I'm writing a science fantasy setting for a tabletop game. Its major influences are Dune, Final Fantasy 7, and Borderlands. My goal is to give a universal account why swords, spears, etc., equal or even best guns between fighters of equal skill. Let me define my terms:

  1. By guns I primarily mean modern ballistic firearms, like what you'd see in a Call of Duty game. I'm not as interested in making lasers, rail guns, grenades, etc, comparable to hand-to-hand weapons. If you can relate them in your answer, though, that would be extra appreciated. The setting is not premodern, so flintlocks and other obsolete guns are out.

  2. By raw-ability I mean explanations like Star Wars where superhuman powers, strength, or magic make exceptions for hand-to-hand combat. My major concern here is, "If the sword wielder has x level skill, why can't the gun wielder with X level skill be even better?" I'm not trying to explain why super heroes can overcome guns with swords. I'm looking to explain why swords themselves are comparable to guns as part of the world's "natural law."

  3. By exceptional explanations I mean something like Dune where special technology, geography, monsters, or other special scenarios make melee weapons desirable. Although brilliant, explanations like Herbert's create more "an exception to the rule" than they account for a universal law of the universe why axes can keep up with machine guns. This rules out making specific environment a primary reason for melee combat. If the world only featured close-quarters environments, for example, that might work, but it features a relatively varied amount of environments and I'm looking for a reason why melee will be desirable in most environments by default.

So, in terms of goal, I'm looking for a vaguely Advent Children-esque world where plebs walk around with firearms for self-defense while mercs dabble in swords, spears, maybe gun-fu, but where the setting neither turns into wuxia supermen battles nor hard sci-fi tech.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site The Necessitarian, you need to be aware that edits to questions should not invalidate existing answers for reasons that will become obvious the more you stick around. $\endgroup$ – Agrajag Feb 19 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ This is in the VTR queue, but I can't vote to reopen. This is an undirected fishing-for-ideas question, which isn't a good fit for our site. We focus on helping you develop and consistently use the rules of your world - but you've given us no direction by (at least) explaining the nature of a best answer and how you will judge it. It would help if you explained why the solutions you present (e.g., "explanations like... superhuman powers... magic...") don't work. Our help center specifically states that telling us answers then asking for more is off-topic. $\endgroup$ – JBH Feb 19 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Would you be open to introducing one piece of advanced technology - incredibly advanced, lightweight bullet proof armour? While a skilled gunman might have difficulty penetrating it, a skilled swordsman, with greater control over his weapon and being a lot closer to the target, is more able to find the chinks in the armour and move his sword in patterns that can exploit weaknesses in it. $\endgroup$ – colmde Feb 19 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think your 2nd condition is going to be a problem here. The reason people often use guns (in the US) for self defense is not just because of the ability to engage at range, but because they are an equalizer. A gun allows a small person with minimal training to engage a much larger person with the same level of training. Swapping the guns for swords and keeping training equal, the larger person has a major advantage. I don't train in martial arts, thus I would choose a gun - even for extremely close ranges against more proficient opponents. Not sure most answers truly address this. $\endgroup$ – ben Feb 20 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ All these answers are too long. No. Just no. Where in our reality is it better to bring a knife to a gun fight? $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 20 at 17:38

34 Answers 34


This is not possible within your constraints

As others have mentioned, the main benefit modern firearms have over melee weapons is accuracy, fire rate and range. Thus, under your constraints, a charging swordsman will be hit multiple times by a gunman before he closes the gap. We must either have a shorter gap (to reduce the number of shots that can be fired), inaccurate or slow gunfire (to reduce the number of shots that can be fired/hit) or we must be able to shrug off bullets (due to armour technology outpacing firearms).

Due to your constraints, we cannot limit firearms via technology (such as by restricting the quality of raw materials or the quality of manufacturing) as doing so will mean your firearms are no longer "Modern".

By limiting the ability of both combatants to realistic levels, the swordsman will not be able to parry or dodge the bullets, and thus will get hit multiple times whilst approaching.

Your blanket term for Exceptional Circumstances appears to block all other options. Geographically restricting range is not allowed. Allowing the Swordsman to shrug off the bullets thanks to advanced armour/shielding is not allowed. Restricting the velocity of firearms due to sufficiently-advanced alien tech is definitely not allowed. Simply put, as your question stands, your constraints are too tight to permit a change that will bring melee weapons on par with firearms.

Every IRL National Military will want to use the best tools for the job after all. With your constraints basically being "Real-World", if the armies of the world can't find a reason to use melee weapons, it'll be because the reason does not exist.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the correct answer. Without exceptional circumstances, there is no way to 'balance' modern firearms with melee combat. There's an argument to be made that extremely cramped fighting situations isn't that exceptional, but the OP has stated it is per their definition. Even then, unless it's literal cheek-to-jowl close quarters, I'd place my money on the soldier with the buckshot-loaded sawnoff. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Feb 19 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Nicholas This is clearly not the case though if you read his #3 bullet. $\endgroup$ – dphil Feb 20 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ @dphil As a utility tool. You can't cut rope with a gun, or dig a trench with a rifle. It just so happens you can stab someone with a knife or club someone with a shovel. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Feb 21 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ @dphil When everyone misses your point, that is usually because you didn't make your point, or your point was wrong. No modern military has any substantial use of melee weapons as a weapon of war. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Feb 21 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @dphil: modern military carry (limited) melee weapons because some of the circumstances which this question defines to be exceptional, actually occur from time to time in modern military operations. That simple. Soldiers esp. in some commando-type role might well carry a knife designed, among other uses, for hand to hand fighting, and might train with it for that purpose. This is not because they expect it to "equal or even best" the firearms they also carry, though. It's because preparing for nasty contingencies is a big part of not dying. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 1:11

I'll try my hand at your comment on L.Dutch's Answer:

Very insightful. Giving a "wavehandium" reason for slow fire rate is feasible. However, is there a way to make modern firearms less accurate - maybe something about the world's physics?

Since you're writing a science fantasy setting, you could either play with the actual world (as in planet)'s conditions if the game is set on only one planet - or with the rules of physics themselves if you want it applicable on different planets too.

Planetary conditions

Let's try the more restricted one first: if we leave the laws of physics alone and only adjust conditions on one planet, what could be done to take guns' advantage away?

Bad visibility

You don't need slums' cramped conditions taking away sight line to the target if you can't see very far in the first place. A planet where fog, sandstorms, pollen, spores or swarms of insects are common enough that a gunman can't reliably expect to see the target in time to shoot them before they're in his face with a sword will be a planet where a gun isn't much better than said sword.

Bad conditions for technology

Several of the options above also work here.

A well-maintained gun shoots accurately and reliably. A gun with grains of sand (or crawling insects...) in the barrel might not shoot quite straight, especially after the first couple dozen shots when the barrel gets more and more worn from the effect of a bullet travelling through it and dragging sand along its length. The firing mechanism might be jammed by sand or rusted from the constant mist, the gunpowder might be damp... depending on the technology used, environmental conditions might make "will it shoot or not, and if it does, will the bullet fly straight?" a gamble.

Note that this becomes more and more manageable the higher your tech level and the more you're willing to pay - modern firearms can be built to fire reliably after taking them for a swim, but you're paying more for that than you would for a gun that only needs to work on the shooting range. Kalashnikovs have also anecdotically been known to work fine after being buried in dirt, so you'll have to restrict your world's engineering capabilities a bit if you want this to be a factor at more than the low-price range. If you're fine with plebs' guns being unreliable enough to counter a shooter with a kitchen knife but elite mercenaries firing reliable guns at elite swordsmen dodging matrix-style, this might be the way to go.

aggressive animals

Guns are loud. The Sky-Snakes will zero in on anyone firing a gun repeatedly, and those things are nasty and poisonous. The boombeetle will look for a mate where it hears the mating call, which sounds kinda like a gun being fired. Think of something fun ;)

missing is dangerous

See those rocks over there? Hit them too hard, like with a bullet or such, and they'll explode - shards everywhere, including your face.

