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One of the annoying problems with most urban fantasy series I've read is that they seem to mostly try to avoid discussing the fact that most of their fearsome magical foes could be felled with a simple gun. Many works just ignore guns entirely and never explain why we should fear the guy that can toss around fireballs when I can toss around just as viable metal death simply by visiting my local gun store.

I'm toying with trying to justify the lack of guns by making it relatively easy to create a magic that prevents gunpowder, or any other form of similar explosive concoctions, from easily igniting within a certain radius of the mage. So guns aren't brought to a magical showdown since it's presumed they simply won't work during one. Of course humans are tool makers, and if guns failed to be an option we would come up with alternative tools to serve the same purpose. My question is what those tools would be, and how limited they might be compared to magical alternatives.

Lets say there is a small, but functional, urban magic community within the larger non-magical society. Within that community there will be people who do not have access to useful offensive magic who wish to defend themselves, but cannot depend on a gun for that use. What would the logical alternative weapon for someone expecting to face a mage to carry?

I'd accept both modern items that can be purchased and easily modified for combat in our current society, and also potentially specially crafted weapons that don't have much of a niche outside of the magical community. However given the small size of the magical community and economy of scales a specialty weapon can't be too hard to make before it becomes too cost inefficient to be a staple weapon for most in the community.

Presume enchanting of magical weapon is limited and not a viable option for a non mage. I have toyed with allowing limited alchemy combined with basically a paint-ball gun firing alchemical potion-balls but haven't decided if I want that to be a viable option, I'm looking for alternative options.

I'm mostly looking for option to defend against otherwise normal magic wielding humans. Though bonus points if there are options that may work against things with superhuman reflexes or durability as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Is this a world in which magic has just learned to deal with guns, or one where it's co-existed? Because there would be co-evolution. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Mar 28, 2023 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ Guns using compressed air to propel bullets have been in service with the Austrian army for decades during the time of the Napoleonic wars. There is no need to ignite anything. (And anyway, modern smokeless powder does not "ignite" in any meaningful sense of the word. It does not burn; it decomposes very quickly into gas.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 28, 2023 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ Many works just ignore guns entirely and never explain why we should fear the guy that can toss around fireballs when I can toss around just as viable metal death simply by visiting my local gun store. Counterpoint: in only a small minority of the world's countries is there such a thing as a "local gun store". There is no need for a story set in e.g. England to explain why the characters don't have guns. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Mar 29, 2023 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps relevant for future answers: the body armor would likely still have progressed. A weapon like a crossbow or air rifle might not be functional enough in regular warfare, so you’d need alternatives. Considering the words like “combat” rather than “disagreement with your neighbour” I would expect this to be about warfare. Especially since throwing fireballs is likely a good way to lose your job, house and banking privileges until you agree to be arrested and put through the justice system. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Mar 29, 2023 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Indeed, there are guns in England too. But a story set in England still needs no in-universe explanation for why the characters don't have guns, unless the characters are e.g. specially trained police officers. Most people in such countries not only don't own guns, but they have no idea how one might go about acquiring a gun, legally or otherwise. There is no need to justify why the characters don't have guns, any more than a writer needs to justify why they don't have blackbelts in Karate. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Mar 29, 2023 at 17:55

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Lots of frame challenges are possible. But I'll answer straight instead. I'll also assume that the magic stops any combustive propellants, not just gunpowder, so you can't just use rockets like the Gyrojet.

Electrothermal weapons

This is not to be confused with electro-thermal-chemical, which combine ET with high-power propellant. Electrothermal weapons store energy in a supercapacitor and discharge it to quickly vaporize a neutral, non-combusting propellant.

This is a modern high-tech option that will be most similar to existing guns in performance. You do need to charge it, like a phone, but the solid for heating can be packaged inside a cartridge, like in a modern handgun.

Supercapacitors store up to 100 Wh/kg and release energy at 15 kW/kg. To overcome the second limitation, you'd either add a charge capacitor or a membrane in each cartridge, which breaks at firing pressure. 15 kW gives you 10 shots per second at 750 joules/shot and 50% efficiency, so even an automatic is doable, with a 1 kg capacitor good for 30-50 shots.

