by Doug Hornig
August 13, 2013
The rise of humans from fearful
creatures huddled around cave fires to the dominant species on the
planet largely parallels the evolution of weaponry.
Different subgroups rose and fell,
spreading their culture or declining in influence as they either
came up with the new best thing with which to slaughter their
neighbors or fell behind in the innovation game.
Club, axe, spear, atlatl, sword, longbow, crossbow, catapult, gun,
bomb, artillery, really big bomb - all have had their day.
We even delineate historical epochs by naming them after the
dominant weapon technology of the time: Stone, Bronze, Iron, and the
modern era, which might accurately be termed the Gunpowder Age.
Over time, the one constant has been to invent a technology that
conferred an advantage on the user in battle - or else served as
protection against what the other guy had. And the reason for
wielding any given weapon has always been to maim or, preferably,
kill one's adversary.
Before one got one's own self killed, of
Someone Had a Whole New Idea
The concept of a weapon that is designed merely to temporarily
incapacitate, with little or no lasting injury, is relatively new.
In a way, the development of nonlethal weaponry (NLW) can be
seen as an inevitable byproduct of the rise of democracy in the
world. In nations ruled by autocracies of one kind or another, the
citizenry must be kept in line with ruthless efficiency. Not even
the smallest challenges to the established authority structure can
be ignored. Critics are hunted down, jailed, tortured, murdered,
dumped into mass graves.
Where power is (at least theoretically) vested in the people, on the
other hand, dissent is generally tolerated, even encouraged. Killing
one's countrymen, even if they are political opponents, is
considered really bad form.
There are laws against it. And elected
officials hesitate to raise too heavy a hand, lest they alienate
constituents, get voted out, and be stripped of their power and all
those nice perks of office.
But this doesn't mean that there is no demand for crowd control. It
remains just as much a necessity. Groups of citizens may be allowed
to gather and raise their collective voice in protest, but they are
not allowed to stage assaults on the people's representatives.
At the same time, policing has undergone significant change. Hanging
alleged wrongdoers on the spot is no longer sanctioned. "Wanted Dead
or Alive" posters have disappeared. Cops carry guns that are
supposed to be used for defensive purposes only. In general, law
enforcement officers are expected to arrest suspects and convey them
to a holding cell while causing minimum physical damage.
Mobs, however, can become unruly and refuse orders to disperse. A
hardened criminal confronted by police may not be inclined to go
quietly. The state and its appointed protectors need ways of dealing
with such problems: ways that try to avoid death or serious injury
to citizens who, malefactors though they may be, still retain
certain basic rights.
There are warfare applications as well.
As Wikipedia puts it, nonlethal weaponry
may be used,
"in combat situations to limit the
escalation of conflict where employment of lethal force is
prohibited or undesirable, where rules of engagement require
minimum casualties, or where policy restricts the use of
One might also add "the need to conserve
resources" and "the desire to spare the environment" to that list.
With a wide-ranging potential market up for grabs, technology
specialists were bound to invent devices to fill every conceivable
niche. Thus the advent of nonlethal weapons was a given.
First on the Scene -
Originally developed as killing agents in World War I, deadly gases
evolved into nonlethal versions, such as tear gas, a generic term
applied to about 15 different aerosols, but primarily either
CS, with the latter being the most popular nowadays.
The effects of tear gas range from mild
tearing of the eyes to more serious reactions.
CN is somewhat more toxic than CS, but it was the first to market.
The US Army's Chemical Warfare Service promoted it for civilian use
after World War I, and by the mid-1920s it was a common weapon in
CN endures to the present in personal
canisters as Mace, a trade name turned generic, although it has
largely been replaced in pockets and purses by the more-popular
pepper sprays containing capsaicin, ultimately derived from chilis.
