Less-Lethal Weapons


Stunners are a jolly science fiction invention. One shot and your opponent is rendered safely unconscious but otherwise unharmed (other than smashing their head on the ground as they collapse). They are third in the trio of sidearms commonly featured in classic science fiction, along with "blaster" and "disintegrator." Of course if one stuns their opponent, nothing prevents one from then cutting their opponent's throat while they lie helpless. A few moments thought is enough to think up dozens of situations where stunning somebody is tantamount to killing them outright (stunning a driver when their car is traveling at high speed, stunning somebody gingerly carrying a flask of nitroglycerin, etc.)

Stunners are generally short-ranged, and easily blocked by walls or other cover. In some science fiction, the stunner does not render the target unconscious, but merely paralyzed. When a stunner victim wakes up, they are often groggy, nauseated, or otherwise feeling like they have a hang-over. Often their limbs have a pins-and-needles sensation and muscle aches.This is called "stun shock."

Doc Savage pulp series 1933
Featured slug-throwers with "mercy bullet" ammo.
"Fire-Power" C. M. Kornbluth 1941
"Electric Stunner", earliest known science fictional reference.
"The Unforeseen"[sic] Mark Champion 1946
Tom Corbett, Space Cadet books Carey Rockwell 1952
The novels were 1950's children's literature, so everybody used the stunner-like paralo-ray pistols.
Catseye Andre Norton 1961
In Catseye (and pretty much all of Norton's novels set in space) civilians are allowed to use stunners, but only police and the military are allowed to use lethal blasters.
Fireball XL5 series 1962
The crew of Fireball XL5 were armed with Coma Ray Guns, for exactly the same reason as Tom Corbett.
Sleeping Planet William Burkett 1964
Pacifistic robots use "stunners".
"Guttersnipe" Rick Raphael 1964
Police routinely use stunners to suppress riots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show 1964
This spy-thriller TV show featured "mercy-guns". The name probably comes from Doc Savage.
"A Relic of the Empire" Larry Niven 1966
"Sonic stunners" emitted a set of sound frequencies that handwavingly caused the listener to fall asleep (probably old songs from the Lawrence Welk show). Popular for use as non-lethal dueling weapons. Occurs in "A Relic of the Empire", "Grendel", "The Soft Weapon", and Ringworld.
A Gift from Earth Larry Niven 1968
The authorities used mercy guns, since shooting a perp with a slug-thrower made it impossible to harvest their organs for transplant into worthy citizens. The name probably comes from Doc Savage.
Star Trek TV show 1966
Phasers had a "stun" setting (knocking you out) and a "kill" setting (vaporizing you). In the episode A Piece of the Action the Starship Enterprise uses phaser banks from orbit to stun everybody inside an entire city block.
Dune Frank Herbert 1965
The "stunners" barely count, since they were basically glorified tranquilizer darts. The darts have to travel real slow in order to penetrate the personal force fields everybody wears.
Genesis II movie 1973
The pacifists of PAX use tiny pneumatic pistols firing "PAXer" darts. They are miniature hypodermic needles containing knockout drugs.
Space: 1999 TV show 1975
The "stun guns" also had a "kill" setting, with an ostentatious slide control labeled STUN and KILL in big capital letters.
Star Wars: A New Hope movie 1977
Princess Leia was brought down by a blaster rifle set for stun. Which is a good thing, otherwise the movie would only be ten minutes long.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV show 1979
In the episode The Plot to Kill a City, Buck uses a stunner on the assassin Markos. Unfortunately for Buck, his stunner's operating principle is by affecting the target's nervous system. Since Markos has had all his pain nerve endings severed, the stunner just makes him blink. Buck is reduced to knocking out Markos with his fist, the old-fashioned way.
Vorkosigan Saga Lois McMaster Bujold 1986
Ms. Bujold points out a drawback to stunners: if that is all you are armed with, you can be killed by an unarmed mob. The mob will figure that the worst you can do is put them to sleep. So they will swarm you and eventually stomp you into the dirt. The mob would be more hesitant if you were armed with something lethal.
The Sharp End David Drake 1993
The "needle stunners" are futuristic tasers, firing electrostatically charged needles. Unlike tasers, they have more than one shot. If they miss and hit a wall, they discharge in a shower of sparks.
Babylon 5 TV show 1994
There are no stunners in Babylon 5. Creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski expressly forbid them on the grounds that stun settings are for people who cannot commit. As far as Straczynski is concerned: if you are fighting somebody, just shoot them. If you are not, talk to them.
Stargate: Atlantis 2004
Ronon Dex's sidearm has a stun and kill setting, but he has to be frequently reminded to take it off "kill". The Wraith use stunners so they can feed on their living prey's life energy. Bullets just make good food go to waste.

Of course there is an extensive list of stun guns in media at TV Tropes.

Unfortunately in the real world stunners are unobtanium, if not actually Ridiculous Handwavium. Understand that currently there is no such thing as a "non-lethal" weapon. This is because any weapon or gas that can reliably incapacitate or render unconscious a 300 pound world wrestling champion will be strong enough to instantly kill a small child or elderly person. Even then, the force required to render a person unconscious is dangerously close to the force required to kill them. Since the police force in the US were issued the allegedly non-lethal Taser, there has been an alarming number of reports of people being killed by these quote "safe" unquote weapons.

Kevyn: But I have something special in mind for you. It's a difference-tone stunner.

Schlock: Lets hear your sales pitch, commander.

Kevyn: Well, it projects two parallel unidirectional, high-amplitude VHF audio streams, with slightly differing frequencies. When those streams intersect a target, a high amplitude difference-tone is generated in the body of the target. This low-frequency tone interferes with the targets synaptic refresh, effectively jamming the nervous system and rendering the target instantly unconscious.

SFX: (One panel beat) Silence.

Kevyn: It's a magic sleep gun.

Schlock: Oh, cool! I'll need one for work and one for at home.


The absolute best technology in sci-fi is arguably the most mundane concept in the genre’s arsenal: stunners.

From Star Trek’s “phasers on stun” to that one (and only one) time in Star Wars when the stormtroopers used a stun setting to subdue Princess Leah, stunners are such a staple of science fiction that no one even questions them. As a literary device, they allow the protagonists to get into gunfights without being mass murderers. But if stunners existed in real life, they would change the world.

And don’t talk to me about tasers. Those are one-shot, very close-range weapons that can do long-term physical harm. I’m talking about fictional stunners, which are as effective at range as handguns, and render the target unconscious without hurting them.

We could all just carry them around. They’re not like real guns. If someone gets mad or loses their temper, worst that happens is someone gets harmlessly knocked out. But if somebody tries to rob a bank, everyone stuns him. If somebody decides to go on a killing spree, everyone stuns him.

What’s that? There’s a hostage situation? The police come and stun everyone. Riot? Stun everyone. Worried about the new stun powers turning your country into a police state? Well, you outnumber the police and you all have stunners. Whatever your political leanings, stunners downgrade potential conflicts to a non-lethal arena.

Even criminals would get in on the action. There’s no longer any need to threaten the life of the 7-11 clerk. Just stun him and take the cash drawer. No one has to die. Of course, the clerk will probably have a stunner, too, so there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll just wake up in jail.

If there was an area-of-effect version (why wouldn’t there be?) the military could deal with conflicts in civilian areas much better. “Sorry we knocked you out. There were terrorists on your roof so we blitzed the whole block to be safe. Here’s your hat, it fell off when you laid down. Have a nice day.” (ed note: this appeared in the 1968 Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action, the starship Enterprise uses their phaser banks to stun everybody in an entire city block)

Yeah. You can keep flying cars and lightsabers. I’ll take stunners.

by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. (2014)

Emil had been fumbling in the back. Now he pressed something into my hand and said, "Here, take this." To my amazement I found myself holding a sonic stunner.

"That's illegal!" I whispered furiously.

"Why are you whispering? Kidnapping Kdatlyno is illegal, too. We may be glad we've got these before we're finished."

"But where did you get police stunners?"

"Let's say some criminal slipped them into my luggage. And if you'll look at the butts, you'll see they aren't police stunners."

They'd started life as police stunners, but they weren't anymore. The butts were hand-carved from big cultured emeralds. Expensive. Dueling pistols?

Sure, dueling pistols. Lose a duel with one of these and you'd lose nothing but face. I hear most Jinxians would rather lose an arm, permanently. They were not illegal — on Jinx.

Too bad the dueling pistols didn't have more power. The craftsmen who had carved their emerald butts had scaled them down because, after all, they would be used only to prove a point. It would take a shopful of tools to readjust them, because readjusting them to their former power would violate Jinxian law. Real police stunners will knock a man out for twelve hours or more.

From GRENDEL by Larry Niven (1968)

Pain Weapons

It was recently revealed that the US military was researching a rather alarming line of less-lethal weapons, the Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) program.

PEP weapons fire a laser pulse that is very intense but only a fraction of a second in duration. The pulse vaporizes a tiny portion of the hapless victim's clothing or skin, creating a plasma burst intense enough to knock the victim to the ground. This was intended to be used for crowd control. I don't know about you but it seems to me that a pulse strong enough to knock one down is also strong enough to make one's eyeballs explode if it hit your face. But I digress.

However, during test performed on animals, the researchers noticed something unexpected. The pulses were creating pain and temporary paralysis in the test animals. As it turns out, certain pulses would create a plasma burst emitting an electromagnetic signal of proper frequency to artificially stimulate the nerve endings in the animal's skin.

The US military is researching this effect, trying to find the frequency that will cause the maximum pain sensation without actually causing any physical harm to the target. There is also the possibility that other frequencies could cause taser-like paralysis effects.

The effect can be made lethal. The original name for the project was Pulsed Impulsive Kill Laser (PIKL) but was quickly changed as a cover up. Details about this are predictably sketchy.

Currently PEP weapons are not man-portable, they are vehicle mounted weapons. They have a range of about two kilometers. But who knows how far they can be miniaturized. We might yet see Space-1999 style hand lasers with a "stun" setting.

For riot control situations, the US Army is working on the Active Denial System (ADS). This is fundamentally a titanic microwave oven, without the oven. It emits microwaves with a wavelength of around a millimeter (95GHz). You can think of it as a "pain ray". Spray this beam of concentrated agony on the hostile crowd and they are guaranteed to run like scaled cats ... er, ah, "disperse". Initial tests show that it is reasonably non-lethal, but it will occasionally raise blisters.

The microwaves only penetrate a short way into the skin, not deep enough to do permanent damage but more than deep enough to roast all the target's pain nerve endings. As with all microwave oven based designs, the heat comes from water molecules being vibrated by the microwaves. For this reason, the range of the ADS is drastically reduced by rain or heavy humidity (in tech-speak: "rain attenuates the beam.").

This will quite challenging to make into a pistol, but may come in handy installed in the corridor outside the spacescraft's control room to provide a rude surprise for pirates and mutineers. I am reminded of the "agony box" that Reverend Mother Mohiam used to test Paul Atreides in the novel DUNE. Not to mention the "agonizers" and "agony booths" from the classic Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror. The TV Trope entry is "Agony Beam".

Not to be out done, the US Navy is working on its Electromagnetic Personnel Interdiction Control project, AKA the Vomit Ray. The US Department of Homeland Security is working on a pistol sized version, which is a very unsettling thought.

John Ireland brought my attention to the prototype non-lethal laser dazzler developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Some comedian gave it the name Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response rifle which has the predictable acronym "PHASR". It is intended for crowd control, using a laser to temporarily (they hope) blind the targets. It is intended to skirt the 1995 UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons by not blinding the target permanently. However, researchers noted that these weapons will still permanently damage the target's eyesight if used at close range or for prolonged periods of time.

And then the guard's gurgle dissolved into words. He yelled, 'I'll get you all!' and the very pale, almost invisible shimmer of the ionized air in the path of the (neuronic) whip's energy beam made its appearance. It swept wide through the air, and the path of the beam intersected Biron's foot.

