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In a world that i am building, there is an advanced civilization that is somewhat close to 21st century humans. Two of the differences are: they have discovered electricity much earlier than we did and they have never had the idea that explosives can be used as a propellant for projectiles. That's why most of land based combat revolves around infantry running around the battlefield with swords with enormous railgun artillery providing support.
My two questions are:
1. How realistic is this scenario?
2. How realistic is the strategy i presented? Is there something that makes it really stupid, or will it work fine?

EDIT: The problem with railguns is that they require a LOT of power. So you can have stationary artillery, but planes and cars cant pack a powerful enough power generators. So planes are capable of dropping bombs, fighter planes are not really a thing. And in case of car, infantry would need to exit the car in order to swing their swords around.
EDIT2: So, yeah "running around with swords" is totally not the best idea when you have vehicles and can use them.
EDIT3: Due to a lot of answers/comments touching this topic: Yes the kind of combustion engine you see in your car is not really a thing in this world. (Not because it is explody, but rather because they have way less liquid dinosaurs than we do.) However having similar engines is not a requirement for having electricity, because it is done by steam turbines (They were very lucky with geothermal energy). Also the battery tech is much better than we have, it is just the capacitors (things that can charge/discarge really fast) are lacking.

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    $\begingroup$ I LIKE this idea! Question: do these people have ANYTHING that goes boom? Steam power? Internal combustion? Molotov cocktails? Napalm? $\endgroup$ – Daniel Bensen Aug 17 '17 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielBensen In fact, yes do have explody stuff, they just never had the idea of using it as a propellant. (If someting explodes near you, you are going to have a bad time. So why make something explode inside your weapon?) $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, Lucius. Please note that you should wait to accept an answer to let all users of the site have a chance at the question. Also, you can upvote answers you find helpful to reward the people who take the time to write up a solution. While you can only accept one answer, you can give credit to all the people you feel deserve it. If you haven't already, I'd suggest taking the tour; this and more are explained there. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Aug 17 '17 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ Concern with having vehicles is that a sword-wielding soldier doesn't have much chance against Tesla Model S with a plow on the front. There'd have to be a counter to simply using electric cars and buses as battering rams. As they don't need to be armored against bullets, they could be pretty cheap and still be pretty effective, especially psychologically. A flying V of cars zooming at your front line would immediately cause a break in formation. Unless your railguns are fast/accurate/abundant enough to counter this effectively, your side would lose quickly. $\endgroup$ – Pyrotrain Aug 17 '17 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ If they don't have the concept of explosions propelling shells, then they would not use internal combustion engines, since it uses a similar principle. Steam power also uses a similar principle. Even a hot water tank, if the pressure relief valve is removed, will explode. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Neely Aug 17 '17 at 17:24

15 Answers 15

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Railgun Technology

There are a number of problems to overcome in order to have effective railguns. Most obviously, is the enormousness power requirement along with a large direct current. In order to be anything other than a static defence for fixed fortifications and large warships, the powers source for these would also have to be portable.

Second, every firing of a railgun will cause wear and tear on the rails. The huge amount of current passing through the rails will cause them to heat up and eventually warp. So, unless your world has a way to resist this heat effect the rails will need regular replacement.

Now that you have an idea of what sort of prerequisite technology your world has in order to maintain railguns, think what other things they would be able to achieve with that level of knowledge. If your world never thought of using explosives as a propellant, would they have thought of it for use in a combustion engine? If not, how are they carting these railguns and their power sources around?

High-tech electrical knowledge may mean that all vehicles are electrical rather than fossil fuel based. Electricity is likely to be a key part of everyone's lifestyle, possibly more so than it is to us on Earth. But where does this power come from? Do they have immense fossil fuel power stations, fields of solar panels or numerous nuclear power stations?

Strategy

Now that you know what other technologies would arise, how does this affect strategy? If your railguns are very fixed, requiring a long time to set up, it is feasible for combat to be reminiscent of 13th Century European warfare, where cannon were just starting to be fielded.

If your railguns are more portable, towed around by trucks and ready to fire as soon as the hand-brake is applied then no-one would field large formations of infantry, when the artillery can out pace them and bombard them to smithereens from long range. Instead warfare may turn to small companies of cavalry units or infantry in all-terrain cars, who engage in small skirmishes and use movement to avoid artillery fire and catch the railguns.

