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Let's consider some highly civilized/organized, free-thinking world akin to the Medieval/Dark Ages:

Technology is fairly rudimentary, reduced to — for the most part — two-handed swords, halberds, and spears for tools of warfare; in general, any Early Middle Age weaponry with, maybe, one or two exceptions from other era-similar technology. However, at one point in this society, weapons were as far advanced as the late Antebellum or pre-First World War eras, including traditional shotguns and pistol revolvers to as powerful as early rotary Gatling guns. Outside of this peculiarity, time has naturally progressed (or, at least, closely mirrors our society prior to 1914).

Pre-WWI weapons would the "de-facto" for many years until after this society's most recent Great War, after which this society found that these weapons fell out of favor, considered "outmoded, outdated, and impractical" in use for defensive/offensive warfare when compared to Middle Age technology; hence the question: Is there a reachable moment in Earth history where, had history gone awry, would have resulted in the preferred use of medieval weapons rather than World War I technology?


I have tried various approaches — from resource limitations to low fantasy — to solve this conundrum, but each appeared to have either too broad of impacts that would force me to address them in the world or failed to answer the root question about a pseudo-historically accurate timeline.

So, perhaps I'm looking for a more realistic answer; as in, barring some major extinction-level event or element of mysticism, can there be a world or history whose natural conclusion (i.e., devoid of any profound, worldly phenomenon or broad consequences) would render "modern"-ish weapons such as rifles and handguns strategically dangerous, disadvantageous, or compromised compared to swords and pikes, or otherwise would not be favorable to this society, and yet still be bound to a plausible chance in history?

Mind that "plausible" and "reachable" are my words of choice; I'm not so much looking for a strictly-bound history (as in, only events prior to 1914), as much as something (an event, rival technology, etc.) achievable by a pre-WWI society that, if simply reordered (meaning explicitly if it had happened sooner), could have altered the timeline prior to World War I to mirror this society I described.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. We don't generate lists of ideas, we solve well defined problems with a clear metric to pick the best answer. Please provide the metric. You can find more info in the help center $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 6 '20 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ Add sheer activated polymer treated Kevlar before guns become very popular. This light weight modern body armor is able to stop nearly any small arms fire; so, if you introduce it before the inventions of assult riffles and SMGs, then it may be so effective as to make it continue to be worth while to charge in an cut someone down with a blade. (they are much easier to cut through than shoot through) $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 6 '20 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Also... sandbags. If you have an urban battle field with lots of Sand bags, a war bow may go through them much better than a bullet which has lead to the return to war bows in at least one modern war. Https://youtu.be/NPXLmUqxvAo $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 7 '20 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I voted to reopen because something being impossible is not a reason for closure, you'd just answer it with a frame challenge. Also, he is not answering his own question. He includes reasons why some things that might seem like answers would not satisfy his question to the level he is looking for. It's basically establishing criteria for best possible answer in the negative instead of the positive. I've seen this done before and it's never been a reason to close. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 8 '20 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Ahh, I see how you are reading this OP. As written though, he is not asking for guns before knives, he is asking for how a civilization may return to medieval style warfare after guns are invented. That does not mean there were no things for cutting before the guns were invented. In history, warfare often went backwards as new technologies made old ones relevant again. The pike block for example was made obsolete by Roman heavy infantry, but came back into heavy use when early muskets made heavy armor and shields useless. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 8 '20 at 14:53
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I actually agree. No way in hell that happens without major changes like you mentioned.

It's good to see that you are aware of the problem. But allow me to complicate things further.

Weapons are tools of change.

Here is how I though to solve it. Let's have two major empires controlling most of the world and they just decide to throw their arsenal of weapons away and use older stuff. Problem solved.

Except that Newton's laws still exist and we already made smokeless self contained rounds, basically battle rifles, and so any state, no matter how small, can start making enough weapons to start upsetting the balance and then it would continue to grow to the point that either the two empires have to readopt the new weapons or get swallowed.

This is just how the world works. Similar to nuclear power and how once someone got it the bigger states had to get it to preserve balance and then ban others from using it.

OK. What about religion?

Well. Again no religion can actually hold people from doing what is practical because warfare is already messy and already involves a lot of nasty stuff. So no soldier will care about your god if the enemy is using battle rifles and they are charging them with horses carrying spears.

