01 May 2011

FWS Topics: Dude, where's my Blaster?

It's 2011, Do You Know Where Your Raygun Is?
According to the pulp sci-fi novels of yesteryear, we should be colonizing space, have flying cars, jetpacks, and of course, laser guns! However, the reality is that we are still stuck in orbit of Earth, no flying cars unless your drunk, jetpacks set your pants on fire. However, you would think that laser-based weaponry would be possibly. Soldiers today carry IR aiming lasers on their M4 assault carbines via the AN/PEQ-5. Despite a few next-gen toys, our soldiers are using a rifle designed in the 1960's, while their opponents are using a gun developed in 1940's! Where is the blaster that sci-fi promised me?The US military is working on deploying lasers in the role of munitions interception, and are massive systems at the moment, not even close to a blaster.

Faded Memories...or...the best Christmas of all time (1986)!
One of the reasons that I really felt laser weaponry was just around the corner was it seemed that high-tech was all over the place in the 1980's.  When I was a kid, all the cool sci-fi characters had Blasters, Battlestat Galatica, Buck Rogers, Boba Fett and everyone's favorite Nerf Herder: Han Solo.My favorite G.I. Joe was Flash during my childhood, and he had the uber-cool XMLR-1A laser rifle.  However, the best thing about Growing up in the SDI Reagan-80's, you really believed at backpack laser were around the corner. After all, we had Lazer-Tag, why couldn't the Army zap the bad guys? If you grew up in the 1980's, than you may have played, or owned the two coolest toys of the mid-1980's, Photon and Lazer Tag.

For those of you that do not know what Photon and Lazer Tag are, than I pity you. Photon and Laser Tag were battery powered guns and sensors that fired invisible IR beams at sensors placed on the body. This was great fun, but they ate batteries.Photon and Lazer Tag differed in their look, not tech. Photon used an all-over body sensor system, with a helmet, chest, and I believe gun sensor to score hits, however, the Photon system was less refined and prone to sensor issues than Lazer Tag, weighted about 18 pounds, and plus, it looked kind of dorky when compared to the Worlds of Wonder Lazer Tag system. I must confess, I thought the Lazer Tag was the uber-shit back in the day, it had the cool gun, vests, rifle, and the helmet, and a much better cartoon than the Photon live-action series. For years, we would head off into the woods, and fire invisible beams at one another...we painted our gear and gun to cool more military. On birthdays, we would pile into a car and go to the Tulsa area Photon center for hyper-sugared fun. 
Here are some pics of what the original Photon centers looked like around 1987:

The sign of any good Birthday in '86


The battlefield, several levels

The gear-up area...red or green

The lit up battlefield
An used ID passcard

There is no way in words to tell how cool these sites were back in the day. For those of us that remember the original TRON, than these indoor fields were similar, neon lights, futuristic buildings, fog, smoke, screaming, laser sounds...epic. I played at two Photon centers, one in Tulsa on Memorial street, and another in Albuquerque, New Mexico (I still have my ID pass!), both were some of the best times. I can still recall, going into the staging area, putting on a paper surgery hat, donning a red or green helmet, and then piling into the gate waiting for the call. Ah...those were the days...Then it all ended within a few years, the fad died and Worlds of Wonder went belly up, along all of the Photon centers closed...while simulator laser tag like systems are still around, the majority of people, like me, switched to Paintball and/or AirSoft. A verison of these old IR force-on-force training system is still used by the US military in the form of the MILES gear.

So, where the hell is my Han Solo blaster?
Why haven't our militaries using lasers on the battlefield? Here are my "theories":

The M-4 assault carbine costs the US military about $2,000 and has to issue this to thousands of troops. Imagine, taking a Laser Rifle that costs five or six figures and issuing it to half a million troops. Then add in replacement battery/power packs, chargers, and replacement weapons. That means billions invested in a new technology, that may not be as good as the bullet.

The Want & Need
The simple fact is that has to be a need for a Military Laser Rifle over the current KEW weapons we use to today.  And the Congress, taxpayers, and President want the US military to have it. They have not replaced the M-16/M-4 yet. Is a laser better than an M-4 or even the AK-47? The modern ammunition punches through body armor, when it doesn't, the lab geeks design something deadlier.For example, when the 9mm MP5 SMG was not longer cutting it in close warfare, the FN P90, H&K MP7, and M-4 CQBR were developed to fill the gap. There simply no need for a Laser Rifle at the present time. When we push out to the stars, if we met a xenomorph that an AK cannot bring down, then we will have Plasma Rifle in the 40 watt range.

The Dirty Reality of Soldier's Life
The reality of a soldier's life during combat sucks. Rain, mud, heat, cold, and poor cover. Would the new Laser Rifles be rugged enough to deal with these factors? What about being dropped, hit, and used to bash the enemy's skull in? Could a soldier on a isolated afghan mountain be able to repair it without a degree in electrical engineering? After all, in the 1960's when the US rushed the M-16 into battle in the harsh environment of Vietnam, soldiers died when their weapons didn't work. The US soldier began taking the AK off of dead VC. Would lasers kill more of our own then the enemy? According to the Atomics Rockets website, handheld laser weapons would have lens, and resemble a old-school camcorder than a Phaser. Nothing brittle survives the riggers of combat...

