Less-Lethal Weapons

Both authorities in the real world and science fiction authors see the advantages in a weapon that would merely neutralize a person instead of kiling them dead. Unfortunately in the real world such weapons are unobtainium, 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 standard 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.

A more accurate term is "Less-Lethal weapon".

Riot Guns

In the world of law enforcement, a "riot gun" is a weapon firing less-lethal ammunition used by the police to suppress riots.

A few science fiction authors had the bright idea that such weapons may be useful for gun combat inside a spacecraft, since "less-lethal" is associated with "less likely to blow a hole in the hull and kill everybody by asphyxiation."

Obviously not all riot guns would be suitable inside a spacecraft. You'll probably want to use something based on impact rounds. No tear gas, pepper spray, smoke grenade, or other ammo that would contaminate the breathable atmosphere. It is not like you can open the window to let some fresh air in, if the atmosphere becomes unbreathable everybody dies.

      “Officer to see you, Admiral!”
     Drake glanced up from the screen before him.  Inset into the hatch to his space cabin was another screen.  On it were the features of the Marine who guarded his door and kept unwelcome visitors from disturbing him.  Something in the Marine’s manner told him that he would not have done so now had this merely been a casual interruption.
     “What officer, Yablonski?”
     “Commander Walkirk, Royal Sandarian Navy, sir.”
     “Send him in!”

     The hatch slid silently back into its recess, revealing the vacsuited figure of Corporal Lubo Yablonski, his helmet and riot gun both floating in front of him at the end of their short tethers, within easy reach.  Behind him floated Philip Walkirk, looking much less dapper than the last time Drake had seen him.  The prince’s uniform was rumpled, he was in need of a shave, and his eyes were sunken and had dark bags under them.
     Despite his appearance, the heir to the Sandarian throne executed a flawless zero gravity entrance into the presence of a superior officer.  He pulled himself along the handholds inset into the overhead and then used his arms to rotate his body into a semblance of an upright position.  He even managed a salute while holding himself braced between overhead and deck.


In current usage a riot gun or less-lethal launcher is a type of firearm that is used to fire "non-lethal" or "less-lethal" ammunition for the purpose of suppressing riots. Less-lethal launchers may be special purpose firearms designed for riot control use, or standard firearms, usually shotguns and grenade launchers, adapted to riot control use with appropriate ammunition. The ammunition is most commonly found in 12 gauge (.729 inches) shotguns and 37mm or 40 mm (1.46 inches/1.57 inches) grenade launchers.

In the United States, the term riot gun more commonly refers to a riot shotgun.


Less-lethal launchers can fire various sorts of ammunition:

  • Impact projectile. These rely on kinetic energy, e.g. baton rounds, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets etc.
  • Teargas cartridge, chemical riot control agent.
  • Pepper spray, chemical riot control agent.
  • Stun ammo
  • Smoke round
  • Different types of less than lethal shotgun shells.
  • Different types of less than lethal grenades.
  • Sound 180db Sound emitting electric Projectile
  • GLIMPS (Grenade-Launched Imaging Modular Projectile System). This is a 40 mm caliber projectile which contains a small camera which transmits television images of what it sees.

To avoid breaking the projectile up, less-lethal cartridges are often propelled by black powder, which when fired may make an eruption of sparks and smoke which is spectacularly large to those accustomed to modern cartridges propelled by more modern propellants

Impact rounds

Impact rounds come in a variety of shapes, sizes and compositions for varying roles. Impact rounds are made out of materials of much lower density than the lead normally used in bullets, are larger, and are fired at lower velocities. Rounds are designed with low mass, moderate velocity, and large surface area to prevent the rounds from penetrating the skin significantly or causing severe injury, so they merely provide a painful blow to the target: but instances have been reported where rubber or plastic bullets have caused significant injuries to the body or eyes, and in some cases caused death.

One broad classification of impact rounds is direct fire and indirect fire rounds. Direct fire rounds can be fired directly at the target, ideally targeted low on the target, away from vital organs that are more prone to damage from the impact. Indirect or skip fire rounds are intended to be fired into the ground in front of the target, where they dissipate some energy, and then rebound into the target.

Baton rounds

Baton rounds, often called rubber bullets or plastic bullets, are cylinders made of rubber, plastic, wood, or foam, and can be as large as the full bore diameter of the launcher. Smaller baton rounds may be encased in a shell casing or other housing. Baton rounds may fire one long baton, or several shorter batons. Harder or denser baton rounds are intended for skip fire, while softer or less dense batons are intended for direct fire. Baton rounds are the subject of significant controversy, due to extensive use by British and Israeli forces, resulting in a number of unintended fatalities.

Beanbag rounds

Beanbag rounds consist of a tough fabric bag filled with birdshot. The bag is flexible enough to flatten on impact, covering a large surface area, and they are used for direct fire. Beanbag rounds may be wide and flat, designed for close range use, or elliptical in shape, with a fabric tail to provide drag stabilization, for longer range use.

Rubber buckshot

These, also called stinger rounds, consist of a number of rubber balls ranging from around 0.32 to 0.60 inches (8.1 to 15.2 mm) in diameter, and are used for direct fire. The small diameter means that each ball contains far less energy than a baton round, but it also limits the range. Rubber slugs, used in 12 gauge firearms, consist of a fin stabilized full bore diameter rubber projectile. These are used for long range, accurate direct fire shots on individual targets.

Pepperball rounds

(ed note: not recommended for shipborn use, will contaminate atmosphere)

Pepper-spray projectiles, commonly called pepperballs, are direct-fire paintball-like capsules filled with a pepper spray solution of capsaicin. They provide a longer range, more user-friendly way to disperse pepper spray. Many sorts can be fired from paintball markers. Other sorts are designed to be fired from specially-designed pepperball guns whose muzzle velocity is greater than a paintball marker: if the velocity is not high enough the projectile will not break. As with paintball impacts, the capsule's impact is mildly painful and by itself can discourage rioters, but the pepper spray incapacitates and discourages more rioters than the capsule's impact.

Types of less-lethal launchers

Purpose-built launchers are commonly large bore guns, formerly 25 to 27 mm, modern versions are 37 to 40 mm. Dual-purpose guns are usually 12 gauge (18.5 mm) riot shotguns, firing special less-lethal shotgun shells.

Single-shot large bore launchers, such as the Milkor Stopper 37/38 mm riot gun, M79 Grenade launcher, ARWEN ACE, and RGS-50M, are generally break open designs. The barrels are relatively short, resulting in a carbine sized gun, and may have a shoulder stock and/or a forward handgrip to provide greater control. Pistol launchers do exist, but they are generally only used for short range, muzzle dispersing chemical agents.

Multishot large-bore launchers, such as ARWEN 37, are usually in the form of a revolver holding five or six rounds in the cylinder. Unlike normal revolvers, the cylinder of a revolving riot gun is too massive to be turned easily by the trigger pull, and is usually turned by a pre-tensioned spring or by a pump action.

Shotguns used for riot control are nearly always in 12 gauge, as that is the gauge in which nearly all riot control rounds are made. Generally riot shotguns are used, such as some models of the Remington 870 and Mossberg 500. Due to the reduced power of riot control rounds, there is insufficient energy to cycle the actions of gas operated and recoil operated firearms, so riot shotguns are manually operated, usually pump action. The advantage of using a riot shotgun for riot control is that the shotgun is a dual use firearm, and can switch quickly to and from the riot control role by changing the ammunition. The downside is that it can fire lethal projectiles, and so extra care must be taken in its use to prevent the wrong ammunition from being used.

A recent addition to the class of riot guns is the pepper ball gun, an example of which is the FN 303. This is essentially a paintball marker, either purpose built for riot control, or modified from a commercial paintball marker. The pepper ball guns use special pepper spray ammunition based on paintball technology, consisting of a gelatin capsule filled with the riot control agent. The guns use compressed gas and provide semiautomatic fire, and the pepperballs act just like paintballs, fracturing on impact and splattering the chemical agent on impact. These can be used for direct fire, to break the balls on the target, or indirect fire, breaking near the target and spraying the agent into the target's vicinity.

Police have been known to use paintball guns loaded with paint projectiles, to mark particular rioters so that police can easily identify and arrest them later.

Some weapons discharge teargas as a solution in water: see Category:Teargas solution squirters.

From the Wikipedia entry for RIOT GUN

This article refers to shotguns designed for use by law enforcement officers and civilians. For related variants intended for military use, see combat shotgun.

A riot shotgun is a shotgun designed or modified for use as a primarily defensive weapon, by the use of a short barrel and sometimes a larger magazine capacity than shotguns marketed for hunting. The riot shotgun is used by military personnel for guard duty and was at one time used for riot control, and is commonly used as a door breaching and patrol weapon by law enforcement personnel, as well as a home defense weapon by civilians. Guns of this type are often labeled as breaching shotguns, tactical shotguns or special-purpose shotguns to denote the larger scope of their use; however, these are largely marketing terms.


The primary characteristic of a riot shotgun is a "short" barrel (generally 14 to 20" long; 18" is the shortest length available in the U.S. that is not subject to additional federal BATFE regulation, though such restrictions are rarely a problem for police departments and thus shorter-barrel shotguns are not uncommon among police) which makes the shotgun more compact and easier to handle, easier to stow inside a police vehicle, and more suitable for quick aiming at (close) stationary targets. Generally they have an open (cylinder-bore) choke, to permit the shot to spread quickly and to allow use with other types of projectiles, and they may be equipped with bead, rifle, or ghost-ring sights. Riot guns are most often pump-action due to this design's lower cost and higher reliability, although in recent years a number of semi-automatic shotguns designed primarily for defensive use have become available and are used by military, law enforcement and civilians alike.

Most riot guns are chambered in 12-gauge and can handle either 2.75" "standard-length" or 3" "magnum" cartridges. Most non-shotshell loads, such as less lethal ammunition like bean bags, are made only in 12-gauge. However, 20-gauge and .410 shotguns in riot gun configuration are available. Smaller bores are popular for home defense, as the reduced power and recoil make them more suitable for less experienced shooters who may be more recoil-sensitive.

While most hunting shotguns hold between 2 and 5 shells (often 3 shells, to comply with U.S. regulations for migratory bird hunting), riot shotguns can have a magazine tube as long as the barrel, allowing for 6 to 10 shells to be loaded depending on the model, barrel length, and type of shells loaded. Standard capacity magazine tubes are also used on riot shotguns. For example, the popular Remington 870 Police model riot shotgun often ships and is used with the stock 4 round magazine tube by Law Enforcement personnel.

Configurations of grips and stocks for riot shotguns vary widely, but often feature reinforced plastic "furniture" instead of the wood common on hunting firearms. Wood was used for riot gun stocks in the past, and sometimes still is. As compared to hunting shotguns, riot guns more often feature pistol grips, with or without a shoulder stock. Without a shoulder stock (or with a folding stock), a riot shotgun becomes more compact and thus is able to be brought to bear more rapidly in very close quarters. With the stock, the pistol grip facilitates control of the weapon and provides a more ergonomic grip when the shotgun is fired from the shoulder. Foregrips, or forends, also vary, often with the inclusion of a pistol-grip fore-end (further increasing control and absorbing recoil), and/or the addition of an accessory rail or other mounting point for a tactical light.

The multiple projectile ability of a shotgun greatly increases the probability of a hit on an assailant, and the multiple projectiles increase the likelihood of a disabling hit. Though many sizes and configurations of shotshell are used by police, among the most common is the 12-gauge 2​-inch (70 mm) 00 ("double-aught") buckshot shell, which consists of 8 or 9 .33 caliber (8.5 mm) round lead balls, each of which is similar in size and velocity to a 9mm/.38 caliber handgun bullet (which actually have a diameter of .354-.357"). This shot spreads out to a greater or lesser degree depending on the barrel choke, and can be effective at ranges as far as 75 yards (70 m). Also popular is the #4 buckshot load, which sacrifices individual pellet size (each pellet is about .24 caliber) for greater numbers (usually 21 pellets per shell) and is very effective at most indoor ranges (<50 feet), where the shot has less distance in which to scatter and thus hits the target in a relatively localized pattern. "Deer slugs" (1 oz rifled slugs) provide a powerful, accurate shot with minimal spread, but more risk of overpenetration. "Hybrid" loads combining different sizes of shot, or a slug and shot, are available but less common. These cartridges generally advertise a compromise or "best of both worlds" between the power of slugs or buckshot and the spread of smaller pellets.

