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The Orks of my world are actually the technologically most advanced civilization. They are bigger and stronger than humans, have bone plates on their heads, greenish skin, and are more akin to the Qunari from Dragon Age than to Tolkien's orks. They dwell in jungle and savanna regions on a continent similar to Africa.

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They live under theocratic dictatorships which delegate everyone into the caste they seem best suited for in order to create equality and happiness for their people. Their empires are prospering and integrate other races if they are willing, otherwise, they are used as slaves or live in semi-independent communities with heavy obligations like the Dhimmi did in Islamic Empires.

Science is fairly advanced and many alchemical weapons are used to subdue weaker races; science is pursued in areas which benefit the economy and military. Yet challenging the authority of the clergy will get one killed.

Magic does exist but has little relevance beyond their alchemy as they believe that everyone is born equal and only education and social conditioning create individuals useful to society. Those born with magic are considered a danger, in part due to their ideology, in part because mages really are a great danger unless they are properly disciplined and trained for years since mages are powerful vessels for demons.

The Firearms

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Firelance: A grenade fixed to the tip of infantry weapons shocks merely opponents with a short range (ca. 3m) blast of saltpeter based fire or shrapnel. This is the standard infantry weapon of the empire.

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Handcannon: A short metal-pipe makes increases the range of a metal or rock bullet or a shrapnel blast.

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Cavalry: Riders use fire-lances to break enemy lines.

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Portable Mortar: Used for bombardment and sometimes as a launcher for alchemic grenades. Mustard gas, shrapnel grenades, berserk gas, and more exotic chemical weapons aren't uncommon.

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Heavy Mortars and Cannons: Those are rare, extremely bulky and inaccurate, yet they will put the fear of god into those in a besieged city.

Why did the Empire not develop more advanced firearms and has been sitting on these for nearly 1000 years despite its highly developed alchemy and scientific culture?

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    $\begingroup$ A "cast system" or a "caste system"? What's the relationship a meritocracy, a caste system (where "everyone is born equal", no less) and proto-communism? Is proto-communism what us marxists call primitive communism, or is it something else? What is the link between "advanced science" and "alchemical weapons"? Alchemy is a reactionary pseudo-science in the employ of the exploitative classes. BTW, in real history the Chinese invented gunpowder sometime in the 10th century, and did nothing much with it for one thousand years... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 1 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP My description of their society was unclear and it is only peripherally relevant. Their states have certain aspects which could be considered communist, there is no private property and even the clerics officially only delegate the management of resources. There is no private property and beyond the caste system which is basically the clergy, the military and then every other profession. There are few hierarchies outside the clergy and the military and families or gender roles don´t exist. Experience is generally respected, hence the meritocracy aspect. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Jul 1 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Calling alchemy a pseudo-science in a fantasy world is certainly an interesting way to put it. I use a hard magic system, so magic is an area of research like any other since it is real in the context of my world. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Jul 1 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee The Song, Yuan and Ming where actually ahead of the curve and vastly ahead of the Europeans for the longest time firearm wise. Only when the Qing failed to adobt the foreign flint lock guns in favor of domestically produced matchlock guns they started falling behind. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Jul 2 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ ...had the hardest time understanding this question until I reached the illustrations. Then I realised that what I misread firelance as "freelance" and handcannon as "headcannon" The title seemed exceptionally strange at first... $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jul 2 at 12:38
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Firearms were adopted primarily because they could be effectively used by relatively unskilled people with little training against warriors who had been trained for a lifetime. They were actually adopted at the tail end of what is sometimes called the Infantry Revolution because using simple to use weapons and tactics allowed you to raise large armies quickly and have an excellent chance to defeat highly trained knights, Samurai or Janissary warriors.

Looking at it the other way, the English longbow could theoretically deliver more-accurate and longer range damage than a firearm for centuries after it was displaced. The reason the longbow fell out of use can be summed up by remembering bowmen needed to start learning in their youth and practicing continually. Longbow practice was mandatory after church, and laws to that effect were passed even into the time of Henry VIII. A gunner could be trained in a relatively short time, and even an early Arquebus could deliver 1000 J of energy to a target, an order of magnitude more than a longbow or even a steel crossbow, requiring a winch to span and 1200 lbs draw.

