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I'm developing a world in which everything needed to create gunpowder (sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate) along with other chemicals, are all infused with chaotic, unstable magic. Weapons which rely on these substances are considered too dangerous to use in war, since magic creates unpredictable effects- the weapon can explode, the projectile might reverse course, or the target's wound will appear on the shooter's body instead. It's a soft magic system in that the precise rules for what determines these outcomes are seemingly left to chance.

So far I've guessed that

  • Guns might not have developed beyond early firearms
  • They would only be used by "suicidal cults" or anyone who doesn't care about dying.
  • They might be used in cases like witch dunking where a person's guilt is determined by whether they survive the ordeal. (If the holder is killed by their gun, they were deemed guilty.)

Are these realistic outcomes? Is it likely that firearms would be abandoned altogether, in favor of more reliable weapons like swords?

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 8 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ And of course, the seemingly suicidal cultists are rumored to be able to bend the chaos to their whims- firing a ceremonial pistol in their mountain stronghold and causing a hostile head of state to catch the ephemeral bullet hole a thousand miles away... $\endgroup$ – Roope Jul 8 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ One-shot duels? $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 8 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ If the only issue were a 50% chance of backfiring, I'd guess that they'd probably just mount the guns such that the person firing it is standing beside it instead of behind it. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 8 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ As the lethality of a gun is generally far below 100%, this makes a gun much more dangerous to the person holding it than the person at the other end. Interesting world. $\endgroup$ – UrQuan3 Jul 8 at 18:59

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Springs

All you're doing is writing off one mechanism of stored mechanical energy - gunpowder. That doesn't make swords the default, that makes people look harder for other means of flinging things accurately through the air. Repeating crossbows for example, or simply refinements of the standard crossbow.

Do the properties of gunpowder hold true if it's not being used for propulsion? If not, then the PIAT would also work just fine to deliver an explosive into the midst of an enemy formation.

Guns v. swords is a false dichotomy, it's "guns vs. other effective ranged weapons".

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    $\begingroup$ Air rifles would be the logical step after crossbows. They have actually been used in combat. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girardoni_air_rifle $\endgroup$ – Harabeck Jul 7 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ We should never underestimate the inventiveness of humans... always searching for new and creative ways to kill each other. $\endgroup$ – creative-username Jul 7 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ The PIAT is basically a real-life Fat Man $\endgroup$ – MikeTheLiar Jul 8 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeTheLiar - yup, but non-nuclear, obviously, and thus far more survivable. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 8 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ Ordinarily, I'd agree with you, @MadPhysicist, but it's easily possible to make a magic system that is intelligent and actively hostile to attempts to codify it. Assuming the writer doesn't want it to be something that can be figured out, it can be made literally impossible to research. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 10 at 1:24
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Booby traps.

If half the time the guns wound the person they are aimed at, and half the time they wound the person firing them, then make it so the person they are aimed at is the one setting them off.

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    $\begingroup$ Cleverest answer here IMHO $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Jul 8 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is pure genius. $\endgroup$ – laancelot Jul 8 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ How do you propose we put the same person at both ends of the gun simultaneously? Or, if the gun magically knows who pulls the trigger, wouldn't it also magically know who set the trap? $\endgroup$ – Fax Jul 8 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Update: they were known as "spring guns" or sometimes "cemetery guns". royalarmouries.org/stories/our-collection/cemetery-guns $\endgroup$ – Paul Johnson Jul 9 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn: s/detonate/deflagrate $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Jul 9 at 17:36
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If powder ignition is strictly 50% mundane effects and 50% "bad" magical effects you can use this phenomena to create a true random number generator.

It's a physical phenomena that might be superior to observing things like radioactive decay if you build the right equipment for it.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel like sacrificing 1 person per 2 random bits (assuming my math is correct) is not really much better than flipping a coin or observing things like radioactive decay. $\endgroup$ – my pronoun is monicareinstate Jul 8 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ @mypronounismonicareinstate I'm assuming the process is based only on the powder and doesn't actually require a gun since that's what's suggested in the OP. I'm also assuming the process scales linearly so you can just inject a small amount of powder into a combustion chamber before triggering it to negligible effect no matter what happens. $\endgroup$ – Teleka Jul 9 at 1:35
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Answer: Paperweights.

