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Think about it.

In real life right now, we have guns that can shoot several times a second and hit whatever you aim at pretty much instantly. Sci/fi guns seem to fall into two categories- Star Trek-like phasers or Star Wars-like blasters.

If you watch Star Trek, it's blatantly obvious how frigging useless phasers are; they shoot a beam that gives away your position, can apparently only shoot once every few seconds and aren't effective on half the things you shoot at - take the Borg for example - immune to phasers after a few shots, but watch the movie First Contact, and you'll see Picard mow several down with a tommy gun. What possible reason apart from the stun setting could the Federation have for using them?

In Star Wars it's even worse - blasters not only give away your position and don't shoot nearly as quickly as a regular gun, but move so slowly through the air that anyone but a tortoise with emphysema has time to jump the hell out of the way. Not only that, but people exist in the Star Wars universe that are quite capable of bouncing the shots right back at you. I'd like to see one of those pussy Jedi bounce a lead slug moving at twice the speed of sound back at its target.

The idea behind the Star Wars blaster is, in theory, extremely good. But for distant future firearms technology I believe its way off the mark. A couple of pros and cons.

Pros:
  • Colored rays let you immediately know if it's an enemy
  • Regardless of the body part you hit, your foe will be killed (check out the 4th and 6th episode fights)
  • Seemingly Unlimited ammo
Cons:
  • Frustratingly slow rate of fire
  • Paints an "I Am Here" sign with an arrow above your head
  • Even on a tripod or similar stand, the chance of hitting is under 50%
  • Are useless against a Jedi with a light saber
  • Will never hit that important high ranking official
  • Are unable to be aimed properly even by droids with detailed instructions on how to use them (Attack of the Clones anyone?)
The Star Trek phaser is even worse, with about the only pro being that you can stun someone with it. Wow, big deal, I can stun someone with capsicum spray or the butt of a rifle if I want:

Cons:
  • Doesn't work on all planets (environments and protective fields screw them over).
  • Always stop working at the worst possible time.
  • Inferior to many other races technology.
Now compare these two 'weapons of the future' to something like a modern CAR 15 assault rifle:

Pros:
  • Insanely stupid rate of fire.
  • Capable of ripping an enemy to pieces (if one desires to do so).
  • Used in short bursts, doesn't immediately give away your position.
Cons:
  • Noisy
  • Can be inaccurate (but at the rate of fire, it doesn't really matter if it's not dead accurate)
  • High ammo consumption

Personally, if I was up against a raging mob of Klingons or a entire planet of incompetent Storm Troopers with thin shabby armour, id much rather our 'outdated' Earthly weapons over a Star Trek phaser or Star Wars blaster (ok so MAYBE id have a Star Wars blaster for backup once my ammo ran out, but only because they look kind of cool).

m_turner says re: Useless weapons in sci/fi movies - you will note that Picard chose a tommy gun in First Contact against the Borg. --- Thus proving my point that sci-fi weapons are utterly useless =)

Ashley Pomeroy says re: Useless weapons in sci/fi movies - the Star Wars blaster is, of course, not 'distant future firearms technology', as it dates from 'a long, long time ago' ;) --- Excellent point.

Energy weapons have one important advantage over projectile weapons - they can be fired in zero gee, due to their lack of significant recoil (at hand weapon power levels it's infinitesimal). As Newton's Third Law of Motion points out, for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. As anyone who has fired a weapon knows, they kick back with recoil. Imagine that happening in the weightless environment of space, with nothing to brace yourself against. A beam (or particle weapon) does not have that liability, and while you are struggling to draw down on Spock, he'll pull that dinky little Type I Phaser out from under his shirt and cook your ass as easily as you can wield a laser pointer.

If a Starship had to carry physical guns firing slugs of any material, they would not only have a serious weight penalty over a beam-weaponed ship, it would have ammunition concerns as well as having to deal with recoil compensation when navigating during a battle.

In addition, energy weapons can be operated by anyone, giving anyone able to point their arm and press a button (I'd hate to see what a vicious 5-year old with a phaser could do) the ability to deliver the energy equivalent of an 20-century infantry platoon's firepower at an enemy.

This power-to-weight ratio of beam weapons is the primary reason they trump projectile weapons. Imagine having somthing as small and as powerful as a Star Trek Type 1 Phaser today? You could keep it in your hip pocket, yet be able to whack a hundred people at a whim.

