Firearms in Fantasy: A Deceptively Simple Concept

Hello. I don’t know if this belongs here but y’all know about weapons so maybe you’ve got ideas?

I’m writing a fantasy story that’s got some anachronistic elements but it leans towards futuristic or modern. However I have characters using swords even though logically they should be using firearms. There’s no lack of technology or resources limiting them from using guns so how can I explain the absence? What makes it trickier is certain firearm/projectile weapons do exist, like an arm cannon that shoots fire.

How can I make this work without implementing a system like the character job classes you find in RPGs?


So, the problem here is that firearms are, in their design, incredibly simple. At the simplest level, a firearm is just capping a tube, dropping something “chemically energetic” in, adding a projectile, and igniting the propellent.

If you have a setting with reasonably functional metallurgy, and flamethrowers, you have guns.

If you have a setting with the internal combustion engine, you have guns, because it is the exact same method of power generation, the only differences are in the chemicals used and the ignition method. After that, there is a difference in how the power is channeled and used, but they operate on the same intermingling of physics and chemistry.

This gets even worse when you start digging into chemistry. Gunpowder has been around for over a thousand years. The development of very basic powders came from the use of sulfur and potassium nitrate in early alchemical experiments. While modern accelerants are quite sophisticated, basic black powder can easily be produced with bronze age technology. In fact, it is easier to make gunpowder than a gun barrel that can withstand the resulting pressure.

Now, you might have guns that look very different from what we’re used to. Moving beyond a basic 14th century handcanon, there is a lot of iterative technology that has gone into firearms. Being able to open the breach, prepackaged cartridges, barrel rifling and replaceable magazines, are all quite modern innovations. We’ve had the gun for nearly a millennia, but those are (mostly) less than two centuries old.

How can I make this work without implementing a system like the character job classes you find in RPGs?

This would not work. I trust we’re all familiar with that scene from Indiana Jones. The problem with the firearm is it effectively negates other weapon options. In RPG terms, it hard counters nearly every non-gun build.

It doesn’t matter if your ageless swordsman has spent a thousand years studying the blade, they can’t stop a bullet, and very few people can continue to operate after you’ve pumped a couple rounds through them.

So, here’s where things get a bit more complicated. In fantasy you may have enemies who simply aren’t susceptible to gunshots. Vampires and Werewolves are the normal urban fantasy examples, though there’s certainly options for things like golems, demons, and other flavors of undead to simply not care about bullets at all. This is before you get into edge cases that might not be susceptible for other reasons, such as mages who are able to cast effective shields against gunfire, and creatures such as dragons who are supernaturally resistant to injury. I mean, if you’re going to go hunting dragons, taking a Glock is a phenomenally poor choice.

This leads to another possibility that probably shouldn’t be overlooked: Gun control. Just because the M82 exists, doesn’t mean you can get your hands on one. Even in the US, getting your hands on military hardware such as automatic firearms is prohibitively difficult and expensive. It’s not difficult to envision a society where even access to handguns is excruciatingly difficult. I say it’s not hard, because there are real-world examples like Japan or the UK, where private firearm ownership is excruciatingly difficult. Ironically, both Japan and the UK also heavily regulate possession of ammunition (not, only the firearm itself.)

Something that flies in the face of a lot of popular fantasy literature is how foundational the firearm is in our technological history. I don’t mean the effects of the gun, that caused massive sociopolitical changes, but how the technology itself contributed to overall technological advancement. Something that can be deceptively difficult when writing a fantasy setting, is understanding how one technological innovation lead to another, and the rather startling way that all of this advanced science as a whole.

You may also want to check out this article on warmages from a couple years ago, as it covers a few concepts we sort of skimmed over here.


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