If every firearm ever invented is likely to 'backfire' 50% of the time when used and thereby endanger the user no-one will touch them. No matter how sophisticated or elaborate the design the user would be better off equipped with a cross bow or a long bow or even a sling.

Its another story however with Grenades and or Rockets. Both are 'single use' weapons only so it doesn't matter nearly as much if they are likely to fail. One you throw the other you light the fuse and run. If it works great if not? the user is out of 'boom' range.

Interestingly if your world has developed stream power then you have the option of:

Steam powered cannons! Which were a real thing - you can look them up. Not withstanding the fact you will have to take some liberties with how effective they were - unless you allow for some limited degree of 'steam punk' type mechanical engineering.

If its only gunpowder that 'magic" impacts the other alternative is to look up other types of volatile chemical reactions that would have been discoverable in the Middle Ages e.g something involving phosphorus for instance. Talk to a chemist about what combos might have worked in primitive firearms if not modern ones. (P.S. In light of recent world history explain carefully why it is you are asking.)

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    $\begingroup$ 'stream power' = waterwheels? (can't do a 1 character edit) $\endgroup$ – Pete Kirkham Jul 7 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ "Grenades" is the correct response $\endgroup$ – Cireo Jul 7 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ Also: Don’t forget how horrific steam inflicted injuries can be. High pressure steam will simultaneously melt and flay your flesh from your bones if handled incorrectly! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 8 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Why is the answer called paperweights? Does this word have a second meaning beyond what the Wikipedia page lists? $\endgroup$ – Vincent Jul 8 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Vincent A paperweight is a facetious way of referring to a useless object. A paperweight can be anything with mass that sits there. Useless objects that have no purpose are only good for use as paperweights since they are no good for anything else. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 8 at 13:39
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Use them anyway

Guns have become ubiquitous because they are powerful. They are significantly better than other alternatives, which is why they have dominated warfare for hundreds of years. These weapons are too invaluable to be discarded. States, extremist groups, and those in an inescapable bind would use these to horrific effect.

If guns had a 50/50 chance to kill you or the target, then they would be used by low-value users to kill high-value targets:

  • You could send a dozen peasant gunmen to assassinate an enemy general.
  • You could send a group of slaves to attack enemy elite infantry.
  • You could send people on suicide missions and have them keep firing until they can't anymore.
  • Build really big multi-barreled guns that cause so much death and destruction that losing 1 gunman is considered an "acceptable" sacrifice.

They would also be used in situations where not using them is a worse choice:

  • They could be used as a last resort when a position would be overrun or the defends were likely to fail and die.
  • You could use them for self-defense against someone who would otherwise kill you - in this world perhaps it's taken as a sign of cowardice if a high ranking individual doesn't fire their firearm and is instead killed or captured.

Firearm development would continue, with states and rich companies using people they deem not important to test. Be that prisoners of war, inmates, terminally ill people, or just those unlucky enough to sign up for a job.

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    $\begingroup$ For the most part, it's not necessarily "better", but "easier". Any idiot can pick up a gun and use it, but a bow (or even a crossbow) requires more skill and practice. A bow can be as dangerous as a pistol or revolver (the revolver will get the first 6 shots off faster, but the bow will catch up while you're reloading) - modern guns have a higher rate of fire, and reload more easily, but if they have a 50% chance of backfiring then you're probably still stuck with muskets, because who the hell wants to work on the R&D? $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 7 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal A musket imparts 30 to 40 times the energy as a medieval longbow (which themselves impart more energy than crossbows). Being easy to use is also a huge boon, but even if they were harder to use they would be better (which is the reason why longbows were used whenever they could be, rather than crossbows). No one wants to work in R&D, but prisoners of war, inmates, etc wouldn't have a choice. Fire the gun and you may live another day. Some gamblers will win. $\endgroup$ – gszavae Jul 7 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ I believe this answer is very silly. No-one considers themselves a "low value user" and have any of these people ever practised? (They probably have a 50% chance of killing themselves and a >1% chance of getting their target). If you just had a crossbow your chances of success would go up, because (1) you might know how to aim it and (2) you can make a second or third try. (They probably don't even carry a second musketball). I think it is much more likely they would invent a pressure/elastic/electric or steam powered gun-like tool: anything to avoid the cursed gunpowder. $\endgroup$ – Dast Jul 7 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Dast Silly as you may think it is, human experiments happen, suicide bombers are real, people fight knowing they will die, slaves were historically used in armies, there are near endless examples of people dying to kill someone else. There is enough precedence in real life for me to confidently say that it would happen. $\endgroup$ – gszavae Jul 8 at 2:07
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VOLLEY GUNS:

Why would you use a gun that kills the person standing behind it as often as in front? Why, obviously don't stand behind it. Put your guns on carts, fired en mass at the enemy. Have the fuse or lanyard be somewhere OTHER than behind the guns. Weapons like this were being built around the time of the Civil war, and used to defend narrow places like bridges from advancing troops. Crossbow and bow-armed defenders plink off the slow, armored guys who try to cross a few at a time, and if a bunch of guys charge, them BLAM. It was the machine gun of the day, and would be more effective against troops who didn't have similar guns pointed at you.

Similar weapons weren't used in open field battles because regular guns did that job better. In your world, these weapons would take the place of massed archers, at least for close range fighting.

Personal versions of these weapons did and could exist. Why? because using one meant you would be showing a willingness to die to kill an enemy. They weren't exactly safe back then anyway. At six barrels, you and your opponent would be almost guaranteed to both die. As a defense, what's better than mutually assured destruction? An unskilled fighter would be immediately on par with an expert swordsman.

enter image description here enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Except at least as far as the OP has put it, it's not "mutually assured destruction". "The target's wound could appear on the shooter's body instead" means that you could fire the thing... and still only you would die, some substantial percentage of the time. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 6 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @jdunlop figuring a dozen chances to hit your enemy, as long as 1-2 work as expected. Guns were described as the great equalizer. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Jul 6 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think magic would get around your first point (if not, great point), but this is an excellent argument; "An unskilled fighter would be immediately on par with an expert swordsman." - that's an incredible reason for firearms to remain valuable. As a self-defense weapon, they are still powerful. When the choice is "get stabbed by a swordsman or roll the dice with a firearm", you can guess which one most people would take. $\endgroup$ – gszavae Jul 7 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ I like this. Shooting all 8 rounds simultaneously will yield 4 dead enemies but only 1 dead soldier on your side (shot himself 4 times, but you can only die once). Sure, telling someone to man the gun is essentially giving him a suicide order, but it wouldn't be the first time we did that to soldiers. And a 4:1 kill:death ratio isn't bad in war. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Aubrey Jul 7 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking that the magic works like this: you don't have to have the finger on the trigger, but if you are connected somehow to causing the trigger to fire then the magic will find you, and you have a chance of getting wounded. $\endgroup$ – magnetar Jul 8 at 9:56
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Trial by combat

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_by_combat

In a trial by combat, adversaries would settle their cases with a trial by combat. This method was used in the past in Europe. (note, it's apparently an exclusively germanic thing; the related trial by ordeal is much more widespread, but the combat between parties is exclusively germanic).

A trial by combat was essentially a legally sanctioned duel; the idea was that the gods gave victory to the innocent party (or possibly God, but it's really a pre-christian tribal thing). It was allowed where there was no clear evidence, and only for serious cases (Tallhoffer listed murder, rape, treason, etc). Steps were taken to level the playing field between combatants; e.g. there's a specific set up for a domestic case, to handicap the man – the man was put in a hole, with one hand tied behind his back.

The accusing party would shoot at the defendant, and the survivor would be judged right in their case – the 'magic' would judge between them.

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And if all other plans fail, why not sacrifice yourself for the cause? Your life for his. Before Altair, that was the Levantine approach.

That is my favorite quote from Assassin's Creed Unity. And it makes sense historically: the real world assassins are mostly known in the west because of their branch that specialized in conflict. They were called the fedayeen, which according to Wikipedia is:

a term used to refer to various military groups willing to sacrifice themselves for a larger campaign.

A common modus operandi was to approach a target during a Friday prayer and stab them to death. The people around the target would mostly then lynch the assassin on the spot, but the deed was done and could not be undone, so for the assassins it was a success anyway.

Your magical fedayeen could hug a victim and shoot. They both die spectacularly and a mission is accomplished.

