In traditional 1950's SF nomenclature, a "blaster" is a type of lethal weapon which melts, vaporizes, or disintegrates the target with a blast of energy (generally atomic), a "needler" is a type of lethal weapon which punches long but narrow holes in the target either by deadly threadlike beams or with needle bullets, and a "stunner" or "stun gun" is a non-lethal weapon that renders the (living) target unconscious. A "fulgurator" or "bolt gun" is a weapon that shoots lightning or electricity, it is more or less an electron particle beam weapon. A conventional sidearm that shoots bullets is called a "slug-thrower."

The technical term for lasers and particle beam guns is "directed-energy weapon". The old term is "ray-gun", but nowadays this seems retro, quaint, and faintly comedic. Much like the term "space cadet."

Luke Campbell notes that a continuous beam laser can be called a "heat ray", and a pulse beam laser acts much like a "blaster."

And for all you young whipper-snappers who are under the misapprehension that science fiction started with the first Star Wars movie: "blaster" dates back to 1925 in Nictzin Dyalhis' When the Green Star Waned, "disintegrator ray" dates back to 1898 in Garrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars, "needler" dates back to 1934 in E.E."Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Valeron, and "stunner" dates back to 1944 in C. M. Kornbluth's Fire-Power. Isaac Asimov invented "force-field blades" in his 1952 novel David Starr, Space Ranger, which was the father of the light-saber.

Our square-jawed, steely eyed rocketeers have to be adequately armed. But you have to take the surroundings into account. One shot from an atomic fission blaster might guarantee that Killer Kane never menaces the spaceways again, but you won't live to collect the reward if it also vaporizes a hole in the hull the size of Roger Manning's ego. On the other hand, trying to swing a cutlass in free fall is an exercise in futility. The gallant crew of the Polaris had paralo-ray pistols but it would be nice to have something more believable.

