How Does a Ray Gun Work?

The concept of a ray gun is founded in science fiction as a directed energy weapon. Other terms used to describe the devices include phasers, laser guns, blasters, and beam guns. The classic image of a ray gun is a weapon that can be instantly fatal to a human being or cut through metal and other objects similar to a blow torch. The most well known real world equivalent is the taser gun used by law enforcement and DoD agencies to temporarily incapacitate an individual person. More recently, the United States Navy successfully deployed and tested a larger version of a ray gun in a sea-based laser gun with research and development continuing in the development of smaller units with similar ray gun capabilities.

Science Fiction History of Ray Guns

One of the earliest known mentions of a ray gun is the heat ray guns featured in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in 1898. From that point onwards, ray guns became more common in science fiction novels and in the 1960’s the source of the directed energy shifted to laser technologies made popular in popular shows such as Star Trek and the Lost in Space TV series. Moving through the 1970s through 80’s the Star Wars movies showed the use of laser-based blasters in outer space as well as for individual weapons. Until the past decade, however, technology lagged the implementation of directed beam ray guns in the real world.

The Ray Guns of Today

In the spring of 2011, the United States Navy successfully tested a laser-based weapon on board the USS Paul Foster shooing a 15-kilowatt beam at a rigid boat more than a mile away. The test resulted in the outboard engines bursting into flames and was the first at-sea test of a high-energy laser. Although these types of lasers had been tested ashore before, it was unknown if the damp sea air would reduce the strength of the laser to a something not militarily useful. Research continues on increasing the effective range of solid state lasers as well as reducing the size of the required hardware to potentially result in the first real-world, hand-held ray gun of tomorrow as well as larger ray guns capable of delivery 100 kw of power or more.

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What is the MEDUSA Microwave Crowd Control Weapon?

The MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio) microwave crowd control weapon uses microwave pulses to make extremely uncomfortable high noise levels in the human skull of targeted individuals. The end result is the noise bypassing the human ear drum and ears resulting in an extremely uncomfortable feeling to encourage a crowd to break-up in a non-lethal manner. The MEDUSA system is developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation on behalf of the United States Navy and does not result in negative side effects for people not in the targeted area. If military testing of the weapons succeeds in demonstrating there are no side effects of the weapon, civilian applications by law enforcement and security firms are planned for MEDUSA.

How Does MEDUSA Work?

MEDUSA leverages the Microwave Auditory Effect which is when microwave stimulation causes the portions of the ear around the cochlea to expand thermally. This expansion is then interpreted by the brain to be sound that originates in the targeted persons head and is not heard by anyone else in the path of the beam. The system commonly gets confused with the Active Denial System which also uses a directed microwave beam, but in a different manner to cause the sensation of heat in the body’s skin. Since the MEDUSA transmission doesn’t vibrate the human body’s eardrum, the use of hearing protection does not protect an individual from the microwave crowd control measures. In addition to focused, narrow beam transmission, MEDUSA is also capable of transmitting a broad beam transmission to cover multiple targets over a large area to be used as a perimeter security defensive measure or to keep areas free of birds.

What are the Potential MEDUSA Side Effects?

As early as 1961, scientists have been testing side effects of microwave auditory effects. Short term effects of headaches, dizziness, and pins and needles have been documents. What is not known is if the incapacitating level of transmission of the system is used if there will be permanent neural damage in the affected person. With selectable levels of transmission, permanent damage would be a potential road block to wide-spread civilian use of the system for microwave crowd control or shopping mall security.

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How Does Active Denial Technology Work?

Active denial technology refers to the use of microwave radiation to produce a sudden burning feeling in the targeted person or persons. The intention of the technology is to encourage a change in behavior or location by the targets. The U.S. Military employs active denial technology in the Active Denial System developed by the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate led by the U.S. Marine Corps with the intended purpose of providing a non-lethal option for military forces to disperse crowds and to determine hostile intent.

How Active Denial Technology Works

Active denial technology works by transmitting a beam of microwave rays at ranges of up to 550 yards or 500 meters from a large rectangular dish. The dish has been demonstrated while mounted on top of a Humvee vehicle and can penetrate clothing to heat the skin of people in the path of the beam quickly to 50-54 degrees Centigrade with a skin penetration depth of 0.5 mm. Test volunteers have described the beam as feeling as though the body is blasted with heat from an extremely hot oven and is unbearable. To date, no permanent damage to the human body has been attributed to the technology.