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    $\begingroup$ But why would there be gunsmiths for such fantastically dangerous weapons, when a simple bomb or knife would do? $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 6 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop right tool for the right amount of spectacular you need. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 6 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose, but in that case a bomb would still work fine. With this magical gunpowder, your supposed fedayeen could hug the person, shoot... and then collapse, a hole opening in their own abdomen, their target unharmed. Going to the trouble of even machining the barrel and firing mechanism for something that might not even work and would kill your assassin... $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 6 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @jdunlop not if your weapon is a UZI. You'll shoot 300 bullets, 150 will hit. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 6 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @jdunlop have death row inmates test them on each other. Also you'd think people in our world would never invent thai balls, and yet they exist. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 6 at 23:02
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SHOOT GUNS WITH YOUR GUNS

If all the gunpowder has bad juju in it, take a lot of it, shoot this thing at your enemy with a gun that not requires gunpowder (trebuchet, crossbow, etc) and let it explode on impact.

The half chance of the bullet going fowards or backwards DOES NOT MATTER if they are both the enemy.

Basically all guns are considered area explosives, you trow it, take cover and wait to explode.

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If a magic 50/50 gun randomly kills either the target or the triggerman, then one way to make it a 100/0 gun is to make the target the same as the triggerman. This immediately suggests two applications:

Suicide. I recall reading a sci-fi story a long time ago in which, IIRC, guns were outlawed(?) and so you had to go to extra lengths to commit suicide; the protagonist acquired a bootleg single-use gun, little more than a tube with a trigger attached, referred to ironically as a "Wednesday Night Special." Your magic 50/50 guns could fill the same niche — if your world was dystopian enough, yet safe enough, to maintain a market for them.

Booby-traps. Suppose you place one of these guns with a tripwire so that the person who unintentionally fires the gun stands a 50% chance of death, and the target stands a 50% chance of death, and coincidentally these are the same person.

Now some epicycles suggested by the booby-trap idea: Clearly there's some sort of magical determination of who the "firer" of the gun is. Otherwise, I could just aim the gun at you, push the trigger with a long stick, and with 50% probability I'd have to go find a new stick but at least I'd be unharmed.

Suppose I train a pigeon to peck the trigger. Is that good enough to trick the magic? or does the magic affect the person who trained the pigeon? (Or the person who bought the pigeon from the pigeon-trainer?)

You have the opportunity to create a whole system of rules and regulations around these dynamics. (See What exactly is “Psik Reisha”?) The difference between your system and halacha is that in your system it would be relatively very obvious when somebody got the details wrong!

Dear FiftyFifty.stackexchange.com,

My brother wanted to kill a deer with a gun, so he placed the gun on a tripod on the ground, climbed an iron ladder into a camouflaged hide, and used a 10-foot length of silver chain to depress the trigger. However, he still died. What did he do wrong?

Confused

Dear Confused: We need more information. How many links were in the chain? Was it raining at the time?

Now, "wanting to kill a deer with a gun" might seem like a terrible reason for anyone to court death in this manner; but:

  • Remember that people are stupid.

  • The military-industrial complex will very quickly figure out the halachically safe way to use gunpowder weapons, as long as these weapons actually help to kill people. (And they will help, because once you know the halachically safe way to use them, you can use a machine gun just as safely as a pistol. Of course the technique will start out as an extremely valuable military secret, and may stay essentially that way for a long time; see also, atomic weapons.) The technique will eventually become public, at which point private citizens will also be able to use the technique — or as close to the proper technique as they can manage given their limited resources. Compare plinking.


Now, my whole answer is essentially based on the idea that your magic operates by halacha-style rules, which is maybe not what you intended. If you mean that your magic is just inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable, then I think the fundamental answer is that nobody will try to use it unless it offers astronomical rewards (e.g. summoning Mephistopheles, granting wishes, etc). I don't think "maybe killing a dude at a distance" qualifies as an astronomical reward.

If the good effect can be scaled up without a proportional scale-up in the bad effect, then perhaps you would still see them used as weapons of mass destruction. (This is essentially the "suicide bomber" idea with a patriotic spin.) Suppose the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a 50% chance of destroying the city and a 50% chance of killing the pilot — they'd probably still do it. But suppose it had a 50% chance of destroying the city, a 30% chance of killing the pilot, a 10% chance of killing the general who ordered the drop, and a 10% chance of destroying Boise, Idaho — well, they'd probably call off the drop.

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Whilst most people would baulk at the 50% risk of a lethal backfire, there are people who will take that risk.

