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In Stargate SG-1, there are many instances where it seems obvious that projectile weapons are superior to energy weapons in close combat. Why is it that technologically advanced civilizations tend to have developed energy weapons rather than projectile ones? Is it that perhaps they never had projectile weapons to begin with? Could it be that they are more convenient to handle in terms of size and reload requirements?

Edit: It is worth noting that it wasn't just the Goa'uld and other advanced non-humanoid aliens that used energy weapons. Energy weapons were also used by:

  • Eurondans: Season 4 episode 2 Eurondans in pursuit of SG-1

  • Bedrosians: Season 3 episode 19 SG-1 captured by Bedrosians

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You may see that with the Asgard. They're impressed by the underdeveloped Earthlings' weapons (projectiles), which can harm the Replicators as they Asgards never came to this idea because they're too sophisticated. – Trollwut Jun 24 '14 at 12:39
This looks like an excuse to use TV Tropes (you have been warned), e.g., We Will Use Lasers in the Future. The effectiveness of projectile weapons on replicators might be a variant of Rock Beats Laser. – Paul A. Clayton Jun 24 '14 at 12:52
Goa'uld staff and zat guns technically are projectiles, they fire an energy particle @ the target, they are not beam type weapons. – Jared Jun 24 '14 at 23:13
@jared beam type weapons also fire an energy particle at the target... Photons are particles too. – user16696 Jun 25 '14 at 3:42
@cde - my point was that Goa'ulds don't use pewpew laser or beam type weaponry for their soldiers. They're more projectile type in my books regardless if energy or traditional copper jacket with combustion propellant. – Jared Jun 26 '14 at 2:57

7 Answers 7

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Clayton gave a great references in TV Tropes; out-of-universe "to avoid showing blood and bullets on screen in a family-friendly show" is the main reason. There are a couple more conceivable in-universe reasons:

  • Energy weapons may be less likely to pierce ships' hulls or other critical machinery.
  • They may be mechanically simpler or more reliable; perhaps with futuristic manufacturing such weapons can be made with no moving parts.
  • "This... is a weapon of terror." The snake-heads chose a weapon that was awe-inspiring, flashy, scary. It comes with a number of disadvantages for outright war, but it looks good.
  • They may not have had a choice. They were scavenging technology, and it's possible that the staff weapons and zatts were repurposed. If the ancients had need for more efficient weapons, perhaps they would have developed kinetic weapons, but if so the go'auld simply never uncovered them.
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I like this answer, but you missed a very important factor: power consumption. It is far easier to recharge an energy weapon than it is to dig up metal and fashion it into bullets, in the same way that it is easier for our modern society to fashion bullets than to make crossbow bolts, even though, in some ways, the crossbow is a superior weapon. – James Sheridan Jun 24 '14 at 13:49
In some cases energy weapons can have stun effects (e.g., zats, Wraith weapons) which may be more effective than tranquilizer darts. (Tasers are intermediate between energy weapon and projectile weapon.) – Paul A. Clayton Jun 24 '14 at 14:25
Avoiding blood and bullets seems unlikely, as every SG team seems to at least carry P90s, if not more, and spends about 80% of their time riddling people with bullets. – Phoshi Jun 24 '14 at 14:36
Bolts can be fabricated with less advanced technology -- in particular, without the use of fire, if you really have to -- but I think bullets are going to be easier to mass-produce, at least the simple lead slug kind. Black powder can also be cranked out pretty easily. If you want jacketed ammo, cases, primers, and high-quality propellant, however, that might tip the scale back in favor of crossbows; not sure. – zwol Jun 24 '14 at 15:46
... also I kinda have to give a side-eye to "far easier to recharge an energy weapon", because the main reason we don't have handheld ray-guns right now in real life is that we know of no way to store electrical energy densely enough to make them practical. (Not that the Stargate franchise is even vaguely realistic about energy requirements of various bits of ancient/alien technology.) – zwol Jun 24 '14 at 15:53

The logistics of carting ammunition all around the galaxy could be daunting. Granted, we're in sci-fi territory where we never worry about the effect on fuel or flight speed of loading a couple hundred tons of ammo on board a ship. Not to mention sending them through a stargate would be time consuming and require a lot of people for the heavy lifting.

Zats and staff weapons that could be recharged (do they ever need it though?) would have more duration in a long seige type fight which a lot the bad guys seemed to be used to. Energy can always be found, bullets...not so much. It's more about operating with a minimal supply chain.

Also, as was hinted at earlier, Zats are more weapons of intimidation. If I zat a slave once it sends a message and maybe he learns something. If I'm really serious I just zat him again while he's down.

Last thing. The energy weapons IIRC were powered by naquada which the goauld kept tight control over. It's a rare element in the SG universe so controlling that keeps your weapons from being used against you (eventually) as opposed to bullets which could be easily reversed engineered.

