Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part I)

Here's a few modern examples- except maybe that machine gun

Hello and welcome back for another round of my hopefully informative and necessarily wordy editions of Science Fiction Problems! This week I’ll be taking a look at something that most science fiction stories will include to some degree, if only in passing, but often take the short cut on: firearms (or more specifically, small arms). Many writers will inevitably rely on clichés and under-thought contrivances that don’t bear out the scrutiny of most readers, which can severely hamper the believability of your world depending on how the threat and drama of combat plays into the story. If used correctly, the kind of weapons your characters use can add to the flavor of their given culture, help the reader understand relatively how much the technology has advanced beyond what they would expect (or make them question why it hasn’t), and add a lot of cool-factor to your sci-fi universe.

What I will be focusing on today are the sort of light weapons carried by soldiers, police, mercenaries, and generally anyone lookin’ for a shootout in your story, which would include pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and various other such weapons that can be carried..

Balancing Believability with Fantasy: From Blasters to Black Powder

There yah go. Movie magic.

I am reasonably sure that all of you have at least heard of Star Wars, and that most of you probably know what blasters are. If you don’t, there’s a picture for you. They’re carried by practically everyone in Lucas’ universe, and there seem to be different kinds, from the little pistols to the giant guns on battleships- but what do these things actually shoot? Well- that’s kind of just glossed over. Some sources explain it as a “super-excited bolt of gas”, but that’s more or less fan fiction. Unfortunately,  Lucas’ inexplicable blasters seem to have caught on. Think for a moment: how many science fiction movies or shows have you seen where the guns go “PEW!” and shoot a bright little line of light that burns stuff like a laser? Far too many, if you ask me. I am all for coolness factor, but there’s a certain point when the over-the-top light show just makes the audience scratch their collective heads in bewildered frustration. Or at least it would, if they didn’t take it for granted due to its sad overuse.

Well, like I’ve said before, there’s a big difference between what you can get away with on the screen and on

On paper, Firefly's mix of tech and old west cowboys looks weird, but it works!

the page, and in your story you will have to at least sound like you know how things work, even if you never go through the details with your reader.

Unless your story has an anachronistic feel (like steampunk, or something like Firefly), or is very nearly current-day (which has all its own problems), it’s difficult to use modern weapons in a science fiction story while still cultivating a feeling of wonder and a futuristic atmosphere. So, what is a hapless writer to do? Well, let’s take a look at one of the (legitimate) technologies you might base your guns on.

Lasers: the Problematic Fallback Plan

Lord Vader is not amused by your Sci-fi shenanigans

So you can’t just throw explosions and raybeams at your reader like the folks down in the CGI department can in the movies, leaving only the option of figuring out how your weapons could work, and what sort of progressions seem reasonable, depending on what directions today’s technology looks to be heading in. Laser-like weapons are pretty popular in science fiction, so let’s start there.

Lasers clearly don’t work like the blasters we see in Star Wars as I’ve already discussed here, as anyone who’s ever played with a laser pointer knows, but lasers could still be used as small arms weapons, right? Well, yes and no. While shows like Star Trek do a little better job of making laser weapons act like real lasers, as I explained in my this post, in both cases, the real problem is in where the energy comes from. Lasers powerful enough to cut metal and burn through targets (especially if they want to do these things quickly) require an enormous amount of energy, enough that those light weapons could quickly become much heavier. You could get around this problem (like Star Trek did) by inventing some high-energy material that acts as a battery, but you have to be careful about how much technology you make up to have your weapons make sense. Here are some pros and cons of using laser small arms in your story:


  • Instant travel time: Lasers (not blasters) operate at the speed of light, making them effectively instant in their effect. This can be a big advantage depending on the situation because the laser weapon could “outrun” other weapons, like shooting down a rocket, or killing a sniper before he can pull the trigger of his conventional firearm.
  • No Ammunition: Lasers don’t use bullets or shells in their firing operation, so there’s no ammunition to load (unless your power source is loaded and used in self-contained charges), and this could potentially cut down on weight and bulkiness (again depending on how you handle energy for the weapon).
  • “Cutting” Ability: No matter what the movies may tell you, you can’t “cut” down anything with bullets, but with a laser’s continuous beam, you can slice material like a knife if you have enough energy. Obviously this has limits, but it opens up many new options.
  • Energy: As previously mentioned, lasers require a lot of energy to operate. Even with advancements that make them more efficient (as per the US Navy’s Free Electron Lasers), if you want portable, hand-held lasers for your soldiers and mercenary heroes, you’ll need some pretty hefty batteries to power them. Miniature nuclear power packs or batteries worn on the back flamethrower-style would work, or else you could reasonably come up with a Star Trek-esque power solution- just be careful not to overdo it.
  • Cost: Like it or not, these weapons would be expensive to mass-produce, considering the complexity of the mechanisms involved and the expense of the energy source. It would be plausible to add laser weapons as support to conventional weapons, but this could be hard to justify with the feel of your story. Either way, it will seem unrealistic if such devices are easily available on the cheap, unless the civilization is extraordinarily advanced.
Believe it or not, that's an actual laser-rifle prototype, but all it does is blind people

So, some good benefits, but some hefty problems to deal with too. It is certainly possible to use lasers assmall arms in your story, but it will be difficult to explain away the drawbacks without creating some problems for the rest of your world- if you make an easy power supply for your lasers, then the civilization should be using that technology everywhere else as well, and that could change everything about your story world. If lasers are widely used, then there would be other technologies in the world to account for them, defenses developed against them, and heavier and lighter versions in military and civilian use. Some of these considerations would be the same for other technologies, but if your world uses lasers primarily, it’ll take a lot of thinking to work out all the implications.

