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In this world I'm making, I'm trying to avoid firearms (to keep things like melee weapons more balanced), but also be more industrial. I'm justifying it by the simple idea of 'we never discovered gunpowder'. However, with that void, what's there to fill? Sure, bows and crossbows and such a great and all, but humanity loves to improve upon their ways of murder. What would they make after getting bored with bows and crossbows? Feel free to use any kind of tech from anywhere up to the 1940s.

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    $\begingroup$ "Any kind of tech up to the 1940s" is not possible. Olde skoole black gunpowder went the way of the dodo very quickly after chemistry became a science. They might not have discovered black powder in the middle ages, all right, I'll buy it; but there is no way to have modern-ish chemistry (like late Victorian chemistry) and not have high explosives, including modern-ish smokeless powder. No firearm cartridge made after 1900 or thereabouts contained old fashioned black gunpowder. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 6, 2023 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ It's impossible to have the 1940s without gunpowder. Not discovering gunpowder (which happened in the 900s CE) means not discovering a lot of things involving sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal. That means no swords or other fundamental metallurgy. No combustion or development of pesticides or food preservation. In other words, you can't have the 1940s without gun powder. We usually try to avoid judging the backstory, but the idea of a modern society without gun powder has been asked about a lot, (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 6, 2023 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ ... and the truth is, you can't have a modern society of any kind (say, after at least the 1200s) without the presence of gunpowder. You simply need to walk away from too many other uses of sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal to do that. So, we can either completely ignore your allowed technological timeline, or we can answer the question, "what could be next?" But if that's the path you want to take, I'd recommend deleting the last sentence. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 6, 2023 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP agree, though the causality is slightly reversed. The knowledge of how to build big metal cylinders that could reliably survive high pressure events - aka "cannons" - was one of the critical preconditions for the development of practical steam engines. So a lack of cannon will arguably prevent the Industrial Revolution occurring and make all "1940s tech" a non-option. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055: Pumps and syringes predate cannon by more than a thousand years. The truth is that all technology is interconnected. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 6, 2023 at 11:08

23 Answers 23

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Siege weapons

Before there were cannons, they used ballista, catapults and other weapons to delivered large projectiles at far distances.

In a history without cannons, they would have developed into fearsome beasts. The ballista is probably the best. It is basically a really big crossbow.

They originally had a bad habit of falling apart. The forces involved are enormous. With better materials and better understanding of engineering they should last much longer.

They were hard to transport. With modern cars and roads, no longer a problem. Well, smaller problem. And there is a railway near your target? Heavy Gustav time!

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this answer is that the same level of engineering required to make the Manuballistae light enough to carry would also make crossbows so much better that the crossbow would still be the better weapon. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 8, 2023 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki You would need both. Different jobs require different tools. Also, I was NOT thinking about hand-carried weapons, but rather vehicle-mounted ones. $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2023 at 11:44
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The logical step after guns is machine guns, so the logical step after crossbows is rapid-fire crossbows.

Multi-fire devices did exist in Antiquity, a bit. The Panjagan was a device for firing five arrows at once. The Polybolos was a crossbow with some aspects of machine-guns.

I like the idea of pedal-powered polybolos/machine-crossbow, but I like pedal-power for everything in my worldbuilding :) Pedalling allows you to do about 20× as much work as you would do with your hands, and became a mature technology in the 1800s. A guy pedalling, driving gears and a chain drive that simultaneously tensions the device, places the bolt and fires, could unleash a lot of destructive force very quickly. Obviously this is in a vehicle, probably something four-wheeled, rather than an infantry weapon.