Joules (J)TNT EquivalentNotes
8.0 × 10010.019 gram.22 short round
13mm Gyrojet round at 2 meters from muzzle (too close, little damage)
1.0 × 10020.024 gramFirecracker (50 mg of black powder)
4.75 × 10020.114 gram9mm Luger Parabellum round
5.2 × 10020.124 gram.38 Special round
5.4 × 10020.129 gram.45 ACP round (Colt M1911)
9.4 × 10020.225 gram.357 Magnum round
9.5 × 10020.227 gram13mm Gyrojet round at 18 meters from muzzle (rocket at full speed and maximum damage)
1.009 × 10030.241 gram.22 Centerfire Hornet round
1.2 × 10030.287 gramLaser bolt from a Luke Campbell light laser pistol (60 pulses of 20 J each, spaced 4 microseconds apart)
1.308 × 10030.313 gramM1 Carbine round
1.4 × 10030.335 gram3.5 g AK-74 bullet fired at 900 m/s
1.56 × 10030.373 gram.44 Magnum round (AutoMag)
1.6 × 10030.382 gramLaser bolt from a Luke Campbell medium laser pistol
1.822 × 10030.435 gram5.56mm Remington NATO round
2.045 × 10030.489 gram7.62mm Soviet AK-47 round
2.56 × 10030.612 gram.30-30 Winchester round
3.2 × 10030.765 gramLaser bolt from a Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol
3.3 × 10030.789 gram9.33 g NATO rifle cartridge fired at 838 m/s
3.469 × 10030.829 gram.303 Lee-Enfield round
3.744 × 10030.895 gram.308 Winchester round
7.62x51mm NATO round
4.184 × 10031 gram= 1 microton
4.8 × 10031.2 gramsLaser bolt from a Luke Campbell assault laser
6.822 × 10031.6 grams.458 Magnum Winchester "Africa" round
9.04 × 10032.2 grams.450 Magnum Dakota round
1.0 × 10042.39 gramsLaser bolt from a Luke Campbell battle laser (50 pulses of 200 J each, spaced 10 microseconds apart)
1.0187 × 10042.44 grams.460 Magnum Wetherby "elephant gun" round
1.7149 × 10044.1 grams.50 Browning machine gun round
3.0 × 10047 gramspower pack magazine of Luke Campbell light laser pistol (25 full power bolts)
4.0 × 10049.6 gramspower pack magazine of Luke Campbell medium laser pistol (25 full power bolts)
4.8 × 100411.5 gramspower pack magazine of Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol (15 full power bolts)
5.4 × 100412.9 grams20 mm autocannon round
1.3 × 100531 gramsAnti-personnel land mine
2.1 × 100550 gramsSingle round of depleted uranium from an A-10 Warthog's GAU-8 rotating cannon (1,800 rpm)
8.4 × 1005200 grams1 stick TNT
9.5 × 1005226 gramsHand grenade
1.0 × 1006239 gramspower pack magazine of Luke Campbell battle laser (100 full power bolts)
1.2 × 1006287 gramspower pack magazine of Luke Campbell assault laser (250 full power bolts)
3.6 × 1006860 grams1 kilowatt hour
4.184 × 10061 kilogram= 1 milliton
6.1 × 10061.4 kilogram120mm Tank Gun KE Ammunition (KEW-A1)
2.1 × 10075 kgAnti-tank mine
3.9 × 10079.3 kgImpact energy of proposed Navy 64 megajoule railgun
1.2 × 100828 kg1 gallon of gasoline
1.42 × 100828 kgVaporize a human body, leaving skeleton (turn all water into steam)
1.8 × 100843 kg1 microgram of antimatter + 1 microgram of matter
5.3 × 1008127 kgBattleship Iowa 16 inch shell with 54 kg high explosive charge
8.5 × 1008203 kg1 second of output from an average commercial nuclear power reactor (850 MW)
1.9 × 1009454 kgTomahawk cruise missile (TLAM-C)
3.0 × 1009717 kgTotally vaporize a human body, including skeleton (break all atomic bonds)
1.77 m5' 10"White male height in 50th percentile
2 mAverage range of a confrontation with a handgun
7.6 mMaximum effective range of Taser X-26
9 mUpper range of most confrontations with a handgun
12 mLength of US city bus
18 mGyrojet round has accelerated to maximum velocity and maximum damage
23 mRule of thumb range, beyond which it would make more sense to use a slugthrower long-arm instead of slugthrower handgun
50 mRule of thumb maximum effective range of slugthower handgun
Effective focus range for a Luke Campbell medium laser pistol
100 mRange for full damage of bolt from a Luke Campbell heavy laser pistol
109.728 m360'Length of US NFL football field
150 mMaximum effective range of AK-47 grenade launcher
250 mEffective focus range for a Luke Campbell assault laser
270 mMaximum effective combat range of M1 carbine
Length of US BB-62 battleship New Jersey
300 mMaximum average range of infantry engagement
350 mEffective range of AK-47 rifle
Range for full damage of bolt from a Luke Campbell battle laser
365 mRange at which 13mm Gyrojet rounds loses effective velocity
444 mHeight of Empire State building
460 mEffective range of M16A1 rifle
600 mMaximum effective range of M4 carbine
Maximum effective range of M16 rifle (point target)
800 mMaximum effective range of M16 rifle (area target)

Basic Safety

In many SF novels, the captains of space passenger liners and tramp freighters will require all weapons capable of breaching the ship's hull to be surrendered and locked away for the duration of the voyage. Upon planetfall they will be returned to the owner.

But hull holes might not be a primary concern, it is going to take the better part of an hour before air loss through a bullet hole is a problem.

Mike Williams notes that it isn't just the hull that is vulnerable to stray shots. There is plenty of equipment you don't want to damage or it will spray corrosive chemicals / shut down the oxygen / make the atomic reactor go critical / do something else equally nasty. Space Patrol cadets are warned not to give asteroid pirates any ideas (e.g., don't take cover next to a large fluorescent orange pipe with the label "DANGER: LIQUID SODIUM" stenciled right next to the skull and crossbones)

The safest policy (for the ship at least) is to forbid firearms on board. But this isn't really an option. As Dr. John Schilling said:

Part of the Space Patrol's mission will involve checking out suspicious, rather than overtly hostile, activity, as with the present Coast Guard. If you know that Space Transport THX-1138 has been seized by Space Pirates (tm) who slaughtered the entire crew, you can lase it from a thousand kilometers away. If you're only guessing on the basis of some strange comm traffic, you've got to put a boarding party on the ship. If they are unarmed, you are only sending the pirates hostages.

