War Theory: An Analysis of the Technology of the Dune Universe [Part 2]

By Daniel Duffy 11 Apr 2017 0

Dune is unique among science fiction works in that it creates a society whose military has some profound limitations and at first glance appears to be hopelessly backward. Interstellar warriors fighting with swords would appear at first glance to be an oxymoron. Yet these limitations ironically are the result of the advanced technology of defensive force shields. While it may take the reader a while to get used to some of these concepts, Dune warfare is logical and makes perfect sense within the limits set by shield technology. The four main weapon systems of the Dune universe; shields, blades, projectiles and lasguns; form an interactive rectangle with each other and with the four modes of transport through land, sea, air, and space. All these tactical factors are altered by the special circumstances associated with fighting in the deep desert of Dune. Warfare in the deep desert of Dune is therefore a-typical of warfare throughout the empire.

This is part 2 of the series, and you can read Part 1 here. This article originally appeared on Dune2k.com, and was generously donated to The Wargamer by the author. Header image courtesy of this website.



In the Dune universe, the oldest weapons in Human history have returned to primacy. These include a wide variety of swords, short sword, rapiers, kindjals and throwing knifes. A properly thrown knife can penetrate a shield, but this action requires a level of eye-hand coordination and muscle control usually found only among Bene Gesserit adepts.

Often blades are tainted with acid, poison or soporific. Fast acting poisons or other chemicals designed to kill an opponent outright or slow down his reactions are certainly common in the gladiator arena. It is not known how common poisoned blades are among the rank and file of the mercenary armies of the Great Houses or among the Sarduakar. It can be assumed that poisoned blades are more extensively used by criminal houses, like the Harkonnens.

Unique among blade weapons in the Dune universe is the Fremen crysknife. Crysknives are ground from a worm's tooth and have an extraordinary strength and sharpness. However, the crysknife is brittle compared to other blades and have been know to "chip and shatter". Crysknives are also imbued with religious meaning and cannot be unsheathed without drawing blood. Crysknives can be "fixed" so that they disintegrate when away from the magnetic field of its owner's body. Usually only the handle remains after the wearer's death.



Primitive lasers were first invented circa 14,200 B.G., approximately 24,400 years prior to Paul's arrival on Arrakis. The power of early lasers was relatively weak and they were primarily used for scientific measurement and surveying. Within 100 years of their invention, lasers had become powerful enough to be used by weapons platforms in space and on the ground, though individual soldiers still relied on firearms. During Mankind's colonization of space, which began shortly afterwards, the lasgun became the primary weapon for all military forces, dominating warfare until the introduction of the body shield more than 10,000 years later.

3.1 Tactical Uses (Elite Troops and Criminal Houses)

As described above, it is extremely dangerous to employ lasguns in a tactical environment dominated by shields. The resultant sub-atomic explosion is deadly to both attacker and defender and is virtually identical to an illegal atomic blast. It would seem that each ordinary trooper has the means to lay waste an entire city by accident resting in his lasgun holster. Why then are lasguns used as extensively as depicted in the Dune Chronicles? First, criminal houses like the Harkonnens aren't very concerned about legalities and find that lasguns make excellent terror weapons when used against helpless pyons. The Atreides rightly feared the possibility of a Harkonnen lasgun with a timed trigger mechanism being fired at their shielded palace. Such an action would be in keeping with Harkonnen methods.

Lasguns are also extensively used by elite troops such as the Sarduakar. Being superbly trained and highly disciplined, the potential for an accidental lasgun/shield interaction is greatly reduced. The aristocracy of even noble houses like the Atreides are equipped with lasguns. Though House Atreides relied mostly on skill and shields instead of lasguns, the Duke's own thopter carried a lasgun (hence his warning to the spice miners that he would cut open their crawler with a lasgun if they didn't hurry to escape). The Fremen were also familiar with lasguns, using cutterrays to carve out their sietch sanctuaries. In "Dune Messiah" Paul's body guard consists of men armed with lasguns.


For the most part, use of lasguns is strictly prohibited in combat (except by criminal houses such as the Harkonnens), but remain widely used for engineering and industrial purposes.

3.2 Safety Mechanisms

Though nowhere mentioned in the Dune Chronicles or the Dune Encyclopedia, it seems likely that lasguns were also equipped with some sort of safety mechanism which prevented them from firing at an active shield. This safety device would prevent the discharge of a lasgun when pointed at the source of the characteristic radiation signature given of by a shield (perhaps the same radiation which drives a worm berserk). Shields also give off a visual shimmer which can be detected by the naked eye. This would explain why Duncan had to _bury_ his shield. The pursuing Harkonnens would be unable to detect a buried shield's radiation signature as their lasguns traced through the sand dunes. Furthermore, the pursuing Harkonnen thopters did not fire on Paul and Jessica's fleeing craft for fear that the two occupants were wearing undetected body shields.