See that plant over there? Those thick leaves are filled with a flammable, sticky liquid. Basically napalm. You do not want that splashing around. And that one has swamp gas in its fruit, explodey. The seeds are also poisonous.

Obviously this would lead to a world with no (or only the dumbest or most reckless) plebs walking around with guns, so it might not work for you.

Different laws of physics

If you're willing to meddle with the laws of physics, the sky is the limit... or rather, not even that. You could just handwave that it's impossible to manufacture explosives that are reliable enough for our kind of modern firearms because chemistry works differently, or maybe inertia follows a different law where things in motion don't stay in motion - they want to return to a state of rest, so bullets lose power quickly the further they travel. Maybe there's a material that acts non-newtonian in a way that makes it comfortable to wear but lets it stiffen quickly when hit with a rapid-moving bullet - but somehow this material is still vulnerable to cutting edges on spears, axes and the like...

Different Biology

Bonus: If your people don't have to be human, you could just give them quickly-sealing blood vessels and more redundant bodyparts. If a bullet hits you and just gets stuck in your dense muscle mass, or maybe pierces an artery but that artery seals up and the blood for the arm you've been hit in gets routed through the secondary set of arteries instead, or the bullet pierces just one of your three hearts - maybe you can keep fighting and recover from it. And maybe that's easier than recovering from having a piece cut off with a sword.

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    $\begingroup$ Dense opaque atmosphere was the first idea that came into my head. It would have to be really quite dense for me to bet on a sword over a buckshot-loaded sawnoff though... $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Feb 19 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ First thing that came to mind here was a volatile atmosphere. If you increase the oxygen concentration enough, firing a gun could quite easily be as dangerous for the person using it as the target. Possible, but only worth it in exceptional circumstances. $\endgroup$ – Comintern Feb 20 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ These all smell of "Exceptional Circumstance" to me, so I'm gonna hold off on voting until I hear what OP says. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Feb 20 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Syndic, apparently you were the only one able to read my mind through the hazey question. These are exactly the sort of ideas I was looking for - also, I wish I could upvote your answer ten more times for the boombeetle comment. Bad visibility is something I can very easily adapt out of the fog I had already written up. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 20 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @TheNecessitarian 'Quantum' here sounds like a byword for 'magic', unless my understanding of quantum effects isn't as good as I think! I wonder however if there's scope for something non-newtonian. An atmosphere that thickens when subjected to force. That would prevent fast-moving bullets from being as effective, especially over range. You'd get a lot of weird things like sneezes thickening the air in your throat, but it might be workable. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Feb 20 at 11:14

Scale everyone down

Take advantage of the Square Cube Law. Scale your people down. Smaller people can wield much larger melee weapons relative to their body size, and those weapons can be made thinner (and thus lighter) than comparable weapons at real human scale. Picture a foot-long razor blade with a handle at one end.

At the same time, ranged weapons become less effective. Projectiles have much less mass, and worse mass-to-surface area ratios, so air resistance and turbulence reduce their effective range.

If your chosen scale puts effective gun range about equal to video game shotguns - that is, about two to three times the range required for melee - then suddenly swords and firearms are about equally effective for a skilled fighter. Some situations will favor guns, others will favor melee, but overall neither will have a clear advantage.

At the same time, the plebs will favor guns simply because they require less skill to be effective, and will carry them as a defense against beasts much larger than they are.

Some fun side effects of scaling your people down:

  • Goo/sticky weapons become more effective.
  • Fire becomes a more effective weapon. A brief encounter with flame at real human scale will leave you with a first-degree burn and some missing hair. A brief encounter with flame at Borrower scale could destroy your fingers, nose, and ears.
  • People can easily lift several times their body weight.
  • Flying by attaching something wide and flat to your arms and flapping may be viable. Or at least not seem totally ridiculous.
  • Jumping your own height or higher becomes a feat anyone is capable of, rather than just olympic athletes. Olympic high-jumpers would regularly jump four or five times their own height.
  • Falls become less dangerous. Jumping down from a second-story balcony is not dangerous at all. Jumping from a tower of any height with a bedsheet as a makeshift parachute becomes effective.
  • Mega structures like skyscrapers over a hundred stories tall become easier engineering feats. But wind and rain become bigger potential problems.
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    $\begingroup$ Now I'm picturing an army of cute little mice with swords and guns. I SOOO want to see this war play out. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 20 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ The thing about fall damage is amazing and true. Falls that will kill rats won't kill mice. No fall will kill a mouse, their terminal velocity is so low, you could drop mice from 10,000 feet. $\endgroup$ – Harper Feb 21 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ This is a genius idea. I want to make sure I understand it. The idea is to leave the world - say the mass of the planet - alone and shrink it's denizens? Could the same effect result from messing around with the mass ratios? If not, is there a similar way to accomplish the effect by changing the ratio of x between the planet and humans, which x I don't have the physics knowledge to name? $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ Keep everything just like Earth, except the humans are fairy sized. $\endgroup$ – Martin Carney Feb 22 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ the downside of this is it also means bludgeoning weapons don't really work either. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 23 at 5:27

Guns are by definition ranged weapons. To make melee preferable or comparable to ranged combat you need to remove the advantage that it has, the simplest way to do that is to remove range. Set combat in an environment so complex and obstructed that range is minimal.

Consider a rotating space station as an example, unless you have a central open space, the curve of the floors and low ceilings mean you can't actually see very far ahead of you. Add corridors, spiral stairs, suites of rooms and you're all but in someone's face before you have line of sight to them.

The same can be true of a slum situation, buildings so tight and spaces so narrow that unless you're following a bulldozer you don't have line of sight more than a few metres ahead of you.

Bullets rebound. This adds a level of risk to using firearms, that you don't get in the open field situations for which they're designed. Moving through a standard dungeon crawl cavern which just happens to be through a type of rock with a greater coefficient of restitution for whatever handwavium reason you choose. It's now dangerous to all parties to miss your primary target with a firearm as the rebounding bullet could hit anyone.

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    $\begingroup$ @TheNecessitarian, the game is that nothing is universally preferable, even a blow dart is going to be preferable under a given set of circumstances. The reason the average person has a gun is that it works in the environment they're normally in, the places the mercs are needed to go hunting is what makes them and their weapon choice special. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 19 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of bullet rebound is great, the space station is an excellent example. However the range one is debatable. Scatter guns were used in trenches by american with very efficient result, replacing attacks with melee weapon at the end of WW1. And trenches were not known for their big line of sights, making some commandos use a great variety of CQC weapons. $\endgroup$ – Kaël Feb 19 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ Space stations would have another good reason not to use bullets - putting holes in space station sides is bad. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 19 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Kaël, the other name for a shotgun is a trench gun and they were considered bad form by the Germans. This in a war where chemical weapons were still acceptable. However trenches are still long straight affairs, where a shotgun is advantageous, I'm considering an environment were even a shotgun is going to get you a single reflex shot if you're lucky before your opponent is in your face. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 19 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB, though I think target shooting in a rotating environment is on my list of sports of the future. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 19 at 12:38

Superior ballistic armor

I'm not sure whether this counts against your exceptional circumstances (as assumed by Kyyshak), but it seems the least exceptional way to eliminate the overwhelming advantages of modern firearms over melee weapons among well-equipped combatants.

On your world master armorers have discovered a (very expensive) way to make armor that stops most bullets outright, except at point blank range or from certain angles. It doesn't fare quite as well against slower weapons, especially slashing types like swords. A skilled combatant can pierce the armor with a gun after a bunch of tries, putting the gun on a somewhat equal footing with a sword.