While CS, CN, and pepper spray are all considered NLWs, there is no
question that they can cause serious injury and, under certain
CN can damage the cornea and has been
implicated in deaths from pulmonary damage and/or asphyxia. CS can
also cause pulmonary problems and, according to the Journal of the
American Medical Association, can significantly damage the heart and
Pepper spray, widely considered the most
"humane" alternative can, according to a report from the North
Carolina Department of Health, cause responses including,
"burning of the throat, wheezing,
dry cough, shortness of breath, gagging, gasping, inability to
breathe or speak (due to laryngo-spasm or laryngeal paralysis),
and, rarely, cyanosis, apnea, and respiratory arrest."
Enter the EMIs
Next on the scene came the electromuscular incapacitation devices,
or EMIs, of which the most well-known is the TASER®.
The modern Taser arrived with a patent filed by inventor John Cover
in 1974. Although most people probably think the term is a
scientific acronym, along the lines of "laser," it isn't.
Cover playfully named his new device
after one of his fictional childhood heroes: the Thomas A Swift
Electrical Rifle, and in his patent application described it thusly:
"A weapon for subduing and
restraining includes a harmless projectile that is connected by
means of a relatively fine, conductive wire to a launcher which
contains an electrical power supply. The projectile is intended
to contact a living target without serious trauma and to deliver
an electric charge thereto sufficient to immobilize."
We can accept that Cover was well
intentioned, but as with other NLWs, the Taser's capacity for
inflicting "serious trauma" (and possibly death) on the recipient
can no longer be questioned.
At the same time as the first Taser was rolled out, R&D was under
way on a wide variety of pocket stun guns, stun flashlights, and
stun batons that were put to police use by the late 1980s and
eventually came to be marketed to the public for personal
self-defense in close-quarters situations.
Today, a small unit like the one below can easily be purchased
This particular model features a handy
pin at the base that pulls out and renders the gun useless should
your opponent wrestle it away from you.
Handheld devices (above image) operate on the same principle as the Taser, i.e.,
they deliver a high-voltage, low-amperage shock to the system that
causes disruption of muscular control.
Stun guns are offered with up to 5
million volts of power and, though that may sound like enough to
wipe out an entire gang of bad guys, it's the amperage that really
matters. Just 0.06 of an amp (i.e., 60 milliamps) is sufficient to
cause death in many cases, so these devices are typically calibrated
to single-digit milliamperages, which should incapacitate without
A stun gun's effectiveness in an actual life-and-death situation is
at least questionable. Unlike the Taser, it doesn't operate at a
safe distance from the threat. In addition, the longer the arc
between the electrical contact points, the greater the effect.
That gives Tasers another advantage, in
that their projectiles spread out before hitting the target and will
typically drop the assailant to the ground since the current is
moving over a larger muscle area.
Because of stun guns' smaller arcs, they
can require several seconds of contact before the effects kick in,
and that might be too long.
Manufacturers, however, tout their
products by saying that the pain of the initial contact, or merely
flashing that electric arc, will cause an attacker to back away from
you (um, well, maybe it will - but that isn't likely if he has a
Since the Taser acronym contains the word "rifle," it was only a
matter of time before a weapon would be developed that truly fit the
That time has come. Taser International
has introduced its XREP model, which allows for delivery of the
shock device at long distance (below image).
Despite the easy availability of EMIs, their legal status must
always be considered.
They are banned for private use in many
countries, and either banned or restricted in nine US states and a
half-dozen cities and counties. Be aware of your local regs.
And no NLW has come under as much criticism as EMIs, mainly because
they are not always nonlethal. In one case that received national
attention, a Vermont state trooper used a Taser to kill an unarmed,
39-year-old epileptic man in June of 2012.
With death always a possibility, one would think that Tasers would
not be employed lightly. But because they are regarded as usually
harmless, that has hardly proven to be the case.
- Tech Moves Beyond Gas and Shock
As electrical incapacitation devices were being produced, there was
no lack of research in other areas.
Early History of "Non-Lethal"
Weapons, a 2006 paper from the University of Bradford, UK, notes
that by the late 1970s, most varieties of the NLWs we know today had
already been conceived.
