Melee/Close Combat Weapons

melee weapons
Image from Bernd Helfert

Close-range armed conflict — also known as melee combat — is rare in an age of high tech or better weapons. Few sophonts are willing to risk personal injury if they can avoid it, so close combat (in which personal injury is almost guaranteed) is generally left to combat bots. But there are a few advanced polities that prize skill in close combat. There are also primitive areas that contain resources of interest to more technologically adept cultures, and it's not always possible to carry obviously advanced weapons into such places (usually because of transapient interdiction). Anyone who travels in dangerous areas is wise to carry weapons, and having last-ditch defenses for when one's primary weapons run out of ammunition or power is a good policy. There are even places where melee combat is practiced for cultural reasons or for sport. It is for all of these reasons that advanced melee weapons exist.

Terragens have invented surprisingly few new categories of close combat weapons. Instead they have used the best technology available to improve existing melee weapons. Most enhancements fall within a few broad categories; various cultures differ in their preferences for specific enhancements or combinations thereof and in the details of how a particular type of enhancement is applied (that is, the exact technology involved). The most common improvements to close combat weapons are as follows. Some of these enhancements have also been applied to missile and thrown weapons such as arrows and shuriken.

Advanced Construction

This is the least technologically advanced and often the most cost effective means of enhancing a melee weapon. Many weapons benefit from being made of stronger materials even if the improvement is limited to the striking surfaces. Bladed weapons get a sizeable performance boost from being made of high-grade alloys or from careful design and construction. Compared to a blade made of the high carbon steels used before the Steam Age, a blade made of vanadium steel will have greater tensile strength, better resistance to thermal shock and superior ability to hold an edge. An axe handle made of high-impact plastic can be lighter than a wooden one, thereby making the weapon both easier and safer to wield (less risk of shaft breakage). Even something as simple as precision machining to grind a finer edge or personalized ergonomic design for superior balance can greatly improve a weapon's performance.

So-called mono-edge weapons use micro-technology to produce hyper- efficient cutting surfaces only one molecule thick. Among the most advanced types of construction is that of a diamondoid weapon, which consists of diamond cutting surfaces bonded to a light substrate (usually superplastic, ceramoplastic or metalloceramic). Some diamondoid weapons are also mono-edged. An unusual variant of advanced construction is the application of muscle-mimicking plastics (myo-mimetic polymers, or myomers). A myomer-enhanced weapon can be made flexible or rigid. Selective contraction of the artificial muscles can also amplify the force of a blow.

Nanotech close combat weapons have some remarkable capabilities that go beyond the properties of the materials. The simplest are merely self- repairing and/or self-sharpening. Others can reposition individual nano-components so as to redistribute the weapon's mass (one configuration for carrying and another for fighting) or change its size (smaller for concealment, larger for fighting). There are also polymorphic weapons that can be reconfigured for maximum effectiveness (i.e. increasing density to penetrate armor or extending reach against taller opponents), changed in shape inside the target (to make wounds more severe) or even maneuvered around an obstacle.

Electrified Weapons

Equipping a weapon with a power supply and conductive striking surfaces is one of the most common enhancements. Electric close combat weapons generally have insulated grips to protect the user. Many also have dead-man switches to shut off the current in case the wielder is disarmed. Weapons that deliver a simple electrical shock are fairly primitive, but they are particularly effective against unshielded cyborgs and vecs. Most sophonts prefer the sophistication of phased neuro-current. An electric pulse of the proper frequency can disrupt or stimulate nerve impulses (which is equally effective against organic and electronic nervous systems). This can cause disorientation, paralysis or intense pain. The effects wear off quickly but the wielder will usually have enough time to flee or deliver a follow-up attack. Most electric weapons are designed to incapacitate rather than kill. This makes them popular with law enforcement agencies. Sub-lethal electric weapons are also legal for personal self-defense in most polities. Electric weapons are not entirely benevolent, however. There are confirmed reports of some variants being used as instruments of torture -- a weapon that doesn't cause lasting physical damage can be used to inflict pain for a long time.

Onboard Processor

Miniaturized processors and sensors that can withstand the stress of hitting a target can be built into weapons. Computronium is ideal for this application, though there are also less advanced technologies in use. The technical term for this enhancement is bellonics.

A bellonic system can fulfill a variety of functions. The simplest is to provide a readout of the weapon's condition. The onboard processor can warn the wielder of metal fatigue, corrosion, thermal shock, dulled edges, etc. Bellonics are most powerful when combined with other enhancements. A processor can make electrical or vibrational emitters more efficient by choosing the frequency that is most effective against a particular target. Thermal-enhanced weapons can have automatic shutoffs to counteract heat conduction (see below). A processor can dramatically improve accuracy by using thrusters or actuators to adjust the weapon's trajectory on the way to the target. The most spectacular application of bellonics is in combination with nanotechnology. Automatic control of polymorphic weapons' shape shifts makes all such functions faster and more efficient.

Some "smart" weapons can recognize their owners -- usually by DNA or neural patterns -- and can automatically activate defenses to prevent unauthorized use. Handles that burn or shock the thief are the most common. Others have IFF (Identify Friend and Foe) capability that deactivates other enhancements if the weapon is turned against its owner or his allies. Some polymorphic weapons even have the ability to turn themselves on an unauthorized user.

Thermal

This particular enhancement is usually applied to blunt weapons. A power supply and some well-placed heating elements can heat a weapon's striking surfaces to dangerous levels. The main impact of this is psychological; almost all bionts fear getting burned, and even artificials may have heat-sensitive components. A sufficiently hot weapon will cauterize any wound that it makes. This will sometimes be a boon to the target in that it will minimize bleeding, but the resulting scar tissue tends to complicate healing. The heat from a thermal-enhanced weapon might even destroy medical nanites at the site of the wound. Heated melee weapons can often ignite volatile chemicals on contact, but this is as big as risk to the wielder as it is to the target. Thermal weapons are illegal in the more humane polities.

Thermal weapons have one serious drawback; the heat from the striking surface eventually conducts to the handle. Even insulated grips and shaft materials chosen for low thermal conductivity only allow the weapon to remain in continuous use for a few minutes at a time. Striking surfaces made of materials with high thermal conductivity can decrease the amount of cool-down time needed between uses. High heat conductance also lets the weapon warm up to operating temperature quickly. Some thermal-enhanced weapons have powered cooling systems built into the grips and/or shafts.

Thrust

Weapons that are designed to be swung (but usually not those that are designed for thrusting) can hit with greater force if a thruster of some kind drives the striking surface. A sufficiently powerful engine can more than double the impact energy of a single strike, but care must be taken to match the engine output to the wielder's strength. A too-powerful thruster can rip the weapon right out of the wielder's hands. It's also a bad idea to try to use someone else's thruster-enhanced weapon unless one is very sure that one is at least as strong as the weapon's owner.

The most primitive thrusters are small solid fuel rockets that are loaded and expended much like the ammunition cartridges of firearms. A weapon using this enhancement can only use its thrust a few times.. More advanced versions use micro-jets or liquid fuel rockets. These have more staying power but carry a greater risk of misfires or fuel explosions. More advanced thruster weapons employ electrically powered air compressors. Pneumatic thrusters are not as powerful as the chemically powered variants, but they can operate for longer continuous periods. The lack of volatile chemical fuel also makes them safer to use. Reactionless micro-drives are the most advanced technology used for thrusters. While they use more power than pneumatics and have a correspondingly shorter combat life, they make up for it by being nearly silent and at least as powerful as rockets.

A variation of the thruster weapon is the "splatter" weapon, whose striking surface contains a small explosive charge. The resulting detonation can increase the impact energy by an even greater factor than can be achieved with thrusters. These variants are also quite robust -- the weapon's housing must be strong enough to withstand the explosion -- but care must be taken to keep the weapon away from anything that might touch off the explosive prematurely. Detonation- based thrusters, like their jet- or rocket-based cousins, have a limited combat life. Any weapon so enhanced also requires very careful maintenance.

Vibration

It is possible to place an AC power supply, a circuit that controls the frequency of the current and a small piezoelectric device into a weapon's handle. The effect is different for edged and blunt weapons. An edged weapon vibrating at 1-2 kHz cuts more efficiently. This is particularly deadly when applied to a serrated blade or a mono-edge. For a blunt weapon the enhancement generates an infra- or ultrasonic wave that constructively interferes with the shock wave created by the weapon's impact. This effectively gives a blunt weapon penetrating capacity as the shock wave travels into the target to possibly burst circulatory vessels, internal organs or delicate machine components. Vibrations of the correct frequency can also destroy many types of nanotech on contact.