It was as though he had stepped into a bath of boiling lead. Or as if a granite block had toppled upon it. Or as if it had been crunched off by a shark. Actually, nothing had happened to it physically. It was only that the nerve endings that governed the sensation of pain had been universally and maximally stimulated. Boiling lead could have done no more.

From THE STARS, LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov (1951)

I took a step through the darkness toward one of the corridor's doors. But in an instant I had halted, for through the darkness a buzzing sound came to me and at the same time fiery, tearing pain ran through every nerve in my body...

It was evident that our strange captors were aware in some way of every move we made in the darkness, and that the buzzing was of some pain-producing weapon of theirs. Later we were to learn that it was one that set up electrical pain- currents in the nervous system. Pain is but a sensation or electrical current in a certain nerve, and this strange weapon was one that by induction set up pain- currents of more or less intensity in every nerve in the body.

From CRASHING SUNS by Edmund Hamilton (1928)

Tranqs and Tasers

A compressed air gun shooting tranquilizer darts (or curare darts if you are not fooling around) won't damage the ship, but have other problems.

And the target won't notice for the thirty seconds it takes the drug/poison to circulate through its system from the injection point. Unless you're a good enough shot to reliably hit one of the carotid arteries, don't expect anything but Pyrrhic victories here.

Dr. Schilling

Tasers are worthless. Easily defeated by armor, and many pieces of equipment do not take kindly to a charge of 20,000 volts.


Some science fictional weapons have multiple settings. This is sometimes called a "Swiss Army Weapon."

In Tactics of Mistake by Gordon R. Dickson one finds the "Dally Gun", short for "dial-a-gun." It was probably inspired by the real-life Stoner 63, and apparently was an equally big failure.

Though not as big a failure as the ZF 1 Pod Weapons System from the movie The Fifth Element.

Dally Gun

Up front on the open seat sat a round-faced young Army Spec 9 at the controls, with a dally gun beside him.

Cletus glanced at the clumsy hand weapon with interest as he climbed aboard the car over the right-side treads. It was the first dally gun he had seen in use in the field — although he had handled and even fired one back at the Academy. It was crossbreed — no, it was an out-and-out mongrel of a weapon — designed originally as a riot-control gun and all but useless in the field, where a speck of dirt could paralyze some necessary part of its complex mechanism inside the first half hour of combat.

Its name was a derivative from its original, unofficial designation of "dial-a-gun," which name proved that even ordnance men were capable of humor. With proper adjustment it could deliver anything from a single .29 caliber pellet slug to an eight-ounce, seeker-type canister shell. It was just the sort of impractical weapon that set Cletus' tactical imagination perking over possible unorthodox employments of it in unexpected situations.

From TACTICS OF MISTAKE by Gordon R. Dickson (1971)

The Fifth Element

Your time for revenge is at hand! Voila, the ZF-1. [activates a ZF-1 and holds it] It's light; handle's adjustable for easy carrying; good for righties and lefties; breaks down into four parts; undetectable by X-ray; ideal for quick discreet interventions.

A word on firepower. Titanium recharger; 3000-round clip with bursts of 3 to 300. With the replay button, another Zorg invention, it's even easier. [lights reveal a mannequin in a police armor] One shot... [shoots mannequin]...and replay send every following shot to the same location. [shoots a machine gun volley at Mangalores but all the bullets go to the mannequin]

And to finish the job, all the Zorg oldies but goldies. [fires every weapon at the mannequin as he mentions them] Rocket launcher... [rocket blows a hole in the mannequin], arrow launcher with exploding or poisonous gas heads [mannequin's head suddenly looks like a porcupine], very practical... our famous net launcher... [mannequin is ensnared in a large net], the always-efficient flamethrower, [mannequin is engulfed in flames], my favorite... [winks to the Mangalores] and for the grand finale, the all-new 'Ice-cube System'. [fires a cloud of liquid nitrogen which freezes the remains of the mannequin, which also breaks and collapses in pieces]

Logan's Run

In the novel LOGAN'S RUN by William Nolan and George Johnson the Sandmen were armed with a sort of revolver with six different loads. The gun can be reloaded with new cartridges which allow for extended use (the movie featured a gun with only one setting: acetylene flare. How boring.)

Ammo TypeDescription
TanglerProduces a large sticky web of material which entangles and immobilizes anything it comes into contact with; it can be dissolved by regular police with special gear. It is used for capturing fugitives alive.
RipperAn antipersonnel round similar to a hollow-point or hydroshock round. It is quite lethal.
NeedlerA round that breaks up into dozens of deadly needles. A type of flechette round.
NitroA round with a high explosive warhead.
VaporA tear gas round.
HomerA heat-seeking "smart" bullet. It homes in on evading targets with a temperature of 98.6 degrees. The charge kills the target by electrically burning out every nerve in the body. The homer can be decoyed by another warm body stepping in front of it.

Only a DS man could carry a Gun. Each weapon was coded to the operative's hand pattern, set to detonate on any other human contact.

Logan reached in and closed his hand around the big pearl-handled revolver, drawing it free of its snug velvet nest. He checked it; full load, six charges: tangler, ripper, needler, nitro, vapor -- and homer.

From LOGAN'S RUN by William Nolan and George Johnson (1967).

Judge Dredd

In the comic Judge Dredd, the infamous Lawgiver Mk II has six types of shells:

Ammo TypeDescription
Standard executionA standard bullet, with identical effects to normal kinetic energy projectile weapons.
Heat Seeker or Hot ShotA standard bullet propelled by the unstable element, 'Argon 886'. Heatseeker rounds lock onto the target's heat source, enabling the Judge to target fleeing perps, accurately fire in low-light situations and so forth.
RicochetA metal bullet coated with rubber. Ricochet rounds can bounce off solid surfaces while retaining enough kinetic energy to penetrate flesh. This enables the Judge to, for example, kill a perp that is using a human shield, bouncing their shot off a back wall and hitting the target from behind.
IncendiaryCapable of setting its target on fire. Less widely used due to practicalities of incinerating targets in built-up city areas, although useful against unconventional adversaries such as Judge Death.
Armour PiercingArmour piercing rounds are extremely dense and contain a more powerful charge for higher muzzle velocity. Useful against cybernetic criminals and armoured opponents. When used against human targets, it can travel through multiple targets.
High-Explosive (Hi-Ex)An round containing an amount of extremely concentrated high explosive. Judges must employ caution when using this extremely dangerous round; the blast caused by the exploding bullets can just as easily harm those firing as the target. Generally used rarely; against crowding attackers or large/dangerous foes.

Star Wars

In the movie Star Wars: A New Hope, Darth Vader tells the storm troopers that he wants the passengers taken alive. When one of the storm troopers spots Princess Leia, he says "There's one, set for stun." So Star Wars blasters have a "stun" and "kill" setting. The kill setting might be a laser in pulse beam mode (AKA "blaster" mode) while the stun setting might be a laser in Pulsed Energy Projectile mode.

As previously mentioned, the laser hand guns in SPACE 1999 also had Stun and Kill settings.

Star Trek

But the real Swiss army knife of the energy weapon world is the Star Trek Phaser. It had all sorts of interesting settings, including "blow up like a grenade" er, ah, "forced chamber explosion."

In the original Star Trek, phasers had settings for Stun, Heat, Disrupt, Dematerialize, and Overload. In Star Trek phase II, the settings were Stun, Kill, Heat, Disintegrate and Overload.

Stun would render a living humanoid being unconscious by lighting up their nervous system like a christmas tree. Kill shorts out the nervous system of a humanoid being permanently. Heat would raise the temperature of objects, it was commonly used on wilderness planets to heat up a rock as a substitute for a campfire. Disrupt/Disintegrate "breaks down cohesion", I guess this means it causes the object to fall apart into gravel or turn into vapor. Dematerialize turns the target into energy, presumably something like neutrinos; otherwise the energy release would obliterate everything within several kilometers of ground zero. And overload turns the phaser into a hand grenade with the pin pulled, not surprising considering how much energy is in the phaser's power pack.

We can duplicate some of this with a laser. Stun would be a laser in Pulsed Energy Projectile mode. Kill would be a laser in Pulsed Impulsive Kill Laser mode. Heat would be a laser in unpulsed heat ray mode at relatively low energy levels. Disrupt would be a laser in pulsed blaster mode or in unpulsed heat ray mode at high energy levels. Overload makes the battery explode. Dematerialize is the only one that cannot be done, but it is rather silly in the first place.

("Dematerialize" is a fancy way of saying "disintegrator ray". A weapon that can vaporize a human body without setting the walls and floor on fire or even raising the temperature of the room? Give me a break!)

Remember that a laser in pulse mode could have its effect optimized to a given material by a specific setting for pulse frequency. So one could have a "metal cutting" setting for use as a tool or to open a locked door, and a "kill human" setting for war-to-the-knife combat. All with the same pulse laser, just with a different frequency.

Such a weapon would have a selector switch for each mode. And it might have a "customizable" mode. This would allow an expert to manually tweak the settings: continuous or pulse, spectrum frequency, pulse timing, power level, etc.

There were some interesting development notes in THE MAKING OF STAR TREK by Stephen Whitfield.

In the pilot, Gene Roddenberry called the hand guns "lasers." But he realized that while lasers were currently new and cutting-edge, they would be old hat by the time the first episode was aired (at the time the show was created, lasers were only five years old). Worse, there was the danger of writing an episode where the hand gun does something that lasers were not capable of doing (which as it turns out was quite insightful on Roddenberry's part, since that did indeed come to pass). The safe way out was to invent some baffle-gab name for some imaginary weapon, so there was no danger of being called out by some science-geek who was a fan of the show.

Roddenberry said:

Laser Guns — Don't forget to have a connection between the guns and the "power belt." I visualize the belt looking something like a waist-type life preserver, having individual power units, say, three inches by six inches. The units can be replaced, just as bullets in a gun can be replaced...

...Don't you think they will have a new name?... Some possible candidates for a new name might be: HEAT gun (High Energy Amplication Transport); BEE gun (Beam of Electromagnetic Energy); ACE gun (Amplified Coherent Energy); CLEB gun (Coherent Light Energy Beam)...

...(a.) Some sort of optical sight which could either be swung up or raised out of the weapon itself, or snapped onto the weapon — a precision aiming device for very careful or very long-distance use.

(ed note: The phasers in classic Trek did have a reflex mechanism to aim through the optics.)

(b.) In addition to the basic hand grip, some sort of grip near the fore part of the weapon (also either swung out from the weapon itself or snapped on) which allows a two-handed shooting stance for extreme precision firing.

(ed note: sort of like the fold-able fore-grip on the Beretta 93R)

Gene Roddenberry

But as we know, the weapons were named "Phasers", and have no power belts, or fore hand grips. Pity.

For the proposed re-boot Star Trek Phase II, a new phaser was designed. From the notes:

PHASER I: features fully self contained, operable components with a touch actuated lighted settings bar and side-mounted trigger. Batteries included (re-chargeable). Nose key lights function with trigger for easy optical matting of phaser beam. Features different color for each energy setting, plus on/off button for total shutdown.

Energy indicator bar colors: (front to back) Green: stun (neural effect), Red: kill (neural effect), Yellow: heat (molecular movement), Blue/White: disintegrate (molecular disruption)

Special feature: overload. simultaneous depression of all four settings buttons will arm the phaser for explosive overload (grenade effect). All four color bars flash warning until canceled with off button.

PHASER II: features easy interlocking with phaser one. Nose key lights now function with hand trigger. Features top inserted dilithium crystal power booster (pulsating light). Perfectly balanced, phaser two will stand up on any flat surface without support. Features overall cool silver/blue coloration. Exact size of Colt .45.

PHASER III: features easy interlocking with phaser two. Grip and operation remain the same. Connects to handle and undercarriage — drape-fit over forearm. Arm features booster packs (lighted). Overall shape reminiscent of old-style rifle stock.

The Soft Weapon

In Larry Niven's 1967 short story "The Soft Weapon", space explorers discover a high-tech gadget from a long extinct species. Said gadget is a handle on a sphere, with a selector slide on the handle. Moving the slider changes the weapon mode, which manifests as the sphere technomagically re-forming itself into different devices. One would assume that it is made of pure handwavium.

