Federation Small Arms

In the TNG era, Federation guns bore little or no resemblance to modern firearms, either in appearance or application. They didn't feature cylindrical barrels, and it is entirely possible that their beams were generated by some sort of squat emitter at the end of the gun. While their long guns had a handle and trigger group, their handguns resembled a woman's electric shaver more than a firearm. Their surface appearance was that of moulded plastic rather than black metal. While they had functional (albeit curiously imbalanced) examples of light weapon classes, heavy weapon classes didn't seem to exist at all. Some of these problems have since been rectified, but not all.


Type II hand phaserThe Federation handgun is one of the strangest weapons in the history of science fiction. It has no cylindrical barrel, no raised protrusions which can be used as sighting devices, and no scope or sights for aiming. Worse yet, it is very thick at its midpoint, so that if you hold the weapon up and try to sight along its axis, the end of the gun is completely obscured by its bulky midsection. It has no trigger and handle group in the traditional sense, replacing both with a slightly bent handgrip and an exposed firing button on top that has no trigger guard whatsoever. However, the weapon is much more powerful than a modern handgun. It is capable of blasting through masonry or thin rock walls (although Trekkies have been known to exaggerate this capability into "rearranging local geography" without a shred of canon evidence), thus giving it destructive power closer to a modern grenade launcher than a handgun. It also has a stun mode, and the ability to make certain forms of matter (particularly organic matter) vanish without a trace. The ability to make organic matter disappear is difficult but not impossible to rationalize from a physics standpoint (see the Phaser page).

This weapon is an ergonomic nightmare in every conceivable respect. With no trigger guard, it is dangerous to handle and prone to accidental discharge (I pity the Federation soldier who tries to catch one). Would anyone design a real-life handgun with no trigger guard, using the rationale that the safety switch is the same as a trigger guard? I doubt it. Worse yet, with no sighting devices of any kind, it is exceedingly difficult to aim. The shape of its handgrip forces you to either hold your wrist in an uncomfortable position or hold it far too low to sight down its barrel (an impossible feat anyway, given the bizarre shape of the gun). No one could possibly achieve proficiency with this sort of gun without huge amounts of practice, thus compensating for its horrible ergonomics through sheer determination. In effect, a skilled marksman with this sort of weapon is the equivalent of a modern-day circus-act trick-shooter who can hit bulls-eyes while shooting behind his back or while blind-folded. The ability to hit the target represents strenuous training in order to compensate for the inherent self-inflicted difficulty of the scenario, and it in no way exonerates the horrendous design of the weapon itself.

The reloading process seems to be similarly brain damaged. The base of the handle is smooth and shows no signs of a removable clip. If the clip is hidden beneath a panel in the underside of the handle or body (like batteries in a remote control), then you can visualize the difficulty of changing it; the soldier would have to turn it upside down, and use his other hand in order to open the carefully hidden panel and then replace the clip. The idea of doing this during the heat of battle is absolutely insane; it would entail taking the weapon away from the aimed position and partially disassembling it! Real-life weapons and training techniques are carefully designed to minimize such disruptions to the soldier's concentration in battle. There is no question that phaser clips exist, because we've seen them in "Siege of AR-588". However, those clips were designed for use in their assault rifles, not their handguns. It is possible that the phasers are actually sealed units and must be plugged into a recharger, but that would be a terrible mistake; a weapon with a fixed number of shots and no reload procedure is totally unsuitable for combat. However, the lack of a visible clip would aid an undercover operative who wants to claim that the device is not a weapon, so there is a potential undercover application for such a design.

In conclusion, no modern army would ever adopt such a terrible weapon design, even for its least consequential personnel. However, most Starfleet personnel seem to be officers (everyone seems to have the rank of ensign or greater, and even apparent "crewmen" talk of their experiences at Starfleet Academy). Therefore, they don't need to worry about pushing enlisted men through basic training in a few weeks because it seems that most of them go through years of training, where they would presumably have had time to hone their skills with this ridiculous weapon. A military force composed mostly of officers is reminiscent of certain fascist, communist, and even medieval feudal societies, and it is obviously not one that places great priority on efficiency or flexibility: how are they supposed to rapidly conscript a wartime army if they insist on putting every recruit through years of training?

It's hard to imagine the reason for this bizarre weapon design, but one might theorize that it is political in nature. In the 19th century there were many types of handgun that were designed especially for concealment, such as tiny handguns intended for concealment in womens' purses and even single-shot weapons hidden in the end of walking sticks or built into the spines of briefcases. Since Starfleet is tasked with numerous diplomatic and exploratory tasks in addition to its primary military function (a dangerous dilution of focus), it's possible that some weapons were designed for concealment and then foolishly adopted across the entire corps, perhaps for the sake of standardization. After all, the Type II hand phaser seems to have been designed to look like anything but a handgun, and we know from "First Contact" (the TNG episode, not the movie) that undercover operatives try to pretend it's not a weapon if they're caught with it.

