Fantasy writers tend to prefer forms of combat that predate guns, because they are more showy, and they involve close and long-duration combat with an identified adversary instead of shooting at distant specks and twitch-spraying bullets in close quarters. Fantasy writers also like to use settings where guns are technologically possible. This leads to a lot of fiction where for some inexplicable reason guns were never invented, and warriors duke it out with swords in train stations while taking calls on their cellphones.

If the universe has the same physics as ours but history can be changed at will, what's the latest technological era into which the total dominance of firearms over all other weapons can be delayed without abandoning rationality completely? What historical events or trends would have to be altered?

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    $\begingroup$ The fire lance was not superior to all melee weapons, so that's not a problem. Even hand cannons co-existed with pikes for a while. $\endgroup$ – Display Name Nov 21 '19 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Roger perhaps you could do a quick survey of some military or armed police, and ask if any of them would like to take a knife to a gunfight? $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 21 '19 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Well sure we can all move the goalposts wherever we want. If the OP is interested primarily in usage by police forces and/or militaries, then the question could specifiy that, but most violence around the world is not inflicted by those groups. In my humble opinion, the good old Mark I Fist is still very popular. $\endgroup$ – Roger Nov 21 '19 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ I personally treated a cop who nearly permanently lost the use of his arm due to being stabbed in the shoulder by a knife in what should have been a gunfight: at close quarters his weapon misfired. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 21 '19 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison sure, these things happen. Nonetheless, huge numbers of police and infantry still use guns, because their sporadic failures are so vastly, utterly, completely outnumbered by all their successes, across the world, for hundreds of years. I'm not quite sure how this has ended up being somehow surprising or controversial. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 22 '19 at 10:35

What historical events or trends would have to be altered?

It is hard to point at a single instant in time and say that yes, that was the turning point, but by way of an example I'd look to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman army used some exceptionally large cannon that took hundreds of men to manoeuver and operate, and (to grossly oversimplify) used them to wreck the defenses of a walled city, end the Roman empire and wrap up the european middle ages (depending on who you ask). It would have been quite unambiguous for all involved that when those cannon brought the walls down that the world was changing and that gunpowder was the future of warfare. They were behind the curve, though.

The cannon that they used were already the products of a long tradition of gunpowder warfare. Fire-arrows had been about for hundreds of years, and had evolved into the precursors of rocket artillery. Gunpowder hand grenades, the precursors to more substantial bombs and explosive shells, were similarly old. Cannon had been developed some 200 years previously, and had been steadily improving and spreading during that time.

Basically, you'd need some kind of apocalyptically devastating event to occur in China about a thousand years ago to slow all that down... plague, or meteorite strike might have done the job but really, the genie was already out of the bottle by then. By the time Constantinople fell it would have been far, far too late.

To slightly misquote William Gibson, the future was already there. It just hadn't been widely distributed yet.

instead of shooting at distant specks and twitch-spraying bullets in close quarters

Do note that it took hundreds of years of scientific and technological development to develop guns capable of that sort of thing. Troops armed with mêlée weapons were still found on battlefields for hundreds of years... spanish tercios were still useful units in the mid 17th century, some 200 years later, and cavalry armed with lances and sabres were still fielded in the 19th century to occasional good effect.

That's the best part of 400 years of sword-wielding heroes (or villains) and knights in shining armour across Europe. If you can't make a good story out of that, it seems like maybe you're just not trying!

Fantasy writers tend to prefer forms of combat that predate guns, because they are more showy, and they involve close and long-duration combat with an identified adversary

Its because they like lazy stereotypes. That's ok, because the readers like them too. The advent of gunpowder siege weaponry rather ruins castles and walled cities, and everyone likes a good fortification, but everything else associated with those well-worn fantasy tropes would have carried on working just fine for a long, long time before it became unambiguously foolish to go to war without firearms.