The delivery of the large number of projectiles simultaneously makes the shotgun the most effective short range weapon commonly used, with a hit probability 45% greater than a submachine gun, and twice as great as an assault rifle. The ability to use shotgun slugs extends the range and penetration capability of the shotgun. Police officers in the US commonly secure a shotgun in their vehicles, for use when armed resistance is expected or at any time greater firepower than the officer's sidearm is needed.

Riot vs. combat shotguns

The difference between the riot shotgun and the combat shotgun is blurry, and may be more a matter of application than design. A combat shotgun would be used in military combat situations as a primarily offensive weapon, where a riot shotgun would be used in law enforcement or civilian situations as a primarily defensive weapon. Common additions to a combat shotgun would be provision for attaching a bayonet, and the addition of a ventilated heat shield over the barrel (though this heat shield is a common addition to riot shotguns as well) designed to prevent the operator's fingers from being burned by a barrel heated by multiple shots, and thus to allow the operator to secure a full grip on the weapon while using the attached bayonet, even when the barrel is far too hot to touch (otherwise, there is little reason to enshroud the barrel and hinder the cooling airflow). One or both of these features can be seen on many military long-arms, including the 1903 Springfield, the SMLE, M1 Garand, and Mauser rifles, to name some of the more obvious types. The U.S. Army specifications for shotguns require a metal trigger guard for durability, which reduces the number of "special purpose" models used by police that would also be suitable for the military (the Mossberg 590A1 and Benelli M1014 are the standard-issue pump and semi-auto shotguns currently in service; the standard Mossberg 500 and 590 models, and most variants of the Remington 870, have plastic trigger groups).

Riot shotguns are also more limited in range than combat shotguns by the nature of their use. A combat shotgun is considered effective out to 75 yards (70 m) because on average at least 1 pellet of a 9 pellet 00 buckshot load will hit a human sized target at that range. This is enough to degrade the combat effectiveness of an enemy soldier, but it is not enough to reliably disable an assailant in a defensive situation. For that, there must be multiple hits to the target, enough that one or more pellets will hit a vital region. Generally this is well under 27 yards (25 meters) with a cylinder bore barrel. Beyond this range, slugs and good iron sights are recommended, extending the range to over 109 yards (100 meters).

Less lethal alternatives

The latter part of the 20th century saw a new role for the riot shotgun, with the advent of a wide variety of less lethal ammunition for police use. These vary from the early "bean bag" shooting flexible baton rounds, rubber bullets and other impact munitions, to tear gas and, released in October 2009, a 12 gauge electroshock weapon from TASER International. Using the shotgun as the delivery system allows the officers to quickly choose a lethal or a less lethal weapon, so responding officers can adapt to changing situations; An officer in a standoff can quickly eject a chambered buckshot cartridge and replace it with a less-lethal cartridge such as a bean bag, and is not required to unload the magazine as with most rifles or handguns. Alternatively, one officer can be equipped with less lethal munitions, while others, equipped with buckshot, can provide a backup in case the less lethal rounds fail to stop the target.

Entry and breaching shotguns

The entry shotgun or breaching shotgun is a role that can be filled by a standard riot shotgun, or one further modified for these purposes. They may have an extremely short barrel (14" or less) and often only a pistol grip rather than a buttstock, or a folding or collapsing buttstock if it is provided with one. In addition, the barrel often has a muzzle brake, used to disperse hot gases that might otherwise be deflected toward the shooter. This type of shotgun is designed to fire special breaching rounds which are designed to disable or destroy door latches while limiting overpenetration of the projectiles used beyond the door. Since these shotguns would in most areas be classified as short barreled shotguns, they are highly restricted under gun control laws such as the National Firearms Act and generally only used by police and military.


Pellet shotguns have been used in Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia for breaking up protests. Since 2010, in the Indian state of Jammu Kashmir, police forces have used pellet shotguns (known locally as pellet guns or pump action guns) as a 'non-lethal' defensive crowd control measure against violent, stone pelting mobs in the region. The usage of pellet shotguns in Jammu and Kashmir has been widely criticised.

In the United States of America, the use of shotguns by police officers is in decline. Many agencies have adopted patrol rifles for increased precision and better range when compared to shotguns. However, many agencies retain the shotguns for use by newer officers and for less-lethal munitions.

From the Wikipedia entry for RIOT SHOTGUN


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.


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 scalded 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, mutineers, and hijackers. 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)

Tranquillizer Gun

A tranquillizer gun is a compressed air gun shooting darts with a hypodermic needle tip, charged with a dose of tranquilizing drug which is either sedative, comatosing, or paralytic (or with deadly curare if you are not fooling around). Upon impact, an internal metal ball continues forwards, acting as a syringe to inject the drug.

These won't damage the ship, but have other problems.

For starters there is the previously mentioned drawback that a drug dose which 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. The dosage depends upon the target's body mass, which is very hard to estimate in a combat situation. Tagging the target with too few darts will just slow them down, too many may kill them with an overdose.

Some targets may suffer adverse side effects from the drugs used in the darts.

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

The problem is the target can kill or seriously injure you in three seconds flat. The fact that they keel over 27 seconds later is of no consolation whatsoever.

All these problems are the reason that no military or police force bothers stocking tranquilizer guns in their arsenals.


Tasers are questionable utility if you are having a shoot-out inside a spacecraft. Easily defeated by armor, and many pieces of vital spacecraft equipment do not take kindly to a charge of 20,000 volts.

The colorful name for the operating principle of a taser is "tetanizing current". This means electric current contracting a muscle to the point of tetanus. This is usually a current with a frequency between 50 and 200 Hz for normal muscles.

Commercial tasers also have "drive stun" mode. This allows the taser to be used as a pain compliance technique. In other words it turns the blasted taser into a cattle prod. Do what I say or I'll give you another agonzing zap to a tender part of your anatomy. In the US the Police Executive Research Forum recommended police avoid using drive stun mode, advice which is routinely ignored.

Physicst Luke Campbell has an interesting variant on the taser, the "wireless" taser. Instead of firing two barbed darts trailing power cables, this weapon shoots two ultraviolet laser beams. The beams create ionized trails in the atmosphere, which can conduct the taser current much like the taser wires. The concept was developed for a game, but it could work in reality. With the slight problem of making a person-portable ultraviolet laser with enough power.


(ed note: Note this is for the GURPS role playing game. Do not worry about any strange game terminology you might encounter)

A remote electroshock stun (or RES) gun uses a pair of ionization channels produced by ultraviolet laser light as a conductor for an electric current which shorts across the target. The electrical discharge has a pulse shape chosen to mimic the signal nerves use to make muscles contract. Consequently, all of the victim's voluntary muscles will suddenly cramp up for as long as he is exposed to the beam. The full contraction of all of the victim's muscles at full strength is extremely fatiguing, and after a few seconds the victim will lack the energy to move.

When triggered, the electric current flows down one of the parallel beams, passes through the target, and returns along the other. These channels are not focused beams — they keep a near-constant width for their entire path. They need to be wide — several centimeters at least — in order to provide enough ionized charge carriers to conduct electricity. The higher the concentration of ionization, the more rapidly ions recombine with their electrons and the faster the charge carriers disappear. A wide ion channel allows the same number of charge carriers at a lower concentration, and thus allows the channels to be formed with less power lost to re-ionizing the channels. The ion channels glow with the blue-violet light of ionized nitrogen, produce a buzzing sound, and produce the fresh-pungent smell of ozone. On contact with the target, an initial high voltage allows the current to arc across an air gap and several millimeters of intervening material to make electrical contact with the victim. Once current is flowing, the voltage is limited to produce a constant current flow chosen to minimize the chance of serious harm while allowing incapacitation.

If the stun beams both contact the same piece of metal or other good conductor (or a different conductor with a conductive path between them, such as chain mail), the beam shorts across the conductor instead of the victim and the victim is unaffected. Even a single layer of aluminum foil is enough to block the beam, and just one un-insulated copper wire will suffice to short out the stun effect. Insulators, on the other hand, will not block the beam if they are thin enough — the high-voltage driven current will arc through the insulator to produce a conductive channel. … each millimeter of air between the end of the ionization beams (for example, where they are blocked by clothes) and the target provide DR 1 (game damage resistance value of 1) for the carrier damage to break through. Any material, clothing, or armor that is woven or porous counts as air, since the arc can pass through the air between the fibers if the fibers have a higher breakdown field than the air. Otherwise, every millimeter of intervening material gives DR 4 (or more, for materials specifically designed for insulation against high voltages, up to DR 10). Usually, the protective value of light clothing or woven armor can be neglected, but if needed the thickness of armor can be found using the rules given on the main beam weapons page under rules for burning through armor (remember to multiply by 10 to get thickness in millimeters). Light clothing can be assumed to be 1 DR, a light jacket 5 DR, and heavy winter clothes 15 DR. Loose clothes with lots of drapery, such as flowing robes or dresses, provide a DR of 10 in hit locations where the cloth is loose and hanging, or more for hoop skirts or other exotica. Remember that the beams are several centimeters wide and the arc will occur where there is the least resistance, so that they can usually find some portion of clothes that are close to the skin even if much of the clothes are held further away by folds, overlapping sections, and drapery.

Wet skin has less electrical resistance — the victim (feels the injury more strongly) if his skin is wet. On the other hand, humid air causes the electrons in the ion channels to recombine with their ions more rapidly, increasing the resistance of the air and reducing the range. In wet or humid weather, the ½D range may be reduced to as little as 1/5 its listed value. Stun guns do not work at all underwater.

Stun guns are specifically designed to incapacitate humans without killing them. This involves causing skeletal muscle to contract while not affecting cardiac muscle. By necessity, they were developed by testing on other mammals, and they should be equally effective against other vertebrates. However, their effect on non-vertebrates is unknown. Against alien life forms, there is no knowing what may happen.

Stun beams are claimed to be unable to cause life threatening conditions to humans. The basic safety mechanism exploits the fact that skeletal muscles responsible for voluntary motion need to react quickly, while cardiac muscle merely needs to keep a powerful but steady beat. Stunners apply current in short pulses - just long enough to trigger skeletal muscle but, in theory, far too short to significantly affect the relatively sluggish heart muscle. Certainly, deaths that can be attributed to stun beams are very rare and are not always clearly the fault of the stun beam (the victim may have died anyway, possibly exacerbated by the stress of arrest or restraint). GMs who decide that, in their setting, stun guns can occasionally kill may have people in poor health, with known severe cardiac conditions, or affected by strong stimulants suffer a Heart Attack on a critical failure of the resistance roll if the beam hits the Vitals hit location, without taking the initial -6 penalty into account (that is, if the roll would have been a critical failure without that penalty, the victim suffers the Heart Attack). Even if unwanted heart attacks are impossible, this does not mean that stun guns are necessarily safe. Victims who are swimming, operating vehicles or heavy machinery, or who would be in danger if they fall, may end up injured or killed as a side effect of falling down or being unable to act. There is also a minor risk to the user under certain environmental conditions - it is strongly advised not to point a RES beam at high voltage wires, electrical transformers or other unshielded high voltage equipment, or thunder clouds.

While the default behavior of a stun beam is to cause uncontrolable muscular contractions (so called electro-muscular disruption, referred to here as the stun effect); some models allow the current, voltage, waveform, and pulse duration can be changed to give different effects. Two common choices are:

  • Prod: Also called "drive stun", the prod setting causes pain but not necessarily incapacitation. Failure of the resistance roll causes Severe Pain for so long as the beam is in contact with the victim, which can be used to motivate compliance or elicit motion or a reaction (particularly from livestock). Even success on the resistance roll by 3 or less will cause Moderate Pain for the duration of the beam contact. Failure by 5 or more causes stunning, with a HT roll to recover each second.
  • EMP: Parallel conductors can act as a waveguide for microwave frequency fields. This setting produces a microwave-frequency pulse which is directed by the ion channels. Any machine, equipment, or character with the Electrical disadvantage will be disabled if it fails its resistance check at the same penalty a living being would have for resisting stun. If it fails by 5 or more, it will require major repairs before it will work again. Otherwise, flipping circuit breakers, replacing fuses, or just powering down and powering back on will suffice to bring it back to working order (this will take one minute and a successful Electronics Repair + 5 or IQ roll).

    EMP pulses transmit through armor differently than stun pulses. Anything or anyone with active Scanning Sense (radar), Scanning Sense (imaging radar), or Telecommunication (radio) without the appropriate Protected Sense can have no defense against EMP other than the basic resistance roll. Otherwise, a conductive shell will provide +3 to HT. Armor otherwise provides no protection. The usual protection against EMP is Resistant, which can represent circuit breakers, robust electronics, or electronics located inside of a Faraday cage.

  • Defibrillation: Who is to say that electroshock can only be used for offensive purposes? This setting allows the stun gun to be used as a defibrillator. Anyone who is having a heart attack who is hit in the vitals by a defibrillation electroshock beam gets another HT roll. On a success, he is no longer experiencing a heart attack.
There are beam options that can make electroshock weapons much more dangerous, but these are not frequently encountered - a slugthrower or laser is usually more practical when you need to kill someone.
  • Kill: If a stun beam achieves safety by discharging in pulses too short to affect heart muscle, a simple way to increase the lethality is to make the pulses longer. A kill beam uses up ten shots from the power cell for every shot fired, since each pulse lasts ten times as long. A victim of a kill beam will suffer the Heart Attack mortal condition as a secondary effect of the affliction if the Vitals were hit and a critical failure of the resistance check on any other torso hit. For even longer duration pulses, with 100 shots drained for every shot fired, the beam will cause a Heart Attack as a secondary affliction for any torso shot, and as the primary affliction for any vitals hit. Kill settings will be illegal in many jurisdictions, even when other settings are available.
  • Tetanizing: This option increases the number of pulses per shot from 5 to 20. At this rate, muscles lock up in total contraction, which can cause injury as the force of the victim's contractions pull muscles, break bones, or strain ligaments. In game terms, the victim causes his own unarmed punching damage to himself on a failed resistance roll. This option uses four shots from the powercell for every shot fired.
Health Effects:
  • Sunburn: UV index 7 will burn very fair skinned people within 10 to 30 minutes. Each UV index unit is 25 mW/cm^2. Thus, threshold fluence for sunburn is about 100 J/cm^2. (At same UV index, typical caucasian burns within 30 to 50 minutes; Mediterranean, Oriental, East Indian, American Indian, or Hispanic within 50 to 70 minutes; Black or Australian Aborigine within 70 to 110 minutes).

Under the hood: the physics of laser-produced ionized wires. (all the details and all the equations. Not for the faint of heart)



A tangler is a less-lethal incapacitant weapon that traps the target in a net or a series of sticky ropes or threads.

In the story tangle guns shoot proximity fused bullets that explode with the stickiest known substance. It extends filaments that wrap around the target. The more the target struggles, the tighter the filaments contract.
In the story, tangleguns shoot a sticky cord that bind the target. Flipping a switch makes it spray a fluid that dissolve the cords.
     The Spacers were forced to build a civilization on Mars and the asteroid belt when they were exiled from Terra. But they have to make occasional raids on Terra for things they cannot manufacture for themselves. Unfortunately this includes women, since space radiation ensures that all children born to Spacers are male.
     On the raids, the Spacers use a non-lethal weapon called a tanglegun. It shoots a gray pellet which is aimed at the ground at the target's feet. The pellet quickly grows black tendrils which tightly wrap the target.
LOGAN'S RUN (1967)
     In the novel, the Sandmen are armed with a dial-a-gun with six different types of bullet. The tangler type is used for capturing fugitives alive. It produces 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.
In this Star Trek novel, on the planet Capory a tanglegun is a type of non-lethal hand-held weapon for personal protection.
In the game a tanglegun fires a burst of synthesilk fibre which wraps around a target. The more the target struggles, the more the fibers constrict.
Tangle grenades explode into adhesive polymer threads that solidify almost instantly. The threads will decay in 30 minutes, or upon application of Solvaway.

JADIVER didn’t listen to the rest. His eyes were on the uniformed men. Mercifully, they carried tangle guns. That much he was thankful for. Burlingame and his crew would be taken alive. They might not like what would happen later, but at least they would live.

The tangle gun was the most effective and least lethal weapon ever conceived. It would bring down a butterfly at two hundred yards and hold it there, without crumpling a wing or disturbing the dustlike scales. It would do the same with a Venusian saurian or a Martian windbeast, either of which outbull-red an elephant and outsavaged a tiger.

It didn’t have to hit the target. With proximity fuses—and it was usually furnished that way—it was sufficient for the bullet to pass near. Jadiver drew a deep breath. No one was going to get killed because of him. Nevertheless, his skin crawled.

He gazed down at the guests lining up. They, too, knew what tangle guns were.

Suddenly a man darted out of line and headed toward one of the exits. He collided with an officer and the policeman went down. A tangle gun snapped. The running man fell headlong. Three more times the tangle gun fired at the man writhing on the floor—at his hands, at his face, and again at his legs.

The tangle gun propelled a plastic bullet, and that plastic was a paradox. It was the stickiest substance known and would adhere to a sphere of polished platinum, tearing away the solid metal if it were forcibly removed without first being neutralized. It also extruded itself into fine, wire-like strands on a moving object. The more anything moved, the tighter it wrapped around. The victim was better off to relax. He couldn’t escape; no one ever had.

Jadiver watched the man threshing on the floor. One shot would have been enough. Someone on the Venicity force liked to see men squirm.

EMILY alone was not hit. She was close and moving too fast. She escaped the tangle guns, but ran directly into the arms of a burly officer. He laughed and grabbed her as if she were a robot. She bit him.

He swore at her and swiftly looked around. The guests couldn’t see. He hit her solidly in the middle. She gasped for breath. He took out his tangle gun and fired into her mouth.

Jadiver sicklily knew he had been wrong about the tangle gun; it could kill if the person who used it had sufficient experience and brutality.

Emily would never have to lose that beautiful face and figure. She could keep it until she died, which wouldn’t be long. Nobody could stop the peristaltic motion of the digestive system, voluntarily or otherwise, or of the lungs in trying to breathe.

CROUCHING, Jadiver fired at the oncoming man, a dark shape he sensed rather than saw. The tangle gun clicked futilely, out of ammunition. He fumbled hastily for a clip; before he could reload, the policeman squeezed the trigger and held it down.

The bullets didn’t hit him, they were set to detonate a fraction of an inch away. He gave up and awaited the constricting violence of the tangle strands.

The bullets detonated and the strands flashed out, glowing slightly in the darkness. They never touched him; instead, they bent into strange shapes and flipped away. The stickiest substance known, and one of the strongest, from which there was no escape, yet it would not adhere to him—was, in fact, forcefully repelled!

It was that skin, of course, the synthetic substance they had put on him over the circuit. They should have tested it under these conditions. They might not have been so anxious to boil men alive.

He felt that he was almost invincible. It was an exhilarating feeling. He stopped trying to reload the tangle gun "and stood up. He sprinted at the policeman, who stood his ground, firing frantically at a target he could not miss and yet did not hit. The tangle strands shattered all around the target.

Jadiver swung the gun with his remaining strength; the butt connected with the policeman's forehead.

Jadiver scooped up the discarded tangle gun and fired twice at close range, in case the man should decide to revive too soon, which was doubtful. He went back and entered the idling patrol car. He hadn't lost much time, after all.

From TANGLE HOLD by F. L. Wallace (1953)

      I awoke with a sudden startled shiver, and realized angrily I had let myself doze off. "Come on, Val," I said savagely, and started to rise to my feet.
     I couldn't.
     I looked down. I was neatly bound in thin, tough, plastic tangle-cord, swathed from chin to boot-bottoms, my arms imprisoned, my feet caught. And tangle-cord is about as easy to get out of as a spider's web is for a trapped fly.
     It wasn't Martians that had done it. There weren't any Martians, hadn't been for a million years. It was some Earthman who had bound us.
     I rolled my eyes toward Val, and saw that she was similarly trussed in the sticky stuff. The tangle-cord was still fresh, giving off a faint, repugnant odor like that of drying fish. It had been spun on us only a short time ago, I realized.
     "Don't try to move, baby. This stuff can break your neck if you twist it wrong." She continued for a moment to struggle futilely, and I had to snap, "Lie still, Val!"

     He was holding in his left hand the tanglegun with which he had entrapped us, and a very efficient-looking blaster was in his right.
     He reached for the tanglegun, flipped the little switch on its side to MELT, and shot a stream of watery fluid over our legs, keeping the blaster trained on us all the while. Our legs were free.

     "Now if I could get free of this stuff," I said, "I could get him covered before he comes to. But how?"
     "Teamwork," Val said. She swivelled around on the floor until her head was near my boot. "Push my oxymask off with your foot, if you can."
     I searched for the clamp and tried to flip it. No luck, with my heavy, clumsy boot. I tried again, and this time it snapped open. I got the tip of my boot in and pried upward. The oxymask came off, slowly, scraping a jagged red scratch up the side of Val's neck as it came.
     "There," she breathed. "That's that."
     I looked uneasily at Ledman. He was groaning and beginning to stir.
     Val rolled on the floor and her face lay near my right arm. I saw what she had in mind. She began to nibble the vile-tasting tangle-cord, running her teeth up and down it until it started to give. She continued unfailingly.
     Finally one strand snapped. Then another. At last I had enough use of my hand to reach out and grasp the blaster. Then I pulled myself across the floor to Ledman, removed the tanglegun, and melted the remaining tangle-cord off.

From THE HUNTED HEROES by Robert Silverberg (1959)

      As easily as if it had been only an hour ago that he left it, a hatch opened on the side. Through that came the boarding ladder, thudding on the pavement at the scout's feet. He grasped it, ready to climb aboard when Cury moved, throwing himself in a tackle that did not carry Kosgro to the ground, but rather pinned him to the ladder. I think he was so startled by that attack that he did not struggle.
     It was Weygil who cried out. "Cury! What are you doing? He's proved his point. He certainly is the man he said he was. The ship would not have answered him otherwise."
     "Don't be a fool!" shouted the other. "He's a pilot. This is a ship which may be navigable. He can take off—leave us! Leave us to go on rotting—" Cury's face was a mask of fury. "He's not going to take off and leave us!"
     Kosgro fought now. What he did to the man pressing him to the ladder I did not see, but suddenly Cury reeled away and back. The scout faced him, his bare hands poised in formalized invitation to unarmed combat. Cury reached for his laser, but the weapon was at the wrong angle for a quick draw, and Kosgro sprang, chopping a blow with the side of his hand at the other's neck. The ranger slumped at the foot of the ladder. Kosgro rounded on Weygil, his hands ready for defense.

     "Relax. I'm not Cury." Weygil was calm. "Did you kill him?"
     Kosgro was surprised. "No. Why should I?"
     "He would have killed you." The section commander produced a tangler and showed some skill in spinning a restraining cord about Cury's wrists, binding them firmly together.

     "More than Tamlin has changed." He did not look at us while he spoke. "We are too few. We have waited too long. For some of us that is not too difficult. We made our adjustments long ago. Others, by their temperament, cannot live with what is left. Cury is ridden by the belief that if we can only make off-world contact, Dylan will come to life again. He cannot accept the fact that no one off-world has tried to contact us, which either means that we no longer have anything to offer or there is no one left who remembers we are here."

From DREAD COMPANION by Andre Norton (1970)

      Before him lay the weapons they had brought. And he had demonstrated each. There were two lightning-throwers, another producing a thin stream which made ice congeal about the target, even though this was not the cold season.

     The fourth, which Liliha had carried and which she alone knew how to operate, was the strangest of all. For a warrior might escape by luck or chance the other two. However, from this tube spun small threads at Liliha’s twirling. Those floated as might a wind-borne spider’s web. That web, once launched, was drawn instantly to the warrior at whom Liliha had aimed it, in this case Foskatt.
     Once it had touched his shoulder, as if that touch was a signal, it straight away wrapped itself about his body so he could not move. Nor could he break that hold, though the cords of the web were very fine and thin. Liliha had to cut it in two places, and then the whole thing withered and fell in small black particles to the ground.