Many were in use, being tested, or under
Kinetic NLWs: Water cannons and
projectiles (in use); nets (available, not in use)
Electrical: Stun guns and TASERS
(in use); wireless electric weapons (proposed)
Chemical: Tear gases and smokes
(in use); lubricants and aqueous foams (available, not in
use); sticky foams and malodorants (in R&D)
bacteria, viruses, and toxins (available but banned by the
1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention)
Optical: Flash-bang grenades and
high-intensity lights (in limited use); stroboscopic lights
Acoustic: Audible sound
generators (in limited use); ultrasound/infrasound
generators (in R&D)
Directed energy: Laser and
microwave devices (in R&D); vortex generators (proposed).
Although there have been a number of
innovations since then, most of what's been accomplished has to do
with refining the product.
Laser weapons, for example, are well out of the R&D stage, despite
the fact that their use was banned on the battlefield by the 1995
Vienna Conventional Weapons Convention. The US was a signatory to
Nevertheless, we now have various "dazzlers" that operate in either
the red or - primarily because it works better in daylight - the
green areas of the spectrum.
Their purpose, according to the
Department of Defense's Non-Lethal Weapons Reference Book:
"Force protection, entry control
points, checkpoints, and maritime ports and security zones to
warn, deny, move, and suppress (e.g., distract, disorient, and
degrade) individuals on foot and those operating
Dazzlers are designed to emit coherent
light beams that are less tight than with conventional lasers, in
order not to cause permanent eye damage.
There are a large number of models; one
is the PHaSR or Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response
rifle, which was developed in-house by the US Department of Defense.
Another, the Glare Mout (above image), is a green laser that spreads to a larger
spot at the intended target, making aiming the device at long
distances or at multiple subjects much easier.
The Glare Mout's effective range is 150
meters to 2 kilometers. Of course, you don't want to use it at close
range, i.e., within the NOHD (that's bureaucratese for the "nominal
ocular hazard distance"). That would cause permanent blindness, and
the Glare Mout's range finder thus has a precautionary, automatic
shutoff at 65 meters.
The StunRay is an optical incapacitation effector developed by
Genesis Illumination that uses collimated (slightly less than laser)
broad-spectrum visible and near-infrared light from a short-arc lamp
to safely and temporarily impair vision, disorient, and incapacitate
aggressors for 5 seconds to 3 minutes without causing physical harm.
The Saber 203 dazzler uses a 250 mW red laser diode, mounted in a
hard plastic capsule in the shape of a standard 40 mm grenade,
suitable for being loaded into an M203 grenade launcher. It has an
effective range of 300 meters.
But that's nothing compared with the long-range ocular
interruption (LROI) weapon presently under development by the
Navy. That one is projected to be effective up to 3,000 meters, or
nearly two miles.
And so on...
There are lots of these things. While
dazzlers per se are prohibited for personal use, green lasers are
sold as adjuncts to pistols and rifles. For aiming purposes only,
Optical NLWs are not limited to laser devices, either. There is, for
example, also a weapon called the Dazzler, a very bright,
stroboscopic LED flashlight that causes nausea, dizziness, headache,
flash blindness, eye pain, and sometimes vomiting.
The Dazzler was developed for the
Department of Homeland Security, but is expected to be made
available to local law enforcement in the near future. In the
meantime, plans for a DIY version can be found on the Internet.
Can You HEAR Me Now?
Acoustic weapons have also taken giant strides forward since the
'70s, with the most well known probably being the long-range
acoustic device (LRAD), or "sound cannon."
The LRAD broadcasts focused, very loud
sound over longer distances than is possible with normal loudspeaker
systems. It can be used to send messages and warnings, but also to
cause extreme pain.
For comparison purposes, normal conversation takes place at about 60
decibels (dB). Depending on the person, the pain threshold for an
individual is about 130 dB. The LRAD's maximum continuous level is
LRADs were originally developed for the military to create safe
zones around naval vessels, but they have become features of many
police departments and some private enterprises, as well.