Sub-machine Guns and Carbines

Starfleet Type III phaser rifleThe SMG and carbine seem to be unrepresented in the Federation, if we base our analysis entirely on appearance and size. However, the combat role and capabilities of the Type III phaser rifle seem to match the SMG profile even if its size does not. The Type III's continuous beam effectively duplicates the function of an automatic weapon, and it is usually used at close range. In fact, Star Trek combat usually occurs at such miniscule ranges that it routinely degenerates into hand to hand combat, where the knife fighting skills of Klingon warriors can actually be a decisive factor! Furthermore, the Type III is designed for two-handed use (as evidenced by the foregrip and length), but it has no shoulder stock, thus invalidating it for long-range or even medium range use. Given these conditions, it seems apparent that a Federation Type III phaser rifle may carry the name "rifle", but it is actually a very short-range weapon which is more suited to the role of a very light SMG.

The Type III's destructive power is similar to that of the Type II hand phaser, but its ergonomics have been upgraded from "excruciatingly, offensively, mind-numbingly bad" to "pretty damned bad". While it shares the Type II's inexcusable lack of sights or scopes, it does improve upon the Type II's awful handle and trigger group by reverting to a traditional design. However, its firing characteristics are seemingly identical to those of the Type II, so its only advantage would seem to be in the area of ergonomics, sensor suites, and perhaps ammunition capacity. When disassembled, the weapon appears to have a short emitter buried in the tip which is identical to a Type II phaser, thus lending credence to this evaluation. Furthermore, the weapon is designed to be held low and fired from the hip, as evidenced by the lack of a shoulder stock. A human being can't accurately aim a gun without being able to stabilize one end or the other, so when both the rear grip and fore grip are stabilized solely by arm strength, he'll never be able to hit anything beyond 50-100 metres no matter how accurate the gun itself is. Moreover, the natural posture is always to hold a gun low, unless it has a solid or folding stock which can be steadied against your shoulder. That's why real-life rifles always have a shoulder stock, and that's why this gun, while not as ergonomically crippled as the awful Type II handgun, is still going to hinder a soldier's accuracy rather than helping it.

The flimsy yellow flip-up HUD panel has been argued to be some sort of sighting device in the past. This seems impossible because you need to use parallax in order to aim a rifle (by lining up a fore sight and a rear sight), but there is a possibility that the flip-up device is actually similar to the prism sight in the modern LAW anti-tank weapon that is used by the British and American armies. If so, this would mean that there is some sort of camera or optical sight aligned with the barrel which projects its image up onto the HUD. However, the fact that the end simply contains a Type II hand phaser emitter seems to contradict this speculation, by forcing the question: if the gun's body is opaque except for the emitter and the emitter is just a Type II hand phaser emitter, then where is this sighting device? If it's buried somewhere in the back of the body, then it has no line of sight, and it can't possibly be an optical sight. If it employs non-optical tricorder technology to discern target location and provide environmental data, then this only leads to another problem: its active scanning signals would broadcast a soldier's location to the enemy whenever he attempts to use it! This may help explain why the device is usually not used in battle. Another problem is related to its flimsy construction; it would be easily broken or torn off during rough handling, so we see on the shows that it is normally kept down. This means that if combat starts suddenly (not an unusual circumstance, since you can't assume you'll always get the drop on your enemy), a soldier must take one hand off the weapon in order to flip it up! A long gun is basically useless when held with just one hand, so this means a soldier must temporarily relinquish his combat ability in order to activate the panel. The act of deliberately releasing your grip on a weapon in the heat of combat runs counter to every human psychological impulse, and the best explanation is that the HUD was not meant for use in the heat of battle. An embedded tricorder rather than a sighting device would make more sense, and it would also be consistent with the schizophrenic nature of Starfleet, which can't decide whether it is a scientific research bureau or a military organization.

The longest-ranged incident involving the Type III phaser rifle occurred in the "Rocks and Shoals" ambush at a range of perhaps 50-100 metres at most, which is actually a very long distance for a weapon that was designed to be fired from the hip. It is therefore not surprising that while they succeeded in their ambush, they had quite a bit of trouble and took casualties despite their ideal firing positions. It is also noteworthy that they didn't bother using their flip-up HUD panels despite having the advantage of surprise, which suggests that they would not have found them particularly useful. An incident which demonstrably exceeded their maximum range occurred in STI, when the Enterprise bridge crew was attacked by handgun-wielding So'na on a far ridge. It's difficult to tell just how far away the So'na were, but any distance in excess of 200 metres is out of the question in light of the fact that the So'na got surprisingly close with their first shots (with handguns!). Of course, Worf immediately dropped his Type III in favour of a weapon that resembled a modern RPG, which is not surprising since they were well out of range to be shooting from the hip.

