The standard weapons of the future soldier (from pistols to rifles to artillery) are, like most 18th century firearms, very slow to fire. It might take 5 to 20 seconds to reload (or recharge, or whatever else has to be done to ready another shot), maybe even longer. Because of the long reloading time, bayonets and swords and other melee weapons are commonly used, especially for urban warfare or spaceship boarding actions (pirates would feel right at home).

How would these weapons work? What's a plausible reason that armies would abandon automatic weapons that can fire thousands of projectiles per minute in favor of these weapons that can only fire two or three?

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    $\begingroup$ Must those weapons fire projectiles ? If no, energy weapons could take some time to charge (i.e. to accumulate enough energy) in order to pierce kinetic and low energy -resistant body armors suggested by @o.m., while, as suggested, those armors wouldn't resist the assault of edged weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Frédéric
    Aug 1 '16 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ "Night fighting" (in well-trained units) uses completely different battle tactics. Since most have never thought of night fighting, you could maybe tie in a long-reload weapon into those battle tactics. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '16 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ Read "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 '16 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ Dune's personal shields achieved similar goal by acting stronger on faster projectiles. This pretty much means that you either attacked with slow-speed, high mass weapon (knife) or super-powered weapon (possibly slow charging, but Herbert never said that AFAIR) capable of obliterating the shield altogether. Today's low-mass, high-speed projectiles are simply slowed down to the point they do nothing. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Aug 2 '16 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to point out that the main reason one would use swords when boarding a space ship instead of firearms (of any kind) is because one wants to actually survive the boarding. There's too many things on ships that might go "boom" if shot. Hallways are not typically armor plated, etc. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Aug 2 '16 at 15:46

14 Answers 14


Only viable offense against a new defense

Something changed with technology. We finally managed to regress to the age of knights in one key area: we're better at creating defensive protection than offensive weapons. It might be advance armor, it might be personal shields, it might be some sort of wide-area energy field that is effective at limiting or stopping traditional advance weapons.

Well science is an arm race, and somebody cracked the code. The counter to this new technology? Special high-powered weapons that require downtime. There's a number of reasons the downtime might be needed. Perhaps it is to charge, perhaps targeting systems need time to adjust to the enemy's shield's frequency, or perhaps they just overheat like crazy, and need time to cool.

However the enemy's technology has a more critical weakness; at very short distances (capable, currently, delivered directly via conductors fashioned in the likeness of bayonets and the ilk) the defensive technology can be negated or pierced. In the case of shielding or the energy field, the blades can maintain a constant charge of the projectile burst which can negate the defenses in a way that the bursts cannot; the field causes the bursts to bleed, while the shields simply cannot overcome the continuous energy contact the blades cause.

Note: Pulp sci-fi without any science backing. I don't think you'll reach close to what you describe with hard science, so you'll have to be willing to hand wave the details and application in your world.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe a defense that can teleport the user somewhere safe while the projectiles/lasers fly by. Weapons now need to charge to get fast enough to bypass the defenses detection methods. These defenses are only calibrated for fast-moving weapons, though. They had some issues with people teleporting all over in the mess hall since silverware was being deemed "dangerous". $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '16 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidStarkey I think Mass Effect had a hidden joke about how their first Shields would repel the chairs you tried to sit in without calibration to activate for high speed only. The classic pull the chair out from underneath you, but it was your own shields doing it. Course, it could still detect Melee combat and block those hits since they are usually pretty fast. course it wouldn't react when you moved at high speed causing the collision. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Aug 1 '16 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Dune has an interesting variant on this, in which not only are bulky lasers the only effective non-melee weapon against shields, but soldiers must move slowly and smoothly while fighting in melee to move within the bounds of what the shields allow. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Aug 1 '16 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ @X-27 It could be that the slow fire rate is a feature rather than a bug; perhaps this defensive system does have countermeasures for this new type of attack that gets through it, but it can only set itself properly by analyzing the shot coming through with whatever normal defenses it provides. Due to various reasons, it cannot maintain this adapted defense or circumstances will have changed too much against that particular weapon after 5-20 seconds, which would lead to an interesting risk/reward of "how long do you wait before firing again" considering too short would reset the clock :) $\endgroup$
    – Lunin
    Aug 2 '16 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ How about non-Newtonian armor - like the cornstarch videos - high speed impact it reacts and solidifies and and stops objects from penetrating. Slow speed objects simply pass through. So - a high velocity bullet would pancake against the armor, a bayonet just cuts through. Anything with significant surface area like a baseball bat swung gets stopped, edged weapons like swords shears the material. As far as slow reloads, you'd need a larger, slower, heavier slug to transfer enough energy to defeat the shield - like using the same weight of a fifty cal slug versus same weight of 22 cal. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 '16 at 1:59

Because they are dangerous to everyone!

