one had). Or if one person hadn’t gotten the basics of an electric grid right, another one would have.

          • Erynus

            the OP asked about a way to prevent guns from leaving swords obsolete, my take on it is a simple way to do it. Development means looking for something that works better than what you currently have. The point with Japan is that it being a secluded country, they didn’t needed better tactics or armour, as they were using the same tactics and weapons over and over (and didn´t had the means to get better weapons).
            No one could built an aircraft carrier in the classical greek times even if they knew what it was o how to build it, just because the technics and material weren’t invented yet.
            Benjamin Franklin just was lucky not getting electrified whe he did his comet and key experiment. More people tried it and most of them died from it. It Franklin did failed the experiment it is possible for anyone else to get it right, but is not guarantee.

            Another way to limit the usefulness of guns is just to modify the atmosphere a bit. A denser atmosphere would mean a shorter bullet travel distance; a mildly corrosive one can erode the barrel risking the gun to explode with each shot.

          • Cay Reet

            It’s not about planes in Ancient Greek (although Ancient China did have manned kites), but flying began before World War I in Europe and North America and even earlier (see Ancient China) in other areas. Extrapolating from the first flying machines, mostly gliders, and with the technology for engines (steam or otherwise), there would have been something plane-shaped sooner or later.

            As far as a way to prevent guns from making swords obsolete, it’s difficult, because we’re comparing a ranged weapon to a melee weapon. It’s not the gun as a such which makes the sword obsolete. A gun is useful in a different way than a sword and there’s no reason not to carry both – for different kinds of fights. ‘Bringing a knife to a gunfight’ means bringing a weapon to a fight where it will be useless, not that knifes are obsolete.

            New kinds of warfare made the sword obsolete. In the past, most fighting on the battlefield happened between melee units – spear-bearers, swordsmen, axe-carriers (although the Franks also use a throwing axe to great success), etc. Ranged units (bow or crossbow later) provided attacks until the two armies clashed – in which case they were no longer used, because they were similarly likely to hit friend or foe. With the development of the gun, battlefield tactics changed and ranged units became more and more important (because use of guns is much easier to teach and guns, especially once they’re able to fire more than one round before reloading, allow for faster attacks). Because of this, melee weapons were downgraded from the regular weapon to an emergency weapon (the bajonet, for instance, is an addition to the rifle to make it useful in close-quarter combat). Swords became obsolete, because fights no longer happened in close-quarter situations, but from futher off – outside the range of a sword.

            One way to make sure that swords will not lose their use would be society (as I mentioned above, swords could still be a weapon for something specific, such as a duel). Another would be a world where a lot of areas (dense forest or winding canyons for example) are not suitable for ranged fighting. There, swords and other melee weapons would still be more efficient than a gun.

  21. Cay Reet

    While typing another answer here, I realized there’s another point to this than just ‘how can I make sure nobody has guns’ and that is to make guns useless for parts of the setting.

    As I wrote in that answer, it’s not true that the gun made the sword obsolete as a such. The gun changed the way warfare was done and that made the sword obsolete as a regular weapon. Battles no longer happend in close quarters and with melee weapons, but on a much wider field with ranged weapons. Melee weapons in general became an emergency weapon instead of the main weapon of a soldier.

    In a world where that isn’t possible, swords might still be the main weapon for a warrior, even if guns exist. Imagine a world with very dense plant life – shooting isn’t efficient there, close-quarter fights are inevitable. The sword could still have its uses there. Or a world with much lower light, where you can’t see that far ahead. Fights would mostly happen as close-quarter fights there as well. It doesn’t have to be a whole world, either. Making parts of it where guns are useless would already work and it wouldn’t need magic as an explanation. If you can’t shoot, because you don’t see the enemy until they’re close enough to slap your gun aside, a sword can be much more useful.

    • Erynus

      You are thinking from the current earth point of view. I think it’s not about a parallel universe where the setting is our earth but with a different specific event that changed all.
      Of course if you take our earth in the 1800s it is natural that the technological development would keep in the same direction. But in other setting, other worlds, if you want a setting where guns are next to useless you can change the history the way you want. What if they didn’t invented gunpowder? or never thought about barrels or triggers? they can have completelly different technologies to acomplish the same. They might even have a version of gunpowder a little too powerful to be useful.
      If you start you story whith your MC answering a phone call in his/her PI office while cleaning his/her flintlock pistol, you can wonder why they don’t have handguns and what else they don’t have, but as the setting goes, it is completely ok.
      Of course you can’t describe what your setting don’t have.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, you can change the development completely. If you do that, you can simply leave out guns and claim they were never invented, which would make melee weapons more important and the sword, as a very powerful melee weapon (balanced between speed and weight, for instance), a dominant weapon on the battlefield or for the general populace.

        I think however, since battle with ranged weapons has an advantage over battle with close-quarter weaponry, there would always be some dominant form of ranged weapon – be it a gun, a bow, a crossbow, or something we haven’t even thought about. There will be times for the crossbow and times for the sword. (And, one hopes, for diplomacy.)

        If a civilian would prefer the relatively long sword over something shorter like a knife, dagger, or cosh, is another question entirely. In your example with the PI and their flintlock gun (I like that idea, because it’s a one-shot deal, so action sequences will have to rely on something else than a shootout), I would rather think for the PI to go with weapons easier to hide than a sword – a dagger or two, perhaps, throwing knives (also ranged to a degree), or some sort of one-time-use magic or technological device. They might even carry several flintlock guns, so they can switch guns between shots in an emergency.

  22. bedull

    How about Attack on Titan settings. You face enemy that have faster regeneration and specific weak point, bullet can wound them but unable to kill it (they have cannon to slow the Titan movement). Of course later on the series they have guns (augmented with gas) which used to kill other human but useless against Titan.

  23. Rose Embolism

    A couple possibilities:

    High tech: the android bodies that long-ago replaced human tissue are massively redundant to the point where point damage and even impacts are easy routed around. Firing a 20mm cannon into a civilian won’t stop them, and combat mods are even worse. The only way to stop someone is severing limbs (sometimes a dozen or so). Fortunately the swords have monomolecular edges, and may weigh upwards of 20 kilos, so they’re up to the task.

    Low tech: the AI that’s the controller of the giant trade habitat regards guns as a threat to the integrity to the habitat, and has good enough scanners to easily detect guns and gunpowder. Anyone violating the ban gets themselves and their entire race ejected from the station. Literally. Aside from the deaths of up to thousands of people, the loss of trade and diplomacy rights would be catastrophic to the point where no sentient would consider it (You! Primate derived sophant in the back! stop giggling!). the AI however is apolitical and actually doesn’t care if the various cultures war against each other. As long as they don’t hurt the infrastructure.

    • Cay Reet

      I like the way you’re thinking, but for your high-tech example, I have one problem you’d need to explain: If swords were adapted to the cyborg bodies, then why weren’t the bodies themselves adapted to the threat of swords just as they were adapted to the threat of bullets? You can strengthen the overall body just as well as strengthening the hide alone. There would be an arms race between the sword (bigger, sharper, more dangerous) and the body (better armour, perhaps force fields).

  24. Emilio

    In the DARKOVER series by Marion Zimmer-Bradley, there was a time where there were long range weapons, and these almost destroyed the world, so the seven kingdoms entered “The Compact”, which outlawed any weapon that could kill at a distance. After a few generations, “The Compact” is not only law, but it is considered disgraceful for anybody to wield a weapon that can kill at a distance, be it magical or mechanical.

  25. Juan

    Just as bows and crossbows did not leave swords and spears obsolete, we can imagine armors made of exotic materials so resistant that only specific melee weapons can do them substantial damage, such as the gravitic spears. Weapons whose edges by quantum gravity can put under stress of a black hole what the blade touches, but not what is nearby, and said tech cannot be tiny to be placed in projectiles.
    There are also speeders, beings that are faster than any projectil because they are psychic living beings and their speed cannot be reproduced in inert objects, they can slow down time itself. Resorting to bullets would be useless for them when they can turn to their bodies.
    Or spectral beings who cannot receive forces if the forces are not physically connected to beings with astral bodies, that is, living beings. Immunity to ranged attacks but not to melee attacks of living beings.

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