Therefore, the capabilities of the Type III phaser rifle resemble those of an SMG, albeit one with unusual strengths and weaknesses. It has superior destructive power to any real-life SMG, but it lacks the convenience of an SMG's small size. It also lacks the accuracy and range of an SMG (to say nothing of a rifle) because of its poor ergonomics. Furthermore, its size and apparent use of complicated environmental sensor technology will both consume more manufacturing and natural resources than necessary. And finally, there are also some question marks about its reliability: Major Kira commented in "Return to Grace" that the Cardassian phaser rifle was a superior weapon despite its relatively poor accuracy and simplistic design, because it was more reliable under rough handling (thus drawing obvious parallels to certain well-publicized Vietnam-era comparisons between the AK-47 and the M-16). She also made reference to some sophisticated technology built into the Type III phaser rifle that was apparently of little tactical value, and that would be consistent with earlier speculation that the Type III contains equipment that is more appropriate for surveying than combat.

Assault Rifles

The assault rifle was a weapon class that seemed to be unrepresented in the Federation until STFC, where a new weapon appeared. This new weapon (seen below) is a pulse rifle which is always used in semi-automatic mode in the films and shows. There is no technological reason why it would not also have a fully automatic mode as well, although there might have been other reasons. One could speculate that during the military build-up of the Dominion War, the Federation's gun designers deliberately removed continuous (automatic) fire capability in order to force rapidly conscripted soldiers to conserve ammo by taking aim rather than spraying automatic fire in the general direction of their targets (a common failing of green recruits).

A Starfleet crewman firing a pulse phaser rifle

The new gun has what appears to be a scope of some sort on top, and it looks like the crewman in the picture is sighting through it as he fires on approaching Borg drones. There is actually no canon evidence whatsoever that the weapon has assault rifle range, since it was never fired at any distant targets onscreen. However, the inclusion of an optical sighting device suggests that it should have longer range than the Type III, albeit at some cost in power (it has never demonstrated the kind of short-range destructive power exhibited by the Type II and Type III). The physical structure of the weapon supports this speculation; unlike the Type III, this weapon was designed from the ground up as a long gun rather than being a glorified shell built around a handgun and a tricorder. It has a solid stock which presses up against the shoulder, and it also has a true, elongated barrel, suggestive of beam collimation and therefore greater accuracy and range. It also has a trigger guard, which is an incredibly long overdue safety feature. One minor flaw is that the only way to aim the gun is through the topside sighting attachment, which could conceivably be damaged or knocked out of alignment during rough handling. Without fixed sights as a fallback, the gun would presumably be quite difficult to aim in the event of damage to the scope. However, in spite of this minor nitpick, one can easily conclude that even if its firing characteristics were completely identical to the Type III, this would still be a vastly superior weapon based on ergonomics alone.

Notice the attitude of the crewman in the accompanying picture: he holds the gun against his shoulder, and he sights down the length of the gun, through the scope. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier Type II and Type III guns, which were invariably held low and fired from the hip, and which couldn't possibly be steadied for lack of a shoulder stock. It is quite telling that this weapon appeared only after the Federation found itself involved in active hostilities; while the Type II and III's glaring deficiencies weren't always apparent in the hands of highly trained officers who fought exclusively at extreme close quarters in starship corridors or cargo bays, they would have become blatantly obvious in ground warfare live-fire exercises. Once they started conscripting a wartime army and training recruits in weeks instead of years, they probably realized that a better weapon was necessary, hence the new design. The solid stock means that the soldier can steady the weapon against his shoulder, and it also means that he will naturally look down the axis of the gun and through the sighting device, which is important since green recruits have been known to ignore their sights and fire "instinctively" in the heat of battle. The gun's inherent superiority to its older brethren means that it will probably start to replace the older Type III over time, particularly among ground troops. However, the sheer number of Type III's already in service will probably delay the changeover.

Its power is actually inferior to that of the Type II handgun and the Type III phaser rifle, since it always knocks a person down rather than causing him to disappear into thin air, and it doesn't seem to have the same destructive power against rock or masonry. However, this is also consistent with the role of an assault rifle. Assault rifles fire small calibre bullets with intermediate-sized cartridges because the heavy shot of a shotgun or a heavy machine gun is overkill, and because the excessive recoil would only make the gun more difficult to aim. The same could be said of this weapon: its designers may have deliberately lowered its power output to the amount necessary to kill a human being (which is really all that you need) in order to reduce its recoil and improve its accuracy for medium range situations.