Among the latter is the cruise ship
Seabourn Spirit, which was carrying one when attacked by pirates off
the coast of Somalia in November of 2005. The pirates had machine
guns and RPGs, but the ship was able to repel the assault by turning
the LRAD on them.
An LRAD was used for the first time domestically to disperse those
protesting at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in September of 2009.
One of the problems with the LRAD is that its effects can be
A woman who was watching the Pittsburgh
demonstration suffered "permanent hearing loss, nausea, pain, and
disorientation" from her exposure to the machine, according to a
lawsuit she filed against the city and its police department. In
addition, there's some evidence the LRAD can cause fatal aneurysms.
On the practical side, critics also
question the value of an expensive NLW whose effectiveness can be
defeated with earplugs.
A new entry into the acoustic NLW arena is the Inferno Sound
Barrier. It doesn't make people run from it because of loudness -
although at 120 dB, it's pretty darn loud. It repels because the
sound it emits combines four frequencies spread out over 2-5 kHz.
Those frequencies mixed together have a
deeply disturbing effect on people, causing them to flee within
The Inferno, a Swedish import, was originally designed to protect
public buildings, retailers, and boats, but the manufacturer intends
to market it to commercial vehicles like taxis, and to law
enforcement for riot control.
It's almost sure to eventually find its
way into private residences, as well.
Then, in the "best of both worlds" category, we have the flashbang
or stun grenade (above image), which combines optical and auditory incapacitating
qualities in a nice, compact package.
The device was first developed by the
British Army's elite SAS division in the 1960s. Basically, it's a
grenade without the fragmentation, designed to remain intact after
detonation, while releasing all the light and sound of the explosion
through holes in its casing.
The flash part momentarily activates all photoreceptor cells in the
eye, making vision impossible for about five seconds, until the eye
resets itself. The bang part causes temporary loss of hearing and
also disturbs the fluid in the ear, leading to loss of balance.
Flashbang grenades have migrated to police use and have been
effective in hostage situations. Unfortunately, the heat produced by
the blast can ignite combustible materials in the vicinity and lead
to deaths, as was the case with an elderly couple in Minneapolis in
1989, when they were mistakenly targeted as drug dealers and died in
a SWAT assault that caused a grenade-started fire.
The shock from a flashbang has also
induced at least one fatal heart attack.
Flashbangs are normally thrown by hand, but there are other delivery
systems. VENOM (Vehicle Non-Lethal/Tube Launched Munition System) is
a 40mm, multi-shot, electrically actuated grenade launcher mounted
to the Marine Corps Transparent Armored Gun Shield turret.
The system consists of three banks of
ten launch tubes, each at fixed angles of 10, 20, and 30 degrees
from horizontal, achieving 360-degree coverage, with a range of 400
Flashbangs can also be rigged to be
delivered as an airburst weapon with an increased applicability
Also combining optical and acoustic deterrence is the large,
vehicle- or ground-mounted distributed sound and light array (DLSA)
system, currently being prototyped by the military.
Another class of NLWs is shock wave generators, intended simply to
knock folks down.
The big daddy of these devices - which
essentially direct the shock waves from controlled explosions - is
the Thunder Generator, originally devised by Israeli farmers to
scare away birds. But the Israeli government has an interest in
using it for crowd dispersal, since it can upend people at a
distance of up to 100 meters.
Problem is, if someone strays to within
10 meters, he's apt to wind up dead.
A related weapon is the Vortex Ring Gun, which creates high-energy
gas vortices that can be directed at a target to knock it over. The
rings can also be made to carry chemical payloads - such as tear
gas, pepper spray, or nausea-inducing malodorants - that then adhere
to the person struck by them.
Speaking of malodorants, there are many of them, such as Skunk, used
for crowd control by Israeli Defense Forces since 2008. Skunk is
dispersed as a mist fired from a water cannon. It leaves a terrible
sewage odor on whatever it touches and does not wash off easily.
A sudden change of wind direction could
be a problem here.
