Monday, August 8, 2011

The Unreliability Of Firearms

And once again, it's a question of firearms.

Some time ago, Anthony who writes in the blog Of Pedantry suggested putting up a firearms page on the Same Universe Wiki, which seemed like a good idea to me although I don't use firearms in my world.  The Wiki as I imagined it then wasn't intended to be strictly for use to describe my world, but as I published an inordinate amount of stuff there, more than 150 pages, and alternate sources (I think) published 3 pages, it seems like it was made for my world only.

Furthermore, since it is on my blog that I run the 17th century, and Anthony's post included the words "17th century," there seems to have been a connection made.  These last seven months I find myself having to answer questions regularly about why I don't use firearms.

I had asked Anthony to write something about the use of magic vs. firearms on the Wiki page, and he duly complied ... but I feel he did not go far enough with regards one circumstance.

Firearms, unlike hand-held weapons, are not in and of themselves more than just intricate, heavy clubs.  Without bullets, or more to the point powder, they don't deliver a lot of damage.  And while powder is, for use, split up into tiny parcels, during its production phase it tends to be conglomerated into some rather nifty large packets that are just aching for a magic user's intrusion.

Take 30-300 damage
Yes, that's right soup fans, unlike the modern army that can pile up munitions for convenient acquisition by moving armies, with a reasonable assurance that a random shell or spy won't succeed in blowing them to hell, this is all changed when a mage or druid can turn invisible, walk right up to a great big pile of gunpowder, put a fire trap on any convenient keg and then have a programmed lackey open the keg a half minute later, giving the mage time to skedaddle.  Or any other convenient spell of your liking.  If we can train assassins to sacrifice themselves for the good of the state, we only need a first level mage with a burning hands spell to do the job personally.  And the invisible spell can be cast by someone else.

There's no rational, reasonable way for an army in a D&D world to store gunpowder in any conceivable way that doesn't demand several high level mages, and I promise you my little army of low level apprentice-trained casting scum is going to out do your scant number of wizards in the long run.  Answer: armies in a world with magic have to train their warriors to fight with swords, because firearms just aren't dependable.  No matter what suppositions you make, in the long run the first battle you lose because the enemy used magic and swords is going to be the last time you lose a battle that way.

Without anyone willing to spend hordes of money developing, manufacturing and distributing weapons that will likely never work as anything other that complicated clubs, swords and magic will persevere as the only practical options for armies to use.

Oh, and for those who would suggest that armies wouldn't distribute the gunpowder in the field, or store it there in large piles, that only means that it will be the manufacturing centres that will be hit, blowing up every factory that dares to mass produce black powder.  While perhaps some small maker might be able to produce a few pounds at a time in a basement (which I presume is true for my world), it would never be enough for an army.

So sure, a few people might make their own weapons, and use them, but most would never waste the time training apprentices to make a complex tool that will go to waste anyway.  The knowledge of how to make guns would never be widespread.  So expecting to find them for sale in a public market would be foolish.  No one would buy them.  The general sense would be, yeah, they're interesting, but when your gun doesn't fire in an alley, what are you going to do?

It is important to note that firearms were not a hugely embraced phenomenon in human history.  It took more than 250 years for guns to outnumber hand held weapons on the battlefield, mostly because of the consistent unreliability of firearms ... I feel without question magic would tip the balance in the matter, and that firearms were finally just abandoned after their early development in the late 1400s did not prove their worth.  The intellectual energy of the world was put elsewhere.

Does this at last put the matter to rest?


By The Sword said...

Sometimes an army would transport the powder in an unmixed state and then mix it on the site of the battle. Problems arise when you need your gunners battle-ready. But it did alleviate transporting large amounts of volatile explosives from place to place.

On ships and in fortresses the munitions were stored in a fortified area called the "magazine". A lucky shot with artillery (or maybe a fireball?) could ruin some people's day.

Oddbit said...

Burning hands is overkill really. If your invisible suicidal lackey got in, they don't even need magic, just flint and tinder right?

Zzarchov said...

That reminds me much of the Corean Chronicles, a fantasy series in a 19th century technology. In one portion a city is besieged and the defenders are caught off guard that cannons are used. Despite being early cannons (while everyone else has a repeating rifle) the sheer presence of artillery is surprising as anyone with even the remotest magical talent can set them ablaze from afar, and that's what happened in short order. But there is a point to this rambling story of a book.

