The biggest challenge when working with description isn’t the act of describing itself. It’s knowing the when or where. Sometimes, describing weapons can get awkward. This happens a lot for me in fiction, especially when an author plunks all the description down in a place where it doesn’t belong. It’s important to remember even when writing Third Person Omniscient that when a character thinks about their weapon or talks about their weapon, they need to do so in a manner which feels natural to how the character thinks and acts.
Think about this, which sounds more natural.
Gerald’s hand shifted back and pulled his Glock 17 9mm off his Sam Browne belt.
Gerald’s hand shifted back and he pulled his sidearm off his Sam Browne belt. His fingers locked easily around the silver grip. It was a Smith & Wesson 5906. No longer standard issue in the LA Department, they’d moved on with the times to other, newer, models. Still, Gerald thought, can’t beat a classic.
The thing about description is you need to find reasons why you’re characters are describing the object to begin with. The Glock 17 is standard issue in most police departments around the country, while the reader might not know that a cop like Gerald certainly would. If his gun isn’t important or special to him in some way, then dropping description of it randomly into a sentence feels out of place. It’s just his sidearm, standard issue, nothing special. Comparatively, in the second example Gerald uses his weapon as a stand in to tell the reader that he’s out of date. It was standard at one point but we’ve moved on with the times, Gerald has a reason to tell us about his gun and we get some character development out of it too.
This transitions into working with a sci-fi or fantasy setting, even if the weapon the character wields is like nothing we’ve ever seen on this earth they still need to treat it like it’s normal (unless it isn’t). There’s a time and a place for extensive navel gazing about what the weapon can do, but if it’s slowing down the scene then chuck it.
Sam swung her XLJ452 lasgun around and pointed it at the dreaded bug monster. She fired, reducing the beast to a smear of chunky, blue salsa.
Let’s change the scene and compare:
“And this one?” Drill Sergeant Martez’s finger dropped, pointing to a long silver cylinder with a bulky handle. The full collection of standard issue lasguns and pistols sat on the wide table.
Sam straightened. “The XLJ452! Marine issue! Fires a beam of light straight down the bug humpers gullet and reduces them to a blue smear.”
“A blue smear?” Martez lifted an eyebrow.
To be honest next to the XIL321 and the XLJ456, the XLJ452 looked a little like an oversized penis. “Chunky salsa?” Sam asked.
“Chunky salsa, Private?”
“Yes, ma’am. Chunky salsa, ma’am!”
The idea is to give your characters a reason to talk about details in your setting and not just drop them in at random. Make them a natural extension of how your character feels, thinks, and talks about their weapons. The explanations need to feel natural and support who your character is supposed to be and what they are supposed to know. If your character works with their weapon often, they may not have a reason to share exactly what it is and the story behind it unless they are pressed. Or they are nerds. Or it’s their job to know.
The simple answer is yes, as a weapon on it’s own, it can definitely do that. The problem for you is a little bigger. In media, we tend to treat weapons like they are accessories instead of as tools meant for specific situations.You take the weapon you need for the environment and type of combat you’re facing. This is part of why I find “Jack of all trades” characters to be pretty funny. Martial combat training, even just recreational, covers a variety of different kinds of combat and most hand to hand forms include joint locks, throws, punches, kicks, and wrestling. A warrior who can wield a mace would also have been trained on swords, lances, pikes, bows, and other important aspects of medieval combat.
If you want to uncover whether a specific weapon fits with what you have in mind, then the question is: what was the mace used for historically?
It’s true that the mace is a bashing weapon, but it is basically a more advanced version of a club. It’s heavier on the top and relies on momentum more than the sword, meant for bashing through plate mail and chain mail as an alternate to carrying a pike or spear. It’s not a nimble weapon, but it hits hard. The mace allows a knight more mobility in combat and the ability to wield it together with a shield for secondary protection if they are going into battle against another knight.
The important point is: does the mace make sense in a desert environment where metal is a limited commodity and the reasons that lead to the creation of the mace aren’t present? The answer is no. If you told me that the character was carrying around a club made from one of the types of hardened wood (like dogwood) that flourishes in a desert environment, then I would say yes. It’s the same basic usage of the weapon, but a wooden weapon fits more logically into what’s available from the resources in the environment. If heavy forging isn’t part of the culture, then there’s little reason for them to have heavy metal weapons.