Suicide bombers are a thing; however, this may not fit well into your world, and it may be hard to explain why they'd use guns instead of bombs. Sniping is a possibility, assuming that one can train with firearms without risk – I think your description that 'wounds on the target appear on the shooter' suggests it's the malicious act, rather than the mechanics of the gun, which are triggering the magic?

Another simpler option is that convicted prisoners would be sent to the front line and given a chance to 'redeem' themselves by firing a clip at the enemy. Any who return alive would be pardoned, and any who don't could be pardoned posthumously, or it could be decided that their death showed their guilt.

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  • $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 7 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan – It was admittedly short, but I think it gave an answer, and was not a critique or request for clarification from the OP. I've bulked it out. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Jul 7 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ It's better now, and you have my upvote. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jul 7 at 18:45
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One possible use would be in playing a version of Russian roulette.

Another possible use would be in mass executions.

The gun would be firmly mounted to fire in one direction.

One victim scheduled for execution would be tied up firmly in place with his heart right in front of the muzzle of the gun.

Another victim scheduled for execution would be tied in place with their finger on the trigger. Crossbowmen would aim their crossbows at him from a distance. He would be ordered to pull the trigger or get shot by the crossbows.

If he didn't pull the trigger he would be shot and replaced by another victim scheduled for execution.

If he did pull the trigger the gun would either work as desired, killing the victim tied in front of him, or not. If the gun worked as desire and the victim in front of it was killed he would be replaced by another victim scheduled for execution and they would try again. If the gun didn't work as desired it might kill the person pulling the trigger, in which case he would be replaced by another victim scheduled for execution and they would try again.

Possibly the persons scheduled for execution would draw straws or something to determine who went next. And possibly the last victim left alive would be pardoned.

And possibly the dangerous duties of pointing the crossbows, tying and untying prisoners, and other activities involved in the execution, might be assigned to members of a punishment detail as a lesser punishment. Not execution, but a highly dangerous assignment they might not survive.

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    $\begingroup$ This still runs into the problem I had with the premise - who would make guns, knowing that they're the next best thing to useless? You've got crossbows. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 6 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop explosive crossbow bolts $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 7 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ Yup. Or just the normal variety. Crossbows are pretty effective and lethal. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 7 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ If you've already got firing squads armed with crossbows, then what's the point of all this rigmarole with expensive and unpredictable magic guns? In our universe (in the U.S. at least), social pressures have always tended in the direction of more predictable and orderly execution methods. Execution methods do follow irrational fads — "execution by gravity! by electricity! by gas! by injection!" — but the fad is always in the name of orderliness and hygiene. IMO even Texas wouldn't go for "execution by magical Russian roulette"! Could you expand on why this method might have evolved? $\endgroup$ – Quuxplusone Jul 7 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ The model for this could that a person who agreed to stand as executioner would be pardoned if they survived 5 executions as that's clearly a judgement from god of their innocence. The same of course could be said of someone who survived 5 execution attempts. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 10 at 9:40
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Cannons would be buried in the ground with a solid metal hatch that is closed immediately after firing. If the round returns, it harmlessly bounces off the hatch.

or

The return shots miss because the barrel exit is away from the head of the soldier.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ This is magic. " the target's wound will appear on the shooter's body instead". The direction of exit is irrelevant, though that gun is hilarious. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 7 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ This solves "the projectile suddenly reverses direction", but what about "the gun explodes", or "the target's wound will appear on the shooter's body instead"? $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 7 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal - A gun that is well buried will have the explosion muffled by the earth. The 'shooter' is a rat that has been trained to climb on a trigger-like object for food. It is released when necessary. $\endgroup$ – chasly - reinstate Monica Jul 7 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK "It's a soft magic system in that the precise rules for what determines these outcomes are seemingly left to chance." Trained rats don't sound very promising. (Would you want to be the person to train the rat for the first test? Would you want to be the person who set it up?) $\endgroup$ – Sneftel Jul 8 at 10:00
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They would use other ranged weapons that don't involve gunpowder, possibly including:

  • Bows (most likely compact designs like the English shortbow or Japanese hankyu).
  • Crossbows
  • Slings
  • Javelins and other thrown weapons

Swords might get used, but they would be backup weapons for people using bows or crossbows.

