This is an interesting topic for me, because I feel our cultural environment is so pervaded by the concepts of weapons, fighting, and battles that I'm always trying to de-emphasize them! But in part because of their pervasiveness, and in part because they are so common in fantasy and science fiction, it's very important to think through and discuss these topics, and how to treat them in a created world.
We started out talking about weapons. There are laser weapons, energy bolt weapons, etc. - and in the familiar stories we know, they don't always seem to have the effects we'd expect. Wouldn't a bolt of energy tend to burn you instead of cut you, as seems to be the case in Star Wars? And even if it could cut you, as the light saber does, would it really cauterize the wound so completely that there would be no blood? What about the phaser from Star Trek - what does "stun" mean? How can a beam go from knocking you out to vaporizing you? Sure, you can get away with doing it, but it might be good to think through what exactly is going on here.
Brian mentioned that we see a lot of swords, but in fact there were many more weapons used in medieval times, such as spears, axes, and crossbows. Erin noted that crossbows are underrepresented, and guessed that maybe this is because they are illegal in some states, and we have more familiarity with longbows.
Familiarity is one of the primary reasons that certain weapons are picked over others. We constantly see gun-facsimiles and sword-facsimiles, and even bow-facsimiles. Each choice you make sets an expectation for the type of action that will follow, since tactics depend on weapons. This is one of the reasons why familiarity can be such a help. If you've got your fighter carrying a war flail (that thing the king of the Nazgul had, which is often mistakenly called a mace), what exactly can she do with it? How dangerous is she, and where does she need to be in order to use it most effectively?
We discussed spears for quite some time. Erin suggested they would be useful for societies that didn't have as much metal. Brian noted that you never borrow a spear, since it tends to be thrown and never return to the warrior... or be broken in its use. Spears are far easier to make than swords, which require a lot of metal, and a lot of time and craftsmanship. You will find characters naming their swords, but not naming their spears, because chances are they won't see the spears again (intact).
Maintenance is one of the questions it's good to consider. How does a warrior maintain a weapons collection? How much work does it take? How much money or trade did it take for him/her to get the collection in the first place?
Often enough, you'll see a character equipped with only a single weapon. Or, conversely, you'll see them equipped with ALL THE WEAPONS (heavy!). Neither one of these is particularly realistic. Brian noted that swords were for personal defense, but weren't the go-to weapons for battle. Those were more likely to be crossbows or spears. Pikemen would break up the formations of the opposing force, and then go in with swords. Pikemen were also great against horses, but not against defensive squares. Overall, you'd find a balance of different types of weaponry because some weapons were good for one thing, and not for another - you probably wouldn't find any pikemen trying to run fleeing people down.
At this point in the discussion was when Ken Burnside joined us to comment on an earlier mention of the Roman pilum, which was a spear consisting of a staff with a 12-18 inch metal point pinned to the end. They were heavy and meant to be thrown like javelins. The lead pin used to hold the head on the staff was designed to make it easy to change a broken staff section, but would sometimes break when the pilum hit, causing the head to stay embedded in a shield (which would make the shield awfully heavy). We were very lucky to have Ken stay in the discussion too!
From there Ken talked about the gladius, which was designed not to penetrate a shield but to stab the person to your right. When you're thinking about how weapons translate into fighting style, remember that a weapon held in the hand will be to one side, not straight ahead - so handedness should affect your strategy and descriptions. Apparently spear formations were trained specially so they didn't follow their own tendency to turn to the left (which had to do with how shields were held).
We also talked about how weapons were developed over time. Ken argued that weapons are designed in reaction to armor, and clearly armor also responds to weapons to some extent. The Iron Age didn't arrive all at once, but began in Thrace and took a thousand years to spread. Keep in mind when you're working with a new technology that not everyone will have the required resources and infrastructure to emulate the technology right away. Even in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were still lances that used stone tips rather than iron ones. Ken put it this way: imagine you want to renovate your house, but every nail costs $50 and the maker has a 6-month waiting list! When that is the case, stone lance tips don't seem so bad, and as Erin remarked, they do keep their edge pretty well. Crucible steel was apparently invented three separate times during the Middle ages (in Cordova, Persia, and the Norse lands), and then the technology was lost again until the 18th century.
Returning to the idea of armor as a driver for weapons design, Brian remarked that this is the case with buildings and castles as well as people. Better wall technology leads to the development of siege engines. Look at the difference between Japanese castle design and European castle design: in Europe you get moats, walls, slits for archers, portcullises etc. etc. while in Japan you get a sort of snail-shell design like this (from Wikipedia):
You might imagine that steel plate armor is the pinnacle of what armor can achieve, but the result is that when the weapons become good enough to penetrate it, the armor starts going away. Its strength is suddenly less useful, and its weight is a serious drawback because your best approach is not to stand under the assault, but to run away. Ken mentioned that the conquistadors would wear breastplates but not leg armor because they needed to be able to move quickly.
Brian noted that leather armor is string enough to stop a chopping sword. (I have also heard of paper armor being used - it just depends on what you're defending against.) Longer and thinner weapons become more useful when you're going up against armor, since chopping becomes less effective than piercing.
At that point we moved on to discuss what one discussant called "the dead hand of logistics." The effectiveness of your attack and the strength of your force depends enormously on the costs of travel, the terrain, the supply chains, and the lines of communication. Roman legionnaires put a lot of work into roads, and into food supply, giving two horses with food for each soldier. This allowed their armies to move faster because they did not need to forage. There was also the possible solution of taking all of your opponent's food and supplies as you went, which was used in many conflicts, but notably by General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War.
Brian is working with a story in which he'll be introducing the advent of gunpowder. In this scenario, the gunpowder is expensive but the ammunition is cheap, and requires less training than some other weapons.
Ken described the crossbow as the first ever "gun," inasmuch as it could be held ready to fire (unlike a longbow, which would wear you out if you tried to keep it at half-draw). History suggests it began to be the chosen weapon across Europe with the exception of England, and the battle of Agincourt may have influenced this result. Apparently there were Papal bans against crossbows. (Here's a Wikipedia article in case you'd like to read more about crossbows).
We then returned to the question of supplies. Ken told us that the "Laws of Warfare" were due to a gentleman's agreement not to raise troop levees during harvest season, because all those men were needed to make sure there were enough supplies that armies could keep operating. Ken says he has a lot of respect for George R. R. Martin's handling of this issue in A Song of Ice and Fire. Apparently the ratio needed was 12 on farms for every 1 person in the city, except near the coast where it was 8 to 1 because of fishing resources. This held true until the 1830's when cast steel parts and horse-drawn reapers decreased the number of people required to bring in the harvests to 1/4 what it had been. Erin asked whether this was in part a function of European climate, and whether this might have been different in Mesoamerica, for example. Ken said he thought there was less potential for crop failure, but that farming was still so labor intensive that some people felt war was less work for better pay. I thought that was fascinating because it certainly reflects on some of the mindset of the people, in terms of their willingness to go to war.
In pre-modern times it was very difficult to move people. Think about this if you're writing in a pre-modern setting. If you have ox carts, you need to feed the oxen. If you have horses, they need to be fed, and typically grass foraging is not sufficient (so have somebody bring some grain!). Weather is a huge factor, and delays in supplies can cause you to lose a war. In more modern times, logistics and supplies are also critical. In World War II, the D-Day invasion relied on a port that was not on the shore, but built to float. This was an incredible feat of engineering, and allowed ships to be unloaded at high speed. There was also the PLUTO underwater pipeline to provide petrol.
If you're designing what is going to happen, remember how often it has been the case that the fighting lags behind the technology. People who have just discovered gunpowder are not going to use it in guns until they first figure out that it can be used as a kind of bomb to blow up a wall during a siege. Then come grenades, and then use for firearms. During World War I, tanks were a new technology and had all sorts of problems. For example, it was very hard to see where you were going while driving one, and soldiers learned the deadly way that they shouldn't try to run in front of one, but must always run on the side. People and generals feel their way into military tactics. There is always accident and difficulty.
At the end of the discussion we decided to revisit the question of weapons and battles for science fiction. That topic is the one we'll be taking up on March 28th. Tomorrow, March 21, we'll be taking on the topic of Armies because we have a very special guest. Author Myke Cole, whose military fantasy books Control Point and Fortress Frontier feature the modern military with magical powers, will be joining us to talk about his writing and his army experience. I hope you can join us!