Before the early 1800s, pretty much every discovery in the field of Chemistry was a mistake or total trial and error. If the Chinese didn't screw up some life-lengthening elixir experiments around 850 AD, then they would have never invented gunpowder, and we may not have had guns for quite some time. It is important to note that Gunpowder was not one of those inventions that was accidentally discovered in more than one place. This suggests it really was much more of a fluke than an inevitability.

However, between about 1600-1800, experimentation led to the discovery of nearly 50 elements at which point the scientific community started having enough data to predict the properties of yet undiscovered elements and chemical compounds giving birth to what we think of as modern chemistry. While it is unlikely that no explosive chemicals capable of firing a bullet would have been discovered by 1800, it would have been impossible for scientists to not be able to predict what they would need to make an aqidate low-yield explosive to get the job done once they reached this point.

Since the world was already industrialized by 1800, it would not have taken very long at all to get from no guns to them being the dominant weapon.

  • $\begingroup$ true that, but this 400 yrs delay will also allow cold weapons (sword, crossbow) and armor 4 centuries more to develop.. also, the industrialization process was fueled by colonization in Asia, America and Africa.. without gun, this process may take longer to complete. $\endgroup$ – Thỏ Già Nov 22 '19 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ThỏGià Maybe, maybe not... guns made Europeans really good at killing other European armies, but knights in plate mail and archers in gambeson would have arguably been even more efficient at killing the stone aged armies of America and Africa than their muskets were. In Asia, European canons were no better than China's. Europe occupied them through better military organization and politics, not better technology. Take cannons away from both sides, and I don't think the conflict is not any more asymmetric than it started. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Nov 22 '19 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ Afaik the theory now is that gunpowder was actually dicovered by Arabic and European Alchemist independently. $\endgroup$ – Sebastian Nov 22 '19 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Sebastian. While I am aware of that theory, there are many chemical explosives that a society could have invent as their first explosive. The idea that 3 seperate civilizations would just so happen to come across more or less the same compound before discovering any of the others without any cultural exchange is rather unlikely IMO. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Nov 22 '19 at 21:21

I think the biggest thing that would have to be altered is the amount of war and the scale of the conflicts that occur. It's hard to say for curtain obviously but I don't think it's particularly unreasonable to assume guns didn't become a mainstream weapon in a world that's at even our current level of advancement. Guns didn't become widely used as a "main" weapon as they are today until around 1835 when the colt revolver came to be. It was the first gun that used the ideas of the industrial revolution mixed with weaponry. I personally think the biggest issue becomes the amount of conflict. If your world is for example run by one giant government or has some way that large scale conflict have been prevent it's possible no one would of invented it. The problem really becomes less about if guns are used but if they aren't how did other tech come around since a huge amount of tech we use was researched using war money. Hope that helps!

  • $\begingroup$ Before you can get guns, you need to get gunpowder. How long can you prevent its discovery (since any alchemist can discover it accidentally when experimenting with charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur)? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Zeitlin Nov 21 '19 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ But I mean the way I see that is someone can discover gun powder but that doesn't have lead to guns right away. I mean the first "gun" was around 1364 but it took until the 18th century to make them feasible. Often time things aren't used as weapons right away. But your right I think it depends on the scope or guns as a weapon. If you include an old school musket or flintlock then it's going to be much less advanced of a society when guns get invented. I think it also depends on what they mean by guns being invented because I don't realllly consider a super oldschool musket a gun. $\endgroup$ – AsleepCoffee Nov 21 '19 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ True, gunpowder doesn't imply immediate guns; in addition to having gunpowder, you need to discover that it can be used as a propulsive, which isn't immediate. But if you delay the discovery of gunpowder, you'll put off the invention of guns to use it... $\endgroup$ – Jeff Zeitlin Nov 21 '19 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Also, just as a popular note, the novel "The Three Musketeers" was set in the period 1625-1628. All the adaptations tend to focus on the swordplay, but, well, it's right there in the name. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 21 '19 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AsleepCoffee, why are you only thinking about combat? Anyone who hunted took to guns like ducks to water. They were, in fact, among the primary trade goods offered by European traders, and quickly became considered a necessary survival tool. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 21 '19 at 16:12

A bit drastic but one way to achieve this would be to limit the supply of metals. If the physical circumstances of Earths formation had been different and there were no (or very few) concentrated sources of metal ores near the surface in inhabited areas then reliable guns would not have been developed because there would have been no reliable way to constrain the hot gasses required to propel a bullet.

This would still leave bows and arrows, slings and stones, clubs and non-metal swords like the ancient Maya used (Macuahuitl), spears, axes and maces using flint edges and stone throwing engines.

It might even allow nobles to have metal swords made out of some highly expensive and exotic material like iron or nickel or (name your metal available in very small quantities at huge cost).

  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't really take much metal to make some quite effective firearms like the arquebus (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arquebus). Not much more metal than a big sword, I guess. To cripple firearm development by metal scarcity, you'd pretty much need to push the society back into the stone age: Any serious metal tool would be unaffordable, along with any serious swords. You might get away with a small dagger, but that one metal tool would be the only good knife in the household... $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 22 '19 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ If the metals needed to create firearms are vastly more expensive to produce (10-100x ) then it is unlikely anyone would invest time and money in developing and building gun barrels. If metals were not readily available the Stone Age could be stretched well beyond hunter-gather style societies into something far more sophisticated. Best think of the ancient Maya as an example, but add beasts of burden, Which would have made a huge difference to the Maya. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 23 '19 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Those metals are the same steel as you use to make your swords... Firearms have less demand on the metal you use than swords: Any thick enough barrel can withstand the explosion of some black powder. Like the bronze used in canons. I don't think bronze has ever been used for swords, it's too weak and brittle compared to its weight. Any metal that you can make into swords can serve in a firearm as well. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 23 '19 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ One of the reasons we have guns is because we use so much metal for so many things. At some point someone started experimenting with the idea of using a barrel to contain an explosion. But with so little metal who is going to do that? Metals would be very valuable and not something to be played around with. And if one or two metal swords cause a problem make metals so scarce that there are none. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 23 '19 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ You cannot stop people from experimenting with metal by making it scarce: If the experiment goes wrong, the entire thing can just be molten in again, allowing you to reuse the metal. All you'd achieve would be that the people who need to saw and file the metal will be extra careful to collect the saw/file dust, but that's about it. Once you have enough metal for a sword, you can take your sword, rework it into a small barrel for an experiment, blow it up, collect the debris, and work it back into a sword. There will always be someone who does the experiments. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 23 '19 at 9:45

I think an important aspect to bear in mind is that the integration of firearms or weapons using gunpowder in general was a very progressive process regardless of the considered nation or army, and coexisted with traditional weapons for a long time.

Early handheld gunpowder weapons, such as arquebuses and muskets, while having clear advantages also had very distinct drawbacks, so that bows and crossbows stayed very much relevant right until the beginning of the 17th century, and even after that point "only" about 40/50 percent of infantrymen in a given army were fielding firearms at most.

That means that instead of a sudden turning point after which all armies werer using muskets, there is a significant overlap in the use of firearms as well as more traditional weapons in the military which lasted for several centuries. Moreover, for much of that overlap firearms were in the clear minority compared to blades until they eventually became efficient enough.

Finally, one must bear in mind that certain "isolated" civilizations, such as the Azteks or Inca empires, came very late in contact with gunpowder when they were discovered and subsequently conquered by the Spanish.

So to sum up, just because your fictional world is set in a time-period where firearms would have already been invented does not necessarily mean that they are very common let alone the prevalent weapons of war. You could limit the use of this technology to only a few soldiers, or even set your narrative in an isolated country which has simply not had the chance to come in contact with the technology at all.

Finally (and that would also have some historical accuracy to it), you could prejudice the concept and use of firearms by imagining that the knights or nobility in general would look down upon such lowly, "easy" to use weapons, just like they did with crossbows. As such, firearms could be a rarity amongst the fighting elite or left up to dishonorable mercenaries or marauders.