     The Elders, in spite of this display, kept impassive faces. But from the others came growls and small hisses of wonder and alarm that such things existed. Liliha was frank: these tanglers were few, some did not work at all. But the lairs held endless caches of other wonders.

From BREED TO COME by Andre Norton (1972)

      She fought to move, to even raise her hand—uselessly. But on wriggling hard to gaze along her body she saw the telltale cords of a tangler.
     "If you are not Patrol"—she pushed aside everything now but what was most important to her—"what do you intend to do with me? Turn me over for erasure when their ship planets in? You know the law."
     "It all depends—"
     "Upon what—or whom?" Ziantha continued to press.
     "Mainly upon you. Give me your word you will not try to escape. Let us go back to my scout."
     Ziantha tried to weigh her chances without emotion. Ogan was free; she had no reason to doubt Harath's report. He had said he had hidden a detect-safe L-B (life-boat) connected by a timer to a ship. Therefore he had a way of escape. The Jack ship had lifted, she could not depend on any assistance from Yasa. In fact she was sure she had already been discarded as far as the Salarika veep was concerned. Yasa was never one to hesitate cutting losses.
     And somehow, between Ogan and this Ris Lantee, she inclined to trust the latter, even though he admitted connection with the Patrol. At least with freedom she might have a better chance for the future.
     "As you have said," she spoke sullenly, trying to let him believe she surrendered because there was no other choice, "where could I escape to? For now, I promise."
     "Fair enough." He touched the tangler cords in two places with the point of his belt knife, and they withered away.
     Ziantha sat up, rubbing her wrists. Hands fell on her shoulders, drawing her to her feet, steadying her as she moved on stiff limbs.

From FORERUNNER FORAY by Andre Norton (1973)

There were pedestrians, a crowd of them, gathering. But until they knew that this was not some private challenge-fight, none would call a patroller. By drawing his belt knife instead of trying for a stunner, Zul had labeled this a meeting-of-honor, unorthodox as its setting might be. And had not Troy been warned, he might have hesitated to come to the other's assistance.

His numbed arm bothered him, and he rested the barrel of the stunner on his knees to take aim against the attacker. Knife blades flashed in the sunlight. Zul, his back braced against the wrecked flitter, was seemingly cornered and on the defensive from the first.

Troy pressed the firing stud of his weapon, remembering the long-ago training by Lang: "Point your barrel as you would your finger, boy. Aim means more than speed."

There was the faint "pssst" from the stunner. The man fronting Zul wavered, slewed partly around, and staggered back, bringing up against one of the parked vehicles, shaking his head dazedly. But the small man he had attacked did not try to follow up the advantage. Troy tapped with his thumb, sending another charge into the stunner.

He was just in time, for again that ear-torturing wail sounded from the interior of the flitter, and the impact of warning reached him full blast (from the telepathic cat who is in mental contact with Troy). Instinctively he hurled himself to the right. A knife struck the pillar and clattered to the ground. The man who had hurled it was holding back, but his companion came on, ready for another try, his eyes narrow and calculating. Troy aimed at the other's head, praying he would not be wearing a force screen.

The determination of the attack, and the time and place it had been delivered, argued that the (Thieve's) Guild men either were after some fabulous loot or had been hired at the high rate, which in turn suggested they would have top equipment. But Troy never had a chance to discover if his fears were correct. A white coil materialized out of thin air only a foot or so above the head of the advancing knifeman. It whirled in a circle, throwing off, with almost dizzying speed, a web of white filaments that fell about the attacker, touching and then clinging to shoulders, arms, body, and, finally, legs. The man struggled against the enwebment fruitlessly. Within a matter of moments he was down, as well packaged as a spider's prey. And a second web had taken care of his companion.

Troy straightened up, dropped the stunner to the ground well out in view, not having any wish for the (police) patrollers to start in on him. Leaving the weapon where it lay, he went to Zul. Blood made a gory and devilish mask of the small man's face, and he clung to the swinging door of the wrecked flitter with one hand, as if he needed that support badly. As Troy came to him, the younger man was suddenly aware of the fact that the warnings that had flowed from the cage were at an end; there was no contact with its inhabitants now.

From CATSEYE by Andre Norton (1961)

Two large men rushed Ben with angry shouts; he waited, coolly until they were close enough, then triggered the tanglegun, aiming at their feet. The egg-shaped gray pellet smashed on the floor beneath them, sending up twisting black tendrils of tangle web that stopped them as though they had been pole-axed. Both tumbled to the floor, struggling against the powerful adhesive of the tangle web, bound tighter and tighter as its molecular structure tightened the more they fought to extricate themselves.

Nobody ever died from an encounter with a tangle web, but anybody caught in one would be held for hours in its tenacious tendrils, able to breath but not much more, until the molecular activation gradually seeped away and allowed the victim to release himself.

From RAIDERS FROM THE RINGS by Alan E. Nourse (1962)

She was nearly at the hatch now and could see the suited men in the shadows above waiting. They had tanglers ready to fire, prepared to spin the webs to enmesh them both as easily handled prisoners. But before those slimy strands spun forth to touch — patterned as they were to seek flesh to anchor — both the waiting space men jerked right and left, clutched with already dead hands at the breasts of charred tunics from which arose small, deadly spirals of smoke.

They had expected a guard armed with a bow; they had met Kas's laser, to the same undoing as the guardsmen at the castle.

But Kas held the laser on a third man. Now, without glancing around, he gave an order which she mechanically obeyed.

"The tangler — here!"

Still on her hands and knees, Tamisan crawled far enough back into the hatch compartment to grip one of those weapons. The second — she eyed it with awakening need for some protection herself, but Kas did not give her time to reach it.

"Give it to me — now!"

Still holding the laser pointed steadily at the middle of the third spaceman, he groped back with his other hands. She had no choice — no choice — but she did!

If Kas thought he had her thoroughly cowed— Swinging the tangler around without taking time to aim, Tamisan pressed the firing button.

The lash of the sticky weaving spun through the air, striking the wall from which it dropped away, then one arm of the motionless captive, who was still under Kas's threat; there it clung, across his middle. And then it spun through the air until it clasped Kas's gun hand, his middle, his other arm, adhering instantly, tightening with its usual efficiency and tying captor to captive.

Kas struggled against those ever-tightening bands to bring the laser around to beam on Tamisan, though whether he would have used it even in his white hot rage, she did not know. It was enough that the tangler made it so she could keep from his line of fire. Having ensnared them enough to render them both harmless for a time, Tamisan drew a deep breath and relaxed somewhat.

She had to be sure of Kas. She had loosed the firing button of the tangler as soon as she saw that he could not use his arms. Now she raised the weapon, and with more of a plan, tied his legs firmly together. He kept on his feet, but he was as helpless as if they had managed to turn a stunner beam on him.

Warily, she approached him. And guessing her intent, he went into wild wrigglings, trying to bring the adhesive tangler strands in contact with her flesh also. But she stooped and tore at the already fringed and frayed hem of her robe, ripping up a strip as high as her waist, winding this about her arm and wrist to make sure she could not be so entrapped.

From TOYS OF TAMISAN by Andre Norton (1969)

This time Dane could see the nose lights, green as the glowing eyes of a night hunter. The machine dipped very low, pointing almost directly at Meshler and him. Then the craft went into descend, the drone of the motor louder. Dane looked at the one jack (pirate, comes from "hijacker") he could see from his position. The man was tense. He held the tangler so that the adhesive stream, which would congeal instantly on contact with flesh, would spurt into the small portion of ground anyone must cross to reach Dane and Meshler.

The Terran could not see beyond the lights. He did not doubt, however, that the rest of the enemy company was on the move, drawing in to be ready for attack when the flitter touched ground, but not until they were sure, he supposed, that all were out of the craft. Otherwise the pilot could lift, leaving them empty-handed.

What followed was almost as if his thoughts had been broadcast, picked up by esper. The forehatch opened before the tripoint of the landing gear touched the ground, and a figure leaped free from the flitter. He landed on his feet and ran, not straight for the two by the wreck, but in an evasion pattern, as if he knew of the ambush. At the same time, Dane dared to move. He rolled to one side, taking the jack by surprise — or perhaps the other was astounded that the flitter, having discharged only one, gave an upward bounce to go on hover over the wreck.

Dane fired, using his own body to partly screen his action. And though he had no time for a good aim, the near arm of the man with the tangler fell to his side. He lost his grip on the weapon and skidded forward trying to regain it. The Terran had not knocked out the enemy, but he had rendered him a one-armed warrior for several hours at least. The runner reached Meshler, sliding over the last bit of space between them, squirming around to fire his own stunner. And he had better aim. Its beam struck the man still flopping after the lost tangler in the head, dropping him instantly.

Fluid lines spun by a tangler in the hands of the other ambusher spun out through the air. He fired on a net setting, and those fine threads would automatically seek the nearest human flesh to which they had been conditioned. Unfortunately for him, in order to reach the newcomer who had hunkered down beside Meshler, he had to edge a little into the open. And both Dane and the man from the flitter fired at the first inches of arm and shoulder he was forced to reveal for that shot.

The tangler still spun, its sticky output fountaining now straight up as it fell from his hand. A moment later those strands found a target, the man himself, spreading avidly about his head and shoulders.

From POSTMARKED THE STARS by Andre Norton (1969)


The Tanglegun is a Tech/7 police weapon about the size and general configuration of a submachine gun. It fires a burst of synthesilk fibre which wraps around a target and effectively ties him up. Synthesilk fibre cannot be snapped except by power armour (one turn doing so) because of its strength. Large creatures and silicate beings will probably require several rounds to restrain them.

Tanglerounds must be aimed at the upper or lower body so a victim will either have his hands or his feet (or equivalent) restrained. But a tangleround fired into a person’s mouth (a nasty trick practised by some planetary police forces in autocratic cultures (copied from Tangle Hold)) will effectively strangle a victim because the tanglestrand will react to the swallowing and gagging reaction, forming a ball in the process which blocks the breathing passage.

Tanglestrands will continue to constrict a victim as long as he struggles, but will readily ‘relax’ when a droplet of KMC anti-tanglestrand catalyst is touched to a strand. It will readily melt the tanglestrands and release a victim.

From SPACE OPERA RPG by Fantasy Games Unlimited (1980)

Tangler grenades in the Frontier Sector are small, lightweight non-lethal throwing devices designed to disperse hundreds of strong, sticky polymer threads which stick to everything within the blast radius and harden almost instantly. An entangled individual can not move until the threads decay (in 30 minutes) or until Solvaway is spread over the threads.

Each grenade has negligible weight. It can be set to detonate on impact or it can be set to detonate using a built-in timer, adjustable to up to one minute. Conversely, the grenade can be mounted to either a grenade bullet (for use with a grenade rifle) or a grenade shell (for use with a grenade mortar).

Due to its ease of use, non-lethal nature and general usefulness, Tangler grenades are often included in emergency survival kits.

A slipsuit is a tight-fitting suit made from a special low-friction polymer. It covers the entire body. The hands and feet are made from normal material, allowing the character to grip, punch, and walk normally. The slipsuit makes its wearer harder to hit with most weapons in melee combat. The attacker is -20 on his chance to hit a character wearing a slipsuit, unless he is attacking with a sonic knife or sonic sword. Tangler grenades and tangler rockets will not stick to a character wearing a slipsuit, making it impossible to tangle a character wearing one.

A slipsuit will be ruined once it has taken 100 points of damage.


These weapons are from the early days of Palpatine's rise. The growing Empire needed weapons for crowd control that would be considered more “humane” than blaster fire. Merr-Sonn produced the Anti-Riot Tangle Gun 7.

The guns fire a large semi-plastic webbing made of synthetic naorstrachem linked with a shrinkage element. It is activated by contact with a warm surface.

The web wraps around the target and then tightens, trapping the individual. Sometimes the webbing tightens so much that the person suilocates, but this is rare.

A tangle gun round can only catch one target. Even if two targets are close to one another, the webbing will still contract on the first target it hits.

From CRACKEN'S REBEL FIELD GUIDE by West End Games (1991)


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 then 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 (except for those weird ones in The Wrath of Khan). 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).

I noticed a flurry by that barrier as we neared. Fighting. Above the hoarse shouting of the men milling in combat came the crack of the native weapons. Luckily this was not a planet which dealt with lasers and blasters. But they had solid-projectile weapons which made a din. Our stunners could not kill, only render unconscious. But we could die from one of those archaic arms in use ahead as quickly as from a blaster.

Foss adjusted the beam button of his stunner; Lidj and I did likewise, altering from narrow ray to wide sweep. Such firing exhausted the charges quickly, but in such cases as this we had no choice. We must clear a path ahead…

…Minutes later we stood within the upper hatch. It was open and I had an unpleasantly naked feeling as I waited at my duty post, my calculator fastened to my wrist instead of lying in the palm of my hand, leaving me free to use my weapon. This time I had that set on narrow beam. Griss Sharvan, second engineer, pressed into guard service and facing me on the other side of the cargo opening, kept his ready on high-energy spray.

From EXILES OF THE STARS by Andre Norton (1971)

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.

The equipment selection was made by an alien who wanted plausible deniability. None of the pieces of equipment were officially weapons, but many could be used as one in an impromptu fashion. "Weapons? We have no weapons here. Those? Ah, those are just flashlights. Really bright flashlights..."


      Unlike the glimpses I had had into the various other temples of Koonga, these walls were unpainted, being only the native yellow stone such as cobbled the wider streets. The same stone formed the wide blocks of the floor, and as far as I could see, the ceiling as well.
     They were worn in places underfoot, as if from centuries of use. Also here and there on the floor were dark splotches following no pattern, which suggested unpleasantly that some of those who had come this way earlier might have suffered hurts during their flight, and that there had been no effort to clean away such traces.
     I reached the end of the corridor and discovered it made a sharp turn to the right, one which was not visible until one reached it. To the left was only wall. That new way, being out of the path of the torches, was almost as dark as the alleys. I tried to pierce its dusk, wishing I had a beamer. Finally I turned the laser (pistol) on lowest energy, sending a white pencil which scored the stained blocks of the flooring, but gave me light. (as much as I admire Lady Norton, I feel compelled to point out that laser beams are a monochromatic single color, never white {multiple simultaneous colors})
     The new passage was only about four paces long. Then I was in a square box of a room and the laser beam touched upon an unlighted torch in a wall bracket. That blazed and I switched off the weapon, blinking. I might have been in a room furnished by one of the cheaper inns. Against the far wall was a basin of stone, into which trickled a small runnel of water, the overflow channeled back into the surface of the wall again.

From THE ZERO STONE by Andre Norton (1968)

(ed note: Graydal and Demring are visitors from Kirkasant, where even at night the sky has a dim glow. Their night vision is very poor.)

He (Demring) straightened. “Come, best we start back toward Pelogard. Night will soon be upon us.”

“Oh, no rush,” Laure said, anxious to change the subject. “An arctic zone, at this time of year—We’ll have no trouble.”

“Maybe you will not,” Graydal said. “But Kirkasant after sunset is not like here.”

They were on their way down when dusk became night, a light night where only a few stars gleamed and Laure walked easily through a clear gloaming. Graydal and Demring must needs use their energy guns at minimum intensity for flashcasters. And even so, they often stumbled.

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

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)
    Compare with Stokes Coagulator

  • 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)

  • 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. Another winner. A sidearm powered by nuclear fusion. Try not to think about radiation exposure.)

  • 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 horizon of a planet to kill any known target, even if they are standing in the opposite hemisphere. 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: William T. Custer goes to Washington to testify before the committee of the whole)

      “During last winter’s slack season,” Custer said, “two of my men and I worked on a project we’ve had in the works for three years—to develop a sustained-emission laser device.
     Custer opened his briefcase, slid out a fat aluminum tube mounted on a pistol grip with a conventional appearing trigger.
     “This is quite harmless,” he said. “I didn’t bring the power pack.”
     “That is… this is your weapon?” Tiborough asked.
     “Calling this a weapon is misleading,” Custer said. “The term limits and oversimpfies. This is also a brush-cutter, a substitute for a logger’s saw and axe, a diamond cutter, a milling machine…and a weapon. It is also a turning point in history.”
     “Come now, isn’t that a bit pretentious?” Tiborough asked.
     “We tend to think of history as something old and slow,” Custer said. “But history is, as a matter of fact, extremely rapid and immediate. A President is assassinated, a bomb explodes over a city, a dam break, a revolutionary device is announced.”
     “Lasers have been known for quite a few years,” Tiborough said. He looked at the papers the colonel had given him. “The principle dates from 1956 or thereahouts.”
     “I don't wish it to appear that I’m taking credit for inventing this device,” Custer said. “Nor am I claiming sole credit for developing the sustained-emission laser. I was merely one of a team. But I do hold the device here in my hand, gentlemen.”

     “Exhibit, Mr. Custer,” Plowers reminded him. “How is this an exhibit?”
     “May I explain first how it works?” Custer asked. “That will make the rest of my statement much easier.”
     Tiborough looked at Plowers, back to Custer. “If you will tie this all together, Mr. Custer,” Tiborough said. “I want to…the bearing of this device on our—we are hearing a particular bill in this room.”

     “Certainly, Senator,” Custer said. He looked at his device. “A ninety-volt radio battery drives this particular model. We have some that require less voltage, some that use more. We aimed for a construction with simple parts. Our crystals are common quartz. We shattered them by bringing them to a boil in water and then plunging them into ice water…repeatedly. We chose twenty pieces of very close to the same size—about one gram, slightly more than fifteen grains each."
     Custer unscrewed the back of the tube, slid out a round length of plastic trailing lengths of red, green, brown, blue and yellow wire.
     Wallace noted how the cameras of the TV men centered on the object in Custer’s hands. Even the senators were leaning forward, staring.
     We’re gadget crazy people, Wallace thought.
     “The crystals were dipped in thinned household cement and then into iron filings,” Custer said. “We made a little jig out of a fly-tying device and opened a passage in the filings at opposite ends of the crystals. We then made some common celluloid—nitrocellulose, acetic acid, gelatin and alcohol—all very common products, and formed it into a length of garden hose just long enough to take the crystals end to end. The crystals were inserted in the hose, the celluloid poured over them and the whole thing was seated in a magnetic waveguide, while the celluloid was cooling. This centered and aligned the crystals. The waveguide was constructed from wire salvaged from an old TV set and built following the directions in the Radio Amateur's Handbook.”
     Custer reinserted the length of plastic into the tube, adjusted the wires. There was an unearthly silence in the room with only the cameras whirring. It was as though everyone were holding his breath.
     “A laser requires a resonant cavity, but that’s complicated,” Custer said. “Instead, we wound two layers of fine copper wire around our tube, immersed it in the celluloid solution to coat it and then filed one end flat. This end took a piece of mirror cut to fit. We then pressed a number eight embroidery needle at right angles into the mirror end of the tube until it touched the side of the number one crystal.”
     Custer cleared his throat.
     Two of the senators leaned back. Plowers coughed. Tiborough glanced at the banks of TV cameras and there was a questioning look in his eyes.
     “We then determined the master frequency of our crystal series,” Custer said. “We used a test signal and oscilloscope, but any radio amateur could do it without the oscilloscope. We constructed an oscillator of that master frequency, attached it at the needle and a bare spot scraped in the opposite end of the waveguide.”

     “And this…ah… worked?” Tiborough asked.
     “No.” Custer shook his head. “When we fed power through a voltage multiplier into the system we produced an estimated four hundred joules emission and melted half the tube. So we started all over again.”
     “You are going to tie this in?” Tiborough asked. He frowned at the papers in his hands, glanced toward the door where the colonel had gone.
     “I am, sir, believe me,” Custer said.
     “Very Well, then,” Tiborough said.

     “So we started all over,” Custer said. “But for the second celluloid dip we added bismuth—a saturate solution, actually. It stayed gummy and we had to paint over it with a sealing coat of the straight celluloid. We then coupled this bismuth layer through a pulse circuit so that it was bathed in a counter wave—180 degrees out of phase with the master frequency. We had, in effect, immersed the unit in a thermoelectric cooler that exactly countered the heat production. A thin beam issued from the unmirrored end when we powered it. We have yet to find something that thin beam cannot cut.”
     “Diamonds?” Tiborough asked.
     “Powered by less than two hundred volts, this device could cut our planet in half like a ripe tomato,” Custer said. “One man could destroy an aerial armada with it, knock down ICBMs before they touched atmosphere, sink a fleet, pulverize a city. I’m afraid, sir, that I haven’t mentally catalogued all the violent implications of this device. The mind tends to boggle at the enormous power focused in…"

     “Shut down those TV cameras!”
     It was Tiborough shouting, leaping to his feet and making a sweeping gesture to include the banks of cameras, The abrupt violence of his voice and gesture fell on the room like an explosion. “Guards!” he called. “You there at the door. Cordon off that door and don’t let anyone out who heard this fool!” He whirled back to face Custer. “You irresponsible idiot!”
     “I'm afraid, Senator,” Custer said, “that you’re locking the barn door many weeks too late.”
     For a long minute of silence Tiborough glared at Custer, Then: “You did this deliberately, eh?”
     “Senator, if I'd waited any longer, there might have been no hope for us at all.”
     Tiborough sat back into his chair, still keeping his attention fastened on Custer. Plowers and Johnstone on his right had their heads close together whispering fiercely. The other senators were dividing their attention between Custer and Tiborough, their eyes wide and with no attempt to conceal their astonishment.
     Wallace, growing conscious of the implications in what Custer had said, tried to wet his lips with his tongue. This stupid cowpoke has sold us all down the river!
     Tiborough signaled an aide, spoke briefly with him, beckoned the colonel from the door. There was a buzzing of excited conversation in the room. Several of the press and TV crew were huddled near the windows on Custer’s left, arguing. One of their number—a florid-faced man with gray hair and horn-rirnmed glasses, started across the roorn toward Tiborough, was stopped by a committee aide. They began a low-voiced argument with violent gestures.
     A loud curse sounded from the door. Poxman, the syndicated columnist, was trying to push past the guards there.
     Poxman!” Tiborough called. The columnist turned. “My orders are that no one leaves,” Tiborough said. “You are not an exception.” He turned back to face Custer. The room had fallen into a semblance of quiet, although here still were pockets of muttering and there was the sound of running feet and a hurrying about in the hall outside.
     “Two channels went out of here live,” Tiborough said. "Nothing much we can do about them, although we will trace down as many of their viewers as we can. Every bit of film in this room and every sound tape will be confiscated, however.” His voice rose as protests sounded from the press section. “Our national security is at stake. The President has been notified. Such measures as are necessary will be taken.”
     The colonel came hurrying into the room, crossed to Tiborough, quietly said something.
     “You should’ve warned me!” Tiborough snapped. “I had no idea that…”
     The colonel interrupted with a whispered comment.
     “These papers… your damned report is not clear!” Tiborough said.

     He looked around at Custer. “I see you’re smiling, Mr. Custer. I don’t think you’ll find much to smile about before long.”
     “Senator, this is not a happy smile,” Custer said. “But I told myself several days ago you’d fail to see the implications of this thing.” He tapped the pistol-shaped device he had rested on the table. “I told myself you’d fall back into the old, useless pattem.”
     “Is that what you told yourself, really?” Tiborough said.
     Wallace, hearing the venom in the senator’s voice, moved his chair a few inches farther away from Custer.
     Tiborough looked at the laser projector. “Is that thing really disarmed?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “If I order one of my men to take it from you, you will not resist?”
     “Which of your men will you trust with it, Senator?” Custer asked.
     In the long silence that followed, someone in the press section emitted a nervous guffaw.

     “Virtually every man on my ranch has one of these things,” Custer said. “We fell trees with them, cut firewood, make fence posts. Every letter written to me as a result of my patent application has been answered candidly. More than a thousand sets of schematics and instructions on how to build this device have been sent out to varied places in the world.”
     “You vicious traitor!” Tiborough rasped.
     “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, Senator,” Custer said. “But I warn you I’ve had time for considerably more concentrated and considerably more painful thought than you’ve applied to this problem In my estimation, I had no choice. Every week I waited to make this thing public, every day, every minute, merely raised the odds that humanity would be destroyed by—”
     “You said this thing applied to the hearings on the grazing act,” Plowers protested, and there was a plaintive note of complaint in his voice.
     “Senator, I told you the truth,” Custer said. “There’s no real reason to change the act, now. We intend to go on operating under it—with the agreement of our neighbors and others concerned. People are still going to need food.”

     Tiborough glared at him. “You’re saying we can’t force you to…” He broke off at a disturbance in the doorway. A rope barrier had been stretched there and a line of Marines stood with their backs to it, facing the hall. A mob of people was trying to press through. Press cards were being waved.
     “Colonel, I told you to clear the halll” Tiborough barked.
     The colonel ran to the barrier. “Use your bayonets if you have to!” he shouted.
     The disturbance subsided at the sound of his voice. More uniformed men could be seen moving in along the barrier. Presently, the noise receded.

     Tiborough tumed back to Custer. “You make Benedict Arnold look like the greatest friend the United States ever had,” he said.
     “Cursing me isn’t going to help you,” Custer said. “You are going to have to live with this thing; so you’d better try understanding it.”
     “That appears to be simple,” Tiborough said. “All I have to do is send twenty-five cents to the Patent office for the schematics and then write you a letter."
     “The world already was headed toward suicide,” Custer said. “Only fools failed to realize—”
     “So you decided to give us a little push,” Tiborough said.

     “H. G. Wells warned us,” Custer said. “That’s how far back it goes, but nobody listened. Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,’ Wells said. But those were just words. Many scientists have remarked the growth curve on the amount of raw energy becoming available to humans—and the diminishing curve on the number of persons required to use that energy. For a long time now, more and more violent power was being made available to fewer and fewer people. It was only a matter of time until total destruction was put into the hands of single individuals.

     “And you didn’t think you could take your government into your confidence.”
     “The govemment already was committed to a political course diametrically opposite the one this device requires,” Custer said. “Virtually every man in the government has a vested interest in not reversing that course."
     “So you set yourself above the government?”
     “I’m probably wasting my time,” Custer said, “but I'll try to explain it. Virtually every government in the world is dedicated to manipulating something called the ‘mass man.’ That’s how governments have stayed in power. But there is no such man. When you elevate the non-existent ‘mass man’ you degrade the individual. And obviously it was only a matter of time until all of us were at the mercy of the individual holding power.”
     “You talk like a commie!”
     “They'll say I’m a goddamn’ capitalist pawn,” Custer said. “Let me ask you, Senator, to visualize a poor radio technician in a South American country. Brazil, for example. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, ground down by an overbearing, unimaginative, essentially uncouth ruling oligarchy. What is he going to do when this device comes into his hands?”
     “Murder, robbery and anarchy.”
     “You could be right,” Custer said. “But we might reach an understanding out of ultimate necessity—that each of us must cooperate in maintaining the dignity of all.”

     Tiborough stared at him, began to speak musingly: “We’ll have to control the essential materials for constructing this thing…and there may be trouble for a while, but …”
     “You’re a vicious fool.”
     In the cold silence that followed, Custer said: “It was too late to try that ten years ago. I’m telling you this thing can be patchworked out of a wide variety of materials that are already scattered over the earth. It can be made in basements and mud huts, in palaces and shacks. The key item is the crystals, but other crystals will work, too. That's obvious. A patient man can grow crystals…and this world is full of patient men.

     “I’m going to place you under arrest,” Tiborough said. “You have outraged every rule—”
     “You’re living in a dream world,” Custer said. “I refuse to threaten you, but I’ll defend myself from any attempt to oppress or degrade me. If I cannot defend myself, my friends will defend me. No man who understands what this device means will permit his dignity to be taken from him.”
     Custer allowed a moment for his words to sink in, then: “And don’t twist those words to imply a threat. Refusal to threaten a fellow human is an absolute requirement in the day that has just dawned on us.”
     “You haven’t changed a thing!” Tiborough raged. “If one man is powerful with that thing, a hundred are….”
     “All previous insults aside,” Custer said, “I think you are a highly intelligent man, Senator. I ask you to think long and hard about this device. Use of power is no longer the deciding factor because one man is as powerful as a million. Restraint—self-restraint is now the key to survival. Each of us is at the mercy of his neighbor’s good will. Each of us, Senator—the man in the palace and the man in the shack. We’d better do all we can to increase that good will—not attempting to buy it, but simply recognizing that individual dignity is the one inalienable right of …”

     “Don’t you preach at me, you commie traitor!” Tiberough rasped. “You’re a living example of …”
     It was one of the TV cameramen in the left rear of the room.
     “Let’s stop insulting Mr. Custer and hear him out,” the cameraman said.
     “Get that man’s name,” Tiborough told an aide. “If he…”
     ‘I'm an expert electronic technician, Senator,” the man said. “You can’t threaten me now.”
     Custer smiled, turned to face Tiborough.
     “The revolution begins,” Custer said. He waved a hand as the senator started to whirl away. “Sit down, Senator.”

     Wallace, watching the senator obey, saw how the balance of control had changed in this room.
     “Ideas are in the wind,” Custer said. “There comes a time for a thing to develop. It comes into being. The spinning jenny came into being because that was its time. It was based on countless ideas that had preceded it.”
     "And this is the age of the laser?” Tiborough asked.
     “It was bound to come,” Custer said. “But the number of people in the world who’re filled with hate and frustration and violence has been growing with terrible speed. You add to that the enormous danger that this might fall into the hands of just one group or nation or…” Custer shrugged.
     “This is too much power to be confined to one man or group with the hope they’ll administer wisely. I didn’t dare delay. Thats why I spread this thing now and announced it as broadly as I could.”
     Tiborough leaned back in his chair, his hands in his lap. His face was pale and beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.
     "We won’t make it.”
     "I hope you're wrong, Senator,” Custer said. “But the only thing I know for sure is that we'd have had less chance of making it tomorrow than we have today.”

From COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE by Frank Herbert (1965)



(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 20th century graduate in an 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.


Molecule Chain Weapons

This is an unnaturally strong thread one molecule thick. It will basically cut through anything except another molecule chain. The ultimate cutting edge.


In fiction

Monomolecular wire is often used as a weapon in fiction. It has applications in cutting objects and severing adjacent molecules. A similar or identical concept may be called a microfilament wire or, as a weapon, a microfilament whip.

Among the first references in fiction to a monofilament is in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), where hobby terrorists deploy this over-the-shelf General Technics product across roads to kill or injure the people passing there. According to Brunner, the monofilament will easily cut through glass, metal and flesh, but in any non-strained structure the molecules will immediately rebond. No harm is done if the cut object is not under mechanical stress.

An early example of a substance similar to monomolecular wire is 'borazon-tungsten filament' from G. Randall Garrett's "Thin Edge." (Analog, Dec 1963) The main character uses a strand from an asteroid towing-cable to cut jail bars and to booby-trap the door of his room. Frank Herbert later described shigawire in his Dune novels. First making its appearance in Dune (1965), shigawire is a metallic extrusion produced naturally from a ground vine found on the planets Salusa Secundus and III Delta Kaising. It varies in diameter from approximately 1.5 cm down to monomolecular (micronic) diameters, and is notable for its incredible tensile and mechanical strength. Shigawire is able to cut through almost any material cleanly, possessing edges that are incredibly sharp. It is a weapon of choice for assassins.

Monomolecular wire is a plot element in the short story "Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson. The assassin following the protagonist has a diamond spindle of monomolecular wire (or filament) implanted in his thumb, the idea being that diamond is also made of a single molecule and thus hard enough to not be cut by a monomolecular wire. The top of a prosthesis, attached to the other side of the wire, was used as a weight and the wire could be used as a whip-like weapon or a garotte.

Monomolecular wire (in the form of wide 'tapes' of a "pseudo-one-dimensional modified diamond crystal") is used as the basic building material of the space elevator in Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Fountains of Paradise.

Monomolecular wires are seen in the Star Wars expanded universe, Cyber City Oedo 808, Hyperion Cantos, Robert J. Sawyer's Illegal Alien, Battle Angel Alita, Naruto, Akame ga Kill, Hellsing, Trinity Blood, My-Hime, Vampire Knight, Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series, Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space universe, as well as the roleplaying games Shadowrun, One Piece as Doflamingo's string-string devil fruit and Cyberpunk 2020. Monomolecular wires are also seen in Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe as human-produced "Sinclair Molecule Chain".

In the One Piece manga, the character Donquixote Doflamingo ate the Ito Ito no Mi, a devil fruit that grants the user the ability to create and manipulate strings. He is capable of creating strings so thin that they cannot be seen, and he can use this ability to ensnare people and control them like a puppet. His strings are also incredibly strong, being able to cut through stone with ease.

Various Imperial and alien technologies in the Warhammer 40,000 universe use monomolecular blades or wire offensively. Possibly the most notable example are Eldar Warp Spiders, whose Deathspinner weaponry traps targets in a mesh of such filaments or the Dark Eldar Shredder weapon which shoots meshes of it.

The game Chaos Overlords featured a weapon 'monom rod' which used this technology.

Sion Eltnam Atlasia wields a monofilament whip called the Etherlite in Melty Blood.

In the 2000 film XChange, the main character acquires an Urban survival Kit which includes a monomolecular wire.

Monomolecular swords are used by some Kzin in Larry Niven's Known Space series.

Monomolecular wire ranks 14th on IGN's list of the "25 Coolest Sci-Fi weapons".

From the Wikipedia entry for MONOMOLECULAR WIRE

(ed note: The Belt civilization has developed a technology to make an ultra-strong cable. But they are sensibly keeping it a trade secret. Earth wants the secret, specifically Sam Fergus the CEO of People’s Manufacturing Corporation Number 873. Sam had a Belt citizen kidnapped and tortured for the secret, but the Belter died without talking. Sam also does not know that Harry Morgan has arrived from the Belt to avenge the death of his friend.)

     Harry Morgan, a piratical smile on his face, opened the bathroom door and left it that way. Then he went into the bedroom. His luggage had already been delivered by the lift tube, and was sitting on the floor. He put both suitcases on the bed, where they would be in plain sight from the sitting room. Then he made certain preparations for invaders.

     He was not a big man, but neither was he undersized. He was five-ten and weighed perhaps a hundred and sixty-five pounds. His face was dark of skin and had a hard, determined expression on it. He looked as though he had spent the last thirty of his thirty-five years of life stealing from his family and cheating his friends.
     He looked around the sitting room. Nothing. He tossed the key in his hand and then shoved it into his pocket. He walked over to the nearest couch and prodded at it. He took an instrument out of his inside jacket pocket and looked at it.
     “Nothin’,” he said to himself. “Nothin’.” His detector showed that there were no electronic devices hidden in the room—at least, none that he did not already know about.
     He prowled around the sitting room for several minutes, looking at everything—chairs, desk, windows, floor—everything. He found nothing. He had not expected to, since the occupant, a Belt man named Harry Morgan, had only been in the suite a few minutes.
     Then he walked over to the door that separated the sitting room from the bedroom. Through it, he could see the suitcases sitting temptingly on the bed.
     Again he took his detector out of his pocket. After a full minute, he was satisfied that there was no sign of any complex gadgetry that could warn the occupant that anyone had entered the room. Certainly there was nothing deadly around.
     Then a half-grin came over the man’s cunning face. There was always the chance that the occupant of the suite had rigged up a really old-fashioned trap.
     He looked carefully at the hinges of the door. Nothing. There were no tiny bits of paper that would fall if he pushed the door open any further, no little threads that would be broken.
     It hadn’t really seemed likely, after all. The door was open wide enough for a man to walk through without moving it.
     Still grinning, the man reached out toward the door.
     He was quite astonished when his hand didn’t reach the door itself.
     There was a sharp feeling of pain when his hand fell to the floor, severed at the wrist.
     The man stared at his twitching hand on the floor. He blinked stupidly while his wrist gushed blood. Then, almost automatically, he stepped forward to pick up his hand.
     As he shuffled forward, he felt a snick! snick! of pain in his ankles while all sensation from his feet went dead.
     It was not until he began toppling forward that he realized that his feet were still sitting calmly on the floor in their shoes and that he was no longer connected to them.
     It was too late. He was already falling.
     He felt a stinging sensation in his throat and then nothing more as the drop in blood pressure rendered him unconscious.
     His hand lay, where it had fallen. His feet remained standing. His body fell to the floor with a resounding thud! His head bounced once and then rolled under the bed.
     When his heart quit pumping, the blood quit spurting.