Well, looks like this will be a multi-parter after all. Next week I’ll talk about Railguns and some other energy-based alternatives to lasers and conventional firearms, and then I’ll end this with my own personal thoughts on where our current small arms technology is headed, and how you might use it in your story.
Until next week, what are some examples of interesting guns that you’ve seen in your favorite science fiction? Let me know in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part I)

  1. “You can’t cut down anything with bullets”!! You clearly don’t know guns or your history. It happened in the Civil War, trees being cut and felled by bullets. Machine guns in WWI cut trees down with bullets and still do. The .50BMG round can cut through cement blocks, brick, and metal. It’s designed to do just that. You can probably find multiple examples on UTube, I haven’t looked because I’ve seen it done.

  2. Well, this is sort of a strange thing to comment about, but alright, I’ll bite. First of all, 50 calibur sniper rounds don’t “cut” anything, they penetrate through obstacles, as they’re designed to. Theoretically you could sort of errode away a line through an object and cut it in half, but no one in their right mind would do that on purpose, except to prove a very expensive point, as per Mythbusters: I hardly think the hummer-mounted, belt-fed minigun in that episode counts as a small arm, and on that note I wouldn’t count the M2 50 cal (if that’s the WWII machine gun you’re referring to) in this discussion either. I was imagining high-powered lasers offering the tactical advantage of being able to carve up cover, but of course perforating said cover with armor-piercing machine-gun rounds would certainly do the trick, if not with the sci-fi flare I was going for. In either case, if the objective is to actually remove cover by cutting it down, a laser’s direct energy transfer and ablation of material is much more efficient than simply throwing a ton of lead at it; napalm, explosives, and flame/chemical throwers aside.

  3. Actually, what I was thinking, “chewed through” is probably the more accurate description. Trees left from the Battles of the Wilderness outside of Richmond during the Civil War – 6″ thick trunks chewed through by Springfield and Enfield mine balls – I don’t know how to put the accent mark over the “e” in mine!

    I’m guessing that currently abrasion/ablation through the repeated application of a solid is probably quicker than through the application of photons. Not that this won’t change in the future.

  4. For my Nanowrimo novel last year, I had a character start toting around an infrared laser rifle: the LORI (Laser-Ops Rifle-Infrared). Basically it shot invisible infrared pulses that superheated the target and caused plasma explosions. It had small battery packs, but I wrote it then as being mass-distributed to the evil empire’s army. I did a bit of research (mostly pleading for help on the Nanowrimo websites), but I don’t think I thought through the broader implications of the new tech on the world in the story. Now I’m wondering if I should edit the LORI out…

  5. I haven’t seen anything about plasma weapons yet, so I’ll add my comment here. It’s a common side-kick to the laser (so common as to often be interchangable in use). Please, whatever you do, don’t use plasma guns. They don’t work. There are complex maths and sciences as to why they don’t work, but let’s just say that plasma is really hot gas. You can’t contain a ‘bullet’ of really hot gas even in a vaccum, much less in an atmosphere, for more than 1mm or so out of the barrel. It’d just disperse, like any other tiny whiff of air. On top of that, the density of plasma (really, REALLY low) would make all your bullets ‘float’ up into the sky if you could. Unless you’re shooting down aircraft, that’s not helpful.

  6. This is a simmilar subject but also completely dissimilar concerning star wars and the whole sci fi lightsabre thing. it could be a possibility to make a light sabre with enough magnifying lenses and a specially made projecter lens in the shape of a v or a u in which enough energy would or possibly could create a laser that is so dense that when it meets up at the tip or the end of the blade that it would stop itself from extending forever in which creating a blade that is long but not too long that would be adjustable to the user by either changing out a lens or raising or lowering one of the lenses through dials or by dissasembling it and doing it the possibly less complicated way. this took me a couple of days th think up. but if anybody has any questions please email me.

    1. I do wonder if that’s possible, to somehow create a circulating current of photons that could carry enough energy to do what you describe, but my gut tells me “no.” I think that the only way something like that could work is if there was some sort of reflector at the “tip” of the blade (something like the laser swords in that crappy video game No More Heroes) that could keep the energy contained, but then you run into the problem that we currently need a nuclear reactor to power a laser with enough energy to cut dense materials as quickly as lightsabers do in Star Wars. As cool as they are, lightsabers just aren’t practical enough for anyone to invest the money and resources to create one. Who knows- maybe some eccentric inventor or billionaire will decide they want one and someone will figure it out.

      I like your idea anyway, Aaron. Thanks for posting it!

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