The Borg, Kinetic Energy, and Holodecks

A common line of argument employed by anti-Trek debaters is that the Borg are highly vulnerable to kinetic energy attacks, such as fist, knives, bullets, arrows, and so on. The more rabid of anti-Trek debaters usually offer a quick follow-up:  an assertion that Starfleet officers are stupid for not replicating a good Glock and cleaning house when the need arises, or that the Roman Army/Native Americans/(insert other pre-industrial culture here) could defeat the Borg.

While the claim that the Borg are susceptible to fists and knives is accurate, as seen in First Contact, there is no evidence in support of the conjecture that bullets, arrows, or spears would kill Borg drones, because no one has ever fired/used a projectile weapon against the Borg. To be fair, the idea that someone has is a common misconception, but it is only a misconception.

"But what about Picard going nuts in First Contact with the Tommy Gun?"

Picard Goes Nuts . . .

. . . While "Nicky the Nose" Remains Extremely Calm.

Though people often think Picard was firing real bullets against the Borg, he told Lily otherwise.

Lily: "I don't get it. I thought you said this was all just a bunch of holograms. If it's holograms, how . . . "
Picard: "I disengaged the safety protocols. Without them, even a holographic bullet can kill."
    -First Contact

Holodeck technology uses two distinct methods to make a person feel like they are "really there" in the location the holodeck is representing. First, there are the holographic representations, which can be given the feeling of substance by use of forcefields. Second, the holodeck can actually replicate items . . . this is especially true if one wishes to take an object off the holodeck with them.

All of this is kept in good fun (or for good, non-lethal training) by the use of "holodeck safeties". The term basically refers to the fact that the computer is watching, and will prevent something in the holodeck (an action or object) from causing death or serious injury to the participant.

Picard's holographic bullets were nothing more than 'smoke and mirrors', backed up by a forcefield. It was not an attack with a projectile weapon firing bullets with kinetic energy . . . it was a crafty forcefield attack that the Borg had obviously never encountered before, and had therefore not adapted to. The Borg were aware that they were in a holographic environment . . . not only was one of the drones Picard shot an assimilated ensign, but one of the holodeck characters was disrupted by some sort of scanning beams.

Disrupted (and disconcerted) Holodeck Character

"But, if Worf's knife can cut a Borg open, shouldn't a bullet work, too?"

Post-Worf Borg

Now we enter the land of conjecture. The common anti-Trek conjecture is that, since the Borg can be struck with a fist (if you're lucky . . . Riker and Worf got schooled by drones in "Best of Both Worlds"), they can be shot with a bullet. However, this need not be so.

First, the Borg drones have shields. These shields allow a drone to easily repulse a phaser attack, provided they have adapted to the frequency and modulation of the beam. Take a phaser . . . you hit the right frequency band, you can get through . . . then the Borg adapt. You change frequencies to one you've used before, and they're still adapted to it. If you shift frequencies all over the spectrum, you might sneak things in . . . the Borg don't seem to maintain adaptation to all frequencies of all weapons all of the time . . . it would be inefficient. But, they can figure out the pattern of the shifting, and adapt to that. As Q said, they are relentless.

Borg Drone Shields Repelling Phaser Hits

These shields do not inhibit a Borg drone's interaction with its environment, but do allow for phaser nullification, even when the drone isn't obviously paying attention to whoever is firing. Do these shields stop projectiles? Well, we can't say for certain, but we can make some logical inferences based on the canon.

First, even though phasers have frequencies (at least some in the electromagnetic spectrum, as per Worf's comments in BoBW about the upper EM band), they are canonically identified as particle weapons on several occasions, such as First Contact, "Broken Bow"[ENT1], and "Endgame"[VOY7], where Tuvok identifies the particles as nadions (as opposed to Jem'Hadar polarons). The fact that Borg drone shields repulse phaser attack suggests that they at least can stop a certain class of particles. And, we have seen a shield that did prevent physical attack, if only briefly, when Worf was knocked back from Locutus in "Best of Both Worlds, Pt. II"[TNG4]. Another was encountered by Data in First Contact. However, to be fair, these were aboard the Borg ship or hive site, and may have been Borg ship-tech and not drone-tech.

