When it comes to weapons, it looks like three main types: beam weapons, kinetic weapons, and missiles. Beam weapons are lasers and particle beams. Kinetic weapons are coilguns, railguns, and shrapnel weapons. Missiles are, well, missiles. Ken Burnside compared it to a policeperson armed with a service revolver, a shotgun, and a police dog. The revolver (beam weapon) cannot be dodged or outrun, but can miss. The shotgun (kinetic weapon) is more likely to hit, but with reduced lethality. The dog (missile) can be dodged or outrun (or shot, that would correspond to point defense), but the blasted thing will chase you, and will always hit unless you actively prevent it.

(Holger Bjerre begs to differ. He points out that kinetic weapons are less likely to hit since it can be dodged, beam weapons lose lethality with range just like shotguns, and kinetic weapons do not lose lethality with range just like revolvers. Well, no analogy is perfect...)

Dave Bryant has his own analysis of spacecraft weaponry here. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, so do your own research.

One of the problems with figuring out how ships are going to fight in space (assuming that we have ships in space, which isn't as likely as I wish; and, that we're still fighting when we get there, which is unfortunately more probable) is that there are a lot of maritime models to choose from.

It's also true that some of the maritime models came from very specialized sets of circumstances; and a few of them weren't particularly good ideas even in their own time.

And it's also true that some of the writers applying the models have a better grasp of the essentials than others. For example, I recall two essays which were originally published about fifty years ago in Astounding.

In the first of the essays ("Space War", Astounding Science-Fiction, Aug 1939), Willy Ley, a very knowledgeable man who had been involved with the German rocket program, proved to my satisfaction that warships in space would carry guns, not missiles, because, over a certain small number of rounds, the weight of a gun and its ammunition was less than the weight of the same number of complete missiles. The essay was illustrated with graphs of pressure curves, and was based on the actual performance of nineteenth-century British rocket artillery ("the rockets' red glare" of Francis Scott Key).

As I say, the essay was perfectly convincing ... until I read the paired piece by Malcolm Jameson ("Space War Tactics", Astounding Science-Fiction, Nov 1939).

Jameson's qualifications were relatively meager. Before throat cancer force him to retire, he'd been a United States naval officer -- but he was a mustang, risen from the rank, rather than an officer with the benefit of an Annapolis education. For that matter, Jameson had been a submariner rather than a surface-ship sailor during much of his career. That was a dangerous specialty -- certainly as dangerous a career track as any in the peacetime navy -- but it had limited obvious bearing on war in vacuum.

Jameson's advantage was common sense. He pointed out (very gently) that at interplanetary velocities, a target would move something on the order of three miles between the time a gun was fired and the time the projectile reached the end of the barrel.

The rest of Jameson's essay discussed tactics for missile-launching spaceships -- which were possible, as the laws of physics proved gun-laying spaceships were not. Ley could have done that math just as easily. It simply hadn't occurred to him to ask the necessary questions.

(Ed note: Malcolm Jameson wrote another essay with the intriguing name "Space-War Strategy" in Super Science Novels Magazine, March 1941. If you have a copy of this, please get in touch with me.)

From Space Dreadnoughts edited by David Drake.

"This is a training flight to trans-lunar space with landing at Dianaport. Request permission to pass within five kilometers of you."

"Training flight? Hah!" Omer exclaimed. "Chung has give us an escort!"

"Yes, but why?" I wanted to know. "What's going on dirtside that we should know about?"

Omer shrugged. "Let Chinese escort us. It will discourage more hassle."

If the Chinese cosmolorcha wanted to escort us, there was nothing we could do about it. It was armed. Cis-lunar space is no place to get whanged; it's a long time to anywhere.

"Permission granted, Heavenly Lighting," I replied. "Be advised you are within our zone of damage if we should have a catastrophic failure." The last was pure bluff, but nobody wanted to be near a space vehicle if it catoed, regardless whether it was due to an internal or external cause.

From Manna by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1983

Weapon Classifications

These are preliminary classification schemas offered "as-is". Tinker with them to suit your taste.

This scheme was created by Erik Max Francis, and contains some modifications by Isaac Kuo:

  1. Weapons systems.
    1. Banks. Beams of directed particles fired at a target.
      1. Electromagnetic beams. Beams of photons (note this includes lasers, masers, xasers, gasers, etc.).
        1. continuous
        2. pulsed
        3. single-shot submunition
      2. Particle beams. Beams of high-energy charged particles (such as protons).
        1. continuous
        2. pulsed
        3. single-shot submunition
    2. Cannon. Unguided projectiles directed at a ship target.
      1. Kinetics. Mere slugs fired at a target with no explosive capability.
      2. Shells. Unguided projectiles fired at a target which detonated with a proximity fuse and a conventional warhead.
    3. Tubes. Guided projectiles directed at a ship target.
      1. Missiles. Guided projectiles with a proximity fuse. Has higher acceleration than average target ship.
      2. Torpedoes (AKV). Guided projectiles with a proximity fuse. Has lower acceleration than average target ship.
      3. Rockets. Dumbfire missiles, which only accelerate in the direction they were fired.
    4. Releases. Guided projectiles directed at a planetary target.
      1. Atmospherics. Projectiles designed to reenter an atmosphere and detonate over a ground target.
      2. Biologics. Atmospherics with a biological warhead.
      3. Kinetics. No warhead. Does damage with kinetic energy, by large velocities or large mass, or both.
    5. Layers. Latent projectiles merely dropped with only a slightly different speed from the firing ship.
      1. Mines. Conventional warheads which drift in orbit and a proximity fuse which then accelerate toward their target and detonate.
  2. Active defense systems.
    1. Point defense. Smaller-sized kinetics, missiles, and beams directed at incoming weapons.
    2. Minesweepers. Point defense designed to eliminate mines.
    3. Charge dampener (?). Anticharge systems designed to reduce the damage caused by particle beams.
    4. Nanotechnology dynamic armor repair.
  3. Passive defense systems.
    1. Armor.
      1. Ablative armor.
      2. Reflective armor. Armor designed to deflect beam weapons, even as it is worn away.
    2. Shields. [These are pretty hard to classify, since they're the only broad class of system that is hard to explain through current science.]
  4. Active defense systems.
    1. Electronic countermeasures. Electronic equipment designed to foil weapon targeting systems.
    2. B. Decoys. Launched devices designed to foil incoming weapons with false signals.
      1. Electromagnetic decoys. Decoys which emit misleading electromagnetic signals.
    3. Jammer. Electronic equipment designed to foil broadband electromagnetic signals.

This scheme was created by Timothy Miller (Cerebus), and contains some modifications by Erik Max Francis:

  1. Deployment: How the weapons system is initially launched (fired). Note: Do not confuse this description with Guidance.
    1. Active: These weapons deploy themselves upon activation, with the propulsive mechanism integral to the unit; as a class, this includes commonly-termed missiles and torpedoes.
    2. Passive:These weapons are deployed by an external device, launcher or other means.
      1. Gun fired: Deployed by common explosives, as through an artillery piece.
      2. Railgun launched: Deployed by electromagnetic launcher, typically to much higher velocities than possible by Gun-fired or other methods; as such deserves a separate description.
      3. Dropped: Deployed by simply leaving the weapon behind you, without appreciable external impetus.
      4. Hand launched: Thrown, hurled, kicked or otherwise deployed by physical exertion.
    3. Lay in wait: These are fired passively, and activated when they in a given proximity to their target (i.e., "mines")
  2. Guidance: Describes methods of an individual weapon achieving its objective.
    1. Dumb: No post-deployment guidance. Either you aimed right or you didn't.
    2. Smart: Capable of post-deployment guidance of any type (glide, thrust, etc.)
      1. External: Guided by external sensors and control.
        1. Wire guided: Guidance received through trailing wire. Limited in range, but not susceptible to interference.
        2. Signal guided: Less limited in range, but more susceptible to interference.
      2. Internal: Guided by internal sensors.
  3. Kill Type: How the weapons system damages the target.
    1. Kinetic: These weapons carry no warheads, relying on impact energy alone to damage the target.
      1. Single warhead
      2. Scattershot: Weapon segments into shrapnel upon deployment. III-B-1-c types on the other hand delay segmentation until activation
    2. Explosive: These weapons carry explosives of varying types, and rely on on- or near-target detonation to damage the target.
      1. Chemical: Common (or uncommon) chemical explosives.
        1. Blast: Relies on blast effects.
        2. Armor piercing: Self-explanatory.
        3. Shrapnel: Weapons that intentionally shatter or otherwise scatter projectiles to incapacitate or kill. This can be anything from flechette-scattering missiles to hand grenades.
      2. Nuclear: Self-explanatory, includes both fission and fusion devices.
      3. Antimatter
    3. Directed Energy: These weapons transfer energy directly to the target, at range.
      1. Electromagnetic: Lasers and kin (masers, grasers, etc.)
        1. Submunitions: Bomb-pumped lasers
      2. Particle beam: Charged or neutral particles, not to be confused with small-sized railgun-fired projectiles. Typically limited to atomic or sub-atomic particles.
    4. Chemical: Anti-personnel weapons that attempt to poison the biological processes of the target to incapacitate or kill.
    5. Biological: Anti-personnel weapons that attempt to infect the target and incapacitate or kill.
    6. Radiological: Anti-personnel weapons that attempt to expose the target to incapacitating amounts of radiation.
  4. Acquisition: Describes methods of an individual weapon detecting and targeting, its objective.
    1. Active: Weapon emits radiation to detect targets (e.g., radar).
    2. Passive: Weapon passively scans for target emissions (e.g., infrared)
    3. Illumination: Weapons passively scans for an illumination signature painted on target by a third object.
    4. Command : Weapon is issued an attack command by the controlling ship.
  5. Trigger: Generally only for warheads, determines what causes weapon to detonate.
    1. Command: Detonated by command from controlling ship.
    2. Impact: Detonated by contact with target.
    3. Proximity: Detonates within predetermined range of the target.
    4. Timed: Detonates after a pre-determined time.
    5. Check-in: Detonates after the inability to contact a friendly ship after a predetermined period of time.

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