From Dr. John Schilling

      Captain Ramius: [during a shootout in the submarine missile room] Hey, Ryan, be careful what you shoot at. Some things in here don't react too well to bullets.
     Jack Ryan: [mutters] Yeah, like me. I don't react too well to bullets.
     [Moves closer to enemy, who fires several shots at him]
     Jack Ryan: I have to be careful what I shoot at?


Proper markmanship includes grip, aiming, breath control, trigger squeeze, target engagement, and positions. Don't rely upon what you see in Hollywood movies, most of it is utterly worthless. Especially holding your pistol sideways, with your palm down.

And there will be a few slight difference with different types of weapons. For instance, slugthrowers have plenty of recoil, gyrojet rocket guns have a small amount of recoil, and laser weapons have no recoil at all.

Excerpts from FM 3-23.35 Combat training with pistols. Refer to the manual for other factors not touched upon below. Images from Wikimedia Commons. Sidearm pictured is a Beretta 92F


One Hand Grip

Hold the weapon in the nonfiring hand; form a V with the thumb and forefinger of the strong hand (firing hand). Place the weapon in the V with the front and rear sights in line with the firing arm. Wrap the lower three fingers around the pistol grip, putting equal pressure with all three fingers to the rear. Allow the thumb of the firing hand to rest alongside the weapon without pressure. Grip the weapon tightly until the hand begins to tremble; relax until the trembling stops. At this point, the necessary pressure for a proper grip has been applied. Place the trigger finger on the trigger between the tip and second joint so that it can be squeezed to the rear. The trigger finger must work independently of the remaining fingers. NOTE: If any of the three fingers on the grip are relaxed, the grip must be reapplied.

Two Handed Grips

The two-hand grip allows the firer to steady the firing hand and provide maximum support during firing. The nonfiring hand becomes a support mechanism for the firing hand by wrapping the fingers of the nonfiring hand around the firing hand. Two-hand grips are recommended for all pistol firing. WARNING Do not place the nonfiring thumb in the rear of the weapon. The recoil upon firing could result in personal injury.


The qualification course is fired from a standing, kneeling, or crouch position. During qualification and combat firing, soldiers must practice all of the firing positions described below so they become natural movements. Though these positions seem natural, practice sessions must be conducted to ensure the habitual attainment of correct firing positions. Practice in assuming correct firing positions ensures that soldiers can quickly assume these positions without a conscious effort. Pistol marksmanship requires a soldier to rapidly apply all the fundamentals at dangerously close targets while under stress. Assuming a proper position to allow for a steady aim is critical to survival.

NOTE: During combat, there may not be time for a soldier to assume a position that will allow him to establish his natural point of aim. Firing from a covered position may require the soldier to adapt his shooting stance to available cover.

Mozambique Drill

The Mozambique Drill, also known as the Failure Drill, Failure to Stop drill, or informally, "two to the chest, one to the head," is a close-quarters shooting technique that requires the shooter to fire twice into the torso of a target (known as a double tap to center of mass), rapidly assess whether the target has been stopped, and follow up if necessary with a more difficult head shot that, if properly placed, will instantly kill.

Theory and technique

The Mozambique Drill is intended to ensure that the target is immediately stopped, by first placing two shots into the larger, easier-to-hit mass of the upper body, then, if the target is still active, following with a third, more precisely aimed and difficult head shot. Due to factors such as body armor, the bolstering effect of drugs, or failure to hit vital organs, the body shots may not be immediately effective, necessitating the third shot. To guarantee instant incapacitation by impacting the brain and central nervous system, the head shot must be delivered to the area between eyebrows and upper lip, otherwise, various bony areas of the skull could deflect the bullet.

