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While I enjoy the "rule of cool", I enjoy having reasoning for everything being the way it is in my settings. My current reasoning is melee as a tertiary weapon, and as a weapon used by ship defense Marines.

Beyond this, I struggle to find a reason as to why melee would still be prevalent to the point of every soldier being trained with at least one form of it in an era dominated by lasers, plasma, and power armor.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ I would recommend looking into why people mainly use melee weapons in the Dune books and movie franchise. $\endgroup$
    – alkahest
    Commented Mar 4 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ I'm fond of "Any gun powerful enough to pierce power armor is also strong enough that a missed shot would punch a hole in a space station's hull". Therefore if you're doing a boarding action, any side that wants to be left with a functional ship at the end of the conflict has to use melee weapons. You can do a lot of "non-melee weapons are the nuclear option" $\endgroup$
    – Kaia
    Commented Mar 4 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's sort of the approach I went with to explain their prevalence in boarding defense. The internals of ships are very fragile when compared to the outside, so defenders and attackers both tend to use smaller caliber weapons (submachine guns, pistols) or melee. Doubly so with any weaponry that can defeat power armor; it would probably damage a fuel line or an important wire if it missed. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 4 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ there's a scene in the alien movie where the assault team detected traces of combustible gases in a room filled with the alien eggs, now those stupid melee weapons are the only things that stands between you and the aliens! $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Mar 5 at 3:33

9 Answers 9

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I thought about this question a bit more after my comment, and...

Guns are an INCREDIBLY stupid weapon to use on a spaceship. the bullet/ laser/ whatever will punch through the hull and make life hard. (suck oxygen and pressure out of your ship)

maybe you have shielding from the outside of the ship, but from the inside things are vulnerable. soldiers will be transported offworld, and if ship boardings are a threat, then every soldier needs to be prepared.

edit:

and if your troops are boarding other vessels, melee is a good idea too, so your troops don't accidentally kill themselves and destroy anything/one they were trying to retrieve. while writing this, I had the coolest scene of stormtroopers armed with swords boarding the tantive IV

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    $\begingroup$ If I was boarding a ship I'd be using Piers Anthony Bio of a space Tyrant hollow tube missiles to pierce the thing first, no payload, just a hollow tube with a big crosspiece to stop it going through and through that punches a hole in the hull then blows it's back and front end off to leave a nice big tube to let all the air out, then play a microwave weapon over it to cook any crew that got into a suit fast enough, there shouldn't be any fighting when you board it after that >> $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Mar 4 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ >> but if there was you'll be boarding it in suits anyway (having already vented all the atmosphere) so making a few extra holes if anyone is still alive and can still fight isn't something I'd worry about much, we'll have to patch the hull anyway after all so a few extra bullet holes shouldn't be a bother. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Mar 4 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ Better to carry some extra oxygen and hull patch kits, than to restrict yourself to using swords when you could have guns. Especially if one side is going to lose anyway, they can pull out a machine gun and make sure nobody wins. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Mar 5 at 9:40
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think this is a problem for the boarding party? They're all wearing pressure suits, because they know the score. If you see an unsuited opponent, you don't even try to shoot them, you just put a hole in the wall near them. Holes in the hull aren't even accidents - they're intentional. After the crew are all dead, you patch up the holes, and job done. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 5 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ Why don't ships just have doors you can't break without destroying the whole ship? $\endgroup$
    – Zautech
    Commented Mar 5 at 17:25
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I give you... Dune

Frank Herbert wanted a universe teeming with science... but few projectile weapons and no energy weapons. Oh, they're there, but they're not the 1950s style of everybody-has-a-gun there. How did he do it?

He created a MacGuffin: shields. At the time the first book was written absolutely nothing was known about how the shields worked beyond (if I recall correctly), they're dependence on the "Holtzmann Effect." This was the MacGuffin used by Herbert to rationalize why people with space ships fought with knives.

What he did was create a worldbuilding rule that had nothing to do with science or even practicality: shields stopped fast-moving objects and exploded with the force of a nuclear bomb if touched by a laser beam.

Why is using a MacGuffin important?

I've gotta disagree with @Alkahest's answer. Ships in space must have some way of dealing with collisions. Bits of dust and rock that are far more damaging than any bullet. This harks back to Larry Niven's General Products Hulls: his MacGuffin. Hulls so strong that they can withstand black holes (if I remember that story correctly). They're advertisted in-universe as being indestructible. That's not a bad thing to have for general commercial traffic and military use, right? In other words, a hull so easily damaged that a bullet or energy weapon could casually puncture it is a technological dichotomy. At least I think so. During the years of space exploration it's one thing to have trivially damagable hulls... but in regular practice? That harks back to a quote I really like from Ken Burn's The Civil War. Speaking about the first engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimack, the narrator says:

From the moment those two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete.

