Weapons technology in the Honorverse

Weapons technology in the Honorverse

In David Weber's Honor Harrington military science fiction novels, warfare is naturally ubiquitous. Two thousand years in the future, it remains true that humans will devise ever more ingenious ways of causing death and destruction.

tarship and space weapons

Small craft such as shuttles and pinnaces do not use starship weapons, but larger versions of personal weapons. They are not intended to fight starships. In "The Shadow of Saganami" we learn that pinnaces are equipped with an equivalent of starship point-defense lasers which can be quite deadly to unarmored merchant ships at close range.


Lasers are the most common military shipboard energy weapon. Their lenses are several meters across; they have effective ranges of about 1,000,000 kilometers (much less (perhaps 1/2) against targets with gravitic sidewall protection).

A majority of ships also mount clusters of smaller, shorter ranged, point-defense lasers for anti-missile duty. In modern navies, point-defense lasers have essentially entirely replaced older point-defense projectile guns.

The books and stories explain that, in order to fire through sidewall protection, lasers on a ship's broadside are physically moved so the emitting lens is outside the sidewall. Unlike ancient lasers, the focusing lenses in weapon lasers are not physical materials (eg, glass or diamond) but are gravitic.


Lasers operating in the gamma ray range (the name is an abbreviation of "gamma ray amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"). They are the primary energy weapon used in the largest military starships. They are vastly superior in damage capability with reference to military shipboard lasers, and they are generally confined to large ships for size and power requirement reasons. Exceptionally, the new Light Attack Craft (LAC) designs of the Royal Manticoran Navy carry a single graser about the size and power of those normally mounted in the very much larger battlecruiser. The size can be put into context, when a ship weighing 20,000–30,000 tonnes can only manage to carry one graser and two missile tubes, with magazine of about one hundred counter missiles. When the graser is removed from such LACs, as in the "Ferret"-class LAC, a vastly superior magazine can be added as well as a "stern wall" generator in addition to a "bow wall".


The most common weapons are impeller drive missiles. A typical missile masses 80 tons and can accelerate at 46,000 "g" (450 km/s²) for 180 seconds before its drive burns out, giving a powered flight range of over six million kilometers. Naturally, in space, it is possible to reach a target beyond powered range, but it is very easy to avoid a coasting missile. Even within powered range, electronic countermeasures and evasive systems, point defense and counter missiles are effective, and a direct hit on a defended ship is basically impossible. Missiles spin while in flight, to make it difficult for point defense lasers to get a clear shot past the impeller wedge.

Centuries ago, in the time of Edward Saganami, missiles used fusion warheads in the megaton range. Such weapons had to get very close to the target to do damage, and point defense was improving. The nuclear warhead was superseded as a ship-killer by the laser head. This weapon used the high energy electromagnetic radiation produced during a nuclear explosion to pump about twenty-five X-ray lasers. As the initial radiation entered the gain medium, the X-rays were amplified and fired, after which the gain medium would have been destroyed by the explosions aftereffects, resulting in a brief flare of multiple high-energy X-ray laser beams. Unlike a pure fusion warhead, meaningful damage could be dealt to anything within 25,000 kilometers of the detonation. It was more effective at penetrating sidewalls than a pure fusion explosive. (In the real world, this exact weapon–but with poorer performance–was designed by Edward Teller; he called it "Project Excalibur" and proposed it for the so-called Star Wars missle defense project during the 1980s.) Modern starships in Honor Harrington's time carry mostly laser heads, some nuclear warheads, and some electronic warfare missiles.

Advances in warship technology during the series include the development of the MDM (multi-drive missile). First built by Manticore's researchers, these missiles use the ancient concept of staging. They have ranges approaching thirty million kilometers. For reasons of size and control limitations, they cannot be carried by smaller or older starships. When they were first introduced, they made the Royal Manticoran Navy nearly invincible and contributed greatly to their victory in the First Havenite War. During the five-year armistice, the Havenites copied the weapon, though their version was both larger and cruder.

Against immobile targets, no warhead is necessary. A starship can approach the target at 0.8 "c" and launch missiles that will accelerate to 0.99 "c". At this speed, nuclear warheads are not needed; the kinetic energy of the very high speed (and relativisticly higher mass) missiles can tear a planet apart. This form of strategic bombardment against an inhabited planetary surface, is banned under the Eridani Edict, enforced by the Solarian League due to an historical incident in which billions died. The penalty is loss of sovereignty.

Missile tubes resemble huge pulse guns—they use Counter-Gravity to launch the missile, giving it considerable intial velocity. They were not always designed this way; the technique was developed as an improvement to counter the increasing effectiveness of point defense.