From the Wikipedia entry for MOZAMBIQUE DRILL

Double Tap

A double tap is a shooting technique where two shots are fired in rapid succession at the same target with the same sight picture (different from the controlled pair, where a second sight picture is acquired for the second shot). Instruction and practice of the double-tap improves overall accuracy as shooters often do not have the gun fully extended on the first shot meaning the second of a double-tap is usually the better. The term hammer is sometimes used to describe a double tap in which the firearm's sights are not reacquired by the shooter between shots.


In the double-tap technique, after the first round is fired, the shooter quickly reacquires the sights for a fast second shot. This skill can be practiced by firing two shots at a time, taking time between the shots to reacquire the sights. With practice, the time between shots grows shorter and shorter until it seems to the observer as if the shooter is just pulling the trigger twice very quickly.

There is a natural arc of the front sight post after the round is fired and the recoil kicks in. The soldier lets the barrel go with this arc and immediately brings the front sight post back on target and takes a second shot. The soldier does not fight the recoil. In combat, soldiers shoot until the enemy goes down. For multiple targets, each target should receive a double tap.

From the Wikipedia entry for DOUBLE TAP

Palm Pistol

When you want your science-fictional sidearm to have that touch of the bizarre reminding the reader that they ain't in Kansas any more, palm pistols are startling abet impractical.

Instead of the weapon barrel positioned atop the user's fist as is conventional, it instead protrude from between the user's fingers. Either between the index (1st) and middle (2nd) finger, or between the middle (2nd) and ring (3rd) finger.

In the real world, such strange weapons are designed to be easily concealable or ergometric. The drawback is trying to fit the ammo and the firing mechanism in the palm of your hand.


The Protector Palm Pistol is a concealable design carrying seven .32 rimfire rounds in a "turret" rotary action. Since each bullet cannot be longer than the weapon's diameter, each round was really short. Which means each round had the stopping power of a whiffle ball.

The trigger rested against the ball of the user's thumb, firing was by squeezing the weapon. Reloading was time-consuming since you had to dismantle the entire thing.

Apparently the barrel could protrude between either fingers 1 & 2 or 2 & 3. Barrel between 3 & 4 was possible but awkward.

The target demographic appeared to be for those wanting inconspicuous defense or assasins.


The Constitution Arms Palm Pistol™ is an ergometric design that only has a single .38 special round, contained in the barrel. The trigger is a button on the top, activated by the thumb.

According to the documention it can be held so that the barrel protrudes between any pair of adjacent fingers you wish. Just in case the user had to have a finger amputated for medical reasons or something. The company also maintains that having only a single shot is not a bug, it's a feature.

It is for for when Granny's arthritic hands aren't what they used to be. Or according to the company: It is an adaptive aid intended for seniors, disabled or others with grip limitations due to hand strength, manual dexterity or phalangeal amputations.


In the Genesis II movie the pacifists of PAX use tiny pneumatic pistols firing "PAXer" darts containing knockout drugs.

It appears that the barrel must protrude between fingers 1 & 2.

Needle Gun 1

      This was another one of those times when Bigman was glad he carried a needle-gun even in the face of Lucky's disapproval. Lucky considered it an unreliable weapon, as it was too hard to focus accurately, but Bigman would sooner doubt the fact that he was as tall as any six-footer as doubt his own skill. When Summers didn't turn at Bigman's shout, Bigman clenched his fist about the weapon (of which only half-inch of snout, narrowing to a needlepoint, showed between the second and third fingers of his right hand) and squeezed just tightly enough to activate it.
     Simultaneously there was a flash of light six inches in front of Summers' nose, and a slight pop. It was not very impressive. Only air molecules were being ionized. Summers jumped, however, and panic, transmitted by the V-frog, rose sharply.
     "Everybody," called Bigman. "Freeze! Freeze! You split-head, underlipped miseries." Another needle-gun discharge popped the air, this time over Summers' head where all could see it plainly.
     Few people might have handled needle-guns, which were expensive and hard to get licenses for, but every­body knew what a needle-gun discharge looked like, if only from subetheric programs, and everyone knew the damage it could do…
     …"Am I? You're a brave man, Summers, when you've got fifty against two. Let's see you stay brave against a needle-gun. They're hard to aim, of course, and I might miss."
     He clenched his fist again, and this time the pop of the discharge was sharply ear-splitting and the flash dazzled all the spectators but Bigman, who, of them all, was the only one who knew exactly when to close his eyes for a moment.
     Summers emitted a strangled yell. He was untouched except that the top button on his shirt was gone.

Needle Gun 2

      The area before Devoure's offices was wide and bathed in the artificial light that reproduced Sirius's faintly bluish tinge. Bigman stood alone in the center, and at a hundred yards' distance were five robots. Others were approaching from another direction.
     "Come and get that," roared Devoure, gesturing to the nearer robots and pointing to Bigman.
     "They won't come any closer," roared back Bigman. "If they make a move toward me I shall burn your heart out of your chest, and they know I'll do it. At least they can't take the chance I won't." He stood there easily, mockingly.
     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.

From LUCKY STARR AND THE RINGS OF SATURN, by Isaac Asimov (1958)


In 1910, the U.S. Army adopted the classic "web belt", including grommets to allow holsters and other equipment to be attached. Variations on this were in use up to about 1997.

As befitting an interstellar desperado, Han Solo has a quick-draw holster for his blaster. Note how the blaster is slung low, so the butt of the blaster is level with his hand. The crew of the Starship Enterprise did not need holsters. Their phasers would stick to their hips by virtue of the "magnatomic adhesion areas" on the pistol grip (apparently some kind of high-tech velcro).

The valiant crew of the Space Battleship Yamato use "cross-draw" holsters. The butt of the cosmogun (this was anglicized to "astro-automatic" in the English translation) juts forwards, instead of backwards as is conventional. While this does make an interesting visual metaphor (making the butt look like the hilt of a samurai sword) in practice a cross-draw has problems. A quick draw from a cross-draw holster will be much slower than from a conventional holster, and as the sidearm is swung to the target, the barrel will sweep across innocent bystanders. It is also easier for an assailant at close quarters to prevent you from drawing your weapon. About the only advantages are that it is easier to draw if you are sitting down or in a fighter plane cockpit, or if the weapon is covered by a coat or other article of clothing.

In the original Battlestar Galactica, the weapon holster was a cylinder with a slot down the side, constructed of something springy. The laser pistol could be extracted from the holster by pulling it sideways out of the spring grip. Personally I always thought that it would make more sense to have the slot in the front instead of the side. This would allow the weapon to be extracted and swung up to firing position in one motion, instead of two (pull to the left then raise upward).



With a reaction built in from hundreds of hours of practice, Lt. Larry McQueen thought the gun into his hand.

To one practiced in the fast draw, this is enough to trigger the reflexes needed. The holster used by the Solarian Patrol finished functionality evolving hundreds of years previously. It was a hard piece of leather, rigidly attached to the wide belt so it would not bend, twist or flop when the gun was drawn; of hard leather so the gun to which it was fitted would not bind or stick. Across the top of the holster was a strap of leather connected to the side of the holster with a snap. The strap prevented the gun from falling out of the holster or being removed without the owner's knowledge. The end of the strap being curved out instead of flat against the side, indicated to those who knew the difference between an officer familiar with his weapon and one who was not.

In the fast draw the heel of the hand comes up along the side of the holster, striking the curved arc of leather, releasing the snap and moving it out of the way. The fingers take hold of the butt of the gun, moving it clear of the holster and turning it ready for firing. As the gun points, the thumb snaps off the safety and the gun fires. The whole operation takes considerably less than 200 milliseconds from intent to execution. The sequence of movements is automatic, since there is no time to think out any one of them.

More than one person has, under pressure, shot a hole in his foot because he didn't have the sequence under control. Others, thinking themselves able to draw like lightening, were dead because they tried to outdraw someone who had them covered.

