What sort of event would make swords the safest bet for a fight? In most post-apocalyptic scenarios, you would never be sure that your opponent didn't have a gun, no matter how rare ammo is. That means that both sides naturally would escalate to guns. Also, I am looking for something that could actually happen. That means you can't just say "Gunpowder doesn't work anymore" or have some magic that means ballistics don't work anymore and you can't aim. Ideally it would be a new technology which rendered guns moot but made swords effective again.

EDIT: I just remembered of one solution: in the Dune series by Frank Herbert there exists a body-armor force field which stops high-velocity objects like bullets, but not low-velocity ones like coffee cups, desks, etc, so you don't push everything away from you while you walk around though. However, this still has drawbacks: swords move pretty quickly, especially if they want to be effective. It doesn't seem unreasonable that the speed could be set to something in between speeds reached in daily life and melee weapons. Any better ideas?

  • $\begingroup$ How science-fantasy-y are you prepared to go? Energy shields are the easiest bit of handwavium... additionally, is the sword the important bit, or might other melee weapons be acceptable? $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ I would prefer it to be as little hand-wavium as possible. Definitely no magic, and as little unobtainium as possible. $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ If you don't want science fantasy, then the answer is basically "no". Projectile weapons (especially ones with warheads) already exceed the ability of any reasonable armour to protect against. You're going to need to handwave in some kind of gun control or energy shield (or super armour). $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ (also as regards the dune shields, penetrating the shield had to be done with a controlled and deliberate strike, not fast lunging or swinging, and in the books large knives were preferred to swords. melee combat with those shields is quite different from combat with similar weapons in the real world) $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Stargate SG1 already defeated your edit using a bow and arrow and a throwing knife. SG1 covers a lot of Sci-Fi ground and is probably required viewing. $\endgroup$
    – Trevor
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:40

4 Answers 4


A leftover police system combining real-world ShotSpotter(TM) with a swarm of armed drones which locate and kill anybody using a firearm. They also use radar to detect supressed weapons and other projectiles (like bows). The system is self-repairing, uses solar and wind for energy, and has service drones to harvest scrap metal and plastics and other raw materials it needs.

Swords are useless against armor, so you need to cancel that too. Maybe the police drones do not allow armor either. They use infrared vision to detect living things, and then radar to detect if they are armored. Any unauthorized armor user is incapacitated, and armor is harvested for metals to repair the drones.

The system does not care about swords or other melee weapons b/c they were not a concern when system was developed, and b/c it is much harder to tell a sword from a legitimate tool like saw or scythe.

EDIT: Swords vs. melee weapons in general. Sword is the ultimate weapon, as it allows many different attacks:
- It can hack like an axe
- Stab/thrust like with spear
- Cut/slice like with a knife
But swords require a lot more skill to make and use. So only a rich man can afford a decent sword, and only a nobleman will have time to train in its use.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Swords are far from useless against armor -- they're just less effective against the armored parts of an opponent. They continued in wide military use through the age of armor, and even for a couple centuries after guns made most armor obsolete (too heavy for the little protection it offered from bullets). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon they were certainly poor against armour... techniques like half-swording are basically hacks to get around the fundamental flaws in the system. Specialist hammers, maces and polearms are the way to dispatch armour-users. $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ My (limited) knowledge of history suggests that sword was more of a sidearm, i.e. a weapon of last resort, a status symbol, or a tool for dealing with unarmored rabble.Primary weapon vs. armored knights was spear when on horseback, and maul when dismounted. Swords are also good for showing off, e.g. in structured duels or sport-like fights. $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yet as late as the Napoleonic wars, swords were regularly used in battle -- at least until bayonets that didn't prevent firing your musket were introduced (early 19th century). With a gun that took longer to reload than it did for a nearby opponent to close to hand-to-hand range, there came a point where you had to either retreat, or draw your saber. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 16:56

Three suggestions:

1. It's the ultra-far-future and nothing is disposable. Millions of years in the future, we can't afford to burn up chemicals and throw away metal by firing a bullet. Even one bullet fired per person per year (say, during deer hunting season) over millions of years depletes those resources profoundly. A sword is incredibly expensive in this scenario (because metal is rare) but can be re-used for centuries by generations of the same family. (This is somewhat inspired by The Gunslinger which is set in a decaying universe depleted of every manufactured thing, where even scraps of paper are scavenged and re-used until they disintegrate.)

2. On ultra-long time spans, nothing else lasts as long. Maybe your sci-fi scenario has people routinely going into cryo-suspension for centuries or millennia at a time, either on eons-long starship journeys or in subterranean vaults waiting out ice ages. Sensibly, such a sleeper wants to have weapons and tools there when he wakes up. But gunpowder, electronics, leather, etc., aren't expected to last that long. A trusty sword becomes the weapon of choice. (Somewhat inspired by Count To A Trillion and its sequels which play out over a very extended time span.)

3. In sensitive environments, stray bullets or lasers can kill everyone. The obvious scenario here is in a spaceship or space station. One stray rifle bullet may puncture the hull and kill both sides of the fight. So for boarding actions, revolutions, etc., people necessarily limit themselves to weapons that don't have those side effects.


Societal collapse, loss of knowledge

Swords are simple, easy to use and easy to comprehend.