Settings included Sonic communications device, telescope, laser, small jet pack, energy absorber, computer, matter to energy conversion beam, and self-destruct.

In 1973 this story was adapted as an animated Star Trek episode "The Slaver Weapon."

Perry Rhodan

If you are an Ugly American, you probably have never heard of the Perry Rhodan science fiction series. This German set of stories started in 1961, and is still going strong. As of 2013 it passed 2700 installments. In the 1960's the first hundred-odd installments were translated into English by Forrest J. Ackerman.

My apologies in advance if I misrepresent the details. I do not speak German, so I am relying upon Google Translate.

Dimensions32 × 15.8 × 6 cm
Weight2.15 kg
Battery life4.5 hours
effective range
2 km
Battery capacity4.5×1013 joules
(45 terajoules)

The Kombi-Impulsstrahler (Combined Impulse Rifle) is an incredibly powerful rifle that is three superweapons in one. The upper barrel is a combined Desintegratorstrahler (disintegrator ray) and non-lethal paralysis ray.

The disintegrator neutralizes atomic bonds (by surrounding the target with a "five-dimensional field") so that the target falls apart into gas and dust.

The paralysis ray uses a five dimensional wave to deactivate the somatic nervous system but leaves the brain and autonomic nervous system untouched. Basically the target cannot initiate any movement, but they can think with their brain and continue using their ANS to make their hearts beat and their lungs breath.

When you are fed up with using half-measures, the bottom barrel is an Impulse Ray. The reaction chamber uses muon catalyzed fusion to burn deuterium. The 3500 Kelvin jet of reaction products enters the barrel where it is manipulated in five dimensions to form a high-powered particle beam. It is a bad idea to use the impulse ray when you are inside a building, unless you do not mind the entire building collapsing on top of you. The impulse ray is effective against low-powered energy shields and superalloys that laugh at the disintegrator ray.

As is befitting for a rifle-of-mass-destruction, the Kombi-Impulsstrahler has a user-id scanner in the hand-grip. This uses a RFID identity chip embedded in the user's palm or something along those lines. If the handgun cannot verify that the user is authorized, it will refuse to fire no matter how hard the trigger is pulled.

  1. Emitting Muzzle of Disintegrator
  2. Gravomagnetic focusing
  3. 5-D field-directional focus
  4. Field controller
  5. 5-D field amplifier coils
  6. 5-D field projector
  7. Viewfinder for Disintegrator
  8. Paralysis field projectors
  9. Field phase adjustment chamber
  10. Intermediate energy storage
  11. Viewfinder for Impulse Ray / Paralysis field
  12. ID-code signal viewfinder
  13. Picosyntronik with fire release function
  14. Power module
  15. Pulse intensity slide-switch
  16. Trigger
  17. User id scanner
  18. Weapon selection switch (this is to right of #19, the "8" got cut off)
  19. Safety lock
  20. Autonomous Picosyntronik for Impulse Ray
  21. Energy modulation module
  22. Gravomagnetic particle accelerator
  23. Matter chamber for particle accelerator
  24. Head of Section
  25. Paralysis field Converter
  26. Compacting
  27. Control chip compressed particles
  28. Thermal switch
  29. Emitting Muzzle for particle beam
  30. Controller
  31. Finger sensor

Dimensions21.1 × 17.0 × 6.0 cm
Weight2.03 kg
Battery life1.5 hours
in thermobeamer mode
Battery life4.5 hours
in paralysis beam mode
effective range
600 m

The Kombistrahler is a marginally lighter weapon than the Kombi-Impulsstrahler. It only has two functions: Thermobeamer (heat ray) and paralysis ray.

The thermobeamer is a heat ray style laser with a frequency of 10,000 nanometers, in the mid infrared band. Each pulse is one millisecond long and ten pulses is equivalent to 3 kilograms of TNT. If my calculations are correct, this means each pulse is about 1,300 kilojoules. This is quite a lot, it is enough to irradiate a 60 centimeter diameter circle (i.e., average adult human torso) with 430 joules per square centimeter (i.e, enough energy to flash all exposed flesh into steam, flaying the exposed body area to the bone).

The weapons can communicate with the heads-up display in the helmet visor, projecting a cross-hair where the handgun is currently aiming. The Kombistrahler is still an incredibly powerful weapon, so it also has a user ID scanner in the hand-grip to prevent unauthorized use.

  1. Power module
  2. Weapon selection switch (thermal and paralysis) and intensity slide-switch
  3. Pre-combustion chamber
  4. Control plombe for overheating, including shutdown aggregates
  5. Focus Sion chamber
  6. Chillers ring
  7. Rotation accelerator
  8. Discharge chamber of the thermal beam
  9. Emitting Muzzle of the thermal beam
  10. Emitting Muzzle of the paralysis ray
  11. Container for the 5 dimensional hyper crystals of Van Der Berg-chamber (2 pcs)
  12. Van Der Berg-chamber: the concentrated energy is passed through the hyper crystals to amplify paralysis ray
  13. Power conditioner for bundling the paralysis ray (2 pcs)
  14. Grip with user id scanner, and connection to heads-up display in visor.

"Fan Beam"

A weapon mode that was popular with E.E."Doc" Smith and Robert Heinlein is the so-called "Fan Beam" (it appears in Smith's SPACEHOUNDS OF IPC and Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS). In Andre Norton's STAR RANGERS it is called "setting your blaster to 'spray'". This is when the weapon does not fire a single bolt, but instead fires a volley of bolts in an arc. Instead of drilling a single hole in your target, it suffers a series of holes spaced a few centimeters apart in a horizontal line. You could literally cut a man in two.

This is a mode that a Phaser cannot do. Of course, if your weapon has a "disintegrate" setting, who needs fan beam anyway?

The "fan" part is because as viewed from overhead, the beams would make an arc shaped pattern much like a folding Japanese fan.

My slide rule says that if a man is about 45 centimeters wide (18 inches), at a range of 5 meters, and the bolts were to be spaced 3 centimeters apart, it would take 15 bolts fired at 0.3 degree increments to the left and right. Your target would fall... in two places.

(ed note: in The Puppet Masters, the alien master parasites are about the size of a football, waiting inside a "cell" until they can be attached to their hapless human victim)

The masters waiting in their cells were another matter. With a fan beam and a max charge I burned them all in seconds only. There were two large crates against the wall. I did not know that they contained masters but I had no reason to believe otherwise; I beamed them through and through until the wood charred.

From THE PUPPET MASTERS by Robert Heinlein (1951).

Stevens had poised the Forlorn Hope edgewise in mid-air, so that the gleaming, heavily armored parabolic reflectors of his projectors, mounted upon the leading edge of the fortress, covered the scene below. As the charred corpse of the savage chieftain dropped to the ground, it seemed to the six-limbed creatures that the demons of the falls had indeed been annoyed beyond endurance by their intrusion; for, as if in response to the flash of fire from the power plug, that structure so peculiarly and so stolidly hanging in the air came plunging down toward them. From it there reached down twin fans of death and destruction: one flaming an almost invisibly incandescent violet which tore at the eyes and excruciatingly disintegrated brain and nervous tissues; the other dully glowing an equally invisible red, at the touch of which body temperature soared to lethal heights and foliage burst cracklingly into spontaneous flame.

In their massed hundreds the savages dropped where they stood, life rived away by the torturing ultra-violet, burned away by the blast of pure heat, or consumed by the conflagrations that raged instantly wherever that wide-sweeping fan encountered combustible material.

From SPACEHOUNDS OF IPC by E.E."Doc" Smith (1951).

Gun As Tool

Lumberjack Mode

A "lumberjack" setting would be handy for a sidearm used by a landing party crewman, first-in scout, or other person exploring wilderness planets. I already mentioned the "heat" setting of phasers being used to turn rocks into impromptu campfires. This function was seen in the original Star Trek episodes The Enemy Within and A Private Little War. In Clifford Simak's classic novel CITY, atomic guns are also useful to start campfires.

A less blood-thirsty use of the fan beam would be chopping down trees.

Grant stared with perlexity at the atomic gun. A handy thing, it performed a host of services, ranging from cigarette lighter to deadly weapon...

...The pile of twigs was laid before the bolder and other wood lay near at hand to keep the campfire going through the night. But if the gun wouldn't work, there would be no fire.

From CITY by Clifford Simak (1952).

Laser As Flashlight

In Larry Niven's RINGWORLD, the explorers are equipped with "flashlight-lasers", an item of questionable safety. Over and above the engineering problems associated with designing a laser that can also produce non-coherent light, the dual use aspect is dangerous. One can imagine a wilderness explorer awakened by a strange sound in the camp and sleepily slicing their tent to ribbons because the flashlight laser was set to the wrong mode.

Ridiculous Handwavium

These are weapons that do not even pretend to be scientifically accurate, but are included here for entertainment value.

  • Assassin bullets: As the troops left the city, the Top Guns of the leading Guilds took a hand and they knew their business. Weapons with curved or variating trajectories, weapons which fired round corners, micro-missiles proceeding at walking pace until within ten feet of the target.
    (Invader On My Back by Philip E. High, 1968)

  • Assassin letters: When he got back to the ship, he sent a remote-controlled device back for the letter. The device slit the envelope, unfolded the letter and beamed back the contents to one of the vessel’s receiving screens. In his early days as a Stinker, Craig had received some ingeniously unpleasant letters and had, long ago, ceased to open them personally. He had received letters covered in impregnating poisons, letters which exploded or fired microscopic missiles, letters which, if laid casually on certain common substances abruptly and violently ignited—no, he was taking no chances on a letter from an unknown source.
    (Invader On My Back by Philip E. High, 1968)

  • Bee Gun: When it was quite late he murmured something, went to a closet, and drew forth an evil weapon, a long yellowish tube ending in a bellows and a trigger... It hummed constantly, an insect hum. From it hordes of golden bees could be flung out with a high shriek. Golden, horrid bees that stung, poisoned, and fell lifeless, like seeds on the sand.
    (The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, 1946)

  • Blaster (Apocalypse Troll): An anti-alien-war-cyborg weapon that avoids the problem of plasma weapons by sending the plasma bolt through hyperspace where it materializes on the target's skin. It does 1.8 kilotons of damage per second, with a total of 21.5 kilotons in the magazine.
    (The Apocalypse Troll by David Weber, 1999.)

  • Blaster (David Starr): Robot, Martian, or man, the object could not withstand a blaster. It was a small weapon, and the projectile it hurled was almost contemptible in size. The old-fashioned "guns" of ancient days carried metal slugs that were rocks in comparison. But the small projectile of the blaster was far more deadly. Once set in motion, anything that stopped it tripped a tiny atomic trigger that converted a sub-microscopic fraction of its mass into energy, and in that conversion the object that stopped it, whether rock, metal, or human flesh, was consumed to the accompaniment of a tiny noise like the flick of a fingernail against rubber...
         The projectile left the muzzle, raced squarely at the object of smoke, reached it, and stopped. It stopped instantaneously, without touching the body that was still one quarter of an inch beyond its final penetration. Even the concussion of collision was not carried beyond the force-shield barrier which absorbed all the projectile's momentum, converting it into a flare of light.
         That flare of light was never seen. It was drowned out in the intense blaze that was the blaster projectile exploding into energy as it stopped with no surrounding matter to shield the blast of light. It was as though a pin-sized sun existed in the room for a tiny fraction of a second.
         Hennes, with a wild yell, threw his hands to his eyes as though to protect them against a physical blow. It was too late. Minutes later, when he dared open his eyelids, his aching, burning eyes could tell him nothing.