Heat, Thermal blooming, Indirect fire, and DEW Trail
Laser DEW systems have four major weakness: heat, thermal booming, indirect fire, and they leave  DEW trail. The conditions in the local atmosphere of the world you are fighting on, effects the range and lethality of the beam, like fog, dust, and smoke, this is general called thermal blooming. The beam of a laser leaves a trail of ionized particles that could be used to track the sources of shooter. Bad if you're a sniper. Along with a tractable DEW trail is the amount of heat that laser weapon would bleed off, allowing for thermal to pick up the positions of soldiers. Cooling these laser weapons would add to the complexity of the weapon and the power requirements. Lastly, bullets have odd physics, riccohet off of walls, missing targets, and artillery shells use indirect fire and arching to destroy the enemy. Lasers are focused and direct for better or worse. What is keeping handheld laser weaponry in this section is most likely the cooling needed between firings, such systems would bulky, add weight, and increase the price tag.   

Invisible Beams
For those of us that grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, we watched brightly colored bolts of deadly laser energy darting across the battlefield. Saly, that's false. The truth is, that the majority of laser DEW systems would be invisble to the naked eye, and unlike bullets, the soldiers could not where the beam hit or who is firing at you with some sort of sensor gear that track DEW lines. You can imagine, a combat patrol in a urban enviroment, then suddenly one goes down, with any bullet report, or even muzzle flash to work from. Not my idea of a good time.

"Hey buddy, got a Double A?"
One of the things that holds back the electric car is the battery. The Tesla Roadster can go about 250 miles, the new Nissan Leaf gets about 100 miles while my Corolla can go 400 on a single tank. How many "shots" would an infantryman get out of their laser? Would soldiers have to be hunting about for a power-pack or loaded down with fuel cells? If the laser charge finally goes out, do the soldiers carry a spare bullet-firing gun or pistol? Like the M-79 grenadiers during Vietnam? Would Special Operations units, like SEALs be able to use these DEW rifles on long-range RECON missions? According to the Atomic Rockets website, a handheld laser weapon would have fire a beam or pulse of one kilojoule, and the battery storage would converstatively be about 50-100 pulses, or if applied to a beam, then it would be measured in amount of time beforel the weapon overheated, which would add cooling systems to the laser rifle. This increases demand on the power source to operate the cooling system, and air-cooling simply takes too-long, unless you're on Hoth... 

Ammunition companies, firearm websites, and soldiers endless debate about which bullet is best for the kill, and no likes to hit a target and then see it get back up (just read Blackhawk Down). Unlike other DEW systems, lasers need to hit the target with an continuous focused beam, inflicting thermal and physical damage...if the target stays still, for anyone who as used the Spartan Laser in HALO, knows all about that. It takes about a kilojoule against a normal human, more if they had cerameric armor to burn through. This calls into question, if a laser DEW system would be an replacement for something like the AK47. When a soldier as a target dead-to-rights, and squeezes the trigger, that target needs to be gone, not suffering from a sunburn or dancing like Muhammad Ali.

Examples of Realistic Laser in Sci-Fi
 Lasers and other similar DEW are projected in Sci-Fi has blasters that shot a bolt of laser energy, and knock the enemy down dead. Some have gotten more of the reality of the laser beam.

  • Firefly-in the 13th episode "Heart of Gold", a wealth villain is shown to have custom-built laser pistol. During the attack on the whorehouse, his laser-pistol quickly runs out of power, and is taken prisoner.
  • Firefly-the Alliance are the only ones to use Laser weaponry, partly because the alliance government  made lasers illegal for private citizens. Also, frontier settlements are unable to keep the up with the high power demands, spare parts, and a good ole bullet does the job just fine, thank you very much.

  • Akira-when Neo-Toyko is under attack and all hell breaks out, the military breaks out portable laser cannons, called the Arasaka HLR-12X. These are massive devices, with a battery pack, and a narrow beam.

  • HALO 3/ODST-the elite of the UNSC have access to the so-called M6"Spartan Laser". This is a slow charging, solid-state or electron-free beam that relays on battery that lasts for five shots.

  • ALIENS: Colonial Marine technical Manuel by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood-this is manual features some of the best science on the uses of DEW weaponry ever written. Buy it.

  • The Forever War-the military sci-fi classic has the soldiers using "laser fingers" mounted to their powered armor. They behave like cutting beams
  • Star Trek: TOS-"The Cage"- The original pilot for Star Trek featured landing parties using the Mark One Laser Pistol that seemed to more realistic than the traditional phasers
  • The Classic Battlestar Galactica- In the original frakking 1970's series, the Colonial Warriors used a large blaster and for a few episodes, when the warriors would hit a Cylon, there was only an explosion on the other end, no laser bolt sailing through the air.
  • Goldfinger (1964)- The laser scene with 007...need I say more?
  • Endangered Species-This is my own book, still being written. The American Special Forces Armored Power Suit unit uses a portable 40mW electron-free powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and fires in the 2.5-3.5 micron range.


