Space Marines (Warhammer 40,000)

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In the fictional universe of Warhammer 40,000, the Adeptus Astartes (colloquial: Space Marines) are genetically modified superhuman warrior-monks, the elite warriors of the Imperium of Man. Space Marines have been one of the starter armies in almost every box edition of Warhammer 40,000, Space Hulk, and Epic. They also feature heavily in other Games Workshop products, such as books, films, and video games, and are central to the universe's setting.

Fictional characteristics[edit]

Space Marines lead a lifestyle comparable to monastic warrior orders or martial elites from various periods of human history, dividing their time between combat training, ritual contemplation, and the waging of war. From the time of their initiation to their deaths in battle, they spend their entire multi-century lives fighting for their religion centring around the deified, extremely powerful Emperor of Mankind, and fight also for the survival of Mankind. They have been genetically and physically enhanced with organ implants and other non-mechanical augmentations collectively referred to as "gene-seed" that ultimately derive from the Emperor's own flesh. They are 8 feet tall (2.438 meters) in their Power Armour, a fully powered and ceramite-crafted shell of armour, and wield the finest small-arms weaponry available to the Imperium. Recently introduced are the Primaris Space Marines, an even more powerful variant of Adeptus Astartes clad in new Mk X armour. They were created by the Mechanicus Archmagos Belisarius Cawl, and are largely seen in action with new chapters of Primaris Space Marines constantly being created and existing chapters welcoming Primaris reinforcements.

In-universe origins[edit]

In the Warhammer 40k universe, the Emperor of Mankind is described as having created twenty Primarchs, genetically engineered superhumans possessing immense physical and psychic power second to only his own. Created from modified strands of his DNA, each Primarch was, in essence, one of the Emperor's sons and each individual's genome serves as a template for their respective Legion of Space Marines.

In the fictional timeline of the 40k universe, during the late 30th millennium AD, the Emperor uses the Space Marine Legions to conquer the scattered human-inhabited worlds of the galaxy, uniting them under the banner of the Imperium of Man and reuniting the Primarchs with their Legions in a two hundred-year campaign known as the Great Crusade. As the campaign drew to a close, eleven Primarchs and their Legions, under the leadership of the character Warmaster Horus, convert to the worship of the evil Chaos Gods and their demon servants, rebelling against the Emperor and sparking a galaxy-wide civil war known as the Horus Heresy. During the final hours of the war, Horus is slain by the Emperor, but not before mortally wounding his opponent. Gravely injured, the Emperor is rescued by Primarch Rogal Dorn and connected to a life support system known as the Golden Throne, run by the very essence of those who are sacrificed to its machinery, where his body was maintained in a state of slow decay for over ten thousand years.[citation needed]

The rebels, referred to as Traitor Legions, are ultimately defeated after the Warmaster's death. They retreated to the nightmarish Eye of Terror, a realm completely enveloped by Warp storms, though they continue to harass and combat the Imperium as Chaos Space Marines, attracting their demonic allies to realspace through unspeakably horrid acts. The Sons of Horus, renamed the Black Legion, fight 'The Long War' against the Imperium with other Traitor Legions, seeking to finish what Horus started. The Legions of Space Marines who remained loyal to the Emperor were restructured into smaller but still relatively affiliated units called "Chapters", consisting of roughly one thousand Space Marines, under Primarch Roboute Guilliman's Codex Astartes. This made future mass rebellions unlikely, especially with most of the Legions rendered without the guidance and watchfulness of their Primarch.

Creation of a Space Marine[edit]

Recruits are chosen from the best and most loyal among humanity. However, they must be adolescent males as deviating age or sex will result in guaranteed death if the subject in question has physical or mental augmentation attempted. Popular recruits for a Space Marine Chapter may include anything from tribal humans on a feral world, to underhive gangers, to normal hive city denizens, but have to be purely human and loyal to their race.

The potential recruit is first subjected to testing, including tissue compatibility tests and psychological screening. Relatively few get past this initial selection process. Those that do pass are termed Neophytes, and the process continues with the surgery, indoctrination, conditioning, and training that will make them Space Marines. Those that survive but fail surgery or screening are either retained as Chapter Serfs or mechanically augmented and turned into semi-sentient Servitors to serve the Chapter, mainly under the command of Adeptus Mechanicus members of the Chapter who perform most tasks involving creation or maintenance of technology.

The surgical process takes a great deal of time and pain, sometimes even being lethal. The different stages of implantation must occur in a precise order at different times of development, lengthening the process to a significant degree. First, the recruit receives gene-seed implants, along with chemotherapy, hypnotherapy, and training necessary for allowing the functioning and development of the implanted organs. The implants transform their bodies and minds to give them near-superhuman abilities, with 19 special organs found in Space Marines and an extra 3 in their Primaris brothers. Some notable abilities and attributes of a Space Marine include:

  • Greatly enhanced strength, allowing them to metaphorically outgun the competition
  • Unnatural reaction times, important in battle to keep them alive
  • Much-increased physical durability, to last longer physically in battle
  • Improved digestive system, so they can eat things like plasteel or Ork flesh raw and with no negative effects, also allows them to spit acid
  • A closed gland (Progenium) that is harvested by Apothecary Marines at death for new gene-seed spores.