Sniper rifles

The Federation is capable of making a dangerous sniper rifle by combining a small transporter unit with a true rifle (meaning one that fires a physical bullet through a cylindrical rifled barrel, just like modern rifles), which they've designated the TR-116. The TR-116 seems to have been designed from the ground up as a sniper rifle, specialized for assassination purposes. It uses special transporter technology in order to literally "shoot through walls". Within the range limitations of the miniature transporter device (which are unknown), it can transport a bullet through any unshielded wall, and it uses an "exographic" targeting scanner to acquire targets through visually opaque barriers.

However, this weapon also has serious weaknesses which would relegate it only to the most highly specialized situations, and which may explain why it was only adopted by a petty serial killer and not by the Federation armed forces at large. Its transporter uses a very weak signal, so weak that Chief O'Brien couldn't track it. This means it will be highly susceptible to all the things that normally interfere with transporters. That list includes interdictor/scrambler fields, forcefields, distortion generators, electrical activity, electromagnetic and other types of radiation (both ionizing and non-ionizing), magnetic fields, and dense materials such as granite or certain metals.

Furthermore, its target can't be using any ECM technologies such as sensor jammers, because they will interfere with the exograph and transport sensors. And finally, the active sensors necessary for this "exographic" targeting system would broadcast the shooter's location. A weapon like this would be most effective on unsuspecting civilians (which is exactly how it was used), but against military targets and well-protected civilians, it would be virtually useless.

It should be noted that Chief O'Brien never admitted that the gun was designed for assassination, ie- it was meant to be an assault rifle, not a sniper rifle. He claimed that the gun was intended "to be used in energy dampening fields or radiogenic environments where ordinary Phasers are useless," and that it was no longer in service because it had been superseded by "regenerative phasers", which can supposedly function under those conditions. He also claimed that the micro-transporter was not part of the base design, because the Federation presumably wouldn't build a weapon for assassination purposes. But was he tellling the truth, or was he engaged in politically correct Federation doublespeak and obfuscation, for Odo's benefit? A front-line combat weapon should have a large ammunition capacity, and it should use high-velocity rifle rounds for maximum range, accuracy, and penetration. However, this weapon had an integral silencer and subsonic muzzle velocity (no crack of gunfire when Ezri pulled the trigger or when the other shooter's bullet materialized in her room). Bullets collected from the crime scenes appeared to be 9-10mm calibre rounds, not 5.56mm or 7.62mm rifle rounds. Worse yet, the magazine was so small that given the large calibre bullets, it could only hold 2-3 rounds. And finally, its bullets had such low velocity that Ezri showed no signs of gun recoil whatsoever! Does this sound like a weapon that was designed for combat? No, it sounds much more like a weapon that was designed from the ground up for assassination.

The external appearance of the gun gives us more clues as to its true nature. The micro-transporter was not visible anywhere; the barrel was clean, and the only visible attachment was the barrel-underslung sensor. Moreover, the exographic sensor controls were built right into the gun, thus indicating that it was an integral part of the weapon! So if Chief O'Brien is telling the truth, then why is the micro-transporter so well integrated into the gun that you can't even see it? That's a little odd for a hastily concocted modification, isn't it? And why would the gun have an integral exographic sensor if it doesn't come standard with the micro-transporter? A targeting sensor that can see through walls is of little use if your gun can't shoot through walls, and since the gun fires high-calibre low-velocity rounds, it can't shoot through much of anything without that transporter. This gun was designed for assassination, plain and simple. It was undoubtedly designed to use the micro-transporter from its conception, and Chief O'Brien didn't want to admit to Odo that the Federation ever used such weapons.

Machine Guns

The GPMG is completely unrepresented in the Federation. Some Trekkies may argue that it is unnecessary because their rifles can duplicate the function of a GPMG, but that is a groundless claim. Not only have we never seen any weapon being used in the role of a GPMG, but we've seen the recoil of Starfleet phaser rifles, all of which kick noticeably up and to the right when they're fired. This eliminates the possibility of their use in the long-range squad support role of a GPMG, particularly since there is no way of stabilizing it in a tripod or bipod mount. A weapon with significant, imbalanced recoil and no stabilization mechanism simply cannot perform in that role.

It's tempting to think that perhaps the absence of the GPMG is simply due to the fact that most Star Trek episodes focus on starships, and would not show the sort of weaponry used by a ground army. This is a perfectly reasonable line of thought, but we have seen Federation ground forces before, in "Nor the Battle to the Strong" and "The Siege of AR-588". In both cases, they carried standard Starfleet weapons. In the latter case, we are talking about a group that originally numbered more than 150, but who possessed nothing larger than an assault rifle! Therefore, it seems that the heavy automatic weapon simply doesn't exist in the Federation ground army's arsenal.