The best website on hard-science laser weaponry:

Here is a link to a great site about the Photon Centers:



  1. Hello, William, you've raised some pretty good points on the difficulties of man-portable laser weaponry, and on issuing any new weapon to troops. I'd like to give my view on such weapons.

    Economics and need are not yet issues in regard to laser rifles and ray-guns, for the simple reason we do not yet have the technology to create ray-guns. Lasers today are to bulky and inefficient for a single soldier to use one. Nowadays you are lucky to mount one on a vehicle. Lasers are hard to cool because all the energy that doesn't go into the laser beam shows up as waste heat. A hand held laser gun would be to hot to touch after one shot. You could use a heat sink, but if you overtax it, you could have a minor explosion on your hands. Cooling systems are rather bulky.

    Another problem is the stability of the lasing material. Crystal lasers will crack if they become to hot. If you use a new active medium each time, like a chemical laser, this won't be a problem, but the waste products of chemical lasers are rather toxic. More efficient and stable lasers will have to be developed for laser guns to be feasible.

    To be continued...

    -Christopher Phoenix

  2. The really obvious problem with man portable laser weapons is the lack of any portable power pack with enough energy to power one. Now, lasers can be pumped by almost any energy source- chemical fuels, hot expanding gas, or explosions. The energy of an explosion might be needed for a lethal laser blast, but that isn't exactly something you want to hold in you hand. Most of the time, we imagine lasers powered by electricity, mostly solid-state devices. You could burn fuel in a MHD generator, or use a flux compression generator, both of which can be done right now, but that means power packs will be expensive and non-rechargable. Future batteries may be up to the task, and nano-technology may create power packs with immense capacities, so I don't think this will be the limiting factor forever.

    Disposable power packs may be used at first, but eventually rechargeable power packs will be invented. The a power pack could take the form of a back pack or belt back attached to the gun with a cable. Eventually power packs may become small enough to fit in the gun. This will make them even easier to handle, although belt-packs may provide more shots. With a sufficiently powerful power pack, laser guns could hold quite a few shots.

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  3. One interesting idea is one shot power modules, or laser bullets. Each one would be a capacitor that held enough charge for one laser bolt. After being used, they could be recharged, like the other power packs. Some sources imagine non-rechargable laser bullets, but those are not as convenient.

    The main attractive feature of laser bullets is that, like bullets, you could consolidate your remaining ammunition into one magazine. In a battle, I might switch out a partially full magazine for a full one. After the battle, I would then want to take my remaining ammo out of the partially full magazines, and put it all into a full magazine. That way, I would have fewer full magazines instead of several partially full magazines. If my laser pistol is powered by a monolithic power pack, I can't do that. I might end up with several power packs that are all partially full, and without access to a charger, there wouldn't be any way to recharge them. If my laser pistol takes one-shot power modules in an internal magazine, I will just remove the spent modules and put in charged ones. Later I can recharge the spent modules.

    The atmosphere is not kind to high energy lasers. However, it can be overcome. Adaptive optics, now used in telescopes and prototype laser cannons, corrects for atmospheric distortion. Thermal blooming can be dealt with by using brief high-energy pulses which finish before blooming can interfere. Plasma formation should be avoided at all times. However, electrolasers use blooming to their advantage, allowing the air to break down into a plasma channel and then zapping the target with an electrical jolt which can kill or stun.

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. Now, onto the lethality of lasers. Danger, laser! Danger, laser! WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

    Hitting a human with a continuous beam of energy that takes several seconds to inflict enough damage to kill is not very effective, since the target would try to evade the beam. Also, burning someone to death is probably not nearly as effective a man-stopper as a bullet. You want to blast right through your target, not give it a tan.

    No one has discussed the effects of a high energy, tightly focused sustained shot, although I have heard that a 100 kilo-watt laser can cut off human limbs. I imagine a very high power continuous wave laser would melt flesh and char bone.

    Most infantry laser weapons would use brief, high-energy pulses carrying a few kilojoules of energy. These pulses would affect different materials differently. The laser will vaporize the material around the impact sight, creating a small cloud of particulate. This might interfere with a sustained shot, but the pulse will have finished by then. The laser would drill through dry stuff like metal or plastic, perhaps shooting right through it. Flammable stuff would burst into flame. In wet material, however, the story will be different. The energy from the laser manifests itself as heat, and a the laser pumps a lot of heat into the target very quickly. In water, this means an instantaneous steam explosion.

    A laser gun will not shoot neat little holes through people. Instead, when the beam hits skin and the viscera underneath, the water in the tissue blooms instantly into steam very messily, ripping apart flesh and spreading third and second degree burns across most of the surrounding tissue. NASTY!!! Touch clothing or armor makes it even worse by trapping the steam and spreading it over more of your body. Low power beams would cause more localized damage, high power beams will spread steam over most of your body, inside and out. THAT IS WHAT "DANGER LASER" MEANS!!!!