The linchpin is whether or not technology has developed to the point that usable bows or crossbows can be mass produced. If not, then combat will look more akin to the middle ages minus the cannons. If so, then the norm will be archers or crossbowmen making up the majority of warriors, but receiving cross training for close combat (probably using swords for that, as a bow or crossbow is kind of useless once the enemy gets too close).

However, there are two technological possibilities that you may be overlooking:

  • Alternative propellants: Provided you have explosives, you can make a gun of some sort. End of story. If you want your wild magic to make firearms impossible, it either has to make all forms of explosives non-viable for almost anything, or it has to be in some way able to evaluate how it's being used. Hell, even a lot of historical firearms could theoretically work with modern smokeless powders if handled correctly, which would completely sidestep black powder being unstable (and 'modern' smokeless powders date back to the late 1800's).
  • Air guns: The earliest known air gun dates back to around 1580 (it's still around as an exhibit item in Livrustkammaren in Stockholm, Sweden), and was one of the earliest uses of pneumatics. Air guns can absolutely be deadly (you can get rather large caliber ones designed for hunting that can down large animals just fine, but even the little .22 and .177 caliber ones can still kill a person with a lucky shot), they're really not all that hard to make, and they still have almost all of the advantages of firearms other than effective range (which is the big reason they're not used much in modern warfare).
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Minefields

I think you might get some truly terrifying minefields. Assuming that putting some distance between yourself and where they are planted before they detonate gives you some level of protection, then you have a field of explosives that might kill an enemy because:

a) You step on one and it explodes under you.

b) Someone else steps on one a short distance away and you wind up getting the blast.

c) Someone else steps on one, it explodes under them and you get the injury.

It's a perfect form of defence - sapping these would be very costly in people.

Weapon of last resort

Alternatively what you might wind up with is a weapon that is only used when all other avenues have been exhausted. If you're cornered and death is certain either way - then this might be a time to use a weapon like this. 50% chance of dying is better than 100% and it would certainly give your opponent food for thought.

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You can compare them by analogy to a real-world weapon that also has a high chance of backfiring and yet still sees widespread deployment: Nukes. (Admittedly, nuclear war invites overwhelming retaliation more than it directly backfires. But the results are the same, insofar as inflicting devestating harm on the aggressor.)

Guns would be used as defensive deterrence if they had a 50% chance of lethally backfiring.

The economics of a high-risk weapon aren't that complex. Nobody who's trying to hurt, attack, or subjugate someone else would use it, because with a 50% chance of killing yourself and some finite chance of missing even if it doesn't backfire, you're more likely hurt yourself from using it than complete whatever atrocity you set out to commit against your target. This applies to both individuals and collectives: Neither would a lone criminal find it worthwhile to take such a stupid risk, nor would an organized army be able to sustain the strategic attrition and tactical uncertainty of blowing up half your own forces every time you want to take a shot. If they backfired half the time, guns would be useless in any offensive role.

However, in a defensive role, the dynamics are reversed. In a defensive role, the objective is not to hurt the other person as much as you want while keeping yourself immune; in a defensive role, the objective is initially to make your assailant believe that they'd incur a high enough risk from attacking you that they no longer think it's worth it, so they back off. Failing that, the objective is to protect yourself in a way that is merely less damaging than whatever your assailant is trying to do. If you're merely under threat and not currently under attack, then you could potentially "bluff" off attackers just by showing that you have a gun, without ever actually firing it and facing the 50% risk. If you're already under attack, then a "50% chance of lethally backfiring" may still be preferable to facing your attacker without it, depending on what other options for defence you have. Additionally, if you're protecting something which does not depend on your own continued existence— if you're trying to fend off a criminal from your family, or if you're in a cadre of guards who were already expecting to lay down their lives to protect what you're guarding anyway— then the "50% chance of lethally backfiring" may not be a significant downside if the remaining times where it won't backfire still give you a better chance of fending off an assailant than whatever alternatives are available.

(Note that this doesn't really work in the real world though, because the high reliability, lethality, and speed of real-world guns means that they're much more effective at (and thus much more incentivising of) aggression than defence.)

In summary, guns that lethally backfire half the time would be useful as weapons primarily under three types of circumstances, most of which are defensive in nature:

  1. When they never have to be fired. (Deterrence.) If you can ward away a potential attacker just by showing that you have a gun, then you never have to face the risk of backfiring, so there's no downside.