Let us take a trip to Arrakis and elaborate a little on o.m.'s answer.

"The Slow Blade Penetrates the Shield" - Gurney Halleck

In the Dune series, melee weapons are often used, because they are the only option to safely bypass personal shields.

The short take on Dune's shield tech is that fast things (like bullets) get slowed down until they are useless. Comparatively slow things, like knives, can pass through the shield, when employed correctly. Energy weapons, like the Lasgun will result in a reaction with the shield that results in a catastrophic (nuclear) explosion, killing the wearer of the shield and everyone "within a large radius".

How can you use this?

Imagine a similar shield technology, that works the other way round. Stopping bullets, but maybe resulting in a critical buildup of compensated energy that results in a terrible explosion. You do not need a nuclear level event to blow a hole into a spaceship or collapse the building you are fighting over.

Some ideas why slow firing weapons are the solution

  • The technology to bypass a shield requires a lot of energy and/ or the projectiles are large/ complicated to produce/ expensive. Hence, carrying thousands of projectiles is not feasible. The nice thing about bullets is: they are cheap and easy to make. If your guns launch swiss-made nanotech gold ingots, people will think twice before giving them a "rapid fire" switch.
  • A capacitor / heat sink / thingamajig needs to recharge. (This has already been mentioned)
  • They might be dangerous for the user. Each shot might carry a small chance of the weapon failing and injuring or killing the soldier.

To sum it up. Everyone uses shields, because you are basically dead without them. Nobody in an enclosed environment who wants to live, fires multiple bullets at a shield, especially not if the rest of the squad might do the same. Anti-shield weapons are bulky, expensive and complicated. In war you need to arm a lot of people in a cheap way, so slow firing ones will have to do.

In the end it is still easier to train someone to aim and pull a trigger than to spend years making a good swordsman out of them. Hence, the anti-shield musket remains the queen of the battlefield.

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    $\begingroup$ One of my favourite examples of flawed logic. "Energy weapons, like the Lasgun will result in a reaction with the shield that results in a catastrophic (nuclear) explosion, killing the wearer of the shield and everyone "within a large radius"." The flaw in this rationale is that it makes long-range lasguns the weapon of choice. Close combat is still difficult. Using swords because of shields appeared first in Charles Harness' THE PARADOX MEN. Possibly Frank Herbert reinvented it whileunaware of previous art. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 1 '16 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, I didn't know that. I disagree with your point though. It makes long range lasguns the weapons of choice in only one very specific application. When you want to destroy everything and everyone. The thing is: why not just nuke it from orbit then? That is way easier. When you use infantry (as the OP suggested: in cities or spaceships) you specifically do not want that. Also in the world of Dune, shields are very rare and the use of nuclear weapons carries a tremendous social stigma. $\endgroup$
    – m00am
    Aug 1 '16 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ When reading Dune I always thought that the nuclear explosion triggered by the lasgun happens in both on the shielding and the emitting side. Of course a remote controlled long range lasgun would still be a good way to circumvent the restrictions $\endgroup$
    – SztupY
    Aug 1 '16 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android - the reason Herbert used the technologies he did is because he lacked imagination on some level, or simply because he really, really wanted sword fights. My answer to a body shield that stops bullets is either "smarter" bullets (EMP charged, etc.) or some other source of shield interference (EMP grenades, etc.) There's no realistic reason to revert back to hand to hand, edged weapon combat unless you're some kind of Jedi. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Aug 2 '16 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @m00am It was, hhmm, a joke. It works for long-rang contact. Nukes from orbit? Lasguns fire at lightspeed. if you miss, it's easy to retarget. Long time since I read DUNE, but if shields were rare then this makes lasguns more effective. Widespread shields would stymy lasguns, which is the Dune scenario (lasgun non-use part anyways). $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 3 '16 at 5:09

You would need three things here.

  • Body armor that can easily resist conventional firearms.
  • A slow-firing weapon to defeat this body armor.
  • Edged weapons to defeat this body armor.