    So, it seems that lasers are actually pretty dangerous. ZAPP!!! and your tissue explodes into steam and gore. Add a few more beams on a plane, and you could cut someone in half with a millesecond pulse. This is called setting your sidearm to "fan beam".

    To be continued...

    Christopher Phoenix

  5. Now onto the actual laser weapons!!

    Real life man-portable laser weapons will have lenses and mirrors to direct the beam. The Arasaka HLR-12X got the look right. Lasers don't need long barrels like tradition firearms, so the "Star Wars" look is out. Laser rifles won't resemble any firearm existing today. I would guess that they will be somewhat bulky, possess a beam-directing optics at the end of the "barrel", and either a cable to a belt pack or an integrated power pack.

    The beam-directing optics can steer the beam a few degrees left or right, so the weapon could be gyrostabilized. The optics would correct for any jitter, so human marksmanship will be improved. The beam-directing optics also allow for fan beam.

    The laser beams will not be visible if they are in the infrared or ultra-violet frequencies, but visible beams could be visible in an atmosphere. Rayleigh scattering will scatter light from the beam, and it will appear as a thin line. Where it strikes, there will be be a bright flash the same color as the beam. If your beam is invisible, you will still see flashes of plasma at the target.

    Finally finished. Feel free to comment or share any info you have, or ask any questions. Check out these sites to find so more info on laser weapons:




    Christopher Phoenix

  6. Now onto the look of laser weapons and the beams they fire.

    A working laser rifle would have to efficiently convert energy from the power pack into the coherent light, focus the beam, and overcome blooming. I've already discussed the power packs. The actual laser would probably be a compact tube in the gun. Phase-locked diode laser arrays or diode-pumped YAG lasers might work. You would need some serious cooling- Dr. Schilling suggests liquid micro-channel heat pipes etched into all the hot surfaces, and leading to cooling fins around the "barrel".

    Focusing the laser would require a lens or mirror. Laser pistols will probably be compact and sport a large lens instead of a barrel. I would suggest using a metal iris to protect the lens when the weapon is being carried, and only un-shutter the lens when ready to fire. Something similar exists for slug-throwing rifles- a plastic cap that covers the end of the barrel.

    Atomic Rockets shows some designs that resemble camcorders. I don't like the look of them much. They look to fragile. Besides, what good is a laser pistol without cooling fins, a neat-looking beam emitter, and good charging-up sound? Seriously, a camcorder is not an inspiring weapon. I would have avoided buttons for changing beam modes. A dial, like modern day firing selectors, would be easier to manipulate in a stressful situation. Soldiers don't want a whole keypad on their laser, they want on ON and OFF switch. The most you would really want is a beam power selector, frequency selector, and beam mode selector (pulsed blaster mode, fan beam, continuous beam). You could use a setup similar to the hand lasers out of The Cage, so you could switch beam modes by twisting the barrel.

    What the actual laser beam will look like depends on a number of things. If the laser is in the visible part of the spectrum, you will get a visible trail in through clean air at indoor lighting intensities. Outside in full sunlight, you probably won't be able to see the beam, but you could see it at night. When a visible beam is incident the target, you will see a very bright flash the same color as the beam which may temporarily dazzle those looking at it. You might overlook the beam due to the flash. Higher frequency colors scatter more than lower frequency colors, so a blue beam will be more visible than a red one.

    A near UV laser pulse might ionize the air and create a glowing trail. The weapons designers will want to avoid this, since it attenuates the beam. Near-IR beams won't be visible unless there are relatively large pieces of pollen, lint, or grit in the air, which will glow incandescent as they burn under the irradiation of your beam.

    That pretty much covers laser rifles. Laser aren't the only options for working ray-guns though. Particle beam sidearms are another possibility. Charged particle beams are self-focusing in an atmosphere, appear as visible blue-white beams, and are spectacular weapons. Plasma guns, however, don't work at all- for the same reason why a gun shooting hot steam won't work. This essay outlines why plasma guns don't work: http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Essays/PlasmaWeapons.html

    Christopher Phoenix

  7. Ah, Mr.Phoenix, I always enjoy your comments! Well thought out and true! I look forward to your thoughts on Gauss Weaponry.
    Thanks for thinking, reading, and commenting!

  8. Thank you, William! And thanks for your awesome article on laser weapons. I am looking forward to your article on Gauss Weapons. Lasers are neat, but the Hyper-Velocity Projectile Weapon is the future. DARPA has already tested a very successful, 90mm 9 mega-joule rail-gun. Tests are ongoing, and we will see this technology in our lifetimes.

    Kinetic energy is NOT going away. KE=1/2 Mass times Velocity squared, and the faster you fire your projectiles, the more powerful your shot is. Rick Robinson's first rule of space combat: A projectile moving at 3 km per second or over packs its energy in one big BOOM, creating an explosion more powerful than an explosive shell of greater mass. Ordinary gas-expasnion guns can't achieve this level of performance, but an all-electrical gun can. Guns don't kill people- kinetic energy does!!