    (David Starr, Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov, 1952. Yeah, right, shoot a miniature nuclear missile at a guy ten feet away from you. I do not think they thought their cunning plan all the way through)

  • Blaster (Star Ranger): He had already seen what the (robot) patroller held ready. He hurled himself backward, falling flat on the floor of the hall, letting momentum carry him in a slide some distance along it. Behind him was a burst of eye-searing flame, filling the whole entrance with an inferno. Only his trained muscles and sixth sense of preservation had saved him from cooking in the midst of that!...
         "Are you hurt? Did he get you?" Kartr grinned lopsidedly. To just be alive—he winced as Rolth's examining hands touched skin scraped raw.
         "What about—?"
         "The bag of bolts? I scragged him all right—a blast hole right through his head casing and he went down. He didn't reach you?"
         "No. And at least he's told us something about the civilization they had here. They were still using atomics." The sergeant surveyed the blaze behind him with critical distaste. "Blow a hole in a city block to get someone. Wonder what they would have thought of a stun gun."

    (Star Rangers aka The Last Planet by Andre Norton, 1953)

  • Blaster (Subspace): In GalMet’s vast Research and Development Center on Galmetia, in a private laboratory, Deston, Jones, and Adams worked on that enigmatic blaster from Second Space.
         For a sidearm it was brutally heavy, weighing just under six pounds. Its barrel, made of a metalloid-ceramic unknown even to Adams, was eleven inches long and an inch and a half in outside diameter. There was no breech-block; no breech mechanism of any kind. The upper part of the thing was all barrel. The bore, only a quarter of an inch in diameter, centered the barrel and was wide open—full length and at both ends. It was aimed by sighting through the unobstructed bore.
         Coils and complexes of insulated silver wire were embedded in the barrel’s substance, but there were no visible nodes. Both front and rear orifices were clean, smooth, and bright, showing no burning, pitting, or erosion. In spite of this fact, however, the grips of the butt—which was located a couple of inches ahead of the rear orifice—showed so much wear that the checker work and knurling had all but disappeared.
         Inside the butt, instead of a magazine or a powerpack, there were mazes within mazes of wire, solidly, immovably embedded and connected to nothing at all—not even any one to any one of the others. There were only three moving parts, a trigger, a front-plate, and a back-plate. All of these would move under the stress of operation, but not one of them could move more than an eighth of an inch and not one of them could touch anything except a stop molded into the ceramic.
         The only replaceable item was an encapsulated pellet of U235 the size and shape of a .45-caliber bullet, which, also, was not connected to anything. Deston knew it was uranium 235, even though a scintillometer could not detect any radiation from it.
         After studying the thing for four solid days without learning anything at all, they took it to the Laboratory of Standards, where a weigh master spent two hours in weighing it to the limit of attainable accuracy. They then took it up into the hills, where they took turns firing it against a cliff, each in turn holding it until his hand was numb. After eight hours of this, after making a lake of incandescent obsidian, the weapon was just comfortably warm, and the front orifice—there had been no backward emission of any detectable kind—was as bright, as clean, as virgin as before.
         Next morning they took it back to Standards, where the same expert weighed it again … and who, after lunch, reported that it apparently had lost approximately three one-hundredths of one milligram. “But this loss,” the weigh master concluded brightly, “is no doubt due to wear—you handled it so much yesterday.”

    (Subspace Encounter by E.E. "Doc" Smith, 1983)

  • Congealer: It was then that something hard pressed into the small of his back and a low voice said: “Just keep walking, friend, make it casual.” ... A congealer caused blood-clotting with an immediate and invariably fatal heart attack. Had his warders chosen to use the weapon, they would have got clean away with it. Only a post-mortem would reveal the true cause of death which was of no consolation whatever.
    (Butterfly Planet by Philip E. High, 1971)

  • Energy Powered Weapons: He fingered his belt meaningfully and Denning saw that what he had taken for trinkets were really miniature but precisely fashioned weapons. Inch-long exquisite daggers, barbs, tomahawks and a tiny weapon resembling an automatic pistol which was no bigger than a penny. They did not look like dangerous weapons, but it was abundantly clear that Carlos was not fingering them for amusement...
         As the Hunter began to squeeze the trigger, Carlos, outwardly unmoved, flicked at the array of miniature weapons on the shiny belt with the index finger of his right hand. There was a hiss and the tiny tomahawk raced away from the belt, spinning so rapidly it looked like a silver coin. There was a click, the Hunter exhaled sighingly and something fell to the floor at his feet... That was when Denning saw that the finger which had been hooked around the trigger had been neatly severed close to the hand
         “And the baby weapons?”
         “Energy-powered. I’m told it takes months of practice to use them effectively but, on the other hand, they are below the specifications laid down for dangerous weapons.”

    (Twin Planets by Philip E. High, 1967)

  • Flechette Gun: The gun is tiny, acm-styled, lightweight, the kind of gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity...Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn't want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doohickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end.
    (Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, 1992)

  • Force Gun: He took a peculiar device from his belt and fitted it over the muzzle of his strange pistol... The Kofedix led the way, his pistol resting lightly against his hip, and at the first turn of the corridor they came full upon four guards. The pistol did not move from its place at the side of the leader, but there were four subdued clicks and the four guards dropped dead, with bullets through their brains.
         "Seaton, that is some silencer," whispered DuQuesne. "I didn't suppose a silencer could work that fast."
         "They don't use powder," Seaton replied absently, all his faculties directed toward the next corner. "The bullets are propelled by force-field projection."

    (The Skylark of Space by E.E. "Doc" Smith, 1928)

  • Glass Gun: And by the way, that crystal weapon of Tweel's was an interesting device; I took a look at it after the dream-beast episode. It fired a little glass splinter, poisoned, I suppose, and I guess it held at least a hundred of 'em to a load. The propellant was steam—just plain steam!"
         "Shteam!" echoed Putz. "From vot come, shteam?"
         "From water, of course! You could see the water through the transparent handle and about a gill of another liquid, thick and yellowish. When Tweel squeezed the handle—there was no trigger—a drop of water and a drop of the yellow stuff squirted into the firing chamber, and the water vaporized—pop!—like that. It's not so difficult; I think we could develop the same principle. Concentrated sulphuric acid will heat water almost to boiling, and so will quicklime, and there's potassium and sodium—

    (A Martian Odyssey by Stanley Weinbaum, 1949. This actually might work)

  • Hyper Rifle: The weapon emits a beam of warp radiation. Any matter struck by the beam is sent into hyperspace and left there. It is a really efficient way of making long bullet-hole-like tunnels in your target, regardless of any armor it might be wearing. Basically it acts like a disintegrator ray. It is an advance over the ever-popular warp grenade.
    (The Armageddon Inheritance by David Weber, 1993)

  • Igniter Gun: The woman’s weapon made a booming noise and ejected what looked like a white mist. Rune never had a chance to scream. The hail of microscopic fragments, driven down a line-of-force, had sufficient velocity to penetrate clothing and skin. There they combined with the body chemistry and instantly ignited. Corporal Rune became his own funeral pyre, a pillar of flame which flapped its flaring arms, tottered a few paces and finally collapsed in a smoking heap.
    (The Prodigal Sun by Philip E. High, 1965)

  • Igniter Shell: Less than thirty seconds later, a Geek or Delink flung himself from a second-storey window. He had been hit by an igniter-shell and his flaring, twisting body was almost completely consumed before it hit the ground.
    (Invader On My Back by Philip E. High, 1968)

  • Kill-o-Zap blaster pistol: The designer of the gun had clearly not been instructed to beat about the bush. 'Make it evil,' he'd been told. 'Make it totally clear that this gun has a right end and a wrong end. Make it totally clear to anyone standing at the wrong end that things are going badly for them. If that means sticking all sort of spikes and prongs and blackened bits all over it then so be it. This is not a gun for hanging over the fireplace or sticking in the umbrella stand, it is a gun for going out and making people miserable with.'
    ( The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, 1980)

  • Lazy Gun: The lazy guns are ultra-powerful weapons created by the super-science of some long forgotten civilization who apparently had a peculiar sense of humor. Whatever you fire the lazy gun at will be destroyed, it is just that the random method of destruction will probably resemble something out of a Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoon. If the target is a human they will be killed by such things as a boat anchor materializing above them and squashing them flat, giant electrodes appearing and electrocuting them, or a wild animal turning up out of nowhere and biting out the human's throat. Larger targets such as tanks or ships may suffer tidal waves, implosion, explosion, sudden lava flows or just disappear.
    (Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks, 1993)

  • Lead Azide Gun: This weapon's ammo is a roll of lead azide tape. The weapon bites off bits of the tape and flings them as projectiles. Lead azide is an explosive, which damages the target.
         This weapon is incredibly stupid. The entire magazine will explode if the weapon is dropped a distance of 150 mm (6 in) or subjected to a static discharge of 7 millijoules.
    (The Shipwrecked Hotel later A Torrent of Faces by James Blish, 1965)

  • Memoryform Gun: This is a secret agent's weapon. Ordinarily it looks and scans as if it was a tooth in the agent's mouth. But removed and activated, it expands into something approximating a blaster.
         In her other hand her fist seemed closed around something small which she was pointing at the Idiran. Xoxarle had to look carefully to see what it was. It resembled a gun: a gun made mostly of air; a gun of lines, thin wires, hardly solid at all, more like a framework, like a pencil outline somehow lifted from a page and filled out just enough to grip.
    (Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, 1987)

  • Mercy Weapons: Mercy weapons fire MercyBullets, which are slivers and needles of a glassy knock-out drug which dissolve in blood. One would make the victim woozy; it took half a dozen to drop them in their tracks unconscious. An overdose can be fatal. The guns fire a steady stream of tiny slivers in a conical pattern. The guns have a tiny aperture and a CO2 cartridge doubling as a handle. They are used on Plateau because killing a criminal with a conventional gun prevents you from harvesting all their organs for transplant into worthy citizens. On Plateau, they are brutally pragmatic about a criminal repaying their debit to society. And citizens happy with the prolonged life-span that comes with transplanted organs have no problem with laws mandating the death-by-organ-donation penalty for even minor offences.
    (A Gift From Earth by Larry Niven, 1968)

  • Needle Gun: Devoure flushed and lifted his blaster.
         Bigman said, "Now don't hurt yourself with that blaster. You're holding it a little close to your body."
         His right elbow was resting in the palm of his left hand. His right fist squeezed gently as he spoke, and from the muzzle of the needle gun just protruding from between second and third fingers, a jet of deuterium pulsed out under the guidance of a momentarily established magnetic field. It took skill of the highest order to adjust the squeeze and thumb position correctly, but Bigman had that. No man in the system had more.
    The muzzle tip of Devoure's blaster was a tiny white spark, and Devoure yelled his surprise and dropped it.
    (Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Isaac Asimov, 1958)

  • Paralo-ray gun: The Tom Corbett Space Cadet novels demanded ray-guns, but since it was children's literature the guns had to be child-proof and non-violent. The paralo-ray would freeze a person into something like a statue, only allowing them to breath and their hearts to beat. A counter-charge from the ray gun would reverse the paralysis with no ill effects. Well, other than any bruises incurred when an unbalanced person toppled over or corneal scarring from their eyeballs drying out.
    (The Tom Corbett Space Cadet series under the name Carey Rockwell, 1952)

  • PGMP : In the role-playing game Traveller, PGMP stands for Plasma Gun, Man-Portable, while FGMP stands for Fusion Gun, Man-Portable. The difference is that in the FGMP the plasma is squeezed long enough to actually undergo nuclear fusion. While intended to be used as a huge rifle, the weapon discharge is so violent that the user must be wearing powered armor if they wish to survive. Everybody nearby will be exposed to intense heat and radiation, especially the hapless target. The weapon incorporates a gravity field generator, allowing the weapon to be carried, and allowing the user to fire the weapon without being launched into orbit by the recoil. After all, the weapon is the functional equivalent of a fusion rocket propulsion system.
    (Traveller RPG by Marc Miller, 1977)