The Mobility Denial System, also known as "instant banana peel," is
a weapon invented a few years back at the Southwest Research
Institute. It disperses a thick, slippery gel onto asphalt,
concrete, wood, and even grass, making movement impossible without
falling down. Vehicles slip and slide as well. The downside of
course is that you can't operate in the treated area any more than
the opposition can.
The Pulsed Energy Projectile is currently under development by the
military. It involves a weapon emitting an invisible laser pulse
that, upon contact with the target, ablates the surface material and
creates a bit of exploding plasma on the skin.
This produces a pressure wave that stuns
the target, knocking him down, as well as electromagnetic radiation
that irritates nerve cells, causing pain
The military's Active Denial System (ADS) (above image), also known as the pain
ray, has gotten a lot of media attention.
This truck-mounted machine, perfected in
2007, beams electromagnetic radiation - similar to that produced by
a microwave oven - at the target and causes an intense burning
sensation. Proponents swear that the ray only causes the
"impression" of burning, because it barely penetrates the skin -
just enough to make your nerve endings think you're on fire.
Demonstrations have been conducted on
volunteers, and the principle has been validated, although field
tests remain to be carried out.
The ADS was deployed in Afghanistan, but it was recalled without
having been used. Potential problems that have been suggested
include: ineffectiveness in bad weather; lack of penetration of
thick clothing; and inability to selectively target individuals in a
crowd. But research continues.
The Air Force would like to have an
airborne ADS (think drones), but the obstacles are formidable, and
that one is just in the conceptual stage. Smaller, man-portable
units may be closer to reality.
Sticky Foam guns fire a goo that consists of nontoxic but extremely
tacky and/or tenacious materials that solidify when they hit the
target, entangling an individual and impairing movement. The
downside is the possibility of suffocation if the person is hit in
the face. Sticky foam was reportedly used by the Marines as part of
an operation in Somalia.
The Netgun looks like an oversized flashlight; it fires a net which
entangles the target. A larger version, suitable for use in crowd
control, is under development.
Upon detonation, the Stingball Grenade propels a cache of 100 tiny
rubber balls in a circular pattern. The Modular Crowd Control Munition (MCCM) is the Stingball's tightly directed big brother.
It's constructed like a Claymore mine but with 600 rubber balls
inside that are sprayed out in a 45-degree arc.
Nor have swimmers been forgotten. Future scuba divers bent on
attaching mines to ships will meet resistance in the form of an
underwater pulsed sound wave that is sure to drive them off if they
get within 150 meters. It's under development by the Navy.
Just over the horizon: Sierra Nevada Corp., working under a US Navy
contract, is reportedly ready to build a microwave ray gun called
the MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio).
The device fires short microwave pulses
that penetrate the head and rapidly heat tissue, resulting in a
shockwave inside the skull.
Finally, we shouldn't leave this subject without a quick mention of
one of the more whimsical of recent NLW inventions, the speech
jammer gun developed by some Japanese tinkerers. This device is not
intended to incapacitate anyone, just to shut them up.
Effective at up to a hundred feet, you
simply aim it at someone who won't stop talking, and it broadcasts
the speaker's own words back at him with a 0.2-second delay, causing
him to become completely tongue-tied and unable to go on. Poetic
Hmmm… We can think of a whole lot of
Washingtonians (DC denizens, not the Pacific Northwest state
citizens) we'd love to try this thing out on.
NLWs - An
As noted at the outset, NLWs are a recent arrival on the human
scene, and we're still experimenting with the proper ways in which
to use them.
As a means of responding to threats from
our fellow humans without having to kill them, these weapons are
surely an improvement over brute force. However, there are some
issues involved, and the need to deal with them is extremely
At the end of the day, it's
important to remember that technology is completely neutral. It will
evolve with no regard to how it is used. To stay abreast of this
evolution and to capitalize on many of the exciting opportunities to
come, we shamelessly recommend taking
Casey Extraordinary Technology
for one of our famous risk-free test drives.