A raygun is a science fiction particle-beam weapon that fires what is usually destructive energy. They have various alternate names: ray gun, death ray, beam gun, blaster, laser gun, laser pistol, phaser, zap gun, etc. In most stories, when activated, a raygun emits a ray, typically visible, usually lethal if it hits a human target, often destructive if it hits mechanical objects, with properties and other effects unspecified or varying.
A very early example of a raygun is the Heat-Ray featured in H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1898). Science fiction during the 1920s described death rays. Early science fiction often described or depicted raygun beams making bright light and loud noise like lightning or large electric arcs.
All is not going well, Arnold: the ray-rods are emptying fast, and our attack upon the lower level of the wing has failed. Sanson has placed a ray-gun there. All depends on the air-scouts, and we must hold our positions until the battle-planes arrive.
The variant "ray projector" was used by John W. Campbell in The Black Star Passes in 1930. Related terms "disintegrator ray" dates to 1898 in Garrett P. Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars; "blaster" dates to 1925 in Nictzin Dyalhis' story "When the Green Star Waned;" and "needle ray" and "needler" date to 1934 in E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Valeron.
Ray guns were so common on magazine covers during the Golden Age of Science Fiction that Campbell's Astounding was unusual for not depicting them. The term "ray gun" had already become cliché by the 1940s, in part due to association with the comic strips (and later film serials) Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Soon after the invention of lasers during 1960, such devices became briefly fashionable as a directed-energy weapon for science fiction stories. For instance, characters of the Lost in Space TV series (1965–1968) and of the Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage" (1964) carried handheld laser weapons.
In his book Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku used gamma ray bursts as an evidence to illustrate that extremely powerful rayguns like the one used to destroy a planet on Death Star in the Star Wars franchise do not violate known physical laws and theories. He further analyses the problem of rayguns' power sources.
Ray guns as described by science fiction do not have the disadvantages that have, so far, made directed-energy weapons largely impractical as weapons in real life, needing a suspension of disbelief by a technologically educated audience:
Some of the effects are what would be expected from a powerful directed-energy beam if it could be generated in reality:
But sometimes not:
Ultimately, rayguns have whatever properties are required for their dramatic purpose. They bear little resemblance to real-world directed-energy weapons, even if they are given the names of existing technologies such as lasers, masers, or particle beams. This can be compared with real-type firearms as commonly depicted by action movies, as tending infallibly to hit whatever they are aimed at (when wielded by the heroes) and seldom depleting their ammunition.
Rayguns by their various names have various sizes and forms: pistol-like; two-handed (often called a rifle); mounted on a vehicle; artillery-sized mounted on a spaceship or space base or asteroid or planet.
Rayguns have a great variety of shapes and sizes, according to the imagination of the story writers or movie prop makers. Most pistol rayguns have a conventional grip and trigger, but some (e.g. Star Trek: The Next Generation phasers) do not. Sometimes the end of the barrel expands into a shield, as if to protect the user from back-flash from the emitted beam.
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The ray is usually stated to be one of the following:
Rayguns are often one-handed, sometimes two-handed, and often artillery-sized fastened to a spaceship.
Rayguns powered by a backpack powerpack are described from time to time in science fiction.
The following is a list of notable rayguns.