Borg Shield Preventing Data's Escape

Second, Starfleet and Starfleet officers are certainly not unfamiliar with projectile weapons . . . they have appeared in numerous episodes throughout all of Trek. Sulu was thinking of and ended up having a revolver in "Shore Leave"[TOS1]. Kirk taught Tyree's people how to use flintlocks in "A Private Little War"[TOS2], and had the ship manufacture more. Spock had to convince Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty that the imaginary bullets of "Spectre of the Gun"[TOS3] could not kill them. Kirk had a variety of weapons, some of which were projectile weapons, in his collection, as seen in Star Trek II, III, and Generations. Most of Picard's excursions into the Dixon Hill story on the holodeck have involved projectile weapons in some way, from "The Big Goodbye"[TNG1] to "Manhunt"[TNG2] to First Contact, as have some Voyager holodeck programs, such as the French Maquis resistance program set in World War II ("The Killing Game"[VOY4]).  When hand phasers wouldn't work in "Starship Mine"[TNG6], Picard grabbed Worf's crossbow.  Sisko knew the basics of shotgun operation in "Past Tense"[DS9-3], and DS9's Ensign Bertrand was a gun collector with an interest in projectile arms ("Field of Fire"[DS9-7]). Projectile weapons were also encountered in "Time and Again"[VOY1].

Starfleet TR-116 Projectile Weapon
Most strikingly, Starfleet actually designed a projectile weapon "some years" ago for use in environments where phasers might not operate due to electromagnetic interference or other peculiar factors. It fired a tritanium slug, propelled by a simple chemical reaction. Though the "regenerative phaser" advancement made this weapon obsolete before it was even fielded, the replicator pattern is on file and available to officers. At least three were made on Deep Space Nine in the episode "Field of Fire"[DS9-7], where the basic weapon had been enhanced with a new targeting system and a micro-transporter to allow for displaced firing, even into the classic "locked room".

Third, Starfleet has had the opportunity to study Borg technology at length. Besides the debris of the Borg cube from "Best of Both Worlds, Pt. II"[TNG4], and the technology Crusher removed from Captain Picard, there was the chance to study operational drone technology in "I, Borg"[TNG5]. In that episode, Geordi and the crew had opportunity to scan, poke, and prod a drone that had been separated from the collective. We know from the episode that Borg information processing routines and Borg sensor information was studied, but it stands to reason that more than just those specific technological applications were scanned. The numerous Borg corpses and technology of First Contact could also be studied when the Enterprise-E returned to the 24th Century. And, though this example is Voyager-specific, they even got to study a more advanced drone in "Drone"[VOY5]. They also brought a cargo bay full of Borg debris aboard from the destruction of a Borg scout ship in "Dark Frontier"[VOY5], and we saw a few moments of the study of that material. Finally, Seven of Nine's parents spent a long time studying the Borg at close range, even bringing drones aboard their small ship for extended study ("Dark Frontier"[VOY5]).

Over and above all of this, of course, there is the fact that former drones are a part of Starfleet. Not only was Picard a drone named Locutus for awhile, but Voyager also carries the former drone Seven of Nine, who has told us volumes about the Borg and their technology. Further, there is the fact that Janeway, Tuvok, and Torres were assimilated in "Unimatrix Zero"[VOY7] (though they were able to maintain individuality as a result of technobabble), and later recovered, and Chakotay was assimilated briefly with Borg technology in "Unity"[VOY3]. As observed in First Contact and the Voyager Borg episodes, this has provided the officers with detailed information on the Borg Collective.

The anti-Trek contingent claim, of course, that Starfleet officers are all stupid, and that no one ever thought of trying to shoot the Borg with bullets. I suppose it is possible that no one ever tried to bring a gun to a disruptor fight (Borg drones, after all, are frequently armed with disruptor attachments, as observed in "Descent, Pt. I"[TNG6], "Drone"[VOY5], and "Scorpion, Pt. I"[VOY3]).