Intense indoctrination and conditioning strengthens the recruit's resolve and increases mental capabilities, honing them into dedicated, merciless warriors that become fiercely loyal to the Emperor. Slightly prior to the completion of their implantations, they become Scout Marines, light and mobile forces charged with reconnaissance and infiltration. After more general training and the completion of their augmentations, they join the Chapter as full "Battle-Brothers", a term used often by Space Marines to refer to others in their Chapter.


Space Marines are organised into Chapters, autonomous armies which retain their own heraldry, fleet and distinct identity. Chapters typically contain about a thousand Space Marines plus an unspecific number of Initiates, support staff, and Adeptus Mechanicus maintenance units. The majority of Chapters follow the organisational structure detailed in the fictional version of the Codex Adeptus Astartes. Each Chapter is arranged into ten Battle Companies of one hundred soldiers each, lead by a Captain. The First Company of a Chapter is usually composed of veterans, privileged with suits of Terminator Armour, and the Tenth Company is almost always formed by newly recruited marines serving as Scouts.

Currently there are at least four Chapters which have numbers exceeding one thousand Space Marines:

  • Black Templars (6,551)
  • Space Wolves (2,500)
  • Grey Knights (Unknown)
  • Exorcists (1,200)

Even then with their larger-than-normal troop count, these Chapters' numbers pale in comparison to the original Astartes Legions, the latter often having numbers reaching tens of thousands.

Each Chapter is a fully integrated, developed and very heavily equipped military unit, possessing incredible resources such as a transport fleet, aircraft units, armoured land vehicles such as tanks and transports, Dreadnoughts, atmosperic strike craft, and motorbikes (they do not possess battleships or other sea-based forces as the tabletop game and universe do not model sea combat). A Chapter's main headquarters is its "Fortress-Monastery", which could either be a citadel located on a planet or a very large starship. Each Chapter also owns and controls one or more worlds from which they draw material resources and recruits.

Each Chapter is led by a Chapter Master. Chapter Masters are still Space Marimes, but they rank among the Imperium's highest elite. They are one of the few in the ranks of the Space Marines with the authority to order heavily consequential tasks such as an Exterminatus. Their rank grants almost as much authority as an Inquisitor, barring the ability to massacre "suspected" traitors.

Each Chapter is almost completely autonomous; there is no higher authority that commands all Space Marines, even the Inquisition or High Lords of Terra. Instead, they retain a degree of autonomy from all outside forces save for the Emperor's will. Nonetheless, any Chapter may be subject to censure or even excommunication by the Inquisition should it waiver in its duty to defend the Imperium or should it join Chaos and serve the Chaos Gods.

Notable Chapters[edit]

The Ultramarines are the prototypical Space Marine Chapter, and follow the template laid out in the core rulebook on Space Marines. Some Chapters adhere to the Codex Astartes grudgingly, with only minor doctrinal leanings, such as the Imperial Fists. Conversely, there are many other Chapters which have variant practices which are reflected in their rules. For instance, the Salamanders specialise in close ranged firefights and flame weaponry, the Black Templars don't have psykers, the Blood Angels favour jump-packs to glide quickly to the fight, and the White Scars favour motorbike and mounted assault tactics. Perhaps the most peculiar of all are the Dark Angels, with organization consisting of normal Space Marines, Deathwing companies, and Ravenwing companies, almost completely contrary to the Codex Astartes.

Specialist Chapters[edit]

There are two known specialist chapters in the Imperium: The Grey Knights and the Deathwatch. The Grey Knights are a Chapter formed in secret to specifically hunt daemons from every shade of the Chaos spectrum. Each battle-brother is a sanctioned psyker who is adept at using Force Weapons, and they possess different tactics, training, and resources compared to typical Astartes. Similarly, the Deathwatch is a Chapter who specialise in hunting alien threats such as the Orks, Aeldari, or T'au. Unlike other Chapters, the Deathwatch is composed entirely of marines seconded from other Chapters. This is typically welcomed as the specialist training whilst serving the Deathwatch is beneficial to the Chapter when the Battle-Brother returns to them. The Grey Knights and Deathwatch work closely with the Inquisition, acting as the Chambers Militant of the Ordo Malleus and Ordo Xenos respectively and act under their authority. Despite the Chamber Militant status, however, both chapters retain a significant degree of autonomy from the Inquisition.