Defending against a gun while using a sword doesn't mean dodging bullets, but rather preventing the opponent from aiming at and getting a shot on weak points in the armor. This doesn't involve Jedi foresight or acrobatics, but an aggressive style that puts the sword wherever the gunwielder's arm is or would need to be for a shot. As soon as the gunwielder backs away, the sword user can angle their body to minimize exposure, making the gun mostly useless until the distance is closed again.

Against anyone that doesn't have the resources (and permit?) to own a set of armor, firearms are the weapon of choice. So the plebs would be shooting eachother up like normal, as you want to.

  • $\begingroup$ In the real world this requires power armor, since anything that can stop a rifle bullet is too heavy to carry normally. Maybe not too sci-fi, since some powered exoskeletons already exist. See the XOS 2 for an example $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Feb 20 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JollyJoker I agree, but in the real world, the response to power armor would probably be railguns or energy weapons, not swords. For the OP's purposes, some kind of ultra-kevlar layered suit is more supportive of the movement needed for melee combat. An active component that detects incoming fire from longer range and hardens the armor against sniper rounds etc is also likely. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Feb 20 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ Well, railguns are ship-mounted and weigh tons, while energy weapons don't exist. I suppose RPGs would be the real world answer to power armor. $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Feb 20 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ This would be my idea exactly; have those mercenaries wear armor utilizing some more advanced (but limited to your scenario) shock absorbing gel. $\endgroup$ – t.ry Feb 20 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ It also helps to scale the melee weapons up, a la Metal Gear or 40k, so that they can defeat the improved ballistics armor. In Metal Gear, the blade vibrates extremely quickly, which lets the sword cut through metals that normal blades cannot. In 40k, the blades are wrapped in an energy field. Handwave as necessary. $\endgroup$ – LastStar007 Feb 24 at 4:24

Expense, make one of the prime bullet ingredients expensive or something like that and a sword is better since your gun turns into just a clumsy club without bullets. Some places still use swords for this reason. They just don't have much access to guns and bullets. They're not something you can easily make.

Even a pipe gun which can be made with some technical know how and tools cannot do much without bullets.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that's possible. Blackpowder is charcoal (cheap) + sulfur (cheap) + saltpeter (not so cheap, but still pretty common). Nitrocellulose is sawdust (cheap) + nitric acid (cheap). Other gunpowder formulas have similarly cheap ingredients. You can make the bullets themselves out of any metal, and finding a primary explosive to use as the primer is easy -- there are lots of chemical substances that will blow up with only a slight provocation. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark makes you wonder why people just don't make their own bullets apart from a very few.? Scarcity and the knowledge to make them, machine metal etc,. these things don't grow on trees. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Feb 19 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ If you hand-load from raw materials, you can produce probably around one cartridge an hour once you factor in the time spent mixing your gunpowder, shaping brass, casting bullets, and so on. Or, you can let a factory churn out millions of cartridges of more consistent quality at a fraction of the cost. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Industrially produced nitric acid is cheap, sure. You can produce it in small batches at home, but then it's no longer cheap (if your time has any value.) And modern smokeless powder is a lot more sophisticated than just making nitrocellulose from sawdust. Semi-automatic firearms are as reliable as they are in part because of the characteristics of modern powder, including various additives and even the physical size and shape of the individual powder grains. So some kind of social/industrial breakdown could conceivably make using a firearm very expensive. $\endgroup$ – TKK Feb 20 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ All very well, but the question does say "I'm looking for a vaguely Advent Children-esque world where plebs walk around with firearms for self-defense, while mercs dabble in swords, spears, maybe gun-fu". So the goal is way harder than making it difficult to acquire firearms: the goal is that it's easy to acquire firearms but in skilled hands a sword is somehow better. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 1:20

Fire rate and precision are the key factor for guns to be dominant over melee weapons.

Think of the bow: archers were used for quite a while after guns introduction simply because the fire rate they could grant was higher than the first guns and rifles, with a significant better precision.

Same here, if you fire a shot that goes within a large area around your pointing target and then have to wait a long time to reload the weapon you are basically giving an advantage to your enemy approaching you with a sword in his hands.

So, keep your guns primitive (heavy, slow firing, poor precision), and that would explain why melee weapons have an advantage.

  • $\begingroup$ Very insightful. Giving a "wavehandium" reason for slow fire rate is feasible. However, is there a way to make modern firearms less accurate - maybe something about the world's physics? $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 19 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ @TheNecessitarian: Modern firearms can be accurate over kilometers distance, if necessary (sniper rifles). It's just not needed in typical situations, though. Your typical military weapon will still be accurate up to several hundred meter, way beyond melee range. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Feb 19 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ There is also the argument for reusability, in cases where you don't have easy access to supply lines. A sword can kill more people than any soldier can carry bullets (even if you assume they are all hits and one hit kills). Swords also don't jam and stop working. $\endgroup$ – Flater Feb 19 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters while Firearms can be accurate, they will decrease fast if the maintenance and care are bad. Add harsh environment like desert or swamp, and even modern weapons can be less accurate fast. $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner Feb 20 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ I would saying "keep your guns primitive" is ruled out by the questioner: "The setting is not premodern, so flintlocks and other obsolete guns are out." $\endgroup$ – nasch Feb 20 at 22:56

Seems like all the obvious ideas have already been explored, so I'll try something a little out there....


No, seriously. In this universe the "vengeful dead" are very real and very troublesome. When a sentient being is killed as the direct result of another sentient's actions, their spirit thirsts for vengeance. The only known way to prevent this is to cleanly sever the spirit from the body by killing in close quarters with an edged weapon. NOTE: The spirit considers the body "dead" when the damage has progressed to an unrecoverable point - it may leave the body before it is technically dead (this covers bleeding out and other "delayed" deaths).

If you do kill someone and their ghost begins haunting you, you may not notice anything. These spirits are cunning and will wait for the most disastrous moment to manifest and distract you. While they cannot affect the real world, they do possess the ability to create human-sized hallucinations. For most people, this may be as simple as seeing a person suddenly in front of the car while driving (causing them to swerve and hit something). For a mercenary or soldier in combat, this can be more disastrous - an enemy behind you, a grenade appearing next to you, misidentification of an ally, etc.

To counter act this, individuals who regularly kill will exclusively use bladed weapons. "Normal" people who are only concerned about self-defense don't mind carrying a gun, since it is a last resort weapon. Perhaps there is some dangerous and convoluted way to exorcise a haunting spirit that is impractical for a mercenary or soldier (due to the number of times they'd need to perform it), but is "better than nothing" for a normal person.

This does have the strange impact that if you see someone carrying a gun, they're indicating their main focus is self-defense - but someone carrying a sword or large knife is signaling their willingness to commit mass murder.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, this is the most impressive comment by far where creativity is concerned. I love this idea; I will probably use it elsewhere. It actually could fit my world well but I think it results more in strange fighting styles than balancing of guns and swords. For example, I think it makes sense in this ghost world to carry around guns for maiming, wounding, and otherwise "almost killing" enemies, followed by a good coup de grace with melee. At the end of the day, therefore, guns are still far superior to swords; their purpose has just been changed. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think this would be an awesome answer for a Ghost in the Shell type world. Imagine a world where people can back up their uploaded psyche with external drives, servers, networks, etc., and so where shooting someone's current body dead will not do the trick. Worse, you now have someone who might be out to get you, and having put down their present body, you have no idea where they'll be coming from. Instead, killing a person requires you to undermine their back-ups, and special melee weapons are tailored to this end. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 22:22


Your society might have a very particular view of ranged vs melee. Over many generations people have been indoctrinated to believe that there is more honor is fighting melee versus using a ranged weapon.