This is a very strange omission, and it may be explained by the relative infancy of their ground warfare arsenal (the best weapon in their inventory was only developed during the Dominion War, and every weapon before that was basically useless for full-scale ground combat). But that, in turn, begs the question of how they could possibly have such a feeble ground arsenal, and that question may be answered by examining the prominence of Starfleet in their military organization. In fact, Starfleet appears to be their entire military, with other corps serving in a strictly subordinate role. This would be analogous to the modern US military being placed entirely under the control of the Navy, and it may be explained by the fact that space travel dominates Federation foreign policy and military objectives. The lack of a large, well funded independent ground army should hamper their efforts on the ground, and indeed, Starfleet seems to have been quite negligent in that regard. The Romulans actually expected to conquer Vulcan with just two thousand soldiers in "Reunification", which gives some idea of the contempt in which they hold Federation ground forces. Moreover, in "The Ensigns of Command" it became apparent that Starfleet has no dedicated troop transports, or they could have used them to evacuate the settlers rather than waiting for special colony ships. No heavy infantry weapons, no grenades, no artillery, no armour, no troop transports ... in other words, no army.

It seems likely that their negligence on the ground is based on Starfleet's mentality that space vessels come first. They've probably eliminated all "unnecessary" heavy ground weapons from their arsenal because they assume they will always enjoy space and air superiority over every battlefield. Perhaps they feel that if they don't enjoy space and air superiority over the battlefield, then a ground battle is hopeless and there's no point equipping their ground troops with anything heavier than what they already have. Even time-tested devices like mortars (which were still in use by the Klingons, and by the more balanced Federation military of Kirk's era) seem to be absent from the Federation's current ground forces' arsenals. But this is an extremely dangerous mentality; ground forces can not and should not be designed around the assumption that aircraft will be able to take the place of artillery and heavy support weapons. What if their aircraft are stymied by electrical storms, sensor jamming and poor visibility, or anti-aircraft fire? What if their aircraft are called away to fight air or space battles elsewhere? What if air superiority is being hotly contested? What if they've lost air superiority? If sensor jamming, electrical storms or interdictor fields prevent transporter evacuation, are the ground troops simply abandoned? Left to die, with enemy artillery pounding down on them?

The Federation simply cannot field an effective military organization if their ground army is considered a mere tool of its navy, with no funding priority or top-level representation. They've been lucky so far to encounter equally dim-witted enemies: Klingon soldiers have light artillery in the form of mortars (as seen in "Nor the Battle to the Strong"), but their ground assaults come in the form of men armed exclusively with handguns and knives, which is a ridiculous armament for an infantryman. The Jem'Hadar are even worse; they rely on the Napoleonic-era massed charge tactic (as seen in "Siege of AR-588"), complete with macho battle cries that echo through the valleys and give away their position.

The latter example is particularly irksome; a single heavy sustained-fire weapon, pointed at the chokepoint through which the Jem'Hadar foolishly emerged, would have slaughtered them wholesale. Instead, half the defending soldiers were killed in the resulting melee, which rapidly degenerated into hand to hand combat because of their inability to deny access to the chokepoint. Considering their sheer numbers (150 when first deployed), they should have had not just one, but several GPMGs, as well as various other types of equipment. If they had one GPMG pointed at the chokepoint and another situated in an elevated location far away, dialed into the chokepoint from the rear (assuming they can position one outside their perimeter without being detected), they could have waited until the Jem'Hadar moved into the chokepoint and then opened fire with both guns simultaneously, thus trapping the Jem'Hadar in a killing zone. The second machine gun crew wouldn't even need night-sight equipment or tricorder readings; a modern machine gun crew can easily put fire on a target even in darkness, once they know its position and have adjusted their gun accordingly (in the Falkland islands, machine gun crews drank tea and ate meals while putting fire on targets!). Therefore, they could have simply opened fire blindly the second they saw the flash of the first gun, thus closing the trap. A mere handful of defenders could have eliminated the entire Jem'Hadar force, while the rest of the garrison could have been calmly cleaning their weapons or doing calisthenics during the attack.

Discontinued Weapons

The TOS-era Federation armed forces had a somewhat better mix of weapons, with the most important difference being the presence of a sustained-fire support weapon.

