24 February 2012

FWS Armory: Particle Beam Weapons

One of the mission statements of FWS is to catalog and define the weapons used in science fiction, making this a resource for creators of military sci-fi and sci-fi in general. This blogpost about Particle beam weapons is a continuation of that mission. Unlike other well-known and over-used futuristic weapons, Particle beam weapons are much more rare, and often mislabeled in science fiction works. In the real world (which is boring), Particle beam weapons have been experimented with (in a military sense) since Nikola Tesla proposed a "teleforce weapon" in 1934, and more recently with Operation: Seesaw in 1958, SDI of the 1980's, and 2010 construction of an Air Force beam lab at Kirkland AF base with help from Sandia. However, at the moment, Particle DEW are unlikely due to their need for millions (or billions) of volts and massive megawatts that weapons-grade Particle beam would require.
On a personal note, this was a very enjoyable blogpost to research, since I knew very little about Particle beam weapons going into this one.  

What are Particle Beam Weapons?

Basically, Particle beam weapon (PBW) is a form of the directed energy weapon (DEW) and uses powerful magnetics and electrical fields to propel sub-atomic (like hydrogen) particles near or at the speed of light. Particle DEW come in two primary types: charged-particles and neutral-particles. When it comes to military application of these different types of PBW, charged are endoatmospheric, while neutral are exoatmspheric.
If this technology sounds familiar than you are not wrong, an Particle beam weapon is basically a so-called "atom-smasher", like the Large Hadron Collidor in my native nation, Switzerland.

Neutral and Charged Particle Beam Weapons

Due to charged Particle DEW being susceptible to deflection by magnetic fields (like the Earth's own magnetic field), the Neutral Particle beam weapon (NPB) for use in space combat applications by firing hydrogen atoms, due to their neutral charge. During the SDI days, the US experimented with a NPB by launching one into space on July 13, 1989, under the Beam Experiment Aboard Rocket (BEAR). The NPB was a low-power neutral hydrogen particle beam, and was aimed to prove that the technology was accepible for spaceborn application. The endoatmosphere charged Particle beam (CPB) use either protons or electrons for their subatomic particle-of-choice. One of the hallmarks of the charged or ion Particle DEW is its demand for vast amount of energy over a short amount of time, creating issues of charging and brown-out. The US Air Force RADLAC I program has developed beam of electrons in the 10 MeV range with a 30,000 amp current.

The details of Particle Beam Weapon

Particle beam weapons fire subatomic particles of hydrogen, electrons, and/or protons at near light-speed, and to measure the output, PBWs must be talked about in terms of millions-of-electron volts (MeV), the beam current in amperes, and the power of the beam itself in watts. The example given in one of my sources breaks it down like this: 20 MeV Particle beam would have 20 million electron-volts (pg 3, Introducing the Particle-Beam Weapons by Dr. Richard M. Roberts. Air University Review, July-August 1984).
The heart of the PBW system is the particle accelerator that generators the beam of ions, and is the most complex part of the weapon. These accelerators are made up of segments or modules using radio frequency linear electric field to accelerate the charged particles, similar to the Gauss or Coil gun. Most of the current particle accelerators uses miles of these modules to propel these ions at light-speed, which does not translate well into battlefield applications. Another way for Particle acceleration, via induction linac system that unitizes very high currents for short pulses for ionic injection. These are, according to the sources, more suitable for an endoatomspheric DEW weapon because of induction linac stability for propagation of a high-energy beam that is more lethal. The US Air Force's own PBW program, RADLAC, is exploring alternative means of Particle acceleration, via their advanced test accelerator.    

Military Particle Beam Weapons

Due to the different between the endo and exoatmospheric, we'll break this section between these different types of PBWs.