The Japanese were enthusiastic users of firearms until the Tokugawa Shogunate finally unified Japan. At that point, it was quite clear that large numbers of peasants with firearms could devastate Samurai armies which required lifetimes of training, so firearms were outlawed, confiscated and heavily regulated to protect the ruling class.

This gives us a clue as to the social mechanism which allows firearms technology to stagnate, the ruling warrior class does not wish to see a challenge to their power, and peasants armed with effective weapons and tactics could become a challenge to that power, just as it was in Europe. If your story setting has a means of severely limiting outside influences (such as Japan being an island), then the ruling class could effectively secure their position by allowing weapons and tactics to stagnate.

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    $\begingroup$ "the English longbow could theoretically deliver more, more accurate and longer range damage" - Your first "more" lack a word behind it, it seems. Though, I can't edit since I have no idea what you intended to say. $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai Jul 2 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Nyakouai: A longbow could loose multiple arrows in the same time frame as an arquebus could load and fire a single shot, so I would guess they probably meant to imply "more projectiles", although that doesn't quite fit with the syntax/word form used in the rest of the sentence. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Jul 2 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Nyakouai It "could theoretically deliver more [damage], more accurate [damage], and longer range [damage]." The only "missing" words are those elided in standard English. Or maybe I should say, the only "missing" words are those words which are elided in standard English prose. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley Jul 2 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ The wording is kind of confusing for non native english speaker then. Anyway, that was my two cents on the matter. $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai Jul 2 at 14:33
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TLDR: It’s deliberate.

Because magic exists, and these are the only relatively safe way of deploying firearms that even apprentice wizards can’t utterly (and spectacularly) foul up.

Consider an early muzzle loading rifle. A rifleman would have to carry around a case filled with powder to reload with. All it takes is one enemy combatant to flick an easy to cast ‘boom’ charm in the right place and suddenly your rifleman is missing a large chunk of his everything.

On the other hand your firelances are carried upright, point away from the infantry at all times and are pretty safe. Even a mass discharge of the weapons will only see saltpetre and shrapnel raining down over the ranks of your infantry. Suddenly your enemies can’t blow up half your army with no more than a handful of poorly trained spellslingers: they need real wizards, which are in short supply. The retardation of firearms development is a deliberate risk mitigation strategy.

So too with the portable mortars: each one is designed to be loaded well away from the front (minimal chance of someone blowing it up) and then run out into the field and deployed, at all times angled slightly towards the enemy so an unintended discharge isn’t a risk to your own men. The only mortars that don’t follow this strategy are siege weapons, both because they’re inherently dangerous and also have sufficient range to avoid the spellslingers.

In fact: I would expect their firearms and tactics to be quite advanced in their own way. Very light, very portable, very quick and easy to reload/ refurbish. Troops trained to discharge one Lance then immediately reach back for the next, with the vulnerable ammo and powder stores positioned well back in the ranks. Dedicated ‘ammunition pages’ whose sole job is to reload the lances. Extreme discipline in ammunition and weapon storage.

Oh, and soldiers that prioritise killing anybody wearing a pointy hat.

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  • $\begingroup$ I fear that does not make too much sense. Even larger amounts of gunpowder (a couple hundred grams) don't explode when set on fire, as long as they are not held together by something limiting its expansion (e.g. a gun barrel). It rather burns very fast. So burning a little bag of gunpowder will hurt like hell but probably not severely wound the gunner. Also, if your enemy is a fire mage, it is quite easy to design around that. You could, for example, instead of carrying a bag of black powder, use paper cartridges (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_cartridge). $\endgroup$ – Dakkaron Jul 3 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Every one of these only contains a small amount of black powder and, compared to metal cartridges as in use today, don't compress an explosion, so these would really just burn without any explosion when lit outside of a gun barrel. Pack them in a heavy metal box and that's it. Also, your answer severely limits the usefulness of the guns. If you have to carry each gun (and even heavy mortars) all the way from the front line to the back for them to be reloaded, they are practically worthless. Why not use crossbows and ballistas? They pack a similar amount of firepower for much less hassle. $\endgroup$ – Dakkaron Jul 3 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Dakkaron: then you’d be happy trying to tamp a charge with the risk of a mage around? Or having a mage ‘hurt like hell’ every single rifleman simultaneously while also leaving them without a functional weapon (note that a lance will still hurt even if it doesn’t go boom)? I agree with your point about crossbows: but the question wasn’t ‘what else makes more sense than using these weapons’, it was ‘why do they use these weapons’, and for nascent gun research it makes perfect sense to switch to these designs and make them work well rather than further developing cartridges and rifles. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 3 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ and what stopps them from just putting their gunpowder in fireproof boxes, split in small portions that are not strong enough to actually blow up the box? $\endgroup$ – Dakkaron Jul 3 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Dakkaron: weight of boxes and the way that you can still have your hand blown off when trying to reload? Maybe they never thought of it because they learnt early on that having any quantity of gunpowder stored at the front was a terrible idea and now that’s part of their military doctrine. Perhaps that’s how the ammo pages run spare charges to the front of things are getting desperate or they think there aren’t any mages in play. Maybe they don’t do it because of the infamous ‘overfilled cartridges of Dragontooth point’ incident. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 3 at 17:35
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They have almost no metal.

