Star Trek Weapons Ranges

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I.    Introduction
II.   Examples
      A.  22nd Century
          -.  "Fortunate Son"[ENT1]
      B.  23rd Century
          -.  "The Changeling"[TOS2]
          -.  "Journey to Babel"[TOS2] 
          -.  "The Deadly Years"[TOS2] 
          -.  "Obsession"[TOS2] 
          -.  "Patterns of Force"[TOS2]
      C.  24th Century
          -.  "The Arsenal of Freedom"[TNG1]
          -.  "A Matter of Honor"[TNG2]
          -.  "The Wounded"[TNG4] 
          -.  "The Search, Pt. I"[DSN3]
          -.  "Return to Grace"[DSN4]
          -.  "Non Sequitur"[VOY2] 
          -.  "Basics, Pt. I"[VOY2] 
          -.  "A Call to Arms"[DSN5] 
          -.  "In the Flesh"[VOY5]
          -.  "Equinox, Pt. II"[VOY6] 
III.  Conclusions
IV.  Addenda

I.  Introduction

Star Trek has featured a wide variety of combat ranges.  For example, we've seen ships hold fire until they were within 500 meters, and yet we've also seen ships firing at ranges of millions of kilometers.

Happily, whereas Star Wars almost never involves a stated range, Star Trek gives us more than a few.  Further, whereas Star Wars combat occurs within visual range, this is less prevalent in Trek.   Thus, there is less math on this page, though I'll be sure to find some calculable examples down the road.

II.  Examples

Given that the list below will be appended to as opportunity permits, and that it is in chronological order, we'll avoid numbering the examples for the time being.

A.  22nd Century

- "Fortunate Son"[ENT1] (2151)

The ECS Fortunate, an old Earth cargo ship, takes on Nausicaan pirates.   The first officer, having taken the Fortunate on this chase, bears down on one of the raiders.  The raider opens fire at about 20 kilometers, stated to be outside the range of the Fortunate's plasma cannon.  The first officer orders the Fortunate to get into range to return fire.  The helmsman counts down from ten kilometers, with weapons range seeming to be about eight kilometers.  The weapons systems are able to lock on to the ship at that range, and the shots score.

B.  23rd Century

- "The Changeling"[TOS2] (late 2260's)

Modified space probe Nomad, one meter in height, powered by some sort of perpetual drive and capable of laying waste to whole worlds, sits stationary and attacks the Enterprise, NCC-1701.  With warp power to the shields and warp maneuvering power gone, the Enterprise returns fire with photon torpedoes ineffectively.  While the precise range is uncertain, it was only a few seconds beforehand that the range was 90,000 kilometers.  The Enterprise was engaged in evasive maneuvers at the time, so the firing range could be smaller or greater.

- "Journey to Babel"[TOS2] (late 2260's)

Under attack by an Orion vessel, the Enterprise plays dead.  The Orions halt their warp strafing attack, dropping to sublight and closing on the Enterprise.  Upon reaching 75,000 kilometers, Kirk orders weapons to fire. 

- "The Deadly Years"[TOS2] (late 2260's)

Commodore Stocker takes the Enterprise on a shortcut through the Romulan Neutral Zone.  The ship is surrounded by several Romulan Birds of Prey who give the ship a pounding.  Upon Kirk's arrival to the bridge, Sulu informs him that the range of the vessels is "fifty to one-hundred thousand kilometers".   Whether he meant 50 kilometers as the minimum or 50,000 is something that some might debate, though the 50,000 kilometer value seems the most likely in the context of the episode and given Sulu.

- "Obsession"[TOS2] (late 2260's)

Chekov reports that the target of their warp-speed pursuit is ".04 light-years ahead", and thus out of reach of the phasers.  0.04ly is approximately 378,000,000,000 (378 billion) kilometers.  Spock adds that they are only barely gaining on the target, and thus could be in pursuit for days.

- "Patterns of Force"[TOS2] (late 2260's)

A small, primitive rocket containing a nuclear warhead is on intercept course with the Enterprise.  Moments after we're told that it is at 2000km and closing fast, Kirk orders phasers to destroy it.