Of course, there are a number of things I haven't covered here, but I hope this has given you enough different things to think about.

The majority of my railgun knowledge comes from Orbital Vector, a site which covers a number of different technologies and attempts to band them into tiers of similar difficulty.

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  • $\begingroup$ I ended up taking about half an hour to write this, meanwhile some other answers touched on very similar points. I think I still have some unique insights however. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Aug 17 '17 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding and Stack Exchange! This is a great second answer, well done! $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 17 '17 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ "If not, how are they carting these railguns and their power sources around?" They're flinging them from slightly larger railguns. $\endgroup$ – Sneftel Aug 18 '17 at 12:55
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What bothers me is that your civilization uses working railguns but still relies on swords. It seems odd that they didn't yet came up with a better, eventually ranged, alternative. Indeed, there are various non-explosive possibilities - while it seems dubious to me that they achieved electricity tech sooner than humans without discovering the explosive powder :

  • Portable railguns. They have more advance than us after all. Maybe not a an individual rifle-like weapon, but something a specialized soldier in a given unit could handle.
  • Microwaves. Maybe far-fetched, but hey! If I know advanced electric techs and a bunch of guys are running at me with swords, I bet I give it a try!
  • Tasers. Yes, that's how useful swords are currently. Shooting projectiles bound to your weapon by a conductive cable is more effective than a sword in modern warfare.
  • Lasers. We already can more or less craft handheld laser pistols, but that tech is pretty young and besides it has some weaknesses: it's reflected by mirrors, diffracted by fog/rain/humidity, barred by dust, it turns flesh into plasma which protects the underlying flesh from the laser and the optic lenses are very brittle: handling the pistol without enough care or even using it can crack it or make it less optically pure. That makes it less useful on the field than rifles even though the ammunition is quite cheap and as an exceptional range if the weather is good. Anyway, it would be totally worth the shot against swords. Bonus fun points: parrying the beam with a sword mind melt it over the hands and body of its wielder. Combo bonus if the enemies are wearing metal armor: either it's polished plate that reflect the beams (still, not enough) and they are spotted from far away from the light's reflect or it's not and a laser beam would cut through it like a magnifying glass over an anthill.
  • Pressure gun. Using rifles powered by pressurized gas can look primitive, but again it would do wonders against swords. I don't know if it counts as explosive weapons, but using flammable gases works too.

In the end, the sword can't be suited for your setting. It's a medieval weapon in the electric times, even without explosion powered weapons, they are doomed to fail. Whether you use laser pistols or electric crossbows, swords will lose. They have no range at all. We haven't used melee weapons as main weapons since the 18th century, even though we didn't have electricity. Since your people focused on electricity sooner since they didn't have the powder, I assume that they achieved our current level at least a century or two sooner than us. That leaves a lot of room for improvement, so I assume that their 21st century looks insanely different from ours.

For as far as I know, we might not even use explosion based weapons as main weapons in half a century ourselves. I'm pretty sure that the weapons used by your people would outcompete ours, so swords are outmatched by a landslide.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, in the end i agree that swords (or even something lightsaber like) is not going to work in this scenario. Microwave or Laser based weaponry won't work because of ~reasons~, And i think i will go with someting like lethal tasers or Auto-reloading electrical crossbows for their primary weapons. Thank you for your answer, it was a great one. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ A good old crossbow would work too. $\endgroup$ – SethWhite Aug 17 '17 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @SethWhite Lets not all that futurelike science tech go to waste, lets have ultra strong crossbows armed by electric engines and shooting electric or chemical projectiles, or even plasma ! Besides, the most important pro of crossbows was that it didn't required a lifelong training to be good at it and therefore conscripts could be simply handed them and be ready to fight. XXIst century warfare has for sure made available body armor resilient to bolts. But still, crossbows are cool. $\endgroup$ – ksjohn Aug 17 '17 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ Crossbows didn't make swords obsolete in our world, and swords (and bayonets) persisted alongside firearms until the advent of repeating rifles. How does an auto-repeating electric crossbow defeat an man in a plate harness when even the strongest crossbows in our world generally wouldn't? $\endgroup$ – Slow Dog Aug 17 '17 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Having portable electrical weapons(including railguns) require portable energy storage. If your only way of running a rail gun is using hydro or large steam engines, or even large crude battery packs, then the original scenario is entirely plausible. There is a reason that current real world humans don't use hand held rail guns or lasers, the amount of power required is nearly impossible to store in a portable way, so we put them in vehicles eg aircraft carriers and destroyers. $\endgroup$ – theinvisibleduck Aug 17 '17 at 15:58
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A sword. On a stick. next to another stick. With a string on it. Let's call it a BOW.

People have this idea that the further you are from somebody you want to kill and the sooner you can inflict dead on them the more people you can kill before they get to you.

So without explosion they can use electromagnetic pulse rifles, coil gun, gauss rifle. Maybe not machine gun but still beat running toward other people trying to cut them to death.

Also, Tesla soldiers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well coil guns and gauss rifles are pretty similar to railguns (In fact coliguns are an inferior technology), but something like an automatic electric crossbow looks ilke it is going to work. And Tesla soldiers would need a lot of energy, and it is exactly what is preventing them from having man-portable railguns. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, that's why they wouldn't use swords. On the road to railguns they would create all the previous ones. Tesla soldiers are a solution to kill multiple enemies in close combat. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 17 '17 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Manual crossbows were powerful enough to pierce armor - if gunpowder didn't obviate them, I could see something like a crossbow with an electric motor to work the mechanism for even more pull strength and a spring-loaded magazine like modern weapons. You could also add a small battery to the bolts that uses its forward momentum to lock into place once the bolt hits, causing it to electrocute the target. $\endgroup$ – IllusiveBrian Aug 17 '17 at 15:41
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It's plausible

First, I am assuming that the railguns would not be used as handheld weapons, because this would completely defeat the purpose of having swords in the first place.

With no explosives, the only way to take out large groups of soldiers would be with melee combat. The railguns would be great for piercing vehicle armour and the likes, but wouldn't do any damage to infantry. (A single shot could kill a single soldier if you're lucky, and two if you're very lucky.)

Let's go through some scenarios:

Open field combat

In real life, they would quickly demolish each other with rifles before contact.

In your world, they would be able to move freely about without worry of attack. Standing still for too long could perhaps encourage a calculated railgun shot, but that's the only threat. You can choose to run off, or to engage your opponent in hand to hand combat.

Ambush

In real life: bombs and missiles. A couple mines, and people on standby to finish them off with rifles.

In your world, a barrage of railgun shots to disable any vehicles, and then a swarm of sword-wielding idiots soldiers riding in on vehicles to attack their opponents.

General war

In real life: Air forces, infantry, and missiles.

In your world: Careful management of troops along a front line, ready to attack any invaders or to attack a point and move the line forwards.

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  • $\begingroup$ Railguns are primarily being studied for use as long-range, heavy hitting weapons but there is no specific reason that you couldn't have a much lower-powered, faster firing machine-railgun. Indeed, it would likely avoid a few of the current issues with them. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Aug 17 '17 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MattBowyer I assumed that the railguns would not be used as handheld weapons, because this would make swords useless. I have updated the answer. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 17 '17 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Without explosives, big railguns are still useful against infantry because they can throw grapeshot. $\endgroup$ – Pere Aug 17 '17 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Pere like a super-sized shotgun? That's a great idea! I guess those infantry should run to the hills then. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 17 '17 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't even need to be grape-shot - there's no reason why a railgun can't fire bullet-sized projectiles at a high cyclic rate like a machine gun (whether that's a large rail gun or small) $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Aug 17 '17 at 15:59
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World feasibility.

You would need a world that after initially discovering electricity (lemon batteries of Mesopotamia) quickly transitioned to generating electricity through a non-explosive method.

This might have initially been slaves or cattle’s turning a generator. Then perhaps a windmill or watermill. As long as they were always able to generate surplus energy cheaply and efficiently there would be no drive to find other means.

Once demand outstrips supply people will start looking for other sources. Steam engines, or fossil fuel engines. As soon as a culture begins powering something through combustion it is not much of a leap to transition to using combustion for other purposes.

Your climate is probably quite warm. If they burn wood for heat they are likely to think of burning wood and other items for other purposes.

Scarcity: There may need to be a reduction/elimination of petroleum, and wood and other things that burn easily. Other chemicals as well. This reduction will reduce the chances of developing combustion mechanics. (Desert climate?)