Most plebs who's honor is not worth mentioning would resort to ranged weapons while the accomplished mercenary would wield a sword showing the rest of the world that they don't even need a gun.

A mercenary who only uses melee weapons to complete his contracts would be more famous and sought after then a mercenary who just uses a 10 mile ranged sniper rifle. Even if the sniper rifle is technically a better weapon it would only be used by those of disrepute.

TLDR - The culture puts a great value on being able to take an enemy out at close range. People strive to get good at melee and see ranged as a handicap.

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    $\begingroup$ You have a a good point. This can also be extended to religion or moral codes. Ballistic weapons might be disliked or even banned due to ethical resons as we ban chemical weapons. $\endgroup$ – wizofwor Feb 20 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ Used quite successfully in "The Way of the Sword" by H. L. Oldie (along with some other melee-weapon-centric ideas like sentient weapons and dishonor of harming the "Carriers"). $\endgroup$ – Oleg V. Volkov Feb 21 at 20:57

Better advances in protection.

Currently ballistic firearms have progressed faster than ballistic protection, which allows guns to be so dangerous. But gun ballistics progression is nearing it's end unless we transcend towards railguns and other exotic weapons, while metamaterials are becoming more and more attainable.

Imagine spidersilk armors with Graphene layers and other lightweight, extreme performance materials. If these become cheaply available the guns required to kill your opponent will have to go big, and even a. 50cal could start having trouble killing the opponent and would rather break bones than kill.

This in turn allows melee weapons to become viable again. In Iraq and Afghanistan it's estimated that the trained army outnumbering their opponents still needed 250.000 bullets per insurgent. If you need bigger weapons and more hits to down a person it becomes less interesting to use that gun. Big weapons like a. 50cal have lower rates of fire (when handheld), are unwieldly and very hard to aim unless mounted or resting on a surface. Your opponent has to grab a smaller caliber and hit you multiple times to bruise and break you enough to knock you out of the fight. Time you can spend rushing your opponent and smacking him with a mace or similar. Even the good old knights of old in slash-resistant armor were very vulnerable to getting bashed.

Add in potential upgrades in your melee weapons unavailable to bullets like high voltage, potential superheated edges, monomolecular edges etc and you can make melee weapons more useful.


Here's a simple idea:

Much higher atmospheric density leads to several disadvantages to guns: 1) higher required charge to reach decent muzzle velocity & faster velocity drop-off in air - hence steep trajectory curves; 2) soundwave propagation in denser atmosphere means concussion from said shot would be loud enough to damage shooter and be highly detectable no matter what; leading to 3) the edged weapons are just inherently stealthier - you get close, katana, gim or tonto undrawn, once inside striking range you execute an aido-style quick draw, and resheathe removing the blood, as your silently halved opponent drops into separate pieces.

Most properly we can say that drag forces scale with the square of velocity and with the density of the fluid - see equation below, where p is media density.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Drag only increases linearly with atmospheric pressure. In order to make the effective range of something like a .50-cal anti-material rifle unusably short, you're probably looking at a Venus-like atmosphere, with all the survivability issues high atmospheric pressure entails. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Mark: first, your statement is inaccurate - I will address this via an edit to my answer - please remove your downvote. Second, if atmospheric density is high enough to impact drag, the resultant changes to the aerodynamics impacting projectile trajectory are non-negligible; not only will the curve inflect far faster, the bullet may tumble, resulting in a very chaotic flightpath. $\endgroup$ – GerardFalla Feb 19 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not seeing an exponent on that "ρ" coefficient, so I stand by my statement that the drag force only increases linearly with atmospheric pressure. You're trying to bring the lethal range of your gun down under 20 meters or so -- and when you're starting from the 2000-meter range of a large-caliber rifle, that takes a lot of atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ This is an answer I've gotten from multiple sources. Thank you for giving some mathematical content to the idea. The idea that the flight path becomes chaotic is especially useful. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 20 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ I give Mark credit for bringing up the issue we have to contend with. We need to reduce the range of rifles from 2000 meters to maybe 10 meters: a factor of 200. I think atmospheric pressure plus high winds can do that. The link given by Mark says that people can survive down to about 65 atmospheres with the right gas mix (heliox). Give some survivors crashed on a planet a few thousand years to adapt. Maybe they can only survive on the tops of mountains at first, but after many generations they can live in the valleys. Sperm whales can survive at almost 200 atmospheres. $\endgroup$ – WaterMolecule Feb 20 at 17:10

Make the gravity of the planet higher.

Quite simply, this has the effects of increasing the atmospheric pressure, leading to higher turbulence and reduced bullet travel distance, plus the increase in gravity means the average person has to be stronger, thereby making a sword able to penetrate more armors. In addition, the higher gravity means the bullet drops further faster. This doesn't affect accuracy though, only the require skill to use a gun and the maximum range of a gun.

The other fun effects of this could range, from having more dense people (Bullets do less damage) to reducing atmospheric visibility to such an extent that you can't target people with a gun at substantial range anymore. People might also develop stronger armors, due to the need for stronger materials in a world where everything is heavier, and be able to wear heavier armors, due to the inherent strength increase of a person who grows on a larger world. (Which can be assumed due to the increased gravity)

However, the most obvious way to demonstrate this would be using a brick falling from height. Now, instead of falling 5m in two seconds, it might fall 50m in the same time, leading to a bullet that's in the air for potentially .1 seconds to be hitting the dirt within roughly 30m. (assumed from the speed of some shotguns of 1000ft/second)

If with these advantages swords are still unusable, remember that the effective range of a gun by your average soldier would be ~5 meters, due to the extreme bullet drop and the increased turbulence from a denser atmosphere making hitting a shot hard. A thrown weapon would be unaffected at short ranges, which works well for this because even now spears aren't effective at much longer ranges.

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    $\begingroup$ A modern rifle in the hands of an average user is accurate out to a range of several hundred meters. Sufficient gravity to bring that range under 5 meters (the range at which a gun no longer has an advantage over a knife) would cause such wide-ranging changes that the world would no longer even remotely resemble something Earth-like. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ I think that increased atmospheric density is the key idea here. I would like to point out that while gravity and atmospheric pressure are linked, atmospheric pressure depends on a lot of things like the chemical composition of the atmosphere, temperature, depth of valleys, etc. For example, while the acceleration of gravity at the surface of Venus is slightly less than on Earth, the pressure on Venus 90 times that on Earth. $\endgroup$ – WaterMolecule Feb 20 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ Typically your average gun user in a combat situation won't be effective at a range of much more then 100m. It's possible, if you have extremely advanced technology, but the unavoidable wiggle from your hands and the limits on human vision make it hard to achieve for the average person in a combat situation. Dropping usability by a factor of 20 would be feasible, although you'd probably not be doing that with such a minor gravitational change. I wouldn't be surprised if the range was limited to 20m though as a result. $\endgroup$ – user9245990 Feb 20 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @user9245990, the limited effective range in a combat situation is due to human factors, not environmental factors. If you add enough wind, drag, gravity, or whatever to bring the non-combat range down to 150 meters from eg. 500 meters, the combat effective range will still be 100 meters, not 30 meters. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 21:06

There was a movie release in 2002 called Equilibrium which tackled a similar question.

The producers of the movie developed a new form of martial arts called "Gun Kata". The explanation of Gun Kata is given as:

Through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, the Cleric has determined that the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically-predictable element. The gun kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents, while keeping the defender clear of the statistically-traditional trajectories of return fire. By the rote mastery of this art, your firing efficiency will rise by no less than 120%. The difference of a 63% increased lethal proficiency makes the master of the gun katas an adversary not to be taken lightly.

You could twist this explanation slightly to make it relevant to defence against fire-arms using the same statistical analysis reasoning.