    In space, kinetic energy kills. You are only limited by how fast you can make your projectile go. A space shuttle travels at 26,000 ft. per second- about ten times faster than a rifle bullet. And it doesn't even travel beyond orbit. Space technology makes stuff go very, very fast, and 3 km per second is actually on the slow end of space travel speeds. Imagine what high velocities a future space-faring civilization could achieve!!

    I take it you are going to be discussing man-portable Gauss Guns. Those are going to have similar problems as laser guns- no rail-gun or coil-gun today is compact enough for a single soldier to carry, rail-guns have a tendency to destroy themselves in a few shots, and they have huge energy requirements. I have my thoughts on those problems- but I mustn't give them away until you post your article on Gauss Weapons!!

    Thanks for the awesome blog on military SF, and please keep posting these interesting discussions!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  9. I found the laser scene out of 13th episode of "Firefly" on youtube, and I do like how they portrayed the laser weapon, compared to the likes of Star Wars. It reminded me of "The Cage". The beam did look like light, although the gun was a bit goofy looking. A real laser would probably cause messier wounds, but I will have to actually shoot a laser pistol to find out. : ) The creators of Firefly based their weapon on the behavior of real lasers. Perhaps the beam that caused the damage was invisible infrared, and the red beam was just a tracer. If working laser pistols are ever available, I'd carry one...

    Christopher Phoenix

  10. The invisible beam, especially when applied to a sniper rifle is quiet scary...I miss firefly....

  11. Invisible beams are very scary when applied to a laser sniper rifle. You can't see the beam, the laser is perfectly accurate, and the laser gun has a very low firing signature. A bunch of soldiers could be sitting around, and then ZAP!!! one guy has a gaping hole in his head, and his brain has been vaporized. Then before the soldiers even have time to react, ZAP!!! and another guy has a big hole in his chest. Then they are in for a long game of "Where the *&#$ did that come from?"

    Another scary aspect of laser rifles is truly controllable automatic fire. A laser rifle could fire a continuous beam for a "slash and blast" style attack, and since lasers have no recoil, it would be no harder to use than a laser pointer. Add to that multiple firing modes (stun, low power, medium power, max power) and gyro-stabilized beam directing optics and you have the perfect weapon.

    Since the only ammo solid-state or free electron laser rifles need is electricity, it would be easy for space travelers to provide ammunition for their weapons. If you used a slug-thrower instead, you would need to manufacture ammunition or have it sent from elsewhere- a lot harder than just recharging a spent power pack. A space-faring civilization would appreciate this.

    Imagine a group of colonists on a distant planet. It took them years to travel to their new home. These colonists are beyond the reach of resupply from civilized space. They have a grounded spacecraft with a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket- or its futuristic equivalent- which provides power to their colony, which they are constructing from parts cannibalized from their ship. If they are armed with slug-throwing carbines, than they will have to manufacture ammunition or run the risk of running out. If they brought laser rifles, then even if they can't yet manufacture the power packs for them, they can recharge their rifles from their Bimodal NTR. Not to mention that the colonists can plug their larger laser weapons into the Bimodal NTR for a virtually inexhaustible supply of ammunition.

    Christopher Phoenix

  12. Another possibility for a working ray-gun is a microwave weapon. A standard-frequency laser has to burn through the target to reach vital organs, but microwaves will penetrate a target and vibrate the water molecules on the inside of the target. Like food in a microwave oven, the unfortunate victim will cook from the inside out. Eventually, this water will vaporize and the victim will explode.

    The beams fired by a microwave weapon would be quite invisible, like the modern day Active Denial System. Unlike the ADS, which only penetrates a millimeter or so, a lethal microwave beam would roast the target from the inside out. You could create deadly ray-guns that fire invisible beams that boil the internal fluids of any living thing hit until the organism explodes. The gun could be powered by nano-batteries composed of carbon nanotubes. The immense energy stored by the nano-batteries would be used to generate a solid beam of microwaves that could vaporize an alien soldier. Energy beam weapons in real life are a lot scarier and messier than most fictional ones...

    I once read a story about a man who took a lethal dose of RF radiation. He had stepped into the beam of a F4 Tomcat's radar. The maintenance people had gotten permission to radiate on the ground for troubleshooting reasons. The man had bypassed warning signs and barrier ropes to step into the tightly focused beam of a 120 kw AWG 9 Radar. He was about 3/4 mile downrange. The maintenance chief who first saw him yanked power on the radar- which radars don't like, much like a computer. Lots of arcing in the waveguides and such.

    The man felt fine for the first hour or two, than felt nauseous and went into a coma at 6 hrs. He was declared dead eight hours after being exposed to the RF beam. When they took his temperature after taking him to the medic, it was over 100 degrees- yet he felt fine at first. Very strange indeed.

    Don't forget that microwave ovens were developed after researchers noticed that radar antenna heat water containing substances. Metals are heated by RF and microwave radiation as well- some people have gotten scars from wearing jewelry too close to a RF antenna. That is why you don't stick metal objects in a microwave. Metal objects will absorb the energy and begin arcing and heating up.

    This all suggests a death ray could use these frequencies, if it was powerful enough to cook a target instantly. Gives you something other than ordinary laser and plasma guns to consider...