TOS-era Handguns

The characteristics of TOS-era hand phasers were considerably different than those of TNG-era phaser weapons. They incorporated cylindrical (albeit stubby) barrels, and their handgun ergonomics were somewhat better, with a conventional handle and trigger group (but still no trigger guard or sights!). However, while their destructive power was similar to TNG-era phasers, they were much more dangerous to their users. In combat, they could blast through light masonry and thin rock walls, and they could make organic matter and certain light ceramics disappear, just like TNG-era hand phasers. However, an overloading TOS-era phaser in "Conscience of the King" caused widespread panic (Kirk ordered the entire deck evacuated), and when it exploded (after being thrown into some sort of disposal chute), it shook the deck so violently that Kirk was nearly knocked off his feet. However, in TNG, an overloading TNG-era phaser detonated less than a dozen metres away from Ro Laren and Geordi Laforge in "The Next Phase" without injuring them at all. Furthermore, in "The Hunted", Roga Danar's phaser overload went off inside a control panel, and did no more damage than a modern stick of dynamite would have done. No deck evacuation was necessary, and the explosion wouldn't have hurt anyone unless they were standing directly in front of the panel. This may initially strike the viewer as a serious continuity problem, but an analysis of possible energy conversion processes may solve this conundrum.

A TOS-era hand phaser

First and foremost, we must derive some quantitative estimates of the magnitude of these differences. One popular method of estimating TOS-era phaser battery capacity comes from "The Galileo Seven". In this TOS episode, Scotty drained the crew's hand phasers in order to refuel the shuttle (which suggests that the phasers carried a form of chemical fuel that was compatible with the shuttle's engines, since it was later dumped and ignited). The number of phasers is unknown; at least 5 were seen at once, but there were 7 crewmen and the shuttle may have contained its own weapons locker. In any case, the result was that the shuttle had enough power to reach an altitude where they would not be obscured by the atmosphere (80km to escape the stratosphere, although that may be excessive since the low pressure would have kept Spock from igniting the fuel after he jettisoned it), with enough power to maintain altitude for an hour. Its velocity was obviously a miniscule fraction of orbital velocity since it needed constant engine power just to maintain altitude, and it fell like a stone the instant its fuel ran out. However, the gravitational potential energy alone would be roughly 800 kJ/kg of the shuttle's mass. If the shuttle's mass is 3 tons (a generous estimate given its thin-walled construction), this would mean the phasers dumped a total of 2.4 GJ into the system. If we generously assume only 5 phasers, this would mean they contributed at least 480 MJ apiece. This would suggest that a TOS-era hand phaser carries fuel with as much chemical potential energy as 8kg of gasoline, or more than 110 kg of TNT.

If the fuel releases most of its chemical potential energy during the overload, that would give the weapon as much destructive power as a large howitzer HE shell's explosive charge (not including its kinetic energy), thus explaining its apparent ability to shake an entire Constitution-class starship as violently as a direct hit during naval combat (it would also suggest that the weapon probably caused fairly extensive damage when it went off). However, it begs the question again: why is this weapon no more powerful than the TNG-era weapon, if its overload is so much more violent? Even a hundredth of this blast would be equivalent to the simultaneous detonation of a half-dozen modern grenades, which isn't what we saw in "The Next Phase" and "The Hunted". It also begs the question: why is the weapon not more powerful in combat? If it carries the equivalent of 500 grenades, then why doesn't a single shot have a more explosive effect? Why did Tracy run out of ammunition after only a dozen shots in "The Omega Glory", none of which even had the explosive effect of a single grenade?

The existence of chemical fuel with such an extremely high energy density is consistent with the known capabilities of an advanced space faring civilization, since the act of achieving orbit in a spacecraft without massive external fuel tanks requires such fuels. However, the volatility of the fuel is extreme, as demonstrated both by the overload blast in "Conscience of the King" and by Scotty's painstakingly slow, careful fuel transfer process in "The Galileo Seven" (he estimated "at least another hour, maybe two", and reminded McCoy that "a phaser can only drain so fast!" This volatility is an obvious safety problem, and it may be that TNG-era weapons were much more efficient, thus allowing the use of a safer, less volatile energy source with lower energy density. However, this still leaves the original problem of how to account for all of the excess energy in the TOS-era weapon. How could it carry so much more energy if it's no more destructive than a TNG-era phaser? The most obvious explanation is that the weapon's energy conversion process is based on some form of exothermal chain reaction such as combustion (as supported by the fact that Spock successfully ignited the fuel even in the low pressure environment of the planet's upper atmosphere), and if the reaction is violent enough, then significant amounts of fuel may be ejected from the reaction chamber due to sheer overpressure, before it can react. Given the high energy density of the fuel, even miniscule amounts of such uncombusted ejecta could easily account for the missing energy. This would explain the apparent inconsistency between TOS and TNG-era phasers, as well as the fact that TOS-era phasers could refuel a shuttle.

In conclusion, the TOS-era handguns therefore seem to have represented a nascent, immature technology (not surprising, since phasers were apparently quite new at the time), with good destructive power but poor fuel efficiency and excessive volatility. It is historically quite normal for such immature technologies to be inefficient, unreliable and dangerous, and 80 years of refinement removed some of those faults by the time of TNG, although the technical improvements were more than offset by the mind-boggling ergonomic mistakes described earlier in this article.

TOS-era Assault Rifles

We saw a glimpse of what TOS-era assault rifles looked like, when Captain Kirk took one to do battle with the psychotic Lieutenant Gary Mitchell in "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

The Original Star Trek: When Men were Men, and Women wore Miniskirts

The weapon has a black shoulder stock which is currently obscured by Kirk's right arm, and it seems to have some kind of flashback suppressor on the end of its long, cylindrical barrel. However, the weapon lacks a trigger guard, just like all Star Trek weapons until the STFC rifle. The weapon's long barrel is similar to the long barrels of the STFC rifle and the Klingon sniper rifle of that era (seen in ST6), so it's obvious that long barrels are a staple feature of long-ranged firearms, just as they are in real life and in Star Wars. Although we can't be sure, it's also possible that some sort of prism sight is built into the back of the tower rising from the midpoint of the gun.

It is a continuous-fire weapon, just like all Federation weapons of this era. Its firepower was demonstrated during the climactic final showdown between Kirk and Gary Mitchell, when Kirk seized a moment of opportunity and fired it at a rock face behind Mitchell. It had a similar effect to a blasting cap, dislodging a Volkswagen-sized slab of rock which fell on Mitchell and killed him instantly. Its power for a short burst is therefore similar to a modern grenade launcher, albeit one that is designed to penetrate before detonation.

TOS-era Support Weapons

TOS-era Federation heavy support weaponIn "The Cage", we saw that the TOS-era Federation still had large support weapons like the GPMGs of modern armies, even though such weapons seem to have vanished by the time of TNG (along with many other aspects of the TOS-era Federation such as the free market economy, womens' miniskirts, and real men, but I digress). This regression is consistent with a general downward trend in Federation ground combat capabilities, of which the disappearance of mortars is another example. The weapon in question is a very heavy sustained-fire weapon which is mounted on a solid base. In "The Cage" it actually required a power feed from the Enterprise above, which leads to the interesting question of whether this weapon is useful in the absence of orbital support.

It was fired for an extended period at a door in a rock wall which was within 20 metres, thus giving us an idea of its limitations (if it were anywhere near as powerful as a modern howitzer, they wouldn't have even considered firing it at such close range for fear of being killed by flying, superheated debris). Given this limited power, it seems like a weapon without a purpose; if it requires power from a huge external source, then why doesn't that source simply use its own weapons to fire at the target? The transmission mechanism is obviously very inefficient; after less than a minute of continuous fire, Spock warned the first officer that they would burn out their circuits in another 10 seconds. Therefore, we must ask the question: why use the weapon at all, and why put infantrymen in harm's way to set it up, when it's really just an inefficient extension of a starbase or starship?

Its role is unclear; if it is an infantry support weapon, then its reliance on starship support is an obvious vulnerability. At the press of a button, a defender could activate interference fields or theatre shields in order to block the transmission beams, and a Federation army's heaviest weapons would instantly become useless! The whole point of a real infantry support weapon is that it is dedicated to the infantry, and not dependent on air support. Otherwise, real-life armies would simply discard all of their GPMGs and RPGs in favour of the weapons mounted on helicopter gunships. It's hard to imagine the justification for such a weapon design even in the Federation with its history of bizarre weapons, so there must be more to the picture.

The most rational explanation is that the gun is actually a defensive dual-mode weapon. With a portable power source, it would be capable of cutting down thousands of charging enemy infantrymen or effectively pinning down enemy troops. However, when tied to a large external power source, its beam gains the power to blast through thick armour. Therefore, it can function as an HMG under normal circumstances and as an anti-armour weapon when a large external power source is available. Given its capabilities, this type of gun would probably find use in fixed defense lines such as WW1-style trenches. Several such guns could also be deployed at defense strongpoints around a fortified base, thus drawing from the base's power source. Its usefulness as an offensive infantry support weapon would be questionable, since it's too big to carry with an infantry squad (hence my classification as an HMG rather than a GPMG). Moreover, its reliance on large external power sources for its anti-armour mode limits its flexibility and mobility; it can't be positioned far from base camp unless it's powered from orbit, and orbital power sources could be stymied by the same interference fields and theatre shields that would prevent direct orbital bombardment.