Sample Weapons

There are hundreds of types of advanced close combat weapons in use throughout the known galaxy. A few examples appear below. Each includes a notation of how many different polities employ weapons of that type, written in the following format:

* Common: found throughout a large volume of settled space
* Uncommon: distributed across a limited but fairly large area (i.e. a single metaempire), or widely distributed and not in widespread use
* Rare: found only in a few closely related polities, or used by very few people over a large area
* Unique: used only in one polity or by a single Clade/species/organization

Boomstick (common): this is a club or baton with vibration capability. Variants can have any combination of three settings. The first setting induces painful muscle cramps in bionts. This can disable a limb or incapacitate someone completely with a torso strike. This setting makes boomsticks common among law enforcement agencies. The second setting emits a low-frequency pulse that can burst a biont's internal organs or blood vessels. The third setting creates an ultrasonic pulse that can shatter semiconductor or crystalline components -- this setting is mainly useful against vecs, cyborgs and some nanotech agents. A boomstick increases in price with the number of settings that it has.

Chemknife (uncommon): advanced construction places a hollow duct within a knife blade; this essentially turns the knife into a giant hypodermic needle. The handle contains a low-pressure piston and a fluid reservoir. Upon activation the piston drives the fluid through the duct and into the victim. The usual payload is a toxin or disease agent, but corrosives have been used for anti-vec applications. Suspended nanotech agents are equally effective against artificials and bionts. Chemknives can be made with only medium tech, and assassins on medium tech worlds have been known to use them. More advanced versions use nanotechnology to replenish the payload automatically.

Constrictor (uncommon): applying myomer to a lasso creates a weapon that not only holds the target, it is able to squeeze. This can take the form of simple crushing force, or it can be true constriction - applying small amounts of additional pressure to the diaphragm whenever the target exhales so as to gradually make inhalation impossible - with the addition of onboard processing. Constrictors are made of high-strength plastics and sometimes reinforced with wire; only the strongest sophonts can break out of one.

Demon Weapon (rare): some weapons with onboard processors have enough computing power and sufficiently complex software to be sophonts in their own right. Demon weapons have their own motivations and agendas, which may or may not coincide with the desires of a wielder. All demon weapons have accuracy enhancements, IFF capability and anti-tampering defenses (many have polymorphic handles that extrude spikes when gripped by an unauthorized user -- and the weapon decides whether or not a user is authorized). Most have one or more other enhancements as well.

Flex Lance (common): a flex lance combines advanced construction (a myomer or polymorphic shaft) with a high-speed onboard processor. This allows the weapon to bend around a parry or even to strike a target that is around a corner (as long as the target is within reach and the wielder can sense the target). All but the cheapest are mono- edged, and the most expensive models have vibration capability.

Grav Sledge (rare): the most advanced known thruster weapon is a clarketech sledgehammer, apparently with a small reactionless drive in the head. All grav sledges have shock absorbers built into the handles. Some variants have onboard processors for increased accuracy. These will also return to the wielder's hand after being thrown.

Holosword (rare): onboard processing combined with holographic imagers makes this a surprisingly dangerous weapon. The holographic projectors create multiple moving images of the weapon and the appendage wielding it. The resolution is quite blurry, but that is irrelevant for this application. The purpose is to make the weapon's exact location harder to pinpoint, thus making attacks with the holosword harder to dodge or parry. The sword's fragility relative to other advanced melee weapons makes it unpopular; a low-quality weapon can have its imaging optics knocked out of alignment after less than a minute of combat. Holoswords are mainly used by eccentric hobbyists or in ritual duels.

Hotrod (rare): this weapon is a simple club or mace with heated striking surfaces. The shaft and head are designed for optimal thermal conductivity (high for the head, very low for the shaft) and the grip has active cooling. Some custom models have raised designs that can brand a biont target if kept in contact with flesh long enough. These weapons are mainly used by enforcers in the NoCoZo.