In the end, maybe someone did develop explosive propellant. However something caused it to not be adopted widely. Cultural disdain. Or there where many accidents with the first designs, killing too many. The early adopters of gunpowder lost their wars and their reliance on gunpowder was blamed, or upon their nations fall the technique to build them was lost.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, you pretty much descibed the way i tried to use to eliminate gunpowder. The early prototypes were extremly unreliable, and the militaries had an extremely hard choice of choosing between battle-proven railguns and something resembling an unreliable 11-century cannon. Which one would you choose? $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 17:22
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I like the concept but since you are asking us to challenge it, here is my take: it sounds like people in your world use a lot of steel, right? Steel is made with coking coal and iron ore, both of which require blasting to be mined economically in large quantities: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drilling_and_blasting

Now, you did specify that explosives are known in your world, and simply nobody had the idea to use them as propellant. But I wonder how long would it take to anyone who has witnessed a controlled blast at a mine to figure out that you can at least throw explosives at your enemies on the battlefield or from a plane.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, as i have pointed out in another comment already, they have in fact figured out that if you throw an explosive at somebody, they are going to have a bad time. But if something exploding near you is bad, then why explode something inside a gun, that you are holding in your hands. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ @LuciusQ.User. I get that point and I am not talking about guns. I am talking about throwing a chunk of dynamite at somebody with a catapult or from a plane $\endgroup$ – AleAve81 Aug 17 '17 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ Throwing a grenade or firing an explosive shell out of a railgun is a thing. Explosives are a thing, firearms arent. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ What i am trying to explain is that i agree with your idea. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ Cool, so yes I would consider having that sort of weapons around. $\endgroup$ – AleAve81 Aug 17 '17 at 14:53
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I think there could be some feasibility in how you structure your worlds history. However if your world does have rail cannon artillery then they certainly understand that the magnetic energy can launch projectiles.

You do touch on the idea that this requires immense energy, however the military machine will always try to adapt weapons and systems for other uses. As such if you want swords to be a common feature on your battle fields I do have a suggestion:

"Rail Flintlocks" A better understanding of electricity should lead to improvements in things like circuits and capacitors. While you can't carry the equipment to generate the electricity a dense capacitor hooked up to a small handheld gun is sufficient to fire a single rail.

Once fired the pistol can be reloaded (arduously of course) by swapping out the capacitor breaching the barrel and reloading a large iron spike. So military charges can have a volley of fire and then resort to sword play.

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  • $\begingroup$ This won't work, capacitors have a self-discharge, even the best capacitors we can make today will drain in a matter of hours. $\endgroup$ – vsz Aug 18 '17 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz and it's inconceivable that a civilization more specialized in electricity and circuits couldn't have improved on this? $\endgroup$ – Culyx Aug 21 '17 at 14:21
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I'm surprised nobody mentioned Dune.

In that story, personal shield generators made firearms useless, which meant combat was often hand-to-hand or with swords.

Perhaps you could craft a handwavium solution in this story:

Excellent electrical mastery resulted in the development of personal shields, rendering the recently discovered explosive-projectile firearms (if ever discovered) obsolete just as they appeared on the battlefield. As a result, swords were still widely used in combat, although large-scale, long-range railguns and/or explosives were utilized for long-distance attacks.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dune's handvavium does not really apply in this situation. 1. It would render the railguns obsolete. 2. You still need a ton of power to stop a bullet, and not having good enough capacitors is exactly what is preventing them from having personal railguns. 3. I really dont want the shields to provide absolute protection. Even if they exist, they shouldn't provide much more than "extra hitpoints". $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Dune shields are bogus, Herbert obviously didn't do the math. If they block based on speed (faster than X), then they block air too since air molecules have average speed of nearly 500 m/s, far in excess of a pistol round. Sure, you are immune to bullets, but unless you have own oxygen tank, you are either periodically disabling shield to take a breath, or you die. Sabotaging shield intermitter would be an interesting method of assassination. To let user breath, shields would have to block everything SLOWER than 400 m/s, like, you know, swords. While rifle bullets pass through. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Aug 17 '17 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech replace speed with momentum and it will probably work. Also, its called handwavium for a reason $\endgroup$ – tox123 Aug 17 '17 at 23:24
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If they discovered Electricity before us maybe they have the necessary science to store more power in little containers, it could open some possibilities. For example in modern technology, we use capacitors that can release a big tension at once and can kill humans if it is badly manipulated. If they find the mean to overpower it with some strong current, you could easily make it affordable and handy.