Can Active Denial Technology Be Countered?

Since electromagnetic radiation is not able to penetrate a conductor, there has been discussion on how this fact can be leveraged to defeat active denial technology. In your home microwave, for example, the metal mesh on the front door keeps the microwave radiation from escaping the unit. As a result, the current open-source conjecture is that a wire-mesh shield can be used to mitigate some of the effects of the ADS, however, the shielding would need to be much tighter than found in the common microwave due to the 95 GHz wavelength of the weapon systems transmission. A standard microwave transmission is at a lower 2450 MHz. Defensive shielding would also need to account for protection of the face, neck, and feet to be fully effective, however, the mobility of any effective shielding system would make it appear more feasible for incorporation into a vehicle than individual protection.


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What Are Microwave Weapons?

The electromagnetic spectrum has long been exploited by the military to include the advent of wireless communications in the late 1800’s and the initial discovery of radar in the 1930s. Each of these technologies resulting in generation changing technologies Since that time, the U.S. Military and government has been focused on research, development, and deployment of directed energy weapons that make use of microwave or high energy radio frequency against people, micro-electronics, and fuel vapor. The most recent publicly displayed weaponry has been in the non-lethal weapons realm focused on helping to provide warfighters with options other than deadly force to accomplish mission sets when mixed with neutral or non-hostile personnel.

Characteristics of Microwave Weapons

In the history of R&D for microwave weaponry, there are several common characteristics across the systems developed. These include:

  • Microwave weapons systems do not rely on knowledge of the system they are targeting.
  • System hardening is required to counteract the weapon.
  • Lasting effects on targeted systems are persistent due to destruction of electronics components.
  • Can damage systems even if in the off condition.

These characteristics don’t necessarily apply in the same fashion when microwave technology is applied towards applications in changing human behavior when employed in non-lethal weapons.

Features of Microwave Weapons

There are a number of common attributes or features found across microwave weapons designed to counter electronics-based systems. A microwave-based weapon can attack a system either directly or indirectly and obtains its goals causing destruction of the target from the inside out. Other common features include:

  • The ability to attack in any weather.
  • Long range if appropriate power is used in the system.
  • Minimizes collateral damage.
  • Are scalable in size (various sizes are possible from 10 lbs and up).
  • Capable of area attacks.
  • Leverages the fact that most electronics systems are not hardened against microwave frequencies.
  • Repair after attack is extremely hard typically requiring expensive high level systems analysis.
  • Replenishing microwave-based weapons is much easier than conventional ordnance.

What Kinds of Microwave Weapons Exist?

Over the past several decades, armed forces across the globe have come to rely on a vast array of electronics. As a result, the environment for targets that can be targeted by microwave weapons has significantly increased. The U.S. Air Force has leveraged a number of technologies in the offensive and defensive arenas to take advantage of high powered microwave weapons to disrupt enemy systems to gain tactical and strategic advantages on the battlefield. Additionally, the U.S. Marine Corps has fielded the Active Denial System (ADS) which makes use of focused microwave radiation to create a burning sensation in the skin of the targeted individual(s) to encourage a change in behavior. Other R&D efforts focus on the use of both laser and high power microwave technology in order to confuse or disrupt and inbound missile’s guidance system to result in a successful soft-kill defense without having to employ ordnance-based defensive systems unless necessary.

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What is the LRAD?

The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, is an acoustic-based non-lethal crowd control or hailing system that is produced by the LRAD corporation. The device is designed to help deter or warn people at a much greater distance than traditional audio speakers. LRAD units range in weight from 15 to 320 pounds, and emit sound at 2.5 kHz reaching levels of 137 dB at close range. The system is used by the United States military, commercial security companies, and law enforcement to transmit warnings, encourage changes in behavior, or to deter aggressive behavior. The system has also found use to deter wildlife from airports, wind farms, and other sensitive industrial activities.

How Does the LRAD Device Work?

The LRAD emits sound in a directive manner at a beam angle of approximately 30 degrees and 2.5 kHz. It makes use of an array of specifically designed drivers that are connected in parallel. Then, small point-source acoustic devices make use of the known inverse square law to help create the focused beam of acoustic emissions. Based on the design of the device, human beings within 330 feet or 100 meters of a directed LRAD transmission at full power will find it extremely painful, with the device being powerful enough to cause permanent hearing damage if a person is exposed to transmissions for too long of a time period.

What are the Uses for the LRAD?