And this again runs to the fact that unless you insure 100% human compliance then just one single state can upset the balance and they we are a race to develop air craft carriers and reinvent history.

I think you have to decide on other limitations other than human tendency.

In fact Sun Zu for examples is adamant about how much of a burden on the state war is and how it is far far better to conclude it as fast as possible rather than belong it and overtax the state. This is actually a blessing in disguise and it is true that modern weapons are insanely deadly yet actual wars now are a lot scarce just because of how deadly the whole affair is.

Anyway I think if you want more clever limitations then you have to go to materials, economy, magic, scientific instability when it comes to weapons.

scientific instability when it comes to weapons

This causes all sorts of problems because the reactions happening in a modern automatic rifles is basically chemistry and physics. So to have them be unreliable then you would also have unreliable life in general.

So tread with caution. However if you are willing then perhaps elements are not as consistent and we can't just create a bullet that works 50% of the time let alone 100% of the time. Maybe a global event, magical or natural, accord and then we from that point onwards when you squeeze the trigger there is a chance of a large explosion or the gun not working or anything similar.

If modern weapons are that unreliable then maybe, just maybe depending on other factors, they won't be used.

Another solution is constant solar flares with massive EMP constantly hitting the earth. Or even modified solar activity to just burn out all the advanced stuff.

Bye bye complicated electronics. However rifles would still work. As the famous quote goes: Sir Isaac Newton is "the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space" Expect also on earth.

I mean consider an aircraft like "Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor" with a cost of US$150 million per unit.

Now before I talk about how unreliable it would be if you are hitting it with intense EMPs, or whatever, you have to understand that it is made by even more complicated stuff that not make it if it is breaking down all the time.

And even if you have a unit then fly it with a 20% chance of falling and dying like very time. It won't be practical.

However In that scenario the focus of all human scientists would be to solve the solar flaring issue not just because of warfare but because of all awesome modern stuff is.

Materials is easy. But I just thought of a twist on it. What if the materials for weapons in your world is something organic or something very rare and useful for human survival?

So this is pushing it I know but here is an idea. All weapons use element X which is actually required by humans to survive this world. This could be natural or recent event, war or magic or even galactic. And with the element being rare in the first place it insures that you only have enough to just protect the people.

Perhaps something to do with blood or food or whatever suits you really.

Again this could be planet wide reason for people to constantly use element X, in another form how you would use it in weapons making, so when people started using the element for weapons it started causing troubles world wide.

I thought first of food but a rare element is better here honestly.

This could be even done under a global treaty. The last great war caused such a shortage of element X that the disfigured children of that era still bear the scars.

Military either continue using it and jeopardize their own states and people or bugger off and get back to good old smacking with clubs.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm glad you also see the complexity of this problem and really dug deep into some ideas I thought of, as well as including some I never considered. Didn't really answer the core question to my restrictions, but made some good observations and arguments nonetheless. $\endgroup$ – Omicron Zed Sep 22 '20 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ @OmicronZed, It is an interesting question. However I'm afraid that the only answer is no. A frame challenge if you will. Anyway No is as valid as yes. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Sep 22 '20 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ Note that an EMP might fry some electronics (like radios) but aircraft up to and including jets were fully capable of flying without electronic components, tanks and other vehicles capable of operating, and ships and submarines taking to sea. In short, you could trivially be able to fight World War 2 and the Korean War, albeit having to take some precautions with items like radio and radar. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Sep 22 '20 at 19:15
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Very special circumstances only - Spacepunk

The disadvantages of Dark Ages weaponry are that the weapons are:

  • short-ranged;
  • only as powerful as the muscle power used by the wielder; and
  • typically affect a single target only.

In most environments these are disadvantages. However, if combatants are fighting in an environment where collateral damage will kill them and their allies as surely as enemy action then these are actually advantages. An example would be fighting in a (today's technology) space station or high altitude aircraft - conducting a battle with WWI firearms on the ISS or an aircraft at 30,000 feet would be almost certain to kill everyone on board, whether by breaching the hull or by damaging critical systems or controls.

So, if a post WWI civilisation can somehow establish outpost/s with:

  • a fragile airtight hull protecting the inhabitants from a hostile environment;
  • relatively small size, so all parts of the outpost are close to the outer hull;
  • gravity of 1G (or very close); and
  • (preferably) delicate life support equipment or other critical systems

then some medieval hand weapons may be the preferred choice. Explosives and conventional firearms would occupy a mutual assured destruction level of escalation if either side started using them.

