Q&A: Energy Weapons and Penetration

Wouldn’t “lower power” so to speak be desirable to reduce overpenning in urban combat situations? Not necessarily with a large bulky gun, but even SBRs can fit some definitions of “big”.


It depends, but it’s quite possible that penetration may be distinct from overall weapon power. Especially if we’re talking about non-kinetic weapons.

The two examples that come to mind immediately are Babylon 5 and Star Wars. Both settings use plasma based weapons as their dominant hand weapon technology. In B5, this was explicitly stated to be because the PPGs were less likely to rupture starship hulls and cause explosive decompressions.

Of course, in Star Wars, magnetic shielding which turns blasters into a remarkably high stakes version of Pong.

In both cases, you have high power weapons with a low risk of penetration.

This is also often a characteristic of beam weapons in science fiction. Where you have weapons that will selectively discriminately between punching through armor but not burning through unarmored structures or vehicles. In some settings there’s justifications for this, such as advanced computer control systems built into the weapons, or hulls and other objects being constructed out of materials which resist the beam weapons. In others it’s strictly authorial fiat without any in setting justification.

That said, high energy weapons could easily end up in a situation where you don’t have much power, while the weapon is still pretty heavy. This is the reason we don’t have things like hand-held laser weapons in the real world. You simply can’t generate enough power to create a functional weapon with current power sources. If you want a hand laser that can vaporise someone, it will need a power reserve greater than the output of a major hydroelectric facility for each shot. You could carry something very heavy (or vehicle mounted) which would mildly inconvenience (or blind) someone, but it would be significantly less effective than just bringing in a conventional rifle.

That’s part of why, “heavy, low power weapons,” wouldn’t be a thing. If your weapon is heavy and is low power, you’d revert back to the lighter, higher power weapon. If you have a setting where your basic energy weapons are very heavy, and less powerful than kinetics, you’d see people using projectile firearms.

There’s one major caveat to this. If you have highly specialized weapons, like some kind of EMP projector, you might see something that is technically low power, but is being used in a specific support role. Especially in anti-material roles.

For an example of this, you can look at Aliens. If you pay attention to the background details, you’ll see the Sulaco carries a wide range of energy weapons, including particle beams (for electronic warfare) and even uses lasers for its point defense weapons. But, the Marines use M41a Pulse Rifles (which are kinetic auto rifles) and the support gunners use M56 Smart Gun (which are a target assisted autogun.)

Also, in the Aliens example, the kinetic weapons are designed to minimize structural damage. Both the Pulse Rifles and Smart Guns are loaded with 10mm explosive tip caseless rounds, which were intended for dealing with lightly armored foes, but not intended for punching through walls, or armored vehicles. (Though, they still do some structural damage.)

Even in the modern world, it’s becoming possible to separate penetration from power. Frangible rounds, like Glaser Safety Slugs are designed to shatter into dust on impact with a hard surface, making them less likely to cause structural damage, while still being an effective weapon.


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