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I'm trying to figure out how necessary firearms would be in an early to mid-industrial setting. From what I've gathered, it would be a stretch to say that the technology for firearms would go undiscovered in such a setting, but I'm not sure if it is inevitable for them to dominate combat and warfare.

I say this as someone not particularly familiar with the adaptation and development of firearms throughout history, but my understanding of early firearms is that they were slow to reload, generally inaccurate at range, and were not particularly reliable in general. That comes in addition to the hazards and logistics surrounding acquiring, handling, and carrying gunpowder.

I could easily imagine bows and crossbows being preferred over firearms, even as industry and technology advances. So is there just something about firearms that would make pushing them past those original flaws inevitable, or could an industrial society rely on other weapons without it feeling forced?

If alternatives could reasonably be used, what would they be? Bows, crossbows, or something else.

(By the way, just to clarify, I am just asking about firearms not seeing use; not explosives in general and heavier weapons like cannons.)

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    $\begingroup$ I am just asking about firearms not seeing use; not explosives in general and heavier weapons like cannons.” I don’t want to be rude, but this is a little absurd. A cannon is fundamentally a really big gun, and if you know how to make explosives then making propellant to launch projectiles is an extremely straightforward proposition. $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Feb 21 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ Canon are firearms; and historically, where the first firearms to be developed. Machine guns are also firearms. As such, the question is very unclear; since the word "firearms" does not mean firearms, what does it mean? Please edit the question and replace the word "firearms" with what actually interests you -- maybe small arms? Maybe pistols? Maybe rifles? And I don't fully understand why you think that carrying infantry ammunition is somehow more complicated than carrying crossbow quarrels; crossbox quarrels are really heavy. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 21 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ Bows and crossbows have logistics problems too. Arrows must be made by a trained fletcher from specific kinds of wood. Bullets can be made by anyone with a few hours of training and a press. Bows are rendered inoperable by rain just like loose gunpowder; bows don't draw properly when wet. Cartridges don't have the problem at all. Arrows and crossbow bolts are much heavier than bullets. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Feb 21 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ What about not killing each other? $\endgroup$ – Nobody Feb 21 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP we must take the "arm" in "firearm" a bit more seriously... :) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 21 at 17:35

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Firearms generally did not have a huge superiority over bows until the 18th century, if you considered things like range, accuracy, and rate of fire...yet by that time they had long displaced them from the battlefield. For about 200 years firearms replaced bows even though, on an individual level, bows might be considered better weapons. On an individual level. Warfare is not conducted on an individual level.

Start with the basics: it takes years to master a bow and develop the strength needed to fire it. You can teach someone to operate a firearm in a few hours, days at most, and be entirely competent, even expert, in its use after a few weeks, without needing time to build up strength.

The ammunition is more convenient. In the same wagon where you might have a few hundred arrows, you could have a few thousand shot and enough gunpowder to fire them. Similarly, the soldier has a much easier time carrying their ammunition into the field, as shot and powder take up a lot less space than carrying a load of arrows. This gives you more tactical flexibility as your distance weapons are not tied as closely to your supply depot.

If you have large scale warfare, as soon as someone comes up with firearms they will be adopted, if for nothing else than to defend against the other guy who is using them.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, even though it takes a long time to load a firearm, you can bring it loaded into battle and be sure to get off one powerful shot before resorting to melee. It was not uncommon for swordsmen to wear two loaded pistols (a brace) in addition to a sabre or rapier. Fire both guns (maybe at once), then draw your sword. $\endgroup$ – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Feb 21 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ +1 The major advantage of pre-18th-century firearms over bows and arrow are the cost and time to train, someone, to use it. $\endgroup$ – jean Feb 21 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Good point on guns vs bows, but what about crossbows? $\endgroup$ – Blueriver Feb 21 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Blueriver the increased production costs of the mechanical parts of crossbows made them difficult to mass produce. This only really changed at about the same time production of guns became more accessible $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Feb 21 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @KlausÆ.Mogensen Sometimes even more than 2 pistols. For example, Black Bart was said to wear 4 pistols, and Blackbeard was known to wear 6 loaded pistols. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Feb 24 at 9:10
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Steel might not be available

The Mesoamerican cultures never developed metal weapons because of a lack of good iron sources (as well as tin for bronze). Iron for steel may be at a premium in your world, and melee weapons will still be bronze or perhaps brass.

