Looks like we’ve started a tradition. In the last On Writing post I was asked this:
A New Writing Question:
Hi Larry. Here is a new writing question. What would be the best approach for writing about futuristic weapons (say 200-300 years in the future)? How does one figure out what those weapons would look like, act like, sound like, etc.? I look at authors like David Weber and can only shake my head at how they figure out weapon calibers, etc.
Are there certain limitations and factors to consider that would hold no matter when a weapon is designed?
Let’s limit it to “average” army weapons (e.g. pistols, assualt rifles, sniper rifles etc.).
That’s an awesome question, but I’m no expert. I’m not really a sci-fi writer (yet), but I do know a bunch about guns. And as the philosopher Ron Perlman warns us in Fallout, “and war never changes.” (because war has always consisted of hitting giant radioactive scorpions with sledgehammers), regardless of tech, some small arm’s features are universal.
There were already some very smart responses in the comments. From Tim P:
The last 200-300 years have seen major changes to firearms, it would be very hard to work out what the next 200-300 years will hold. It’s possible we’ll just have fancier versions of what’s used Today, or we might have entirely switched to something completely new. Probably the most important part is to make sure the ergonomics of the weapon make sense. Some of the Star Trek phasers (I think NG) are examples of doing this wrong. They where shaped in such a way that it would have been almost impossible to point them with any precision. Obviously more relevant to TV and movies that books though, but it still applies if you’re going to describe the usage of the weapon in detail.
I totally agree on the phasers. Really, space marines will never go into combat with dust busters. I don’t care if your pistol can be set with power levels from tickle to disintegrate to hand grenade (as the plot requires), you still need to aim the damn things. And since I didn’t see any sort of targeting system built into their comfy looking space-jammies, I’m guessing they did a lot of point shooting instruction at Star Fleet Academy.
There are a few universals. You need to aim it somehow. Hitting stuff is helpful. Ergonomics are nice too. I love sci-fi where guns in the future will have no stocks but are really large. If the show is really forward thinking, they’ll put lots of glowing lights on the weapon, because A. it looks cool. and B. you never have to wait for the enemy to spot you.
Another potential fault would be to make the limitations of your sci-fi super weapon such that modern weapons would be better. Sure your super-laser will vaporise people with a single shot, but it’s super fragile, only has one shot before it needs to sit for five minutes to recharge, and costs a fortune; why not just give your soldiers AK-47s? Obviously this is a hard mistake to make, but I have seen it occasionally
Once again, Tim nails it. I remember one series I read as a kid where they were using small arms (some sort of plasma weapon, if I recall correctly) but the barrels would get super hot and melt, and needed to be ejected and replaced every few shots… Okay, I don’t care if your pistol makes the other dude explode, if he’s got a couple of friends with rocks, you’re screwed. That is not a step up. Realistically, if there was a weapon system like that, and it was super powerful and line of sight capable of smoking a tank, then you would run one in a squad, with several other guys shooting guns that didn’t need significant parts replaced every few seconds.
You all may know him as the opening quote guy from Monster Hunter International, but Dillis Freeman is also a smart gun guy and writer. He also gave some great advice:
Beyond physics and the tradeoffs inherent in any man portable system, there are two questions I’ve found helpful when “designing” weapons: 1) what is the purpose of the weapon and 2) what kind of society/character designed it? In some circumstances, they are related. Is the society one where function, cost and simplicity the main goal? In that case, you might end up with something like an AK: cheap, shoddy to some, yet very reliable. The weapon’s purpose is to be sufficiently cheap to arm mass numbers, yet effective enough that it will do its job. Is the society one where harming another “excessively” or “unnecessarily” frowned upon? You could have a 22nd Century Hague convention which limited the nature of ammuniton. Or perhaps all weapons will require safety interlocks to insure only certain people could use them. Such a society would also lean heavily towards less than lethal weapons (which shows how purpose and societal background are related).
You see that now in the modern world. Many nations are currently trying to develop alternative “less-lethal” methods of fighting. The main reason being societal, because you know, killing your enemies is messy and gets on the news. I’ve seen glue sprayers, all manner of OC, sound wave thingies, paralysis agents, or even really bad music at loud volumes. Meanwhile non-cuddly countries are trying to figure out how to modernize AKs or plastic AR-18s with air bursting grenades.
As with everything, research is key. The one thing you don’t want to do is to violate physics and common sense without very good reason. Anything projectile launcher will have recoil commensurate with the physics involved unless it’s a self-propelled round or has some handwavium going on (nothing like reading about recoilless rail guns or small arms throwing objects at relativistic speeds without ill effect on the shooter to reveal that the author either misunderstood what was happening or left out a step like “inertial dampening” when describing the scene. If the rest of the technology doesn’t reflect that such things exist, then the former answer is more likely than the latter).
Way over my little accountant brain. (but I learned my accounting on the street!). Just remember, the mack-daddy of all sci-fi said There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Energy isn’t free, recoil sucks, and somebody has to carry the damn thing.
In all honesty, it’s important to remember that the more things change, the more they remain the same. As others have stated, we’ve reached a certain pinnacle of small arms. Most development now is evolutionary rather revolutionary, and the really revolutionary stuff (i.e. directed energy weapons) has some significant drawbacks. If Han Solo hadn’t had a very compact power source and highly effective energy projection and heat dispersal capabilities, along with some mechanism for handling considerable recoil (even energy weaons will display recoil), then he would have been carrying something a lot closer to a Glock than a blaster.
Star Wars is the ultimate example of Rule of Cool. None of the technology in Star Wars makes a lick of sense, but we love it anyway, because it is awesome. Hell, the ultimate force in the universe is a space monk with a lightning sword who fights dudes wearing bulky armor that doesn’t actually do anything, shooting guns from the hip that fire beams of energy at sixty miles an hour. That’s a neat trick, blocking blaster shots. But if you were trying to write something realistic, let me introduce you to the FN M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, Mr. Jedi. BRRRRAAAAAPPPPP.
Ultimately, though, it’s your story. It can be interesting to start with what you want your character to have (a Smith & Glock 2.5mm coil gun firing lexan slugs with dial a yield anti-matter cores) and then say “why is this guy carrying that weapon and what kind of society and tech will support it”? By the way, here is an excellent site that goes into some of the issues surrounding sci fi weapons. http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/rocket3l.html
Dillis gives some excellent advice there. Remember when I talked about regular guns, the characters are still more important. Though everyone knows the S&G 2.5mm is inferior to the 3mm CorreiaTech Combat Wombat.
Right now we’re using projectile weapons because they work and we haven’t found anything better. At different points in time, something new and exciting has come along, like flechettes in the ‘70s, or caseless ammo in the ‘80s, but those inventions had drawbacks so they didn’t replace our regular projectiles. Once something new comes along that works better, and is affordable, then we’ll switch. If you can figure out what that is and you’ve got the engineering degree to make it happen, you’ll make a lot more money selling the design to ATK than you will writing novels.
One thing that I’ve talked with length about with Nightcrawler (because he’s really way more of a sci-fi guy than I am) is the effects of armor. Armor tech for individual soldiers is advancing at a much faster pace than small arms. Really, if you were armed with WW2 small arms, you’re not lagging that far behind. (I’d even go so far to say that our modern primary advantage over a group of 1945 GIs would be Aimpoints). Heck, today we’re battling enemies using a gun from 1947 with our design from 1963, and they’re hanging in there okay. But look at the difference armor has made. Materials science has come a long way in recent years, and we’re now routinely surviving hits that would have killed our ancestors.
I expect this to continue. I think armor will get better, faster, than the small arms for the near future. There is some stuff out there right now that people are working on that will blow your minds. So when we get to the point that it gets too difficult to drop somebody wearing head to toe, mechanically augmented, squishy, light weight, nearly magical armor, then we’re going to see some changes to small arms. Nightcrawler’s personal feeling is that means bigger, deeper penetrating bullets, which would be an ironic reversal of firearm’s evolution over the last century.
So I suppose if I were writing sci-fi, and I wanted to invent a weapon to go along with my world, I’d just make sure it fit. It needs to be manageable. Now if your characters are genetic mutants or wearing power armor, make it huge and stick a chainsaw on it. But if they’re still human, it needs to be manageable by a human. It isn’t going to be big, unwieldy, and stupid looking.
I do know one thing. If you set a book a couple hundred years in the future, even if it takes place on another planet, and you gave somebody a Kalashnikov, I wouldn’t bat an eye.