In terms of strategy I came with an idea : railguns shoting chained ammo like chained-cannonballs used by pirats and marines soldiers in order to break the main mast of ships. It could clear a battlefield of swordsman.

Even if it is slow and big, railgun is really overkill against group of soldiers. Electrified nets, Tesla shotguns/Spear, tazer Bow/crossbow, portative chainsaw, sawdisc launchers, and if you adopt the idea of little source of power, you can have tesla grenade, electrified arrow as it was said before. problem with grenade, if they touch the ground the electric load will go in the ground i think. Because air is really difficult for the electricity to get through.

I hope I helped, don't forget your insulating armor on the battlefield, weather lady has foreseen stormy weather and railgun-fired bullets.

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  • $\begingroup$ A lot of good ideas here, however i did not quite understand what do you mean by "tesla shotgun". $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ It is a weapon with a little range, that takes a little time to load enough power to release an electric arc. In order to aim the arc, let says that before releasing the electric power, the weapon spray a conductive liquid/gas over an opponent and then release an arc. The conductive spray avoid accident like teamkill and make the way of the electricity in the air more easy. $\endgroup$ – aurelienjo Aug 18 '17 at 7:26
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To be honest, you've created what I call a "technology dichotomoy." Your civilization has the ability to build a rail gun that projects a projectile using magnetism, but they never thought about using explosives? Not even with all the hints laying around? Like slingshots? Or pneumatic BB guns (or just air hoses with a tube and a wad of paper...)? Or arrows? Or golf balls? Or the first time some highschool student mixed nitrogen triiodide as a contact explosive for his (it's almost always a "his") amusement? Not to mention spit wads. The idea that they created rail guns without the technology necessary to build dynamite (or anything else that goes "boom!" like natural gas, propane, nitrous oxide, gasoline, etc., etc. etc.) is simply unbelievable. It's like asking me to believe in a society that can move things using a maglev train but they never invented the wheel.

To make matters worse, rail guns exist as an artillery piece, but there are no hand-held weapons of significant range (I'm going to assume arrows and spears exist, but compared to rail gun artillery, they might as well be bayonets). So, basically just swords. No one in their right mind would fight this kind of battle. The artillery wouldn't just decimate whole armies, it would completely dismantle whole armies, because to use a sword everybody needs to be bunched together... perfect fodder for artillery of any kind. After the very first battle the war would become one of artillery only. (Remember, there are mothers and wives back home screaming at the government over the sensless slaughter.) It wouldn't be disimilar to the trench warfare of WWI where neither side had an efficient way to overcome the wide-area attacks of gas and machine guns. (How'd they do it? With planes and tanks. Not infantry, regardless their weapons. Heavy-duty armor with medium-ranged weapons and light-armor with a boatload of speed and altitude.)

I can't even think of anything that would justify, "we have more advanced weapons, but because of technology X, we can't use them in-close." You still have the artillery beating the snot out of any group dumb enough to come into close combat with swords.

Regrettably, this is why the once very popular RPG Traveller took so much heat for actually wasting character-building space on the Cutlass (and other hand-to-hand bladed weapons not a knife) skill. In an age when advanced ranged weapons can be brought to bear, there is no useful reason to train in swordmanship (other than weddings. They're cool at weddings). It's the ultimate problem of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Conclusion: the only way you can make this combination work is to make the railguns so... something... so expensive, so difficult, so rare, so... something... that they are actually brought to bear quite rarely. They're devestating when they enter the fray. It might even be utterly surprising when they do. ("They WHAT? How did they find the unobtainium to even charge the darn thing?") Suddenly, your sword fights are over the resources needed to build/operate the railguns, or over the emplacements, or over the technicians who know how to use them, or over whatever it is that makes them special and rare.

...and heaven help the idiot who doesn't take control first.

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Here are some ways your scenario might work.

If these guys never developed gunpowder then it may be they only recently developed any ranged weapon more powerful than a catapult. Maybe they invented radio-controlled "missiles" (kinetic weapons, since they don't blow up) and railgun "cannons," but those are both bulky, expensive weapons that you can't just hand out to everyone.