  • Reason: Hiro hears a new sound: a low whirring noise from the direction of Fisheye, and from the atmosphere around them, a tearing, hissing noise, like the sound just before a thunderbolt strikes, like the sound of sheets being ripped in half.
         ...he sees that the dark wavelike phenomenon was a wave of blood, as though someone hosed down the deck with a giant severed aorta. But it didn't come from outside. It erupted from the pirates' bodies, one at a time, moving from the stern to the bow. The deck of Bruce Lee's ship is now utterly quiet and motionless except for blood and gelatinized internal organs sliding down the rusted steel and plopping softly into the water.
         ...In one hand he is holding a long device a couple of inches in diameter, which is the source of the whirring noise. It is a circular bundle of parallel tubes about pencil-sized and a couple of feet long, like a miniaturized Gatling gun. It whirs around so quickly that the individual tubes are difficult to make out; when it is operating, it is in fact ghostly and transparent because of this rapid motion, a glittering, translucent cloud jutting out of Fisheye's arm. The device is attached to a wrist-thick bundle of black tubes and cables that snake down into the large suitcase, which lies open on the bottom of the raft. The suitcase has a built-in color monitor screen with graphics giving information about the status of this weapons system: how much ammo is left, the status of various subsystems...
         "See, I told you they'd listen to Reason," Fisheye says, shutting down the whirling gun.
         Now Hiro sees a nameplate tacked onto the control panel

    version 1.0B7
    Gatling type 3.mm hypervelocity railgun system
    Ng Security Industries, Inc.
         "I did it. With Reason. See, it fires these teeny little metal splinters. They go real fast-more energy than a rifle bullet. Depleted uranium."...
         As he waves the gun back and forth, hosing the target down with a hypersonic shower of depleted uranium, Bruce Lee's entire ship seems to sparkle and glitter, as though Tinkerbell was flying back and forth from stem to stern, sprinkling nuclear fairy dust over it....
         Hiro packs the Gatling gun assembly back into the case and latches it shut. Maybe it's not as heavy as he thought, or maybe he's on adrenaline overdrive. Then he realizes why it seems so much lighter: most of its weight was ammunition, and Fisheye used up quite a bit. He half-carries, half-drags it back to the stern, making sure the heat exchanger stays in the water

    (Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, 1992)

  • Release Flame: A release flame makes a block of iron burn like a candle. Except the flame is where atoms of iron are turned into pure energy. You see, fusion turns light elements into energy, fission turns heavy elements into energy, release flames turns the element in the middle into energy. Right. Total handwavium.
         "There are two studs on it. The one on the left side will take the starch out of anything living. The one on the right will take the starch out of anything — but don’t use it anywhere near yourself. The left throws a concentrated pencil of invisible ultraviolet energy. It will of course heat, and isn’t as easily reflected as infrared. The other throws a similar pencil of radiation something like cosmic rays, only a little longer. It will penetrate anything to a depth of from 100 to 1000 feet, depending on the substance, and still be fatal. It will destroy the atoms in its path. And it will let loose so much secondary radiation that it will kill anything within fifty feet of what it hits. Don’t use that unless you are more than 200 feet from your target — the ultraviolet is bad enough.
         “There’s an energy center — a Flame — in the chamber here. Feeds on the iron of the pistol itself. Good for about 1000 years of continuous operation I believe. If they attempt to disarm you — push this red stud in the base of the butt. It will fuse the weapon two seconds after you push it, and release the energy center.
    (The Space Beyond by John W. Campbell Jr, 1976)

  • Soft Weapon: This is a dial-a-gun artifact from the mercifully extinct Slaver empire. Settings included sonic communications device, telescope, laser, small jet pack, energy absorber, computer, matter to energy conversion beam, and self-destruct. The conversion beam would have much the same effect as turning the target into pure antimatter.
    (The Soft Weapon by Larry Niven, 1967)

  • Spore-bomb: The green oval fell and struck the ground. A kind of greenish fog swirled outwards and vanished almost as soon as it had appeared... As soon as the ovoid started falling, the others had started to run but none got clear. Before they had taken twenty paces, their skins and clothing turned bright green. In fractions of a second, the green turned to a thick mould which enveloped them completely. They fell, floundering like fish, crumpled and dripped to dust. Their bones remained, belt buckles, pens, and still functioning watches, but that was all...
         The mould came from one of the colonies, Lugos II, to be precise. In certain conditions it could be rendered inert, encased and used as a bomb. Once released, it devoured, sub-divided and devoured again at such an appalling speed that everything organic within the immediate area was completely consumed. Then, for reasons yet to be explained by science, the cycle of sub-division suddenly ran out. The spore ceased to reproduce itself and died within seconds.

    (Butterfly Planet by Philip E. High, 1971)

  • Xeelee Starbreakers: A Starbreaker is a laser using gravity instead of electromagnetic radiation. Capable of mangling a star. And is the size of a pistol. Egads.
         A Starbreaker is described as a pistol-like device designed for a hands the size of a human child. There is intricate wiring around the handle and an adjustment knob on the back. It will emit synchrotron radiation on the lowest setting, coherent gravity on the higher settings.
    (Blue Shift by Stephen Baxter, 1989)

  • Zen Gun: In the hands of an untrained user it fires a beam that can arc over the surface of a plant to kill any known target. In the hands of a trained user it blows up stars. Only those who have attained inner peace can use it.
    (The Zen Gun by Barrington J. Bayley, 1983)



(ed note: AKKA is one of them most absurdly over-powered hand-held weapons in all of science fiction. It was invented by Jack Williamson for his "Legion of Space" series.)

     "John Ulnar, did you ever hear of AKKA?"
     "Akka? Why, I think not, sir."
     "It isn't 'akka.' AKKA. It's a symbol."
     "Yes, sir. What does it mean?"
     "Men have given their lives to learn that, John Ulnar. And men have died for knowing. Only one person in the System knows precisely what those four letters stand for. That person is a young woman. The most important single duty of the Legion is to guard her."

     "I shall trust you. First, do you know why you're here?"
     "I've orders to guard a girl who knows some mysterious secret."
     "I'm the girl." Her voice was more deliberate, more confident. "I don't matter. But the secret, AKKA, is the most valuable and the most dangerous thing in the System. I must tell you a little more about it than you seem to know. For AKKA is in terrible danger. You must help us to save it!"
     Quietly, then, she asked a question that seemed odd: "You know the history, I suppose, of the old wars between the Purples and the Greens?"
     "Why, I think so. Purple was the color of the Emperors. The Greens were the faction led by the research scientists that revolted and set up the democratic Green Hall. The last Emperor, Adam the Third, abdicated two hundred years ago."
     "Do you know why he abdicated?"
     "No. No, the books didn't say. I used to wonder."
     "I must tell you. It's important. The Emperors, you know, enjoyed despotic power. They were vastly wealthy; they commanded private space fleets and owned whole planets, outright. They ruled with an iron cruelty. The enemies they didn't liquidate were deported to Pluto.
     "An ancestor of mine, Charles Anthar, was shipped out—because of a chance remark in favor of free speech and free research, made to a man he thought a friend! The finest physicist in the System. He spent fourteen years in the cold dungeons of the Black Planet.
     "On Pluto, he made a scientific discovery. The theory he worked out in his dungeon by pure mathematics. That took him nine years. Then his fellow prisoners smuggled materials to him, to build the apparatus he had planned. I It was very simple, but he was five years finding the parts.
When it was finished, he destroyed the prison guard. Sitting in his cell, he forced Adam the Third to obey his orders. If the Emperor had refused, Charles Anthar could have wrecked the solar system.
     "Since, his discovery has defended the peace of the Green Hall. It is so very dangerous that only one person at a time is permitted to know it. Only this much of it has ever been put in writing—an abbreviation." She showed him, tattooed on a white palm, the letters ; AKKA.

     Aladoree was busy with the weapon. A tiny thing. It looked very simple, very crude, utterly useless. The parts of it were fastened to a narrow piece of wood, which was mounted on a rough tripod, so that it could be turned, aimed.
     John Star examined it—and failed entirely to see the secret of it. He was amazed again at its simplicity, incredulous that such a thing could ever vanquish the terrible, ancient science of the Medusae.
     Two little metal plates, perforated, so that one could sight through their centers. A wire helix between them, connecting them. And a little cylinder of iron. One of the plates and the little iron rod were set to slide in grooves, so that they could be adjusted with small screws. A rough key—perhaps to close a circuit through the rear plate, though there was no apparent source of current.

(ed note: here the word "key" is used in the sense of Morse code straight key)

     That was all.
     Aladoree made some adjustment to the screws. Then she bent over, sighting through the tiny holes in the plates, toward the red Moon, with the black specks of the enemy fliers against it. She touched the key and straightened to watch, with a curious, lofty serenity on her quiet, pale face.
     John Star had vaguely expected some spectacular display about the machine, perhaps some dazzling ray. But there was nothing. Not even a spark when the key was closed. So far as he had seen, nothing had happened at all.
     For a strange moment he fancied he must still be insane. It was sheer impossibility that this odd little mechanism—a thing so small and so simple that a child might have made it—could defeat the Medusae. Efficient victors over unknown planets and unknown ages, what had they to fear?
     "Won't it—" he whispered, anxiously.
     "Wait," said Aladoree.
     Her voice was perfectly calm, now without any trace of weakness or weariness. Like her face, it carried something strange to him. A new serenity. A disinterested, passionless authority. It was absolutely confident. Without fear, without hate, without elation. It was like—like the voice of a goddess!
     Involuntarily, he drew back a step, in awe. They waited, watching the little black flecks swarming and growing on the face of the sullen Moon. Five seconds, perhaps, they waited.
     And the black fleet vanished.
     There was no explosion, neither flame nor smoke, no visible wreckage. The fleet simply vanished. They all stirred a little, drew breaths of awed relief. Aladoree moved to touch the screws again, the key.
     "Wait," she said once more, her voice still terribly —divinely—serene. "In twenty seconds . . . the Moon . . ."
     They gazed on that red and baleful globe. Earth's attendant for eons, though young, perhaps, in the long time-scale of the Medusae. Now the base of their occupation forces, waiting for the conquest of the planets. Half consciously, under his breath, John Star counted the seconds, watching the red face of doom—not man's now, but their own.
     "... eighteen . . . nineteen . . . twenty—"
     Nothing had happened. A breathless, heartbreaking instant of doubt. Then the red-lit sky went black.
     The Moon was gone.
     "The Medusae," Jay Kalam whispered, as if to assure himself of the unbelievable, "the Medusas are gone." A long moment of silence, and he whispered once more: "Gone! They will never dare—again!"
     "I saw—nothing!" cried John Star, breathlessly. "How— ?"
     "They were annihilated," said Aladoree, strangely serene. "Even the matter that composed them no longer exists in our universe. They were flung out of all we know as space and time."
     "But how— ?"
     "That is my secret. I can never tell—save to the chosen person who is to keep it after me."