Before this development, missile were sometimes carried and deployed from a 'pod', which was a bulk carrier/launcher for several missiles (perhaps 10 depending on missile size or pod design details). They were generally carried externally and controlled by tractor beam from a starship. When mass-driver launch tubes were developed, they could not be fitted to pods. Pod-launching was essentially abandoned.

At the beginning of the First Havenite War, the Royal Manticoran Navy developed a miniaturized mass driver that could be fitted in a pod. Immediately, pods became crucial to warfare again, as a ship could tow pods containing far more tubes than it could launch from internal tubes. As pods could not be reloaded under combat conditions, this made the first salvos of a battle the decisive ones.

The dynamic of naval war in space changed again with the design of the "pod-layer" ships. These vessels sacrificed after chase armament (counter-missile tubes, lasers, grasers0, considerable magazine space, and some structural integrity to store enormous racks of expendable missile pods within the ship. With each broadside, a new set of pods could be ejected and fired. Now, starships could carry sufficient missile firepower to destroy much larger vessels and against conventional starships, would nearly always win, due to superior rate and weight of fire. Pod-layer designs are predominant among new-build superdreadnoughts, and the first pod battlecruisers have entered service as the Second Havenite War began.

Missile tubes have also improved. Now, they have much wider fields of fire as missiles can reorient themselves off line after launch. Some vessels, such as the "Edward Saganami-C" class, mount no fore or aft missile tubes, as the broadside launchers can cover the entire horizontal plane.

Another advance over standard pod-layers is the Apollo system, currently only deployed by Manticore as of the Second Havenite War, and only in limited numbers at the beginning of that war. In this system, a salvo from a single (newly designed) pod contains three types of missiles. Eight of the missiles are standard MDMs carrying warheads of various types, and standard ECM missiles, again of at least two types. The third missile type is a single larger missile fitted with a faster-than-light (FTL) telemetry link instead of a warhead and with enhanced computer and communication capacity. This missile acts as a control node for the other eight missiles in its pod and allows a Keyhole-II equipped ship to provide effectively real-time control to the missiles using shipboard computer systems across the entire range envelope. This was a very substantial advance in offensive capacity; so great as to make all existing naval starships essentially obsolete for anything other than low level commerce-raiding prevention deployments.


Countermissiles are much smaller than ship-killers, and are usually fired from dedicated launchers. It is possible to fire many in one casing from a standard missile tube, similarly to a shotgun. Countermissiles have no warheads; they merely will attempt to overlap their impeller wedges with those of the attacker's missiles. This overlap is destructive to both missiles.

Energy torpedoes

Not actually torpedoes of any kind, they are self-sustaining masses of plasma that can be projected against targets at ranges of up to 300,000 km. They are very destructive and capable of rapid fire, but are completely stopped by gravitic protection (eg, sidewalls or impeller bands).

Grav lance

The grav lance is huge, short-ranged and requires almost all the firing ships' power. However, it is the only weapon available which can break through starship sidewalls using the target's own impeller nodes, and is quite effective against them. The short range makes them very questionable in practice, as other weapons have much longer effective ranges. Admiral Sonja Hemphill adovated use of this weapon together with Energy Torpedoes, and Honor Harrington was assigned to command the first proof-of-concept starship which had been refitted according to Hemphill's concept.

The Crippler (Gravitic Heterodyne)

Similar in many ways to, and longer ranged, than the grav lance, the Crippler induces a destructive resonance in a ship's impeller drive system which overloads (and typically burns out) key components. this takes the impeller wedge (and any sidewalls if present) off line, removing the ship's primary passive defense and leaving it unable to accelerate. The Crippler is effective against merchant ships, due to differences between commercial-grade and military-grade impeller wedges. And even civilian-grade drives can be modified so that, even though the impeller wedge will still go down, there is no permanent damage to the drive, and it is possible to restart after a cooling and reset delay of typically tens of minutes.

Personal and ground-based weapons


Pulsers are mass drivers using gravity rather than electromagnetism to drive projectiles. A typical pulser pistol has a caliber of 2 mm and a muzzle velocity of 2,000 m/s. "Darts", as the projectiles are known, are often fitted with explosive warheads. It is essentially unheard of for anyone to survive a pulser hit, with even a shot to the hand being powerful enough to rip off an entire arm.

Vehicle-based pulsers can achieve tremendous rates of fire, up to 10,000 rounds per "second" from one barrel. It is unclear how the weapon can be loaded at this rate, or how it can store enough ammunition. The high rate of fire could be achieved by using an electromagnetic instead of mechanical 'action'. No moving parts other than the projectile.

Flechette guns

Similar to pulsers, these weapons are the equivalent of shotguns, firing many small, razor-sharp disks. While less powerful, flechette guns are favored for boarding actions because they are much less likely to damage the interior of a ship and are more likely to hit a target. They are most effective at close range against lightly-armored targets. The flechette guns used by StateSec in the People's Republic of Haven have variable choke settings, though it is unknown if other flechette guns share this feature.

Plasma weapons

These are less common heavy personal weapons. Often employed as heavy support weapons, tripod-mounted plasma cannons are among the most deadly weapons available, being able to destroy entire squads of enemy soldiers in a single volley. Scotty Tremaine is an expert with a plasma carbine.

Portable missiles

Similar to ATGMs, these shoulder-braced launchers fire impeller drive missiles with an acceleration of 3,000 "g" (29 km/s²). As with ship-fired countermissiles, the wedge is the warhead.


These are ultrasonic weapons, considerably less destructive than pulsers but are still able to cause massive trauma (eg, bruising at the minimal end and the equivalent of blunt-force trauma at the maximal end -- nervous system damage is typical as well) in those hit. Honor Harrington lost her left eye and most of her subcutaneous facial nerves on that side to a disruptor shot, requiring artificial reconstruction of both eye and of skin structure as she does not regenerate tissue being one of hte relatively small proportion of humanity which does not.

Dueling pistols

The culture and legal system of Manticore permits dueling; an offended person can challenge the offender to a duel, and there is strong cultural pressure for the challenged party to accept. The customary weapon for duels is a 10mm semi-automatic pistol. These pistols are used instead of pulsers so that duels will be less lethal. Every starship in the Royal Manticore Navy has dueling pistols for training of RMN personnel.

There are two known cuelling protocols on Manticore. Ten paces, turn and shoot, in which first blood may be counted as (with consent of the injured party) honor restored. However, if either party cheats, the dueling ground master (typically a police officer) exercises discretion in killing the offending party. Such violations are criminal acts. The other protocol is a straight out, almost Old Western (pre-Diaspora) style quick draw and shoot from twenty metres. Both parties must wait with weapons at their sides until the signal (a white handkerchief). Again, violation is a crime and the dueling grounds master may intervene against the offender.

Refusing a challenge is tantamount to admitting guilt for the insult, and tarnishes that party's reputation.

Obsolete weapons

Weapons of older design are still found in some places in the Honorverse. For example, on the planet Grayson, gunpowder firearms were state-of-the-art until shortly before the events in "The Honor of the Queen".


Weapons technology in the Honorverse is hugely capable, and starships must carry similarly impressive defenses.

Starships are immune to attack from above or below due to the impeller wedge. As long as the impellers are powered, a ship can project "sidewalls", weaker versions of the wedge, as shields on either side. Sidewalls are non-ablative, gravitic stress bands, and thus weaker lasers and grasers are bent away, or refracted like light is when it passes through denser mediums. In this instance, the focused light is bent by the intense gravity in the sidewall. Sidewalls are invulnerable to non-massless/lightspeed weapons as they would be destroyed by the gravitic shear caused by the sidewall. When the series begins, it is impossible to close the bow or stern of the wedge with a wall; to do so would prevent any acceleration. The Manticoran Shrike-class LAC is fitted with a bow wall, which is only meant to be raised for short periods during its attack run. Later, the "Edward Saganami-B" class heavy cruisers are equipped with stern walls, which reduce but do not entirely stop acceleration. The "Edward Saganami-C" type also has a bow wall, of a special "two-phase" type. A smaller, inner wall can be raised independently of the main bow wall. The smaller wall does not completely seal the forward aspect of the wedge; it only protects against attacks from directly ahead. However, it does not interfere with thrust or maneuvering.

Against lasers and grasers, impeller wedges and sidewalls are the first line of defense. Missiles can be stopped by other measures, including countermissiles, point defense lasers, and sensor jammers.

Ships are also protected by many layers of physical armor that alternate between ablative composites that absorb energy from energy weapons and solid anti-kinetic layers. Since the impeller wedge is impenetrable, the armor of a ship on the sides and hammerheads is considerably thicker than on the back or belly; the side armor of a superdreadnought is over a meter thick. Inside, there are armored bulkheads. Even with these defenses, at close range, the energy weapons of any starship are more than enough to destroy a larger ship.

Starship hulls are "grown" using nanotechnology, and can be repaired in similar fashion.

The ultimate in personal defensive equipment is "battle armor", which resembles the powersuits in "Starship Troopers". This type of powered exoskeleton is invulnerable to direct hits from nearly all chemical-explosive grenades, most personal weapon projectiles, and light laser weapons. Heavy duty lasers, nmost grasers, and infantry heavy weapons plasma guns are however, effective.

ee also

* Spacecraft in the Honorverse
* Induced gamma emission

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