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When I saw this question today in the active questions list I thought it would be about one-on-one combat in space. But the question and answers (while still good) were focused on battles between space craft with long range weapons.

For this question, I would like to see answers about personal or hand-to-hand combat in zero/micro-gravity would look like. How could someone defend themselves in space? How could you incapacitate an opponent? What about lethal maneuvers?

For the outdoor space battles, assume that combatants are in flexible highly tear-resistant suits (although not un-puncturable) with propulsion systems controlled by a non-intrusive method leaving hands and legs free (possibly a brain-computer interface). Propulsion power is low and limited to slow maneuvering before an engagement (i.e. does not have anywhere near the power output of the Iron Man suit).

I would consider the following scenarios to be conducive to this sort of combat. (sub-questions are meant to inspire, they don't all need to be answered):

  • Heated, personal disputes between community members of an asteroid colony (lethal or non-lethal)
    • Hitting someone for personal reasons is not likely to result in well thought out efficient strikes - might it be dangerous for both parties involved?
    • How might a bar brawl in space play out?
  • Territorial wars between small to mid-sized gangs who are not wealthy/organized enough to purchase and operate battle-ready space craft (lethal)
    • What tactics would be used for say 10-on-10 fights?
    • What simple weapons would be effective (outside only)?
  • One-on-one space grappling as a professional sport, maybe indoors (non-lethal)
    • What would a 'pin' look like in a grappling?
    • If the goal was to force the opponent out of a ring or sphere (given some fixed structures inside which can be used) what tactics would be used?
  • Tactical SWAT teams who don't use ranged weapons to avoid detection from sensory equipment (could be outside or inside). Possibly need to software hack the space suits of their targets so that they don't raise the alarm when the target's vital signs drop off. (lethal or non-lethal)
    • What would a stealthy strike look like to disable a critical piece of enemy equipment?
    • What would a hostage rescue operation look like from a well guarded space vessel?

Good luck, have fun!

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  • $\begingroup$ To clarify, are both or any of the participants in a vacuum? If no, why are they in tear-resistant suits? Extremely large extremely sharp scissors spring to mind instantly. $\endgroup$ – Resonating Apr 28 '15 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ When outdoors (vacuum), they are in tear-resistance suits. Indoor combatants (in breathable air) are wearing standard clothing, probably not naked :P $\endgroup$ – NauticalMile Apr 29 '15 at 13:14
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It seems unlikely that gangs would be fighting in space itself, they may fight inside of a space station or habitable dome, but few will be doing space walks, not enough for there to have developed common fighting style for it. I imagine the majority of fights will be 'indoors', because why would a gang member or laymen want, possess authority for, and have equipment and gear for being in space?

Likewise there is little reason for a military to every fight in space. Drones will be more viable in 100 different ways to trying to make a human with full support system just to give him a gun. Close quarter fights inside of your space ship, trying to take over the command room for instance, may occur, but not fights in space. All the fighting with humans will be done within a controlled enviroment that everyone is fighting over controlling.

Fights in EVA gear in space will still occur on occasions, humans find opportunities to fight always, but they will be random incidents, not organized battles. I would say they would be clumsy pathetic things, because no one has developed techniques, weapons, or EVA suits designed for it. The suits will not be designed to protect against bullets and will be just as easily pierced by them. However, bullets won't fire in space, and there is no reason to design a 'space gun' for space battles since, as I said, they will not be standard or desirable way to fight. Thus I would see a space fight either being a clumsy melee fight to try to pierce the others suit or damage it before they do the same to you first, or possible at slightly longer ranges using regular tools as jerryrigged weapons, Imagine using the equivalent of a gigantic staple gun as a long range weapon to pierce someone's suit.

Of course one whole in someone's suit won't kill them. Suits will have plenty of redundancy. They will not be deigned well for combat, but they will have enough redundancy that even if damaged you still have time to get to an airlock. In fact severing your opponents teather to the space station may be a more viable weapon, without that they will soon find themselves floating off into space.

Most of the battle, as I said, would be in enclosed spaces, fighting over controlling whatever habitat everyone is in. These will be roughly similar to standard close-quarters inner city warfare of today, with some possible exceptions. The problem is it's hard to say the exceptions without knowing more about the technology of your world.

1) Gravity, or lack of it, will cause interesting conflicts. Are they using artificial gravity, centrifugal force, or actual gravity of an atmosphereless moon to hold them to the ground? If their in zero G everyone will have to learn to fight in 3 dimensions, which is not easy to learn. The inability to simply change your direction once floating will also make team formations harder. Weapons will likely not be your standard guns, since the kick with a gun would be so large as to throw off your trajectory and movement when fired. Perhaps they will use weapons designed to fire far smaller rounds at high speed, or a system to counteract the kick of the gun by releasing some equal-opposite force behind it.

2) Depending on how your habitat is enclosed risks of damaging the habitat may exist. Larger weapons, anything more powerful then a grenade, may be thrown out as the risk of doing significant harm to the delicate systems keeping the habitat in place are so great. This would be a great reason of justifying a large infantry if you wish it, claiming all the powerful weapons can't be used in the enviroment for fear of the harm their do, so we resort to lots of small arms instead.

I would also say that there would totally be zero G combat sports, and they will be amusing to watch. In fact there would likely be many different types of combat sports. Some may put you in a small dome and say "fight it out". In theses cases both sides would 'launch' at each other until they collide, then it would turn into a rather boring grappling match as the bounce around the walls (then again, some find grappling MMA fights to be interesting lol). Other sports may impose other rules, such as a form of fencing where registering hits with foils which are sufficient to Peirce a space suit count as damage; which would result in a sport that is more about acrobatically flinging yourself through a 3D maze of platforms to manure around your opponent into a position to land a strike. Many other zero g sports could exist, in fact if it wasn't too much of 'idea generation' I would post a question just asking for all the different zero G sports that might exist.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think bullets won't fire in space? They carry their own oxidizer and will fire underwater... $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Apr 28 '15 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, guns will definitely work in space. $\endgroup$ – Seth Apr 28 '15 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @RoboKaren IIRC normal guns have issues with overheating in vacuum, maybe that is what dsollen was thinking? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 28 '15 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Gigantic staple gun made me lol $\endgroup$ – NauticalMile Apr 28 '15 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ One time my brother found a staple gun and tried to shoot me with it at long range. Obviously, it didn't work, but a staple gun out in space would be a horrifying weapon. Take away air resistance AND gravity?! I predict that if our future black ops guys aren't replaced by drones, they will all be required to carry a staple gun as a sidearm. $\endgroup$ – unknown Apr 29 '15 at 7:00
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Human nature does not change, and here, we are exploring personal combat maneuvering between persons in microgravity. Obviously, if it were in normal gravity, we wouldn't be having this same discussion.

Here's the thing - Newtonian mechanics always worked in gravity, but reaction forces are much more prevalent in microgravity, and peoples brains need a bit to adjust to the new rules. Once that is done, things aren't all that different. The reason a punch hurts is that a force was applied that compressed flesh against bone and rocked your brain in its cradle - this still works, if you can land it and not fly off into infinite blackness.

Going toe to toe outside a contained area is to be avoided at all cost. You might envision people running and flying at each other, but this is a quick ticket to the big dark - all the defender has to do is avoid contact, and the attacker stands a good chance of never getting another foothold. If he does, it still gives the defender several more seconds to disengage. Magnetic boots would be standard fare. Now if lifelines and tethers were being used, well, bolt cutters are a thing, and well, yes, pistols do in fact work in vacuum. So do knives, swords and morning stars - nothing new here.

Lots of the normal stuff still works - I'm personally fond of kubotans, clubs and small knives. In a society where cut and tear resistance was common, stilettos would regain favor as personal defense weapons. Firing a gunpowder driven weapon in a controlled volume of air would be really unpleasant in small airtight spaces, but workable on larger stations, as long as oxygen saturation wasn't a policy - because that would just kill everyone.

Advanced techniques would be developed with specialized tactics and tools, for different persons involved in different activities. Tazers work fine, and any gang thug or cop in space would likely have a stun gun or stun wand handy at all times. I can imagine police authority being able to override magnetic boot locks, forcing them on. Unusually dense, heavy materials could be crafted into clubs that normally could not be carried, allowing a thug to take your head clean off with a cane made of lead, provided he remembered to brace himself while he swung.

Fighting arts always start with a central philosophy. Whether to kill, maim, control, neutralize, avoid entirely, or whatever else, it all starts with an idea of what you want the outcome to be. New fighting techniques would likely focus on locking up an opponents joints specifically without relying on the ground as a barrier to movement - a Full Nelson and the common Arm Bar are still mostly effective, as long as you yourself don't go spinning around fast enough for a station wall to knock you out. The rear naked choke works almost completely unmodified. Throwing arts work great, but have to be modified and relearned. Deadlier hand to hand arts would focus on imparting large rotational momentum to a person and then using it to twist and snap bones - this already works in Earth gravity, but it would become more prevalent in an environment where it was easier to do.

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  • $\begingroup$ Flying off into space is prevented by low propulsion thrusters on their suits . While combatants can miss and overshoot each other by a great deal, they will always be able to stop themselves and return to combat eventually. Good thoughts on holds & chokes though. $\endgroup$ – NauticalMile Apr 29 '15 at 13:19
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I'd see piercing weapons (knives, spears) being used more than long blades like swords and axes due to the impact of puncturing spacesuits.

Guns also count as piercing. Hollow point would be the norm because of the lower chance of damaging critical systems.. the bullets would be designed more to pierce flesh but shatter on hitting metal. Military suits would be focusing on being non-piercable.

No gravity would be the big thing. Newton's Third Law would apply - the force exerted would be in the opposite direction. If someone fires a gun, it could actually drive them back a bit.

If someone wanted to throw a punch, they need to brace against something. Most melee attacks would require someone bracing against something like the ground or wall to 'bounce/whip' their energy into an attack.

In sports like MMA, a strong move is to try to force people onto the ground and punch them in the head while on the ground to utilize gravity and deal extra damage. In 0G space, the winner would be the one who can brace against a solid structure, but I don't see punches and kicks doing anywhere near enough damage to knock people out, much less kill.

Grappling would be a major method of trying to injure. People with more mass and size will have way more advantage than they do on the ground. Things like locks and twisting limbs are very important, preferably those that don't require so much space and energy. Choking holds might be the standard to try to kill or incapacitate.

Something like a spiked chain might be an ideal weapon, because it can be used to choke and injure people. Not so much swung around, but wrapped around the neck .

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