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Puddle Jumpers and the Needle Threader Death Glider could be used to move tons of material through a stargate at once. Let alone carts or automobiles. And then there is hyperspace. Plus not like the Goa'uld are too concerned about the amount of slaves needed to move stuff around. – user16696 Jun 25 '14 at 3:53
The goa'uld operated very sprawling operations, for long periods of time. I can see how it would be valuable for them to arm their minions with weapons which would not need maintenance or resupply, conceivably for generations. – Jon of All Trades Jun 25 '14 at 17:29
+1 Amunition is specific to a gun. Make a bullet the wrong size, or propel it with something too strong (or too weak), and bad things happen. Projectile guns have moving parts and a bullet that travels down a barrel, all of which can jam. Energy is energy. – Wayne Nov 28 '14 at 1:28
Staff weapons can't be recharged. As you yourself state: they are "powered by naquada". Naquada, does not a rechargeable battery make. – Oxinabox Jul 12 at 13:43

One more aspect of Goa'uld using energy weapons is psychological.

Kinetic energy weapons can be easily explained to a pre-industrial civilizations. They knew about bows and crossbows, bullet is just a smaller projectile travelling at higher speed than bolt or arrow.

Energy weapon is something that cannot be explained nor reproduced by pre-industrial civilization, therefore it is a way to confirm that wielders of such weapons act on behalf of gods.

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True, but this also assumes all pre-industrial civilizations develop projectile weapons ala earth. – user16696 Jun 26 '14 at 3:57

It also boils down to how technology is created in the first place. For example, our modern day weapons were created as kinetic weapons through "evolution" of technologies, something like Rock - Spear - Bow - Crossbow - Gun - even better guns..

Now imagine a civilization that continues to be peaceful until they discover weapons or at least the fundamental technology used in energy weapons. What if the weapons they discovered were originally energy-based. Then all their technological advancements would be trying to improve the technology that they've already got.

Without significant war, there's no motivation to create "alternative" types of weapons. If what they're using is plenty effective, then at what point do they decide to try to perfect alternative forms of weaponry? Especially alternative forms that require a great amount of raw resources that they may not have access to, or be familiar with its use.

I would be surprised if someone makes the connection "small controlled explosion propels bits of metal" when they already have "huge burst of energy solves all me problems".

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This is explicitly the case for the Asgard. "The Asgard would never invent a weapon that propels small weights of iron and carbon alloys, by igniting a powder of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur." - Thor – Jon of All Trades Jun 25 '14 at 17:43

A lot of technology in Stargate isn't "discovered" so much as it is simply salvaged from the ancients. Why does nobody use massive colony ships with cryo-freezing chambers to keep their people alive during long trips? Because it simply isn't needed.

With the gates in place, any other way of transportation is not likely to get invented because it is not required. Any "new" innovation in terms of transportation is likely just going to alter the gate-system slightly or use a similar system, because it works. (spaceships that utilize gate-esque technology to quickly transport large quantities of goods/slaves/etc.)

Now take weapons. You have your basic ancient energy weapon. You see it works, it fires lasers, awesome! Now I want to make it even scarier, so I increase its output, I shoot more energy at once, I try to fire it more rapidly, perhaps I can mount seven side by side to fire an obliterator beam...

at no point am I going to say "wait, let's do away with this whole energy idea and throw rocks instead". You stick with what works and try to improve that, rather than reinvent the wheel.

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The Stargate Universe is fairly easy to explain.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

It is a period of civil war. Rebels, tired of being hunted while hiding, have decided to run from the evil Galactic Empire.

During the departure, rebel scientists managed to dream up secret plans to the ultimate weapon, the Ark, an armored space box with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

No Longer Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, the rebels land in a new galaxy, hoping to save their people and restore freedom from overbearing religious nuts...

The Alterans leave the Ori, and settle in the Milky Way. At which point they start seeding life into the galaxy. Including humans. They also start expanding, creating various city/worlds, expanding their technological pursuits, planting Star Gates everywhere. Then the plague came. They were quickly dying, even time travel didn't help (it never does). So the last few of them packed up again, and left to the Pegasus Galaxy. In the process, tons of Atlantian technology is left everywhere. I'll come back to this.

After once again running away from a fight, the Ancients return the the Milky Way, very few in number. Some bred with cavemen on earth. Some found vacation homes on various Milky Way planets. Some stook around and created the Alliance of Four Races, but that only lasted a few hundred years. Some Ascended. In this time, Asgardians were trying to understand Ancient Technology through the Repositories. Different groups of advanced humans have sprung up in isolated pockets, descendants of Ancients or using Ancient Tech.

After the Ancients have faded into myth, and the Alliance pretty much crumbled, the Goa'uld came into power. And how? By doing what everyone else seems to be doing. Finding lost Ancient technology. The use of Star Gates allow for instant transport to other places the Ancients might have left more tech. And the Goa'uld for one flourished because of it. First by Stargate, then by Ancient Ships. Most if not all of their technology is based on Ancient Tech. They find earth, and begin to use humans as livestock, spreading them out to other planets as slaves for naquadah which fuel stargate technology, or genetic engineering them into Jaffa with genetic manipulation devices the Ancients used to become the most advance short of ascending, or Sarcaphagous based on Ancient Zombie, er Healing Devices. And even human technology (drones/recon devices) or anything else they could reverse engineer.