But, let's look at the evidence:

1. We have never seen projectile weapons used against the Borg.

2. Starfleet has access to modern-design projectile weapons, and can evidently recreate old ones.
(reference: "Field of Fire"[DS9-7], "A Private Little War"[TOS2], "The Big Goodbye"[TNG1], ST:FC, etc.)

3. Starfleet has studied operational drones and their technology, has extracted technology from former drones, and has studied non-operational Borg equipment.
(reference: "Best of Both Worlds"[TNG4], "I, Borg"[TNG5], First Contact, "Scorpion"[VOY3], "Drone"[VOY5], "Unimatrix Zero"[VOY7], "Dark Frontier"[VOY5], etc.)

4. Several Starfleet officers and personnel have spent time as Borg drones, giving them detailed information on Borg technology.
(reference: "Best of Both Worlds"[TNG4], First Contact, Seven of Nine, etc.)

5. Phasers are particle weapons
(reference: Picard in First Contact, Malcolm Reed in "Broken Bow"[ENT1], Tuvok in "Endgame"[VOY7], et cetera)

6. Borg drone shields stop phasers.
(reference: Every Borg episode since "Q Who"[TNG2])

7. When Starfleet needed a weapon that would work in conditions where phasers wouldn't, they looked to a projectile weapon.  Individual officers also think the same way.
(reference: "Field of Fire"[DS9-7] TR-116 backstory, and "Starship Mine"[TNG6])

8. Borg drone shields do not stop physical attacks, such as hands or knives.
(reference: Every Borg episode since "Q Who"[TNG2])

9. The Borg drones are capable of interacting with their environment.
(reference: Every Borg episode since "Q Who"[TNG2])

So, which is the better synthesis of this data? That the Borg lack all forms of KE shielding, or that they are selective about it?

Technological Bullet-Proof Vest

If you do not assume that all Starfleet personnel are complete idiots, and that there is therefore some reason to explain why they have not attempted to use projectile weapons against the Borg, the most likely hypothesis is that projectile weapons would be ineffective against Borg drones.

If so, then the defense mechanism employed by the Borg is likely shield-based. However, it must be selective in that case, since the Borg interact with their environment. Of course, it might not be selective enough, given that hands, knives, and phaser stocks have been used to injure and kill Borg.

On the other hand, given the schooling delivered to Riker and Worf in "Best of Both Worlds" when Picard was kidnapped from the bridge, it is likely the Borg consider any losses due to hand-to-hand minimal and acceptable. This rationale has, as its basis, the fact that the Borg do not care about individual lives, and will send drones into combat knowing that the first few will die before the Borg can adapt. It should be noted, however, that the Borg will start being bothered by unacceptable losses due to physical attack. This was seen in "Scorpion"[VOY], when Tuvok discovered evidence that the Borg had tried to use disruptors against a member of Species 8472. The 8472 had boarded a piece of a cube and starting ripping the surviving drones into giblets with its massive claws.

In theory, then, this selective KE shield operates somewhat less effectively than the holodeck's safety protocols . . . it will stop some obviously-damaging KE attacks such as bullets, but does not affect a drone's ability to interact with its environment. It will also likely be overwhelmed by large, fast objects, such as a flying bulkhead or (for non-Trek examples) speeding planes, trains, and automobiles.


Some opponents have objected to the concept of Borg KE shielding.

1. The force of a bullet would knock a Borg over and kill him, or rip the shield generator implant out of his body and kill him.

Not necessarily. First, most bullets lack the punch required to actually knock someone down or send them flying, despite what is seen in movies (Link for further reading).

Second, without knowing how the Borg drone shields are coupled to the drone's body, if at all, or how the force of an impact is coupled to the shield generator, if at all, the point is moot. The reason I say this is because Federation starship shields (as an example) are graviton-based spatial distortions, as per Geordi's screen in Generations.

Projecting a graviton-based spatial distortion need not result in force rebound to the shield projector when an impact occurs. This is demonstrated in "Naked Now"[TNG1], when Wesley's desktop tractor emitter was turned into a shield which easily repulsed the hefty assistant engineer . . . the emitter did not get knocked off the table when the guy hit the shield. Other graviton applications, such as tractor beams, do not result in such effects . . . note how Wesley was able to pick up a large chair with his desktop model effortlessly in the same episode.