Neutral PBW:
Space-based Neutral Particle weapons (NPW) are the most research because of the SDI ('Star Wars') program during the 1980's and early 1990's. The idea was to use a neutral Particle beam to knock out Russian ICBMs  Another promising electronic disruption application via a low-power particle beam or even dosing the object with lethal amounts of radiation. It is possible that low-power neutral particle beams could be utilized as a 'less-lethal' or 'soft-kill' option for military warships, similar to the Chig U-378 destroyer from the Space: Above and Beyond episode "Mutiny". This alien vessels uses a form of microwave (could be a form of particle DEW) for disruption of communication systems, sensors, and spike nuclear core temperatures. 

Charged PBW:
The goal of current Particle beam weapon (CPB) research is for a one cm beam in the range of 1 GeV within a 1000 amp beam to knock out a target at 1,000 kilometers away. That that seems to be the military thinking on application for a CPB DEW system: interception for incoming missiles.
Since CPB are used in-atmosphere, there have been several attempts at bring this deadly DEW system from the pages of science fiction to reality. Originally, the US Navy looked at CPB weapons under Project Seesaw for usage as a interceptor in 1950's. Another attempt was made in 1974 to field a MILSPEC CPB for cruiser missile interception on carriers. The goal was to have a stowable CPB in the range of 4.5 kilometer that was rapid-fire (six shots a second). The project ran into development issues due to the natural of CPB physics: atmospheric blooming, Earth's magnetic field issues, power consummation, and size of the machine itself. In the 1980's and 90's, $46 million was poured into a CPB anti-ballistic missile system project called DELPHI and MINERVA that could intercept incoming reentry vehicles at between 80 and 4500 kilometers. The project was cancelled in 1992 under for economic and technical issues.

Advantages of Particle Beam Weapons

  • Kinetic damage
  • Thermal damage
  • Damages or disables electronics
  • Damages atomic structures of the target (think cue ball on a pool table)
  • Ligth-Speed velocity
  • Very short, if little, beam dwelling time
  • Endoatmospheric/Exoatmospheric capable
  • All-Weather capability
  • localized EMP effect 

Disadvantage of Particle Beam Weapons

  • Electrostatic Blooming
  • Massive power requirements (especially with pulse Particle DEW)
  • fast discharge/slow recharge of capacitors
  • Deflected by charged fields (like the Earth's magnetic field)
  • Length of the Linear accelerators
  • Very short range, especially in space combat

Effect of being hit by a Particle Beam

Unlike most DEW system, Particle beam weaponry is a triple threat of lethality. Thermal damage via the massive amounts of volts, kinetic penetration due to subatomic particles moving at light-speed, and disruption of atomic bonds of the target. According to the primary source for this blogpost; Introducing the Particle-Beam Weapons by Dr. Richard M. Roberts. Air University Review, July-August 1984, this would be effect of a PBW being fired at a biologic target: "Particle beams would be quite effective in damaging internal components or might even explode a target by transferring a massive amount of energy into it (the catastrophic kill mechanism)" AND
"The mechanism by which a particle beam destroys a target is a depositing of beam energy into the material of the target, which might be any material object. As the particles of the beam collide with the atoms, protons, and electrons of the material composing the target, the energy of the particles in the beam is passed on to the atoms of the target much like a cue ball breaks apart a racked group of billiard balls. The result is that the target is heated rapidly to very high temperatures--which is exactly the effect that one observes in an explosion. Thus, a particle beam of sufficient energy can destroy a target by exploding it (although that is not the only means of destruction)".

From the Fox Mulder corner...

Whenever you google the term 'particle beam weapons', a whole host of conspiracy theories website pop up about Tesla, UFO defense programs similar to X-COM, and of course, Red Russians shooting down the Challenger in 1987! There have been rumors and reports that Nikola Tesla developed and tested a Particle beam, his so-called 'death ray' or even 'peace ray' in the 1930's. Then it switches over from Tesla in the 1980's to the USSR developing their ground-based Particle beam array to counter our SDI program. These beams of death were in the trillions of watts and could melt thousands. The truth was that the USSR did work on Particle beam weaponry under their 1970's FON program and their Terra-3 anti-satellite weapons program. The Terra-3 was an under-powered carbon-dioxide laser that was, according to many sources, test-fired at the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984 during STS-41G.
Lately, the chatter among conspiracy theories websites is that NASA deployed an anti-UFO particle beam array for the International Space Station and was launched on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. To coverup this massive piece of hardware, NASA cloaked the NPB array as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer or AMS-02. The fuel that fed the flames was live NASA feeds from the ISS showed objects moving around the ISS, then suddenly NASA deploys the AMS-02 to the station. I guess the truth is out there... 

Particle Beam Weapons in Sci-Fi

Unlike blasters, phased plasma rifles, and Gauss cannons, Particle beam weapons are much rarer in the realm of sci-fi, partly due to the forces of trends in science fiction works. It doesn't help people like me when research topics like this, when most sci-fi creators resort to the ubiquitous 'blaster' weapon or lethal direct-energy beam rifle without much explaining of what the hell the energy weapon even is. Some beam-based DEW could be either a Laser or even Particle, or completely invented like the Star Trek phased polaron beam used by the Dominion. A few works, like the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual make a point of creating a realistic Particle weapon, giving it the full MILSPEC treatment.

Examples of Particle DEW in Sci-Fi 

The Type-50 and Type-52 sniper-beam rifles are forms of charged Particle DEW, and are used primarily by the Covenant Kig-yar member race. The design of these beam rifles is semi-realistic and the line-of-sight performance of the beam is dead-on. This could be a window into the future application of hand-held Charged Particle beam weapons.      

The Star Trek Universe

Along with the phaser of the Federation, most of the other races, including the Romulans and the Klingons, use an directed energy weapon called the 'disruptor' as their primary ship-board and small arms DEW. While chapter and verse was written about the phaser, Official Star Trek canon is oddly silent about the disruptor's inter workings, and it has been seen in both 'pulse' and 'beam' versions, complicating matters. The little that is canon able the disrupter comes from page 88 of the 1998 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual. It states that "The physics behind the disruptor involves the creation of a particle stream in which the total energy field per particle is so high that it cannot be contained for more than a few milliseconds. The field rapidly unwinds, and the instability releases the contained energy, disrupting any matter the beam contacts."
During the Star Trek: Enterprise era, the pre-Federation Vuclan, the Suliban, and the Xindi all use Particle beams for their personal and ship board weapons, like the combat cruiser D'Kyr class mounted several Particle beam weapons.

Gears of War

According to a few sources and the behavior of this satellite-based DEW system, the Hammer of Dawn seems to be a NPB weapon, that is powered via 'Imulsion-energized' , and targeted from a special SOFLAM-like device. The Gearspedia states that the Hammer of the Dawn is a laser, but other sites say that it is particle beam...go figure.


Particle weapons make frequent appearance through the ROBOTECH saga, especially during the Robotech Masters/Southern Cross War, where both sides used Particle weapons. The Robotech Masters unitized Particle beam weapons for their bioroids and clone infantry, along with naval armaments. The Southern Cross appears to use Particle weapons for much of their DEW systems, including the Hover tanks, where the "ion rapid fire cannon" is the primary armament in two configurations. During the Invid Invasion saga, the REF used the Mars Gallant H-90 handheld CPB DEW  system, and was powered by a micro protoculture cell that variable yield pulse-bolts. Some site say that the REF Alpha fighter had an upgraded handheld Mecha CPB DEW deployed later in the war, replacing the older KEW GU-13 35mm.  

I think my first exposure to Particle beam weaponry by name was during my days of playing Citytech, with the Particle Projector Cannon (PPC). This weapon could dose out the hate onto your target, but you paid for it with high heat. In the Mechwarrior games on the original Xbox, the PPC was a slow-charging ball of blue light that could crush a 'mech if it made contact, I still prefer the autocannons though.