Ifrit (rare): the ifrit is one of the few completely new types of close combat weapon. This nanotech device is normally worn disguised as a vest or other article of clothing. When activated it becomes a whirling cloud of micro-flechettes. The cloud is a cylinder that extends about half a meter from the wielder's body, and it can project "pseudopods" that extend up to four times that distance in response to the wielder's arm or leg movements. Using an ifrit without flaying one's allies as well as enemies takes great skill; the battle katas of ifriti-masters are often compared to dance. The most advanced (and expensive) variants have IFF capability. Like all utility fog an ifrit is vulnerable to high winds, and most versions can be disrupted by electrical or sonic discharges. An ifrit will not function underwater. The greatest weakness of the ifrit is its prodigious power requirements. Some versions employ high-yield capacitor belts, but these only function for up to 30 seconds. A wielder who has access to a ship or installation can run an ifrit off of broadcast power, but this can be interfered with in a variety of ways. Capacitor backup for broadcast power variants is standard.

There is a mainly defensive variant of this technology called a djinniya. This version manifests as a cloud of spinning shieldlets which deflect attacks that are directed at the wearer. A djinniya has enough onboard processing power to identify and catch low-mass projectiles and hostile nano agents. Anything that the djinniya catches can either be expelled (harmlessly or as an attack) or incorporated into the defensive matrix.

Infester (unique): this insidious weapon turns a close combat weapon into a delivery system for hostile nanotech. The blade of an edged weapon is partly made of assemblers who sole function is to create the attack agents. Most use simple disassemblers, but some infesters are loaded with agents that do other things (destroying the target's immune cells, accumulating trace elements to assemble toxins or corrosives, etc.). Some agents assemble themselves into larger structures, which then seek out and destroy internal organs. The worst are designed to cripple rather than kill the target -- there is a well-known type of infesters whose nano agents seek out and destroy optic nerves. Infesters are only manufactured by a few extreme anti- biont polities within the Solipsist Panvirtuality. Possession is illegal in most other polities, and exporting them is strictly prohibited by the Tragadi Accords.

Jet Hammer (uncommon): this weapon has thermal enhancement and uses liquid fuel rockets to drive a powered swing. The heating element in the head is also the ignition system for the fuel. The shaft and grip are well insulated to minimize the impact transmitted to the wielder. Some variants are modified so that the weapon can also be used as a short-range flamethrower, but this function uses up a lot of fuel.

Memory Blade (common): the simplest nanotech weapon -- usually a knife -- has a blade that can be triggered to assume a spiky "sea urchin" configuration while inside the target. This inflicts vicious internal wounds. Variants with onboard processing can be set to expand automatically upon penetration and to contract when pulled out. The smartest will only allow an authorized user to remove the weapon. Some memory blades have alternate forms that allow them to be worn as belts or bracelets when not in use.

Monowhip (uncommon): whips are simple weapons that do little damage except in the hands of a skilled user. Applying a diamondoid mono-edge striking tip makes a whip far more dangerous.

Myomer Glove/Pauldron (common): someone wearing a myomer glove has enough grip strength to crush rocks or bones and can even deform light metals. Myomer gloves have hardened striking surfaces and internal padding to protect the wearer's hands. They are also used as climbing equipment.

A myomer pauldron -- which includes a myomer glove -- covers the wearer's entire arm and shoulder. The wearer can punch with extreme force. The pauldron can also be armored. While a myomer pauldron would allow increased lifting capacity, this is not recommended if the wearer's legs and back aren't somehow braced to handle the additional stress.

Painstick (a.k.a. Nervelash, Neuronic Whip; uncommon): a painstick is a baton with an insulated handgrip. The striking surface delivers a phased neural shock that causes extreme pain in bionts. One setting works for almost all terragens, but xenosophonts may require different settings. The target is typically incapacitated for several seconds. An unusual variant of this weapon is the joystick, which overwhelms the target with pleasure instead of pain. Joysticks are often suggestively shaped as a testament to their uses outside of combat.

Power Knife/Power Spear (rare): the business end of this weapon is an electric drill that adds rotary cutting action to the wielder's efforts. The drill bit is often diamond-coated for added hardness. Variants that employ nanotechnology and onboard processors can reconfigure the bit to provide optimum cutting surfaces against different materials. Such a weapon can start out as armor piercing and switch to a more efficient bit for cutting flesh after it penetrates the armor. The rotary action also increases internal damage; the wielder need not twist the blade because it twists itself.