Both options bring the drawback that the gun will take a bit of time to fire. For a pistol-sized weapon with a smaller capacitor, it will take about 0.2-0.3 seconds from trigger pull to a full power shot, if a bursting membrane is used. If a charge capacitor is used, the gun can fire instantly, but it will leak energy while charged.

Still, even with these limitations, it's practical, powerful, and possible with modern technology. Electrothermal tech is being considered for next-generation tank guns, as it can pack more energy into a shot than gun propellants.

Supercapacitors and high-power electronics are expensive, though. I've done some research a few years back, and a reliable personal weapon would cost high four figures. It's still not an unseen price for high-end firearms. Plus, in a world where they're actually necessary, your electric car will probably have a charging rack for your e-guns.

TASER

Already covered in other answers, this is the go to gun for less-lethal self-defense. Unlike mace, it doesn't rely solely on pain. Unless you need to pierce armor or match the magic's range, in which case you go to...

Pneumatic crossbows

Citizens who can't afford electro-thermal guns, will have to settle for pneumatic or spring-powered weapons. Spring power is limited and difficult to reload. Compressed air is much bulkier than gunpowder, but you can fire off multiple shots even in an emergency.

The most lethal and reasonably long-range option, if we exclude guns, is crossbow bolts.

This is one such airbow. It does look like a gun... it does work like a gun. They are used for hunting. A standard bolt at 450 fps has similar 250-300J energy to a small handgun, but can be considerably deadlier with the right tip.

Or can pierce armor if needed. You can guess who fields a subsonic armor-piercing rifle. It's automatic and a crossbow isn't, however.

The picture depicts a Crosman Airbow. It is a PCP (pre-charged pneumatic) crossbow, which means the bows are propelled with air, much like airguns which fire pellets and BBs. Overall, it looks like a regular pellet PCP, with a visible air gauge tube at the front to check how much pressure is remaining. The airgun is also outfitted with a top rail to attach a aiming scope like depicted on the picture. An arrow container is also visible at the top, which allows the shooter to grab them for a faster reloading.

Pneumatic guns

Let's not forget high-tech airguns. A .457 hunting airgun delivers 600 joules of energy - more than a .45 ACP pistol bullet. In comparison, common BB guns and airsoft guns produce 1-2 joules. Anything above 100 joules is firmly in the lethal category, and a 600 J weapon can be used for big game.

The secret to these airguns is pre-charged high-pressure air, storing almost firearm-like pressure in a steel or carbon fiber tank. These figures are obtained at 3,000 psi. Fill tanks are loaded to 4,500 psi and storage tanks to 6,000 psi. This allows for easy top-down filling through pressure regulators.

If someone is willing to use a boost compressor rather than a regulator to refill their gun, or just get a factory-filled 6 ksi (ksi=1,000 psi) tank, they can double their power, reaching rifle levels. Or, better, apply that to pneumatic crossbows - I find them cooler for a magic-enabled setting.

One reason airguns don't go to 6,000 psi (or even 16,000 that's been used industrially) is noise. Noise depends on muzzle pressure, and a 3,000 psi airgun doesn't scare prey as far away as a 10,000 psi shotgun. Similar pressure will mean similar noise. But if guns don't always work, you'll see a competition for power and pressure in airguns, and it won't stop at 6 ksi.

So... volts or bars?

The common limitation of air-powered weapons is that they remain subsonic. Some can reach Mach 0.9, but that's it; air only expands at the speed of sound, and it gets cold in an airgun. Bolts can still penetrate armor at subsonic velocity, due to their high sectional density. Modern tank rounds are basically supersized uranium bolts.

Electrothermal guns have no such limitations. They heat up the gas, and hot gas has a higher speed of sound, so they can fire supersonic, rifle-like bullets. Even out of a short barrel.

Air also has a limited capacity. Hunting airguns only store enough air for 4-8 shots, with slow reloading as you have to open and close the valves. Electrics are going to start at 30, and battery swaps are as easy as a magazine.

Why not both?