That happened because the main character (a marty sue) was secretly gifted with magical abilities that he hid for fear of persecution and enslavement. The enemy army brought them out because they knew the city had no magi at the moment.

They were an uncommon specialty weapon brought out in special engagements only.

Now true they already had gunpowder being made for bullets so much of the infrastructure is already in place.

But if we bring in magic and setting things off an even better target for magic than powder stores is food supplies. A few poison or plague spells and the enemy army is destroyed utterly.

Even in a world full of swords and sorcery, the usefulness of an explosive that can be used by a peasant with a torch and a shovel (sappers) outweigh the risk of an enemy sneaking in with a flint and steel (or magical flint and steel equivalent).

Hell, in peace time the use of an explosive in mining and quarrying would justify the availability of the knowledge.

Eric said...

Ah, I was confused by Anthony's post, as you surmised.

The other big thing to remember, to my mind, is that the development and use of bombards and cannons significantly predated the use of small arms on the battlefield. Those seriously suffer from the "great big pile of gunpowder" problem.

... without cannon, would pistons exist, for steam engines or the ice machine? Cannon provided a very strong incentive to figure out how to bore holes of uniform size.

Alexis said...


That's the backup plan.


We consistently disagree on this issue, but I think the link to wikipedia firearms decries the ease with which ordinary persons can be taught to difficulties of using a firearm. Also, I know of no area effect spell in the AD&D lexicon, poison area.

True, you can manifestly imagine your way past anything, but the game is D&D, and I don't know which canonical spell can be used in the manners you suggest.


I presume the technology exists, just not the will to exploit it. Today we know how to make acetylene lamps. Do we?

Eric said...

Alexis: Cavers still use them, which was news to me:

I'm trying to come up with a good example of an invention that's only affordable because massive quantities of research and money were poured into something similar. Silicon solar panels are kind of a decent example- they depend on the fact that photolithography to make computer chips has had huge amounts of resources put into making it more efficient.

Brady said...

When you think about it, if humans never really got into gunpowder, that could completely change the colonization of the Americas.

Think about it. Guns were a huge help for us because the Natives thought it was "magic," right?

But without gunpowder, we'd have to use real magic to astonish them.

But it seems likely to me that the Natives would also know magic - including huge ritual magic the conquistadors had never heard of, which could completely change the game.

In fact, that could change the game in a lot of ways. Who cares about horses? Get a Potion of Animal Control and we'll be riding bears! Who cares about disease? We've got plenty of 5th level faith healers and shamans to cure that! And so on.

I guess I sort of went off on a tangent, but I wanted to throw that out there.

Eric said...

@Brady: Just purify food and drink could make it a LOT easier to keep a large army together and moving without as many casualties from disease.

JDJarvis said...

Very sound reasoning as to why many D&D worlds probably wouldn't have to worry too much about black powder ever advancing beyond a sideshow act.
There's a lot of mobility and fire in D&D worlds that would indeed make firearms an iffy business.

Andrew said...

I agree with you that mages and those of a magical profession would inevitably find a way to make gunpowder useless. Burning hands, an invisibility spell and a good stealth check would spell doom for a gunpowder armory. Also, a good weather spell can make the gunpowder go damp, or a swarm of pixies with screwdrivers can unlatch the firing mechanisms of an entire army, reducing the weapon to, as you say, an "intricate, heavy club".

This however set me thinking. Gunpowder is useful as an explosive because it is a volatile compound, relatively easy to make and relatively easy to set off. However, we rarely use gunpowder in our modern world- we use more stable compounds like C-4 and Semtex. Light C-4 on fire, it doesn't explode. Hurl a lightning bolt at it, nothing happens. But put a detonator in it, feed a electrical current and BOOM!

I therefore suggest in the face of magic, science (or alchemy) marches on. Instead of giving up on gunpowder, alchemists try to find a paradox: an explosive that is as harmless as a pebble, but can cause destruction like nothing before it. Oh sure, mages will eventually find to neutralize the C-4, but then alchemists will find something else to use, and when that has a countermeasure, they'll find another one. The arms race doesn't atop because of magic.