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    $\begingroup$ Ahhh, interesting! I shall keep this idea, and in the credits of whatever the hell this becomes, I'm gonna put "Wokopa" on there. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ Tensioning crossbows was often done with leg power anyway, but in a movement more like a leg press than cycling. A bicycle-chain-driven windlass could be powered by 2 people tucked down below the line of fire, with the auto-crossbow on a swivel mount above. To run some numbers, a modern hunting crossbow (rounded up a little) might have 200J of energy when launched. Pedalling at 200W is feasible for quite some time which would mean 1 round per second, less drivetrain efficiency losses. Spreading that between 2 people the effort could be kept up indefinitely, or the rate of fire could go up. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Feb 6, 2023 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisH and then some guy has to manufacture new bolts real fast $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Feb 6, 2023 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Christian yes. But as we can get up to 20th century tech minus propellant, we can have industrial manufacturing of bolts (cast like bullets I assume). Now you've got me wondering about rifling a crossbow! $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Feb 6, 2023 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisH they definitely impart a spin. There's some slow-mo videos out there and you can see the Bolt rotating. Granted, it's not anywhere near as aggressive as the spin imparted by Rifling - so in the space of about 2 or so metres, the Bolt has barely done a quarter rotation - but it's definitely a thing - see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletching - for an automated system, you could still have Fletching, just from a slightly more robust material than Feathers. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 7:42
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Air-rifles are an option. Projectile weapons operated by compressed air can be fairly powerful (ridiculously so according to some reports)

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    $\begingroup$ And they did have military applications. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 6, 2023 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ Lewis and Clark brought air-powered weapons on their journeys. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Feb 7, 2023 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, air guns. There are a number of fully automatic air guns on the market now. Make one of the ingredients for gunpowder prohibitively expensive (i.e. rare) and air guns are the natural step. $\endgroup$
    – JohnHunt
    Feb 8, 2023 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ The US Navy mounted 15-inch airguns (as in the shells fired were 15" in diameter) on a cruiser: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Vesuvius_(1888) $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2023 at 2:03
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How about a centrifugal gun? Steam powered, manually operated or even electric. That would be quite within the desired range of technology.

Also an unrelated thought: "poor ferrite ore" (like it was in old Japan or even worse) is a very good excuse to limit firearms spread, while still having modern chemistry. If the whole world had really bad metal ore, it would make mass usage of artillery and firearms difficult simply because steel is precious and a longsword or a rifle cost so much it is basically impossible to arm an army with those even if you know how to make them. Would also limit high pressure steam engines and combustion engines. But would not much impede the development of chemistry, electricity, construction. So you can have things like modern chemistry and medicine, telegraph, even radio, while combatants still have to resort to melee weapons made of softer metals. You can even go crazy with high density plastic full plates, ceramic swords and other somewhat high tech stuff. That may turn out to be a really fun setting.

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Here's my Answer:

Optics

You have Glasses, Telescopes, Binoculars all within your time period. One of the biggest advancement in Military Firearms of late has been the switch from having a single guy in a Platoon with a DMR or similar weapon with a scope, to every man in the Squad having an optical sight on their main Rifle.

There's the famous case where the US Military thought the US Marines were executing combatants in Fallujah - nope, it turned out that they had finally started getting ACOG optics for every man and the Marines (ever Marine a Rifleman...) were just out there headshoting every combatant.

Therefore, having a large proliferation of Optics for Crossbows makes sense.

Also, in terms of 'real worldliness' - one of the main impediments to large-scale optics usage on Firearms is that the Recoil impulse of a round being fired generates a lot of stress on an Optic (Pistol slide-mounted optics are particularly affected) - a Crossbow does have recoil, but it's recoil impulse is over a much longer period, meaning there doesn't need to be as much engineering on the Optic to prevent things like 'Wandering Zero' that affects Firearms.

Edit: Also - before anyone says it - whilst the effective range of a Crossbow (currently) is within 100 yards, there is still a massive tactical advantage to being able to spot an Enemy out past your standard visual ranges. WW2 demonstrated this, where using the Naked Eye (and of course the Terrain/surroundings of Europe) most engagements were happening within 400m - Trying to see an adult Human, 400 metres away who is either not silhouetted or otherwise standing in the open is actually really difficult - so an Optic on a Crossbow would have that additional benefit.