And many slave planets, full of Ancient Gene possessing earth based humans rebelled against their Goa'uld, and started doing the same. Using Goa'uld and Ancient tech, blending it with their own. In essence,the proliferation of the Ancient Technology, open access to Star Gate travel, and humanity's diaspora, stunted creativity and long drawn out individualistic technological creation for a Scavangers dream. Treasure trove of easily reverse engineered technology with a heavy basis on Energy Weapons. Pretty much the majority of aliens we see in the Stargate Universe are using Ancient Technology, so there is little variation.

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TL;DR: Lazy Scavangers playing with grandpop Ancient tech. – user16696 Jun 26 '14 at 4:55
I like this summary. It shows very well that the apparent preference for energy weapons was really nothing more than following in the footsteps of existing Ancient Technology. This would then mean that the reason Earthlings didn't go down the same path has more to do with the fact that there wasn't much (if any) Ancient weaponry lying around to copy from. – KalenGi Jun 26 '14 at 13:00

There are several reasons for that, and the answer will be two-parter: general and SG-Universal.

  1. Goa'uld are technological scavengers. Undoubtedly they are capable of technological progress, but mostly they took what they stole and peddled it as "magical powers of us, gods". Notice however, that most of new weapons in SG are application of ancient technology (for all major sides of all conflicts: Earth, Asgard, Goa'uld, Replicators and Wraiths): Anubis and then Ba'al being most liberal users among snakeheads. And it really started by the end rather.
  2. Taking above into account it's obvious why both ship-to-ship, fighter and hand-held weapons are basically same except for scale: no need for more sophistication.
  3. Energy weapon are both more lethal and more accurate, with no recoil and much simpler logistically (you don't need different ammo for ship guns, staffs and zats - it's all from identical power socket on the wall). Also, weapons of Goa'uld can and should be classified as energy pulse weapons, not plasma. Had it been plasma, it would and should incinerate everything in it's path, including shooter, air it passes through, air and everything else it passes nearby. And being hit by plasma bolt doesn't smarts or stings in the shoulder: it bakes to a crisp. And, putting it another way (yet again: simplifying): sun is plasma...
  4. Having said that above - notice how it explicitly says that Prometheus and other starships are equipped with railguns and rockets, and later with asgard energy guns, but not any kind of earth tech - our guns would not work in any oxygen-low environment. Which is a "duh-qualified", yes, but notice how no one says that -302 armament is space-combat capable. In fact, it says in Ep. "Tangent" that they equip them with normal rockets, which would not function in space (being air-to-air missile).
  5. This way we're moving into general logistics of future combat. With energy weapon it's easy to dial energy output depending on requirements. It requires only compatible source of power. And space movement power consumption is staggering. I.e. according to NASA Space Shuttle main engine generates equivalent of 26 gigawatts of power. that's equivalent of six Palo Verde plants, which is most powerful currently in US. Add to that more gigawatts of power for shields and more gigawatts for armament and you really start to use something else than watts to measure the stuff.
  6. Energy weapons do not use ammo, so you don't cut down bunker (fuel, air, water, food) capacity to accommodate it, they are recoilless (in theory, in practice not so much-but this is negligible), which means no need to constantly adjust course/trim/balance etc., they are reactionless (that is: do not need any chemical/physical reaction to work), thus vacuum-rated by definition, and all types require same type of power source. Also, most of them (including plasma, although this one is usually not classified as such) are at-or-near-speed-of-light and travel in straight lines (again: simplification, but for our purposes good enough), so no ballistics to take into account.
  7. Last but not least - energy weapons can transfer much more energy thus imparting much more damage. The argument in one answer about not piercing walls is wrong on so many levels... This is main reason everyone would switch to energy pulse weapons: more powerful. Obviously, with low-output power sources something along a capacitor is required to accumulate enough energy for desired output, which obviously in turn directly influences rate of fire, but one good hit usually is what counts, not how many times you actually hit... there are lasers (Petawatt laser) which transfer just a tad more energy than p-90 round, but is capable of doing that several million times in the time one p-90 round does in the time from the primer ignition (that is: after pulling the trigger) to actual impact on target 100 meters away (and it's another million times for each additional 100 meters of distance). Imagine slowing ROF but increase output, and each shot (but still hundreds in same time of each p-90 round) has the power of SABOT round from tank gun...
  8. Contrary to popular belief energy weapon is much harder to defend against than projectile weapon. Energy is energy, but origin matters. Kinetic energy is different than beam energy - grain of sand accelerated to even fraction of speed of light can be devastating (literally - hit can be of power of medium nuke), but OTOH requires a lot of power to first accelerate it, and it's still "physical" object which can be deflected. Beam energy can be only absorbed. That is why most sci-fi when speaks of planetary bombardment combat uses kinetic weapon...

So in conclusion the answer is: because energy weapon are better, stronger, faster, smaller than projectile weapons. And, also, there are much cooler CGI requirements than simple (or not) gun...

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