In traditional 1950's SF nomenclature, a "blaster" is a type of lethal weapon which melts, vaporizes, or disintegrates the target with a blast of energy (generally atomic), a "needler" is a type of lethal weapon which punches long but narrow holes in the target either by deadly threadlike beams or with needle bullets, and a "stunner" or "stun gun" is a non-lethal weapon that renders the (living) target unconscious. A "fulgurator" or "bolt gun" is a weapon that shoots lightning or electricity, it is more or less an electron particle beam weapon. A conventional sidearm that shoots bullets is called a "slug-thrower."
The technical term for lasers and particle beam guns is "directed-energy weapon". The old term is "ray-gun", but nowadays this seems retro, quaint, and faintly comedic. Much like the term "space cadet."
And for all you young whipper-snappers who are under the misapprehension that science fiction started with the first Star Wars movie: "blaster" dates back to 1925 in Nictzin Dyalhis' When the Green Star Waned, "disintegrator ray" dates back to 1898 in Garrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars, "needler" dates back to 1934 in E.E."Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Valeron, and "stunner" dates back to 1944 in C. M. Kornbluth's Fire-Power. Isaac Asimov invented "force-field blades" in his 1952 novel David Starr, Space Ranger, which was the father of the light-saber.
Our square-jawed, steely eyed rocketeers have to be adequately armed. But you have to take the surroundings into account. One shot from an atomic fission blaster might guarantee that Killer Kane never menaces the spaceways again, but you won't live to collect the reward if it also vaporizes a hole in the hull the size of Roger Manning's ego. On the other hand, trying to swing a cutlass in free fall is an exercise in futility. The gallant crew of the Polaris had paralo-ray pistols but it would be nice to have something more believable.
|Joules (J)||TNT Equivalent||Notes|
|8.0 × 1001||0.019 gram||.22 short round|
13mm Gyrojet round at 2 meters from muzzle (too close, little damage)
|1.0 × 1002||0.024 gram||Firecracker (50 mg of black powder)|
|4.75 × 1002||0.114 gram||9mm Luger Parabellum round|
|5.2 × 1002||0.124 gram||.38 Special round|
|5.4 × 1002||0.129 gram||.45 ACP round (Colt M1911)|
|9.4 × 1002||0.225 gram||.357 Magnum round|
|9.5 × 1002||0.227 gram||13mm Gyrojet round at 18 meters from muzzle (rocket at full speed and maximum damage)|
|1.009 × 1003||0.241 gram||.22 Centerfire Hornet round|
|1.2 × 1003||0.287 gram||Laser bolt from a Luke Campbell light laser pistol (60 pulses of 20 J each, spaced 4 microseconds apart)|
|1.308 × 1003||0.313 gram||M1 Carbine round|
|1.4 × 1003||0.335 gram||3.5 g AK-74 bullet fired at 900 m/s|
|1.56 × 1003||0.373 gram||.44 Magnum round (AutoMag)|
|1.6 × 1003||0.382 gram||Laser bolt from a Luke Campbell medium laser pistol|
|1.822 × 1003||0.435 gram||5.56mm Remington NATO round|
|2.045 × 1003||0.489 gram||7.62mm Soviet AK-47 round|
|2.56 × 1003||0.612 gram||.30-30 Winchester round|
|3.2 × 1003||0.765 gram||Laser bolt from a Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol|
|3.3 × 1003||0.789 gram||9.33 g NATO rifle cartridge fired at 838 m/s|
|3.469 × 1003||0.829 gram||.303 Lee-Enfield round|
|3.744 × 1003||0.895 gram||.308 Winchester round|
7.62x51mm NATO round
|4.184 × 1003||1 gram||= 1 microton|
|4.8 × 1003||1.2 grams||Laser bolt from a Luke Campbell assault laser|
|6.822 × 1003||1.6 grams||.458 Magnum Winchester "Africa" round|
|9.04 × 1003||2.2 grams||.450 Magnum Dakota round|
|1.0 × 1004||2.39 grams||Laser bolt from a Luke Campbell battle laser (50 pulses of 200 J each, spaced 10 microseconds apart)|
|1.0187 × 1004||2.44 grams||.460 Magnum Wetherby "elephant gun" round|
|1.7149 × 1004||4.1 grams||.50 Browning machine gun round|
|3.0 × 1004||7 grams||power pack magazine of Luke Campbell light laser pistol (25 full power bolts)|
|4.0 × 1004||9.6 grams||power pack magazine of Luke Campbell medium laser pistol (25 full power bolts)|
|4.8 × 1004||11.5 grams||power pack magazine of Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol (15 full power bolts)|
|5.4 × 1004||12.9 grams||20 mm autocannon round|
|1.3 × 1005||31 grams||Anti-personnel land mine|
|2.1 × 1005||50 grams||Single round of depleted uranium from an A-10 Warthog's GAU-8 rotating cannon (1,800 rpm)|
|8.4 × 1005||200 grams||1 stick TNT|
|9.5 × 1005||226 grams||Hand grenade|
|1.0 × 1006||239 grams||power pack magazine of Luke Campbell battle laser (100 full power bolts)|
|1.2 × 1006||287 grams||power pack magazine of Luke Campbell assault laser (250 full power bolts)|
|3.6 × 1006||860 grams||1 kilowatt hour|
|4.184 × 1006||1 kilogram||= 1 milliton|
|6.1 × 1006||1.4 kilogram||120mm Tank Gun KE Ammunition (KEW-A1)|
|2.1 × 1007||5 kg||Anti-tank mine|
|3.9 × 1007||9.3 kg||Impact energy of proposed Navy 64 megajoule railgun|
|1.2 × 1008||28 kg||1 gallon of gasoline|
|1.42 × 1008||28 kg||Vaporize a human body, leaving skeleton (turn all water into steam)|
|1.8 × 1008||43 kg||1 microgram of antimatter + 1 microgram of matter|
|5.3 × 1008||127 kg||Battleship Iowa 16 inch shell with 54 kg high explosive charge|
|8.5 × 1008||203 kg||1 second of output from an average commercial nuclear power reactor (850 MW)|
|1.9 × 1009||454 kg||Tomahawk cruise missile (TLAM-C)|
|3.0 × 1009||717 kg||Totally vaporize a human body, including skeleton (break all atomic bonds)|
|1.77 m||5' 10"||White male height in 50th percentile|
|2 m||Average range of a confrontation with a handgun|
|7.6 m||Maximum effective range of Taser X-26|
|9 m||Upper range of most confrontations with a handgun|
|12 m||Length of US city bus|
|18 m||Gyrojet round has accelerated to maximum velocity and maximum damage|
|23 m||General rule range, beyond which it would make more sense to use a slugthrower long-arm instead of slugthrower handgun|
|50 m||General rule maximum effective range of slugthower handgun|
Effective focus range for a Luke Campbell medium laser pistol
|100 m||Range for full damage of bolt from a Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol|
|109.728 m||360'||Length of US NFL football field|
|150 m||Maximum effective range of AK-47 grenade launcher|
|250 m||Effective focus range for a Luke Campbell assault laser|
|270 m||Maximum effective combat range of M1 carbine|
Length of US BB-62 battleship New Jersey
|300 m||Maximum average range of infantry engagement|
|350 m||Effective range of AK-47 rifle|
Range for full damage of bolt from a Luke Campbell battle laser
|365 m||Range at which 13mm Gyrojet rounds loses effective velocity|
|444 m||Height of Empire State building|
|460 m||Effective range of M16A1 rifle|
|600 m||Maximum effective range of M4 carbine|
Maximum effective range of M16 rifle (point target)
|800 m||Maximum effective range of M16 rifle (area target)|
Futuristic weapons have names drawn from analogies with their nearest real-world equivalent. Which leads to some oddities, since some weapons just do not fit. For instance, many science fiction novels feature "laser rifles" even though such weapons have zero rifling since they shoot coherent light instead of bullets.
A firearm is a portable gun (a barreled ranged weapon) that inflicts damage on targets by launching one or more projectiles driven by rapidly expanding high-pressure gas produced by exothermic combustion of propellant within an ammunition cartridge.
A weapon that shoots bullets, in other words.
So technically a weapon that shoots caseless ammo is not a firearm, though logically it should be.
In international arms control, small arms are man-portable firearms that shoot kinetic projectiles, including handguns (revolvers and pistols) and individual-operated long guns such as rifles and carbines, shotguns, submachine guns, personal defense weapons, and light machine guns.
A single person is strong enough to carry a small arm.
In international arms control, light arms are either are team-operated (e.g., heavy machine guns, portable anti-aircraft guns) or shoot explosive warheads.
Light arms are heavy enough to require two or more people to carry it.
A handgun is a handheld firearm designed to be operated with only one hand. Although handgun use often includes reinforcing the grip with the other hand for stability, the conceptual facility for one-handed operation is its essential distinguishing characteristic. This characteristic differentiates handguns from long guns such as rifles and shotguns, which usually mandate holding with both hands and braced against the shoulder for proper shooting.
Major handgun subtypes are the revolver and pistol (including single-shot pistols, semi-automatic pistols, and machine pistols); other subtypes include derringers and pepperboxes. Due to the dominant prevalence of pistol-type handguns in modern times, The words "pistol" and "handgun" have overlapping variations in meaning.
A personal defense weapon (PDW) is a class of compact magazine-fed, self-loading firearms — essentially a hybrid between a submachine gun and a carbine, retaining the compact size and ammunition capacity of the former while adding the stopping power, accuracy and penetration of the latter (i.e., a submachine gun that fires rifle-caliber cartridges instead of pistol-caliber). Most PDWs fire a small-caliber, high-velocity bottleneck cartridge, resembling a small or shortened intermediate rifle cartridge. This gives the PDW better range, accuracy and armor-penetrating capability than submachine guns, which fire pistol-caliber cartridges.
The name describes the type's original role: as a compact but powerful defensive weapon that can be carried by troops behind the front line such as military engineers, drivers, artillery crews or signallers. These soldiers may be at risk of encountering the enemy, but rarely enough that a long-barrel weapon would be an unnecessary burden during their normal duties. Because of their light weight and controllability, they have also been used by special forces and by heavily-armed police.
A side arm or sidearm is a weapon, usually a handgun but sometimes a sword, dagger, knife, bayonet or other mêlée weapon, which is worn on the body in a holster or sheath (in the case of a sword, dagger, knife, or bayonet) to permit immediate access and use. A sidearm is typically required equipment for military officers and is usually carried by law enforcement personnel. Usually, uniformed personnel of these services wear their weapons openly, while plainclothes personnel have their sidearms concealed under their clothes. A sidearm may be carried alone, or as a back-up to a primary weapon such as a rifle, carbine, or submachine gun.
Historically in western armies, and in many contemporary armies, the issue of a sidearm in the form of a service pistol is a clear sign of authority and is the mark of a commissioned officer or senior NCO. In the protocol of courtesy, the surrender of a commander's sidearm is the final act in the general surrender of a unit. If no ill will is meant, and a strict interpretation of military courtesy is applied, a surrendering commander may be allowed to keep his sidearm in order to exercise his right of command over his men.
In many SF novels, the captains of space passenger liners and tramp freighters will require all weapons capable of breaching the ship's hull to be surrendered and locked away for the duration of the voyage. Upon planetfall they will be returned to the owner.
But hull holes might not be a primary concern, it is going to take almost 17 minutes before air loss through a bullet hole causes people to suffocate..
Mike Williams notes that it isn't just the hull that is vulnerable to stray shots. There is plenty of equipment you don't want to damage or it will spray corrosive chemicals / shut down the oxygen / make the atomic reactor go critical / do something else equally nasty. Space Patrol cadets are warned not to give asteroid pirates any ideas (e.g., don't take cover next to a large fluorescent orange pipe with the label "DANGER: LIQUID SODIUM" stenciled right next to the skull and crossbones)
The safest policy (for the ship at least) is to forbid firearms on board. But this isn't really an option. As Dr. John Schilling said:
Proper markmanship includes grip, aiming, breath control, trigger squeeze, target engagement, and positions. Don't rely upon what you see in Hollywood movies, most of it is utterly worthless. Especially holding your pistol sideways, with your palm down.
And there will be a few slight difference with different types of weapons. For instance, slugthrowers have plenty of recoil, gyrojet rocket guns have a small amount of recoil, and laser weapons have no recoil at all.
Hold the weapon in the nonfiring hand; form a V with the thumb and forefinger of the strong hand (firing hand). Place the weapon in the V with the front and rear sights in line with the firing arm. Wrap the lower three fingers around the pistol grip, putting equal pressure with all three fingers to the rear. Allow the thumb of the firing hand to rest alongside the weapon without pressure. Grip the weapon tightly until the hand begins to tremble; relax until the trembling stops. At this point, the necessary pressure for a proper grip has been applied. Place the trigger finger on the trigger between the tip and second joint so that it can be squeezed to the rear. The trigger finger must work independently of the remaining fingers. NOTE: If any of the three fingers on the grip are relaxed, the grip must be reapplied.
The two-hand grip allows the firer to steady the firing hand and provide maximum support during firing. The nonfiring hand becomes a support mechanism for the firing hand by wrapping the fingers of the nonfiring hand around the firing hand. Two-hand grips are recommended for all pistol firing. WARNING Do not place the nonfiring thumb in the rear of the weapon. The recoil upon firing could result in personal injury.
The qualification course is fired from a standing, kneeling, or crouch position. During qualification and combat firing, soldiers must practice all of the firing positions described below so they become natural movements. Though these positions seem natural, practice sessions must be conducted to ensure the habitual attainment of correct firing positions. Practice in assuming correct firing positions ensures that soldiers can quickly assume these positions without a conscious effort. Pistol marksmanship requires a soldier to rapidly apply all the fundamentals at dangerously close targets while under stress. Assuming a proper position to allow for a steady aim is critical to survival.
NOTE: During combat, there may not be time for a soldier to assume a position that will allow him to establish his natural point of aim. Firing from a covered position may require the soldier to adapt his shooting stance to available cover.
Instead of the weapon barrel positioned atop the user's fist as is conventional, it instead protrude from between the user's fingers. Either between the index (1st) and middle (2nd) finger, or between the middle (2nd) and ring (3rd) finger.
In the real world, such strange weapons are designed to be easily concealable or ergometric. The drawback is trying to fit the ammo and the firing mechanism in the palm of your hand.
PROTECTOR PALM PISTOL
The Protector Palm Pistol is a concealable design carrying seven .32 rimfire rounds in a "turret" rotary action. Since each bullet cannot be longer than the weapon's radius, each round was really short. Which means each round had the stopping power of a whiffle ball.
The trigger rested against the ball of the user's thumb, firing was by squeezing the weapon. Reloading was time-consuming since you had to dismantle the entire thing.
Apparently the barrel could protrude between either fingers 1 & 2 or 2 & 3. Barrel between 3 & 4 was possible but awkward.
The target demographic appeared to be for those wanting inconspicuous defense or assasins.
CONSTITUTION ARMS PALM PISTOL™
The Constitution Arms Palm Pistol™ is an ergometric design that only has a single .38 special round, contained in the barrel. The trigger is a button on the top, activated by the thumb.
According to the documention it can be held so that the barrel protrudes between any pair of adjacent fingers you wish. Just in case the user had to have a finger amputated for medical reasons or something. The company also maintains that having only a single shot is not a bug, it's a feature.
It is for for when Granny's arthritic hands aren't what they used to be. Or according to the company: It is an adaptive aid intended for seniors, disabled or others with grip limitations due to hand strength, manual dexterity or phalangeal amputations.
It appears that the barrel must protrude between fingers 1 & 2.
In 1910, the U.S. Army adopted the classic "web belt", including grommets to allow holsters and other equipment to be attached. Variations on this were in use up to about 1997.
As befitting an interstellar desperado, Han Solo has a quick-draw holster for his blaster. Note how the blaster is slung low, so the butt of the blaster is level with his hand.
The crew of the Starship Enterprise did not need holsters. Their phasers would stick to their hips by virtue of the "magnatomic adhesion areas" on the pistol grip (apparently some kind of high-tech velcro).
The valiant crew of the Space Battleship Yamato use "cross-draw" holsters. The butt of the cosmogun (this was anglicized to "astro-automatic" in the English translation) juts forwards, instead of backwards as is conventional. While this does make an interesting visual metaphor (making the butt look like the hilt of a samurai sword) in practice a cross-draw has problems. A quick draw from a cross-draw holster will be much slower than from a conventional holster, and as the sidearm is swung to the target, the barrel will sweep across innocent bystanders. It is also easier for an assailant at close quarters to prevent you from drawing your weapon. About the only advantages are that it is easier to draw if you are sitting down or in a fighter plane cockpit, or if the weapon is covered by a coat or other article of clothing.
In the original Battlestar Galactica, the weapon holster was a cylinder with a slot down the side, constructed of something springy. The laser pistol could be extracted from the holster by pulling it sideways out of the spring grip. Personally I always thought that it would make more sense to have the slot in the front instead of the side. This would allow the weapon to be extracted and swung up to firing position in one motion, instead of two (pull to the left then raise upward).
A handgun for vacuum use will require an over-sized trigger guard to accept a space suited finger. András Bónitz mentions that many pistols today have large trigger-guards for gloved hands. However, a space suited finger is huge compared to a gloved finger. Weapons that are intended for use in extreme cold climates sometimes are fitted with an "arctic trigger guard." This is a guard that can momentarily swivel out of the way or be unbolted and set to "arctic mode" to accommodate gloved hands.
As you all know a gunsight is a gadget used to aim the gun so it shoots your opponent.
Unlike iron sights, a telescopic sight has, well, a telescope. Ordinary telescopes have one place one's eye on the eyepiece, but weapon recoil makes that a very bad idea on a telescopic aimsight. You'll have to have the telescope surgically removed from your eye. To avoid that unhappy state of affairs, such sights have "eye relief". The scope is designed so the shooter can have their eye at a safe standoff distance from the eyepiece.
The trouble is that the eye relief is generally from 25 mm to 100 mm. The trouble is that a space suit with a fishbowl helmet has a much longer distance from one's eyes and the surface of the fishbowl. Not that you can place the surface of the fishbowl on the eyepiece. The weapon recoil will hammer the scope into the helmet and shatter it like an incandescent light bulb (unless it is a no-recoil laser or particle beam weapon. Or a gyrojet weapon).
But the basic problem is you cannot easily use a telescopic sight with a space helmet.
Possible low-tech solutions include:
A more high-tech solution is using a camera. The old Sero EOP system consists of a head mounted monitor and a light weight CCD camera attached to the weapon. That was designed to cope with the drawbacks of the .50 BMG, which had such a brutal recoil that it would break your shoulder. Since you had to fire it from the hip or braced on a wall you really couldn't use the iron sights. The EOP let you aim the blasted thing.
The EOP had a little video screen mounted above one eye, but for our purposes it could be replaced by a sizable video screen mounted on the weapon, say the size of a smartphone. This would be usable by somebody wearing a space helmet.
This would be even easier with laser weapons. You do not have to add a camera, you can actually use the same optics utilized by the laser weapon. This would make the laser weapon act like an old fashioned reflex camera.
If you want to go real high tech, instead of sending the camera aiming image to a video screen, project it on the inside of the space helmet as a heads-up display. Something like Iron Man but slightly less elaborate.
The colonist on the planet Pyrrus have the ultimate quick draw in a gadget called the "power-holster." The holster is strapped to your forearm. When you arrange your hand in "holding-a-pistol" posture, a mechanical actuator slams the gun out of the holster and into your hand.
There are a few science fiction stories where the futuristic societies allow people to settle their differences by a duel to the death. This does looks suspiciously like the old Showdown at High Noon trope common to old cowboy westerns. And there are online forum flamewars that have been raging for decades over that single quote in Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon: "An armed society is a polite society."
Romance of the cowboy western aside, there is evidence that this simply is not the case. Logically in an armed society, a person who is sufficiently talented as a gunslinger can be just as impolite as they want. In cave man times the person with the strongest fist could be a rude bully, which didn't change when the fist was superseded by the club, the club by the sword, and the sword by the gun. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
In any event, even when dueling is legal, there are strict rules to follow. The rules may be different in a given science fiction novel, but some sort of rule set will exist. Otherwise it is the functional equivalent of an illegal shoot-out between rival gangs.
The weapon pictured on the right originally was created by Kelly Freas for the cover of a Telzey Amberdon book. Model maker Ed Klein liked the picture enough to create an actual prop model (with working laser) as a gift for Mr. Freas. Model was used in the Kelly Freas cover of the audio version of Slan, and in the above illustration at the insistence of Sean Barrett. It was also used by Laura Freas for an interior illustration of The Left Hand of Darkness. Anybody with scans of any of these image is encouraged to contact the webmaster.
The man known as DWP informed me of the address of Ed Klein's website. On it, I found the following: