View Full Version : Terminology regarding sci-fi guns

06-24-2016, 12:39 PM
I'm writing a space opera, and I'm suddenly looking at my use of the term "plasma rifle".

Rifles are called that because of the rifling on the inside of the barrel. But a weapon that doesn't fire a solid object wouldn't have rifling. I thought about using "long-gun" to refer to weapons larger than a pistol, but the word feels awkward to me.

I HAVE seen "rifle" used in sci-fi to refer to beam weapons, but I feel I should do this right. What do you folks think of this usage?

Gilroy Cullen
06-24-2016, 12:43 PM
I've read enough to know that plasma rifle, laser rifle, they are all common phrases and unless your world specifically chose a name to replace rifle, to leave it be.

06-24-2016, 02:30 PM
This thought has flitted through my mind in the past, it's technically incorrect but it's an accepted term. Calling it a rifle just implies longer range than personal weapons (pistols/hand gun) and rapid recharge/fire, I guess. Readers appreciate that rifled barrels don't really factor into the actual manufacture of energy weapons.


06-24-2016, 03:59 PM
I don't read or write sci-fi, but consider this: we still "ring up" customers at the register while the rring-rring mechanism has long been replaced by silent touch screens. We still dial numbers while there no longer are any dials. A smartphone is called a phone while it has more qualities of a computer than a phone. Cologne is now used to describe any cheap smell-me-up, not only the ones made in Cologne. I don't know if there is an English equivalent, but the German word for pencil still refers to lead while today, it's graphite. The computer mouse was named for the tail-like wire and yet, wireless mice are still mice, not lemmings. In other words, I doubt anyone would care much if you still used the word rifle. Technology may move on, but words tend to stick. A rifle has become the generic word for a handheld longish thing that shoots projectiles. I highly doubt that most people who have an idea what a rifle is (a longish gun), would even know its inner mechanics, or how it gets its name. In some languages, the word for whale still has the suffix "fish" attached to it, for the animals being named before it was found that they are mammals. They look like fish, they act like fish, so to this day, many languages have not bothered to scrap the fish. Or are still referring to hunting whales and dolphins as fishing. There are also chemical processes that have since changed, but still retain their original name referring to the original process. Can't think of any right now, but there are. Are you surfing wirelessly? Then your device is offline, strictly speaking, because "online" refers to a time when computers were directly wired to modems for lack of wireless receivers. Mine still is, for lack of a wireless receiver, but I'm old skool y'all.

06-24-2016, 05:28 PM
Yep, I agree with the leave it be sentiment. Remember that space opera isn't always about the weapons, anyway. Weapons are just a means to an end for the most part. Give your rifle the usual constraints (ammo, power, reliability, weight, tactics) for credibility and move on.

06-24-2016, 07:33 PM
Well lets see. Star Wars has blasters. Star Trek has Phasers and disrupters...

They never had to describe what they were. You were shot at with them, or you shot someone/something with them.

06-24-2016, 09:35 PM
Well lets see. Star Wars has blasters.

Well, they have blaster pistols, and blaster rifles.

06-24-2016, 10:14 PM
Well, they have blaster pistols, and blaster rifles.

Really? I only remember them being called Blasters, and archaic LOL.

06-24-2016, 10:22 PM
Well, you could always say the "rifling" for your plasma rifle is the magnetic emitter :D

Thomas Vail
06-25-2016, 08:02 AM
It's pretty common parlance that 'rifle' means a long arm of some sort.

07-03-2016, 10:15 PM
You can absolutely use the word "rifle" if it gives the same impression that you want the reader to get. Modern terminology is useful as a shorthand if you don't want people to fixate on things. When I read "plasma rifle", I immediately think of a long-barelled weapon with a handle, stock/butt, and trigger guard, no further info needed. Is this what you want your reader to envision? If so, you can use the word rifle (or pistol or cannon or derringer etc.). If not, you can make up a word and take it as an opportunity to do some quick description: "He held his blargh, a weave of wooden tubes that wrapped around his upper arm, spitting plasma whenever he squeezed" or whatever.

07-05-2016, 12:01 AM
Popular terminology isn't always correct, and outmoded terms sometimes stick around and get applies to new contexts. Weaponry is definitely one of those areas where the experts often disagree with what everyday people call things. I vaguely remember a story where soldiers were chastised for referring to their rifles as "guns," for instance. I could certainly see the term "plasma rifle" being adopted, even if energy weapons make rifling obsolete, if the weapon is used in a similar fashion to modern rifles.

If you want to make it clear to the reader that you know it's not really a rifle, there are ways to slip that information in without (hopefully) going off on a tangent or breaking pov (or narrative focus).

It's not something that would make me bat an eye. However, there are nit picky readers out there, and it's hard to say how many would grit their teeth over something like this.

Laer Carroll
07-05-2016, 01:13 AM
there are nit picky readers out there, and it's hard to say how many would grit their teeth over something like this.

I'm such a nit-picky reader, at least about guns. I'm an expert in several and a hobbyist for most. But I (I can't speak for others) would have no trouble with your use of the word rifle.

What I would be annoyed about if you used a rifle (which is a distance weapon usually requiring two hands to operate) for close-in fighting without a good reason (such as no optional weapon). In close quarters you need a pistol, knife, or bludgeon. Or a Star-Wars type laser sword, which uses some fancy mechanism to keep the tip of the laser from traveling far beyond the target and taking out a spaceship's wall or the next spaceship over.

07-05-2016, 08:54 PM
. I thought about using "long-gun" to refer to weapons larger than a pistol, but the word feels awkward to me.

I like that, actually.

"Get me a Long-Gun."

"Take him down with the long-guns."

07-05-2016, 09:38 PM
Well lets see. Star Wars has blasters. Star Trek has Phasers and disrupters...

ST:TOS did have phaser rifles; they were only seen in the first season (and actually maybe only in the aborted pilot, where Kirk had to take down Lt. Mitchell.

The reboot movies do have long guns, but I don't recall that they call them anything in particular.

07-07-2016, 02:20 AM
I think "long gun" is a bit like "carry weapon" - people that actually do that sort of thing might use the term, but most readers probably don't and it could be a bit of a turn off. "Rifle" is fine for what you're describing - just don't be the author I read once who had "laser rifles" with recoil. I mean... no.