From NEW LENSMAN by William Ellern

The colonist on the planet Pyrrus have the ultimate quick draw in a gadget called the "power-holster." The holster is strapped to your forearm. When you arrange your hand in "holding-a-pistol" posture, a mechanical actuator slams the gun out of the holster and into your hand.


"Every gun is fitted to its owner and would be useless on anyone else," Brucco said. "I'll show you why." He led Jason to an armory jammed with deadly weapons. "Put your arm in this while I make the adjustments."

It was a box-like machine with a pistol grip on the side. Jason clutched the grip and rested his elbow on a metal loop. Brucco fixed pointers that touched his arm, then copied the results from the meters. Reading the figures from his list, he selected various components from bins and quickly assembled a power holster and gun. With the holster strapped to his forearm and the gun in his hand, Jason noticed for the first time they were connected by a flexible cable. The gun fitted his hand perfectly.

"This is the secret of the power holster," Brucco said, tapping the flexible cable. "It is perfectly loose while you are using the weapon. But when you want it returned to the holster-" Brucco made an adjustment and the cable became a stiff rod that whipped the gun from Jason's hand and suspended it in midair.

"Then the return." The rod cable whirred and snapped the gun back into the holster. "The drawing action is the opposite of this, of course."

"A great gadget," Jason said. "But how do I draw? Do I whistle or something for the gun to pop out?"

"No, it is not sonic control," Brucco answered with a sober face. "It is much more precise than that. Here, take your left hand and grasp an imaginary gunbutt. Tense your trigger finger. Do you notice the pattern of the tendons in the wrist? Sensitive actuators touch the tendons in your right wrist. They ignore all patterns except the one that says hand ready to receive gun. After a time the mechanism becomes completely automatic. When you want the gun, it is in your hand. When you don't, it is in the holster."

Jason made grasping motions with his right hand, crooked his index finger. There was a sudden, smashing pain against his hand and a loud roar. The gun was in his hand-half the fingers were numb-and smoke curled up from the barrel.

"Of course, there are only blank charges in the gun until you learn control. Guns are always loaded. There is no safety. Notice the lack of a trigger guard. That enables you to bend your trigger finger a slight bit more when drawing so the gun will fire the instant it touches your hand."

It was without doubt the most murderous weapon Jason had ever handled, as well as being the hardest to manage. Working against the muscle burning ache of high gravity, he fought to control the devilish device. It had an infuriating way of vanishing into the holster just as he was about to pull the trigger. Even worse was the tendency to leap out before he was quite ready. The gun went to the position where his hand should be. If the fingers weren't correctly placed, they were crashed aside. Jason only stopped the practice when his entire hand was one livid bruise.

Complete mastery would come with time, but he could already understand why the Pyrrans never removed their guns. It would be like removing a part of your own body. The movement of gun from holster to hand was too fast for him to detect. It was certainly faster than the neural current that shaped the hand into the gun-holding position. For all apparent purposes it was like having a lightning bolt in your fingertip. Point the finger and blam, there's the explosion.

From DEATHWORLD by Harry Harrison


The weapon pictured on the right originally was created by Kelly Freas for the cover of a Telzey Amberdon book. Model maker Ed Klein liked the picture enough to create an actual prop model (with working laser) as a gift for Mr. Freas. Model was used in the Kelly Freas cover of the audio version of Slan, and in the above illustration at the insistence of Sean Barrett. It was also used by Laura Freas for an interior illustration of The Left Hand of Darkness. Anybody with scans of any of these image is encouraged to contact the webmaster.

The man known as DWP informed me of the address of Ed Klein's website. On it, I found the following:

This pistol was inspired by a cover painted by Frank Kelly Freas in the 1960's for Analog Science Fiction. Ed made the gun and installed freon jets, a gas laser, and a sound effect and carried it as his showpiece for many years. In 1983, Ed gave it to Kelly for his birthday, and Kelly uses it to this day as a laser pointer when he lectures.

Ed Klein

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