What would be the feasibility of short ranged weapons, such as swords, brass knuckles, clubs and gauntlets in a sci-fi-fantasy setting?

To clarify further, we are ignoring the standard bullet-beats-knife scenario, we are talking about sci-fi-fantasy, in a universe where both highly advanced technology exists both in coexistence and in standalone form from any sort of magic or special non-standard-universal-rules powers, in particular we are talking if there would be any sort of usage and if it would be of any use, in normal sci-fi scenarios we can almost instantly remove the regular usage for any melee weapons (excluding the odd light saber) because typically sidearms such as high powered pistols would have taken the role of these weapons. But what about a more non standard setting? Could a high-elf carrying a magical claymore have any chance against a human carrying a highly powered mag-prop gun? Or would everyone eventually decide that high-technology is a much better choice?

Further clarification, since my question was flagged as a duplicate: it is not a purely sci-fi setting, its a sci-fi fantasy, meaning that this particular universe isn't purely centered around highly powerful technologies, but highly powerful technologies with magical properties added, in this particular scenario we are also discarding any sort of energy pulse weapons i.e. Lasers or Plasma beams, and most weapons are based on ballistic or magnetic propellants. The question in factor was to ask if melee weapons, wielded by magic users, could have any sort of use against non-magic users wielding long-ranged firearms.


9 Answers 9


There are several authors who agree with your notion. Each of them is careful to specify a specific reason that guns aren't the order of the day.

The Deathstalker series, by I think Simon Green. They have laser pistols which are devastating, but for take some time to recharge. I can't recall the reason that gunpowder weapons are out of style, but there is one... Anyhoo, guys run around with lasers and cutlasses; think pirate stories, where your pistol is good for one shot then it's down to cold steel.

The Dune series, by Frank Herbert. Shields make both pistols and lasers impractical -- shields block anything moving too fast, so bullets bounce off, and laser/shield interactions resemble nuclear blasts. So it's swords, swords, swords all the way down.

The Emberverse series, by SM Stirling. A mystical event has occurred such that high voltage electricity and high-speed combustion don't work. There is a teensy realism gap, but it allows knights and cowboys to fight Roman-style legions, and this excuses many sins.

So, the short story...

Guns are good. Guns are great. You need some reason -- physics, interfering technology, magic, or social convention -- to suppress their use.

  • $\begingroup$ So, If we say that in this particular scenario, mages could empower their swords and cast protective shields, it is completely safe to say they could go on face-to-face against high-technology weapon wielders? $\endgroup$
    – Halno
    Sep 12, 2017 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Halno sure, that could work. You might suggest that it takes a certain mass of metal to support the enchantment, which is why you can enchant a sword to cut through magical shields, but not bullets. (thinking ... thinking ... ) Of course, this implies that you could have cannons with huge metal shells, but no guns/rifles. I'm kind of liking this! ;D $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Sep 12, 2017 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ That just about answers my question and added just a whole lot i can work with - that being, that certain enchantments require a specific mass or volume or material so that they are stable. Thanks for replying! $\endgroup$
    – Halno
    Sep 12, 2017 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ The age old struggle between armor and weapons..... If you make an impenetrable shield then what's to stop someone from wrapping themselves in it thus ending all armed conflict? Even the shield guys from Halo could only take so many bullets. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Sep 12, 2017 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ +1 would add that Red Rising does this by putting most battles in space battles where boarding is the prevalent tactic. Boarding is almost nothing but point-blank, so the range factor diminishes. They also have special shielded suits for elite soldiers, but the space-boarding stuff is the primary reason that melee weapons are in vogue. (Similar environments would be caves/tunnels.) $\endgroup$
    – Jeutnarg
    Sep 12, 2017 at 22:55

There are always a need for short-range non-powered weapons:

  • They're quiet
  • They require no power
  • Close quarters, a knife ALWAYS beats a gun
  • they can be improvised
  • They are cheap
  • they are untraceable
  • They don't ricochet
  • They are good if the areas are crowded (caves, tightly packed space stations)
  • If you miss, you're not going to cause the highly unstable unobtanium to explode
  • A miss won't cause a hull breach
  • They don't jam.