My advice is if you’re setting your story in a desert then look away from Europe. Look at cultures that existed and still exist in the Sahara (and other deserts) to see what weapons technology they developed. There are plenty of powerful, conquering empires to choose from that make sense within the environment you’ve chosen and get away from the standard fantasy generalities.
Weapons and weapons technology do not exist within a vacuum, they are a response to the challenges and dangers presented within the environment. It’s important to pick weapons that synergize with the lifestyle of the people who live within the world you’ve created. Find the harmony between what you’ve created and the ideas that get you excited.
Is it possible isn’t the right question. Does it make sense for the challenges the characters in my setting face when placed against the available resources and their chosen lifestyle? That’s a better ballpark and an easier strike zone to nail. Check yourself against history. Don’t stop at “did these people use this weapon” ask “who did these people use this weapon against and why did they use it and not that?”.
The most confusing part about combat that is meant to be inferred is that combat is circumstantial. The spear worked great for the Greeks because they used them in a regimented formation that made it difficult to harm them, also certain parts of their history involved invasion by nomadic cultures on horseback. If your characters come from a society with a limited supply of metal, but a lot of leather and wood then a spear or a whip is going to be a good option for a primary weapon. It’s available, it’s affordable, and it’s got good utility usage outside of combat. A character in a post-apocalyptic setting can choose to use a black powder musket they’ve scrounged from a local museum, but the lack of ammunition and appropriate materials makes it a less suitable choice than a crowbar.
Well, that’s not much more of an anachronistic mess than the actual 19th century.
The best way to level things out would be to remember that all not weapons are created equal. I don’t mean some weapons are better than others, this is an easy mistake, I mean weapons have different uses.
Put it this way, you wouldn’t try to drive nails with a screw driver or a pry bar, and you wouldn’t try to remove a screw with a claw hammer.
Weapons are tools. You might misuse them if you’re desperate, but ultimately, your characters need to use the most appropriate weapon for the current situation. Try to use a weapon in the wrong situation and your characters will die.
The thing about guns is, they tend to be more versatile than other weapons, and that’s not something you can get around. They’re also more forgiving of being used in the wrong role. Someone who has a rifle can still kill at a foot away, the same is not true of bows or crossbows. Try to ignore that and your writing will suffer.
Handguns are most effective in very tight spaces, where long range accuracy isn’t an issue. They also work in situations where you need to conceal a weapon. Try to fight someone more than fifty feet away, and your character will die. (You can triple that number for modern handguns.)
Swords (in that timeframe) are most effective in mass melee. They’re also (slightly) stealthier than the handgun at those ranges, and can offer a significant advantage if their foes don’t realize they’re there. Try to go up against any aware foe with a firearms; your character’s going to become chunky salsa, and they should know that.
Rifles are best for long range precision shots. Granted, 19th century firearms left something to be desired when it came to accuracy, but these were still weapons you could use to out range combatants. These start to fall apart at close ranges, and trying to take a rifle into a cramped house or tunnel system can be fatal.
Bows and crossbows are still the top choice for silent killing at range. They don’t work at the long range of the rifle, they can’t be used in close quarters, the way a handgun can, bows are very hard to operate under fire, and crossbows take awhile to reset, but that’s not the point. If no one knows your character is there, it’s a good choice, if anyone can scream in agony as they’re dying, your character better have a fallback weapon.
Also, lever and bolt-action rifles date back to the 19th century, so those aren’t automatically out. As do breach loading and lever action shotguns.
Lever-action repeaters trade some of the accuracy and range of a rifle for maneuverability and follow up. Bolt-action rifles are similar, though they keep a lot of the long range accuracy. Both are cumbersome to reload, though the same is true of most 19th century firearms. Again, neither will help you if you’re getting run through from behind with a sword or picked off with a bow, or (with repeaters), if someone is taking shots at 300 yrds, but, they will ruin someone’s day if all they have is a revolver, a sword, or a bow.
Shotguns operate at roughly the same ranges as a handgun, they trade maneuverability for stopping power. Games will give you a bad idea about how much shotguns actually scatter, but if you want something dead right now, and it’s not too far away…
If you can stomach it’s writing and “white savior” racism, Far Cry 3 is a massive playground to get the idea of the right weapon for the right situation down. The roles it places the weapons in aren’t 100% accurate, but it might help you grasp how these things interact in a modern setting.