We saw its anti-armour mode in "The Cage", and we heard dialogue suggestive of its anti-infantry capabilities in "The Omega Glory". In that episode, Captain Tracy told Kirk that his men drained four of their phasers in order to kill "thousands" of attacking Yangs (a classic scenario for a defensive HMG). One might assume that he refers to regular hand phasers rather than heavy weapons like the stabilized gun in "The Cage" or the large rifle in "Where No Man Has Gone Before", but that is a bizarre and unjustifiable interpretation, for several reasons:

  1. No Visual Evidence: We never saw this battle or the drained phasers. We know that heavier weapons do exist, and would be appropriate for a large-scale battle. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that they must have used hand phasers. It is questionable even to assume that they probably used hand phasers; is Captain Tracy had a starship, he probably had access to the same kind of weapons that Captain Pike and Captain Kirk did, so why wouldn't he have used them?

  2. Human ergonomics: Handguns have an extremely limited effective range because of the limitations of a human being trying to aim a one-handed weapon. These limitations will be just as important in the 23rd century as they are today; as Khan Noonian Singh pointed out in "Space Seed", there may have been technical advancement in the 23rd century, but man himself has not changed at all. If thousands of primitives charged at men armed only with handguns, they would overrun the defenders in short order because the defenders' weaponry would be ineffective until the attackers are already within range for primitive weapons like spears and arrows.

  3. Power Packs: Phaser power packs were found in the hands of dead Yangs, but TOS-era hand phasers have integral fuel cells rather than removable ammunition clips, as we saw in "The Galileo Seven" where Scotty's phaser discharge procedure required the entire phaser rather than removable power packs. So if their hand phasers had integral fuel cells, then what were these phaser power packs used for? Obviously, for an entirely different type of phaser, such as a sustained-fire weapon like that seen in "The Cage".

  4. Yang Bodies: The bodies of dead Yangs were left on the battlefield after the massacre. Early TOS-era hand phasers did not appear to have as many attenuation settings as later models. They appeared to have only two settings: stun and kill. Moreover, those are the only settings we ever heard mentioned by any of the characters on the show. Since the Yangs' bodies did not disappear, this strongly suggests that a weapon other than a hand phaser was used.

It's logically obvious that Captain Tracy must have used large weapons on the Yangs, and the fact that we've actually seen such TOS-era weapons is merely icing on the cake. Of course, this does beg the question of why no such weapons were available for the garrison in "Siege of AR-588" or the ground troops in "Nor the Battle to the Strong", but I reiterate that a general downward trend in Federation ground combat capabilities is very well established.


The Federation's society has undergone an obvious progressive demilitarization from its expansionist era (pre-TOS and early TOS) to its current stagnant era (TNG). This demilitarization is not only obvious from a cultural and stylistic viewpoint, but also from an analysis of their weapons technology. The TOS-era Federation had heavy defensive sustained-fire weapons and assault rifles for ground combat, and pistols with a usable handle and trigger group for close-quarters starship combat. By the start of the TNG era, this weaponry had deteriorated to a pitiful inventory composed exclusively of a few types of short-range weapons, with such horrendous ergonomics that they could have perfect accuracy and still be useless in combat.

This decline can probably be attributed to complacency, which is something that Q identified and in his own clumsy way, tried to educate Captain Picard about in "Q Who". The Federation military of Kirk's era (thanks in no small part to the legendary Captain Kirk himself) achieved such success against the Klingons and the Romulans that future generations seemed to feel that their supremacy was secure, and it was no longer necessary to maintain combat readiness. This inexcusably complacent attitude was most glaringly demonstrated in "Peak Performance", when both Picard and Riker vehemently insisted that tactical skills are such a minor part of a Starfleet's officer's job that they shouldn't even practice them any more, even with simulated wargames!

The onset of the Dominion War forced a change in this attitude, but it took time. More than two years passed between the start of open hostilities (the destruction of the USS Odyssey at the hands of Jem'Hadar warships) and the appearance of a new ground weapon. How many years would it take for them to fill in the rest of the gaps in their ground warfare arsenal? Will they do it at all, or will they continue to allow their ground warfare strategy to be dictated by Starfleet? They still lack the heavy weapons that are absolutely essential for combined-arms warfare. They would still be slaughtered by a modern ground army, and they are still totally dependent on local air and space superiority in order to have a modicum of success on the ground. They still arm themselves to maintain peace rather than preparing for war. They still need to heed a famous quote from a man who went by the name of John F. Kennedy:

"It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war."

Their inability to remember this fact nearly led them to disaster against the staggeringly incompetent Jem'Hadar, and it could still lead them to disaster if a more dangerous, opportunistic enemy should arise. An enemy with huge, heavily armed ground forces and the ruthlessness required to deploy them without reservation or restriction. An enemy like the Empire.

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