     Bob Star stood watching his mother, frowning with a puzzled anxiety. With the stern regret with which she had made that terrible decision still lingering on her face, she had turned quickly away from him and his father. She was bent now over a small table of polished Venusian scarletwood, busy with a few little objects she had gathered from about her person: her watch, a pen and a mechanical pencil, a metal ornament from her dress, an iron key.
     "Must I go?" he whispered.
     She looked up at him, with a grave little smile.
     "You may stay," she said. "Since one day you are to become the keeper of the peace. Though there's very little to see." She glanced at the harmless-seeming objects on the little table. "You could watch a thousand times without learning the secret," she added, "because the control of AKKA is more than half mental."
     She was busy again. With a deft skill that seemed to show long practice, she unscrewed the barrel from the pen and removed two tiny perforated disks from the back of the watch. Upon the mechanical pencil, whose working parts provided a fine adjustment, she began assembling a tiny, odd-looking contrivance. The platinum chain of the ornament seemed to form an electrical connection, and the clip from the pen would function as a key.
     Bob Star peered at it, and whispered unbelievingly.
     "Is that little gadget—all there is?"
     "It's all there is to see." Her fine eyes came back to him for an instant, frowning with the gravity of her task. "This little device is merely the lever," she said. "The force that moves it is mental. The fulcrum on which it works—" Her pale lips drew stern. "The fulcrum is the secret."
     Bob Star shook his head, staring at that tiny instrument.
     "You mean that you destroyed the Moon, when those other invaders from the Runaway Star had made their fortress there—with only that for a weapon?"
     "With the same sort of lever." She glanced at John Star, and he gave her an awed little smile, as if they both were living again through that dreadful instant. "I made that one from bits of wreckage from the bombed Green Hall, and parts of a broken toy."
     Bob Star leaned closer, dazedly.
     "It seems impossible that you could destroy anything so vast as the comet—with only that!"
     "Size doesn't matter," she said quietly. "Neither does distance. This little device you see is only the lever, remember, through which that force can be applied to any object in the universe." She glanced up again, still frowning with her preoccupation. "The effect is a fundamental, absolute change in the warp of space, which reduces matter and energy alike to impossible absurdities."
     Bob Star was silent for a moment, breathless. He shrank back a little, shaken with a startled dread, from this gravely smiling woman. She was his mother no longer, but something as strange and terrible as the Cometeers must be. Shining on her face was a calm, passionless serenity.
     "Mother—mother," he whispered huskily. "You're like —like a goddess!"
     It seemed strange that she should hear him, in her remote detachment. But she turned to him soberly, and said: "It's lonely, Bob—being a goddess."
     Her eyes left him. For a few moments she worked in silence, assembling the device. But presently she paused again, to look up at him.
     "Bob, there's one thing you ought to know now, since you've been chosen to be the next keeper. That's the reason there must be only one keeper—the reason you must wait for the secret, until the doctors find that it is no longer safe with me."
     He stood listening, cold with a troubled expectation.
     "There is one limitation to the use of AKKA." She hesitated, frowning at him soberly. "Even the existence of that limitation is a high secret, which you must not repeat."
     He nodded, waiting breathlessly.
     "To use the same figure of speech," she said quietly, "there is only one fulcrum."
     "Huh?" His breath caught. "I don't understand."
     "There's just one fulcrum," she repeated quietly. "That is not a literal statement, but it's all I can say before you are to be entrusted with the secret. What you must understand is simply this: If two people know the secret, and try to use their levers at the same time, neither can succeed. It would be entirely useless to the two of us, if we tried to use it independently."
     "I see." He stepped toward her quickly, moved by a sudden dread. "What happens to you?" he whispered sharply. "After you have told me?"
     "Nothing painful." Her gray eyes looked up again, shining with a serenity that he couldn't understand. "You can see that the knowledge must not be left where it might be unsafe."
     "You mean—" He knew what she meant, but suddenly he couldn't say the words. "Aren't you afraid?"
     She shook her head. To his amazement, she was smiling.
     "I don't mind," she whispered softly. "You won't, after you have been the keeper of the peace as long as I have. I suppose that last duty of the keeper must seem a terrible penalty, to you today. But there comes a time when you see that it is the final, most fitting and most precious reward for our special service."

     She picked up the tiny device, and carried it to the vast west windows. Following, Bob Star was shaken with a puzzled dread. He wet his lips, and whispered hoarsely:
     "Can you use it safely, here inside the building? And find the comet, without a telescope?"
     "I can." She glanced back gravely. "It's mental force that moves the lever. There's no danger to anything except the object at which it is directed. And a telescope would be only in the way, because light's too slow to show the target where it is. What I've called the fulcrum, remember, is something outside space and time."
     She had turned to lift the small device, her slender hands white with her tension but yet oddly steady. She seemed to be sighting through the peepholes in the two tiny metal disks—though the comet, now by day, was invisible to Bob Star's eyes. Her finger was moving to touch the key when John Star sprang to catch her arm.

     "It's so small!" he protested breathlessly. "Made of such common things! It looks so insignificant—beside the Invincible. As if it couldn't really destroy—anything!"
     "This is only the lever." She lifted it on her small palm, almost casually. She must have seen the awed wonder in his eyes, for she added quietly: "I carry it taken apart and the parts disguised, as another measure of security. Yet, even if the assembled instrument fell into hostile hands, there would be no danger. No manipulation of the instrument itself can have any effect, unless you know the fulcrum and the force."

     "While I was still at the academy, I obtained secret access to a secret library, and studied there all the existing accounts of the use of AKKA since the time of its discovery by your mother's great ancestor, Charles Anthar —while he himself was a prisoner, guarded almost as carefully as I am.
     "The last recorded use of the weapon had been to destroy Earth's old satellite—after it had been seized and fortified by the Pretender's unsuspecting allies. With my foster father's space yacht, I searched the orbit the satellite had followed. I finally found three small metallic buttons.
     "No larger than the end of my thumb, they were all that remained of the Moon. I have since come to realize how very fortunate I was to find a single atom. It was only because your mother was working hastily, with a crudely improvised instrument, that the annihilation of the heavy elements was not quite complete.

     But Lilith seemed unaware of any of us. Working very deftly and quickly, she was assembling her weapon. The parts of it were oddly small and simple. She used a worn iron nail and a twist of wire that old Habibula produced, two or three pins from her hair, and her platinum ring —the red-eyed grin of that dull black skull gave me an unpleasant start, but now at last I thought I understood what it meant.
     In a few seconds, the thing was done.
     Holding it in one steady hand, she pointed it toward that bolt on the stars. She moved her thumb, pressing the end of a bent hairpin against that platinum band. The death's-head leered redly at me.

From THE LEGION OF SPACE by Jack Williamson (1934)

Hand-to-Hand Weapons

  • Force Knife: Perhaps one of the inspirations for the Light Saber (with another being Niven's variable sword).
         And as he did that, Bigman moved, too. No eye at the table saw the details of that move, since it flashed with the speed of a striking snake, but Urteil's roar ended in a shout of dismay.
         Urteil's hand, which had come down with such hard finality, now showed the carved metallic haft of a force-knife growing out of it.
         Bigman's tenor voice rose in delight. "Spread your fingers, you tub of mineral oil. Spread them and then grease back down into your seat."
         Urteil stared at his small tormentor without understanding for a moment and then very slowly spread his fingers. His hand was not hurt, not a sliver of skin had been removed. The force-knife stood quivering in the hard plastic table top, an inch of its waveringly luminescent force-blade (it wasn't matter, merely a thin field of immaterial force) in sight. The knife had entered the table, working its way neatly and unerringly between the second and third finger of Urteil's hand.
         Urteil snatched his hand away as though it were suddenly in flames.
         Bigman crowed with delight and said, "And next time you reach a hand in Lucky's direction or in mine, you cobber, I chop it right off. What would you say if I told you that? And whatever you say, say it politely." He reached out for the force-knife, deactivating the blade as he seized the haft, and returned it to its inconspicuous holster on his belt.

    (Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury by Isaac Asimov, 1956)

  • Ionic Blade: In the comic book, among Killraven's weapons is the ionic blade. It is described as having been invented by some University of California grad student in a successful attempt to created an edged weapon that causes wound damage beyond the boundaries of the metal blade.
    (Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds 1973)

  • Phonic Stiletto: Curious, he kneeled to examine the object clutched convulsively in the assassin's right hand: a short, grayish metal cylinder that looked much like pewter. A tiny red light was still gleaming near the cylinder's middle.
         Flinx found a loose scrap of pavement and passed it carefully between the out-pointing end of the cylinder and the air. There was a tiny ping, and a millimeter- wide hole appeared in the thick section of stone.
         To protect the many inquisitive children prowling the night streets of Drallar, Flinx touched a stud at the haft of the weapon. The red light went out. A repeat pass with the stone did not produce a puncture. Flinx pulled the tiny device free of its former owner's death grip.
         This Qwarm toy was a phonic stiletto. It generated a thin beam of sculpted sound that would put a hole through just about anything. It fit neatly in a man's palm, generator and all, was easily concealed, and was almost impossible to detect or defend against.

    (The End of the Matter by Alan Dean Foster, 1977)

  • Stokes coagulator: Some sort of sidearm mentioned in passing in the Heinlein novel. Presumably it coagulates living human tissue the same way boiling water turns a fresh egg into a hard-boiled egg.
         The term was later borrowed for use in John McEwan's STARGUARD SF miniatures rules (1974). It went on to make further appearances in Gamma World (1978), Space Marines (1980), and Space Opera (1981). In the Heinlein novel it is implied that the weapon resembles a pistol. In the games the weapon is more like a deadly cattle prod, where the hot end has to be physically touched to the target. This might have been inspired by Alexei Panshin's "Curdler" or the "Tingler" from his Anthony Villiers novel series (1968). A related weapon is the "congealer" from Philip E. High's Butterfly Planet (1971) which makes an instant blood clot. This is favored by assassins because it gives the illusion their target died from a natural heart attack.
    (Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, 1942)

  • Variable Sword: Perhaps one of the inspirations for the Light Saber (with another being Asimov's force knife). A handle resembling that of a jump rope, which extends a Sinclair molecule chain, stiffened by a Slaver stasis field. Since the chain is only one atom wide, it will cut through anything. The length of the blade is user-controlled, or totally retracted when not in use. There is a tiny glowing red ball on the end, since the molecule chain is difficult to see.
    (Ringworld by Larry Niven, 1970)

  • Vibroblade (If This Goes On): 'He won't come to,' answered Magdalene's calm voice out of the darkness. 'I slipped a vibroblade in his ribs.'
         'Zeb, I had to do it. Be glad I didn't use steel and mess up the floor with blood.
    (If This Goes On... by Robert Heinlein, 1940)

  • Vibroblade (Unwise Child): A vibroblade is a nasty weapon. Originally designed as a surgeon’s tool, its special steel blade moves in and out of the heavy hilt at speeds from two hundred to two thousand vibrations per second, depending on the size and the use to which it is to be put. Make it eight inches long, add serrated, diamond-pointed teeth, and you have the man-killing vibroblade. Its danger is in its power; that shivering blade can cut through flesh, cartilage, and bone with almost no effort. It’s a knife with power steering.
         But that kind of power can be a weakness as well as a strength.
         The little gadget that Mike the Angel carried did more than just detect the nearby operation of a vibroblade. It was also a defense. The gadget focused a high-density magnetic field on any vibroblade that came anywhere within six inches of Mike’s body.
         In that field, the steel blade simply couldn’t move. It was as though it had been caught in a vise. The blade no longer vibrated; it had become nothing more than an overly fancy bread knife.
         The trouble was that the power unit in the heavy hilt simply wouldn’t accept the fact that the blade was immovable. That power unit was in there to move something, and by heaven, something had to move.
         The hilt jerked and bucked in the kid’s hand, taking skin with it. Then it began to smoke and burn under the overload. The plastic shell cracked and hot copper and silver splattered out of it. The kid screamed as the molten metal burned his hand.
    (Unwise Child by Randall Garrett, 1962)


A lightsaber is the archetypal cool weapon that every geek wanted the instant they saw it in the first Star Wars movie (1977). Indeed in some surveys it has been rated as the most popular weapon in cinema history. Viewers didn't care that nothing in the real world can act like that.

Apparently it is considered ostentatious to spell it "lightsabre."

You can bet the farm that it has become a TV Trope.

Antecedents in science fiction include:


  • Light-Sword from Kaldar, World of Antares by Edmond Hamilton (1933).
         The operating principle is never explained, but the weapon appears to be a long rapier. When a button in the hilt is pressed and held, energy released into the blade makes it shine with light.
         Anything touched is "annihilated instantly." In the story a hero uses a light-sword on a locked metal door, which promptly twists and melts.
         Of course two light-swords can block and parry each other as if they were conventional swords. However they are described as being as light as fencing foils, so you can parry really fast. If you drop a light-sword, the button in the hilt clicks off and the blade's power goes dead.

  • Rods of Wrath from Gather, Darkness by Fritz Leiber (1943)
         The rods are more like laser beams in that their length is either infinity or the first solid object they hit, whichever is shorter. Which makes duels very hard on any innocent bystanders.
         However "the tactics were those of sabreurs - feint, cut, parry, swift riposte."

  • Force Knife from Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury by Isaac Asimov (1956).
         It has the handle that looks like a conventional dagger-hilt, but the blade is a force field. A thin film of luminescent immaterial force. It can be forced to cut through pretty much anything made of matter, but if you, say, stick it into a table top it will stay there. A hilt floating in the air with a couple of centimeters of glowing force field exposed.