Your orcs have a little bit of copper, which is used more for decoration in the manner of gold. There is no tin and iron is very rare, what there is being meteoric in origin. Knives, cutting tools and weapons are made from a variety of stones, in the style of the Aztecs, also an advanced empire with Stone Age technology.

Without metal it is very difficult to make barrels that can withstand the compressive forces of gunpowder. Firelances are made of stone: these are one-use weapons and the stone container contributes to the shrapnels. Portable mortars are actually reinforced wood, further reinforced by burying in the earth: this is a fougasse. Your orcs can make siege weapons - their craftsmanship is good and they can get a lot out of alchemically treated wood and ropes. Wooden trebuchets, ballistae, catapults and some more esoteric siege engines are among the weapons that can be deployed to attack or defend a city or fortress.

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  • $\begingroup$ Had that idea myself, yet it doesn't work since they will live on the same planet as medieval-style human cultures. The "Orks" are supposed to kick the crap out of those and that would be the point when they would adopt metal weapons. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Jul 2 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ Do the humans have gunpowder? I could imagine an alchemically treated stone spear or sword being the equal of one made of iron. These "orcs" have a lot going for them as regards culture. I could imagine they might be more than a little proud and arrogant. Why should they adopt tech from a lesser people whose crude weird weapons enabled them to lose pitifully? Then I could imagine a fine story where a person with a foot in both cultures hybridized the tech. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 2 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ The idea is quite nice, but it doesn't fit my idea of their culture. Metal is simply needed for many other things I've already worked on. The alchemy (binding magic) doesn't produce permanent results and is more of a chemical weapon, explosives, medicine and poison thing. Earth (structure) magic might give one results like you suggest, as it is the least volatile kind of magic and rune-crafting is a way to use it. However the orks arcanophobia makes the use of runes implausible. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Jul 3 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ Restricting metal would also not make sense here. Early firelances were made of wood and paper, so that would work, but hand cannons need to be made from metal. Stone would be much to heavy for them to be "hand" cannons. $\endgroup$ – Dakkaron Jul 3 at 16:44
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One, as mentioned in L.Dutch's answer, research cost resources and time. Without pressing needs, they won't invest into it when there is no practical return. It costs a lot in many areas. New weapons need to be manufactured and maintained. Troops constantly retrained with them, strategies, tactics revised. Trouble shooting unforseen problems, decomissioning old weapons. An endless cycle of resource sink.

Two, from the description, they aren't a warmongering, expansionist super state. Unless actively waging wars, being pushed back or fearing the unknown future, weapon improvements bring trouble. While they increase their military migth in the short term, long term they are not so clear cut. Technologies, especially weapons will be leaked. Gunpowder was too, despite the harsh punishments.

Three, as research oriented people (or simply one visionary figure in early history), they realized the transformative and destabilizing effects of technology (the pill, social media, vaccination, steam, plastic, nukes...) on standing society. Weapon technology being the most obvious, they naturally restricted it.

Four, weapons are force multipliers. A single rebel element, with a cold weapon has limited destructive capacity. Better weapons means better multiplier. Rouge elements are inevitable, especially over long periods of time. A "high clergy", or "general" (or their equivalents in your setting) getting their hands on improved weapons will cause more destruction with less people. Look at civil wars in history and today. Being intelligent, they recognized this too, which led to shelving any weapon research until emergency.

Simply put, they deemed it dangerous, especially looking at their current weapons' destructive capability. They promptly outlawed any research into it.

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    $\begingroup$ *rogue (you have referred to a red makeup that can be applied to cheeks!) $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Jul 2 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner Thanks, you are right. However, I may as well leave it as it is as I find it kinda funny. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jul 2 at 13:08
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Inventions come from necessity. Upgrading anything takes effort and resources. One does it only when needed, in other words, when the present situation is no longer effective.

Some real world examples:

  • If one has surface coal available, there is no need to invent underground mining
  • If one can enjoy warm weather all year round, there is no need to invent heavy clothes

Same goes for the weapons of your orks: if none of their enemies ever invented a good protection against such weapons, there is no need to develop better weapons. They do their job, thus they are good.

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They simply didn't want to / didn't have to.

Their religion, social system and general higher strength/speed/endurance than other races never prompted them to develop better weapons.

Mix this up with fighting, martial arts and weapon usage being part of their religious cult and you basically have a solid reason.

Part of their religion could be that weapons are passed down generation by generation, enhanced by magic and alchemy, giving them more value. Hilts and parts are maybe even made out of bones from fallen ancestors to connect with their spirit, further increasing their bond with their sword, axes, spears etc. From childhood on warriors are trained in the usage of those "basic" weapons and even when they don't inherit a strong weapon with a lot of history, they usually set out to get their own one, leaving a mark on history and creating another artefact to pass down. Additionally, one who can't fight on their own (without tools) is considered weak and useless getting put into a low tier caste (you can't have such a system without one or two castes which are worse off than others anyway), exceptions would be orcs who have a gift for alchemy and magic, those are exempted from those social rules as they are part of their own caste, in warfare they are usually the ones operating those mortars and guns.

Due to high reflexes and enhanced weapons, bullets are actually not a problem to fight against, so no reason to use them as countermeasure too. Therefore in an internal fight, those bullets are mostly useless. For external fights, any true warrior would rather die than win by using one of those meagre tools.

Maybe there are slight improvements over the years, those are tools of warfare after all. When they are used, they better work. So slight improvements to prevent jamming, range and reload speed increase could easily be done over the span of a millennium, even without making them the go-to weapons, but keeping it somewhat realistic (improvements would always take place).

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A group of Mages with prophetic powers identifies people with skill and ingenuity who in the future will improve the mechanical weapons and so unbalance the uneasy status quo in favor of those who do not have magical ability. They dispatch assassins before these weapons craftsmen can receive their ideas or build a prototype. Others they recruit to become mages like themselves, or imprison or frame for crimes. Or they ensure that the weapon demonstration fails, through casting charms.

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You really want to have a weird set of weapons here.

Lets look at them in more detail, especially regarding their use case and time periods.

Firelance

The classic single-use paper-barrel firelance was in use mostly from 950 to 1300 in Asia and sporadically used in Europe in the 1400s as a mounted weapon. These things where terribly ineffective at actually hurting people but they made a mighty bang. Their main purpose was to scare enemy soldiers and put them in disarray. These were never really used as "the standard infantry weapon", but you'd rather have a few dozen of them distributed among your troops to mess with enemy formations.

Hand cannon

These weapons are now first proto-guns that are actually used for killing people. They appear around 1128 and by 1375 they have flash pans and soon they also have shoulder stocks, making them quite different from the primitive hand cannon that you have in mind. The main reason to use hand cannons over other weapons is their ease of use. They are terrible compared to weapons like a longbow or even a crossbow, but you can hand one of these to someone who has never used them and they will have moderate success with it, compared to a longbow, which an average person can not even launch an arrow off.

Portable mortars

The image you linked is actually a hand cannon begin fired from a stand.

Heavy mortars

The first usage of mortars in combat happened at the 1452 siege of Constantinople, which was rather unsuccessful since the mortars where primitive and extremely heavy, making them terribly immobile. The first actually useful and more mobile mortars were used 1719. So we are talking about a few hundred years of further advancement over your other weapons. So while there was an era where hand cannons and firelances were conceivably used at the same time, that's not so with mortars.