(Thanks to reed and IllusiveBrian for those last two)

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ They don't jam imdb.com/character/ch0076832/quotes $\endgroup$
    – Reed
    Sep 13, 2017 at 13:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Slight addendum to the last point - if you miss, you won't breach your ship's hull. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2017 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @IllusiveBrian I'll add that, thank you. $\endgroup$
    – user20762
    Sep 13, 2017 at 13:58

More to Richard U's answer:

I suppose even futuristic humans will still want to breathe fresh air, take a hot bath, have sex with other people. So they won't have their nanotube armored clothes on all time. Once being exposed, they can be attacked.

Whatever your ranged weapon is, it needs energy to do the job and it needs a frame for the projectile. Gun powder, batteries, springs, whatever, the energy source can be detected and you can effectively detect and restrict them. Melee weapons on the other hand can be improvised from the most harmless things. Every string can be used as garrotte. Every heavy piece of material (boule ball, even a bar of soap) can be turned with a towel or a sock into a powerful mace. Every pointed object (pencil, pen, screwdriver) can be used as dagger. Killing someone with a ranged weapon also leaves traces (bullet, type of weapon, where did the shooter stand, blood or skin marks) while e.g. garrotting someone does not leave any trace and allows silently disposing/hiding the body. So (improvised) melee weapons are great for assassinations or infiltrations to avoid raising alarm.

If futuristic ranged weapons are not build inside the clothes or transplated into the body, once a victim is close they can be avoided by getting close and wrestling so that the victim cannot point and trigger their ranged weapon. It can even be used against them. Also ranged weapons are also mostly worthless in melee (with the exception of rifles which can be used as bat and are really, really dangerous with bajonets). So to make a ranged weapon disadvantegous, prevent that the wielder has room and open sight.


Your reasoning for having Swords alongside Lasers can have it's roots in 2 different things. Practicality and Culture.

Practical Reasons. Projectile weapons and energy weapons have something in common. If you miss, you can injure the innocent bystander a long way off rather than the innocent bystander that's right up close. That's less likely with melee weapons. This is especially important if you are inside a sealed tin can surrounded by hard vacuum. Other practical issues are included in other answers.

Cultural Reasons. This is the bigger one. There are references all throughout literature and movies about using simple weapons in a tech society. Take the Klingons in Star Trek. Skill with a Bat'leth is a prized thing and dueling with one is relatively common. You can look at Firefly, where the Code Duello is alive and well on some planets. The concept of Honor is powerful, and the Old weapons are ideal to have combat that could be lethal, maybe not, and Honor can be preserved without much in the way of collateral damage.

The Professional puts out there that the more skilled the Assassin, the closer in he will kill, and the best will strangle and use knives. This one is particularly fascinating because the killing will have a psychological impact on the survivors. If your boss gets his throat cut, you are also being told "We can kill you and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop us".

Culture also gives you the freedom to even say "I have swords in my story because I like them" Just be sure to put at least a little reasoning behind it.


The root factor here is NECESSITY

Necessity is the single most driving factor for the creation and utilization of any weapon.

So in your world you can create situations that dictate the neccessity of a melee weapon

Here is a simple scenario:

An assassin needs to pass through security and quietly eliminate a target. Highly sophisticated and technological weapons will be easily detected by scanners. However, a dagger composed of material invisible to sensors is preferable and unless applied a small charge acts as a cloth which would evade hand searches. The assassin could then find their target and stab them with their very well engineered melee weapon.

But if you are looking to somehow overturn the old addage of "bringing a knife to a gun fight" you might as well accept light sabres.


In a straight Scifi setting, if you are on a spaceship of space station, they don't like projectile weapons due to the potential of a miss creating a possible explosive decompression.

In all likelihood, guns could be banned and carrying one could carry the death penalty if caught.

  • $\begingroup$ Simple and believable, which means once its put out there the reader/player will probably not question it really. In general weapons on board a station is probably a bad idea, but you can't ban knives/all blunt objects which are used as tools. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    Sep 13, 2017 at 16:23

There are a few good reasons as to why melee weapons would still be preferred to high powered sci-fi ranged weapons.