  2. When you're going to die anyway if you don't use them. (Defence.) If you're presently under attack from a force that has more than a 50% chance of killing you, then using a weapon with a 50% chance of lethally backfiring may represent an improvement upon your odds.

  3. When your life is expendable. (Protection.) If you're fighting for something that you're willing to die for, then you may not care about a 50% chance of a lethal backfire if it also gives you the highest chance of hitting your mark. If you're fighting for something that lots of people are willing to die for (like a magical artifact your civilization depends upon— or, more realistically, some kind of despot with a personality cult), and you have a specific target you need to kill, then you can get a 95%+ chance of at least one working shot just by having four or five people try to shoot it.

(Assuming they see well-known use in any of these roles, then they would probably also see use political symbols and social statements— representations of conviction and willpower if willingly used, or brands of subservience and expendability if forced into your hands— but I will place that beyond the scope of this question and answer.)

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It's hard to imagine that a weapon would have a 50% chance of backfiring and not be improved. There are so many ways you could make the triggering remote and therefore safer that it is silly to think that wouldn't happen. However, assuming a 50% self-kill and 50% enemy-kill ratio it could be used in:

Arming untrained civilians

Trained soldiers with swords could massacre a civilian population. If one side has far fewer trained soldiers and swords, they could make up for it by equipping their civilians with the great equalizer: guns.

A trained army without guns could defeat a smaller army without guns and massacre a much larger untrained and unequipped civilian population. If a generally peaceful country (Country A) had the knowledge and a large production capacity to produce guns, they could overcome an attack by an aggressive Country B. If you're going to be slaughtered anyway, why not equip your civilians with guns so that on average they can take out enemy soldiers.

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How interesting! I like those ideas you have bullet pointed, especially the witch-dunking trial.

I think that the limitation of guns backfiring isn't going to stop civilizations from developing advanced weapons. Sure, in the beginning after people realize how dangerous these things are they will focus their battles on using swords, bows and arrows, etc.. Then, someone realizes that they can invent a crossbow, ballista, and catapult. They cover the stones they are hurling with pitch and ignite it with fire (that wasn't started with any of the chemicals you described).

Meanwhile, the people who like this magical outcome of the chemicals do several things. They create cults around it. "Brave"/"stupid" people participate in old-fashioned Russian roulette style duels to defend their honor or what have you. Generals force slaves or prisoners to use guns in battle, and if they survive the possible backfire of the guns then they have earned their freedom. There could also be people who gift something that doesn't look like a gun, but it actually is so that they could trick the enemy into the gun backfiring on them (Trojan horse style).

The more level-headed societies ban the use of these chemicals and imprison anyone caught using them. They either evolve to be more peaceful communities or evolve to win wars using simple ballistics that don't use the magic chemicals. Perhaps they discover chemicals or bacteria/viruses that do not follow the rules of the magic and they develop bio-warfare from this.

Or, they advance mechanically and figure out how to launch arrows quicker. They develop steam power and create steampunk-esque weapons that use high pressure to launch projectiles. They could overwhelm the enemy with hot air balloons dropping something that explodes on impact (could be ball full of spike things that naturally bounce in all directions, or something on fire). Far in the future perhaps they develop weapons that can throw electric bolts or imitate lightning!

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Just an excuse to wear more armor

If guns are not widely used, then your ennemies probably use swords and bows.

Hence you'll probably have to wear an heavy armor. And those are more than able to protect you from a handgun explosion.

Edit

In fact, you could simply add a protection to the gun itself. If the explosion itself is not magic, it is not a Dangerous one (a few grams of powder and splinters are not accelerated thru any barrel)

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Heavy armor to protect against an explosion originating in one's hands? {{citation needed}}. Also, I'm pretty sure that in any context where you're talking about "enemies" with "swords and bows," you're talking military combat, and therefore you aren't talking about handguns, but rather long guns that are fired from relatively close to the face. $\endgroup$ – Quuxplusone Jul 7 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ I admit: I said handgun because I am not sure how to express in English the difference between an artillery gun and rifle sized gun. That said, a revolver in a sword melee would reign supreme and if the armor doesn't save your hand (it could if it is dedicated) it will certainly save your life $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jul 9 at 9:35
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You are a spy on a secret mission. Any spies that get caught will be killed. Any weapon other than a magic gun will be found immediately, you will be identified as a spy, and killed.

