Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part III)

This is the third part in a series. To see Part I, click here. To see Part II, click here.

I believe I have recovered my mental faculties enough for this week (I’m still seeing a silver teapot in the corner of my vision every now and then, but I believe my temporary delusion has resolved itself into merely a heightened artistic temperament.) Thanks for covering for me, Melissa!

Right, guns and whatnot-this week I will be adding to my series on small arms in science fiction with one weapon type that occurred to me in the last week, and simply couldn’t exclude from the discussion. While it’s a bit off the beaten path for most readers, I think this weapon adds a particular style and flavor to the story if used well.

Particle Beam Weapon:

A BattleMech firing Particle Projection Cannons

I first came across this idea in a videogame series called Mechwarrior, a part of a larger table-top world of BattleTech, which are both a lot of fun if you’re into giant robot suits and explosions. The idea was invented by Nikolai Tesla as a “peace ray”, a weapon so powerful and effective that it would end war over night, as its mere existence would, in his opinion, make all aggressors too afraid to act. While such an effect is debatable (nuclear weapons certainly didn’t affect warfare that way), Tesla’s idea has not yet been successfully turned into the potent weapon he envisioned, but it could still be very useful for a science fiction story.

The weapon would work by charging tiny particles of metal with extremely high voltages of electricity, and projecting them out of a “nozzle” in a one-particle-thick line, at 48 times the speed of sound. The effect would be like that of a high-powered laser, but with solid matter. Newer variations of the same idea would include a ray of electrons that could disrupt and destroy electronic equipment, or a beam of hydrogen atoms that, even with

A sketch of Tesla's "Peace Ray"

their extremely small mass, could be accelerated to close to the speed of light and projected with devastating effect (similar in function to railguns, as I described in Part II of this series). As far as small arms applications go, Particle Beams would be difficult to implement, but here are some Pros and Cons to consider if you decide to feature Tesla’s brainchild in your world:


  • Scalability: depending on how much energy is pumped into the accelerating process, and how much of the material is being accelerated, vastly different levels of power can be achieved. This means that particle beam weapons could be used in a small-arms form factor, or be scaled up to capital ship-sized, planet-smashing weapons of mass destruction.
  • Power: The molecule-obliterating effect of a particle beam makes it potentially more powerful than any of the other options discussed so far. A finely-focused beam would have a self-focusing property that would make it deliver much more force in a smaller area than a laser of the same energy, and a widely-focused beam could act on a wider area, with an effect something like a shotgun or sand-blaster.
  • Advantages of a Laser: Particle beams also gain many of the same advantages as lasers (Range, travel time, no ammunition), but are in many ways less problematic. Particle beams resist defocussing at range, and are less fallible in foggy and dusty conditions. It would also have almost no recoil, unlike a railgun or traditional firearm.
  • Dissipation: Even though particle beams resist defocussing at range, the accelerated particles can bump into each other and molecules in the air, losing energy as the beam travels to its target. Theoretically, longer-range particle beam weapons could use a laser as a sort of track to guide the particles to their target, but they would still lose energy at greater distances. Long distance weapons would need to fire higher-energy beams to make up for the loss.
  • Believability: Even if they are theoretically possible and certain aspects of the device can be demonstrated, particle beams have not yet had a practical début as a weapon in our time. Lasers and railguns have both had military prototypes that give us an idea of their possible future applications, but beam weapons remain in the realm of theory and speculation. This may or may not matter to you as a writer or to your audience, but it is a definite con to consider.
An example of an alien particle beam sniper rifle from the videogame Halo 3

There are several more points to consider, but those are the basic ones. Personally, I like the idea of particle weapons, but it may not be your cup of sci-fi-flavored tea. It might irk some of the hard-science fans out this weapon idea was abused, and I would say that the flavor of this weapon would likely fit better in a science fantasy setting as opposed to a traditional science fiction world, but the choice is yours to make.

Next week I’ll finish off the series with my own thoughts on the probable future of our own modern weapons, and offer some tips about how you might use them in your story. Until then, did I miss anything? What are some types of small arms that I haven’t covered? Let me know in the comments below!