It's also possible to combine the technologies - superheating the compressed gas with an electric discharge, to push the round to high supersonic velocities not possible for pneumatics. A pure electric will be simpler, but with a hybrid, you can have the reliability of pneumatics and the power of electrics if charged.

The cost and regular maintenance required for electrics will be worth the capacity and firepower for combat professionals, since they carry a Christmas tree's worth of battery-powered gadgets as it is. An air cylinder, on the other hand, can store its pressure for decades without decay.

You will probably see electrothermal weapons in police and military service, and high-pressure pneumatics plus the good old TASER used by civilians. Hybrid weapons are likely to be available as high-end civilian/sporting options.

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    $\begingroup$ You also don't need crossbow bolts to just be cross bolts. They can have certain nasties on them. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 29, 2023 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ The fiberglass tanks used by some natural gas cars actual go into the 5000-6000psi range; so, even 4500psi is far from the top end of doable. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 29, 2023 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki True. It's basically a trickle-down infrastructure: storage cylinders do 6,000 psi, refill cylinders 4,500, and airguns themselves store 3,000. This lets you refill with a simple regulator valve. But you could put 6,000 straight into the gun, using a boost compressor, and you would in a military application. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Mar 30, 2023 at 11:25
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This is a Frame Challenge

I'm toying with trying to justify the lack of guns by making it relatively easy to create a magic that prevents gunpowder, or any other form of similar explosive concoctions, from easily igniting within a certain radius of the mage.

Allow me to introduce you to the Law of Unintended Consequences:

The Law of Unintended Consequences reflects the natural results of using a simple system to regulate a complex system. Those results are often unwanted if not down right invasive.

Your magical solution to prohibiting firearms is impractical

  1. Combustion is a chemical process in which a substance reacts rapidly with oxygen and gives off heat. (Source) We usually think in terms of an explosion, but combustion includes animal (yup, including human) metabolism. So, if your magic prohibits gunpowder from igniting in any way that can be explained with the word "chemistry," you just killed everyone and everything within the area of effect.

  2. But let's assume your magic is more magical than that. No scientific term can explain why the gunpowder or "any other form of similar explosive concoctions" (how the magic knows this is, well... magical...) doesn't work. It just doesn't work. But you just stopped every combustion engine within the area of effect. You just stopped the guy who's trying to nail down the frame for his house with a Ramset. Heck, you just extinguished little Timmy's campfire... and the marshmallow wasn't done cooking yet. You might have even stopped factories from operating. You certainly shut off everyone's gas/oil/wood burning furnaces in the winter. But that can be solved by limiting the area of effect, right?

  3. Enter a good sniper like Staff Sgt. Hunter Bernius, who hit a training target more than 7,500 feet (1.4 miles) away. Who cares if your magic can subdue explosive force if that force occurs outside the area of effect and the consequence of that force (bullets, building debris from an explosion, radiation from a nuke...) impacted the mage instead? Oh, complimentary photo of the problem via the link above:

The picture depicts some kind of soldier laying on the ground, looking through the scope of what seems to be a designated marksman rifle or a sniper rifle, facing towards us. His face is painted in green camouflage, and his outfit looks like military green. His body is partly covered in some kind of ghillie suit for better camouflage; although his camouflage is questionable, because the background is white and his entire body appears to be mostly green.

Prohibiting a specific branch of technology (inevitably firearms) is a popular question on this Stack

And it doesn't often work. Especially when it's so easily replaced with spring-loaded air guns with the power of .22 to .38 caliber rifles or modern bows/crossbows or even a wrist rocket like the following bad boy.

The picture depicts a very sophisticated black slingshot. Instead of looking like a traditional child toy, this one looks closer to a crossbow.

or even spring-loaded projectile weaponry or the use of poisons. In short, there's an innumerable number of weapons that have already been created throughout human history that are, frankly, quite effective against just one person.

But, in the end, what you really need to do is not prohibit firearms, but come up with creative ways for mages to protect themselves against firearms. That tends to avoid the Law of Unintended Consequences most efficiently.