C.  24th Century

- "The Arsenal of Freedom"[TNG1] (2364)

The Echo Papa 607 automated weapon system's orbital component fires on the Enterprise-D from beyond visual range.  Given that the vessel had to decloak to fire, and given its height compared to the stardrive section during its destruction (when the E-D stardrive fires a phaser beam from the aft cobrahead emitter downward and in front of or very near the front of the starboard nacelle, suggesting a height near 100m), then we ought to have been able to see the vessel at ranges up to around 200 kilometers or so, if even only as a blurry dot in the distance.   After the hit, the Enterprise-D tried to return fire but the order was cancelled when the ship disappeared from sensors.

The Enterprise later attempts to fire blind against the cloaked ship, missing completely, with the angle showing phasers and torpedoes also departing visual range.  However, the beams and torpedoes are rather smaller, implying less distance required before we can no longer see them.  However, the earlier preparation to return fire strongly suggests equal range.

- "A Matter of Honor"[TNG2] (2365)

Commander Riker, taking part in an officer-exchange program between Klingon and Federation vessels, finds himself in a tricky situation.   The Klingon captain mistakenly believes that there is hostility between the Enterprise-D and his ship, and when the Enterprise-D appears he decides on a plan to decloak and launch everything he has.    Riker, forced to play along with the absurdity and needing the ships within transporter range for his own purposes, advises the Klingon captain to hold his fire until he is within 40,000 kilometers.  Questioned as to why, he uses the claim that it will reduce the Enterprise-D's response time.

Obviously, if the Klingon vessel needed to wait until then to fire, it could've fired beyond that range.

- "The Wounded"[TNG4] (2367)

Captain Benjamin Maxwell of the USS Phoenix embarks on a personal campaign against the Cardassians, who he believes to be re-arming for war.   The issue of his prescience is outside the scope of this document . . . one of his battles, however, is not.   As Maxwell pursues a Cardassian supply ship, the Enterprise, too distant to render aid, is forced to give the Cardassians the prefix codes of the Phoenix.   This allows a nearby Cardassian warship to attack the now-shieldless Federation starship.

We're treated to a tactical display of the event with Data as the announcer.  The weapons ranges of the ships are overlaid onto the screen.   It is not clear what circles represent what weapons, or if that's even the criteria for the various circles about the ships.   Heading and firing arc information is not displayed.  The battle appears below, with times as per the TNG DVD of the episode.

Time:  19:12
Data reports:  "The Warship is 300,000 kilometers from the Phoenix."   At the time of this screencap, Data is speaking the word "Phoenix", and the warship is and has been closing at a moderate pace.  
Time:  19:13
Data reports that the Cardassian vessel has opened fire.   
Given the above, I would estimate an absolute minimum range at this point of perhaps 250,000 kilometers.  That is absurdly small given the tiny change in distance between the blips, but gives uber-room for error.
Time:  19:15
Data reports that "the Phoenix has taken a direct hit."  
For range purposes (i.e. assuming infinitely fast weapons that were just fired), this suggests a successful attack at an absolute minimum range of about 200,000 kilometers.  For weapon speed purposes (i.e. assuming that this is the shot they opened with), this argues for a Cardassian weapons speed on the order of 100,000km/sec.
(At this point we cut away, from 19:19 to 19:32.  During this period, Data says:  "The Phoenix is beginning evasive maneuvers. It has positioned itself outside the weapons range of the opposing ship. The Phoenix has powered up both phasers and photon torpedoes. The Phoenix is firing photon torpedoes."  Note that the Phoenix had to have re-entered the Cardassian weapons range in order to fire.)
Time:  19:36
The Phoenix fired torpedoes about four seconds ago.
Time:  19:37
The torpedoes have hit, destroying the Cardassian ship. It is already disappearing from the display in the image to the left.
For range purposes (assuming infinite speed weapons), we have a range on the order of ~190,000 kilometers.   For weapon speed purposes, this would indicate a torpedo speed of 40-50,000km/sec.
Time:  A few seconds later
The Phoenix has caught up to and destroyed the supply ship.  The weapon is not specified, but seemed to be faster than the torpedoes.

This battle quite clearly indicates that Alpha Quadrant vessels have an effective tactical range (and a quite effective one, too) on the order of 200,000 kilometers at least.   (Curiously, it also suggests that the Cardassians have an advantage in weapons range against Nebula Class starships.)    Given that the targets were probably a Galor Class Cardassian warship and the same sort of transport seen later in the episode, these were both targets smaller than 500 meters.  One would expect even less trouble shooting a 1,600 meter target at such ranges.

Also featured in the same episode is some very short-range combat.   The Enterprise-D is attacked at the beginning of the episode by a Cardassian Galor Class vessel Trager, and as the audience joins the combat we see it occurring from within 10 kilometers.

- "The Search, Pt. I"[DSN3] (2371)

The Defiant is travelling at warp and under cloak within Dominion space.   Suddenly long-range sensors indicate two Jem'Hadar warships cruising at warp five, and their course will bring them within 100,000 kilometers per O'Brien.

Kira: That's well within range of their weapons, Commander.

  This may be indicative of warp combat range, though at this early juncture little was known of the Jem'Hadar fighters except what was recorded in the impulse-speed combat against the USS Odyssey in a battle weeks beforehand.

- "Return to Grace"[DSN4] (2372)

Kira is being transported by the Cardassian freighter Groumall, commanded by a disgraced Gul Dukat.  Kira is surprised to discover that Dukat runs battle drills on the freighter.   As we join the bridge during the first observed battle drill, Damar is reporting their target range as 400,000 kilometers and closing.  Despite Dukat's impatience another 23 seconds elapses before the Groumall opens fire on an asteroid, owing to the slow phaser charging time.  The Groumall's speed for this test is unknown, and thus the range is indeterminate.

However, a later test . . . with the Groumall now armed with a recovered System V planetary disruptor . . . gives us more information.  As we join the test, Damar reports the range to target as 500,000 kilometers.  The ship is readied to fire, and 14 seconds after his first report Damar states that the target is 200,000 kilometers distant.   Five seconds later, after Dukat's order to fire, Kira hits the button.

Assuming 15 seconds elapsed as the Groumall closed from 500,000 to 200,000 kilometers, then we're looking at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers in 15 seconds, or 20,000km/s (72 million km/h, or 0.067c).   Assuming constant velocity (a fair enough assumption given how unlikely it is that the Groumall was capable of great acceleration either way), then the Groumall fired at approximately 100,000 kilometers.

Unfortunately, the earlier test remains indeterminate.  Were we to assume 20,000km/s as a standard attack speed for the Groumall's tests, then the first test would've featured them travelling 460,000 kilometers toward the target 400,000 kilometers distant.  

However, the second test's 100,000 kilometer firing range remains sound.  The only alternate view from the episode would be that, as occurred in the first test, they slowed before firing.  But since this would increase the range of the second test, we'll hold to the lower range value.

- "Non Sequitur"[VOY2] (2372)

In a slightly-alternate universe, Harry Kim is a starship designer on Earth working on a new prototype runabout, visually identical to the Danube Class but featuring heavily modified engines.  An accident causes 'our' Harry to enter that universe, whereupon he steals the prototype and attempts to return to his own time.  However, in stealing the vessel he is pursued by a Nebula Class starship.  After delivering a warning, the vessel closes to 5000 kilometers and opens fire.  The first shot misses, implying it might've been a warning, but no other shots are seen to miss.  The vessel later closes to 3000 kilometers, though it doesn't fire at that range.

- "Basics, Pt. I"[VOY2] (2372)

Cornered by the Kazon, Janeway strikes.  A force of four of the massive Kazon battleships, larger and more voluminous than a Star Destroyer, attempt to snare Voyager in a trap.  As Voyager approaches at warp, the Kazon vessels detonate torpedoes in her flightpath in an attempt to do damage.   Even assuming Voyager was travelling at just warp one (aka lightspeed), the detonations . . . which occurred for 15 seconds prior to Janeway ordering the ship to drop out of warp . . . must represent torpedoes fired at ranges of up to 4.5 million kilometers. 

Janeway, now at impulse, orders Tuvok to hold fire as he counts down their decreasing range.  Starting at ten thousand, Tuvok reaches two thousand before Janeway authorizes weapons fire.

- "A Call to Arms"[DSN5] (2373)

A Dominion fleet heads toward DS9, intent on its capture.  At last, the war begins. 

This, however, is an unusual example.  Damar reports that they will enter weapons range in one minute.   However, the scene immediately preceding shows the Dominion fleet approaching to within perhaps a dozen kilometers of the station.   (The problem in reality was a bit of overliteralism among the VFX crew . . . the script said the fleet was headed for the station, so at the end of a fleet flyover shot the ever-crappy VFX supervisor David Stipes inserted the station at a distance, as if the audience was too stupid to know where the fleet was going.)

- "In the Flesh"[VOY5] (2375)

Photon torpedoes, modified to carry the maximum number of Borg nanoprobes available, are armed and loaded for use against a Species 8472 base.  Upon approach to the base, the following statement is made:


We're entering weapons range. Thirty eight hundred kilometres. Thirty five hundred. Thirty two hundred.

Apparently, then, weapons range with the modified torpedoes was 'only' on the order of four thousand kilometers.  They continued to close, implying that effective or optimal range was much less.

- "Equinox, Pt. II" [VOY6] (2376)

Voyager sneaks up on the rogue Federation starship Equinox.  Janeway closes to a stated range of 30,000 kilometers, then orders their core targeted.  Voyager then fires.  Later in the battle the ship visually closes to point-blank range.

III.  Conclusions

Vessels of the Federation and her opponents all seem to have effective beam weapons range easily exceeding 1000 kilometers, even against small runabout-size ships.   Even against a stationary one-meter target, the Enterprise of the 2260's was able to score a torpedo hit at about 90,000 kilometers.  Against other capital vessels, ranges in the thousands and tens of thousands of kilometers are quite common, impressive given the maneuverability of most of the ships.

One clear contrary fact comes from "A Call to Arms", wherein it appears to be suggested that weapons ranges in the 24th Century are no greater than they were in the 22nd.  While one could discard that example as a simple visual effects error, it is preferable to incorporate the datapoint as referring to optimal range, or at least optimal range for the battle.   It's possible that the close proximity of the large minefield surrounding the wormhole (a mere 15km distant), effects of the Denorios Belt, or other facts came into play to produce that conclusion of what was optimum.

In any case, given that these short-range battles are only occurring against vessels of similar weapons range, it seems quite unlikely that an Alpha Quadrant combatant would choose to squander a genuine range advantage if it could be helped.

IV.  Addenda

A.  Counterclaims  

1.  Visual Range Fleet Battles

Some have argued that the fact that fights do not always occur at maximum range means that the maximum ranges might as well be ignored.  This is a wrong-headed point of view in several respects.

a.  Short Range Fights

First, as to the claim of short ranges, this is sometimes true.  In DS9, it was fairly common for vessels to close to such ranges in combat.  Sometimes this was accidental, as occurred in "Tears of the Prophets"[DSN6] when the Allies fly through a supposedly inactive weapons platform field only to have the platforms finally become active while the fleet is on top of them.   

Other times it made some tactical sense, such as when Sisko took the heavily outnumbered Federation fleet right in to the Cardassian lines in "Sacrifice of Angels"[DSN6].  The Federation goal was to get some ships through to DS9 within a certain time limit by opening a hole for Federation ships to fight through and warp out of while the enemy fleet was engaged with the remainder.  We can also theorize that this prevented the enemy from combining too much firepower on individual ships and prevented them from targeting warp cores with abandon.  The Dominion goal was to both prevent the Federation from passing and, later, to pretend to open the hole and then surround the Federation ships, thus taking the opportunity to crush a Federation fleet.   In both cases, a fairly tight fleet formation (e.g. ships within visual range of one another) and close combat were the tactical desires of the day.

Riker gave another possible reason for closer range combat, when he believably suggested to a Klingon captain that he close to 40,000 kilometers in order to shorten the opposing vessel's response time.  This could refer to the target vessel having opportunity to adjust shield power or structural integrity or all manner of other systems to help compensate for the incoming fire and its effects.  We can even easily take this idea a bit further.  For instance, phaser beams do not move at lightspeed relative to the firing ship, so it should take at least one second and probably more for a phaser to travel 300,000 kilometers (one light-second).   A jinking and dodging ship might be a bit harder to hit 

Shorter-range combat may favor the more maneuverable vessel, as seen to excellent effect in many Defiant Class battles.  On the other hand, ships with superior weapons arc coverage might try to keep close to try to keep a maneuverable vessel with poorer arcs from owning the fight.    In other words, a vessel with forward-only weapons might be able to weave and dodge and take frequent shots at 200,000 kilometers, but if you are in close against them you can try to keep to their side or tail or otherwise prevent them from facing you, and if you have good coverage on your vertical and lateral sides, you can pound them with impunity.

Closing all the way to visual range could only enhance such an effect, and could (a) make it more difficult for the enemy to direct its fire against specific systems, and (b) make the concept of shoot-to-kill somewhat less attractive, since a warp core explosion is something one would prefer to steer clear of.  Such short-range combat may also be useful in regards to receiving torpedo fire, which could negatively affect the firing ship at close enough range (as noted by Riker on a couple of occasions, e.g. "The Nth Degree"[TNG4]).

It may also be that phasers and disruptors lose energy or focus or some other helpful criteria over distance, a logical supposition whether due to energy 'leakage' or simple focus blooming or frequency spread decohesion or some other technobabble.  How much loss is unknown, but s,a;; percentage points at high range could count up quickly into more required shots across the ranges available.  Thus shorter-range combat may also have the benefit of enhancing directed-energy firepower, an advantage for a vessel interested in either conserving torpedoes or with beam weapons as its primary firepower.

Finally, we also have the note from production designer Joe Johnston, who noted that the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II was not there merely to be pretty, but to create a plot device that would allow the ships to fight at sailing ship ranges, as Nick Meyer (the director) wanted.  That's quite a bit of expense and trouble to go to just for the purpose of maintaining the reality of the universe, but it was well worth it for the sake of believability.

In short, then, there are many possible reasons why starships might fight at closer ranges despite having weapons capable of longer range fire.  However, just as occurred in Star Trek II when causing short-range fire was tactically beneficial because the odds were made even, it is logical to presume that there is tactical benefit in the other cases as well.

b.  Nullification of Higher Ranges

The claim that the existence of short-range fights nullifies long-range examples is absurd on its very face.  A sniper who often hits at 700 meters does not, in doing so, nullify his 1000 meter shots.   And if we then hear the sniper say his maximum range is 200 meters, is it logical for us to conclude that the hits at 700 or 1000 meters suddenly do not exist?  Of course not.  Clearly the statement is either context-specific (e.g. 100 meters max in a dense  forest) or involving other information that we are not privy to (e.g. he's expecting tornadoes or hail), or what-have-you.  But whatever the case, we know good and well that under normal circumstances, as seen the vast majority of the time, he can strike at 1000 meters.

c.  Example Case:  Stars!

There are probably many computer games where fighting personnel or equipment with a certain maximum range may end up more useful at short ranges.  One such example from my own experience is the very addictive game Stars!.  The game is one of interstellar empire-building, turn-based, with a simple yet effective economy system with extensive ship and fighting style customization during its token-based battles.

Warships in the 2.0 version featured a variety of beam and torpedo weaponry, but the beam weaponry was more range-limited.  Thus, my primary warships for the first several games I played was a cruiser hull loaded with long-range torpedoes.   These were formidable and well-protected, if expensive.  However, I discovered when reviewing the supplementary manuals and tables that it was possible to create a small frigate ship with beam weapons and fast engines rather cheaply.  With suitable tactics, this would mean that I could swarm the enemy with small, cheap, agile vessels that would bring devastating firepower compared to my prior "attack cruiser" designs.   The individual 'laser frigates', cheap to produce and requiring less resources, could nonetheless deliver as much as half of the firepower of the large, expensive attack cruiser.  And, the nature of the game allowed them a great deal of initiative, meaning they moved first and quickly.  Thus, in sufficient numbers, I could destroy all opponents before they fired off a shot with their long-range torpedoes.   And, if they did manage to destroy some of my "laser frigates", the local blast effect from the nearby exploding vessels would mean that they did damage to the enemy ships even in death.

The above having been said, were I fighting an enemy that only had weapons with range like the laser frigates and slow ships, I probably would not have put my laser frigates in the field, because despite their power I would be putting them in harm's way for no reason.   If their slow ships could not close on me the way my laser frigates could just hop to right off the enemy bow and unload, then it would make more sense to have the attack cruisers pound the enemy with long-range fire as they slowly approached, and withdraw to a safe distance if the enemy started approaching to within their own weapons range.

Translating to Star Trek, one can readily imagine scenarios in which keeping close range might be beneficial to certain vessels, insofar as forcing the enemy to limit his firepower (e.g. phasers over full-yield torpedoes), choose his targets more carefully rather than cause a core breach right beside the ship, limiting enemy maneuverability to avoid shield collisions that might knock everyone to the floor, and so on.   But this reasoning only counts against opponents of equal range.

The moral of the story is that having long-range weapon technology doesn't always mean you use it at long range.  Sometimes it is superior to go in close and fight it out.

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