Further, while we don't know how the shield would behave when hit, but we know the bullet is going to be a most inelastic collider, further reducing the requirements placed on the emitter, if any. What this means is that the bullet will at least deform, if not fragment completely.

2. Picard turned the safeties off on the holodeck in First Contact. That means the bullets were real.

Not only is that contrary to Picard's statements, but it is also not a reasonable inference. A holodeck safeties failure in "The Big Goodbye" resulted in a holodeck character's firearm injuring Lt. Whalen, but both the character and his gun (including the bullets within) disappeared when he tried to exit the holodeck. Whalen was surprised by the injury, saying "But, they're not real", in reference to the bullets, not knowing that the safeties were off. Neither Picard nor Data correct his assessment, though it is true that they had other things on their mind. In any case, it is more likely that, as with the Borg in First Contact, Whalen was injured by a projection of light and forcefields.

It is true that the holodeck sometimes makes objects out of real replicated matter. For instance, Picard ended up carrying some post-kiss lipstick out of the holodeck in "The Big Goodbye". In "Elementary, Dear Data"[TNG], Data walked out of the holodeck holding a piece of paper that had come from a holodeck character's lair. And, of course, Wesley stayed wet after exiting the holodeck in "Encounter at Farpoint". It is likely that some materials that the user will interact with a great deal are replicated . . . certainly scents and food items would be. On the other hand, Picard threw a book out of the holodeck door in "Ship in a Bottle"[TNG], and it disappeared instantly, seeming to contradict the example of Data's piece of paper. It may be, therefore, that the computer only replicates certain complicated items (food, scents, water, etc.), and is also programmed to automatically replace holographic objects that a crew member is trying to carry off of the holodeck with actual, material objects.

If that reasoning is correct, then it leads one to wonder whether or not Beverly had a real bullet to remove from Whalen when they reached sickbay. Unfortunately, we are not told.

Finally, there's the issue of logic. As seen in "Encounter at Farpoint"[TNG], the walls of the holodeck are usually just covered up with a projection of light. Data throws a rock and hits the wall, causing the image to digitize and wobble. While the resilience of the holodeck walls to bullets is unknown, it would not make sense for this to be tested by allowing real bullets to go flying through the air whenever the safeties are turned off. The thesis that "safeties off" = "inanimate holographic objects turn to matter" simply doesn't make sense.

3. The TR-116 was not mass-produced. It was therefore unavailable. It also might not have been old enough for Voyager personnel to know about it.

The TR-116 existed as a replicator pattern, available to officers. This means that any officer could make one. Manufacturing and distribution are not necessary in Starfleet for such an item to be seen . . . a character who wants one need only find a replicator.

As for the time issue, there is some merit . . . we are told that it was created "some years" ago. "Field of Fire"[DS9] occurs in the seventh season of Deep Space Nine, or mid-2375. Voyager departed the station and the Alpha Quadrant in mid-2371, so "some years" leaves the issue hazy. If "some" equalled four or more, then Voyager had access to it.  

(Note:  Though "Starship Mine"[TNG6] involves phasers being rendered useless, Picard going for a crossbow is meaningless regarding the TR-116 backstory . . . the replicators, like all ship's systems, were down.)

However, Voyager personnel were familiar with the theory of firearms, and obviously had them available in the holodeck, so it stands to reason that they could make one on their own. Also, First Contact occurs in 2373. Assuming "some years" equals at least two or three years, the weapon should have been available at that time.

4. When it comes to Borg KE shields, absence of evidence equals proof of absence.



The atmosphere containment forcefield used by starships shows the sort of shield selectivity postulated for the Borg KE shield. Note how the air is kept in, but shuttles can pass through effortlessly, even when unpowered ("Time Squared"[TNG]).

A selective device of some sort was also employed by the Zibalian trader Kivas Fajo, though it appears to have been a Data-specific shield that affected positronic activity. However, it did knock down the catatonic Data, so its technology is not clear.

Special Thanks to S. Galli and L. Kelly for their websites and screenshots.