    It would be interesting if a movie or TV show armed the crew of a starship with ray guns that fired beams of microwaves. Imagine if they carried those in Star Trek... "Shoot it, Ricky!!" Zappp!!! SPLAT!!! They wouldn't ever do that in Star Trek, of course. The purpose of phasers is to leave the minimum of bloody pieces to pick up. Having ray-guns that burn holes in people or cause people to explode due to internal heating would be messy, expensive FX wise, and make the show a lot less kid-friendly.

    Christopher Phoenix

  13. I agree with you Mr. Phoenix, a military-grade Microwave weapon, that is used to kill not be less-lethal, which our military as now. My first experience with lethal Microwave was from the book Foundation and the Earth. I imagine that microwave weapons would be a good urban weapon, or even a room cleaning device, which I have in another novel. In my current book, the colonial settlement uses microwave projector to keep animals away, and I am working on a blogpost on microwave weapons. The issue that I have with writting the post, is the simple lack of information on a lethal microwave weapon...some sites say that's basiclly a laser...

  14. Hello, William!

    A lethal microwave weapon is not a laser. Lasers and masers both work on the same principals, but how they affect the target is quite different. A laser weapon will heat the surface of an object. A laser could use a continuous beam and try to burn through or scorch a large area of the surface, or fire an intense pulse that will explosively vaporize a portion of the surface, creating an explosion. A laser has to drill to actually reach internal organs or components.

    A microwave beam will penetrate a human body and jiggle the water molecules contained in its cells. This is known as Dielectric Heating, and it is how a microwave oven can heat leftovers or pop popcorn. Water molecules are dipoles, having a negative charge on one end and a positive charge on another, so they align themselves in an electric field. If that field is oscillating, the molecules rotate to continuously align with it. The rotating molecules push, pull, and collide with the other atoms and molecules of the substance (through electric forces) distributing the energy to adjacent molecules and atoms of the material. This effect works best on liquid water, but also works on any solid, liquid, and gas that contains some dipoles.

    A microwave beam weapon will penetrate deeply and jiggle the water molecules in a living organism. A lethal microwave weapon could literally cook someone from the inside out. All living organisms contain water, and most aliens will too. A microwave ray-gun could boil the blood of any living thing hit until it explodes.

    How far a microwave beam penetrates seems to depend on the wavelength of the beam. The Active Denial System uses a 95 GHz beam. A two-second burst of the 95 GHz focused beam heats the skin to a temperature of 130 °F (54 °C) at a depth of 1/64th of an inch (0.4 mm) and is claimed to cause skin pain without lasting damage. Lower frequency beams will penetrate deeper. This is where things get a little more complicated- what frequency would a lethal RF death ray use? I know these weapons have shown potential, and someday someone will use them.

    You can look up the effects of microwave radiation on human tissue at Wikipedia- but I warn you, it can get a bit disturbing. I chose not to discuss it here for two reasons. First, any real death ray will probably cook you from the inside out, so worrying about cataracts is probably unnecessary when you have exploded and splattered on the wall. Second, I really don't want to talk about sick individuals sticking small children in a microwave oven.

    Bottom line is that a laser will burn a hole in you while a lethal microwave weapon could cook you from the inside out. It is not impossible that microwaves could be used in hand held weapons- so someday we will probably have this type of ray-gun. I've included some links that might help you out on the lethal microwave weapon post.


    This episode of That's Impossible talks about laser and microwave weapons.
    It is a fun episode, check it out!!

    By the way, Michio Kaku designs a microwave ray-gun in his Sci-Fi Science Alien Invasion episode. He explains how such a weapon can cook you from the inside out. I like this show too.

    Christopher Phoenix

  15. Hello, William!! You mentioned that in your book-Endangered Species- the American Special Forces used a 40 mega-watt (I hope you didn't mean milliwatt- because that is little more than a laser pointer) laser. I used an online laser weapon effects calculator at How to Build a Laser Death Ray to calculate the effects on armor steel, assuming your laser is a 40 mega-watt CW laser focusing to a one centimeter spot size, aiming at armor steel. The laser will drill through armor steel at 1.65 meters per second!! How big is this thing? You mentioned it was portable- I am assuming you meant portable for a powered armor trooper.

    Assuming the xenomorphs are made out of armor steel and about a meter thick, you could easily cut them in half. For reference, a small to medium sized town will consume 40 megawatts of power. The future- when we will all have nuclear power plants strapped to our backs!!!

    Check you numbers- if you decide 40 mega-watts is too much, you can always tweak your numbers until it makes sense. Then again, Michio Kaku did say that if you had a nuclear reactor strapped to your back, you could power a ray-gun. Perhaps we need 40 mega-watts of power!! I want a laser in the 40 mega-watt range. Perhaps I should ask for one at a gun store. : )

    I remember seeing an episode of Battlestar Galactica TOS. The blasters just made an explosion- no laser bolt sailed through the air. Then again, you can buy lasers powerful enough to create a visible beam in clean air, so a weapons grade visible laser would probably make a visible beam, especially in low lighting conditions. You might be so dazzled by the flare where the beam strikes the target you miss the beam, however.