In the Star Trek episode "Omega Glory" (written by Gene Roddenberry,directed by Vince McVeety, and first aired in the second season on March 1st, 1968), Captain Tracy (played by Morgan Woodward) and a handful of locals fought a pitched battle with phasers against hand weapons, killing thousands of their enemy before being overrun. Tracy even managed to get out of the slaughter alive. (You know he kept most of the energy packs for himself.)

Efficiency is also a factor. A beam weapon can be charged using any energy source, and vice versa, making them especially useful as both a weapon and power store. Scotty demonstrated this in the original series episode "Gallileo 7" (first season, story by Oliver Crawford, directed by Robert Gist, first aired January 5, 1967), where he drained most of the group's phasers to charge their shuttle's (the episode's namesake) energy supply with enough juice to allow the stranded team to take off.

The list of additional applications of an energy weapon range from lighting fires, heating stones to warm yourself when no wood is available to set fire to, stunning your enemies instead of killing them, and having the ability to set it so that it overloads, creating an explosive device of devastating power for its size.

In a future space-based society, energy will be abundant, but raw material will be relatively dear. If you threw mass overboard with every battle, you'd have to get more from somewhere. A ship using energy weapons simply recharges the batteries.


Shro0m points out the advantage energy weapons have in the lack of drift in long distance applications while in atmosphere. A laser rifle with great optics would make a superior sniper's weapon, able to take out a target with no concern for range, windage, motion of the target (who can outrun a laser?) or recoil.

On rate of fire, the slow fire rate was only seen in the original series. In Star Trek II, the ships shoot the living shinola out of one another using phasers with high fire rates.

More thanks to The Star Trek Concordance by Bjo Trimble. I bought it when I was 15, and have managed to keep my hands on it these last 28 years.

A recurring feature in most sci-fi universes is the 'advanced' weapon technology that is actually worse at killing unarmed people than a conventional machine gun. What is often overlooked, however, is the advances in armor technology.

There is an often recurring usenet thread about 'how practical would it be to build a giant robot'. The consensus seems to be 'completely impractical - you'd need to make it out of some magic substance that is simultaneously incredibly light, incredibly elastic, and incredibly rigid, otherwise it would shake itself apart if it tried to walk'. So assume you're faced with a battlemech built out of this exact substance. Today's weapon technology wouldn't even scratch it. Battletech's insanely short ranged weaponry can be (sort of) explained by this too - it's really the maximum range where there's a hope of penetrating the armour.

Warhammer 40000's power armour seems a bit pathetic - it can keep the wearer alive for roughly ten seconds of fire from a boltgun. Until you realise that the boltgun is a fully-automatic Rocket-Propelled-Grenade launcher - Think of The Gun from Terminator 2, but firing caseless ammunition at 72 rounds per minute. Just one of them killed the T1000. Do you seriously expect an AK47 to affect a space marine?

Star trek is a bit of an oddity - they carry these incredibly over-powered, slow weapons, but the people they fire them at are essentially unarmoured. Why not use a lighter, rapid-fire weapon? Think force-field technology. A phaser/disruptor is the only weapon powerful enough to shoot through a force field (in The Ensigns of Command (TNG), Data uses a hand phaser to vapourise a whole entire aqueduct). Projectile weaponry wouldn't stand a chance. You don't see personal force-fields in regular use, because phasers make them useless, however you don't see assault rifles for exactly the same reasons. If you were to equip your squad with projectile weapons, they'd have a considerable advantage. For the first encounter. After that they'd be screwed.

The above arguments hold for energy weapons in Star Wars as well. As for Force powers, bear in mind that the energy imparted to a supersonic bullet (Ek = 1/2 m (v2), remember) is around 3.5 kJ*. This pales in comparison to (for instance) the 196 kJ required to lift a 20 tonne X-wing 1 meter into the air. Don't be so cocky about the Jedi.


* - http://www.mpscompany.com/tests.htm - 7.62mm

While I enjoyed Lurconis' somewhat humorous point about media-science fiction, I think perhaps the writers above need to read some hard science fiction. The reason beam weapons are so slow and visible on TV, is so the viewers can see them working! Dramatic conventions are not necessarily a sign of incompetence. Moreover, our lives are not so different from many science fiction worlds. Many modern weapons, and ordinary consumer goods employ some serious technology.