First of all, a melee weapon is generally pretty easy to make or get your hands on. Sharpening a piece of steel isn't hard compared to aligning focusing crystals and getting your hands on an unobtanium battery to power a space-age laser. For this reason alone, the lower economic classes will often prefer melee weapons. And as long as stabbing someone still works reasonably well, these weapons will continue to be in use.

That brings us to the second reason melee weapons are often used in sci-fi: many sci-fi stories have powered armor of some description. Others often have cybernetic augmentations or similar items that dramatically enhance a person's survivability and physical prowess. When you get to the point where your warriors can casually flip tanks or punch through armored bulkheads, it makes sense to bring a melee weapon. It's not that much of an investment, energy-wise, and it's a damn fine backup weapon.

Third: Assuming melee weapons are at the very least viable as a means of killing someone (that is: shields and/or armor haven't reduced anything below a kiloton in power to the equivalent of a bb gun), they're fairly safe. There's almost no chance of your sword accidentally decapitating a civilian or punching a hole in a space-ship. It takes skill to use a melee weapon well and anyone trained in its use is going to be relatively safe if their weapon gets taken away by an untrained opponent. With a gun, if some rebel steals it, you're going to end up with a hole in your chest.

Fourth: Supply. Melee weapons (usually) don't need to be reloaded, don't need much servicing and, if properly taken care of, can last for decades of service. That's real useful for combatants operating without much support from their command. They're also comparatively lighter, when ammo is taken into account (presuming ammo is finite in your universe)

Another point in Melee weapon's favor is the psychological effect. Assuming proper training for your soldiers/combatants, one of them getting shot isn't THAT much of a problem for them. Find out where the shot came from, get to cover, return fire. With melee weapons, that dynamic changes dramatically. If someone just decapitated the soldier next to you, you need to deal with that, NOW. There's no scrambling for cover, no finding out where the attack came from. The attack came from here and needs to be dealt with NOW.

And last: Non-lethal incapacitation. A melee weapon offers much more control over a person. It can be used as leverage, it conveys a threat that's understood on an almost evolutionary level and is generally much less likely to accidentally kill someone compared to a rifle or god forbid, a shotgun. That makes things like staves, nets and batons invaluable for riot control units, slaver empires and kidnapping rings.


The usefulness of melee weapons often comes down to a) your ability to reach a target before getting shot to pieces (i.e. your own mobility and defenses) and b) the weapon's ability to penetrate your opponent's defenses compared to e.g. a ranged sidearm.

In addition, in any setting where you want a diverse set of weapons, it's useful to keep in mind that armor and other defenses tend to "evolve" to counter whatever is the dominant threat. This means that weapons don't necessarily have to be equally powerful in order to remain feasible, they just need a niche.

  1. Sophisticated point defenses could drastically reduce the power of ranged weapons by shooting down missiles and evaporating bullets while certain nano materials would reflect or disperse attacks from directed energy weapons. Typical point defense weapons would not have the "damage output" to harm a properly armored target, so a melee combatant would be more or less unaffected. Armor designed to resist radiation (without being incredibly heavy) should also be relatively easy to penetrate with a sturdy blade wielded by an augmented/power armored/magically enhanced fighter.

  2. Illusion magic like DnD's Mirror Image or WH40K's Holofields could make it difficult to accurately locate and thus hit a target at range. A few people with, say, swords and long whips are probably more cost effective (and a lot safer) than bombarding the entire area. However, a swarm of drones might solve the problem just as easily.

  3. Expanding on that, directional invisibility (e.g. via metamaterials) would be pretty useful in a long range engagement, but could be negated by flanking. The closer you are to a target, the greater your (potential) angular velocity, so locating an enemy might involve coordinated sweeps at relatively close range. I'd also assume that firing would reveal your position, so people would need to be pretty mobile in general. Add "mobility magic" like short/medium range teleporting into the mix and you have a setting where small groups of teleporting melee fighters become a viable option.


Not a practical use in any capacity, but...

Because swords are cool

The Swiss Guard at the Vatican shows off with halberds. It is 100% entirely for show. If you want your personal guard to look awesome and fierce, wielding melee weapons will usually work.

Do note, That doesn't preclude having real guards with SMGs behind the folklore.


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