Well, I know the title is quite a common question when building fantasy world involving gunpowder, and it falls under the well known "Don't bring a gun to a sword fight" trope.

I'm well aware there can be plenty of reasons to prefer a sword over a gun, especially in the earliest stages of gunpowder use in warfare.

But the power to kill an opponent from a distance with less skills involved (compared to bows, spears, crossbows) is, without a doubt, a great advantage for military leaders who can now equip less trained men with deadly weapons.

I have trouble finding examples of military faction that would have refused to use gunpowder on the battlefield.

Quick note about the boshin war : Hollywood decided to remember this as a "tradition versus modernity" conflict, but there's no evidence that samurai from both sides refused any strategic advantage at their disposal. From what I know, they used guns and cannons and whatever fell into their hands.

Are there examples, through history, of military forces who deliberately refused to use strategical advantages, such as more advanced weapons, and still won some battles, at least?



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    $\begingroup$ I'm much too lazy to reseach at this moment, hence just a comment: ranged weapons were deemed unacceptable by european knights (for a time). And if i remember right, the same was true for japanese samurai. Plus: early guns were single shot. a sword does not need reloading. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ This is more of a history.stackexchange.com question than world building. What first come to mind is Australians versus Emus and Battle of Isandlwana $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ You're looking for the Anglo-Zulu war where the Zulus had some victories and vastly superior numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ Also note that a crossbow required less skill than early firearms, it was the original "no skill required" weapon. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix however the Zulus did used captured British Martini-Henry rifles when they were available at Rorkes Drift for example. Before that they used smooth bore muskets at Isandlwana. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:35

7 Answers 7


Because you're a badass

Historically there's the famous example of Jack Churchill, a Scotsman that fought in WW2 that famously said "Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed". He utilised a sword, bow and arrow and bagpipes only. Perhaps a code of honour, but for all intents and purposes, Jack Churchill used the sword to great effect, capturing a German outpost and, to quote: "taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad". This wasn't his only successes, and testament to his skill, he wasn't killed during the war, either.

It was reported (not on Wikipedia) that Jack captured the outpost by using the sword as a close range weapon to force the German soldiers to get their comrades to come out without their weapons, which is perhaps a more effective weapon at close range psychologically than a long rifle with a bayonet attached (if it even had one attached at all) because the only thing you could effectively grab was the blade.

Guns are problematic, and unreliable

It's worth noting that guns suffer from numerous issues, including (common during WW2, for example) jamming unexpectedly, misfiring and running out of ammo. Bullets, if wet, can also fail to fire, and you cannot cut things like wood or jungle leaves with a gun.

It's also worth noting that guns are extremely noisy, and even with silencers can emit a very loud 'pop' sound, where-as bladed weapons are noticeably silent and can be used in the element of stealth. At close range, few gun owners will have any sort of effective close range weapon handy (bayonets are unwieldy and more akin to spears).

Although practically impossible for a human to achieve, some swords like the Katana, given how good their steel is, are able to slice bullets in half, even up to .50 cal (however a .50 bullet seriously damages the edge and can destroy the sword). With such precision, it's even possible to slice bb pellets and rice in mid-air.

There's no contingent of troops armed with swords, but it's worth bearing in mind organisations like the SAS regularly carry knives (effectively mini-swords) as standard kit.

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    $\begingroup$ given the near impossibility of intentionally slicing a bullet in half and the fact that it only results in two halves of a bullet hitting you instead of one whole bullet, this fact is irrelevant. I would also argue that knives are not mini-swords, they are used very differently $\endgroup$
    – BKlassen
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ It is a fact that historically, Katanas were made of very poor steel, effectively pig-iron, approximately half the toughness of Bessimer or Wootz. The material had to be skilfully folded again and again to mitigate the poor quality. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ "some swords like the Katana, given how good their steel is, are able to slice bullets in half" Not just katanas. Other masterfully produced blades of near-mythical quality, such as butter knives, can split bullets just as well. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ Well, despite the fact that this question didn't get upvotes (the one is mine), the example of Jack Churchill seems to be the only one we have of a (tiny portion of a) military force deliberately refusing to use firearms without any logical practical reason. I gave an upvote to all the questions above this, as they provided really interesting information, but I'll choose this one because it's the one that best answers the initial question. $\endgroup$
    – Zaa
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Zaa, it has more upvotes, it also has downvotes, likely because of repeating the tired old myths about katanas as mentioned in earlier comments. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 12:40

The only examples I am aware of are the Samurai after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and to a limited extent, the Ottoman Janissary armies into the 1500's, but these were results of particular circumstances.

The Samurai were actually very enthusiastic in their adoption and use of firearms. Perhaps the most striking example was the Battle of Nagashino, where the traditional armies of Katsuyori Shingen were destroyed by mass volley fire from the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga.

These sorts of battles were early examples of the "Infantry Revolution" in Japan, where weapons and tactics were being introduced to allow relatively untrained Infantrymen to take the field and contend with highly trained Samurai warriors. In Europe, the process eventually swept away knights and the Feudal system, but Japan was more isolated and insular due to the island nature of the country. Once the Tokugawa Shogunate was firmly established, a process of disarming the peasants was rapidly undertaken to prevent the overthrow of the established social and political order, and firearms essentially passed from Japanese history until the arrival of the Americans and the Meiji restoration.

The Ottoman Janissaries are a slightly different case. The Ottoman Empire, despite its size and resources, was actually rather poor in terms of deploying resources. While the Ottomans were well aware of gunpowder, artillery and firearms, they did not have the same ability to actually make cannon and firearms, often buying them from their Western rivals like Genoa or Venice (through black markets or renegade Western traders). During the Battle of Lepanto, the Christian fleet was armed with cannon and the boarding parties armed with the match and wheel locks common to the period, while the Janissaries embarked on the Ottoman fleet were armed with the deadly recurve bow.

In practical terms, once the ships were closing in, the Ottomans could unleash hails of arrows with greater speed and accuracy than the Christian soldiers could reply. The problem was while the Christian soldiers could be shielded by light wooden barriers, coils of rope and so on, their shot could penetrate similar protective barriers on the Ottoman ships. An arquebus could deliver 1000j of energy with each shot, while a typical arrow delivered between 100-200j of energy.

The other issue (which plagued the Samurai and European knights) was it took a lifetime of training to prepare Jamissaries, and the massive casualties from the battle of Lepanto would take a generation to make good, you could train people to use firearms in a matter of weeks. (English Longbowmen also took a lifetime of training, which explains why despite their fearsome reputation in the 100 years war, longbows were not commonly adopted by European armies).

So in order to suppress the use of firearms, crossbows and pikes (the ,major enablers of the Infantry Revolution), you would need to have the existing Feudal social order which supported Knights, Samurai, Janissaries or similar classes of highly trained fighting men, an understanding of the danger firearms and simplified but effective mass infantry tactics posed to their military and social status, and the ability to limit or effectively ban the use of firearms (lie the Japanese) or the inability to create them on a mass scale (like the Ottomans).

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    $\begingroup$ A nice answer, but the first example isn't so much a force deliberately not using a superior weapon, so much as a regime making sure that "no-one" (for a given value of no-one) can. The second example is a case of a force that couldn't use firearms (or not often or in great numbers) as they struggled to buy them. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ I think the point is that the only times that people chose not to use firearms (as the military advantage they were) was when they couldn't afford to (be it economically or politically). If there were no downsides to using them, why would you not? $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 8:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Kyyshak Ethics, sportsmanship. You don't shoot an unarmed man, that kind of thing (an adversary with a diddy knife at 50 feet is effectively unarmed if you're packing). Granted, as the answer shows, this appears not to have ever really come into it, but that's surprised me (very slightly) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ "1000j"? The symbol for Joule is J, an uppercase jay, if that's what you meant. $\endgroup$
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @LightnessRacesinOrbit, if that knife-wielding dude keeps insisting that he'll shank you if you let him get in range of course you'd shoot him first. The Ethics and Sportsmanship come in by pointing out that you have a massive advantage and he should maybe surrender before you fill him lead. $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 11:51

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, variously otherwise known as the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurrection, and India's First War of Independence, was caused by the "military force deliberately refusing to use [a] firearm without practical reasons", at least in part.

The ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. The grease used on these cartridges was rumoured to include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus, and/or pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. On this basis, the military force in question deliberately objected to their use -- whether or not this was based on 'practical reasons' is left as an exercise to the reader.

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    $\begingroup$ while true, this isn't a case where the troops refused to use the rifle, it was a specific factor regarding the ammunition they objected to. They had no problem using the earlier muskets. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ it hardly matters why, and a rifle is damned hard to use as intended without ammunition. $\endgroup$
    – Giu Piete
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 10:19

A frequent case

A frequent case of nearly-battlefield situation where non-lethal weapon are used is riot control. Policemen don't want to kill the rioters, so they shoot with underpowered weapons, rubber bullets and the likes. Sometimes it really looks like warzone, and members of both camp get injured.


Another reason why we are not using more advanced weapons is regulation. Some weapons might (arguably) provide an advantage on a battlefield, but they are prohibited by an agreement between the belligerent parties.

For instance poisoned bullets were prohibited by the Stasbourg Agreement of 1675 between France and the Holy Roman Empire.


Finally, and sometimes it's the idea behind the regulation, it's more expensive for your opponent to wound soldiers without killing them. A dead soldier costs a coffin and the training of a new one. A wounded one costs the training of a new one, plus years of treatment, medication, ...

So, if you use weapons that wound your opponent without killing him, you might be, on the long run, doing more damage to your enemy.

  • $\begingroup$ warfare is one bunch of men trying to kill another bunch, and most riots involve the use of potentially deadly force somewhere along the line. $\endgroup$
    – Giu Piete
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 10:22

Trench raiding

This was a particularly nasty aspect of WWI combat, fought at close quarters in the dark. The, often improvised, melee weapons the soldiers involved tended to use included clubs, entrenching tools, pickaxe handles and other similar. They would also have pistols and grenades but not the more usual rifles and machine guns of WWI's industrialised warfare.

They fought nasty and dirty in the dark, there was no pretence at honour there.


Cost and maintenance.

Since you know how to maintain a sword keep it oiled and such its low cost of ownership would make it attractive.

Guns on the other hand have quite a few moving pieces and then you have to buy bullets which are costly if this were restricted and costly it would make me favour my sword.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question. The OP asks for "examples, through history, of military forces who deliberately refused to use strategical advantages, such as more advanced weapons, and still won some battles, at least". This post is about the advantages of swords over guns, not historical examples. $\endgroup$
    – John Locke
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ @John Locke: In the title OP asked a different Question, which this Answer tries to answer. I requested OP to clarify ... $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that my title can be misleading. I'll change it. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Zaa
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 13:03

Think of any drawback of firearms and have your non-firearm faction exploit that one.


Commandos with a sword/knife/bow/... you can kill pretty stealthily, the only noise will be the opponent you kill. A firearm on the other hand is pretty loud.

When you harass the enemy army at night, you will hear the screams of the dying, which can be pretty bad for teh enemy's morale. The shots you fire give away your position, however, once the battle field is strewn with dying all over, nobody can tell where the attackers currently are, since the dying at point A, you attacked 10 minutes ago, will scream all the same as the dying at point B, you attacked just now.

Dry vs. wet

In a battle of large armies the non-firearm faction could exploit the weaknesses of firearms, e.g. force the engagement in heavy rain.


Have skirmishers ready to costantly harass the enemy force. At some point they will run out of black powder, then the non-firearm army doesn't face any disadvantage.


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