For example, you could explain that through statistical analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, a melee fighter could close the gap to the fire-arm wielder by keeping clear of the statistically-traditional trajectories of return fire.

  • $\begingroup$ Equilibrium is no longer one of my favorite movies of all time, but it still has a special place on my shelf. I had forgotten how much they go into that explanation within the film. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 20 at 10:49

Simple: Standard (Space-Travel) Economics

You are writing for a science-fiction setting. You do not need to assume very exotic things to make melee-weapons as feasable as fire-arms. Just the following:

  • Transport-costs for offworld-things are (literaly) astronomical. A gun that is being produced off-world, will require off-world bullets. The costs of each bullet will be so high that "single-shot" will become standard, even if "spraying a hundred bullets in a single burst" is technically possible. A sword, even when produced off-world, can kill an unlimited amount of people while having no additional costs.
  • High-tech items that work on every planet and in space are not as good as simpler technology. If your fire-weapons are made to work in every environment, they might be rather sub-par when compared to simpler weapons. Just think of those few present-day weapons that can shoot underwater as well as in air. Your guns might be produced to work in Vacuum, in extreme temperatures (so high/low that gasses freeze or metals melt), in sandstorms, liquids, high gravity, ect. They might shoot, but they will not be as effectiv as present-day "works only on earth"-guns. It is not surprising that those guns can be countered by "mere" melee-weapons. Especially if those melee weapons were forged specifically for the environmend they are being used in.
  • $\begingroup$ Bullets are dirt-cheap to make, and although the Soviet Union has never admitted to firing an AK-47 in space, I'm willing to bet it'll operate in any environment a human in an ordinary spacesuit can handle. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 20:59

Ravenholm from Half-Life 2 is the microcosm of the best justifications for melee weapons. Why?

  • Limited supplies: Supplying your army with ammunition, weapons, mangas, and everything they need to fight is a pain in the a, and WAY too common to be ignored in almost any setting. Throughout Ravenholm, you barely get ammo, and so are forced to use telekinesis (the Gravity Gun), physics and the trusty crowbar, there's a shotgun though, but you'll blow all your ammo on...

  • Fast, annoying, numerous but relatively weak enemies: Ammo is precious, 7 ft tall animatronics and gunships only succumb to the .50 cal and ATGMs. You CANNOT waste your munition on their minions. If you spend your ammo in Ravenholm, shredding through zembies and headcraps, you'll soon get sexually harassed by the combine snipers and troops in the next area, who will gleefully use the open, cover-filled space for their squad-based tactics. You won't just die, you'll end up fighting a battle you cannot win, and that's with the SAVE and LOAD, meta-game abilities.

    With a Murasama katana, however, you can chop the headys apart with a bit of effort and not waste your precious ammunition. Headscraps are too adaptable, you can find them anywhere, and they make for an excellent DISTRACTION CARNIFEX, I'd also expect them to be used as meatshields, that's what they were designed for. Heck, you can have your own hare... I mean, army of them.

And now for something, completely different

  • The White Walker Obstruction: Seriously, those bastards have an infinite, localized smoke-screen, they can create pretty much instantly. Sure, after I donned my echolocation gear, it was pretty much useless, but that was from afar. If they've AMBUSHED us, I would also have had to worry about friendly fire. At least with swords, you can halt your offensive just before cutting off your roomie's head from a Wrath Guard (stance).

  • Why not?: Exoskeletons are plausible, sword, spears, bo staffs and bike locks weigh practically nothing if made out of modern materials. So bring in the gun-fu, and This fine lad.

  • $\begingroup$ I wish I could give this answer more up-votes. Helpful creativity and the references were beautiful. I would say you're a beautiful man on the level of Armstrong, but you may turn out to be a woman and I don't have an appropriate gender-substitute for Armstrong on hand. X D $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 21:24

You can't without dropping at least one of your conditions. Considering that it's for a game, it's not as bad as it may sound.

I suggest you drop "exceptional" condition and introduce plethora of exceptional circumstances. Cramped slums, packed space stations (like Separatrix's answer), strangely bullet absorbing melee space monsters (for those you definitely want so called boar-spear with cross bar, to stab monster and keep it away from yourself at the same time), realistic sewers (instead of absurdly spacious ones) and so on. Since weapon usefulness is function of circumstances: guns are all around better, but action of the game happens in those exceptional locations and situations, focusing on people specialising in dealing with those exceptional situations. As a bonus, you can always have curveball wide open location/scenario with gun totting human enemies requiring either change of gear or complete change of tactics.

Reason why guns are superior is their range and accuracy. Times of volley fire making up for inaccuracy and slow reload are gone since mid 19th century and you can not reintroduce those in modern setting without breaking "exceptional" requirement. Dune uses shields, but there are other options, for example: short range teleport (usually called "blink" in fiction) removes range advantage, stealth (plain old hiding or sci-fi active camouflage) removes all advantages and let's call it "distortion shield" which doesn't stop bullets but turns anything short of exact hit to centre of mass into miss would remove accuracy advantage. Some of those break into "raw-ability" like territory, shooter with stealth (basically a a sniper) is better than swordsman with stealth, blink goes both ways, with shooter being able to escape (potentially counter-able by another teleport by melee fighter) while distortion wouldn't be very effective against melee weapons giving shooter advantage only against other shooters.


Gun control. Almost all current governments do this to some extent, so it's reasonable for your government to have laws about this. This could go as far as no guns available period, but you could have a setup where, say, only bolt-action rifles are available to civilians, which don't do so well in close-quarters. (Consider having areas with different gun control laws to add complexity.)

Also, look into air rifles. While they're mostly used for target shooting these days, they are suitable for self-defense-related tasks if given enough power. If there's a restriction on reservoir size, you can end up with guns that can fire X times, then can't be reloaded until after the battle, while restrictions on PSI can result in underpowered shots, so people won't die in a single hit.

If you want citizens to be walking around with guns, while mercs use melee, you could use the laws for that as well. For example, say mercs tend to do things that aren't quite legal, and if caught with a gun, they go away for life, (with enforcement to match) while getting caught with Dual Laser Katanas just gets you a stern talking-to for dueling in public without filing the proper form.

EDIT: actually, let's expand on dueling. Let's imagine a world where dueling is still a thing, but it's only allowed with melee, because bystanders kept getting killed. Walking down the street with your Dual Laser Katanas is implicitly an invitation to duel in this world. Normal people want nothing to do with this nonsense, so they keep a pistol for self-defense. If someone with a pistol kills someone with a melee weapon or vice versa, that's a death the police care about, but if two people with melee weapons fight and one dies, that's just a dumbass getting killed while dueling.

  • $\begingroup$ Under-rated answer. With some governments trying to restrict magazine size, it's not hard to imagine a world where all guns are limited to holding 1 round at a time and each subsequent bullet must be hand fed into the weapon. Maybe you aren't even permitted to keep the gun loaded and the penalty for being caught with a loaded gun or one that can hold more than one round is life in prison. $\endgroup$ – JamieB Feb 21 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JamieB government that aggressively degrade guns but don't care about how deadly your reinforced unobtanium sword is? That'd break my suspension of disbelief on the spot. And if they DO limit melee weapons as well, then we're back to square one with "limited guns" still better than "limited knife". $\endgroup$ – Oleg V. Volkov Feb 21 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegV.Volkov: hence what user3757614 says about legally-endorsed duelling. In short, they limit guns because anyone can kill anyone with a decent gun. They let you carry around a sword if you want, but the authorities shoot you in the face if you use it (or even threaten to use it) on anyone other than another sword-carrying person or someone who shot at you first. So, an awesome-sword is actually not an atrocious matchup against whetever pathetic single-shot pistol civilians carry (you have a decent chance of gutting them even if they hit you). But such matchups are rare. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ Or how about you imagine that the 2nd Amendment was written about 400 years earlier and rather short-sightedly read, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear spears, shall not be infringed". Yes, OK, the death rate due to spear-stabbings is lamentably high, but that is not due to lack of spear-control, because after all almost every adult in Switzerland has a spear, but spear-deaths there are nigh-unheard of. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ Guns, on the other hand, are approximately as tightly regulated as (for the sake of example) heroin. Cause that stuff kills people. So sure, plenty of people have them, but don't want to wave them around them in public. Your unobtanium spear, on the other hand, is not only your constitutional right but your time-honoured duty to the security of the state. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 1:40

I've experience with both guns (sport shooting), and swords (HEMA).