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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, I don't think its even worth mentioning the recoil impulse. Older tech was overengineered and its precision engineering that's prone to breakage on recoil. It would be harder to keep optics clean and clear than to survive the double-recoil impulses of a crossbow. Also, 100 yards/meters is precision accuracy effectiveness. When using as a barrage weapon it can go further, and optics to help range is a big deal. $\endgroup$
    – David S
    Feb 6, 2023 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ Medieval heavy crossbows had effective range near that of a longbow -- well over a hundred yards -- despite needing less than a tenth as much training to use well. Put good sights (with calibrated range adjustment) on one and it ought to be able to hit a man-sized target at above 250 yards. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 7, 2023 at 16:50
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Chemical weapons

"up to 1940s" covers World War 1, which saw widespread use of chemical weapons like chlorine and mustard gas. During the later parts of WW1 they were usually delivered via artillery, but the first use of them were canisters placed on the ground upwind of the enemy. Other possible delivery systems for chemical weapons would be to have canisters that can deploy poison gas remote-controlled or via trigger mechanism when the enemy is nearby. Or you could drop them from a balloon, plane or airship.

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The compound bow and crossbow. Conventional bows like longbows require a certain amount of strength and training to be effective. The cross bow allowed you use mechanical devices like a winch to pull back the bow string or to just be in a better position using your back and legs instead of just pulling with your arm. They were slower too load and fire but troops could be trained to use them quickly.

A compound bow uses cams and pulls to reduce the amount of force to hold back a bow in the full draw position. In addition since the force increase as the string moves form the back to front position the arrow get a increasing acceleration and ends up moving faster. With a conventional bow the speed to string is actually decr4easing as it moves forward and the majority of the trust applied to arrow is at the initial release. A compound cross bow is possible as it does have advantages in the arrow speed, but the drop off in force when held at full draw is not a big advantage.

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In the absence of gunpowder the bow is the one of the best projectile weapons. Crossbows may not be as quick or as powerful as longbows but there are several advantages to them. If you look at the progression of crossbow design and the number of different options available today you'll see that there are a lot of things you can improve on.

The big issue you're facing though is that crossbows are slow. They make up for this in various ways, but the rate of fire of a crossbow is just terrible. And the stronger the draw the slower it gets. For a light crossbow you can probably span the bow by hand in a second or two, but anything over about 100 pounds of draw you're going to want to use a spanning tool.

But what you really want is this thing:

I mean, Hugh Jackson used one, must be legit!

(That's a folding automatic crossbow with bolt magazine. Powered by *mumble* *mumble* produced by monks or something. For shooting at vampires a lot, because apparently he can't aim.)

As fantasy as that looks, it's potentially doable. That magazine on the bottom has a set of bolts (OK, stakes, because vampires) in a race around the outside and the rest of the magazine is devoted to storing power for the spanning mechanism. A set of parralel spiral springs (like old-time watches used to use) could potentially hold enough mechanical power to do the job, and could be wound in sequence when preparing the magazine.

Not going to lie though, the draw on that thing would be terrible. Who needs a crossbow you can fire twice a second if the bolt can barely pierce naked skin?

To go faster than that you need to stop looking at bows completely and start looking at alternative-power rifles.

A high power air rifle today is more than a match for muskets and other early firearms, but if you really want an autmatic weapon worth the name then you'll need the technology to produce and contain liquid CO2. Then you can make these bad boys:

enter image description here

What do you mean "just a toy"? That's a fully automatic .68-cal firearm with a maximum muzzle velocity over 400 ft/s. I know this because we had to tune the damned things down a lot during tournaments. The velocity is a little lower when you're firing solids instead of gel (don't ask me how I know this one, just take my word for it), but you can put all sorts of terrible things through them: acid, napalm, explosive, frangible rounds, you name it. And as long as your feed is clear - and the marker is well maintained - 10 rounds per second is easy, 15 is achievable. And that hopper on the top holds over 200 rounds.

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    $\begingroup$ And even toys can be upgraded. $\endgroup$
    – Trang Oul
    Feb 7, 2023 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ Powered by mumble mumble: The bolt magazine comes with it's own internal canister with just compressed gas to fire every bold? Then just throw in different bolt types/tips for different requirements. Wood/Steel/Silver/Garlic/Incendiary/etc. $\endgroup$
    – SHawarden
    Feb 7, 2023 at 20:55
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If they don't invent explosives, they may still invent metallurgy. So they'll have hand weapons and heavy weapons powered by strong steel springs. Compress some truck springs, and you can launch iron spears at armies from a distance.

A "machine gun" might fire large "cartridges", each containing a suitably sized bolt and a precompressed spring. Precompressed springs takes away the need to manually compress springs on the battlefield, enabling rapid fire.

Steam power allows steam cannons, and perhaps a clumsy steam powered tank. But you cannot run around carrying a steam engine, so the smaller arms would be spring powered. And a sword could be handy, when you run out of those heavy spring cartridges.

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    $\begingroup$ Using big steel springs, you could also create cannons with cannoballs. The current explosives in cannons are strictly for pushing a non-exploding cannoball. We can get just as fast with a strong enough spring and some leverage. Just what you need to take down ships, men, wherever a cannon might be used. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Feb 6, 2023 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Steel springs are decent for short-time energy storage, but they have an abysmal specific energy. I.e. precompressed springs of sufficient strength would weigh a ton. A handful of them, for quicker assault fire, ok, but they would still need to be tensioned on the battlefield. Compressed air really would make more sense as energy storage, or perhaps flywheels. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 16:25
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Just look at modern bows/crossbows

Your average ancient or medieval bow/crossbow maxes out at a firing velocity of about 150-200fps (45-60mps). Modern bows and crossbows can fire at 300-500fps (90-150mps).

So, lets say that you have an averages medieval 100lb bow that fires an 80 gram, 55mps arrow with a total Kinetic Energy of 121 J (based on KE=1/2mv2). Now lets take a more modern bow (if made to a 100lb draw) could fire a 60gram arrow at 90mps resulting in a total Kinetic Energy of 243 J. Twice the power thanks to better materials and design... but it's actually more than twice as good.

There is a principle in terminal ballistics that small fast moving objects tend to pernitrate armor better than slower heavier projectiles of the same kinetic energy. This has to do with concentration of force and shear. When you have a smaller, lighter arrow, it tends to have a smaller cross-section so it needs to displace less armor to pernitrate. The other important factor is sheer, when you hit a solid object slowly, the solid object spreads the force out across its surface meaning you are actually being resisted by a much larger cross-section than just the diameter of your arrow. But as speed increases, your penetrator gets to push through the armor faster than the armor can spread the force out meaning that you effectively reduce your cross-section just by moving faster. So, between greater speed, and smaller size, a modernized crossbow will pernitrate armor over twice as well as medieval bows and crossbows of a given draw weight.

Then there is range and accuracy. A 55mps bow has a maximum theoretical range of about 300m (give or take a bit for air-resistance, elevation, etc.) and an effective range of about 50m. This said, a faster 90mps arrow would have a maximum theoretical range of about 820m and an effective range of over 100m.

Lighter arrows also mean you can carry more/cheaper ammo.

These modernized bows and crossbows can lead to 2 possible trends. High draw-weight weapons that can punch right trough steel plate armor just like muskets did, and smaller 50lb bows that can out perform historical 100lb warbows. 50lb bows are MUCH easier to master than historical warbows because a man of normal strength can draw and fire them repeatedly, and you draw it to you eye instead of past your body allowing you to line up your shots. These factors mean you can train up effective archers almost as fast as crossbowmen who can out perform not just archers, but early firearms as well.

The Technology Timeline

Steal Compound Bows would likely come first

The first major advancement will be the compound bow system. In our world, this came much later than it could have. Pullies have been around for a long time, and if they are added to the steel arm arbalists of the medieval period, then you would have seen much more powerful, easier to use crossbows. The problem with steel crossbows is that they were already pretty much obsolete by the time they started to come into thier own; so, they were never rigorously developed like we did with firearms. Thier steel arms has massive draw weights, but could only flex a few inches meaning that a 600-1200lb crossbow was often no stronger than an 80-150lb longbow.

The reason we don't see compound systems used on any previous forms of bows or crossbows is that they are useless for materials that you can already flex a reasonable distance by hand. What compound systems do is allow you to turn a high poundage, low speed, short draw into a low poundage, high speed, long draw which allows one to convert potential energy into acceleration much more efficiently. Wooden/horn/bone/senue bows don't benefit from pullies, but steel bows benefit a lot.

By adding compound pullies to a steel crossbow, you can increase its draw length and speed and reduce its draw weight; so, you could make crossbows that could be drawn quickly by hand, but pack just as much punch as thier lever drawn counterparts... or you could make windlass drawn crossbows much stronger than any of their medieval counterparts.

If this invention came before gunpowder, then it is likely that guns would have never found thier place on the battlefield (at least not until someone figures out rifling)

Next would come repeating crossbows

Historically, many civilizations experimented with repeating crossbows like the Chinese Chu-ko-nu, but ultimately, these weapons never caught on because they sacrificed too much power and accuracy in exchange for thier increased rate of fire.

One problem is that you still rely on the strength of human arms to draw the weapon back, so the faster you can draw it, the weaker it will be. A hand drawn crossbow is simply too weak, and a magazine fed bow like the Instant Legolas makes your bow so much harder to aim that at any real combat ranges, you'd miss more than the extra arrows would benefit you.

That said, if your compound steel crossbow can now be hand-drawn to an effective power, then you can add in magazines and have the accuracy and ease of use of a crossbow with the rate of fire of a bow making a repeating crossbow that could actually hold its own on the battlefield.

Last would probably come Better Materials

The next major advancement will be resin fiberglass. Resin and fiberglass are 2 of those ancient things that gets too much credit as modern inventions. While synthetic resin and fiberglass did not exist until the early 1900s, natural resin and fiberglass usage goes all the way back to the ancient world. By the 1200s, the use of laminating fibers like silk and sinew to wooden bow frames was already common in some parts of the world, and the use of natural fiber glass (asbestos) in cloth making was common in other parts of the world. In our timeline, composite bow making was a dying art by the time these cultures really started to intermingle; so, fiberglass resin composites were never really experimented with until we achieved synthetic, more widely available versions of these materials.

However, if the gun never happened, the composite bow would have remained relevant long enough for these civilizations to trade the right materials and technologies for someone (maybe lacking silk or sinew) to try to see how well asbestos would work. And when they finally try this, they will learn a very important lesson.

Fiberglass holds more potential energy for its weight when flexed than wood or steel and snaps back to it's original shape faster than these other materials. A thin facing of resin fiberglass on a wooden bow significantly improves how fast it can snap back to its resting shape and imparts significantly more acceleration than wood or steel in the process.

This said... pure resin/fiberglass composites, like steel, is much harder to flex than pure wood; so, without a compound mechanism, pure fiberglass is not a very good bow making medium. But when you add together compound mechanisms and fiberglass, you get the basic key components of true modern crossbows.

Conclusion

It is my estimation that the lack of firearms will accelerate these inventions significantly... though by how much it is hard to say. The thing is that all of the prerequisite technology needed to make a 300+ fps crossbow existed 800 years ago, we just did not put it all together until the 1900s; so, as a writer you can really put these discoveries more or less where ever you like between the late 1300s and early 1900s without them seeming too outlandish.

Alternately, if you just speed up the invention of these things, you could just plain make bows and crossbows outperform firearms so much that they never catch on. Early guns were not great, but they caught on because they could do to armor what bows and crossbows could not, but if compound crossbows caught on before early muskets were invented, then muskets would have never been more than a curiosity item. And if they never saw mainstream success, then there is no telling how much longer it would take us to invent things like riffling, gas repeaters, bullets, and all those things that really made the gun what it is today.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you meant $E_{kinetic} = \frac{1}{2}{m v^2}$ for bolt energy. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Feb 8, 2023 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Corey Opps! yes. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 8, 2023 at 15:45
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Grenade launchers

They would be able to do a lot of damage and have a lot of flexibility due to allowing different kinds of ammunition (explosive, shrapnel, incendiary...), but they would not compete with melee weapons because they would be unusable in close-quarter combat. Technically, the grenade launchers could be implemented as slingshots, upscaled crossbows, spring mechanism or via compressed air.