Guns require a certain degree of metallurgy, chemistry knowledge, mining knowledge and capability, and precision manufacturing. Bullets also need consistent manufacturing.

More importantly, guns require knowledge, both in how to make them and how to make the things that make them.

The easiest answer to your question is simply that society has collapsed. Education no longer is possible, knowledge of the above skills is not passed on to the next generation.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Swords are not simple. They're hard to make, requiring a decent amount of skill and practise and some specialist equipment. They're also not exactly commonplace. Furthermore they're not easy to use; they're easy to wave around, but so is a stick. Clubs and axes would be far more straightfoward post-apocalypse weapons, no less effective in the hands of a random person and much easier to make an maintain. And they can do other useful things too. $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Swords are not, however, simple to make. Not ones that work well and last, anyway. A sword maker needs to be educated, if not necessarily in numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime I suppose I meant to say 'Swords are simpler' - apologies. You're right about clubs and axes, I think they'll be heaps of those too. $\endgroup$
    – flox
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon Yes that's true. Maybe society has devolved to a point where swinging a sword is more 'accessible', 'educatable', or easier to make from start 'from scratch' especially if society effectively collapses. Certainly expert swords makers would have advantages over non-expert ones. $\endgroup$
    – flox
    Nov 5, 2019 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ If I were starting from scratch, I'd have a stone knife or nearest equivalent, followed closely by a bow or atl-atl (depending what materials were available). I wouldn't even bother to try to make a sword -- and I'm a pretty smart guy who knows a good bit about history of technology. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 17:03

Your question has two facets:

1) How to make guns, which are currently the dominant weapon of choice for most reasonably realistic scenarios, useless.

2) How to make swords, which are not a good weapon of choice even in the absence of guns, useful.

Let's tackle the first part. If you don't want to stretch imagination too far or introduce "weird physics", you have already suggested a reasonable answer already: scarcity of ammo.

If the engineering knowledge and manufacturing capability to mass produce ammunition is lost (such as in a post-apocalypse scenario), then the amount of bullets that can be fired in the world is finite. Depending on the type of apocalypse, it is likely that a sizeable portion of this stock will have been consumed already. So while you're left with still a sizeable stock, you are fully aware that the moment you run out, you're just a guy with a weird-shaped club in a world where everyone remembers how you used to bully them around with your gun. That way your gun becomes akin to what nuclear weaponry is today - a deterrent that can be effective only as long as you don't use it (or at least not wastefully use it).

You can also add in an external non-human danger, such as mutant beasts or whatever, that cannot be defeated by any other means except shooting it to death, and you have a reasonable further deterrent to wasting ammo against humans. In the end, if you have your story take place long enough after the apocalypse, you can simply state that they've run out of ammo and be done with it.

Now onto the second part. You figured out why your people don't use guns (at least not often, and not usually against each other). But why swords? Swords are not and were never the most practical type of weapon, no matter how cool they looked. Simple bows and crossbows are much more advantageous as a primary weapon in most situations because you can simply kill your enemy from afar, before they can close in on you, sometimes before they can even see you. Additionally even in a post-apocalyptic world they are not hard at all to manufacture and practice. But even if you need melee weapons (let's say that your story involves a lot of combat inside buildings, narrow corridors etc), a sword is not the ideal weapon of choice. A much better melee weapon would be a short spear, or you can go with an ax or hatchet that also doubles as a useful tool for hacking stuff out of the way (so you don't have to burden yourself with carrying more things). If we're talking about really narrow spaces, then even a sword becomes unwieldy, and you'd do much better with just wrapping metal around your knuckles and smashing your opponent's head in. Furthermore, even if you were really set on using swords, the problem becomes how to manufacture them. Without a dedicated blacksmith, you'd have trouble even making a proper sword, at least an effective one. They are far more "expensive" than spears or axes because they use a lot more metal, and therefore also harder to maintain, repair and replace if broken.

So... what do you have left? For me, there is only one "realistic" answer here. For whatever reason, after the apocalypse, there were a lot of swords lying around everywhere. People could just wander around a city for a few minutes and pick one up. Why? Maybe they were some shiny new thing developed to fight whatever caused the apocalypse. Maybe they were just in-fashion. Maybe your story takes place in a relatively small corner of the world, where a massive-scale fencing tournament was taking place. But for whatever reason, there is a sheer availability of swords. Everyone gets a sword and learns how to use it because they are just lying there, so it's much simpler than going to the trouble of making a new, more effective weapon (also the quality of the stuff is pre-apocalypse, so fairly good). As the weeks become months become years become decades, the use of swords becomes almost second nature to the survivors - at this point whatever society they rebuilt has become so effective in swordsmanship that swords are, actually, a pretty effective weapon in their hands, with the few remaining guns and precious stacks of ammo only found in the hands of leaders and tyrants.

Then, you can make an interesting plot point that some faction or other decides to experiment with weaponry (bows, spears etc) and finds themselves in an advantage, and the swordsmen who have been used all this time to sword-vs-sword battles have to adapt, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Aha, I have an idea. Someone unleashed a nanotech replicator which eats metals and produces swords. Destroys planes, boats, cars, generators, power distribution networks, electronic circtuitry, leaves a pointy arsenal behind. There's a suitable apocalypse for you! $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2019 at 16:31

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .