Sci-Fi: Ray Guns, Grenades, and Close Combat in Space
Let’s face it , folks. I have been exposed to outer space stuff for almost 60 years. There were children’s shows and reruns of space movies to get us started. Saturday morning kids’ shows played reruns of old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. The Air Force had its high-altitude balloons and X15s scratching the edge of space. Then came NASA and Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Moon. Forbidden Planet and The Twilight Zone used SciFi to ask the deeper questions. Lost in Space amused us. The new type series like Star Trek and Space 1999 enthralled us. Along came the Space Shuttle, and then Star Wars, Stargate, the Martian Chronicles and topping the list, Farscape.
Toy-wise ,we came a long way too. From the clunky spacemen of Archer and Ajax in the 1950s to MPC’s “Mercury” astronauts, it began. Next came the figures based on TV shows and moves, from the Thunderbirds of ITC TV to Imperial Stormtroopers and Klingon soldiers.
There is the challenge - to make a space game that can accommodate almost any space toy figure in the last 60 years. One game that did it well is Laserblade by Echidna Games, Laserblade accommodates small skirmish action for three to perhaps ten or twelve pieces. It focuses on individuals. OMOG differs, being a squad-level game that emphasizes a small unit.
The Ray Gun of science fiction originated in people’s fascination with X-rays and radioactive waves. In the 1920s, science was discovering more about radiation and waves. Fantastic possibilities were discussed as to the future benefits of Alpha, Beta and Gamma rays. Being a science-savvy lot, science fiction writers seized on these ideas. They concocted a variety of ray guns, disrupters and disintegrators. This was a few decades before lasers, by the way.
Ray guns and their lot are energy weapons. They emit a wave of energy at their targets. The immediate problem is containing the energy so it does not dissipate. The energy must be focused. Other measures have to be invented so that the wave or ray is not dissipated by the atmosphere or conditions like clouds, dust, humidity, etc. These are among the reasons why long range laser weapons are only now becoming possible. Science has found ways to focus the ray and minimize dissipation.
The only hand-held energy weapons in general use today are stun guns, cattle prods and Tasers. All discharge electrical energy and all require contact with the target. A stun gun and cattle prod has to have its electrical nodes pressed against an opponent. A Taser fires thin wires with a small barb to attach to the target, after which an electrical charge is sent through them. The smallest lasers are laser pointers, and the green ones can pop a balloon if fired at it long enough at close range. That is, if they do not run out of energy first.
Small lasers do not pack much power. Powerful lasers need plenty of energy. A person using one would have to wear a bulky battery packs, and even then it would only be good for two or three bursts. Obviously, part of the science is to devise a more compact power supply. Power supplies are already getting smaller so it is only a matter of decades before science creates one that could fit into a man-carried weapon.
The use of energy weapons would be practical, once focusing the beam and powering it are perfected. The necessities of space make them more practical than projectile weapons. In low-gravity and weightless conditions, a weapon with even the slightest recoil can unbalance and even topple the shooter. Projectile weapons, be they powered like our bullets or if their bullets are small rockets, will have some degree of recoil. In low gravity, even the almost-imperceptible recoil of an M16 could dislodge a person. The other problem is in thin-atmosphere and no-atmosphere conditions. Most projectile weapons require some sort of ignition. In space, the ammo or weapon would have to contain the oxygen necessary for ignition. Energy weapons have no recoil and require no air supply. They would work in high gravity, low gravity and no gravity. Gravity would not affect their range, either. A high-gravity situation would alter the path and range of a projectile.
Liquid-squirting weapons would also be at a disadvantage, since they have a “recoil” of their own. Anyone who has fired a man-carried flamethrower knows the push they feel as the jet of liquid flame squirts forth.
Would a small energy weapon have the range and power of a larger one? After all, one might argue, they are only firing waves of some sort of radiation. The answer is a resounding NO. A major aspect of an energy weapon is to contain and focus the energy. The smaller weapon could contain and control a lesser amount of energy than a larger one. Compare a pistol-sized weapon to one the size of a rifle. The pistol contains and controls less, and so the ray it emits is weaker and dissipates at a much closer range than that of a larger weapon. The larger weapon can contain and control more energy, allowing each shot to have more power and greater range.
Heat would be a factor. One of the problems of automatic weapons is their tendency to get hot after firing for awhile. The larger the barrel and weapon itself, the more it can withstand heat. Indeed, heat would be a bigger problem in energy weapons. Not-yet-invented materials might help dampen some of the heat. Nonetheless, better dampening would require more material, more technology, and thus a larger weapon. The heat that could be dissipated in something the size of a pistol would have to be much less than that of a rifle. A smaller weapon would be unlikely to sustain as much shooting. A pistol might be limited to single shots like a semi-automatic weapon. The same may apply to a rifle firing more powerful rounds. A larger rifle might be needed to fire bursts or a longer sustained shot.
Rays could vary. Some would obviously be destructive, harming materials and damaging the body. Others may or may not break materials, but could adversely affect bodily functions, either permanently or temporarily. A “stun” weapon is likely. Knowing how radiation has adversely affected people, from Madame Curie to the more current disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, a harmful ray is likely. It would not have to damage materials to affect the body. The Neutron Bomb comes to mind as an example. This may be the alternative to chemical warfare in the future. Of course, it is already covered by various treaties. However, those treaties would not apply in space against aliens. I imagine that these rays would be a technological equivalent to “Dim Mak”, the delayed-reaction ancient Chinese “death touch.”
There can be no “cold ray,” as cold is a slowing of molecules. For a ray or wave to move, the molecules would necessarily have to be accelerated.
The only projectiles useful in space would be rockets. The problem would be the back blast. The Bazooka remedied it partly by letting the back blast escape from he rear of the launcher. While small projectiles fired from pistols and rifles would be impractical, larger launchers might have their place. Rockets move by the energy they emit in flight. They would have to be large enough to carry their own oxygen. Large rockets meant to reach space have been doing this for over 70 years. Perhaps smaller rockets would have to do the same, Then again, perhaps the future will see a different propulsion system that needs no oxygen to work in a vacuum.
The idea of smart munitions and guided bullets sounds fascinating, but they will have their limits. I believe shooters will still be required to aim, to some degree.
Certain old weapons would still be around, with improvements. Hand grenades would be around. Along with the explosive, concussion, fragmentation and white phosphorous (incendiary) grenades there might be different radiation and energy burst weapons. Some may even have a small time and / or impact detonator. A futuristic “smart” grenade could also be set for a burst or for blasting through an obstacle. One version is drawn from the old Archer (now Glencoe) spacemen. He holds a finned grenade. A weapon like this would be thrown toward the target. A few feet after leaving the thrower’s hand, it would ignite a small rocket motor and proceed to target. Perhaps there might even be limited guidance to target, but that is unlikely in a weapon so small and cheap. Guidance systems are better reserved for weapons aimed at larger targets.
Those physics classes paid off! They have certainly given insight into the future possibilities of weaponry for this planet and beyond.
Close Combat in Space.
In the Star Trek: the Next Generation movie “First Contact,” Captain Picard and Worff are on the outside of the starship. They wear space suits. Their goal is to defeat several Borg tampering with the ship. Somewhere along the line, Picard mentions remembering their anti-gravity hand-to-hand combat lessons.
My mind went back to the old Gemini space mission and some of the special tools they had to invent for work in weightless space. They had to make a special hammer. If an astronaut was using a hammer and cocked back his arm to swing, that motion would propel him backward., For every move there is a counter-move, according to Newton’s Third Law of Physics.
Another example was from an old ninja manual from the 70s. It showed a few special techniques for fighting in water. Though not exactly weightless, many of the same principles apply to a buoyant individual.
(You an find the Ninja book here: http://www.thortrains.net/downloads/oldninjabook.pdf )
Close combat training was also mentioned in Robert Heinlein’s brilliant book, “Starship Troopers”. There the fighting happened in places with gravity. I do not remember if low-gravity combat was discussed in the book.
Human unarmed and close combat systems were developed on our won planet where there is gravity. They apply the physics of gravity. This is obvious with Judo, Aiki and Chin Na, which use various throws and takedowns to defeat an opponent. The same dependance on gravity exists in Boxing, Karate, Chinese Boxing (Kung Fu) and arts using hand held weapons. Some leverage has to be gained in order to power a strike, trip or trap. Even a leaping punch, kick or thrust still requires thrusting one’s feet against the ground. Do that in low-gravity of weightless environments and you may find yourself headed for planetary orbit!
The same goes for primitive projectile weapons. Thrown weapons, arrows and slings all require drawing back. The pilum-thrower draws back his arm. The archer draws back his firing arm, and the slinger spins his sling and cocks his arm back before shooting. These could all be problematic in a low or no gravity environment. Add the fact that it would also affect trajectories and the like. This would also occur in low or no atmosphere. All would be lurched back by drawing their weapon and forward by launching it in the usual way, if it happened where gravity was lacking.
For fighting within gravity, the annals of close combat are voluminous. There are many systems for hand-held weapons, striking and grappling. While the Asian fighting arts have enjoyed some popularity, older systems from Europe and elsewhere have left such traces as manuals, guidebooks, literature and art. Indeed, one can this very day see the methods used for Medieval polearms, Renaissance fencing and Ancient Egyptian wrestling.
What would a hand-to-hand system be like in the future? Let us clear up a distinction between martial arts and hand to hand combat. A martial artist is someone who dedicates himself to the study of close combat systems. He works to perfect his skill.. Most martial artists are actually sportsmen.
Hand to hand combat is a collection of fighting techniques intended for defeating an opponent. It is neither a sport nor an art. One might more correctly describe many of the hand-to-hand systems as self defense. However, more than few are also offensive. Hand to hand combat is taught to those who are not going to devote their lives to the study of martial arts. It is taught to soldiers, police, and corrections officers. A self-defense version is taught to civilians.
The kind of hand-to-hand taught to space personnel would likely include unarmed techniques and others using hand -held weapons. Modern troops learn striking and grappling, as well as the combat knife, club or baton, and rifle with bayonet. Troops improvise weapons from entrenching tools, pioneer gear, etc. I had learned the riot baton as well as bayonet. In the early 70s, baton was taught to a few combat arms units on each post. They were to back up the military police in repelling anti-war protesters.
A low and no gravity system would have to avoid maneuvers that unbalance the fighter. Cocking one’s arm to strike would be omitted. Leaping kicks would also be eschewed, as these would likely send the kicker flying backward. The most likely methods would be grappling: holds, locks and chokes.
A problem emerges in just what holds to use on aliens whose physiology makes it difficult. Imagine a being with an arm more like the prehensile tail of a monkey than that of
a human. And consider a creature with almost no neck, which would be nearly impervious to chokes. The armies of the future might have to develop techniques for fighting adversaries with tentacles, extra arms, or one or more robotic limbs.
Soldiers would be taught to use a knife or stick to enhance grappling.
An important aspect of modern close combat is the use of weak spots and pressure points. Hand to hand fighters are taught to strike vulnerable places such as the throat, base of the skull, collarbones, kidneys, groin and joints. Certain holds put pressure to the throat, neck , limbs, spine and joints. Aliens species may have different weak spots. Some could be “double-jointed” and rather impervious to joint locks. Others may have evolved thicker, more muscular necks that resist strangles and chokes. Some may have evolved a bone structure over the throat or nape of the neck. All this certainly adds new elements to the development of close combat for space. You can be sure that potential alien adversaries would be teaching their troops how to defeat out weak points, just as we would teach ours to attacks theirs.
System developed by other species would reflect their strengths and weaknesses. At one end would be a lighter, supple species who would capitalize on agility and speed. The other end would be a heavier, slower, bulkier species who would focus on power and strength. Think of a lighter, faster type of King Fu like White Crane opposed to Sambo Wrestling. Each species would naturally builds its system on its own abilities.
I do not think hand-help weapons would change all that much. A few might be issued as weapons, but most would be weapons of opportunity. The standards would be combat knives, short swords / machetes, bayonets / lances and sticks. A fighter might make do with whatever is at hand, hence axes, impromptu clubs, etc. Someone with good hand-to-hand training could do serious damage with anything he picked up. There may even be specialized hand-to-hand weapons in some species, such as tentacle choppers, antennae loppers and the like.
There would be one other aspect to hand-to-hand combat. The way one fights in normal attire different from how one can fight when encumbered with extra clothing, a space suit or some type of armor. A person would have to be trained to fight in those circumstances. He would also need special techniques, as the presence of a suit would make some methods impractical, if not impossible. There is also the problem of fighting a suited or armored opponent. Again, methods to be used by an unencumbered fighter would be different from those used by one who is wearing armor or a space suit.
Now comes the problem of fighting alien species in their space gear and body armor. Indeed, hand-to-hand combat will be a very intriguing thing under those circumstances. We have an Earthly precedent which can give us a little idea of what is to come. The methods used by frogmen when fighting other divers include cutting air hoses, turning off regulators, unseating masks, and so on. I am sure that there would be a set of close combat techniques for interfering with an adversary’s protective suit and breathing apparatus.
Man to man combat in space and against aliens is going to face very different conditions than what we have encountered on Earth. Be it an individual gunslinger, military squad to hand-to-hand fighter, conditions such as gravity, weightlessness, toxic are and the vacuum of space will affect how one fights.
(This is part of the original thought experiment. I thought our serious sci-fi fans and battle gamers might enjoy it. The idea here is not to provide answer, but to provoke thought on the subject. This all started over devising space game skirmish rules and it quickly snowballed. The experiment has gone past military concerns and now totals about 50 pages.)