The equipment of the Adeptus Astartes encompasses a very wide variety of machines, weapons, and armour, but the two universal pieces of astartes equipment are the Bolter and a set of Power Armour. A Bolter is a powerful, rapid-fire weapon that fires explosive kinetic projectiles towards its target, referred to as Bolts, and serves as the primary weapon of the Adeptus Astartes as every Space Marine carries a Bolter or other Bolt weapon as a primary armament. A Space Marine's protection is provided by their Armour, known as Power Armour. Power Armour is a fully enclosed suit of armour that is built from Adamantium, Plasteel, and Ceramite. It performs many other functions than protection, including hostile-environment life support, combat first aid, and extra mobility. The armour is fully powered by a Power Pack attached to the back plate of the set of armour. The Power Pack serves as the power generator for the armour, as well as the housing for emergency power generators.


Space Marines were first introduced in Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader by Rick Priestley, which was the first edition of the tabletop game rulebook. In this first incarnation, the religious themes that appeared in later editions were not as strong. They were described as having bodies and minds that had been toughened by "bio-chem" and "psycho-surgery"; no mention was made of "gene-seed" which would be introduced as the fictional world was developed.

The book Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned (by Rick Priestly and Brian Ansell, 1990) was the first book from Games Workshop to give a backstory for the Space Marines. It introduced the original 20 Space Marine Legions, and the Primarchs (genetic fathers from which the Space Marines were created). It also first described the Horus Heresy, the civil war of the 30th millenium in which nine of the Legions converted to the worship of the four main Chaos Gods.

Two of the original 20 Legions and their respective Primarchs are not named and are described as "redacted" from the records of the Imperium. Rick Priestley explained that this was to illustrate the Imperium's practice of erasing embarrassing or incriminating events and figures from history by removing them from Imperial records. This was a form of dishonour practiced by the ancient Roman empire as Damnatio Memoriae.

To me the background to 40K was always intended to be ironic. [...] The fact that the Space Marines were lauded as heroes within Games Workshop always amused me, because they’re brutal, but they’re also completely self-deceiving. The whole idea of the Emperor is that you don’t know whether he’s alive or dead. The whole Imperium might be running on superstition. There’s no guarantee that the Emperor is anything other than a corpse with a residual mental ability to direct spacecraft. It’s got some parallels with religious beliefs and principles, and I think a lot of that got missed and overwritten.

— Rick Priestley in an interview with Unplugged Games, December 2015[1]

Tabletop game mechanics[edit]

Space Marines are a playable army in the tabletop miniatures wargame Warhammer 40,000.[2] Because each individual Space Marine is so powerful, their armies tend to be small, and thus a player can assemble a functional army for relatively little money and effort. In terms of playing style, they are a versatile army that neither excels nor fails at any particular tactic, though certain Chapters do have variant rules. Individual units are typically not strongly specialised and can roughly substitute in other roles, meaning most mistakes and setbacks are easy to compensate for. Their tough armour and generally unspecialised weaponry means that they do not have to be maneuvered or stategised as carefully as units of other armies (such as the powerful but frail Eldar). These qualities make them ideal for beginners, and may help them succeed more often in their early gameplay stages.[3]

Space Marines typically serve as an all-purpose army despite Chapters having variant doctrines, stratagems, and core rules. They can be used to make multiple differently organised and specialised armies of units from a single Chapter. A functional army can be assembled for less than $100 with their Start Collecting: Space Marines boxed set. They are generally easy to play, and can be the first army most players hear about when getting into the Warhammer hobby.

Videogame appearances[edit]

Space Marines are the most common protagonists in Warhammer 40,000 related videogames. They have appeared in the following titles:



Space Marines are featured in numerous fantasy novels, predominantly published by Black Library, a division of Games Workshop.

Trademark controversy[edit]

In December 2012, Games Workshop claimed that any use of the phrase "Space Marine" on content other than their own infringed on their trademark of the term and requested that online retailer Amazon remove the e-book Spots the Space Marine by M.C.A. Hogarth.[4] The row received a lot of publicity during February 2013, with authors such as Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and John Scalzi supporting Hogarth. Amazon restored the e-book for sale.[5][6]


  1. ^ Owen Duffy (11 December 2015). "Blood, dice and darkness: how Warhammer defined gaming for a generation". Archived from the original on 18 May 2016.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Barnett, David (7 February 2013). "Superheroes, space marines and lawyers get into trademark fight". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
  5. ^ "Row blows up over ownership of 'space marine' term". BBC News. London. 8 February 2013. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
  6. ^


  • Chambers, Andy (1998). Warhammer 40,000 Codex: Space Marines. Nottingham: Games Workshop. ISBN 1-869893-28-X.
  • Haines, Pete; McNeill, Graham (2004). Warhammer 40,000 Codex: Space Marines (4th ed.). Nottingham: Games Workshop. ISBN 1-84154-526-0.
  • Johnson, Jervis (2004). Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Nottingham: Games Workshop. ISBN 978-1-84154-506-6.
  • Priestly, Rick, Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader, Games Workshop, Nottingham, 1987, ISBN 1-869893-23-9
  • Warhammer 40,000 5th edition rule book, Games Workshop, Nottingham 2008
  • Priestly, Rick (February 1988). "Chapter Approved: The Origin of the Legiones Astartes". White Dwarf. Nottingham, UK: Games Workshop (98): 12–17.