You’re basically talking a bifurcated blade and those get broken because they’re not structurally sound. If they are going to work, they’ll have to be made out of a “special” metal like adamantium or orichalum or something. While it may sound like a good idea, the character would have a great deal of difficulty going on the defensive with the weapon. Another character could probably break the blades fairly easily. The sword would also be much heavier and imbalanced, making it slower against other enemies using lighter, quicker blades. The fencing blades are devastatingly effective, so that brings us back to the question of why he’s using the blade at all if it’s not going to give him an advantage and more likely to get him killed
Even if you’re doing a fantasy or steampunk setting, research is important. To understand how to build your own separate world, it helps to look at the real one. Depending on how close your setting is to the time frame you’re pulling from, then the more accurate you’ll be expected to be. It’s also worth remembering that history is full of crazy stuff that people did or invented (like the gunblade) to try to give themselves an advantage. Much of Steampunk is drawn from the Victorian Period, so your readership will expect you to know about and be accurate to the Victorian Period. If you don’t have a grasp of the technology and politics at play in the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Era, then Steampunk could be a problem for you.
It’s the little details like underwear that will really get you.
European Parrying Daggers
- Dated: mid 16th century
- Culture: German
- Medium: steel; elk horn grip
- Measurements: overall – l:37.80 cm (l:14 7/8 inches) Wt: .22 kg. Blade – l:27.70 cm (l:10 7/8 inches). Quillions – w:6.50 cm (w:2 1/2 inches)
- Dated: 16th century
- Culture: Italian
- Medium: steel; russetted and damascened guard and pommel; wood and wire grip
- Measurements: overall – l:50.70 cm (l:19 15/16 inches) Wt: .60 kg. Blade – l:36.50 cm (l:14 5/16 inches). Quillions – w:16.50 cm (w:6 7/16 inches). Grip – l:13.30 cm (l:5 3/16 inches)
- Dated: 17th century
- Culture: Dutch
- Medium: steel, wire grip, perforated blade
- Measurements: overall – l:46.00 cm (l:18 1/16 inches) Wt: .44. Blade – l:30.90 cm (l:12 1/8 inches). Quillions – w:9.80 cm (w:3 13/16 inches). Grip – l:12.00 cm (l:4 11/16 inches)
- Dated: early 17th century
- Culture: Italian
- Medium: steel, perforated blade; openwork grip
- Measurements: overall – l:46.00 cm (l:18 1/16 inches) Wt: .34 kg. Blade – l:32.10 cm (l:12 5/8 inches). Quillions – w:8.80 cm (w:3 7/16 inches). Grip – l:11.00 cm (l:4 5/16 inches)
This is an awesome website that’s totally worth following for you sword oriented, weapon minded people. It’ll give you some useful ideas for the artistic component of historical swords and describing it in your own writing.
Also, history is neat.
Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last shaft point-blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat. The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but a blur in its course, the were-beast plunged convulsively in midair and crashed headlong, shot through and through.
Then, the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder; then the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a narrow skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter and blood and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword, useless at such deadly close quarters, he caught the throats of the two horrors which were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury.
–The Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard
If you’ve never read anything from Conan: The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard, then shame on you. When it comes to Sword and Sorcery, Howard is still the giant in the genre and the second father of modern fantasy. Honestly, when it comes to fight scenes, Howard is still the man.
Anyway, I’m not posting the above quote here just to fangirl or because the above is really well written. It is, but it illustrates an important point about weapons combat and your characters.
Notice how Conan starts with the bow and when his enemies get into sword range, he discards it. This is because the weapon has now become useless and it will be a detrimental to him to hold onto it, the same is true for the sword, once his enemies get inside its guard. Once his sword is gone, he grapples with his fists and the melee becomes more desperate.
This is a reality to combat that holds true for all weapons and all melee strikes. When I was training in Tae Kwon Do, my instructors referred to these spaces around the body as “hot zones”.
For example: with a roundhouse kick, the opponent needed to be in range of the length of the leg between the foot and shin for the kick to be effective. If the opponent has gotten close enough that they are above the knee when the leg is extended, then it’s no good. Or alternately, if the opponent was within grabbing distance of the throat and we were nose to nose, a punch was useless and it was time to go to an elbow, a knee, or into a grapple. Most modern handguns are only useful between the ranges of 10 to 50 feet, anywhere closer than that and you can’t aim.
Every weapon has a different hot zone and a point where in truly close quarters they are no longer useful, it requires a fair amount of research to determine when that is.
As with everything regarding writing, the more you know, the better your character will be and the better the fight scene you’ll write.