As others have noted, you're going to have to bend one or more of your restrictions slightly.

Lots of the answers suggest reasons that guns would be less preferable to carry (e.g. cost, or dangerous to use), but these wouldn't make a fight between a gun and a sword user more balanced, which I believe is what you're trying to achieve.

To do this, you'll have to balance the lethality of guns and swords.

Remember that swords work in two ways: in the thrust (stabbing with the tip), or cut (drawing through in a cutting motion with a sharp edge). They do not work but hitting people with the sharp edge, despite what films would have you believe. Try it with a carving knife on a pork joint, you'll not get through the skin.


Reducing the range advantage would help, as at larger ranges, guns have >0 lethality, whereas swords have 0 lethality.

Two options are to reduce the range of encounters, or to slow the draw of a gun.

Don't underestimate how fast or far a swordsman can reach. The "21 foot rule" is a real thing from law enforcement – within 21ft, a suspect with a knife can draw their knife and kill an officer faster than an office can react to draw their weapon and shoot. And that's a 4" knife. You wouldn't believe how far and fast a lunge with a montante is. (A montante is a very large sword typically used by bodyguards, which was typically carried resting on the shoulder; it's usually used two-handed, but you can 'draw' from the shoulder and lunge single-handed like a rapier, though it's a bit of a gamble as recovery is very difficult.)

So if you've got a scenario where ranges are short (probably any residential space), lethality will tip towards a sword user. If you're wanting a balanced 50:50 sword/gun kill rate, a larger range will be fine even for a knife.

You can further decrease the speed of a gun vs a sword with the use of laws – e.g. a law that prevents open carry of a gun, but permits open carry of swords. If guns have to be secured with a combination lock on the trigger (and only legal to release the lock if you're in danger), a sword-user is probably more lethal in any indoor setting. That might not feel like a realistic law, but you can imagine it being proposed by the anti-gun lobby in the US.


The other option is to make guns less lethal, so that it requires several shots to stop an attacker. One option would be to move to 'non-lethal' ammo (it'll have to be due to law, as it's not hard to form a bullet if metal is available). A black market in lead bullets might exist, which might work in your story?

Perhaps the law prevents general civilians from using metal ammo, but permits it for those who are better trained like mercs?

Game Mechanics

However, you're talking about a game. In real life, the first bullet hit wins a fight. But people don't realise that usually the first knife stab or even punch wins the fight. This doesn't usually make for a fun game mechanic if the first hit you take in the game kills you. Sword or gun fights where they slowly both carve bits off each other until one reaches 0-HP are much more fun, but not realistic.

So if you want a hard-science answer for a fun game, it's going to involve armour. It takes relatively little armour to stop a sword (sword fights in plate armour are largely about pinning the other guy down or knocking him over with a big blunt 'sword' (club), and then stabbing through the joints with a knife until he bleeds to death). However, most modern guns would penetrate this armour (unless you're lucky and get a deflection).

Note though that heavy armour is really heavy and would never be worn 'normally'. Leather with some light metal over the key areas is probably as heavy as anyone would want to wear as regular wear.

So your options are:

  • invent a light non-newtonian armour which provides much better protection against guns (high velocity impact) than swords (low velocity cutting). Stuff like this is in development; in our world it won't cause a move back to swords (because bigger calibre weapons and longer ranges are the norm, and we rely on law-enforcement rather than wearing armour to keep civilians safe), but in your world it could well provide what you need.

  • reduce the weight and velocity of bullets so they don't penetrate as much. A sub-sonic .22 has considerably less penetration than a 7.62 round.

If you're happy to bend the hard science a bit, some kind of 'healing factor' would work – perhaps a nano-tech you inject which will save you from a couple of shots? It would probably be less effective against swords as a slash wound would be larger and would overwhelm the nano-tech.

  • $\begingroup$ The problem with restricting ammunition is that it can't work. You can cast lead using an ordinary fire, and a stove burner or a self-cleaning oven can probably also get hot enough. Unless you prohibit ownership of lead and lead alloys in any form, anyone can make lethal ammunition. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @mark a legal solution, if enforced, could work. Anyone can make a gun with parts you can find in a hardware store, or buy one on the black market, but (in the U.K. at least!) they don’t because it’s illegal. If the law permits use of less lethal e.g. plastic ammo in self-defence, but is strict against metal ammo, then the majority of people will obey. Sure not all will, but (excluding speed limits!) the majority of citizens don’t break the law. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Feb 21 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ @mark particularly if medical care is good and the majority of fights end in a ‘KO’ rather than a death, most people would likely support legislation for less lethal weapons. Of course, depending on the details of the OP’s setting, these options might not work. If it’s a clash against some evil organisation, they wouldn’t play by the rules. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Feb 21 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @mark And actually, in the U.K., most criminals don’t use guns, because possession of guns is far more serious than possession of knives. I understand they’re not too hard to get (and any idiot could make a crossbow) but most crime doesn’t use them. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Feb 21 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ I've got a photo somewhere of a university fencing match. Both fencers are standing in position on their en-guard lines (their starting positions, 3 meters apart, deliberately out of reach for a lunge). One fencers light is on. That means the attacker moved forward, struck and returned to his line in the defensive position before the photographer could react. $\endgroup$ – Joseph Rogers Feb 22 at 14:49

Coriolis effect

Set the story on a planet that spins so fast and/or is so small that the Coriolis effect is much greater than it is here on earth. You can counter gravitational effects of a fast-spinning or small planet by making it very dense.

Here on earth the Coriolis effect is taken into account when calculating very long range shots (shots taken mainly by cannons rather than by rifles) and they're taken into account with calculations.

In an environment where the Coriolis effect is exacerbated, it's very hard to have an intuitive feel for how each bullet will react, making it hard to aim. This video shows what I mean. Eventually in the video they are able to aim, but this is because they are rotating at a constant rate and throwing in the same direction each time, someone on a sphere would have great difficulty adjusting to shooting from different latitudes in different directions, making handheld ranged ballistic weapons (guns) ineffective at long range.

Depending on how much of the effect you decide to incorporate into your world will impact how far guns can effectively be aimed from, and can give an advantage to melee attackers (especially if they attack from the north or the south).

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    $\begingroup$ That video shows someone managing a near-miss on what appears to be his third throw. Someone who's training to be a soldier or mercenary will fire tens of thousands of shots before going into combat. I think your situation will give exactly the opposite of what the OP wants: professionals will use guns, while ordinary people, who can't afford the ammunition or time for training, will use melee weapons. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ As an answer to this question, I agree, but this is an interesting idea for a setting feature. Hope to run across it in something good. $\endgroup$ – The Nate Feb 22 at 21:15

How about adding a rather available super-camouflage tech?

If it's not so difficult to obtain a piece of tech that really-really hides you, ranged weapons don't have any advantage. Also for a gun, you need ammo, you need to make sure it doesn't get wet (ok, too wet for some models), cleaning is rather difficult process leaving you unarmed for a while. Sword, on the other hand, doesn't need ammo, it's ok if it gets wet, easy to clean (and cleaning doesn't leave you unarmed).

Problem is that you probably won't be able to have rougues as a separate class(es). And you'll need to do something with sneak in general. Maybe make this camouflage-tech only work if you are moving slowly, or not moving...


All you need are reasons rendering things more even.

A few ideas:

Movement Sufficient mobility makes smaller weapons superior. If you can clear the distance to a guy with a gun before he can draw a bead, melee is superior. (Slowing guns down could work similarly, but that raises other questions. Still, if all ballistics slowed but retained momentum, if not all the impulse, you'd still have dangerous weapons, albeit less useful.)

Invisibility or major resistance to damage while moving is roughly equivalent to rapid movement for gun vs. blade purposes.

As to how to to get this high speed or safe movement, well, that could be a common device or spell or even a martial technique if it's not a normal fact of the world. (Heavy mists could render things invisible out to a few hundred feet and blurry. Basically, a PS1 game world... You could have a reliable combat teleport pack or spell available. This is a sci fi/ fantasy question: choices are broad.)

Which leads us to...

Chi It's not realistic, but of your inspirations, only one even vaguely hints at such. Special martial training can unlock abilities that rival the range of guns but without some of the drawbacks. Guns could have the advantage of being powerful without the chi requirements. The disadvantage being that chi isn't a big benefit to firearms, limiting the upper end of lethality.

This gets you the common schlub using guns with warriors using other weapons thing. (This could be a universal trait of the world rather than a special thingy. Depending on how you interpret things, that could avoid your special power thing.)

Shielding The shields in Dune could be tweaked to something that could explain this. A narrow impulse is easily deflected while a cut can drop the whole shield, say. This needn't be a technological marvel, either, but could be a magical or field thing that affects people for some reason.

Weird physics Slow bullets plus the ability to deflect them with a weapon could lead to safer swordsman, a la Force blaster deflecting tricks but nigh universally acheivable.

Sixth sense If a target knows intuitively when they are being aimed at, it would aid them greatly in avoiding getting shot. If everyone can just tell where firearms are aiming about as well as the shooter it would make ambushes far more difficult. Should this sense reveal the source, as well, it would change quite a few details about combat. Obviously some explanation for this phenomenon would be in order.

Bonus point: Master Ken providing some insight into the problem: https://youtu.be/V_cUvjZCLL0

  • $\begingroup$ "Sufficient mobility" for open-field combat is barely-subsonic speeds. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Are you assuming you need to literally outrun bullets? $\endgroup$ – The Nate Feb 19 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ I'm assuming that by "If you can clear the distance to a guy with a gun before he can draw a bead", you mean that the melee-armed attacker is trying to cover the several-hundred-meter effective range of a modern rifle in less time than it takes the rifle-user to aim and fire. If aiming takes one second, you're looking at a running speed of about Mach 0.9; if it takes two seconds, Mach 0.45. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 19 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ So, in brief, you're estimating based on maximum range, perfect visibility, and straight line approach. That's a solid worst case estimate for the melee. The other extreme is about a step and a half away. (excluding drawing and loading times, which would favor melee, obviously.) $\endgroup$ – The Nate Feb 19 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ @TheNate, yeah, these are great ideas. The idea of an energy source ("chi") that can boost martial arts without affecting gunplay or that involves techniques incompatible with gunplay works perfectly for this world. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 20 at 10:57

Instead of relying on physical constraints (since there aren't any), go with social constraints. Instead of trying to balance the "equal skill" equation you can ensure guns aren't a dominant component of every fight by limiting access to them. The easiest way would be to build into your narrative laws or social norms that limit access to guns to a minority. Maybe

  • Only the rich and powerful are allowed guns
  • Only security forces are allowed guns

If you go with the first option you could also limit the lethality of the weapons by making them mostly ceremonial (ornate, antique, gem-encrusted or whatever) rather than precision tools of death.

I realise this won't allow "plebs" to have guns, but maybe that's not the most important thing.


Introduce better bullet-proof armor.

Todays ballistic vests only protect against small-caliber weapons, unless you make them so heavy that they become unwieldy in combat (and even moreso if you want to see people engage in hand-to-hand combat). But if your universe would have a lighter and stronger material for ballistic vest, then it might be feasible to wear enough ballistic protection to survive fire from most firearms.

Now why wouldn't this also improve the survival chance against melee attacks? It does, but when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, then a common tactic is to not focus on injuring the opponent, but rather to make them fall down. When your opponent is on the ground while you are still standing, you have practically won. You now have an easy time to subdue your opponent or perform a well-aimed killing blow through even the smallest weakpoint in their armor. But making your opponent fall down requires momentum and leverage, and armor can't protect you from that.


I'm going to agree with the consensus here and say that your conditions are quite prohibitive. I will, however, make some suggestions that go a little bit the opposite of everyone else and say that maybe some things about the world should be crappier than our own instead of better. Here are my two primary thoughts:

  1. The beings in your world live in lower gravity spaces and have less dense skeletal structures. That way the force of the recoil of a firearm actually hurts the user unless they're well-trained enough to withstand the pain/not break their bones or just plain launches them across the room. Swords and stuff are then easier to use because they impact the user less. This also would limit the firearms to a relatively small bore, decreasing the overall damage of those weapons.
  2. Maybe materials in your world are such that firearms are prohibitively expensive to manufacture or operate. Like if barrels couldn't be perfectly cylindrical on the inside or there isn't enough iron in the world to literally just throw specs of it at each other at high velocity and it's more economical to make a single weapon that can be used repeatedly. Or maybe only the finest, most rare metals have to be used for bullets to withstand the barrel forces (another one that makes guns less economical).
  • $\begingroup$ Recoil can be worked around. As an extreme example, one company created a pistol chambered in .50 BMG that used a muzzle brake and hydropneumatic recoil absorber. (They did it as a marketing stunt -- the company manufactured artillery.) $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 20 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ That's true, but it would also increase the cost of guns over good ol' melee weapons even more than exists now. Can you imagine how much more the military would have to spend on purchasing and maintaining their weapons if every single one had to have a complex recoil absorption system? Would it even be feasible for most up-start bounty hunters and mercenaries? $\endgroup$ – Eric Ed Lohmar Feb 21 at 14:45

As long as Dune's a major influence, why not copy its shielding? Personal shields will stop anything with high kinetic energy (e.g. bullets) but not slower things because then you'd never be able to interact with the world. The art of swordfighting is to come in just slower than the shields threshold, then keep the pressure on so that you stab deep. If you're killing ordinary people, a gun is useful, but if you're killing rich people or people expecting trouble, you need a sword.

Optionally, you can also introduce sandworms, which instinctively attack shields, and make guns viable again. But simpler is to just not introduce them.

You said you don't want to include "special technology, geography, monsters, or other special scenarios". Energy shields aren't that special. They're ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy.

  • $\begingroup$ I thought about psychologizing the shields. Everyone can learn how to mentally project some kind of anti-bullet ward. The three difficulties here are (1) I would like to come up with something newer than just copying Herbert, (2) even the psychological version makes the average pleb too powerful, and (3) it's unclear why psychological, biological, metal, and other modified versions of Herbert's explanation rule out bullets and not swords, which prima facie limits you to straight-up Dune-ing the world's combat contra (1). $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 22:00


You could use a large ballistic shield to get close to the person shooting at you. Once in close quarters the one wielding a sword has more control over the flow of combat than the one with a gun, and they still have the shield to protect themself. This only gives the swordsman an advantage in stand up fights though and if the gunner can ambush the swordsman he will still win if he can hit. Unless some strong body armour is involved, like in Cyrus' answer, but the gunner can wear that too.