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    $\begingroup$ It might be tough to justify firearms not existing if explosives are available. An alternative history where some other explosive is available would likely lead to very similar firearms being developed (with minor changes to suit the properties of the available substance) $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Feb 6, 2023 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ @DBS: Firearms=explosives+metallurgy. We can explain grenades without firearms (metallurgic problems, see e.g. Japan) but the OP had a 1940's level technology (so explosives and metallurgy are well-developed). $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Feb 6, 2023 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @MSalters That's true, but the question specifies that the world is "more industrial" (than the real early 1900's? Presumably), so I think we have to assume metal working is sufficiently developed. $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Feb 6, 2023 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ Note that ideally firearms don't use explosives - they use a substance that burns really fast. This is a key point, because an explosion is usually too quick, causing overpressure and burst guns. If the primary explosive used is just too powerful over too short a time frame, it can't be used to power any (reasonably sized for infantry use, at least) gun. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 18:44
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I think quick-reload and automatic weapons are still useful next steps.

If you have elastic material slingshots are great. This channel might give you some good inspiration on all of the above: https://www.youtube.com/@Slingshotchannel

Also, a lack of gunpowder should make engagements more quiet this would probably increase the value of stealth operations. Therefore, better disguises would be a plausible development.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there a direct reason for including that link? It looks spammy to me, and it's customary to include your affiliation (unless you quote from it as a source, and the quote is directly related to an answer). $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Feb 6, 2023 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ The Slingshot Channel is awesome! It actually provides many examples of elastic powered weaponry designs, and shows how they can easily provide enough force to kill. @Joachim, the channel provides solid engineering advice and good integrity, and this is a perfect non-spammy way to mention them. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean Cool, thanks for the heads-up! $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Feb 6, 2023 at 18:47
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Following on from the suggestions of paintball guns and air rifles, I'll propose a no-compressed air option.

Pedal power, steam power, or some sort of wind-up mechanism provides a some rotational power (more below). This power is used to tension a spring - I'm thinking it'll pull back a "peg in a slot", presumably with a couple of ratchet points along its length in case of malfunction.

Once the peg reaches far enough back, a bolt can drop down from a magazine, and now lies on the "slot" the peg has been pulled along. The bearer of this weapon can now fire the bolt by releasing the peg, which uses its stored force to push the bolt out of the front of the weapon. Much like a crossbow would (with without the leaf springs).

I'm thinking of a miniature version of the catapult that "fires" fighters off aircraft carriers. They used to be steam powered, which you could use here too (for something more like artillery). For a more hand-held weapon, I'd favour a spring or elastic mechanism. If you put a couple of them side by side, you could probably fire quite rapidly, depending how long it takes to withdraw the "peg" in each - and that depends on what power source you have.

As for power sources, pedal power has been mentioned, as has steam. Both would really need a colleague behind the firer to do the pedalling, or to stoke the fire or whatever. The connection from one to the other could be something like a flexible drill bit (ie. a bendy metal rod in a tube, as you turn one end, the other end turns).

For a solitary firer, maybe a sort of "one man band" contraption. That is, a sort of foot pedal arrangement, perhaps mounted on the opposite leg. That is, the wearer is free to walk and run, but to reload a bolt, they have to lift up their right leg, put their foot on a plate next to their left knee, press down on it and then lift their foot off again to reset the mechanism.

Lastly, we can think about ammunition. An automatic crossbow probably just shoots bolts that have a pointed end designed to penetrate a human body. However, the larger, artillery version can shoot anything roughly cannon ball-like. You could just shoot cannon balls to smash through walls and defences, or you could possibly shoot a sort of "egg" that contains something nasty. Since you haven't invented gunpowder, no explosives, but maybe anthrax, or mustard gas, purified sodium when it's raining, or maybe even just a bad cold - anything that will "soften up" the opposition, ready for your final onslaught. The point is, without an explosion to fire the payload, you're doing something more like throwing it - so whilst it can't be fragile, it can probably be soft enough that it'd break apart on landing but wouldn't break in the muzzle during firing.

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Multiple other answers refer to bow/crossbow, but speed of repetition remains a bottleneck. So let me chime in with:

The magazine-fed repeating bow

Refer to the gadgets of Jörg Sprave. He has built a number of arrow magazines, retrofitted onto various conventional traditional and compound bows. These seem to give the archer a much higher rate of fire (until the mag is empty - but stripper clips are a possibility for refilling), somewhat better accuracy through repeatability, and somewhat better/more ergonomic purchase and thus less fatigue in the pulling action, allowing a longer session of shooting. (My opinion, based on the limited experience I have from shooting a compound bow probably less than a dozen times a few years back).

These gadgets are all built out of plywood, but superficially look like something an experienced carpenter from the 1940 and quite earlier would be able to make.

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This "somehow guns don't exist" is a common trope, and it is only possible with the most extreme hand-waving. If gunpowder and its descendents aren't possible, then most of chemistry is also not possible.

But what's after the crossbow? Well, no one knows because they were coincidentally replaced by firearms. Consider that the heaviest of man-portable crossbows already needed a complicated and heavy leverage-adding mechanism just to cock it back. So adding even more power to it while keeping it man-portable seems challenging.

I am not aware of a fundamental change made to crossbows in the last 200 years. They could be made compound, or out of something other than a leaf spring, or lighter. The only real improvement I can think of is that they follow rifle ergonomics. That is, they have a buttstock now.

One possibility is that, like nuclear weapons, firearms are taboo. It's not ok to use a nuke. There could be a society where it is not ok to use firearms. But this is really a stretch because explosives are useful in civil engineering. Thus the materials will be at hand. And there's no taboo that won't be broken by an unethical or desperate man.

I will direct you to a book called "Dies the Fire" wherein, in a literal flash, most of modern tech quits working. Guns are inert. Airliners fall from the sky because their fuel won't burn. And then it's the 14th century with men-at-arms on bicycles. It's the only way SCA nerds can take over the world, and this is exactly what happens in the book. The genius about this approach is that it is never explained. It just happens, move along and deal with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ "No guns" is doable - how different should this world be? Guns needs some metallurgy for the barrels, and some chemistry for explosives. A world without iron is perhaps too different. One could imagine a world with no significant deposits of sulphur or nitrates. No easy oxidizers to get things started. So gunpowder and other explosives won't be discovered by simple experimentation, they'd have to develop advanced chemistry first. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2023 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Not in a 1940s world. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Feb 8, 2023 at 21:13
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Since there's no gunpowder, I assume there's certain limitation to the available tech. Crossbows, bows , thus maybe catapult like weapon. and then the update, make the ammunition flammable. Then next probably they'll research more into materials or ways to propel those bullets faster with available tech, since in our timeline gunpowder exist, the research into those elastic stuff kind of halted.

so maybe they tinker more in new weirdly shaped ranged weapon. or they abandon it since there's seem to be a big wall, so there's a blank era where ranged weaponry does not get anymore sophisticated for a while.

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A different technology discovery sequence?

I don't think its possible to avoid discovering gun-cotton (also high explosives) once chemistry becomes a science.

However, it might be possible for steam engines and electrical technologies to emerge before chemistry gets started (whereas in our world, electrical technology was delayed with respect to chemistry). The principles of the steam engine were known in ancient Greece. Early electrical machinery used silk wrapping, lacquer, or rubber to insulate wires. (Actually not that early; rubber remained in use until PVC arrived post-WW2). Electrical induction might have been observed in ancient Greece -- but (as far as we know) it wasn't.

In which case, a linear motor firing massive bolts becomes possible in the absence of chemical propellants. So does a sort of machine-gun using high-pressure steam as a propellant. Or compressed air, using a compressor driven by a steam engine.

Perhaps give your world a rubber plant that doesn't need to be grown in the tropics(*), and more abundant supplies of copper than our world? Other plants that remove historical incentives for the commercial development of chemistry?