Stargate: Atlantis

When it comes to the hard science portion of Stargate Atlantis you expect it to be nonexistent, and this rings true of their take on a CPB DEW pistol. During the run of the series, the former runner Ronon Dex uses an 'particle magnum' large-framed DEW pistol that looked like a sci-fi S&W Model 29 .44 magnum 'Dirty Harry' model. The gun was original from the advanced Travelers civilization, and Ronon had picked up one along his running days. This DEW pistol feed from a cylinder shaped power-cell, and could switch from stun to kill.


In the world of Gundam, Dr. T.Y. Minovsky is the father of the physics that allowed for FTL and Particle beam weaponry. The Particle beam weapons of Gundam are based on gathering Minovsky neutral particles from the fusion generator, then combined particles via an I-field forming the 'mega-particles'. This dense, larger particles have four times the power output of normal spaceborne laser DEW systems, but it requires a charge-up time, even on warships. With Mobile-Suits having much less power generation ability, suit-mounted Minovsky Particle beam cannons could not work like they do onboard ships. To solve this, most Minovsky Particle beam cannons are a single-shot system. It was only later that Dr. Minovsky helped the Federation develop energy capacitor or E-caps to allow for miniaturization of the shipboard mega-particle cannon into a suit-portable beam rifle.


On the M577A3 APC:

"The most recent variant of the M577, the M577A3, mounts two 20 MeV turbo-alternator powered charged particle beam cannon, The deployment of these weapons has been made possible due to the introduction of a Martin-Continental micro magnetohyodgynamic turbine capable of generating 20 mW of electrical power to run the big particle accelerator guns. Sufficient turbine fuel exists to power the guns for 50 seconds firing and there is some 300 kg of deuterium tankage to provide particle beam mass. The effective range of the weapons against light armoured targets is approximately 3000 metres though at longer ranges the beams are capable of disrupting unshielded electronics"
From the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (1996) 

Mounted on the USASF Sulaco, are twin 800 MeV turboalternator powered NPB weapons, and fueled by the ship's deuterium for 230 second of continuous firing. The tactical capability of these shipboard NPB weapons is discussed within the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual and it seems that during ship-to-ship engagements, it frys electronics at 100,000 kilometers, and punches holes in the hull at ten kilometer.

Mass Effect II

In the sequel, the Collectors use particle beam weaponry, and the player can equip one of their cannons. During gameplay, the Collector cannon fires a continuous beam burning the targets down, but you have to expose yourself when firing it, and it drains quick.

Babylon 5
The bulk of the spaceborne offensive DEW system seen in the series appear to be a form of NPB weapons. This run from the most basic fitted on Narn and Earth Alliance warships to the 'Gravitic Neutron Beam cannons' of the Minbari, but all are used as the primary ship-to-ship DEW front-arch system, and are the punch to crush the armored hulls.

Bubblegum Crisis

In this groundbreaking cyberpunk Anime (and one of my favorites), the USSD, the UN global space force, has two hundred VA-61 satellite based-particle beam weapons in Geosync orbit that are used for space-to-ground artillery, and anti-ballistic missile defense. According to the Bubblegum Crisis Megatoyko 2033 RPG manual, these spaceborne DEW have a destructive power over 100,000 miles, and can be pinpointed targeted with ground-based systems, like the USSD constructed "Killer Doll" Boomer, whose AI was directly linked with the VA-61s. Just put the Killer Doll near or at a target location, and unleash fire from the sky.  

  1. Introducing the Particle-Beam Weapons by Dr. Richard M. Roberts. Air University Review, July-August 1984. http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1984/jul-aug/roberds.html
  2. Neutral Particle Beam by Federation of American Scientists.org (date uncertain)http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/npb.htm
  3. Air Force 2025 by USAF Center for Strategy & Technology for the Air Force Chief of Staff 1995-1996: http://csat.au.af.mil/2025/index.htm
  4. Lasers, Charged-Particle Beams, and the Strategic Future by Donald M. Snow Political Science Quartlely, Vol. 95 No. 2 Summer, 1980.


Babylon 5 particle beam technology explained:

Thread on Physics forum:


  1. Good post, William!! You've done good research on the PBW.

    Just a slight correction- protons are ionized hydrogen nuclei, so a proton beam is also a hydrogen beam. Particle beam weapons are essentially chained lightning, with all that implies. Unlike the red zappy phase pistol beam, a particle beam will probably look much like a lightning bolt that travelled more or less straight. It might look like an intense blue-white beam.

    The "blasters" of some SF works- like Poul Anderson's "Virgin Planet"- are based on ion streams or bolts of nuclear particles. The disintegrator rays from "Forbidden Planet" are said to be "neutron beams". In Star Trek, phasers and disruptors may be particle weapons.

    Phasers are a weird one. Phasers seem to fire some special "phaser particle" that has simple electromagnetic effects on low power levels- like stunning organisms or heating rocks until they glow- and cause some kind of "nuclear disruption" at high power levels, starting a chain reaction that converts most of a target's mass into neutrinos. Visually, we see the victim glow, break apart, and fade out with a lingering scream. There is no real science behind this nuclear disruption at all- at least not yet- but that certainly doesn't stop me from enjoying the show!!

    Disruptors seem to have similar effects as phasers. It is possible that disruptors are simpler "brute force" weapons that brutally kill a target while phasers are more refined- but I've seen phasers cut huge bleeding holes in Klingons in Star Trek 6 while disruptors in the same show vaporize people neatly, so I don't really see how phasers are more refined!! Originally, the Klingons carried phasers- in the TOS episode "Errand of Mercy", Kirk hears Klingon weapon fire that he identifies as "Klingon phasers" when the Klingons attempt to use terror and coercion tactics on the illusionary Organian villagers. Both phasers and disruptors are really just soft SF death rays that do whatever the writers want them to do.

    Using real technology, the only beams we will have to worry about in the future are electron beams, ion beams, and neutral beams for use in space. Plasmoid bursts and muon beams are possible as well. Neutron beam weapons are a nonstarter without a physics breakthrough, since neutrons are uncharged and can't be accelerated by electromagnetic means. The more fanciful weapons seen in SF that fire exotic massive particles remain beyond our horizons for now.

    On a closing note- in older "rocketpunk" novels, blasters fire blasts of nuclear particles that vaporized targets. Disruptors fire a beam that kills by "disrupting" targets, whatever that means. Disruptor beams have a longer range than blasters, leave charred, twisted bodies- or just piles of ash!!- and tend to be used by shadier humans.

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. It is odd how inconsistent ST was about the damage a DEW did to their target, and I agree with you that they are a blanket term. I think Asimov also had nuclear particle DEW beam in the Foundation series, "Q-Beams" I believe they were called. Phasers are one of the more interesting SF weapons, my favorite ST phaser was the one from ST:III.
    One of the bad things about CPBW I forgot to mention, and you brought it up, Mr. Phoenix, is the lightning effect. In a military or enclosed setting, the blinding light of the CPBW would be bad, especially for night ops. I also forgot to mention the DEW from the Matrix films. No one is quite sure what that gun fires.

  3. From the artistic standpoint, it is not that odd that phasers have such varying levels of effects on a target- other than the adjustable beam settings, of course- the phasers have the effects required for dramatic storytelling. At the same time, the phaser guns must be easy to do the special FX for with the available budget and not too gory to show on TV. That's why the phasers cut bleeding holes in the Klingons in ST6- Kirk had to arrive and talk too the dying ambassador, which would be rather difficult if the Klingons had been disintegrated!!

    My favorite phasers are the TOS-era Type 1 and Type 2, the TMP and TWOK era phaser, the ST3 phaser, and the assault phaser from ST6. All of these designs are sleek, ray-gun gothic style weapons any self-respecting spacefarer would be proud to carry. Did you know the TOS-era Type 2's handle was a removable power pack? I found a great discussion of all the phasers seen in Star Trek at this site: http://www.phasers.net/index.htm.

    Most media SF gets the look of energy weapons, including particle beams, completely wrong. In space, there is no medium to scatter, absorb, or refract the beam from a death ray. The beams will, sadly, be invisible- even if the output from a beam weapon was in the visible part of the spectrum- and you will only be able to see where the beam impacts a target. Arthur C. Clarke got around this by postulating a weapon that fired a white hot spear of molten iron at enemy ships in one of his stories. The spear was quite visible in the vacuum, puzzling characters observing a space battle.

    In an atmosphere lasers and particle beams will often be quite spectacular. Infrared lasers are invisible, but visible light lasers make visible paths in clean air, and near-ultraviolet beams can ionize the air and make glowing beams. Particle beams look and act much like lightning bolts that go straight.

    I think the lightning guns in the Matrix fire electron particle beams. Such high-current beams can disrupt the Sentinel's electric circuits, killing them. Any living being caught in the discharge will be burnt and electrocuted- just as Tank was. The guns were not very far-fetched for a future with living machines and antigravity airships- but we humans will never be able to learn judo by downloading software into our brains. Our fragile brains learn skills by forging new connections in their neural net, and you can't program a neural net. Brains are fundamentally different from computers.

    Some people worry that you might expose yourself to dangerous amounts of radiation by firing a particle beam "blaster". Dr. John Schilling says that the backscatter is not too bad at kilojoule levels in air, but particle beam artillery would be another matter. Radiation is a funny thing, however- Anatoli Bugorski, a Russian scientist, was hit in the face by a proton beam during a particle accelerator accident. He did not die, even though scientists estimated that he absorbed far more than a lethal dose of radiation. Remarkably, he did not suffer any loss of intellectual capacity and went on to receive his PhD. Perhaps he did not absorb much of the radiation because it was confined to a narrow beam. This result suggests that radiation dosage may not be enough to kill a human with a narrow particle beam- we'll need to vaporize, I mean "disrupt", a good portion of flesh to get a clean kill!! Mere speculation on my part, I don't have any expertise in nuclear medicine.


    Christopher Phoenix

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  6. future weapons beams will affect the brains of the droid humanoid or machine. no need to physically disrupt anything. emp effects will
    ultimately be proven to work 100% without as large a power requirement.
    nothing will turn to ash it will simple disfunction including biological
    entities. this type of beam is going to be useful, cheap and very
    lethal to living and computer based items.

  7. may i ask a question? Magnetic field will exert a perpendicular force to moving charges. Therefore, is it possible that we hit the target with out pointing the weapon at the target, unlike how we use a gun?
    There is another question. If i am correct, charged particles should be neutralize rapidly in air, should it not? So, how short is the effective range for particle weapons on earth and in space?
    Thank you very much. It is a awesome article.

  8. I think it could be possible for a atmospheric Particle DEW could be similar to the weapons on Black Ops, and the aim box is much wider than our current tiny bullets.
    As will all DEW system, the greater range, the ranger impact that the beam or pulse can have. The endoatmospheric Charged Particle DEW were experimented by the The SDI program, and proved to be an effective DEW for missile defense if the technology had been there, at ranges between 80km and 4500km. I think any DEW, especially lasers and plasma will have some atmospheric scrambling, but the all-weather capability of CPBW was one of the factors why the USAF was interested in CPBW. In terms of range and lethality, it is all based on the juice that you dump into the weapon. The more juice, the more effective. That was one of the reason why CPDEWs have stalled in developed...they are thirst weapons!
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. Why would you have sentient being shooting each other with guns when in 2013 we already have robot drones that can do this for us? In the future, you wouldn't have armed conflict between sentient beings, you will have robots vs robots, and when one side's defenses are broken robots whipping out helpless living beings. Although it would be interesting to know what these future robots will use as weapons.

  10. Beware the robots that fight for you...just look like Battlestar Galactica, Black Ops: II, and Space: Above and Beyond.