So infantry might be the same as it was in the 11th century, although with much better armor. "Cavalry" might be people driving electric motorcycles and armed with sabres. Or are railguns light enough to mount on tanks?

Air fighting without gunpowder would be strange and interesting. Planes might be able to drop rocks or grenades on soldiers below, but I can't see how they'd shoot each other. Ground-based railguns might, or raido-controlled missiles could be flown into planes. Which would mean that planes need their own cadre of counter-missiles, controlled either from the ground or by a passenger on the plane.

For heavily-armored-but-lightly-armed infantry, my first thought is that tactics would focus on a balance between swarming enemies and ripping them apart (con: making a cluster of people that might be targeted by a railgun or missile) and sneaking up on enemies and sticking a dagger into a weak point in their armor (con: assassins are expensive to train and work slowly).

In terms of damage done, railguns would blast down buildings and infrastructure, but without hand-held guns, individual soldiers would have a harder time killing civilians than in real life.

I wonder how the economics and politics of this world would work...

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    $\begingroup$ Planes might drop emps. $\endgroup$ – tox123 Aug 17 '17 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ @tox123 I like the idea! A strong enough EMP would induce a current between one armored soldier and another. :) $\endgroup$ – Daniel Bensen Aug 18 '17 at 11:56
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If they have engines, they also have tanks with railguns.

Which means that most combat would revolve around tanks with railguns, with infantry soldiers acting as spotters. Not terribly different from modern mobile warfare. Instead of pointing a rifle at the enemy you point a rangefinder, and then your iphone sends instant instructions to the railgun waiting half a mile behind or so.

Which suddenly makes electronic warfare extremely interesting.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fun idea: lets mess with enemy GPS and make their artillery do some friendly fire. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 16:21
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I'm not entirely sure I got your question right, but:

  • If they are XXI century-like they would have a lot of things that would make "infantry running around the battlefield with swords" be very out of place, regardless of presence of firearms or not.
  • they would have communications
  • they would have transportation
  • they would have air-support
  • etc.
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  • $\begingroup$ I have clarifed the OP to include the problems witb transportation and air-support in this scenario. $\endgroup$ – Lucius Q. User Aug 17 '17 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ @LuciusQ.User: in our world people learned to fight horseback and on war-chariots looooong before invention of firearms. Not having them (and force to fight on foot) would seem even stranger than no-firearms in XXI sec. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Aug 17 '17 at 11:55
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There are many explosive reactions in chemistry, you can even create explosions by distributing harmless substances like flour in the air. Other explosions are so easy to produce like Oxyhydrogen (water + oxygen), that it is unlikely that no one discovered them by accident. There are many historical records of unexpected and unwanted explosions before gunpowder was discovered, and many alchemists have tried to utilize those explosions. Gunpowder was simply more easy to control, so it could be distributed easily and used by the common soldier.

It is highly unlikely that no one ever encountered explosive reactions or what could be done with them, it is however possible that none of them was controllable enough so they couldn't be utilized in smaller firearms. So if in your world gunpowder has simply not yet been discovered, that wouldn't keep an army from using other kinds of explosives, if there is a safe method of distribution. If you have a plane, then you can still drop a tank with an explosive substance over the battlefield, with the risk that getting hit might rip the plane apart prematurely.

Railguns require an intense amount of energy to be fired. There is a good reason why only now they are starting to use them as weapons, because only modern abilities to store and discharge electricity is sufficient to create guns that can fire more than one (really devastating) shot.

Additionally, even if you ignore all those issues above, any army would include at least traditional fighting strategies, which are cavalry, foot soldier and crossbowmen, so they can hit fast, steadily and at range. On top of that more sinister leaders might use gas or bio-weapon attacks.

Your scenario is not at all realistic.

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If explosions as a means of propelling something is out of the question, then combustion engines are out of the question, since explosions are needed to propel the pistons' movement.

Without combustion engines, you're going to have a hard time getting enough power for a large rail gun through batteries alone. The large battery store would have to be transported in electric motor vehicles, and are one time use unless you also have a portable power generator that doesn't rely on a combustion engine. Ex) Solar panels. Shots may require days to recharge.

Also, as @TwoThe points out in his answer, it would be pretty hard to have a modern type society that hasn't encountered or thought of this behavior. This may necessitate your society to be more in the Knight's age, with accidental discovery of electricity that wasn't seen as voodoo magic.

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