BTW push this to an extreme and they might even get thermionic valves and radio before chemistry. Also computers? Steam-punk with a twist.

(*) it actually exists in our world, but was never commercialized. It was briefly cultivated during WW2 to compensate for the possible loss of rubber from Equatorial parts. It's the Dandelion!

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The only answer I haven't seen yet is a shotgun type load delivering a payload of many flechettes to rain down on infantry. Especially devastating when fired from a ballista to deliver up to 100 heavy metal or wooden darts in a concentrated area. Much easier to work than a fast firing mechanism.

Launched inside a cup or "wad" that holds them together at the beginning of the flight but falls away shortly after firing and allows the flechettes to spread out.

Large format flechettes

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An interesting replacement for handguns could be the Sling - an underrated historical weapon. The obvious example of this is David vs Goliath, where David's victory is written to be an act of divine intervention. But the sling was apparently such a deadly and versatile weapon that many historical armies used it in combat (Wikipedia) and Malcolm Gladwell compared it to a .45 calibre handgun (Inc.com). So it was actually incredibly powerful and in an alternate history setting without being made redundant by gunpowder weaponry it could have seen some serious improvements.

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    $\begingroup$ The Romans actually did improve it a lot. A lot of people question why Rome never made major use of bows, and its because slings were better for the enemies they faced. They used specifically shaped and weighted ceramic or lead shots that could inflict fatal internal injuries through steel helmets and armor. The decline of the sling I suspect had a lot to do with the decline of shields in favor of better armor. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 8, 2023 at 17:30
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Repeating crossbows to me would be obvious. It goes back to the Ming Dynasty and now, you can have a version that repeatedly fires multiple bolts at someone and allows you to load 'clips' that let you shoot your weapon quickly similar to guns in our own world.

You also work on creating bolts to make smaller, more compact crossbows with smaller yet accurate bolts.

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I think the basic wooden crossbow is phase 1. After that you have advanced metallurgy techniques. After you have the best crossbow material science can make, you make it shoot more bolts, but faster. A crossbow with automated loading (string pull) + top/gravity fed magazine of bolts would be the next step (basically a built-in quiver). Things like extreme long range bolts with glider like wings that pop out could be an option. Poisons are a good add-on. Bolt heads that shatter on impact, or are made from things like microbarbs would also be cool.

You could also go to a "linear" bow where the tension in inline with the weapon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZvrk-L6Gzg

Good luck!

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I think you might be coming at this from the wrong perspective.

Fire arms are way to obvious for us to just not figure them out. They are too conducive to what we are as humans.

But there are other ways around this, and that is to make them illicit. For instance, when crossbows were first spreading, the pope tried to ban them internationally, because they disturbed the social order. That is, typically learning to fight effectively required so much time that only the upper class could be professional soldiers (more or less). The clergy was worried that this would lead to the lower class all being used as expendable soldiers, while the upper class would no longer need to risk their butts (thank goodness they were wrong about that, right?)

But I think that what you want is less a world were firearms don't exist, and more a world where this injunction worked. This would be a blanket ban on high lethality, low skill weapons, with the goal of keeping war the work of the nobility, and to a lesser extent the freemen, while the working class maintains a level of protection from combat.

This system was never perfect of course, but continuing it opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities. This would mean not worrying about "the next level of crossbows" because they would also be included in any such ban, but it would open up the door for swords with replaceable razor blades, modern steel armor.

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Poison dart frog automatic rifles.

Compressed air weapons. If they had steel that can't deliver much compression for airguns, then they could have poison dart frog airguns, which have a barrel of 3-20 poison darts depending on compression. Because poisons are potentially weird, the deadly poison dart is too difficult to obtain, so they mostly use sleep inducing frogs, mind-altering frogs, frogs that make you scared and run away, and the soldiers have a light pack of 200 mixed frog darts, and have to select the ones for battle, and can fire a volley of 10 darts in automatic weapon style. You can get bullet-ant darts, mutant radioactive style darts, darts that make someone mad or forgetful, laugh uncontrollably, so forth. The various regions can specialize in different poisons based on their local ecology, forests, and local wildlife.

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