February 15, 2018 — It seems obvious, but cartridged firearm ammunition is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. Maybe not the wheel. But not too far off. It’s been in use for hundreds of years and will remain common for several hundred more, I wager.
This is going to “out” me as a major nerd, but one of the best birthday presents I ever received was a game called Traveller when I was in junior high. Traveller was a tabletop role-playing game, sort of a “Dungeons & Dragons in space.” It was the early 1980s, back when such things were considered pretty far-out and were borderline taboo in my straight-laced conservative community out in the corn fields of rural Minnesota. But this nerd had longed for the game all summer, and when I finally held “Traveller: Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” in my hands, I tore into it, diving into topics such as character creation, starship construction, and personal combat rules with gusto.
In the combat equipment section of the game’s rules, however, I ran into something that gave me pause. The two most advanced weapons available in the Far Future were the “laser carbine” and the “laser rifle.” But the bulk of the list consisted of weapons such as “rifle,” “submachine gun,” “shotgun,” and—if you can believe it—“revolver.” Shotguns? Revolver? In the Far Future? This was in the post-STAR WARS period. Rifles and submachine guns were oldschool. Even in 1981. Where were the laser blasters? The phasers and the stunners and the disintegrators? What was with these guns that fired bullets? Where was my Far Future?
Well, as it turns out, there is a very good reason for a revolver to be listed. A revolver does a very good job putting a hole into a target and it almost always works. It goes bang no matter what. No battery pack. No delicate electronics. No fusion-powered gizmos. When the characters of the Far Future step off of their starships and have to defend themselves, they more often than not choose a good old firearm.
As I’ve grown and learned and, hopefully, wizened up a little over the years, I’ve learned that many times the simple solutions are the best solutions. A gun that goes bang and sends a piece of metal flying downrange at an alarming rate of speed is always going to grab someone’s attention. No one, no matter how tough or motivated they are, likes new holes being suddenly installed into their bodies against their will. It delivers a definite demotivational message, even if it’s been delivered by an outdated revolver in an imaginary science fiction universe.
Look at the firearms industry. Look at the new guns we’ve seen in the past ten or twenty years. Have we seen advances? Of course. Materials and manufacturing advances have made incremental improvements a matter of course. And modular construction and lessons learned have honed slug-throwing weapons to a fine state of the art. But today’s rifles are more like the Winchesters of a century and a half ago than they are like the science-fiction gadgets in movies and novels. The debates aren’t about whether Marines should use lasers or bullets, they’re about whether they should go back to the .45 ACP from the 9mm.
It isn’t only personal weapons where established oldschool implements remain effective even when new technology threatens to push it aside.
The United States Navy has spent over a decade developing an electro-magnetic rail gun. This advanced weapon is designed to accelerate a projectile to incredible speeds, hurling it at targets up to a hundred miles away. But, after hundreds of millions in research and development, the Navy has shelved the rail gun for now. Instead, it’s taking the advanced projectiles developed for the weapon and adapting them for use with traditional powder-powered naval guns. The complications and high energy demands of the rail gun make it not worth the effort at this point. Not when good old guns can do much of the work nearly as well.
Other industries have seen a similar trend toward sticking with the tried-and-true in the face of emerging technologies. Despite hybrid and fully electric cars becoming more commonplace, there is no reason to think that anything is going to replace the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine any time soon. Gas and diesel engines are just too efficient and powerful. Regardless of all the efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels, coal and natural gas remain the primary sources of power even as billions and billions are spent on wind and solar energy generation. The old methods make money. The new ones cost money. The old ones work reliably and are trusted. The new ones are fickle, dependent upon the day’s weather and fragile.
A Spencer Carbine or a Colt Peacemaker could shoot someone dead today just as well as they did in the nineteenth century. And today’s firearms, evolved and refined over the years, will continue to advance. But today is yesterday’s “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future.” And today’s guns will perform perfectly well for many years and decades to come.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Your children’s children might have phased lasers and gyrojet cannons, but I’ll bet they’ll also have guns that shoot bullets. Their Far Future would be unrecognizable to us if we beamed up to it. But we’d still be able to send lead downrange.