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Ray Gun

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Theme.

This generic energy Weapon, usually hand-held, is one of the best-known sf Clichés which became established in the Pulp magazine era; hence the Retro-Pulp magazine title Ray Gun Revival. The term seems to have been coined by Victor Rousseau in The Messiah of the Cylinder (June-September 1917 Everybody's Magazine; 1917; vt The Apostle of the Cylinder 1918), whose magazine serialization includes this passage:

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 revised book edition has "Ray gun" for "ray-gun". In Genre SF, the earliest usages recorded by the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction are both in 1930: Ed Earl Repp's "The Red Dimension" (January 1930 Science Wonder Stories) (see Wonder Stories), followed by John W Campbell's "The Black Star Passes" (Fall 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly):

Soon they saw a hand reaching out with a ray gun; then another hand with a different ray gun, from behind the silent engine; a sudden crash of metal, a groan and quiet.

The phrase appears in many later stories, such as George O Smith's Venus Equilateral episode "Recoil" (November 1943 Astounding) – which attempts some realistic analysis of the possibilities and drawbacks of electron-beam weaponry in space – and A E van Vogt's "The Monster" (August 1948 Astounding; vt "Resurrection" in The Other Side of the Moon, anth 1956, ed August Derleth). Pre-1917 adumbrations include the Heat Ray from H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), which is not specifically termed a ray gun, and a near miss in the form of the World War One-era "X-ray gun" Invention featured in the silent spy-adventure film The Intrigue (1916) directed by Frank Lloyd. This in turn was preceded by various (non-weapon) scientific uses of "X-ray gun" when describing the generating apparatus for X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923).

Ray guns in sf may of course project any of the exotic Rays (which see for detailed commentary) imagined by sf authors: popular varieties include the purely destructive energy of the Blaster or Disintegrator, the quietly lethal Death Ray, and the theoretically non-lethal Stunner or paralyser. Star Trek's phasers are famously switchable between blast and stun settings, as are earlier sf handguns like the Denton (an imaginary brand name) in A Tale of Two Clocks (1962; vt Legacy 1979) by James H Schmitz. Another notable ray gun is Isaac Asimov's agony-inducing neuronic whip. Further terms for energy weapons range from Frank Herbert's prosaic "lasgun" (nodding to the laser) in Dune (fixup 1965) and "raygen" (presumably from ray generator) in Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970) to such melodramatic names as the Eye of Death in Lloyd Biggle Jr's Watchers of the Dark (1966). [DRL/AR]

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