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    $\begingroup$ Metabolism isn't combusion. They are completely different chemical processes. $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @N.Virgo Cellular respiration is technically combustion. That is where co2 we breathe out comes from. $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2023 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ @N.Virgo "ATP captures the chemical energy released by the combustion of nutrients [...]" says press release for Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997 $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2023 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ @N.Virgo You might not want to call it combustion, which is completely understandable, but asserting that the processes are completely different at the chemical level is incorrect. In aerobic respiration, energy eg. from glucose is utilized as follows: a glucose molecule is split into two pyruvates, pyruvate meets O2 -> this reaction produces heat (that is used to fuel ATP synthesis) + CO2 (that we breathe out) + water. The only difference to "ordinary combustion" is that it does not need as much external heat. $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2023 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ Even the concept of calories in food relies on the processes being fundamentally the same. Calories have been measured by literally combusting the food and measuring how much heat it releases (calor in latin = heat). This result would not be meaningful at all if the processes were completely different at the chemical level. $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2023 at 10:59
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Something of a frame challenge

Your mages don't have to stop gunpowder from igniting if they can just do this

A still frame from the movie _The Matrix Reloaded (2003), from the scene where Neo stops all the gunshots from The Merovingian's henchmen by merely raising his hand in a "stop" sign. The picture seems pixelated, and there seems to be a curve to it, which suggests this picture was taken with a smartphone camera while the movie was playing on the TV.

Some kind of force-field like 'magic shield' is a common trope - perhaps in your world it can stop bullets or even explosions and the like. The side effect of this is it make your mages too powerful, but perhaps your magic shield has a weakness against something else.

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    $\begingroup$ The slow blade penetrates the Shield $\endgroup$
    – Martin
    Mar 29, 2023 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ My thoughts exactly, though from a different source (Carlo Zen’s The Saga of Tanya the Evil). If mages can alter reality at a fundamental level (which the question implies they can), there’s no reason they can’t use that to create magic ‘armor’ or ‘shields’ that deal with incoming projectiles instead of having to interfere with the operation of firearms. $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2023 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ of course that's why you shoot them when they are unaware. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 29, 2023 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ Or you could have them time-warp to any time before they were attacked, instead of taking damage. Or be immune to non-magical weapons. Or just live on a different plane of existence, affecting ours, but unaffected by it. With magic, the possibilities are endless. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Mar 30, 2023 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ Larry Niven's future history comes to mind--ships have shields whose stopping power is related to the speed of what hits them. Low energy things encounter some resistance, high energy things (including anything that's a worthwhile ship-to-ship weapon) don't. (That is, until the shield overloads.) $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2023 at 3:09
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apart from the already stated impossibility within any reasonably consistent universe, it's quite possible to create high power projectile weapons that don't rely on chemical explosives.

  • electromagnetic rail guns
  • (cross)bows
  • compressed gas canister driven weapons
  • high speed pistons in general (hard to do mechanically)

And then of course there is always the option of going for directed energy weapons.

  • plasma guns
  • lasers
  • particle beam weapons

Or there's another class of mages that creates amulets that let the wearer use those chemical explosives anyway by nullifying the nullifying field projected by your mages. This is a magical fantasy world after all, no reason there can't be counter-magic magic.

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Everyday Carry Weapons

Lets say there is a small, but functional, urban magic community within the larger non-magical society. Within that community there will be people who do not have access to useful offensive magic who wish to defend themselves, but cannot depend on a gun for that use. What would the logical alternative weapon for someone expecting to face a mage to carry?

What you are asking about is colloquially called an Everyday Carry Weapon. ECWs are often NOT weapons of war. They are designed around being cheap, small, and convenient enough to carry every day as opposed to maximizing your killing power. While militaries will likely pivot to using high energy lasers, railguns, or air riffles, these are all much to cumbersome and expensive to consider as ECWs.