     After the door clanged, the man in the next cell whispered: “Well, you’re for it. They’re gonna ask you questions.”
     Morgan said one obscene word and stood up. It was time to leave.
     He had been searched thoroughly. They had left him only his clothes, nothing else. They had checked to make sure that there were no microminiaturized circuits on him. He was clean.
     So they thought.
     Carefully, he caught a thread in the lapel of his jacked and pulled it free. Except for a certain springiness, it looked like an ordinary silon thread. He looped it around one of the bars of his cell, high up. The ends he fastened to a couple of little decorative hooks in his belt—hooks covered with a shell of synthetic ruby.
     Then he leaned back, putting his weight on the thread.
     Slowly, like a knife moving through cold peanut butter, the thread sank into the steel bar, cutting through its one-inch thickness with increasing difficulty until it was half-way through. Then it seemed to slip the rest of the way through.
     He repeated the procedure thrice more, making two cuts in each of two bars. Then he carefully removed the sections he had cut out. He put one of them on the floor of his cell and carried the other in his hand—three feet of one-inch steel makes a nice weapon if it becomes necessary.
     Then he stepped through the hole he had made.

     “What…what do you want?” Fergus asked.
     “I want to give you the information you want. The information that you killed Jack for.” There was cold hatred in his voice. “I am going to tell you something that you have thought you wanted, but which you really will wish you had never heard. I’m going to tell you about that cable.”
     Neither Fergus nor Tarnhorst said a word.
     “You want a cable. You’ve heard that we use a cable that has a tensile strength of better than a hundred million pounds per square inch, and you want to know how it’s made. You tried to get the secret out of Jack because he was sent here as a commercial dealer. And he wouldn’t talk, so one of your goons blackjacked him too hard and then you had to drop him off a bridge to make it look like an accident.
     “Then you got your hands on me. You were going to wring it out of me. Well, there is no necessity of that.” His grin became wolfish. “I’ll give you everything.” He paused. “If you want it.”
     Fergus found his voice. “I want it. I’ll pay a million—”
     “You’ll pay nothing,” Morgan said flatly. “You’ll listen.”
     Fergus nodded wordlessly.
     “The composition is simple. Basically, it is a two-phase material-like fiberglass. It consists of a strong, hard material imbedded in a matrix of softer material. The difference is that, in this case, the stronger fibers are borazon—boron nitride formed under tremendous pressure—while the softer matrix is composed of tungsten carbide. If the fibers are only a thousandth or two thousandths of an inch in diameter—the thickness of a human hair or less—then the cable from which they are made has tremendous strength and flexibility.
     “Do you want the details of the process now?” His teeth were showing in his wolfish grin.
     Fergus swallowed. “Yes, of course. But…but why do you—”
     “Why do I give it to you? Because it will kill you. You have seen what the stuff will do. A strand a thousandth of an inch thick, encased in silon for lubrication purposes, got me out of that filthy hole you call a prison. You’ve heard about that?”
     Fergus blinked. “You cut yourself out of there with the cable you’re talking about?
     “Not with the cable. With a thin fiber. With one of the hairlike fibers that makes up the cable. Did you ever cut cheese with a wire? In effect, that wire is a knife—a knife that consists only of an edge.
     “Or, another experiment you may have heard of. Take a block of ice. Connect a couple of ten-pound weights together with a few feet of piano wire and loop it across the ice block to that the weights hang free on either side, with the wire over the top of the block. The wire will cut right through the ice in a short time. The trouble is that the ice block remains whole—because the ice melts under the pressure of the wire and then flows around it and freezes again on the other side. But if you lubricate the wire with ordinary glycerine, it prevents the re-freezing and the ice block will be cut in two.”
     Tarnhorst nodded. “I remember. In school. They—” He let his voice trail off.
     “Yeah. Exactly. It’s a common experiment in basic science. Borazon fiber works the same way. Because it is so fine and has such tremendous tensile strength, it is possible to apply a pressure of hundreds of millions of pounds per square inch over a very small area. Under pressures like that, steel cuts easily. With silon covering to lubricate the cut, there’s nothing to it. As you have heard from the guards in your little hell-hole.
     “Hell-hole?” Tarnhorst’s eyes narrowed and he flicked a quick glance at Fergus. Morgan realized that Tarnhorst had known nothing of the extent of Fergus’ machinations.
     “That lovely little political prison up in Fort Tryon Park that the World Welfare State, with its usual solicitousness for the common man, keeps for its favorite guests,” Morgan said. His wolfish smile returned. “I’d’ve cut the whole thing down if I’d had had the time. Not the stone—just the steel. In order to apply that kind of pressure you have to have the filament fastened to something considerably harder than the stuff you’re trying to cut, you see. Don’t try it with your fingers or you’ll lose fingers.”
     Fergus’ eyes widened again and he looked both ill and frightened. “The man we sent…uh…who was found in your room. You—” He stopped and seemed to have trouble swallowing.
     “Me? I didn’t do anything.” Morgan did a good imitation of a shark trying to look innocent. “I’ll admit that I looped a very fine filament of the stuff across the doorway a few times, so that if anyone tried to enter my room illegally I would be warned.” He didn’t bother to add that a pressure-sensitive device had released and reeled in the filament after it had done its work. “It doesn’t need to be nearly as tough and heavy to cut through soft stuff like…er…say, a beefsteak, as it does to cut through steel. It’s as fine as cobweb almost invisible. Won’t the World Welfare State have fun when that stuff gets into the hands of its happy, crime-free populace?”
     Edway Tarnhorst became suddenly alert. “What?”
     “Yes. Think of the fun they’ll have, all those lovely slobs who get their basic subsistence and their dignity and their honor as a free gift from the State. The kids, especially. They’ll love it. It’s so fine it can be hidden inside an ordinary thread—or woven into the hair—or…” He spread his hands. “A million places.”
     Fergus was gaping. Tarnhorst was concentrating on Morgan’s words.
     “And there’s no possible way to leave fingerprints on anything that fine,” Morgan continued. “You just hook it around a couple of nails or screws, across an open doorway or an alleyway—and wait.”
     “We wouldn’t let it get into the people’s hands,” Tarnhorst said.
     “You couldn’t stop it,” Morgan said flatly. “Manufacture the stuff and eventually one of the workers in the plant will figure out a way to steal some of it.”
     “Guards—” Fergus said faintly.
     “Pfui. But even you had a perfect guard system, I think I can guarantee that some of it would get into the hands of the—common people. Unless you want to cut off all imports from the Belt.”
     Tarnhorst’s voice hardened. “You mean you’d deliberately—”
     “I mean exactly what I said,” Morgan cut in sharply. “Make of it what you want.”
     “I suppose you have that kind of trouble out in the Belt?” Tarnhorst asked.
     “No. We don’t have your kind of people out in the Belt, Mr. Tarnhorst. We have men who kill, yes. But we don’t have the kind of juvenile and grown-up delinquents who will kill senselessly, just for kicks. That kind is too stupid to live long out there. We are in no danger from borazon-tungsten filaments. You are.” He paused just for a moment, then said: “I’m ready to give you the details of the process now, Mr. Fergus.”
     “I don’t think I—” Fergus began with a sickly sound in his voice. But Tarnhorst interrupted him.
     “We don’t want it, commodore. Forget it.”
     “Forget it?” Morgan’s voice was as cutting as the filament he had been discussing. “Forget that Jack Latrobe was murdered?”
     “We will pay indemnities, of course,” Tarnhorst said, feeling that it was futile.
     “Fergus will pay indemnities,” Morgan said. “In money, the indemnities will come to the precise amount he was willing to pay for the cable secret. I suggest that your Government confiscate that amount from him and send it to us. That may be necessary in view of the second indemnity.”
     “Second indemnity?”
     “Mr. Fergus’ life.”
     Tarnhorst shook his head briskly. “No. We can’t execute Fergus. Impossible.”
     “Of course not,” Morgan said soothingly. “I don’t suggest that you should. But I do suggest that Mr. Fergus be very careful about going through doorways—or any other kind of opening—from now on. I suggest that he refrain from passing between any pair of reasonably solid, well-anchored objects. I suggest that he stay away from bathtubs. I suggest that he be very careful about putting his legs under a table or desk. I suggest that he not look out of windows. I could make several suggestions. And he shouldn’t go around feeling in front of him, either. He might lose something.”
     “I understand,” said Edway Tarnhorst.
     So did Sam Fergus. Morgan could tell by his face.

From THIN EDGE by Randall Garrett (1963)

Along with everyone else he climbed aboard the hoverboat running shore-pass parties from Boat Camp to the mainland. He felt no particular enthusiasm about being turned loose. He felt no particular enthusiasm about anything except keeping his nose clean. But for the risk of appearing odd, he would probably have preferred to sit in the barrick-room and write home.

At the point where the hoverboat ran up the concrete slip and on to the road, someone had managed to stretch a single strand of GT-manufactured monofilament wire between two posts. The driver was in a hurry — he had seven more runs to make this evening before he could use his own pass — and hit the wire at nearly forty miles an hour. It sliced through the cab with hardly any drag at all, breaking inter-crystalline and not the tougher molecular bonds, barely leaving a mark on metal and plastic because they re-welded themselves on the Johansson principle before air could get at the interfaces and cancel out their natural adhesion.

A force that tended to separate the parts, however, was capable of opposing the reunion.

Gerry Lindt happened to be turning to look at someone who had put a question to him. The twisting force was adequate to prevent his neck from bonding back together when the wire sliced through. Perhaps it was as well; he could have been paralysed from the neck down by the damage it did to his spinal cord. But the last horrible sight of his own torso as his eyes rolled along with his head towards the floor of the vehicle was nearer to eternal torment than even his sergeant would have wished on him.

It was obviously partisan work, not random sabotage. There was a grand roundup of suspected partisans organised immediately, and out of the two hundred and some they arrested they actually caught no fewer than four people in direct Chinese pay.

It was no special comfort to Gerry Lindt.

From STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner (1968)

      “I have a variable-sword,” said Speaker-To-Animals. “I urge calm.”
     It took a moment for the words to register. Then Louis turned, slowly, making no sudden gestures.
     The kzin stood against a curved wall. In one clawed fist he held something like an oversized jump-rope handle. Ten feet from the handle, held expertly at the level of the kzin’s eyes, was a small, glowing red ball. The wire which joined ball to handle was too thin to be visible, but Louis didn’t doubt it was there. Protected and made rigid by a Slaver stasis field, the wire would cut through most metals, including — if Louis should choose to hide behind it — the back of Louis’s crash couch. And the kzin had chosen a position such that he could strike anywhere in the cabin.
     “Tell us why,” Louis suggested. He was estimating chances. The red bulb was an indicator to tell Speaker where his invisibly thin wire blade ended. But if Louis could grab that end of the blade, and keep from losing his fingers in the process — No. The bulb was too small.
     “Don’t be foolish, Louis. Stand up slowly and move against the wall. You shall be the first toooo …”
     Speaker let the word trail off in a kind of croon.
     Louis halted his leap, caught by a thing he didn’t understand.
     Speaker-To-Animals threw back his big orange head and mewed: an almost supersonic squeal. He threw his arms wide, as if to embrace the universe. The wire blade of his variable-sword cut through a water tank without slowing noticeably; water began dripping out on all four sides of the tank. Speaker didn’t notice. His eyes didn’t see, his ears didn’t hear.
     “Take his weapon,” said Nessus.
     Louis moved. He approached cautiously, ready to duck if the variable-sword should move his way. The kzin was waving it gently, like a baton. Louis took the handle from the kzin’s unresisting fist. He touched the proper stud, and the red ball retracted until it touched the handle.

(ed note: Nessus is targeting the kzin with a weapon that stimulates the brain's pleasure center)

RINGWORLD by Larry Niven (1970)

     Holding the buttons as if to keep an invisible thread taut, he moved them on either side of a crudely done plastic touch-sculpture. The sculpture fell apart.
     "Sinclair molecule chain. It will cut through any normal matter, if you pull hard enough. You must be very careful, it will cut your fingers so easily that you will hardly notice they are gone. Notice that the buttons are large, to give an easy grip." He laid the buttons carefully on a table and set a heavy weight between them...
     ...I couldn't see Carlos. Forward and Angel had tied us to opposite sides of the central pillar, beneath the Grabber...
     ...I began trying to kick off my shoes. They were soft ship-slippers, ankle-high, and they resisted.
     I locked the left foot free just as one of the tugs flared with ruby light...
     ...I peeled the other slipper off with my toes...
     ...I reached up with my toes, groping for the first and fourth buttons on my falling jumper.
     The weaponry in my wonderful suit hadn't helped me against Julian's strength and speed. But flatlanders are less than limber, and so are Jinxians. Forward had tied my hands and left it at that.
     I wrapped two sets of toes around the buttons and tugged.
     My legs were bent pretzel-fashion. I had no leverage. But the first button tore loose, and then the thread. Another invisible weapon to battle Forward's portable bottomless hole.
     The thread pulled the fourth button loose. I brought my feet down to where they belonged, keeping the thread taut, and pushed backward. I felt the Sinclair molecule chain sinking into the pillar.
     The Grabber was still swinging.
     When the thread was through the pillar I could bring it up in back of me and try to cut my bonds. More likely I'd cut my wrists and bleed to death; but I had to try. I wondered if I could do anything before Forward launched the black hole.
     A cold breeze caressed my feet.
     I looked down. Thick fog boiled out around the pillar.
     Some very cold gas must be spraying through the hair-fine crack.
     I kept pushing. More fog formed. The cold was numbing. I felt the jerk as the magic thread cut through. Now the wrists—
     Liquid helium?
     Forward had moored us to the main superconducting power cable.
     That was probably a mistake. I pulled my feet forward, carefully, steadily, feeling the thread bite through on the return cut.
     The Grabber had stopped swinging. Now it moved on its arm like a blind, questing worm, as Forward made fine adjustments. Angel was beginning to show the strain of holding himself upside down.
     My feet jerked slightly. I was through. My feet were terribly cold, almost without sensation. I let the buttons go, left them floating up toward the dome, and kicked back hard with my heels.
     Something shifted. I kicked again.
     Thunder and lightning flared around my feet.
     I jerked my knees up to my chin. The lightning crackled and flashed white light into the billowing fog. Angel and Forward turned in astonishment. I laughed at them, letting them see it. Yes, gentlemen, I did it on purpose...

From THE BORDERLAND OF SOL by Larry Niven (1975)

“Excuse me? Could you tell me why this sword is so highly priced?”

“Ah, that’s because this is a mollyblade. The edge is single-layer graphene, less than a nanometer thick. It’ll slice cleanly through anything but muon metals, gluon string or neutronium – or antimatter, of course – and we can make-to-order one for you that’ll slice muon metals, too.” The shopkeeper carefully slashed the blade through the air. “See the glow around the tip, where the blade moves fastest? Dissociated air molecules recombining. It’s that sharp.”

“And that costs a million esteyn?”

“Well, not strictly speaking. The problem with the mollyblade is that a blade that sharp is also fragile. It damn near blunts itself on air molecules, too, which is a problem a lot of the lab applications don’t have. So what you pay most of that million for is the on-the-fly resharpening system that keeps it that way while you’re hacking and slashing with it.”

“Which is…?”

“Proprietary. Very proprietary.”

– overheard in an Eye-in-the-Flame retail outlet


Absurdly Sharp Blade/Sharpened to a Single Atom:

Mollyblades. With a single-layer graphene sub-nanometer edge with a perpetual resharpening system (proprietary – and very necessary, since an edge that fine will be blunted by damn near anything, including gases), if it is made of baryonic matter, it will be cut. Slash it through the air fast enough, you can see the subtle glow of dissociated air molecules recombining. It’s that sharp.

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!

  • 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 (118 milliliters or 1/2 cup) 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)

  • 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)

  • Dart Rifles: due to the colonial economics of horses, colonists on planets with little infrastructure like hand-pumped pneumatic dart rifles instead of high-tech laser guns. The darts are reusable, can use locally available poisons/tranquilizers, and abundantly available muscle power to pump up the chamber. None of which are true for laser guns.
    (Space Marines {miniature wargaming rules} by A. Mark Ratner, 1977)

  • 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 butt-end in a fire, then melt the hot end through a plastic bead just big enough to fit the inside of the blowgun. The bead acts like a piston, pushing the dart by the user's breath. Be very careful not to inhale when your mouth is on the blowgun or you'll have a throatfull of dart.
         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. Manufacturing crossbows and firearms is harder still. Blowguns are easy. Especially if you can scrounge a piece of PVC pipe or a length of bamboo.
         Be told that the drawback is blowgun darts have no stopping power at all. You much either be so skilled that you can reliably put one into a target's vital spot, or you have to dip the darts in quick-acting poison. In South America the favorite blowgun dart poison was curare. This poison cannot pass into the bloodstream from the digestive track, so the indigenous people could safely eat the meat of a monkey they had killed with a blowgun dart.
    (Ariel by Steven R. Boyett, 1983)

  • Snuffer: this is sort of a powered blowgun, made out of the weird organic materials available on the extreme tropical planet Midworld. The weapon is energized by a "tank seed", a fruit containing high-pressure gas. Details below.
    (Midworld by Alan Dean Foster, 1975)


      Jorry turned to Collen. “Can you handle everything? You’ll be our chief defense.”

     The Thorumbian nodded. Even without the rifle, she was the best-armed of the party. Bandoliers of the deadly little finger knives favored by the Lixians were crossed over her shoulders, a pistol and shortsword hung at her belt, and at her back were a Toxxan longbow and a quiver of broad arrows. The rifle she held poised at the ready.

     Gariv was silent for a moment, weighing this, and then he laughed aloud. “How will you kill me, trader? With words? With your bare hands?” He raised the blade, slashed showily to his left and right, then steadied the point an arm’s length from Jorry’s throat. “If you have a weapon, use it, trader,” he said.

     Jorry slipped a small blade into each hand. At the sight of them, Gariv spat. “A man uses a sword, trader,” he said contemptuously.

     Jorry’s voice was weary, like that of a man speaking to an unruly child. “This isn’t a tournament. I don’t mean to do battle with you, I mean to execute you.”

     Gariv drew back a step. “I’ll waste no time on you. One stroke and you’ll be slit in two. Do you hear me? I’ve done it to better men, scores of them. Hundreds of them. And you … with your feeble finger knives …”

     Jorry shook his head and sighed, as if reluctant to do what he must. “You’re consistent to the end, Gariv. Blustering, bragging, and utterly stupid.”

     He raised his hands to the aiming position. Gariv drew back his sword and lunged forward. A single snap of Jorry’s wrist and the Skorat tumbled over the dais and fell at Jorry’s feet. Over his left eye, almost invisible under the thick brow, was a small hole. His sword hand twitched twice, convulsively, then he shuddered and lay still.

From UNDER A CALCULATING STAR by John Morressy (1975)

(ed note: On Terra there was a war, which culminated in the release of some ultra-deadly biological warfare germ. Frantically animals were experimented on in the labs in a desperate attempt to find a cure. But to no avail. The surviving humans flee Terra for another habitable planet.

Unbeknown to the humans, they had been doing that old "Secret of NIMH" gag. The animals that escaped from the labs had been mutated into intelligence. Over the thousands of years the cats, dogs, wild boars, and rats developed tribal societies.

Of course they all had traditional horror stories about the demon humans. Which ensured that when a human scout starship returned to Terra, hilarity ensued.)

      To those who had known his ancestors, he would be a grotesque sight; for a body once well fitted to the needs of its owner had altered in ways strange to nature. Rounded forepaws had split into stubby fingers, awkward enough but able to accomplish much more in the way of handling. His body was still largely furred, but there were places where the fur had thinned to a light down. There was more dome to his skull, just as the brain beneath was different, dealing with thoughts and conceptions earlier unknown. In fact it was that brain which had altered most of all. Feline, Furtig's ancestors had been. But Furtig was something which those who had known those felines could not have accurately named.

     The hunting claws, which clicked softly as Furtig shifted his weight, were one of Gammage's first gifts to his people. They were made of a shining metal which did not dull, break, or flake with the passing of years as did the shards of metal found elsewhere. Set in a band which slipped over the hand, they snapped snugly just above the wrist, projecting well beyond the stubby fingers with tearing, curved hooks, like the claws one grew, but far more formidable and dangerous. And they were used just as one used one's natural defenses. A single well-placed blow could kill one of the deer or wild cows Furtig's people hunted for their staple food.

     In war with one's kind they were forbidden. But they could be worn to face the Barkers, as those knew only too well. And with the Rattons—one used all and any weapons against those evil things. While with the Tusked Ones there were no quarrels, because of a truce.

From BREED TO COME by Andre Norton (1972)

Dart Rifles:

Strictly speaking this is not a military weapon, but it is widely used for hunting and the like on colonies so colonial militia sometimes use them for sniping.

The weapon fires a dart pneumatically, so it is as hard to detect as a needle rifle. The dart is reunsable and either drugged or poisoned. Its penetration is poor.

Since the air pressure can be (and usually is) hand pumped and the darts are reusable, colonists like it. All they have to buy are tubes of drugs (and these may be locally obtainable) rather than expensive ammunition or powercells (needed for slugthrowers or energy weapons, probably have to be imported from off-planet).

From SPACE MARINES {miniature wargaming rules} by A. Mark Ratner (1977)

(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 splinter-arrow 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 (technical term is "squeeze bore"). 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 (because the point is deadly poison), 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 (snuffer is a breech-loader, since you cannot muzzle-load a fist-sized tank seed into a one centimeter muzzle). Above, the rustling had become a crashing and bending of thick branches.

Wrapping his right hand around the pistol-like 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)

(ed note: The planet Lyra regrettably has practially no deposits of heavy metals, particularly iron. The local technology is based on ceramics. Since the Lyran guilds are terrified of being put out of buisness by metal-based technology, they pushed for passage of draconian laws forbidding the import of metal.

This means their equivalent of a pistol is somewhat Rube Goldberg.)

All of them—except Alen—lugged numbered sacks and boxes of gems to the low brick building designated. The trader was allowed to pocket a handful for samples before the shed was sealed—a complicated business. A brick was mortared over the simple ironwood latch that closed the ironwood door, a pat of clay was slapped over the brick and the port seal stamped in it. A mechanic with what looked like a pottery blowtorch fed by powdered coal played a flame on the clay seal until it glowed orange-red and that was that.

Alen uncovered the slow-match, blew it to a flame, squeakily pumped up a pressure torch until a jet of pulverized coal sprayed from its nozzle and ignited it. A dozen strokes more and there was enough heat feeding back from the jet to maintain the pressure cycle.

     "Something's burning," said Alen to the trader, sniffing the air.
     "This stinking buggy—" began blackbeard. "Oops," he said, interrupting himself and slapping at his cloak.
     "Let me, trader," said Alen. He turned back the cloak, licked his thumb, and rubbed out a crawling ring of sparks spreading across a few centimeters of the cloak's silk lining. And he looked fixedly at what had started the little fire. It was an improperly-covered slow-match protruding from a holstered device that was unquestionably a hand weapon.
     "I bought it from one of their guards while you were parleying with the policeman," explained blackbeard embarrassedly. "I had a time making him understand. That Garthkint fellow helped." He fiddled with the perforated cover of the slow-match, screwing it on more firmly.
     "A pitiful excuse for a weapon," he went on, carefully arranging his cloak over it. "The trigger isn't a trigger and the thumb-safety isn't a safety. You pump the trigger a few times to build up pressure, and a little air squirts out to blow the match to life. Then you uncover the match and pull back the cocking-piece. This levers a dart into the barrel. Then you push the thumb-safety which puffs coaldust into the firing chamber and also swivels down the slow-match onto a touch-hole. Poof, and away goes the dart if you didn't forget any of the steps or do them in the wrong order. Luckily, I also got a knife."

The trader, before the knife struck, had the clumsy pistol out, with the cover off the glowing match and the cocking piece back. He must have pumped and cocked it under his cloak, thought Alen numbly as he told the watchmen, without prompting: "Get back against the wall and turn around."

From THAT SHARE OF GLORY by C. M. Kornbluth (1952)

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