You can make small firearms from bronze (and it has been done), but they are far heavier and more expensive than steel firearms, which would make them a rarity perhaps reserved to noblemen. Nor can I find examples of brass pistols except as decoration. Cannons are a different matter; they tended to be cast from bronze, which was less likely to shatter under pressure.

With poor iron sources, your civilization might not even have developed the techniques to make steel, and what iron there is, is considered useless (brittle and rusting).

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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn, do they, though? alspcs.com/Copper.html $\endgroup$ – cowlinator Feb 21 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @cowlinator there's a reason early civilizations moved from copper to bronze ASAP, and then moved from bronze to iron just as quickly. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 21 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn The reason was because iron was more abundant than the other metals, not because it was intrinsically iron. Which means no, industrial societies do not need iron. What they need is a metal as abundant as iron. Your comments entirely hinge upon whether this setting takes place on Earth or another world where iron is the most abundant metal, which the OP has not specified. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Feb 21 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen The OP seems to be striving for plausibility, and iron is probably the most abundant metal on any rocky planet because of its abundance in the universe and because it forms compounds that end up in a planet's crust. It's the 9th most common element and the most common metal, if you believe Forbes. $\endgroup$ – StackOverthrow Feb 21 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen you're ignoring that user560822 said "rocky planet." $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 22 at 4:29
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Girandoni air rifle

This was a great weapon for its time. The main motivation for not using gunpowder, and still get decent metalwork, can be a simple lack of gunpowder.

Making nitrates and sulfur very rare, for actual reality standards, can do the trick. You don't need it to be unknown or impossible to produce, just expensive enough to be economically unfeasible to supply it to an army.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that this critical element to this answer is the scarcity of the constituents of gunpowder. $\endgroup$ – Mathaddict Feb 21 at 18:48
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Your main problem trying to make bows/crossbows superior against muskets/rifels/pistols is that there is a simple physical limit regarding the punch and range of spring based weaponary:

A bow/crossbow needs to be drawn with muscle strenght (and with the bow you also need to hold it like that while you aim) while with a gun you simply put powder into it. Also (cross)bows get increasingly unwieldy with increased power.

In addition to that, bows do not really have an advantage over early guns in respect of accuracy, since they are much harder to aim and are more prone to get affected by wind.

And, depending on the stage of industrialization your society is in (in europe it happend roughly around 1840) you will probably have the technology more advanced explosives nitrocellulose, rifled barrels (first rifling around 1500 btw) and possibly even rear loaders. At this point, (cross)bows loose even the advantage of a higher firerate.

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    $\begingroup$ Not entirely true, you can use gearing to increase your muscle strength. You're likely to then run into the physical limits of the bow spring, though. $\endgroup$ – Hene Feb 21 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ Holding a drawn war bow while aiming isn't a thing (movies/TV where actors hold a prop bow notwithstanding), you just pull and loose in one motion. Trying to draw first and then take time to aim in a separate step would be silly with a bow with 140 lb draw weight. And as far as aiming goes, that isn't very important - massed combat at 50 yards (even smooth bore black powder weapons can hit a man-sized target at that range) isn't modern snipers shooting at each other from a mile away. Loss of power from range is likely more critical than inaccuracy of weapon. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 21 at 14:43
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I'm trying to figure out how necessary firearms would be in an early to mid-industrial setting.

That's the early 19th century.

but I'm not sure if it is inevitable for them to dominate combat and warfare.

Hard-hitting ranged weapons will dominate combat when they become technologically feasible for the same reason we picked up long stick and made them pointy, developed the sling, the bow & arrow, made pointy sticks longer and put metal tips on them, created the crossbow from the regular bow, etc, etc:

we want to hit the enemy hard and from a distance so that we are more likely to survive.

Thus, the way to not have them dominate the field is a strong socio-cultural bias towards individual mano a mano combat.

(Of course, that'll have other social consequences, like strict honor codes, clannishness and vengeance instead of rule of law. Definitely not conducive to industrialization. But you can hand wave that away for your story.)

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Polearms, Swords, and Crossbows

In a world without guns and with advanced metallurgy it only makes sense that you’d use the weapons most prominent right before guns became absolutely dominant on the battle field. This was the era of pike and crossbow, in which guns were on the rise but had not totally eclipsed cold weapons (it took the creation of the serpentine lock gradual adoption, it was not a rapid transition at all).

Pole arms are always a fine choice of melee weapons, their long reach and utility in formation is of incredible military importance, and they come in some very useful varieties that your industrial base could produce with ease. Pikes would be used for forming squares, which were the ultimate infantry formation until muskets and bayonets rendered them obsolete. Halberds would be a great choice because they have the options of cutting, stabbing and potentially smashing as well, which would be very important given that armor would be mass produced as well, and therefore everyone would have protection. Warhammers would be very useful against armor.

Swords were very expensive in the pre modern world, but if they can be mass produced with high quality steel it makes sense for them to serve as a side arm for pikemen, and also as a general self defense weapon off the battlefield. There would also be etsocs for fighting armored foes and zweihander style swords to use against pike squares.

Crossbows would be a much better choice for mass production than bows given their construction and in their ease of use. It’s relatively quick and easy to train a good crossbowman, but it takes much longer to train a good archer. I would imagine that a significant percentage of an entire army in this gun free industrial world would be crossbowmen, as you could use massive amounts of conscripts with just a few weeks training and they’d be supremely deadly

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    $\begingroup$ The Spanish Tercio (famous for its combined arms approach with 1/3 pikemen, 1/3 swordsmen, 1/3 firearms), developed from similar formations using crossbows before the arquebus. Arguably it was more a maturation of the tactics/formation that brought it to prominence rather than mass deployment of firearms, so it could have been similarly effective had firearms been delayed, but that is a tricky counter-factual to puzzle out. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 21 at 14:59
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Given your parameters, there would have to be something different from our world to have it not develop firearms, especially since you say large explosives would be OK. So, what would that be?

Possibly a lack of sulphur. If in you world sulphur was a rare element, possibly a "rare earth element", then the limited supply of this would only be used for large explosives. Yes, there could be development of sidearms and rifles, but the resulting ammunition would be so expensive that they would not really be feasible.

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    $\begingroup$ Sulphur is the tenth most common element in the universe (and fifth on Earth). It's a required element for life. If it wasn't common, you've got more issues than figuring out how common firearms might be. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 22 at 8:20
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Airsoft guns

If iron or gunpowder was hard to come by, this could be an alternative since it packs a lesser punch (so wood could be used) while having higher accuracy than bows, and less strenght requirements. All you need is a good and strong canister.

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    $\begingroup$ "Pneumatic" is the technical term. Air guns existed in our timeline and were anything but "soft". $\endgroup$ – Vladimirs Kacs Feb 21 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ The reason firearms are made of metal is the same reason why air guns are made the same way - it needs to be able to withstand the pressures high enough to proper the projectile with sufficient force. The only difference between a firearm and an air gun is that the gas is stored as a volatile solid instead of compressed in a canister. Wood cannot withstand the pressures needed to make it viable, you still need metal (or alternatively if you make something so astoundingly thick it could work for an air gun, it will work as a gunpowder cannon too). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 21 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi a pneumatic weapon's pressure load is far different from a firearm's requirements. A typical firearm's design relies on a single spike of high pressure that then expands out into the barrel, while a pneumatic can rely on a long duration lower [but constant] pressure stream. Durability and precision of machining are key factors to favour metal over wood for such devices. $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless Feb 21 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @TheLuckless There isn't any significant difference there - in both cases they have pressure quickly built in the chamber (from opening a bottle of compressed air or burning black powder) which pushes the projectile down the barrel. I'm rather struggling to imagine something which could achieve viable power through low pressure. In order to get equivalent performance, the pressure needs to be equivalent. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 21 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi the difference is between a very small chamber that produces a high pressure that begins to drop as the projectile moves down the barrel, vs having a very large pressure chamber that can feed near constant pressure against the projectile for the whole length of the barrel. Compare area under the pressure curves, not just peak pressure. [And think of long barrelled air guns firing sabot rounds.] $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless Feb 21 at 21:46
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Self-propelled projectiles

Most personal ranged weapons (guns, bows, crossbows, compressed-air weapons) fundamentally operate the same.
Within the physical confines of the weapon, a great deal of force is applied to a projectile which then flies rapidly through the air and embeds itself in something you don't like.

There are other ways to do this though.
Rockets have been a technology present in the world far far longer than firearms, the chinese famously used them as small portable artillery similar to mortars or multiple-launch rocket systems as early as the 1300s with the Hwacha and other designs

For a more modern representative of this design-approach, the Gyrojet gun is essentially a magazine-fed rocket launcher that fires self-propelled flechettes in bullet calibers. It has the interesting characteristic that it becomes more dangerous the further away the target (until it runs out of fuel and becomes ballistic), but some early manufacturing flaws meant that it never became popular.

If your civilisation is poor in iron but has no problem with gunpowder, they might well adopt rocket-propelled projectiles instead of what we consider a conventional firearm.

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Yes, there has been experimentation with steam powered guns and cannons in the past, going all the way back to Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C.

Keep in mind most of these devices were never implemented in practice due to engineering challenges, but in theory steam can be used as an alternative to gunpowder weapons.

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This is less of an alternative to gunpowder than it is a reason gunpowder isn't used as a weapon. Gunpowder and/or its components have deep religious significance, and are tightly controlled by a conservative hierarchy. The use and/or production of explosive powders is taboo outside of highly specific circumstances, and one need be thoroughly indoctrinated before one may learn the secrets of their creation. The production is ritualized, has purely spiritual steps, and may even introduce ingredients that make the explosives less effective for ritual reasons. Because of how canonized the powders are, no one is actually very familiar with their true capabilities, and those in the best position to figure them out take the official doctrine as absolute truth. Nor do they have any incentive to experiment with novel uses, especially if experimentation is forbidden. The layperson may not even be aware the powders exist, and ascribe any explosions or intense fire to divine powers. Or they are aware, but think the priesthood has special skills, knowledge, or a spiritual power to make them work. Perhaps priests could carry pouches of decoy powders that react much less spectacular than the genuine article to reinforce the belief. Such a system would eventually fall apart, but could likely survive well into industrialization before a secular scientific community reaches a level of influence sufficient to overrule the church.

Alternatively, go the Robert Jordan route. This is a society that has been knocked back to the stone age and is recovering. A group of individuals rediscovered explosives and formed a secretive society or guild around them, creating crude fireworks and refining them as an artform. They use their secrets to gain influence and wealth by putting on displays for the bourgeoisie, and an air of mystique amongst commoners. They spread misinformation about how fireworks work, exaggerate how dangerous and/or volatile their products are (or intentionally make them more dangerous and/or volatile) and artificially control the price so experimenting with them is prohibitively expensive. They might also refuse to put on displays for or sell to any benefactors of such research, or anyone who does business with them, and even (secretly) employ assassins when someone learns too much. They're bright enough to know that if anyone ever figured out the full potential of explosives, they'd lose their monopoly at the very least. At worst, they could be wiped out by rulers before they "become a threat." Those concerns give the guild a healthy distrust of any new work that even remotely resembles weapon development, and they terminally enforce a ban on any such research within their ranks.

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Magic might be involved.

This question isn't tagged "science-based", so I'm going to point out that it's entirely possible that a world with magic might develop differently to our own. There's a number of ways that the presence of magic could prevent the development of gunpowder weapons, so I'm just going to list some.

Perhaps the magic of the world prevents gunpowder from working (like how the God of Technology actively prevents it from working in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting), or they use some form of alchemy to make gunpowder-equivalents that have reduced performance (like in the Iron Kingdoms of the Warmachine game, where guns have a much shorter range than in real life). Perhaps they've got some sort of magical force fields that block high-velocity attacks but allow low-velocity attacks through, like the forcefields of the Dune series. Maybe gunpowder works the same way it does in real life, but an enemy mage can easily just lob a fireball at your powder stores and cause a giant explosion. Maybe they can easily enchant magical wands that can fire energy blasts that are superior in capabilities to early firearms, so the development of firearms never took off.

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