In general, there are 6 classes of ECWs used today. I would rank them worst to best as follows:

  1. Firearms: Opps, darn magic... make that 5 classes of ECWs.
  2. Blades: The most common of these is a pocket knife which doubles as a helpful tool. Larger blades like machetes are often carried in more crime torn countries, but would be out of place in a "civilized" urban settings. The usefulness of these as ECW weapons goes way down in a magic filled community though. Because you'd probably just make yourself a bigger target trying to bring a knife to a fireball fight. So people will likely still carry knives as tools, but rarely consider using one as a weapon unless they know they are facing a muggle.
  3. Bludgeons: Walking sticks, batons, nun chucks, brass knuckles, etc. These are very simple and cheap self defense weapons generally meant to protect yourself against an unarmed opponent. These weapons are typically capable of lethal force, but much harder to accidently kill a person with than a gun or a knife. The key here is that they are mostly meant for fending off an unarmed attacker. If you want to arm yourself against a mage, these are not a good option. That said, I'd still rank these above blades because a bludgeon hurts much more acutely than getting stabbed; so, if magic requires a lot of focus, the pain of a stick to the arm may make casting much harder than a knife to the arm which can take several seconds for your brain to even register. Also, a good blow to the head can instantly incapacitate a person.
  4. Disguised Items: These are any variety of weapon that does not look like a weapon such as kubotans, tactical flash lights, etc. Some disguised items also overlap with other classes of ECW like a cane sword. This category of ECW weapons is so wide, it's hard to say how good they will perform against a mage, but by in large, you make your ability to defend yourself more surprising to an attacker. This could play to your advantage if it makes closing the range to cut off a mage's casting finger easier, but it can also disadvantage you since a person who is not visibly armed is a more inviting victim to begin with.
  5. Sprays: Weapons that use a chemical irritant to blind or distract an opponent. Depending on the nature of magic, these could either be a really good idea or a really bad one. If magic requires considerable focus, the pain may break the focus and prevent casting. But if it's more emotion driven, then the pain may amplify the mage's fear/anger causing him to caste giant walls of flame or lighting in every direction not only killing you, but burning down the better part of a city block. If it is the latter, I would expect ECW sprays to be outright banned.
  6. Stun Guns and Tasers: Weapons that use electricity to incapacity an opponent. These would probably be the most effective against a mage since they interrupt the whole nervous system instantaneously making casting impossible regardless of if you have an emotion or focus based system.

While the Stun Gun will likely become the undisputed best ECW , expect people to carry all 5. Why? Because that's what people do in the real world. Every person who carries an ECW has different personal values and physical capabilities; so, while one person may prefer a stun gun, another person may want something smaller like a keychain spray, or harder to hurt yourself with like a baton, or they don't want the fo paux of "being armed"; so, they pick a kubotan... or they want something more versatile that they might already have a daily use for like a knife, tactical flashlight, or walking cane.

But With Magic, Everyday Carry Defenses May be Better

Here in the real world, when a person pulls a gun on you, you've already lost. It does not matter what is in your back pocket if they draw first. In a world of magic, this problem is heavily amplified. Unless a mage needs a wand or some familer looking focus to cast a spell, then by the time a mage points his finger at you, you are already dead-to-rights. This makes the value of any ECW go WAY down when the mage can always win before you even know you are being threatened... but what about Everyday Carry Defenses?

The only way to defend against being ambushed by a stranger with a gun in our world is to armor yourself head to toe with 30+ kg of body armor... this is not every day suitable which is the whole reason people choose ECWs instead of ECDs. But in a world of magic, a good defense may be better than a good offense.

A basic 30\$ amulet of protection may not do squat against a veteran battlemage using a mil-spec wand of rip you apart at the molecular level... but against some punk mage off the street, throwing a "level-1" magic missile at your face, it could be the difference between getting 2nd degree burns and a mild tan. Unlike mil-spec defensive charms that involve wearing rings on every finger, 3 amulets, and robes covered head to toe in elaborate runes all designed to work together to cancel out everything from boiling blood spells, to being turned to stone, to being banished to demonic worlds... a simple but versatile protection charm would be all you need to turn your average a magical mugging into a simple fist fight.

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Speaking of compressed air weapons, if I were expecting a mage to ambush me, I'd probably carry a...

Taser

Assuming they're not walking around in plate armour, it'll work just as well on them as anyone, and no gunpowder required.

The same is true of a lot of less-lethal weapons, for that matter. I'd bet a blast of bear spray to the face would do a lot to disrupt spellcasting.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry to disappoint, but a genuine Taser (tm) uses conventional "gunpowder" (smokeless propellant) to launch the darts that penetrate clothing to deliver the stun charge to skin/flesh. It would be very possible to design a compressed gas powered version, but it would make the (one-shot- device much more expensive and require greater maintenance in storage. Hand held "stun guns" are often incorrectly called Tasers, but they're just miniaturized cattle prods and require the user to touch their assailant/victim with the active tip of the device -- and don't work against heavy clothing. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon - according to Taser's own website, their cartridges use compressed nitrogen as a propellant. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 29, 2023 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Woops, you're correct. They changed this apparently some time ago to get out of classification as a firearm. Original Taser used smokeless powder: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroshock_weapon $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 29, 2023 at 17:25
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It's been done kinda

The picture depicts six books written by Brian McCellan. The three at the top row are: Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, The Autumn Republic. The three at the bottom row are: Wrath of Empire, Sins of Empire, Blood of Empire. On the first row, the books mostly depict a man in what seems to be a Napoleonesque military outfit, carrying a musket outfitted with a bayonet fixed at the front. The second row books mostly depict the environment, with silhouettes from the character seen from afar.

In the Powder Mage series, there are a bunch of different types of mages of which powder mages are one who have the ability to control gun powder. They can snort it to make themselves faster, stronger, more alert, better senses etc but they can also make gunpowder inert or detonate it at will.

Enemies invent air rifles to hunt powder mages. They don't bring anything with gunpowder as the mages can sense all gunpowder around them and can detonate it at will which happens many many times in the series.

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Probably either crossbows/bows or an airsoft gun that is very powerful.

Edit, an airgun, not an airsoft.

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    $\begingroup$ Nitpicking just in case for any reader out there: airgun should not be confused with Airsoft replicas. The former is propelled pellets/metallic BBs which can penetrate and even kill (mostly small animals; there are also account of human-beings being fatally wounded, resulting from accidents), and the latter is propelled plastic BB which has a much lower velocity than airguns (although accidents can happen). $\endgroup$
    – Clockwork
    Mar 29, 2023 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, not airsoft. Airsoft specifically shoots plastic non-lethal ammunition for games. You're talking about air guns. Also this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girardoni_air_rifle $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 10, 2023 at 19:21
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Yet Another Frame Challenge

Do nothing. Reality is unrealistic, you know. You think powerful wizards would be harmless in a modern setting because anybody with a gun could take them down. That's because you are thinking of gunfights like this, but gunfights are really like this.

It's very easy to think about aiming carefully and shooting while you are behind your keyboard, but reality is another thing. Yes, a single bullet could kill the most powerful mage, but so could do an arrow or a knife. The problem is hitting. When you are against someone who can deliver area-efect fireballs directed by the mind, you don't trust your accuracy that much.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for do nothing, and understand how guns are actually used in the real world. Most civilians, even ones that shoot as a hobby, aren't trained or prepared to deploy a firearm in a real-world scenario. Self-defense requires an incredible amount of practice and experience- plus more to effectively use a weapon. And even then, you're just hoping that an assailant doesn't have more experience. Or bash you in the head from behind with a pipe. Or bring three friends. $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Mar 29, 2023 at 22:56
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These days we are seeing a lot of advancement in technology that allows railguns and coilguns to be more viable. These types of weapons don't require gunpowder and instead use electromagnetism to send a metal slug at the target. A company called Arcflash labs has demonstrated 3 different handheld coilguns that they have sold publicly, and while yes they are not very powerful, they are making a lot of progress. There are also many cases of people making homemade coil/railguns which could add in an interesting DIY element. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to imagine your world having further developed weapons like this, especially if regular guns are unviable, as the gap in capabilities could get people to invest more in these kinds of alternatives to level the playing field between mages and non-mages.

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I think perhaps you are missing the point. Why does it matter that a normal human may turn up with a gun? They have to carry a specific weapon, with limited ammo.

As a mage you have concealed weapons with near limitless power, accuracy, and fire rate. The range of options for a single mage can be from pea shooter (just to distract someone), taser for stunning, through riffles, to bazookas, and beyond, all in 1 person. The mage may even be able to shoot round corners, through obstacles, unmissable targeting, etc.

The human might be able to get a lucky shot in if the mage is careless, but in general if a mage and a human are in the same area in a shoot out, then the mage is a one man army vs the human with their one pistol.

Also if the mage has even a minimal advantage in speed, shield, predictive abilities, etc, then attempting to hit them with a projectile of any type is even more likely to fail.

One of the annoying problems with most urban fantasy series I've read is that they seem to mostly try to avoid discussing the fact that most of their fearsome magical foes could be felled with a simple gun.

Doesn't every scene in every DC/Marvel comic or movie when the police/army turn up to stop the bad guy, answer the question why fearsome magical foes can't be felled with a simple gun?

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A world in which a wizard can be killed with a gun is an interesting premise.

A world in which a wizard cannot be killed with a gun is an interesting premise.

A world in which wizards can stop combustion of gunpowder but there is a 1:1 replacement for a gun that can kill mages and that replacement is widely available - well, at this point the only difference between our world and the imaginary world is that mages control ignition of gunpowder. Mind you, not "mages control ignition of gunpowder and all the consequence that would have on functioning of our world", it's just about gunpowder.

If you want to remove guns from your world, then why are you trying to invent weapons to replace a role of the gun in a story? Making conventional, most powerful weapons available to us mortals have no effect on wizards is a narrative device, one that shows how powerful people with magic are. If any other person can kill a wizard just as easily with a gun-but-for-mages, then what was the reason for removing guns in the first place? What is the point of offensive magic, if mages with no offensive capabilities can use an offensive gun? I can only see that working in just a single context and that would be a story about mages with offensive powers becoming obsolete.

You need to decide - are mages so weak, that they can be killed by a bullet, or are they a more powerful class of humans that forces us to revert to pre-combustion weapons to fight them? If it's the first, then why not address the problem by mixing firearms and magic with each other? If it's the second, then mages without offensive abilities and non-magical people might as well carry daggers with them - not because they are effective, but because it gives them a fighting chance. If there is a special witch-hunting that fights mages, they might use crossbows as the second best replacement for a gun and work in squads of dozens, camped on the rooftops. Defeating powerful mages or defending from them is a creative puzzle for the writer that can be solved with wit, overwhelming numbers, ancient artifact, protective magic or otherwise. It engages creativity far more than a single-fit solution can.

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  • $\begingroup$ He's not asking how to make muggles able to WIN against a mage, but what our best option is if guns are not a thing. When it comes to self defense, guns are way more deadly that any other ECW. If the next best thing is a sword or pepper spray, then getting jumped by a mage in a dark alley is generally going to be a very very bad thing for the non-magic user, which may be the point. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 29, 2023 at 21:03
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Well, there are a few options;

If the mages aren't immune to projectiles, regular humans could use weapons like crossbows or cheiroballistrae to attack them from a distance.

If the mages have some protection against projectiles, then regular humans might have to resort to polearm weapons like halberds or glaives, which might give them a chance of being able to injure a mage before the mage can attack them.

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Instead of focusing on preventing explosion, make it so that mages have spells that can block high speed projectiles, make it easy to cast, and long lasting and maybe invisible, something like mage armour. If you set a limit on what speed the projectiles has to be below to bypass the shielding spell. This may force non mage troops to use crossbows, bows or melee weapons instead.

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like the shield belts from the Dune universe. They only allow slow weapons like blades to pass through. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Mar 30, 2023 at 7:04
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This has been done, more or less, based on the velocity of the projectile, in Patrick Rothfuss "The Wise Man's Fear". Kvothe builds a magical device that detects a crossbow bolts and cancels its velocity with runes. There are various safeguards (extremely high velocity only, doesn't go off on organic material so it doesn't get triggered by birds or wildlife, will detect metal / stone / horn arrowheads, etc).

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Since it's a fantasy novel I don't think we need hard science here. Some ideas:

  1. A mad mage experimenting in the 90's somehow unleashed reality splitting spell that unintentionally altered physics, specifically making gunpowder non-combustible. He died in the process and his lab was destroyed. You don't need to go into details on unintended consequences etc.

  2. Not your gunpowder idea but: The spell to stop high velocity projectiles just short of your skin is relatively easy, but the power required scales based on the mass of the object. A bullet? Simple. A car? Damn that's tough. The ground coming at you as you fall from a building? Well that's technically the whole earth so nah. This will prevent stuff like air compression rifles and crossbows nullifying the intended scenario you want.

Either way soldiers deal with mages using modern swords of your own imaginations design. Or flamethrowers ;0

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  • $\begingroup$ Flamethrowers are pretty effective against melee lol. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 29, 2023 at 13:16
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Magic of predicted outcome to stop that which would do someone harm by a slight glimpse a few microseconds into future that stops the intent of the weapon without regard to the speed it is traveling, how it is propelled, or even how or what it is constructed from.

A magic glimpse at the future to prevent, or a magical regression to redo and counter.

Covers just about everything conceivable from the intentional to the accidental.

Just call it a spell of protection, loosely explain the concept if need be, reconcile the rest with hew fact we have already conceded to the existence of magic ;)

One can hardly argue the viability of magic and believe in its existence at the same time. Unless of course you are quoting A.C. Clarke and the magic is meerly perception, not true magic (if there is such a thing). But even still, sufficiently advanced tech may be able to pull this off with temporal mechanics, and thus appear magic in context.

Still a win/win IMO.

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The offensive weapon brought to bear will entirely depend on the defensive abilities of the average mage in this urban fantasy world

Previous answers have given a wide variety of ideas and I will give them the credit where they are due. I would observe that for an urban fantasy setting, there are going to be two main drivers for what weapons will be most effective in evening the battlefield between the mundane and magical.

Magical Defences

We know from the question that there is a primary defensive field that somehow prevents gunpowder from being utilized for firearms. Beyond that, there are whatever other defensive enchantments the average mage will use to ensure their safety.

If their standard defences are against bullet-like projectiles, then most likely people will have some manner of melee weapon. If their defences are geared towards fists and blades, then people will use something small enough to not trip those defences.

If the anti-gunpowder spell/aura is their only real defence, then expect a lot of assorted things based on personal choice and preference. On the reverse, if they have a near impenetrable defence in personal range, then expect combat to be about getting out of range of the anti-gun aura and shooting them.

In the end, it's about what will be the most useful weapon to break through the most common defences.

The Masquerade

Unmentioned is the mostly traditional Masquerade -- that veil that separates the normal mortal world from the supernatural world. Given the premise of "small, but functional, urban magic community within the larger non-magical society" in the question, I will be making the presumption that your weapon would not only have to be useful, but be legal under mundane laws. Possibly altered from what we know due to the knowledge of magic.

Depending on the part of the world that this community is in, what weapons that are readily available could be very different. If mundane laws evolved with the knowledge of the supernatural, then expect evolved laws to aid (or hurt) the available choices

The Weapons Cache

Personally unless explicitly defended against, I would suspect that some manner of light melee weapon would be the item of choice like a serviceable knife or a baton.

So long as the knife isn't too big, it would be the type of thing one could carry around to handle stubborn boxes and tie straps, or any other odd thing that one needs to cut. It likely wouldn't raise eyebrows if seen unless it was blatantly magical.

A baton would be a bit of an odder choice, but it isn't as inherently lethal and can be hidden in other ways. Also if it isn't metal in origin, then it can likely travel on aircraft easily as it isn't blatantly a weapon.

Both of these should be relatively legal to possess, even if not in an ideal form. Likewise, both would be easier to acquire than other more exotic items such as crossbows or tasers. Not that they are bad weapons -- just that there might be more issues possessing them legally.

In a place where guns are more commonplace or less forbidden, an enchanted airgun might be useful for mages to help defend against their fellows.

As a bonus, it wouldn't be hard to make these things out of special materials to handle specific threats. Or have them blessed for extra effectiveness against the undead. Tiny runes carved into the weapons could further enhance the power of the weapon.

Of course, all this is predicated on the need to have a weapon to defend themselves against threats from mages.

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