Bringing a magic gun with you gives you a decent chance to escape if a single person finds out you are a spy, instead of certain death.

Or you are a harmless citizen on a walk through the town, and there are lots of armed criminals around. If an armed criminal threatens to kill you with a knife, you point the magic gun at him. If the criminal isn't insane, he or she will leave you alone, because attacking you brings a fifty percent chance of death. In practice, you will never use a magic gun, but it still protects you.

Or you are an assassin trying to kill a well-protected target. Once you start the attack, you know you will die anyway, some way or another, so the backfiring is no problem. If the 50% chance of killing is better than other methods, go for it. For example your chance of killing the target with a sword might be zero, because of the protection.

What if there are these magical guns and normal guns available, and you have a country like the U.K.? Carrying a normal gone is heavily regulated, but carrying magical guns for self protection might be even encouraged. If you are attacked by someone with a real gun, police recommends you shoot immediately to be first. Nobody would carry normal guns very quickly.

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  • $\begingroup$ "If you are attacked by someone with a real gun, police recommends you shoot immediately to be first." — Sounds like U.S. cops to me. :) Normally I would expect that even if you do live in a place where the cops recommend immediately killing one-or-the-other-person-and-we-don't-care-which, the actual victim in the attack might be loath to follow that advice; they might rather comply with the attacker, or try to wrest the non-magic gun away, or honestly pretty much any game plan except "50/50 suicide lol." $\endgroup$ – Quuxplusone Jul 9 at 14:58
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then they'd be abandoned. No weapon with a 50 percent reliability and 50% chance of failure would ever be fielded on a battle. You'd kill half your forces to misshaps.

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The handgun grenade (tm). This device looks just like a pistol it's balanced so when you throw it it flies like an axe. When you pull the trigger it starts a mechanical timer. When the timer counts down to zero the pistol fires. Now look, it doesn't matter if it the gunpowder explodes in the gun 50% of the time or not. It's going to do 100% of the exploding at the target.

Okay, I guess Mon beat me to it on this one.

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They could just use light-gas guns instead of guns powered by gunpowder.

Light-gas guns are basically a very powerful version of air guns. The idea is that you have a piston that compresses a light gas (usually hydrogen or helium) and then a rupture disk that breaks when the light gas reaches a specific (and very high) pressure. The light gas then blows through the rupture disk and accelerates the projectile down the barrel.

We typically use gunpowder in our world to drive the piston that compresses the light gas, but our gun powder isn't magic and doesn't kill us. In a world where gunpowder is problematic, just use something else to compress the light gas instead. A spring, steam, or even hand cranks with really large gear reduction ratios. Other than for fire rate, it doesn't really matter how long you take to compress the light gas. The rupture disk won't rupture until it reaches the right pressure. Once technology advances, electric motors could be used to drive the piston (possibly via hydraulics.)

To put into perspective what can be done with these, the United States Air Force and NASA use them for accelerating projectiles up to somewhere around low Earth orbital velocity for simulating impacts in space (e.g. from meteoroids, missile interceptor kill vehicles, etc.) For example, Range G at Arnold Engineering Development Complex can accelerate projectiles around 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter up to around 7 km/s (15,650 mph.)

AEDC Range G
Barrels of AEDC Range G. Source Wikipedia from USAF, public domain

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  • $\begingroup$ Heh, yes. A near miss from one of those would still be fatal. $\endgroup$ – UrQuan3 Jul 10 at 13:36
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Entertainment

In ancient Rome, duels using such weapons would have been cause for much merriment. Provided the effects only applied to the combatants they could be used to set gladiators against one-another. To make the battle last longer, the weapons would be non-lethal, just very painful.

This is the clowns-with-falling-apart-cars effect.

If the combatants refused to take part they would of course have a worse punishment awaiting them.

'Ah but', you say, 'there was no gunpowder in Roman times'. However there is no magic in the real world. In an imaginary world we can have both.

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just use a U-shaped pipe mechanism, so if the energy from the failed shot goes backwards, it is also redirected to the forward.

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A "Justice" system for dealing with infractions against a political/legal code, or potentially for high level society members to punish/control/torture the others through fear/force.

Imagine a misdemeanor offense requiring the defendant to go to a range and fire a single shot, a felony might require up to five shots, while a high crime requires the defendant to shoot 10 shots... This would be weighed against the refusal to fire being certain death.

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