The LRAD was initially developed to provide the United States Navy with a non-lethal deterrent for unknown shipping following the attack on the USS Cole in October of 2000. It was designed to provide additional time for sailors to determine the intentions of unknown shipping and to aid in the decision to use deadly force or not. Since the device has an effective range of 3,000 meters, it was widely adopted. Since that time, the LRAD system has been used by the U.S. Army and other DoD agencies ashore to transmit warning messages in the native language as well as to dissuade behavior for personnel at close range who ignore warnings. In the civilian sector, the LRAD has been used by police to break up riots, to deter pirate attacks, and by the Japanese whaling fleet to deter activists. Research continues by the LRAD company to refine the units design, increase range, and options for use in the field by both civilian and defense units.

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What is a Heat Ray Gun?

Most of us think of heat ray guns as something from science fiction. The United States Government, however, has been developing the modern day equivalent over the past decade, officially referred to as the Active Denial System or ADS. The non-lethal weapon system that has been under development by the United States government through the United States Marine Corps led, Joint Non-Lethal Weapons. When the heat ray gun, or ADS targets an individual or a group of individuals, it creates a sudden burning sensation to encourage a change in behavior to include dispersing a crowd or stopping an unknown, approaching individual.

How Does the Heat Ray Gun Work?

The ADS or heat ray gun was first tested for the press in 2007. It fires a microwave beam from a large rectangular dish that is mounted on a vehicle. In the case of the public test, it was atop a Humvee vehicle. The range of the demonstrated weapon was approximately 550 yards or 500 meters, providing an effective increase in range over similar non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets. The heat ray or microwave beam can penetrate clothing, and suddenly heats the skin of targeted individuals to 50 degree Centigrade. During the public test, a Reuters journalist volunteered to be shot with the heat ray and passed that the feeling was similar to getting blasted with an extremely hot oven and was to painful to bear without moving for cover.

What is the Future for Heat Ray Guns?

The publicly stated research goals for the ADS and other similar technologies is to continue to develop smaller and more effective non-lethal technologies to help warfighters have effective options to achieve missions in the field that do not include shooting their primary weapons. The primary goal being to minimize the civilian loss of life in conflicts that fall short of total war while still keeping soldiers and sailors safe in the field and on the sea. Conspiracy theorists speculate what the lethal research options in the field might entail, and if there will be lethal options developed in secret for the heat ray gun by friendly or non-friendly forces. Although not developed yet, its not a far reach to see weapons similar to laser guns from SciFi thrillers deployed in the next few decades that make use of microwave technologies in development now for the ADS or other systems.

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What is Active Denial Technology?

Active Denial Technology refers to the act of emitting a focused beam of millimeter waves that results in the unbearable sensation of pain within an individual’s skin. Test subjects of the technology refer to the feeling as if their skin is immediately placed into a frying pan. The end result of the employment of active denial technology is to repel an individual or group of people with minimum risk of injury to the affected person(s). The United States Marine Corps has led the United States Government’s efforts in the development of Active Denial Technology through the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in order to help minimize fatalities and limit collateral damage across all types of military operations.

How Does Active Denial Technology Work?

Active Denial Technology makes use of a 95 GHz millimeter-wave directed energy. When the microwave blast encounters a human subject, it will penetrate approximately 1/64th of an inch into the bodies skin. Once a body is illuminated by the beam, the body feels an extreme sense of pain caused by the water in the body’s skin being heated by the microwaves. The sensation persists until the person moves out of range of the beam or it is turned off. Due to the shallow penetration into the body and normal human instinctive reactions, there is minimal risk of permanent damage, however, there has been conjecture on the potential for permanent eye damage resulting from the technology.

Legacy Active Denial Technology Configurations

The U.S. Government’s primary employment of Active Denial Technology is through the Active Denial System (ADS). The initial deployment of the technology was between 2002 and 2007 in a prototype used on a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, and a separate test on a tactical truck. Each of the systems were successfully fielded and tested indicating there was a less than 1/10th of 1% chance of permanent injury from the technology. After the testing was completed, the military desired a smaller and more light-weight version of the technology.

Current Work in Active Denial Technology

Current work in Active Denial Technology is focused on developing the next generation of the technology. This work has been focused on making the existing sources of millimeter waves usable with a smaller footprint of gear while also looking for new sources of microwaves to use to achieve the same effects. Concurrent research focuses on leveraging current advancements in solid-state technologies to help reduce the overall weight, size, and cost of ADS units as well as looking into the potential use of higher frequency waveforms or low power lasers.


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What is the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate?

The United States Marine Corps acts as the primary agency or “Executive Agent” for the Department of Defense for non-lethal weapons programs. The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, or JNLWD, acts on behalf of the Marine Corps in order to execute its mission of developing non-lethal weapons after identification and evaluations are conducted to assess suitability for use by DoD forces. Unlike in years past, however, the JNLWD works with all components of the DoD Inter-Agency to include other DoD components to ensure informed decisions are reached regarding the operational use and fielding of non-lethal weapons. More recently, close coordination with NATO partners regarding human effects, capability sets, and studies have been conducted based on real world lessons learned from conflicts in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

History Behind the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate Formation

In the mid-1990’s (1995), USMC LtGen Zinni was placed in charge of the protection of the U.N. Forces being withdrawn from Somalia. He passed a non-lethal weapons requirement to the U.S. DoD in order to best accomplish his mission without unnecessary loss or risk to civilian life, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps teamed up to provide ad hoc capabilities for force use in and around Mogadishu. Since that time, the U.S. DoD, designated the USMC as the Executive Agent for the DoD non-lethal weapons program in 1996. The need for continued development of non-lethal alternatives for U.S. And Allied Forces has been reiterated in each Quadrennial Defense Review, and the actual gear deployed by the JNLWD has been credited with saving numerous civilian and friendly force lives in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan to determine hostile intent prior to having to make a kill or be killed decision.

What Does the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate Do?

The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is charged with the research, development, and deployment of non-lethal weapon systems to cover all ranges of threats or potential crises where lethal force may not be an appropriate first response by DoD forces. The non-lethal weapons, munitions, and devices developed focus on immediate incapacitation of targeted personnel or other material with a goal of minimizing fatalities. Although, non-lethal weapons developed by the JNLWD are intended to have reversible effects, some applications do result in death if applied incorrectly or if there are severe medical issues resident in the affected person. The development by the Directorate on non-lethal weapons is not intended to replace deadly force options, but expand the toolbox available to the warfighter to ensure they have the capabilities required for the missions of both today and the future.


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Non Lethal Crowd Control Weapons

Since the end of World War II, the need to keep escalation of force at the minimum levels necessary to control a situation and avoid unnecessary death and human suffering has increased. As a result, significant research and development in non-lethal and less-than-lethal weapons technology for military and police use has been conducted over the past 40 years with the first field options deployed in the mid-1990s as an option for soldiers and policemen to use scalable force when controlling crowds.

How Does a Non Lethal Crowd Control Weapon Work?

All non-lethal weapons are designed to reduce the chances of severe injury or death. Despite these goals, deaths are still experienced when used on persons with per-existing medical conditions, improper employment of the weapon, or repetitive applications and/or misuse. All crowd control weapons are designed to stop human behavior whether in a riot or other threatening condition without bullets or other kinetic weapons being employed. Examples of effective non-lethal weapons include: pepper spray, tear gas, microwave radiation emissions with the Active Denial System, sticky foam, rubber bullets, and acoustic emissions. Each of the systems is made to create intense pain or discomfort in the targeted individual to make the person stop moving or cease the behavior that is unwanted (ie rioting or yelling at police or servicemen).

Examples of Non Lethal Crowd Control Weapons

Water Canons
Water canons are one of the most commonly used non lethal crowd control weapons. They have been effectively employed to disperse persons, prevent movement on a position, and to help control riots.
Scent-Based Weapons
Scent-based weapons have also been used to encourage groups of rioters to disperse a desired area. These are also referred to as malodorants, and the Israelis have effectively deployed Skunk smells in the form of a mist shot from a water cannon to get crowds to leave a desired area.
Pepper Spray, Tear Gas, and Mace
Pepper spray is one of the most widely deployed non lethal crowd control weapons world-wide. The spray is made from a derivative of the cayenne pepper plan and is used to temporarily disable an individual. Most inadvertent deaths from the use of the spray typically come from the combination of the spray with a choke hold that deprives the individual of air. Tear gas, on the other hand, is commonly used to displace rioters from a greater distance using gas canisters that are launched. Another point defense chemical agent used for self defense is mace, but can also be used in crowd control situations.
Sleep Gas
Sleep gas is another chemical agent that is not used as frequently to control crowds, and was used in the very public Moscow theater hostage crisis. The gas is designed to induce sleep in both hostages and terrorists, with the potential for death from choking on vomit or overdose being high.
Sticky Foam
Sticky foam has been tried by the U.S. And other organizations to stop persons tending to violence in crowd control situations. The use of foam, however, brings additional complications such as post-riot clean-up, potential asphyxiation of the people being brought under control, and the difficulty in employment.

Microwave Weapons
The use of microwave emissions in tool kits such as the U.S. Government’s Active Denial System is another area experiencing significant interest in Research & Development sectors across a number of governments. In the case of the ADS, short bursts of microwaves are emitted that cause severe pain in the crowd or groups of persons that require dispersal. Once the affected individuals leave the area, the pain subsides. All side effects of the weapon have not been assessed, however, as there is debate on whether or not the ADS can cause permanent harm to targeted persons eyes.

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Microwave Weaponry

Even before the microwave oven was invented as a by-product of military research into radars by Dr. Percy Spencer of the Raytheon Corporation, military researchers have focused significant effort into developing microwave weaponry. The ability of microwaves to cook food extends to non-lethal and lethal capabilities against human being’s skin or internal organs without having to worry about reloading ammunition. Current research in the field focuses on riot control effects and disruption of inbound missile seekers.

How Does Microwave Weaponry Work?

The two primary purposes of current microwave weapons are to encourage changes in behavior by human beings and to confuse or disrupt missile seeker electronics. Human being behavior can be changed through heating an individual or group of people’s skin through the heating of the water contained by the human body. This act causes significant pain in the individual or group of people targeted, that can be tailored to leave no lasting damage.

High-frequency microwaves can also be used as a defense mechanism against incoming missiles or projectiles that contain guidance systems. In this case, the microwaves are designed to confuse or destroy unshielded electronics with capabilities against various hardening techniques. Instead of continuing inbound to the intended target, the missile flies off-target and either self-destructs or hits an unintended structure.

Early Uses of Microwave Weaponry

There is a significant amount of rumors and even propaganda relating to WW II and Cold War era use of microwave-based weapons. One of the widest spread stories relating to the use of microwave weaponry in the Cold War involves the stories associated with the Soviets bombarding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwaves but was kept secret from the embassy employees. An unconfirmed report stated that American Ambassador Stoessel contract a blood disease from the weapon and that Kissinger granted hazard pay to employees in the 1970s. The ability to use a disabling or even lethal weapon with plausible deniability has made microwave weapons the source of a number of conspiracy theories in intelligence stories since.


Now, there remains a significant amount of propaganda associated with secret weapons developed in WW II by the various Axis powers. One of the most widely published stories is of a secret Italian microwave-driven weapons which could fry the individuals inside of a tank or armored vehicle alive that was destroyed by the inventor after realizing the horror that could be caused by the weapon. Although this story remains unverified, the Italians did equip their battleships with radar systems to aid in locating enemy ships, aircraft, and navigate ahead of developments by the Allied powers. Although the Italians were successful in fielding this technology, it did not prove sufficient enough of an advantage to turn the tide of the naval portion of the war.

Current Military Employment of Microwave Weaponry

There continues to be significant research in the non-lethal weapons field using microwave technology. The Active Denial System uses a millimeter microwave source which is designed to heat the water contained in a human’s skin. The result is severe pain verging on incapacitating the subject. The Active Denial System is designed to aid in controlling personnel during riots, and is not intended to cause harm, though there is discussion on whether the system causes permanent damage to the eyes. The system is made to be employed in small to large packages including a bolt-on kit for a HUMVEE. At short range, the ADS can burn the human skin and test subjects state the effects of the weapon made their skin feel as through it was touching a frying pan.


Another system tailored to disrupt the guidance systems of MANPADS or other surface-to-air missiles is Vigilant Eagle (VE). It is a program made to help defend airports using high-frequency microwaves to disrupt the guidance system of the missile while using a grid of IR cameras to detect inbound threats to queue the weapon. When successful, the inbound missile is deflected away from the airport being defended.

The Future of Microwave Weaponry

Current military research in the field of microwave weaponry remains focused on anti-personnel and anti-missile projects. The public interest in creating more effective non-lethal weapons using the technology remains a priority in order to continue the modern military focus on reductions of the loss of civilian life during armed conflict. Whether countries decide to take this research to the lethal-level remains to be seen, however, microwave weapons are expected to be at the forefront of current and future military research and employment.

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