  • Variable Sword from Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970).
         This was a filament of Sinclair Molecule Chain stiffened by a stasis field. Since the blade was only one molecule thick it could slice through anything made out of matter (with the possible exception of a General Products hull).
         The hilt had a roll of molecule chain and could extend the length to as the user desired (hence the "variable" part of the name). The chain had a tiny glowing light on the end so the user could see how long the blade was. The actual blade was invisible. The hilt looked like an "over-sized jump rope handle.
         A length of molecule chain not stiffened by a stasis field would flop, creating a whip-like weapon more dangerous to the user than to their target. An stasis-stiffened molecule chain can cut through anything made of matter except cloth woven out of molecule chains.

  • Energy Baan from The Pastel City by M. John Harrison (1971).
         These are used by the Methven, an order of knights sworn to protect their empire. Hmmmm.


  • Laser Sword from Kirlian Quest by Piers Anthony (1978)
         The sword looks like a hilt. Twin laser beams shoot out and meet about one meter from the hilt. There the twin beams interfere with each other and phase out, creating an elongated triangle which is vaguely sword shaped.
         The beams will also make an opponent's laser sword phase out, truncating their (and your) sword to the point of intersection. Your opponent's limb or other body part will not make your beam phase out, the limb will just be of little use to your opponent thereafter.

  • Energy Sword from The Micronauts (1979)
    The Acroyers of planet Spartak are fond of full body armor and swords which crackle with electrical energy when you push the "on" button situated on the blade's hilt.

  • Raypier from Camalot 3000 (1982)
         The knights use "raypiers", and ward them off with disk-shaped energy shields projected from gadgets that resemble wrist watches. The energy shields are wielded much like an old time Viking wooden shield.

  • Bloodsword from the Star of the Guardians series by Margaret Weis (1990)
         These are very similar to Star Wars lightsabers, but with some disturbing and icky differences.
         The user can mentally switch the sword from sword-mode into shield-mode and back again.
         There is no power source. The hilts have needles which jab into your palm so the sword can power itself from your blood. Apparently it runs off ATP.
         If you are not of the Blood Royal genetic line, the nanotechnology harvesting your ATP will cause a sort of galloping cancer that will kill you within days. If you are lucky.

An anti-grav belt around her supple waist labored to support an energy-epee, a beam-cutlass, an atomic broadsword, a space-rapier, six tactical nuclear throwing stars and a brace of micro-gatling pistols.
Plan 7 of 9 from Outer Space

The laser blade is a melee Energy Weapon, with a cutting edge made of Pure Energy, giving it Absurd Cutting Power. It also allows for a Clean Cut the way a regular sword does not. Despite their Absurd Cutting Power, sword fights between two Laser Blade wielders are still possible thanks to the fact that Like Cannot Cut Like. Generally a type of Impossibly Cool Weapon, they require a lot of Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but are generally awesome enough to be worth it.

Laser blades exist purely because of the Rule of Cool. Glowing is cool, so Power Glows, therefore a weapon that's actually made out of glow must be really powerful. In real life, making such fancy swords is Awesome, but Impractical when Frickin' Laser Beams decide war, but then again, laser blade duels are frickin' awesome, and that's enough justification to be showed on-screen. Another possible in-universe justification in that the duelists are somehow invulnerable to ranged weaponry, whether thanks to Deflector Shields, The Force or any other such Applied Phlebotinum, thus forcing the revival of old-school sword martial arts with laser blades.

Note that, although the most prolific Trope Codifier is the lightsaber, you'll almost never see the word "lightsaber" outside of that particular franchise for understandable legal reasons. Thus, such blades are given any variety of slightly less majestic monikers, such as "beam saber", "energy sword", "plasma knife" and, for the paronomasiacs, "laser blade." (because it sounds like "razor blade", get it?) The energy blade concept tends to be Older Than They Think; the Trope Maker is the "force knife" from the Lucky Starr novels written by Isaac Asimov under the pen-name Paul French in the 1950s.

Sometimes, especially in video games, a laser blade may be mounted on a fighter ship. This version is even more of an Impossibly Cool Weapon than the usual melee variety.

A Sub-Trope of Elemental Weapon, Laser Cutter, Cool Sword, Absurd Cutting Power, Energy Weapon, Hard Light, Impossibly Cool Weapon.

A Sister Trope to Flaming Sword, Hot Blade, Ray Gun.

Alternative Title(s): Lightsaber, Laser Sword, Light Sabre, Beam Sword, Energy Blade

For a huge list of examples click here

From LASER BLADE entry from TV Tropes

However, this research about clumping photons made the rounds a while ago.

At the risk of crushing the dreams of some readers: Remember: "Star Wars" is science fiction. But what do scientists know that could, in theory, reveal how to build a lightsaber?

The movies show that lightsabers are glowing blades about 4 feet (1.2 meters) long. They clearly contain a tremendous amount of energy and can quickly melt large amounts of metal. This suggests that these weapons must contain a powerful and compact energy supply. They can cut through flesh without any difficulty, yet their hilts are not so hot as to burn the hand that holds them. Two light sabers will not pass through each other, and there are different colors of scintillating blades.

Given the name and appearances, the first obvious thought is that perhaps lightsabers consist of some kind of laser. However, this hypothesis is easy to rule out. Lasers don't have a fixed length, as you can determine using a simple laser pointer. Further, unless the light is somehow scattered, a laser is essentially invisible as it passes through the air. Neither of these characteristics describes a lightsaber.

Plasma blades?

A more realistic technology is a plasma. Such a material is created by stripping a gas's atoms of their electrons, a process called ionization. This stripping causes the material to glow. A plasma is a fourth state of matter, after the familiar three states of solid, liquid and gas. You have seen examples of plasmas all of your life. The glow of a fluorescent light is a plasma, as are neon lights.

Those plasmas seem pretty cool, as one can touch the tubes without singeing any fingers. However, plasmas are typically rather hot, on the order of several thousand degrees. But because the density of the gas in a fluorescent light tube is so low, even though the temperature is high, the total amount of heat energy is very low. An added complexity is that the electrons in the plasma have a much higher energy than the ionized atoms from which the electrons originated. For example, the heat energy in a cup of coffee (which has a much lower temperature) is much higher than the energy stored in a fluorescent light.

Some plasmas can actually generate considerable heat. These are called plasma torches. The principle is the same as a lightbulb, but with more electrical current involved. There are many ways to make a plasma torch, but the simplest one employs two electrodes and a flowing material, usually a gas such as oxygen, nitrogen or something similar. A high voltage on the electrodes ionizes the gas, converting it into a plasma.

Because a plasma is electrically conductive, it can convey a large electrical current to the target material, heating it up and melting it. While such a device is called a plasma cutter, it is really an electrical arc cutter (or welder), as the plasma actually acts as a conductor to let an electrical current flow through it. Most plasma cutters work best when the material being cut is a conductor, as the material can therefore complete the circuit and send the arc's electrical current back to the cutter device by means of a cable clamped to the target. There are even twin torches, with electricity passing between two torches, allowing the user to cut non-conductive materials.

So plasma torches can generate regions of great heat, but the electrical characteristics are problematic, mostly because of the need to have large amounts of electrical current flow and because lightsabers don’t seem to have that characteristic.

Are lightsabers simply ultra-hot plasma tubes, then? Not necessarily, as a plasma acts somewhat like a hot gas, which expands and cools, just like an ordinary fire (which is often a plasma, albeit an incomplete one, as can be seen by the fact that it glows). So if a plasma is the base technology of a light saber, it needs to be contained.

Luckily there is a mechanism for doing this. Plasmas, being composed of charged particles (some with very high velocities), can be manipulated by magnetic fields. In fact, some of the more promising technologies involved with nuclear fusion research use magnetic fields to contain plasmas. The temperatures and total energy contained in fusion plasmas are so high that they would melt their metal containment vessels.

So this is promising for lightsabers, too. Strong magnetic fields, coupled with a very hot and dense plasma provide a candidate method for creating a lightsaber. However, we're not done.

If we had two magnetically contained tubes of plasma, they'd pass right through one another … so no epic lightsaber duels. For that, we need to figure out a way to make a solid core for the sabers. And the material that makes up the core would have to be impervious to the hot temperatures.

One possible material would be ceramics, which can be brought to very high temperatures without melting, softening or distorting. But a solid ceramic core doesn't work: When not in use, the hilt of the lightsaber dangles from the belt of a Jedi, and the hilt is maybe 8 or 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) long. So the ceramic core would have to spring out of the hilt much in the same way plastic toy lightsabers work.

Raw power

So that's my best guess for how to build a lightsaber, but even this design has problems. For instance, in "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope," Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off an alien's arm in the cantina in Mos Eisley with a single, effortless swipe, just as Darth Vader sliced through Obi-Wan. This sets some serious constraints on how hot the plasma would have to be. (Maybe the Darth Vader cut doesn't count, as Obi-Wan's body disappeared. Clearly something else is going on there.)

And in "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace," Qui-Gon Jinn sticks his lightsaber in a heavy blast door, first making a long cut and then simply melting it. If you watch the sequence, assume the door is steel, and time how long it takes to heat up the door and melt the metal, you can calculate the energy the saber must have. It turns out to be about 20 megawatts (MW). Given an average household power consumption of about 1.4 kilowatts (kW) at all times, the power draw of a lightsaber could run 14,000 average American houses until the battery ran out.

A power source of that density is clearly beyond current technology, but perhaps we can grant that the Jedi have advanced technology. They do have faster-than-light travel, after all.

However, there is a physical problem. That kind of power means that the plasma would be incredibly hot, and at a distance of only a few inches from the hand of the sword wielder. And heat is irradiated in the form of infrared radiation. The Jedi's hands should be essentially instantly charred. So some sort of force field must keep in the heat. And yet, the blades appear to be using optical wavelengths, so the force field must contain infrared radiation, but let visible light through.

Such technical investigations lead inevitably to invocations of unknown technologies. But once you've done that, it is easy to simply say that the lightsaber consists of some kind of concentrated energy stored in a force field.


Problem #1: Creating a short blade

Probably the most fundamental issue is that a lightsaber’s blade needs to stop short after a couple of feet. But a laser beam, just like any kind of light, never just ‘stops’, unless something in its way absorbs or reflects the energy.

A laser-powered lightsaber would therefore be extremely unwieldy, not to mention constituting a real health and safety nightmare. Allow the slightest lapse of attention during a battle and you could accidentally decapitate your best friend or slice off your own toes.

One solution would be to cap the end of blade with a mirror to confine the beam, but this would mean that you couldn’t stab anyone. Plus, building a structure to hold the cap in place would take all the elegance and grace out of a lightsaber.

Problem #2: Size

Producing a high-powered laser beam requires a lot of kit. Although some pretty amazing advances in technology have seen high power lasers shrink in size, you’d also need some kind of cooling system to prevent the system from overheating. This fundamental requirement means you’d be hard pressed to build a light saber that you could physically carry on your back, let alone pull off any fancy sword tricks with.

Problem #3: Powering the blade

This brings us on to the question of power. Lasers strong enough to do any proper damage need serious amounts of energy, so your light saber couldn’t run on standard batteries. You’d probably have to plug yourself into the mains - which might not go down so well on an enemy ship (even if the ship’s owner was actually your dad).

Problem #4: More combat issues

Since as we’ve seen, a laser beam is easily reflected, it would be easy for your opponent to shield themselves with a mirror, or even turn your lightsaber’s blade back against you: possibly a bit embarrassing.

What’s more, clashing lightsaber blades would be impossible – the beams would just pass straight through each other and make for a very boring duel.

In conclusion, lightsabers as depicted in Star Wars will never be a reality. Although advances in technology could perhaps one day solve the power and size issues, the basic problem of blade length really puts a downer on things. Unless in the next 50 years physicists come up with something even better than lasers.


Reason #1: The Science of Light

Let’s begin with the lightsaber as it is seen and described in the Star Wars films themselves. It appears to be a beam of light, generally around four feet in length.