An actual laser beam travels at the speed of light. You don't see it racing out from the 'blaster' like you can large cannon shells. If Flash Gordon were to use a real laser gun, all you'd see is his target exploding, which the audience would have a hard time attributing to Flash or his ray gun. A standard slug gun is seen as too passe by many viewers, who assume that in the future everything will be different. Yet guns are common in written SF because they work. Realistic weapons are common in written SF. For example, needle guns that chip material off a larger block of ammunition, are common because they can be lethal and hold many, many shots. Fusion bombs, x-ray lasers, and hurled asteroids are other practical SF weapons. A good example would come from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Footfall, which uses entirely realistic tech. Gene Wolfe's fantasy The Book of the Long Sun is full of needlers and slug guns.

Moreover, 'science fiction' technology is widespread within the real military. Today US soldiers can see in the dark, through fogs, and use laser beams as a matter of routine. Robots are everywhere. The US Navy has experimented with dolphins as mine hunters. They experimented with beam weapons back the 1950's. My father remembers seeing a demonstration beam weapon when he was ROTC. It was the size of a semi-tractor and could kill a rabbit at fifty yards. Not very practical, for the same reason that higher-powered beam weapons aren't found today. The power supplies are too bulky and costly. Star Wars brought us lasers, penetrators and high quality radars. Today's Army looks at forcefields to protect future tanks. Much of this stuff seems like pie in the sky, but last year's dream is tomorrow's product. Much of today's comforts began as the dreams of one engineer. Writers and engineers often pick each other's brains for ideas.

Most science fiction weapons are created to be futuristic, not realistic. Not every writer has the technical chops or interest to integrate the weapon precisely within his or her world. They're too busy telling a story. If you read someone who has taken his military work seriously, then you'll see some cool stuff.

It is possible to follow artillery shell visually in clear weather, and I knew one World War II veteran who saw the mortar shell that wounded him. But particle beams? Only in slo-mo .

One thing is patently obvious here - most sci-fi geeks do not know much about real-world weapons. Blasters and phasers give away your position? Yes, of course they do - just like modern weapons. If they didn't, fire correction would be virtually impossible.

  1. Assault weapons - all have considerable muzzle flash that pretty much instantly tells the surrounding enemy forces where you are. Muzzle flash is visible in daylight, glaringly obvious at night, and cannot practically be eliminated. "Flash suppressors" on assault rifles are there to keep the soldier from being night-blinded by his own muzzle flash. They do not hide anything from the enemy. Hopefully, you've destroyed your enemy before he can home in on you. But in real life, things rarely go so smoothly.
  2. Heavy ordnance - Tanks, artillery and other heavy guns have even more obvious muzzle flash, highly visible even on a sunny day. This is why tanks do not stay in the same position for more than a few seconds. As soon as you fire a shot, everybody in a five-kilometer radius knows where you are.
  3. Rocket-propelled weapons - missiles and rockets fly just as slowly as blaster fire and are just as obvious. It's hard to miss that stream of smoke and fire. And yes, it is possible to evade missiles and rockets. Fighter planes do it all the time, and even tanks can manage to do it if they have enough warning time. This is why most anti-tank weapons are guided all the way to the target.
  4. Tracer ammunition - as if the above tell-tales weren't bad enough, we actually use tracers to further show off our position. The problem that tracers address is one of fire correction. If you cannot see where you are shooting, you cannot correct your misses. And, contrary to what you see in action movies, most shots do not result in pyrotechnic ricochets to show you where your shot went. Also contrary to the action movie canon, you hardly ever hit on the first shot. So we use tracers. Typically machine guns are threaded with one tracer in every five rounds. When fired at night, this results in an almost continuous series of brilliant red (usually) lights shooting towards your target. From the shooter's point of view, it looks almost exactly like sci-fi weaponry. Tracers cannot be seen from directly ahead of the bullet, but they can be spotted from almost any other angle. If you want to nitpick and be geeky about it, it's entirely conceivable that future weapons inventors intentionally created beam weapons that you can see, for the same purpose that we use tracer rounds.

Note: Transitional Man's comments, apparently composed at the same time I was writing this, are all valid points as well. Hard science fiction treats these things much more reasonably. Star Wars and Trek are not meant to be realistic, but visually dramatic. Personally, I find the whole "Starfighter Paradigm" completely inane. But if you accept the space-opera setting, visible beam weapons actually make a lot of sense.

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