Coming up with a situation where a WWI-tech society is living in such a situation is... challenging to say the least. Underwater doesn't work, as submarine pressure hulls can resist many small arms rounds quite well. Launches to orbit are beyond WWI tech, and without a very large space station rotating to produce artificial gravity it would be near-impossible to use weapons that need to be swung hard. Vague notions of a world where the atmosphere is only breathable in the deep valleys, but availability of key resources requires development of population centres on the top of mountains way above the height at which the air is breathable...

Humans being humans, if conflict begins then an arms race is likely to start to develop the weapons which currently exist in our world and can safely be used in such an environment - tasers, beanbag rounds, airsafe guns etc. There will also be a serious effort to strengthen the hull! However, there will be a window in which chain mail and longswords may be worn in valiant battle again - for a time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Certainly never thought of this! Original (for me, at least), yet you're careful enough to also note some of the pitfalls of this approach. Somewhat saddened it's not so plausible for the time period and requires considering a lot of additional variables in the environment I'd rather not get plagued with, but I think you set up a fair criteria to make this answer considerable. Although, I want to make clear I also understand your latter point that inevitably defense will always try to catch up to offense. $\endgroup$ – Omicron Zed Sep 22 '20 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ The idea was actually inspired by the shipboard fighting section in the Traveller roleplaying game - blade weapons are preferred when trying to capture a ship because they don't wreck the controls and vacc suits are less able to self-seal when a large slash is ripped in the fabric. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Sep 22 '20 at 5:14
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Ok so here is my take on this since nobody else seems to answer.

In short, no there was never a point in history where anyone thought it might be a good idea to switch back to dark age style weapons when hellfire missiles are flying around. I don't think I have to explain why exactly nobody thought of this as a good idea.

But here is the TLDR of why. As they say: "A sword is good, but an autocannon that can hit you 2km away is better".

Long range weapons always have the advantage. I mean that is the reason why air domination is the most important part of modern warfare.

You yourself probably know that there isn't any plausible reason to not use guns. I mean, bow and arrow are dark age time weapons and the essentially do the same thing as a gun.

The idea of the people just choosing not to use guns is also kind of pointless. The first two causalities in war are morals and values. It only takes one side that decides to use the boom stick and everyone will use them.

I have thought quite a bit about the question and every single idea I had turned out to be pretty bad. So yeah, I am sorry to tell you but there really is not plausible reason.

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  • $\begingroup$ I did not intend so much of a willful neglect of modern technology, but a more tactical/strategic one (i.e., more along the lines of "how can a Dark Age weapon be more advantageous than a modern one, and what history could allow that?"). Perhaps I didn't word the situation the best in my question, but regardless you've made the argument that it makes little sense for a society to purposefully disadvantage itself when one technology far surpasses the other. $\endgroup$ – Omicron Zed Sep 22 '20 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ Tbh, the new framework dosnt work either. It is the classic "Show up with a Knife to a Gun fight". CQB is already sort of the one thing no Military wants to do. And most Weapons of that age just are Close and Personal. $\endgroup$ – Erik Hall Sep 22 '20 at 13:08
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The world could have reverted back to medevial weapons because...

They wanted to preserve the honor code

In war, the object is never to kill as many people as possible. The object is to win, or at least, resolve the conflict. So if you are a good ruler who cares about your subjects, you will want to protect them. You can kill a lot more people with an Assault Rifle than with a spear, but if your objective isn't to kill lots of people, that wont be a problem. Similar to the idea behind "trial by combat" or a Duel, the argument is decided with little to no bloodshed. If you don't need to kill lots of people, then you don't need fancy weapons that can mow down 50 men within a matter of minutes. Just keep that sword sharp and handy.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm having a hard time imagining how an "honor code" can be preserved across a whole society; certainly through certain sects of a populace, maybe, but can a holistically free-thinking community do the same? Maybe I'm being naive and ignoring countries that have an established culture based on honor and preservation (Japan comes readily to mind), but based solely on my understanding, how did pre-WWI warfare amount to anything but a numbers game of pure bloodshed and bodies. Still, I applaud the idea for its sociological aspects... Not particularly historiographical, but a fair approach. $\endgroup$ – Omicron Zed Sep 22 '20 at 4:49

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