  • $\begingroup$ Regarding your last paragraph, it was basically true... like the crossbow, early gunpowder weapons were relatively straightfoward to use, compared to things like regular bows, and so you could arm you cheapest, least well trained soldiers with them. No need to give your best troops such things, at least until all your best troops get slaughtered by sustained musket and cannon fire, anyway. See the armament of ashigaru with matchlocks for an example. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 22 '19 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ The development of firearms is basically these stages: 1) Gunpowder that allowed simple bombs, canons and imprecise small weapons, 2) non-round bullets which increased precision, 3) cartridged ammunition that allowed for fast loading, 4) automatic handling of ammunition (revolver & Gatling guns), 5) full automisation of the reloading & recocking process in (semi-)automatic weapons. Each of these steps was crucial to provide firearms with the advantage they have on the battlefield today. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 22 '19 at 22:21

If you want something to be possible for humans to discover, but for them not to do so, you have to make it expensive and of limited utility. Most importantly of all, you absolutely must ensure that it's not a convenient way for humans to exercise power/dominance over each other, because humans really like inventions that do that.

Unfortunately, the development of firearms was driven precisely because they were more convenient ways for humans to kill each other than prior technology: safer than melee weapons, less physically demanding than bows and slings, and requiring less skill and training than either. Mass use of personal firearms in warfare wasn't driven by guns being more effective or lethal than longbows (they weren't, at first, as several comments have mentioned); it was driven by being able to raise an army of reasonably lethal soldiers much faster and more easily than before.

So if you want to delay the introduction of firearms, make them harder to use, and the alternatives easier. Counterintuitively, I'd suggest it would be helpful for the ancients to discover a more powerful explosive than gunpowder first, before metallurgy had developed enough to allow creating cannon and musket barrels that could contain it. 13th century (al)chemists would probably have been able to meander their way through inorganic chemistry to discover nitroglycerin, and its properties are interesting enough that people could have tried to work with it (it's safe if stored in solid form below 13°C and that might lead to some interesting warfare conundrums like firearms "freezing up" in cold weather), but they'd have really struggled to harness its explosive force to propel a projectile.

On the flip side, making non-firearm ranged weapons more convenient to retain could be encouraged with some tweaks to technology. The early discovery of carbon fibre and compositing techniques would be very helpful for improving the range, lightness and durability of longbows without being much help to the blacksmiths over in the other workshop tearing their hair out over the latest buckled cannon barrel. A slight twist on the gender norms of warfare to include women in armies in a "men fight hand-to-hand, women fight ranged" would ensure a large, stable body of ranged soldiers whose presence was not questioned, but standard historical sexism would mean there was less drive to innovate and improve their weaponry.

Between various small factors like these, you can probably justify the absence of personal firearms well into the 19th century, maybe even into the 20th. You need to provide an obvious alternative tech tree, though; the obviously flawed worlds are the ones where we're supposed to imagine that human beings just never saw the value in having a long-distance way of killing each other. Saying that they conduct warfare by launching high explosive shells at each other with catapults, however, requires quite a lot less suspension of disbelief.

  • $\begingroup$ Just to add to this, there's the old line that to have a trained archer, you needed to start with his father or grandfather. It can take, at best, months of intense practice before you can teach someone the skills to be a combat archer, and even longer to develop the physical capability. You can train someone to load and shoot a weapon in a few hours, and be reasonable proficient at hitting a target at distance in a few days. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 21 '19 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ I somehow like the carbon fiber idea. However, it would only make bows lighter and/or smaller, but not more powerful: The power of a bow is limited by the energy a human can expend while pulling the string back, and still be able to aim. You cannot increase the travel distance beyond what his/her arm allows, and you cannot increase the tension beyond what he/she can pull and hold. You can make the arrows thinner, lighter, and thus faster, but the total available energy is pretty much fixed to what the English longbow could deliver. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 22 '19 at 22:32

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