Some variants of this enhancement use a chainsaw-type arrangement instead of a drill. These don't penetrate as effectively as drill weapons but often do even worse damage -- it's easy for a power saw to sever a limb or eyestalk, for example.

Rad Weapon (rare): radiation-tolerant species sometimes employ weapons that have radioactive components. The usual method is to coat the striking surfaces with radioactive dust that scatters across the target's surface (for blunt weapons) or lodges inside the victim's body (for edged weapons). Some edged variants are made of or coated with radioactive metals and designed so that a piece of the blade will break off inside the target. The fact that the resulting radiation poisoning doesn't happen immediately limits the use of rad weapons to assassinations and long-term vendettas. Possession of rad weapons is illegal in every polity where carrying them would pose a public health hazard.

Rocket Lance (rare): this unusual weapon applies the thruster concept to a thrusting weapon. A rocket lance has liquid fuel rocket engines (often burning hydrogen peroxide, which is easily obtained and generates environmentally neutral exhaust) that activate automatically when it is thrown. This gives the spear much greater range and striking power than the wielder's strength alone could provide. Variants with onboard processors have manoeuvering capability that allows them to follow a moving target or to bypass any cover that the target might have. These can also be programmed to return to the user's hand after being thrown.

Shockrod (a.k.a. Stingstick; common): this is a simple baton or club modified to deliver a powerful electric shock. It is equally effective against bionts and uninsulated artificials. The grip is fully insulated against the weapon's effects. A less common variant applies the principle to a nunchaku. Shockchuks don't have insulated grips, as that would detract from the weapon's effectiveness. Instead the wielder must wear a pair of insulated gloves to avoid being shocked by eir own weapon.

Smartwhip (uncommon): applying myomer to a whip creates a powerful tentacle that responds to the wielder's commands. A smartwhip can amplify the force of a strike (by selectively contracting appropriate sections) or grasp targeted items. A skilled user can easily disarm or strangle an opponent. Some smartwhips are also monowhips.

Solar Wind Wheels (unique): these weapons are patterned on the ancient Wind-and-Fire Wheels once used on Terra. They are normally used as paired weapons. Even ordinary Wind-and-Fire Wheels efficiently combine slashing edges, thrusting points and parrying capability; the main drawback is the lack of reach. Solar Wind Wheels add a mono-edge, diamondoid coating and vibration capacity to the basic design. This creates a weapon that can slice through most armor with ridiculous ease. Only the Tetsujin manufacture Solar Wind Wheels, and very few other sophonts use them.

Stun baton (a.k.a. Stunstick, Tingler; common): the most common electrified melee weapon uses phased neuro-current to induce temporary paralysis (generally up to a minute). The insulated handle protects the weapon's user from the effect. There are different settings for use against bionts and artificials. The most common versions are batons or clubs -- hence the name -- but the concept is also applied to gloves (stun gloves), whips (stunwhip) and nunchaku (stunchaku; these require insulated gloves rather than having insulated grips). Stun batons and their cousins are very common law enforcement weapons and are equally popular with those who prefer non-lethal self-defense options.

Universal Weapon (rare): this nanotech weapon is used throughout a wide volume of space; only its expense makes it rare. A Universal Weapon can assume the shape of any normal melee weapon of equal or lesser mass; most are heavy enough to form polearms. A Universal Weapon has an onboard database of close combat weapons and a "quick select" option that allows the user to program eir favorites for one- button activation. When in a smaller configuration or when not in use the weapon disperses its surplus mass as a utility fog surrounding the wielder. This makes it lighter for carrying and easier to conceal. Some versions place the excess mass as body armor instead, and many sophonts prefer to wear the device as armor that extrudes a weapon on demand. Many variants of Universal Weapon have the same internal damage capacity as memory blades, and some can manifest as paired weapons or as a weapon and a shield. A Universal Weapon maintains a link to its user and to its unused mass at all times. If the wielder is disarmed the utility fog automatically forms a tether and pulls the weapon back to the user's hand.

Vibroblade (common): a vibroblade uses ultrasonic vibrations to enhance its cutting action, and many are also diamond-coated and/or mono-edged. Vibroswords are rare because the blades are prone to snapping. Most vibroblades are knives, spears or axes. Variants with onboard processors can adjust the frequency to that which is most effective against the material at hand.

 
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Development Notes
Text by Michael Walton

Initially published on 07 October 2004.