Wooden ships vs. modern destroyers. Apollo-era spacecraft vs. GP Hulls. Bullets and personal lasers (lots of energy to defend against in space) aren't a threat to the ship.

And to introduce a Frame Challenge: ships will never be a good place for meelee weapons

What a good sword (and notably a polearm) requires is space. A lot of space. Space to swing the blade, to parry an attack... space. We're back to having a technology dichotomy. If you want to use swords on a space ship, that means you have the space to use them. Have you ever seen the inside of a modern aircraft carrier?

enter image description here
Image courtesy Twelve Mile Circle

Or, more to the point, a submarine?

enter image description here
Image courtesy Quora

Efficiency demands pretty much not a single wasted cubic centimeter. Yes, there are rooms big enough (maybe the dining hall) to have an epic sword fight. But nowhere else. The only meelee weapon anyone could really use is a dagger. You need big, wasted-space space ships made, unusually, out of thin enough material that a bullet would slide right through. I just can't suspend my disbelief.

Which is why you need a MacGuffin

Science will never allow you to have a regularly space-faring civilization with spaceships damaged by (and crews threatened by) something as meaningless as a bullet. There are a lot of things that can project a piece of metal at those velocities and none of them are guns. Just think about your maintenance room. Of course, that would justify 3D printers for everything... to avoid drills, saws and lathes. But what's science more likely to do? Use rubber bullets and tasers.

There's no perfect answer here — that's the point of a MacGuffin. So what could you use to rationalize the use of meelee weapons in areas where they'll be difficult to use?

  • Spacesuits, like space ships, are puncture- and tear-resistant. That means blunt force is more desirable for combat than piercing. Could we ameliorate that by adding plates? Sure! That was done historically... but it didn't stop the use of swords and decreases agility, which is a big deal at Zero-G.

  • Richochet inside a ship won't threaten the ship, but it can threaten equipment and people, including your own people. This is as much a problem for the pirates as it is the ship's defenders.

  • Unless you subscribe to some Clarkean Magic, energy has weaknesses. It requires big batteries/power-generators and it does bad things to the surrounding air (a big deal in an enclosed environment). Having everyone pass out from lack of breathable oxygen really dampens a good fight. (I'll be honest with you, getting rid of energy weapons is the more difficult task. How do you get rid of tasers?)

But, as a parting note, you have bigger problems

How do you stop using concussion grenades? Outside the ship it's obvious they're useless, but inside the ship is another matter. No shrapnel threatening the hull, just an ear-blowing head-cracking bang! that renders everyone in the compartment senseless even if they're wearing puncture- and tear-resistant suits. I think it's not hard to justify using the proverbial cutlass over a Colt 1911. But why would anybody choose not to use a concussion grenade?

On top of this, let's look at Zero-G more closely. Have you thought about what it'd be like to swing a sword in Zero-G? Not pretty. Not pretty at all. So let's look at Philip Nowlan's Buck Rogers: Armageddon 2419 AD. In that story the MacGuffin was a material that, balanced against the wearer's weight, made them weightless to the point of on-planet Zero-G. Cool, right?! But that meant you couldn't use regular guns or they'd spin/push you around. Solution? Rocket guns. Zero recoil. Change the rocket head so that, rather than piercing its target, it has a stunning bang! on impact. No threat to the ship. Why would anybody use a sword?

In short, find your MacGuffin and don't explain anything. Not how it works. Not why you're using it. Nothing. It's just a fact (aka, a rule) of your world that justifies the use of meelee weapons and a vulgar hand gesture to anyone who thinks it's "unrealistic" — because there's no solution that a little thought can't rip apart.

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    $\begingroup$ I propose a science experiment involving you, a friend, a broom, a rubber spatula, a hallway, and some motorcycle helmets for safety, to determine empirically whether daggers would really be better than spears in cramped interiors. Do it for science! $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Commented Mar 5 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ @gs Spear wins as long as knife man is in front of you, stabbing forward needs as little space as the knife does, now try it again with Mr. knife appearing out of the kitchen door behind you instead of conveniently in front of you, a five foot spear is a real pig to manoeuvre quickly to bring it to bear in a narrow hallway, in a running battle the enemy isn't going to appear conveniently in front of you every time, spear loses any time he's not. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Mar 5 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ Boarding actions in WW2 were conducted with shortened shotguns, where each pellet was inable to pierce bulkheads or walls. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 5 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Most of the time you don't want a sword anyway; you want a spear. For most of history, people carried swords as sidearms for when their spear broke or got lost. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok: No, it was because spears are a better weapon in many circumstances. They'd also be better in the close confines of a ship - although probably in a shorter style than used in historical warfare because of the needs of a narrow turning space. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5 at 15:45
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Universal Failsafe

Who wouldn't want to use a rapid-fire laser rifle? It's so cool and can do so much damag- What's that? Oh, the enemy has developed Faraday grenades that spread a nanomesh mist capable of absorbing 94% of laser energy passing through it? Darn, I guess we need a backup weapon if they come equipped with those.

Haha, the plasma sword, my trusty old friend! This baby can cut through absolutely anything, including their puny armo- hm? Oh, this one planet's atmosphere is full of Inflammium and everything within a two meter radius of the blade would explode as soon as you activate it? Okay...?

Add to that the different enemies' varying access to defensive technologies like dampening fields, EMPs, nanohackers, electroslime, plasmogrificators, diffractor-tractors, spintronic unspinners, contractually enforced weapon technology geoblocking, Heisenblasts, and the dreaded Metamaterial Zero (TM).

What about a good-old gunpowder-powered musket? Keeping it simple, eh? Oh, the climate is so humid that the gunpowder is too moist to ignite? (Please don't factcheck whether this is actually plausible.) Hm. Is there anything that can't break?

What about a really long, sturdy and pointy stick?

It's kind of hard for that to fail. Yes, there's armor to deal with, but with sufficient skill and force, you could use that stick to trip up an enemy, find some weak spot in some armor joint and put all your weight into a stab.

Since this is sci-fi A.D., these weapons don't have to be entirely medieval-level either. You could probably with clever futuristic engineering make entirely mechanical augmentations to weapons, not to mention futuretech materials that are more durable and can be sharpened to an even finer point/edge without losing its strength. Heck, for all we know, they might even have gone the Swiss Army Knife approach of compact and multifaceted melee weapons.

Yes, the futuristic "pointy stick" isn't the primary weapon, but the more complicated something is, it gets more points of failure that can be exploited by an enemy or become a liability in certain situations or environments. And in an overpopulated multi-planet sci-fi universe, there's an enormous pool of military scientists and researchers constantly finding countless new technological counters to the technological solutions. Having some futuristic caveman tools as "universal failsafes" to fall back on is always a useful backup strategy when everything else fails and you just want to find some way to kill those guys.

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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the gunpowder point: yes, too much humidity could very well be a problem for early firearms. In the 17th century the Xhosa would attack early Dutch colonies on rainy days because they learned that the guns were less reliable if they got wet. Source: W. K. Storey (2008) Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5 at 14:05
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In Star Wars, Jedi use light sabers because their supernatural awareness and reflexes make it relatively trivial to deflect ranged weapon attacks, making a Jedi with a sword more dangerous to another Jedi than one with a phaser. In Dune, the advent of forcefield technology means that fast moving objects are easily and universally deflected, making slow, deliberate attacks with melee weapons more effective than guns. Technology is a response to the challenges of the environment. As that environment changes, often due to the technology that is employed within it, different things become useful. Guns aren't just fundamentally better than swords. They provide a specific benefit, the ability to kill at range. Make that benefit less of a benefit and they become a liability. "Ever since we invented X guns have been obsolete" could be a fairly flexible way to approach a sci fi universe where melee weapons are the norm.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am not attempting to make guns obsolete, just wanting to carve a niche for melee weapons in a world of advanced firearms. Alkahest helped quite a bit with that. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 4 at 19:52
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Melee weapons just do more damage to armor than ranged weapons do

OK so other answers have mentioned Dune with the shields that block specifically fast moving objects, but you don't have to play it that way.

You could say that the armor is made of some hyper-dense supermaterial that bullets and lasers have difficulty scratching at all. But even in real life, it is possible to drill through a block of metal that it's impossible to get a bullet through. So you can have weapons like drills or chainsaws, plasma cutters, sonic resonators, all designed to efficiently destroy the supermaterial armor provided you can get into close contact with it.

Or for a different approach, the armor could project an energy field that blocks basically everything, bullets and lasers and chainsaws, but specialized technology exists that can defeat it by creating a destructive resonance in the field with a bigon capacitor discharge. But the bigon capacitor is too bulky to be mounted on a bullet. So you have the soldier carry the armor-breaker capacitor in a backpack, and use a sword as a conduit for the bigon discharge arc. Once the armor's energy field is broken, the soldier just hacks the enemy apart with the sword.

Ranged weapons can still have their place because you can say that the armor will fail if you just shoot it with enough high-powered bullets. So if the enemy is running at you over a mile of flat terrain, you can mow him down with a machine gun or cannon. But it takes a lot of bullets to manage that, so in confined spaces like a spaceship it's more efficient to just close the distance and use the armor-breaker swords.

This would be like the real-time strategy game balance where melee attacks generally just deal more damage than ranged attacks. For instance, Starcraft works like that, and has a good balance between ranged units and melee units.

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Personal defense shields. guard against energy weapons such as lasers and fast moving projectiles (bullets). Swords and knives are slow enough to not activate the shield. These were used in Dune, or at least in the books, I've not seen the recent movie rewriting.

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    $\begingroup$ They were also in the original 1984 movie. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 4 at 20:51
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The environment discourages firearms- like for example a potentially explosive decompressing environment or a explosive atmosphere. Weapons can be also dangerous, due to mass sabotage, or influence of more fantasy exotic effects on fired projectiles.

There is armor, that can take bullets and other projectiles extremely well, even integrating them into the armor, basically to the point were you have a uranium-tungsten-nano-bot mecha around your opponent and your Gattling runs dry.

Finally, weapons - can be weapons that reuse weapons. As in, you have weapons that collect projectiles fire by the enemy and shotgun them back at the enemy. Meaning a classic bullet or plasma blast, is collected and then shotgunned back. (Example: District nine and that movie were a blast freezes mid air)

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Other people have mentioned other Sci-Fi franchises - but no one has mentioned the one that is infamous for lots and lots of Melee...

Warhammer 40K! The most notoriously over-the-top and overpowered franchise.

There are several in-universe reasons why Melee weapons are commonplace

  • Endless hordes of Enemies - a typical combat loadout for a modern soldier is ~300 rounds. 10 Magazines. For example Dipprasad Pun in his defence fired off all his ammunition, all his grenades, resorting to a Tripod for one kill. If you are against a numerically superior force, the likelyhood of running out of Ammunition increases exponentially. A Sword never runs out of Ammunition
  • Combat taking place at Melee distances. If you are in a structure with heavily restricted sight-lines, then a Melee weapon can be very effective, even more-so than Firearms. This can also be the case if your world has teleporters
  • Morale. Never underestimate the Combat effectiveness of Fear. If I go against an Enemy and it's likely I'm going to get shot - that's scary. If I go against someone who I've just seen hack the limbs off of my Mate and enjoy it - then I'm going to either be Angry or Terrified - both of which can hinder combat effectiveness.
  • Projectiles, accuracy under combat stress and pressurized containers are not a good mix - others have mentioned this, so I won't repeat it.
  • Noise - Projectile weapons are typically loud - if you don't want your enemy to know the composition and location of your repelling force - then Melee is a great way to hide this information.
  • Martial Prowess, Tradition and Killer instinct. This is not WH40K based - but is based in real life - The British Army still train with the Bayonet. Although there is discussion about the combat effectiveness of the Bayonet (Ironic because the British Army have conducted successful Bayonet charges in recent times) - one of the reasons it's still included is part Tradition and part mindset. The role of the Soldier is fundamentally to eliminate a threat, often by using Deadly force. Training a recruit to run up to another person screaming murder and impale them with a bayonet hones that killer instinct - and that is considered worthwhile enough to retain Bayonet training.
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For one particular unit in one particular situation it's pretty easy to justify. They have encountered unexpected tactical conditions involving:

  • The enemy doesn't have guns of their own (or doesn't have guns that go through our armor, etc). They are a threat up close but are still no match for a man with a pointy stick (or a power-armored man with a very heavy pointy stick, etc). As a result, we aren't just dead.

  • Something to do with the enemy makes our guns not a viable option. They have surprised us with their numbers and we don't have the ammunition to fight them all. Or our ray guns have been disabled by a mysterious energy field. Or it turns out the enemy are space vampires and the only thing that really hurts them is pointy wooden stakes. Or the enemy have never-before-seen energy shields that block ray guns, and we don't have any regular guns to use instead. Etc.

  • Enough time after the first encounter to fabricate primitive weaponry out of available materials, but not enough time after the first encounter to resupply with advanced weaponry suited to the unexpected threat.

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