The first and last points are difficult to combine, but perhaps not impossible. The new armor would have to resist the impact of bullets with different shapes, including pointed and edged ones, but perhaps it takes a sustained push behind the blade to defeat multiple layers of armor.

That would be a bit like the Dune novels by Frank Herbert with their shields and blades, except for your muskets.

  • $\begingroup$ I've heard Kevlar is good at stopping bullets but not at stopping blades (is that true?). I was thinking some sort of super-Kevlar that's lightweight and can stop even a .50 cal, but still not good against edged weapons. But what could be the new weapon against that? $\endgroup$
    – sbl
    Aug 1 '16 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ @sbl, yes but not enough. If this super-Kevlar was common, why not make blade-shaped bullets? Difficult but possible. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 1 '16 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ @sbl, yes kevlar is bad at stopping blades and armour piercing bullets (pointy ones) so they now wear ablative plates on top of the kevlar. This is all part of the endless cycle of armour upgrades to stop the new weapons and weapon upgrades to penetrate the new armour. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 1 '16 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ You don't take a sword against a plate armour; you bang it with a warhammer, a mace, a morningstar, or a poleax. Same applies to advanced materials: no amount of kevlar can stop a good old blunt force and let you walk. $\endgroup$
    – Davidmh
    Aug 1 '16 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Davidmh unless you consider that since this new armor they have makes conventional firearms useless, it must have some blunt dampening system (otherwise an elephant rifle would break all your bones) $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Aug 1 '16 at 20:17

The history of weapons and armour is a continuous cycle of better weapons to overcome the armour followed by better armour to overcome the new weapons.

However in space all bets are off as there's an easy extra way to die, suffocation by vacuum.

Your spaceship boarding action now requires a few extra considerations compared to land based battlefields

  1. You don't want to puncture your own hull
  2. You probably want to capture the enemy ship intact
  3. You may be fighting in a vacuum
  4. Spacesuits are easy to puncture
  5. Firearms are often useless in tight spaces
  6. Any discharge of a projectile or explosive weapon may damage critical ship systems

In either an offensive or defensive situation it could be worth evacuating the air from the ship before beginning. It's a high risk strategy but it eliminates direct verbal communication and any unprepared combatants very early on. Further combatants can be eliminated by damage to the breathing system or other integrity of whatever suit or otherwise they're using to survive the vacuum. In close quarters this is most effectively done with a blade.

Your slow ranged weapon is likely to be some sort of capacitance based electrical discharge device evolved from a taser with a show recharge time, but while it takes down people, it leaves ship systems undamaged.

  • $\begingroup$ As you say, projectile weapons on a spacecraft would be a very stupid thing, as they would do untold physical damage to the ship itself. I don't see how electrical discharge weapons couldn't be said to be just as damaging to the ship systems. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '16 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @TheBloodyPoet, ship systems would most likely have to be shielded from radiation as well as the usual insulation. I'd expect such hardened systems to be pretty resistant to electrical discharge. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 1 '16 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ You couldn't practically shield all individual components/switches/wires/boards, etc: It would be too bulky and costly to do in reality. You would shield the ship hull on the outside. Inability to use electrical weapons would contribute to the need for melee weapons, so it helps OP (and your answer). $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '16 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ That's why air marshals carry swords rather than guns today! $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Aug 1 '16 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @TheBloodyPoet: I disagree with cost being a reason to not shield something. If the requirements are that everything has to be shielded, then market forces will react to drive the cost of shielding down to the point that the final cost of the ship is still practical. $\endgroup$
    – NotMe
    Aug 1 '16 at 21:11

They never had them.

The Road Not Taken describes an alien invasion of Earth. The twist is that antigravity and FTL technology are ridiculously easy to discover, but we just haven't stumbled upon them. So the aliens invade with their amazing spaceships - but their weaponry is ludicrously underpowered and they're annihilated by a modern army with automatic weapons.

Of course, if any survivors got away then decent weaponry is going to be top of the R&D list. But if you're too outclassed, there may be no survivors (or at least no escapees). So the side with the better weapons carries on and steamrollers their attackers.


There are several technological reasons for a slow rate of fire weapon. The base assumption is that defensive technology (armor, force fields, whatever) have advanced to the point that only a specialized firearm system can penetrate them.

  1. Capacitors need to be recharged. The weapon requires a very high initial energy pulse that can't be generated by a continuous power source, so you gotta charge up a bulky capacitor, leading to a slow rate of fire.

  2. The new hyper velocity propellant is a binary one that can't be stored together. So the soldier has to assemble the binary propellant at the time of fire. It is far too dangerous to allow pre-assembled ammunition cartridges in the even of an ammunition hit causing a catastrophic explosion.

  3. The new warhead of the future has to be assembled on the spot. It uses exotic matter or some ultra fast degrading heavy element that requires assemble/manufacture at the time of use, so you can't preload ammunition magazines of them. Maybe the tiny droplet of anti-matter inside needs to be inserted right as it fires. There could be a portable generator of this exotic matter on the soldier, but he still has to manually "charge" the bullet before firing.

  4. The environment degrades complex machinery. Muzzle loading weapons are very simple, with almost no moving parts (especially if you have electrical firing mechanisms). Perhaps the environment the soldiers are fighting in is caustic to mechanical surfaces, so automatic loading weapons become very unreliable and stored ammunition degrades as the primers become inert.

  5. Something about the new weapon renders the firearm unusable for a short period of time. It generates so much heat the barrel needs to be cooled, magnetic flux has to be realigned, electrical forces have to be discharged, etc. There could be large, bulky multi-barrel weapons for heavy infantry, but the average soldier just deals with the brief "cool-down" period until the weapon is ready to fire again. The weapons are so expensive to manufacture that giving soldiers multiple firearms to use is fiscally not practical.

EDIT: As an aside, as the kinetic energy of a firearm increases, it's suitability as a rapid fire firearm decreases. If soldiers had a kinetic energy absorbing shield that had to be defeated by brute force (with, say, a rifle that generated more energy than a .50BMG [12-15,000 footpounds) then their ability to handle an auto-loader would be limited due to recoil, size of the weapon, and durability of a man portable automatic rifle. There are semi-automatic .50BMG rifles (and I once fired a .50BMG pistol....once :P but these are precision rifles and are not well suited to mobile combat. It is possible that a more powerful rifle would have to be a breech loading (check out the old springfield trapdoor rifles) or bolt action magazine fed rifle just due to the size of the cartridge and the strength of the receiver necessary to handle the high pressure rounds. Even with modern recoil reduction (compressible stock, big muzzle brake, and fancy recoil reducers like the Kriss Vector) a large bore high velocity rifle is gonna be a beast and be inherently slow to fire and reload outside of a tripod mounted belt fed version.


In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40K novel 'Only In Death' this exact scenario happens. A besieged Imperial Guard regiment runs out of their normal ammunition and is forced to use alien breach-loading weapons. They are energy weapons of considerable power, but with a slow fire rate. These weapons appeared to be the standard, emplaced weapons for the aliens and designed for siege defence. Presumably there was some advantage in dumping the entire energy content of the ammunition in one mighty blast, rather than spreading it out over multiple shots.

So one answer to your question is: "When they have run out of ammunition for their normal weapons".


These would both be planetside, not spaceside reasonings:

Limited Resources

Although I also initially considered this in the physical or scientific reasoning behind the given scenario as many others have, I'd like to propose a distinct approach based in economics.

We always assume that future civs would have almost unlimited resources, however, while that may be true, these civs would be spending incomprehensible amounts of capital and borrowing like crazy even to refine their raw materials in the scale they'd require, let alone if these are massive energy weapons that require presumably difficult-to-mass-produce circuitry and generators (or in this case potentially entirely modular power plants on crawlers to supply an army). It could be argued that much like in WW1 where nearly everything down to the bullet was rationed, this could result in maybe only a few charges per soldier, per artillery unit, etc lest the allies or axis risk market collapse and severe debt at home; stock markets don't care if you're on another planet fighting the good fight, they'll still depress just fine. Technology aside, the economy of extremely powerful "single shot" anything could bankrupt an army, nation, or planet depending on the scale of the conflict. There is a lot of potential here to design appropriate rationing such that hand to hand combat would become necessary, rather than a "better" solution to other tech.

Danger Close

Honestly, think of the World Wars as a model yet again. The only other thing I could think of as far as the reasoning behind abandoning extremely effective forward weaponry would be that at some point a "United Nations"-esque entity banned the use of automatic or wide-area-of-effectiveness weaponry due to heavy and terrifying attrition all around. It might be that either the weaponry was so good that the carnage was unbearable to witness for either side (think nukes, gas, bio) or that the weaponry was so effective that it would sometimes be impossible to avoid catching ones own troops in the crossfire. Either one of these could provide a horrors-of-war type reasoning behind the current tech and existence of hand-to-hand CQC in lieu of cutting down entire swaths of an enemy in seconds.


Linked Consciousness

In the future, mankind has evolved to where everyone is mentally linked together at a very basic level. It has been found that emotions are like energy; they cannot be created or destroyed but converted from one to another. While simple emotions like hate, love and fear can be felt by others nearby, they are not life-changing.

Contrast this with someone taking another persons life. Upon death, the killer receives a massive influx of the emotions, events, feelings and desires of the person they killed. In some cases it takes months (or having killed the elderly, even years) to work through all of these emotions until the killer can even do simple personal tasks again.

As a result, in this society killing is avoided as much as possible. Therefore, the weapons that are used are more personally controlled. The goal of the weapon is to disable WITHOUT killing. Hand-to-hand melee and wide dispersion weapons become the norm so as to avoid the debilitation that comes from killing someone.


Space is easy. Weapons will need to disable your opponent without putting a hole in the vessel and causing catastrophic decompression. Otherwise there is no point in a boarding action. So, energy weapons rather than small fast ballistic makes sense. Maybe something along the lines of today's tasers. Energy weapons would need time to transfer energy to a capacitor before they can be discharged. Even using something like a bean bag gun might work against unarmored opponents and those weapons are loaded like shotguns.

Ground warfare is an interesting one. We are currently developing armor that can shred bullets on impact. If your enemy hasarmor that can essentially shrug off kinetic weapons then the next step is to move to energy based ones. Which means we are back to needing to build up a charge prior pulling the trigger. Obviously in this scenario bean bag guns are unlikely to work; however an electrical shock would work very well against an enemy encased in metal.

The ground warfare one would mean that most engagements are at pretty close quarters - close enough for an energy weapon to work before it's output dissipates. Of course electrical type bombs would be developed to control large areas. Also, all armor has weaknesses due to mobility. This means a blade might be able to sneak past armor joints in areas such as armpits, necks, etc. Double points if it's some type of an electro blade designed to vibrate it's way past armor...


Space travel will most likely issue in a new era of swords by default. Only dead people use guns in space.

As far as design, Just think about what they are designed to do and the environment. You're going to have some sort of piercing baton/mace with electric discharge capabities. A lot of our clothes are already pretty cut resistent but piercing still has a chance. Blunt force will get through most things or at least damage them or damage the person wearing them. In a space environment you don't want damage to happen to your clothes because it generally means death. The electric discharge is to disrupt tech/stun people which is what you want more than stabbing and getting blood everywhere or just plain get through the clothing with less hassle.


Force fields

Maybe some sort of magnetic field or Star Wars like blue veil. The key point is that it allows passage for any slow moving objects but completely blocks fast moving projectiles. And it's easy to carry and cheap so that pretty much every soldier has a personal shield.

Now that you rendered modern weapons rather useless, you have to come up with an alternative. So lets go with laser guns, and they need 20s to charge up mah lazor the capacitors. At this point melee becomes a viable strategy again.


In Dies the Fire, S.M. Stirling's world undergoes some kind of "change" that affects physics at a fundamental level: gases don't compress the same way, fuel does not combust, electromagnetism does not induce fields of the same strength... and gun powder simply no longer works.

It is a simple handwaving that essentially renders modern warfare impossible. For your example, (depending on your world) you could employ a similar mechanism which renders newer smokeless powder (which is what modern firearms use) inert, while older-era black powder remains effective.

You could also invent some kind of economic reason for the same effect: some critical ingredient for smokeless powder is discovered to be useable for eternal youth, the fuel for FTL drives, or the yearly tribute to the menacing alien force that will flatten Earth if we don't provide them with our stockpiles of [insert ingredient here].


The anime Last Exile had something like that. In it there was an external organization called The Guild that controlled all the technological information and distributed it as they saw fit. They used this to sanction battles between sides, and generally control the world. The anime opened with 2 armies facing off with air-powered rifles from flying ships, complete with boarding parties using bayonets. To recharge the rifles, the operators had to muzzle-load a new round, then pump additionally air into the chambers.

Using a system like that, you only need a plausible (or hand-wavy) reason for the guild to exist. Something along the lines of "In the aftermath of a world war, the nations gave up control of information to an arbiter group to prevent future devastation."


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