Sunday, January 9, 2011

Perspective: Why combatants on Barsoom don’t use firearms

Yesterday’s tragic shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and a gun owner, reminds me of "A Fighting Manual of Mars" (1996), a fascinating ten-page nonfiction essay written by stuntman, swordsman, actor and teacher T. J. Glenn that explains the weapons and combat techniques employed in the Martian novels penned by beloved science fiction and fantasy pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Here’s a snippet that explains why combatants on Barsoom don't use firearms:

[John] Carter, then, is a man with an unknowably vast store of practical fighting man's tricks and techniques before he comes into our sphere of vision in these stories. He will need them, for Mars (or Barsoom to use the local name) is a violent, barbaric world.

Once on the red planet he encounters the fifteen-foot tall barbarian race of greenmen who inhabit the great dried up sea bottoms of the dying planet. They are four armed and equipped with an awesome array of weaponry. They carry a great forty-foot metal shod spear to fight from thoat-back (a Martian horse-like transport animal), a long sword, which is single edged, and five or more feet long, a shortsword, a dagger (or two), and a radium rifle and/or pistol. "These rifles which were of a white metal stocked with wood, which...was a very light and in tensile, hard, growth much prized on Mars....The metal of the barrel is an alloy composed principally of aluminum and steel which they have learned to temper to a hardness far exceeding that of the steel with which we are familiar....The theoretic effective radius of this rifle is three hundred miles, but the best they can do in actual service when equipped with their wireless senders and sighters is but a trifle over two hundred miles." (A Princess of Mars) These Radium rifles and pistols are sparingly used in the stories and with good reasons both dramatic and (to the characters) practical. Dramatically, nothing is ever made of this long distance shooting after mentioning it once, as it would make face-to-face confrontations virtually unnecessary and destroy the romance of the whole story.

For practicality's sake the guns were seldom used because of the problem with the ammo. They fired small caliber explosive charges filled with a powder, which Carter calls by a Martian term but which Burroughs, editing the manuscript for Carter, calls radium. They have the annoying habit of only exploding when light hits the burst shells, so that if they fall in shadow or are fired at night, they will function as duds until a ray of light hits them at sometime later. This makes the aftermath of a battle sometimes as dangerous as the actual conflict with random explosions taking out noncombatants. For this reason, the cutlery is preferred by most fighting men.

"A Fighting Manual of Mars" was originally published in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Fantastic Worlds (1996) and recently reprinted in Thrilling Adventures, Vol. 14, #141 (Summer 2009).


  1. Thanks for the post. I will have to see about finding the full essay to read.

  2. I didn't notice you had the link to the magazine - that was easy to find :)