Mental conditioning may also play a part in ensuring lasgun safety. Psyche blocks and conditioned inhibitions are fairly common in the Dune universe. It is possible that ordinary troopers, as part of their training, undergo mental conditioning which makes it impossible for them to knowingly fire on an active shield.

emperor battle for dune 2001

3.3 Lasgun Return to Dominance

During the long reign of Leto II, shields were effectively banned by imperial fiat. This act is similar to the effective banning of firearms by Japan's Tokugawa shogunate. As a result, lasguns returned to the forefront of imperial warfare. Lasguns dominated the military actions of Miles Teg and his contemporaries. Why shields did not make a comeback after Leto's death remains a mystery.


While fighting is primarily done with blade weapons in the Dune universe, firearms and projectile weapons are also available. These weapons are secondary to the primary shield/blade weapons combination and are rarely, if ever used outside of the worm zone in Arrakis. Typically, only targets of opportunity, and unfortunate pyons, fall victims to firepower.

4.1 Personal Firearms

Personal firearms are primarily represented by what today would be considered side arms. Two in particular are prominent, the maula and the stunner. The Fremen maula is a pistol firing spring loaded darts. The stunner employed by Sarduakar and Great House troops appears to be a non-lethal weapon utilizing darts. It should be noted that stunners is a slow-pellet weapon which could penetrate a shield depending on the shield settings and relative motion between shooter and target. Such a slow velocity projectile would have very limited range and would be effective only in close hand-to-hand melee. Long arms are not specifically mentioned but may exist as larger versions of the standard side arms. However, in an environment dominated by shields it would appear to be a waste of time and money to equip and train soldiers with rifles.

Harkonnen hand gun

4.2 Artillery and Missiles

The inability to fire projectiles from within a shield explains why artillery would not be that useful against the Fremen. Once Paul had seen to it that the Fremen were armed with "ancient weapons" such as guided missiles, the innate Fremen superiority in projectile weapons would be made apparent in effective counter-battery fire. Harkonnen artillery did prove useful in sealing the fate of the Duke's men who had retreated to the caves around Arakeen for a last stand. The Baron's comment about needing the metal rather than letting Rabban keep the artillery was more a statement of his contempt for any fighting man who might need such ancient weapons against "rabble" Fremen, rather than an accurate description of HH economic needs.

Paul, on the other hand, understood the different tactical rules imposed by the deep desert of Arrakis. In addition to training the Fremen in BG martial arts, he provided them with "ancient" missile weapons for all tactical situations. These missiles, like the German 88s of World War II which could be used in both an anti-tank and anti-aircraft role, would have multiple functions against a variety of targets.

4.4 Pillar of Fire

During their escape to the desert, Paul and Jessica witnessed fire fights between Harkonnen thopters armed with lasguns and defending ground troops (either Fremen or retreating Atreides soldiers, the book isn't clear on this point). The ground troops appear to be using pillars-of-fire in an anti-thopter role. Primarily a visually signaling device, the pillar-of-fire plasma torches appear to have been modified as a kind of flame thrower. The potential exists to damage even shielded thopters with the heat generated by the pillar's plasma torch - radiant heat being unaffected by the presence of shields. However, their effectiveness is limited by its short range and slow speed which allows a skilled thopter pilot to evade.



One of the most unique aspects of Dune warfare is that its is governed by rules. Millennia before the events in "Dune" these rules and regulations were laid out in extensive detail by the by the Great Convention. Methods of warfare and assassination were prescribed and certain weapons, especially atomics, were banned outright. Forms a procedures for initiating combat and issuing challenges were spelled out. Such was the level of acceptance of these rules and forms b the Great Houses that even criminal houses like the Harkonnens never openly flaunted them.

5.1 Limitations on the Use of Atomic Weapons

Each Great House possessed atomic weapons capable of vaporizing a dozen other Great Houses. These are typically based off planet in deep space orbits to prevent them from being taken out in a first strike. According to the rules of the Great Convention, any Great House which initiates the use of atomic weapons for any reason will be attacked in turn by all the other Great Houses. As such, they are never used.

Even Great Houses defeated by conventional warfare will restrain from using atomics even at the moment of direst need. Typically a defeated Great House is allowed a kind of exile with honor on Tupile (which may be one planet or dozens). To use atomics to stave off defeat is to forfeit everything.


Atomic armed Great Houses appear to have survived both Paul's Jihad and Alia's regency. Apparently many (if not most) of the great Houses accepted Paul as their new emperor. In an address to the Arakeen War College, Paul mentions the nervousness caused in his empire by the wide spread ownership of atomics. Only those reluctant to do so, or who saw the revolt on Arakis as an opportunity to declare independence from the empire, appear to have been the targets of the Fremen Jihad.

5.2 War of Assassins

Assassination of nobles and high government officials is allowed so long as the methods remain in conformance with the rules of the Great Convention as spelled out in the "Assassin's Handbook". Poisons in food and drink are a constant concern even in peace time. Hence the reliance of poison snoopers in the dining halls of the Great Houses. A more effective assassination tool is the remotely operated hunter seeker. However, a well trained target can defeat a hunter seeker. The need for an operator to be in close proximity to the hunter seeker requires elaborate preparations.

That's it for Part 2. Part's 3 & 4 will be next week as we look into the different military arms, and offer conclusions on how the armies of Dune could function in a realistic context. As always, let us know what you think in the comments!



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