Now, unless the swords are some kind of sci-fi lightsabers or vibro-swords or whatever then swords have no advantage over guns in penetrating armour. However, a bullet starts off with a set amount of momentum and then it stops when that momentum is expended. With a melee weapon, on the other hand, momentum is continuously added as long as you push/swing. This gives you some control over your opponent's movements as you can push or trip them to a greater extent.


TL;DR : Make every being stronger

This answer is inspired by a chinese light novel whose name is -insert here when i remember-.

Firearms are very strong noteably because they replace your strength by a mechanical external strength.

This means you do not need extensive strength training to deal massive damage (I am not accounting for accuracy or weapon traing ofc). The same applies for speed (speed of a bullet versus speed of a slash i.e).

A case where melee weapons would be stronger than firearms would be if your personal strength and/or speed was greater than the mechanical strength of a firearm. If you do not want superheroes, you could obtain that by augmenting the general level of every being on your planet. That means none of them could be considered as "super" in their context.

In the particular novel I'm thinking of, nuclear radiations and accelerated evolutions killed almost every humans, while survivors left alive became stronger and more prone to evolve physically. The same happened to animals. At first, firearms were able to contain the animals, but slowly, they started to become more resistant, while weaponization couldn't follow.
So Humans had to evolve too, and they ended up prioritizing melee weapons.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that if you make someone stronger, they can simply start carrying a bigger gun. Why carry a sword, if you can carry an M134 minigun or an Oerlikon KAA? $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 20 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark The approach of my answer is that weapons are not strong enough, I don't really understand your point. A weapon being extremely heavy won't always be stronger. The last sentence of my answer seems to have confused you, I'll remove it (for info, what I named as "heavy artillery" was actually an advanced system of lasers that couldn't be moved - too brittle for a moving fight). $\endgroup$ – Nathan Feb 21 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ My point is that if you're strong enough that you can inflict as much damage with a sword as you can with a modern rifle, you're not going to carry a sword, you're going to carry a bigger gun. Not only will a light artillery piece let you inflict more damage than you could with a sword, it'll let you do so before the sword-user can get within range. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark well, there's thwacking strength and then there's lugging strength. If we're messing with physiology maybe we can some up with someone who can put a spear through a brick wall, but can carry an artillery piece for all of 30 feet before they need a sit down. I think that means it's going to be guns vs. thrown bricks, though, rather than than guns vs. swords. So restrict their shoulder mobility too, to the point where they can't really throw things overarm or sidearm. You still have the problem that regardless of strength, at 50 feet a melee weapon does zero damage. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ In short: actually the reason firearms are strong is not quite that they increase damage. Being shot in the chest is really bad, but so is being stabbed in the chest. Don't assume your ribcage is swordproof even at normal human strength ;-) Firearms are strong because they do that at range with reasonable accuracy. Revolvers and semi-automatic firearms are even stronger because they do it at range and if you miss you get another go. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 2:12


Personal shields have been engineered. Anything with a momentum greater than x would hit a barrier with equal force. (Tchno babble why energy is not transferred to the user). Bullets, speeding trains, flying debris in a hurricane all of this would come to an instant halt once it connects with a users shields.

Because people still need to breath, or have the earth make contact with their feet so that they can walk anything with a momentum of x or less would not trigger this barrier.

Now everyone is protected by something that makes ranged ballistic weapons almost mute.

An example that can be seen in current movies would be the shields in the movie Dune.

Because people still want to harm others they have now reverted to melee weapons whose momentum can be controlled and reduced so to harmfully pass through the shields.

It's just another idea and this one does come with a bunch of questions that need to be answered too.

As example: What happens when I launch two shield wielders at each other.

  • $\begingroup$ Air at room temperature has an average speed of 500 meters per second, not much different from the speed of a bullet. Either shield-users suffocate, or they get shot. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 21 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ Air molecules have high speed, but very low momentum. This is indeed the Dune shield mentioned in the question. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ Although the apparent non-conservation of momentum makes it a little different in detail. For example, is that "instant halt" relative to the shield and its wearer, or relative to the nearest planet? :-) So if I run into a wall, do I come to a halt relative to the wall, or does the wall "come to a halt" relative to me, i.e. I keep going and it breaks. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, this is the Dune shield. In abstract, the shield/armor answer can be done with varying degrees of realism and I loved Dune. However, I'd like to avoid an answer that's so heavily dependent on exceptional technology (exceptional relative to world economy). Also, I would like to avoid copying Herbert. $\endgroup$ – The Necessitarian Feb 22 at 21:21

In a structured 1-to-1 battle, head-on, melee weapons will always lose. This was literally why firearms were invented-- you can now hit the other guy from a longer range than he can return the favor.

Any benefit of melee weapons would be entirely tactical and would have to be leveraged in unconventional ways.

  • Melee weapons are quieter than guns. If you have the element of surprise on your side, you can do a lot of damage before the opponent has time to react. Think ninja.
  • Knives are easier to smuggle into secure areas and have fewer moving parts requiring maintenance. You also don't need to worry about ammunition.
  • Large rifles are unwieldy in close quarters. If you have the opportunity to close in, simply swatting at the gun knocks its aim all over the place. If you can lead a rifle-wielding opponent into such an area, you do have an advantage until they pull out a handgun-- and even then, if they do silly things like the Weaver stance then you still have the same advantages. Submachine guns are your worst nightmare, since their shape forces a more effective stance by the wielder that can tolerate disruption.
  • In close quarters, you can also use hand-to-hand/melee combat to disarm the opponent and/or use their gun against them. Get within two arms' length and the advantages of any gun is nullified. Their range is what makes them deadly. Take that away and it's just a powder-activated knife.
  • There are primitive (we're talking prehistoric) tools like slings that allow humans to throw things like spears with superhuman ability.
  • We went into Vietnam with rifles and air support. We were defeated by pits filled with feces-covered spears.
  • We went into Afghanistan with the full might of the modern military industrial complex. Just like Vietnam, we were defeated by primitive weapons like roadside bombs and the weaponization of fear itself-- never knowing when and where you're going to get hit has significant effect on morale and battle-readiness.
  • There have been many a home invader, armed and not, that were thwarted by homeowners screaming incoherently and charging at them with a katana or bat from out of nowhere. Again, primitive weapon combined with surprise and fear.
  • The feudal Japanese and native Americans used masks or war paint to play off of this too-- an army of sword-wielding monster-faced warriors closing in on you causes panic and fear among your ranks. Gas masks, balaclavas and full-face helmets fulfill similar intimidation purposes today.
  • External circumstances may also preclude the utility of guns. Firearms on an airplane could be suicidal. In the original Metal Gear Solid, your path takes you through a warehouse of nuclear warheads. You are barred from using firearms in it because of the risk of leakage or explosion (though through some oversight, the enemies were not similarly restricted). I think there was a similar plot point in one of the Aliens movies and leaking methane gas (though again, sparks from metal-on-metal swordfighting...).

An energy field that "burns" anything moving fast (such as a bullet) that gets close to the person.

The mercenaries have special swords and armor that allow the energy to flow through the sword and into a glove and the rest of the armor so that the energy can harmlessly "ground out" without damaging the sword and without injuring the person in the armor. Swords would only work if the wielder is in contact with some other surface to ground the energy, otherwise their sword and maybe even themselves can be burned by the shield.

To keep things balanced, the mercenaries cannot use the energy shields while wearing armor because the armor grounds out their own shield. That makes the mercenaries dependent on the armor itself to have any protection from gunfire.

  • $\begingroup$ This has the same problem as the other energy shields that have been suggested: air molecules move at about the same speed as bullets. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 24 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ So make it "...burns anything moving fast and large enough to be visible to the naked eye..." The basic idea of making swords viable against firearms is so fundamentally flawed that only a contrivance like energy shields can make it possible. But if the OP wants a way of making it happen then here is one way that it can work. $\endgroup$ – krb Feb 25 at 9:19

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