We first see a lightsaber when Obi-Wan Kenobi hands one to Luke Skywalker, who proceeds to rather recklessly activate it and swing it around. They can be wielded in the same manner as our Earthly swords, and have the ability to slice through anything and deflect blaster bolts.

The first problem with such a blade is that light has no mass. There is no way for light to have the properties such a sword would require. Light isn’t hard enough to repel even another light, let alone long-range projectiles.

Researchers from MIT and Harvard found a way to bond photons together in a way that allowed them to behave as though they had mass. They said comparing this new discovery to lightsabers was “not an in-apt analogy.”

Don’t let their puckish language fool you. The newly-bound photons do interact with each other in a way that has never been seen, but they aren’t doing the noisy clash that lightsabers do when they are slammed together.

The second problem with having a blade of light: There is no way to stop a shaft of light at a particular length without some kind of a cap. Even if we were to assume that the light in a lightsaber is harmful, the saber would be robbed of stabbing capacity if it had a cap.

Reason #2: Impossible Combat

Lightsabers in Star Wars are treated as the be-all and end-all of weapons, capable of slicing through just about anything and deflecting blaster bolts. In this scenario the only effective defense against a lightsaber is another lightsaber.

We’re used to seeing “hard light” in video games such as Portal, but there’s really no basis in reality for that. So in the real world, a blade of light could easily be deflected by any reflective surface you had to hand. A lightsaber’s heat might be the source of its ability to slice through almost anything, but heat would not explain how it can be used to fence.

Lightsabers are wielded as if they have the same weight as Earthly swords. In the Original Trilogy, they are held with two hands and treated as if they weigh about the same as a longsword. In the Prequel Trilogy, we see them held one-handed and the experienced Jedi obviously have sophisticated fencing forms.

But having a blade made of light would be to have a “blade” with no mass. There is no reason for the Jedi to wield the blades as someone would a real sword.

Reason #3: Plasma Is Hot

The films are a bit scant on information about how the lightsabers work, but the non-canonical “Expanded Universe” has quite a bit to say on the subject. According to several novels and comics, lightsabers are supposed to be plasma, refracted through special crystals.

The main ingredient in the construction of a lightsaber, coming as a surprise to no one, is The Force. Lightsabers are powered by plasma units, which cause the plasma “light” to be bent through the crystal, which is supposedly how the blades can be different lengths and colors. The Force is supposed to be what makes all of this work.

Leaving aside the space magic, there’s a big problem with that: Plasma is hot. Even “cold” plasma is too hot for the human hand to hold.

I guess we’re meant to assume that’s why the lightsaber is able to cut through just about anything, though it doesn’t explain why it has the ability to deflect blaster bolts. But unless something in a galaxy far, far away has given humanoids the ability to withstand temperatures that hit four digits Fahrenheit, it would not be physically possible to wield a plasma sword.Reason #4: Inadequate Power

No matter what material the blade is actually made from, it would have to have a power source. This would add a lot more bulk to the sleek blade than you might think.

Let us assume that the lightsaber is somehow a functioning blade of plasma or “hard light” and is hot enough to cut through almost any substance. Powering something like that is not the work of standard batteries or gunpowder. You would probably need a separate sustained power source, which you would have to carry about your person. Something tells me that would cut down on your maneuverability.

There was a military weapon in development a few years ago that was called a “real-life lightsaber.” It was a Metal Vapor Torch, a small metal tube which released a plume of super-heated plasma that lasted for all of a few seconds and didn’t behave in any way like the elegant rapier of the films.

The reason it burned out so fast was because the amount of chemical fuel contained in the handle was only enough to power it for so long. A lightsaber would need to have an astronomical amount of power in order for it to have a stable blade for any length of time.


Primitive Weapons

  • Where The Air Quivered: In the 1898 story with the same name by L. T. Mead and Robert Eustace, the assassin uses a deadly box that kills without a trace. The rear end is covered with a rubber membrane, the business end has a hole, with a hinged flap. The interior is full of deadly anhydrous hydrogen cyanide gas. Tapping the rubber membrane fires an invisible vortex ring (like a smoke ring) of cyanide gas at the victim, killing them in sixty seconds flat.
         Before you dismiss this as a Victorian steam-punk Rube Goldberg device, understand that the US military and police departments are looking into high-tech versions of this for firing targeted rings of tear gas and pepper spray as a crowd control device.
         Smoke ring guns were once popular as toys, and it is fairly easy to construct DIY versions of small guns or large air cannons. Do a search on YouTube for "vortex cannon". But please do not fill it with anything more dangerous than incense smoke or perfume.
         I made one of these when I was a boy. I cut the bottom off an empty coffee can, put the can's stay-fresh plastic lid on the bottom, and a second lid on the top (this one with a seven-centimeter hole in the middle, about half the diameter of the can). Inside was a holder for stick incense. Worked like a champ!

  • Spring Gun: citizens can obtain licenses to own and carry non-lethal stunners and lethal hand lasers. Unfortunately Jern Murdoc, though cleared of the charges against him, is still forbidden either license for a year. On the primitive planet, his ally Ryzk the scout cobbles together a spring gun that fires needle darts. And Jern the jewel merchant has some flawed Zoran stones. Upon the first cutting the shards of the gemstones are deadly toxic. They use sharp shards to tip the darts.
    (Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton, 1969)

  • Blowgun (Ariel): one fine day the laws of physics changed, so that technology didn't work but magic did. In the post-apocalyptic world Pete Garey uses a blowgun, because it is a ranged weapon and the ammunition is relatively easy to make. You cut lengths of piano wire to make the darts. Heat the end in a fire, then melt the hot end through a plastic bead just big enough to fit the inside of the blowgun.
         Ranged weapons are a plus, allowing one to damage your opponent while they are too far away to hit you with a sword or club. Bows are hard to master and manufacturing worthwhile arrows is very difficult.
    (Ariel by Steven R. Boyett, 1983)


(ed note: Our Heroes have been inadvertently taken to an alien planet by an abandoned alien starship running on autopilot. It's a long story.

Anyway the planet contains the ruins of a long-dead alien galactic empire. They meet a tribe of friendly creatures who evolved from alien pets. Unfortunately for the tribe their cutting-edge technology is the spear, and there are lots of huge savage predators with nasty pointed teeth. In particular there are some sizable red weasels.

The tribe helps Our Heroes find some equipment they need. So one of the heroes (a native American named Travis), while looking over the piles of alien junk, suddenly has an idea how to repay the tribe for their help.)

     When they were gone, the chief and his retinue after them, Ross looked about him with dissatisfaction written plain on his face.
     “There’s nothing worth grubbing for here.”
     Travis had picked up a length of the tubing, to examine it in the full light of the window. The section was four feet or so long and showed no signs of erosion or time damage. The alloy was light and smooth, and what its original use had been he did not know. But as he ran it back and forth through his hands an idea was born.
     The winged men needed better weapons than the spears. And to make such weapons from the odds and ends of metals they had found in this litter required forging methods perhaps none of the visitors, not even Renfry, had the skill to teach. But there was one arm which could be made—and perhaps even the ammunition for it might also exist in the unclassified masses on the floor. It was not a weapon his own people had used, but to the south others of his race had developed it into a deadly and accurate arm.
     “What’s so special about that tube?” Ross asked.
     “It might be special—for these people.” Travis held it up, put one end experimentally to his lips. Yes, it was light enough to be used as he planned.
     “In what way?”
     “Didn’t you ever hear of blowguns?”
     “The main part is a tube such as this—they’re used mostly by South American Indians. A small splinter­arrow is blown through and they are supposed to be accurate and deadly. Sometimes poisoned arrows are used. But the ordinary kind would do if you hit a vital point, say one of those weasel’s eyes—or its throat.”
     “You begin to make sense, fella.” Ross hunted for a section of pipe to match Travis’. “You plan to give these purple people a better way to kill red weasels. Can you make one to really work?”
     “We can always try.” Travis turned to the clustering children and gestured, getting across the idea that such sections of pipe were now of importance. The junior assistants scattered with excited hums as if he had loosed a swarm of busy bees in the room.
     As Travis had hoped, he was also able to discover the necessary material for arrows there. Again their original use was unknown; but at the end of a half hour’s search he had a handful of needle-slim slivers of the same light alloy as the pipes themselves. Since he had never built or used a blowgun and knew the principles of the weapon only through reading, he looked forward to a period of trial and error. But at last they gleaned from the room a wealth of raw materials for experiment.

     Travis set the mouthpiece of a blowgun to his lips and puffed. A thin, shining sliver, tipped with a fleecy tuft, sped—to hit on his improvised target of a red-veined leaf and pin it more securely to the trunk of a fern tree ten feet away. He was absurdly pleased with the success of his trial shot. He moved back another four feet and prepared for a second test. All the while the low humming of his enthralled native audience buzzed bee-fashion across the clearing.
     When he was able to place a second dart almost beside the first, his satisfaction was close to complete. With a crooked finger Travis beckoned to the winged youth who had helped to carry the newly manufactured weapons to the testing ground. He handed over the tube he had just used; picking up a second, slightly longer, from the selection on the ground.
     The young warrior laid his spear on the leaf mold, hooking his clawed toes over its shaft while he fumbled with the blowgun. Raising the weapon to his mouth, he gave a vigorous puff. Not as centered as Travis’ shot had been, the sliver hit the tree slightly above the leaf. Two other natives, their wings unfolding slightly as they ran, hurried to inspect the target, and Travis, smiling and nodding, brought his hands together in a sharp clap of approval.
     They needed no more urging to try this new weapon. Tubes were snatched, passed from hand to hand, with some squabbling on the outer fringes of the gathering. Then each took his turn to try shooting, with varying degrees of success. They halted from time to time to pick the target clean of ammunition, or put up another leaf over the tattered remnants of the last.
     Several of Travis’ pupils had sharpshooters’ eyes, and the Apache believed that with practice they could far surpass his own efforts. When the midday sun bit down on the range, he left the blowguns with the enthusiastic marksmen and went to hunt up his crew mates.

     They made a last trip to the record library transporting back to the ship and stowing away in every available storage place all the record tapes which appeared to be intact. The chief of the natives, delighted with the blowguns, allowed them to choose other objects from the tribe’s treasure room. He only asked that they return in time, bringing with them new knowledge to share.

From GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton (1959)

Moving as little as possible, he shifted the snuffler from its resting place. The meter-and-a-half-long tube of green wood was six centimeters around at its back end, narrowing to barely one at its tip. Gently he slid it out on the hump of wood in front of him. It rested there motionless, like a leafless twig. He sighted it on the cistern. Reaching into the quiver slung across his back under the cape, he pulled out one of the ten-centimeter-long thorns it held. Holding it carefully by its fan-shaped tail end, where it had been snapped from the parent plant, he slid it into the open back end of the snuffler.

The sack slung next to the quiver produced a tank seed. It was bright yellow, veined with black and slightly bigger around than a man’s fist. Its leathery surface was taut as a drum. Born eased it into the back of the snuffler, then latched the backblock in place. Above, the rustling had become a crashing and bending of thick branches.

Wrapping his right hand around the pistollike trigger and using the other to steady the long barrel, he settled himself on the weapon, still as a statue.

At the sound of Born’s imitation of a female flowerkit’s danger call, the (animal's) big head came up and around and stared directly at him. Letting out a short, nervous breath, the hunter pulled hard on the trigger. Inside the barrel a long, sharpened sliver of ironwood shot backward, punctured the tank seed’s stretched skin. There was a soft bang as the gas-filled seed exploded. The compressed gas was further compressed by the narrowing barrel of the snuffler. Thus propelled, the (poison) jacari thorn shot outward and hit square center of the grazer’s flat, bristly face, just above the mouth and between the two eye stalks.

From MIDWORLD by Alan Dean Foster (1975)

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is High Specific Impulse Gas Core Reactors

This week's featured addition is the Calculating the Future with John Barne's Model

This week's featured addition is 10-meter Orion Mars Mission

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon