In a setting where a people armed with guns and effective armor (of some sort), are engaged in a struggle against another people armed with primitive weapons and equivalent armor. By that, it's effective armor against their primitive weapons. No metal, in the armor. Just natural materials: leather, wood, bamboo.

How would the more poorly armed and armored guys defeat the more powerfully armed and armored guys?

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, that sort of matchup went horrifically badly for the less well equipped sides (think about what happened to the aztecs, and how few conquistadors were needed to deal them a crushing military defeat). You'll have to tip the balance some other way; dubious equipment weaknesses won't cut it. I'd suggest some horrible disease or hazardous local wildlife, perhaps. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ Kevlar? Can you be more specific about your question. Are you asking for non-metal armor that can stop bullets, or are you asking for strong non-metal armor in general. And what do you mean by 'primitive', what tech level are you discussing? $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Sep 4, 2019 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site! Please note that the Worldbuilding SE is dedicated to providing detailed answers to specific questions you have while developing your fictional world. To help clarify this question and produce better answers, are you looking for a tactics discussion? If so, please edit your post to include the tag and provide details on the two organizations, such as the number of combatants per side and gear and resources available to them. Also, feel free to take the tour to get a better understanding of the site. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Sep 4, 2019 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime if I may take your conquistador point: the conquistadors did make allies with the aztec's enemies and slighted allies, plus they had guns (aka magic sticks that shot fire) so I'm not sure if that applies here. $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Sep 4, 2019 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ @cyber101 the question explicitly asks about a conflict between people with guns and armour, and people without. I'd say it was a pretty good example. (also, the guns were very important but the aztec obsidian weapons fared extremely poorly against steel armour, and soldiers on horseback seemed to be some kind of monsters. the combination was catastrophic, and would have been even if the spanish just used their swords) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 19:36

4 Answers 4


Based on history, tactics are your best bet.

A great example is battles from the British-Zulu war, which didn't have a great outcome for the Zulus but contained many examples of tribal warriors outmaneuvering the vastly more developed British forces, often because the dominant force became complacent with their power and were caught completely off guard.. Armies rot from the top down.

If you want a genuine fault in more sophisticated armour, choose a weakness that people would think doesn't need to be accounted for. You can either do this in a creative way or a geekier physics way. A great example of being creative would be taking inspiration from here. There's a fascinating Murdoch Mysteries episode where a guy who's blinged out in metal jewellery is killed by microwave radiation because the metal makes him into a human Tesla coil. His rings and watches take on huge amounts of electrical charge whilst he's being electromagnetically bombarded without knowing it. When he takes off his rubber shoes later on he's zapped as he's grounded to earth. It's scientifically feasible, in a way. You could certainly exploit this as an immediate effect, too.

Outside of materials, manufacturing defects like this meant armour was vulnerable to unexpected projectiles (in this case, a buckshot would have deflected off the main plates and straight into the wearer's head). You really do have a lot of choice, and taking inspiration from real life often helps write a great story. Good luck!


I think the answer to your question (in my opinion) ranges from realistic (it could happen) to scifi (still realistic but with extra bells and whistles that seem cool). Here's a list of ways you can handle this:

  • Bulletproof vests vs. Harpoons and ballistae: The way kevlar works is that it's really good at absorbing kinetic energy. But here's a catch lol: it only works once on a specific impact area. Don't expect to just walk into machine gun fire because you're wearing kevlar. So your ill-equipped soldiers could either steal a few bullets, use them sparingly in combat but enough to damage vests a little bit, and then hit them in the same area with sharp objects. Knives are great, but the reason I mention harpoons and ballistae is because it helps to not get shot up on the way to stab your enemy. I rate this idea as pretty realistic. There's a lot that you can do with this, like implement guerilla warfare, and more.

EDIT: I'd like to amend my point above by saying that any kind of blunt force trauma would hurt a kevlar vest - no need to steal their guns and ammo. Just fire at them with slings, tomahawks, spears (throwing or otherwise), whatever. Upside is that it's potentially cheap and doesn't require intense tech. On the downside it requires a lot craftsmanship, and your ill-equipped side needs to dodge bullets better than the enemy dodges your projectiles and stuff. Thanks to @Alice for pointing this out.

  • Solar armour: This is me thinking a little crazily, but whatever - what if your enemy's armour was powered by solar energy? So, during the day it's charging up, so they're basically invulnerable. At night, they have a long battery supply, so they're still invulnerable, but your chances of survival against them in a straight-combat scenario goes up from 0% to like 5% (these guys get training too). So, very intense and destructive solution: run out their batteries. How though - even if you discharge their armour at night, they'll just wait till the morning. And you can't attack them in the day, right? The basic solution would be to lure them into a maze-like cave or something, but that's basic. I like this idea better: burn down a forest. Blacken the skies with soot and pollution, and let it persist for days. If your enemy is not in range of reinforcements, just hit them occasionally until they run out of battery and bullets, and then go in for the kill. I rate this idea scifi tech, with a possible solution
  • Charged guns: The enemy uses guns that fire bolts of electricity - basically tasers with only a 'kill' mode. But of course it's better because it does everything a gun can but it fires electricity and hurts you by making your body absorb more current than it needs. You die when your body has > 100 mA flowing through it, which doesn't seem like much. But then you realize that your skin has 5000 ohms of resistance, so a massive voltage drop would be needed to kill you. But that doesn't matter to you at all, you and your sticks and stones buddies can make shields and armour out of (oven dried) wood! Wood has a resistivity of 10^14-10^16 ohm-meters. Wear enough wood on your body, and all that electricity will be absorbed and will dissipate. Will your well-armed enemy be smart enough to figure out how to use projectile weapons instead? Up to you. I rate this idea unrealistic, definitely scifi, ingenious, but requiring a dumb enemy.