    Check out this sight- it was built for SF authors who want realistic Laser Death Rays.


    It is very good, check it out!! It is not finished yet, unfortunately, but there is already a wealth of info on that site. Perhaps we should petition the owner of the site to finish it soon!! I have not seen much activity, though it was updated once, adding a new category of death ray: the all powerful RAY BEAM!!! X-ray lasers that burn a narrow plasma channel through the atmosphere- and you!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  16. The Free Eletron Laser called by the Dragoon APS was based on the FEL mounted on the ALIENS CMC APC...it is fueled by hydogen, and is limited ammo in field, the weapon is mainly used to dazzle the enemys sensor systems and/or incept of incoming artillery.
    The classic BSG blasers were cool, just having the impact was realistic, and kinda scarey...
    I'm going to run those numbers again, I believe the US Air Forces ground based lasers is a 40Mw FEL...hmmm
    Thanks for the link, commenting and reading!

  17. Hello William!! 40 Mw is a lot of power for a dazzling or point-defense laser- you have a real Death Ray there. The productive capacity of electrical generators operated by utility companies is often measured in Mega-watts. Few things can sustain the transfer the transfer or consumption of energy on this scale- some of these events or entities include: lightning strikes, naval craft (such as submarines or aircraft carriers), engineering hardware, some scientific research equipment (such as supercolliders and large -surprise surprise!!- lasers).

    For reference, about 10,000 100 watt lightbulbs or 5000 computer systems would be needed to draw one megawatt. Also, one MW equals approximately 1360 horsepower. Modern high-powered diesel-electric locomotives typically have a peak power output of 3-5 megawatts, whereas the typical modern nuclear power plant produces on the order of 500-2000 MW peak output.

    Check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orders_of_magnitude_(power)
    It should help you with orders of magnitude of power.

    Typical automobiles consume 40 KW to 200 KW. A small coal fired power plant has an output of 800KW. Of course, KW and MW are units of power- how many joules per second are consumed. Joules are the unit of energy- named after James Prescott Joule, who studied the nature of heat and its relation to mechanical work. Watts are named after James Watt, a Scottish inventor and engineer who's improvements to the Newcomen steam engine led to the Industrial Revolution.

    Your FEL will consume 40 MJ in a one second burst. Every second, the laser will pump 40 MJ into the target. Your troops better have some badass portable generators.

    Sometimes it seems that the measure of how advanced a civilization has become is how much energy they have available and how efficiently they can convert that energy to different forms. That is the basis for the Kardashev scale.

    The classic BSG blasters were very cool. I found a diagram of such a blaster at the Atomic Rockets energy sidearms page which seemed to assume it was a laser- the blaster had an adjustable laser focus lens. For some reason Hollywood assumes the audience will think invisible beams- or even instantaneous beams- are boring, even though they are scarier and far more realistic. Instead we get absurd streaks and curlicues of light, and then Hollywood dumps all energy weapons, saying that "It is not realistic." Gaah!! If we ever have real blasters, the beams will either be invisible or make a long streak.

    The real trick with a blaster is storing a lot of energy and releasing it in intense pulses powerful enough to vaporize an object or kill a foe. A laser could work, but we will need to be in the 100 KW range minimum to get any real cutting going on. That is 100,000 watts per second- more than we can put in the palm of your hand. We could always try John Schillings method of using a pulsed laser to create a series of steam explosions to bore through the human body, if that method pans out. The other option is a particle beam. Isaac Asimov's Foundation and quite a few Poul Anderson story's- like Virgin Planet- have blasters like this. These blasters would shoot a steam of ions or electrons- quite effective and brutal. Visible beams in an atmosphere, blasts through a target and creates a spray of radiation. Pew!! Pew!! Pew!! ZZAAPP!!!

    Once batteries that can store immense charge area available, a real life ray-gun will become possible. Sometime in the next 100 years a real blaster might be invented. For the time being, we are still going to use guns that shoot bullets, but someday guns will shoot radiant energy. A real life blaster will probably be chunky, like the BSG blasters, instead of slim like the Firefly laser pistol- at least at first. What look do you prefer- chunky and large or sleek and compact?

    Christopher Phoenix

  18. Hi William!!

    New information on the anti-personell uses of laser weapons is available at How To Build a Laser Death Ray.
    Check it out... I think you'll find it useful.

    Luke Campbell discusses three types of lasers in this page, heat rays, blasters, and eye poppers.

    Continuous wave lasers, referred to as "heat rays", are used as long range flamethrowers. Heat rays heat up a victims skin until it burns and causes clothing to ignite, similar to the heat rays out of HG Well's classic novel "War of the Worlds". The gruesome details of wounds caused by exposure to intense radiant energy was investigated in the Cold War to determine the effects of nuclear blasts, one of whose primary means of killing is the radiant heat emitted by the fireball. A 60 cm spot at an intensity of 125 J/cm^2 will be quite effective- uncovered skin will suffer devastating flash burns while exposed hair and clothing will burst into flame. A irradiances of roughly 400 J/cm^2, the thermal radiation is sufficiently intense to "cause exposed flesh to flash into steam, flaying exposed areas to the bone." Incapacitation from a heat ray will be rapid and shock can be expected in minutes. I wonder how powerful a laser would have to be to vaporize a human entirely...

    The second method is to blast through meat, gristle, and bone to make holes in vital organs. This is the same method as a bullet uses. These weapons are called "blasters", and they emit a rapid series of laser pulses, each pulse creating a steam explosion and small crater in the targets flesh, so a series of pulses will bore all the way through. Luke Campbell assumes a laser firearm will fulfill the same role and have similar power as an battle rifle. He says a pulsed laser blaster could have similar performance as a modern infantry rifle with an emitted energy of 1 Kj absorbed by the target, with a power input of a few Kj. Cool, I guess- but these laser rifles would be no more lethal than a modern day rifle, and shot placement would be vital. If you don't hit a vital organ, you won't incapacitate a target reliably.

    The final category are "eye poppers", lasers being used to blind enemies. This is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, but accidental blinding due to heat rays or blaster fire is just fine.

    I admit I'm a little disappointed with the laser rifles Luke Campbell designed. I want a weapon akin to the Arasaka HLR-12X, capable of ripping limbs off, blasting through metal, or vaporizing objects. More power output is necessary. Luke Campbell's lasers are about as powerful as the AR-15 in my family's closet.

    Still, the blasters are cool. It would be neat if a science fiction movie used them someday. Imagine if Charlton Heston had used one in Planet of The Apes- that gun they packed in the aluminum backpacks was not very useful. If I ever head off on a journey into space and time, I will have whole locker of laser rifles.

    Christopher Phoenix

  19. Agreed, I wouldn't go into space without at least an AK-47!
    The blinding enemy laser was mentioned in ALIENS: Colonial Marine Tech manual, and I thought that was one of the great, unexplored benefits of using a laser DEW.
    When I used to watch Star Trek, and seeing people burned into basic atoms, I wondered how they collect stats on KIA/MIA...gods...Star Trek.

  20. Hi William!!

    I definitely wouldn't go into space without weapons!! I watched "Planet of the Apes" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" recently. (I think BTPOTA wasn't nearly as good as the first film. Too much social commentary - chimp peaceniks? Seriously? And they killed Nova- my favorite character!) Brent just wandered off into the wilderness with no equipment, weapons, nothing... Not how I would do it. A simple AK-47 would have saved them a lot of trouble. I never understood why they had only one tiny pistol in the first film. They should have had sidearms for every crew-member and several automatic rifles.

    For voyages around our Solar System, you probably don't need guns, but if I was going to another star system, I would bring self defense weapons. Atomic Rockets has good sections on sidearms and gear for astronauts. A pocket computer (with plug in sensors, to become a tricorder), anti-nuke and laser flash goggles, binoculars, and a good sidearm seem mandatory. You'd probably need special guns to use in a spacesuit, specially sealed to work in hostile environments or even the vacuum of space. Encountering hostile aliens (or apes) seems unlikely, but you can never be too careful.

    The blinding aspect of laser weapons is a rather unexplored benefit- a laser weapon could even have a special low-power setting specifically for blinding enemies or dazzling sensors. In fact, blinding and dazzling is the most effective way to use laser weapons nowadays, until we can pack enough power in a portable weapon to create instantly lethal death rays.

    Disintegration weapons would make collecting stats on KIA/MIA rather difficult- but hey, at least we don't need to clean up the mess. Of course, burning a human body to vapor would be a fairly violent event in real life, unless you broke apart every atom in the target to neutrinos. Many other settings on phasers were lethal however- the burn setting and disruption settings could kill easily, and a phaser set on stun fired point blank at a victim's skull could be lethal.

    Christopher Phoenix

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  22. Hello Christopher!

    I very much enjoyed reading your article, it was fun, entertaining, and informative. You are correct about the blasters from the Battlestar Galactica original series that emit invisible energy beams and you only see them where it hits, and it was the only thing that that show got scientifically right. However, the Vipers' energy weapons were visible and make sounds in space. In addition, you are spot-on in regards to how Firefly depicts energy weapons in a realistic manner, that is, the more you use them, the faster they run out of juice, which is kind of puzzling, considering that the show made a good attempt to portray things in a realistic fashion such as no humanoid aliens and no sounds in space. But I noticed that it also depicted energy weapons as visible, just like in typical sci-fi shows and movies. Personally, I would very much like to see future science fiction tv shows and films to depict energy weapons like in real life because I find energy weapons in real life far more challenging and scarier, than their sci-fi counterparts, especially from a dramatic point-of-view. What do you think?

    Julian Schecter

  23. When I wrote this post, I imagined an platoon of soldiers humping in through the bad bush of some alien jungle world, where the colours of the plants are odd. Then someone in the platoon, starts screaming, and a flash of light explodes on the soldier's chest, and the smell of charred flesh hits everyone's noses. That is when the soldiers know they are in the schoolyard, and the shit is about to go down.
    Invisible beams of lethal light could be one of the best sniper weapons.