As for other kinds of cannons, they appeared earlier (starting from 1380) but, due to their heavy weight and horrible mobility they were mostly used stationary, so when defending in a siege. Until the 16th century, siege weapons like the trebuchet were much more useful when attacking fortifications than cannons were. They only started being used in the 18th century. As with mortars, the golden age of canons was much later than the golden age of firelances and hand cannons.

I could not find any proper source for the image you posted, but it seems to be something from the 16th century or newer, by my guess.

Summary So, from a technological standpoint we are talking about weapons that differ vastly in their advancement. Firelances were the very start of gunpowder weapons while mortars and cannons appeared half a century later. Kind of like throwing a mechanical targeting computer from the 30s in the same category with a modern smartphone.

What mostly limited the advancement of gun development was that many metalworking and general manufacturing processes had to be invented first before they could be used in guns. For example, steel production in Europe only came up in the 17th century. Before that you had to use iron. To have the same strength as a steel barrel, an iron barrel needs to be much thicker and thus heavier. Mechanisms like the flint lock need to be manufactured with a very high precision to work reliably. So if you have these kinds of manufacturing processes available because your society is very advanced, then you will obviously have them available for gun-making as well.

So if you have a 16th century mortar, you could also expect to have a 1411 arquebus or even a 1475 matchlock arquebus. Both look much more like a contemporary rifle than like a hand cannon.

So how to apply this? The combination of weapons you describe is not a very good fit, since they need very different manufacturing processes available. From a technological standpoint there is no reason why these weapons would be used together.

The way you described the usage of especially the firelance does not fit at all to what they were actually used for.

I would probably rethink the weapons. Drop the cannons and mortars and replace them with bombs that are thrown by trebuchets or similar devices. That would fit much better with the firelances and hand cannons. Maybe add firearrows as well. That would make for a much better fit. Also, drop the firelance as the primary weapon and have them use it like it was used in reality. Give them spears or lances as their primary weapons.

Now, with the weapons sorted in the right time frame and usage, why would they use those ancient and useless weapons if they have access to manufacturing processes that allow for much better weapons? Also, why don't they use better non-gunpowder weapons like a longbow?

Since there is no good military or technological explanation for that, there needs to be another reason for that. I have a few approaches to that, but most of them have their caveats.

  1. They don't need anything better. They are so technologically advanced over all their enemies that even after a millennium firelances still outclass everything their enemies have to offer. The caveat here is that this only works if your ork nation is completely isolationist so that their weapon designs (and even the concept of how such a weapon works) do not leak to an enemy who could improve on these designs. Also, all Orks need to be pretty lazy and not a single youth can be interested in things that go boom enough to create better designs (remember, even a decently built potato cannon is much better than any firelance ever built).

  2. There are no enemies. Orks are perfect when it comes to diplomacy and are really important trade partners. This only works if they are mainly good at processing goods and don't have any natural resources worth invading for. Basically, they are the Swiss.

  3. They have massive armies. Orks breed like rabbits and can afford to loose warriors 10:1 when in combat. There are just so many of them that it does not matter if they loose tons of warriors to enemies with vastly better weapons. Also, dying to the hands of enemies has to be a cool thing in the Ork society. Or they have overpopulation problems and that's their form of population control.

  4. Religious or social constraints limit them from using other weapons. Their God once said "thou shalt only kill thine enemies with crappy weapons" and they stuck with it. Requires that at least a huge majority of their soldiers would rather die in horrible massacres than offend their God and/or his priests. Everyone in this nation has to be a real fanatic.

  5. Certifications. Ork-land is the worst bureocratic distopia ever. Everything that might be able to take a life needs to be certified and the process for that can take centuries. Only weapons that make it through this process or are older than the process are allowed to be used. Firelances and hand cannons are older than the certification process and are thus allowed. Mortars have only recently been approved, even though other countries don't even use them anymore. This is the only thing I can come up with that might even work with your weapon combination and -usage.

  6. It's a Marvell movie. Do it like they did it in Black Panther and just hand-wave it. There is no reason other than that you as the author like the concept. Depending on the kind of story you are making that might be enough.

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