Ideas that don't require a direct fight:

  • Guerilla warfare: Look up the Napoleonic wars in Spain and the Viet Cong, that'll tell you a lot about what you need to know. I rate this so realistic it actually happened.
  • Infiltrate the enemy: you know you can't beat your enemy in a fight. Then why fight them? Join them! Have your people swear to protect one another and go up their chain of command and control the enemy by masquerading as their friend. Learn from the enemy and build their weapons for them - and add defects. Mess up their supply chain, poison their food so they become sick and malnourished, destroy their sewage system. I rate this Play the long game, Hail Hydra.
  • Choose your battlefield: Do NOT attack the enemy - provoke them, but let them come to you. I'm talking ambushes, traps - watch Home Alone 1 and 2 to learn more. I rate this the best movies from the 90s and early 2000s.
  • Break their spirit: If your enemy is scared of something use it on them. If not, learn to be completely sneaky and mess them up in other ways. Something I heard the British Gurkhas did in Afghanistan: kill the enemy, chop their head off. Make the dead enemy stand up (with help from a stick or something), but make it look normal. Place head back on carefully. Your enemy's friend will come looking, and will tap his/her dead comrade on the shoulder, only to see the person's head fall right off. If this doesn't scar your enemy, nothing will. I rate this realistic, but please don't do it this is messed up.

I hope this helps.

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    $\begingroup$ I love the solar idea! Perfect! $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, a new messed up trick to torment my players, I like it. Also, I may be wrong, but I think that kevlar vests alone are pretty useless against blunt trauma. If enemy is used to dealing with smaller bullets, they won't think to use much padding for dispersing force, and something like a simple sling will hurt them plenty. $\endgroup$
    – Alice
    Sep 5, 2019 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Alice yes you have a good point - kevlar is only decent at dealing with one thing (bullets) once. As you said, a sling (or something else implementing blunt force trauma) would do the trick. I'll mention it in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Sep 5, 2019 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ Solar armor assumes knowledge that the natives would not have about electricity and technology. If they don't understand it, how would they counter it? Only by experience where someone HAPPENED to bring down one of their warriors at night... but that still doesn't mean the native will associate the night with the armor, more likely they would associate the warrior is weaker at night. $\endgroup$
    – Phil M
    Sep 5, 2019 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah that's true @PhilM but I'd argue that it could potentially make the story more interesting, as this could lead to a protagonist figuring this out and telling the primitives (or it could imply that someone on the technologically superior side defected to the primitives). $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Sep 5, 2019 at 22:45

I hope this is useful for you, but the less armored people need to use the brain intead of the weaponry. I'm going to answer from my limited knowledgement of warfare.

PD: Sorry for my english.

Primitive defender vs advanced attackers

The best scenario for the "primitive people" (I'm going to call them that way, if you don't mind). Here, you need to use the environment to made defences. There are plenty of defensive tactics to use. They can make an improvised fortification like the romans used to make. The tactics points are reduce the attackers number until the others run away (that's how battles always end, when people run for they lives). Use traps, ambushes, etc.

Advanced defenders vs primitive attackers

If the defenders got "guns", like you said, well... it's gonna be hard. If they build a trench, they are defended enough to considerably reduce the attackers numbers. No single human with a healthy mind would run directly to a trench in a suicide mission for the good of the country (warfare ain't like the movies). The primitive attackers would run for they lives.

Open field battle

You would like the Battle of Farsalia: https://e.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batalla_de_Farsalia

Caesar were outnumbered by Cneo's (Cneo is also known as Pompey) forces (it's not your issue, but could help), so he "hid" some of their troops in a new line. When cavalry hit the troops, found that new soldiers were behind. They ran away, if I don't misremember. Next, Caesar troops flank Cneo forces in a "surprise" attack, making them ran and winning an important battle.

  • $\begingroup$ I suppose that "Cneo" is Cn. Pompeius Magnus, who is usually known as Pompey in English. (And I would have thought that he is usually known as Pompeo in Italian?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 4, 2019 at 20:50

Your people with primitive weapons get upgrades.

https://www.lordnelsons.com/gallery/frontier/griffing/14.htm battle of bushy run

Depicted: the Battle of Bushy Run, 1763. Here the Ottawa fight the British using rifles. How did Indians get rifles? The same way as anyone else - they bought them, or traded for them, or were given them by the enemies of the British.

The Indians in colonial America figured out rifles fast and in many places the French were happy to arm them against the English. It was not lack of fighting ability that doomed the natives.

So too your people. Once they find out about guns, they need to get some and fast. I doubt they will need much encouragement.


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