The taser story (pt 2) - Construction & history of Tasers

What do a nuclear physicist contracted to NASA for the Apollo space missions, two Entrepreneurial brothers from Arizona and a book called “Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle” all have in common? Well, the answer should be fairly obvious (especially if you have read my previous article), all three elements helped give birth to the modern nonlethal weapon we call the Taser.

If you have ever wondered where and how the modern Taser came about read on! If not, it is still worth a glance over as like most weapons it was dreamed up with the good intention of saving more lives (however their modern day use in this respect is questionable at the very least!). So, the story begins in the 1960’s where at the time there were a series of commercial plane hijackings in and around North America and fear of plane hijackings was high on the public agenda (much like the today’s current atmosphere, excuse the pun). The solution to these problems at the time was to place Sky Marshals (officers carrying side arms) on commercial airliners to act as a deterrent to hijackers. The obvious problem here was that should a Sky Marshall misfire on board an airline whilst in flight they could puncture the cabin leading to a dangerous risk of bringing the plane down or worse, killing all passengers on board. Along comes Jack Cover an experienced Nuclear physicist with a passion for inventing and an imagination filled with stories of science fiction (especially those of Victor Appleton). He saw the obvious problem that the Sky Marshals faced – they were there to keep the passengers safe but at the same time they did not want to risk killing everyone in order to keep them safe. So he thought to himself: 'Let me figure out something better than shooting people that might crash the plane,'

At first he was not immediately sure what the exact solution to this problem was, until he heard of a man who was momentarily immobilized by a power line. This resonated with the Victor Appleton Sci-fi stories he had read as a child involving a character named Thomas Smith (a modern day Sci-fi action hero by all accounts). The book that particularly connected well with him at this time was entitled, “Tom Smith and His Electric Rifle”. The story involves Tom inventing an electric rifle to help save his friends held captive in Africa by tribesmen (considering the first publication was in1911 such a plot is not that surprising). From then on he set about working on a device that would immobilizing you momentarily with an electric discharge. It was not towards the end of the 1960’s that Cover produced a working prototype. It looked much like a flashlight but fired darts that delivered an electric charge with having a range a little under 5 meters and a power output of 7 watts. He then named the device under the acronym “TASER” after his favourite childhood book – Tom A. Smith and his Electric Rifle (excuse the A as it was his inventors licence lets say, that enables the completion of the word Taser) In 1970, he formed Taser Systems Inc., believing that his invention of a weapon that could stun but not kill would have wide appeal. However, he was mistaken on both accounts. The main hurdle - The Taser used gunpowder to launch the darts, the US federal government considered it a firearm, a classification that ruled out a civilian market and also discouraged police and military sales. Cover presented his device to the LAPD who rejected the Taser twice during the 1970s. However, they reconsidered in 1979 after the controversial killing of Eula Love, a South Los Angeles woman who was shot to death by LAPD officers in a confrontation over an unpaid gas bill. As the story goes officers asked her to put down a knife she was holding, she refused and instead threw it at them (one of the first LAPD cases in a long line of police related incidences of questionable use of force). As a result of field tests with the LAPD in 1980, Cover won department approval with an 11-watt Taser that proved more effective than his initial 7-watt model, however sales remained limited and the business subsequently collapsed. Moving forward, the year is 1993 and along come two entrepreneurs from Arizona, brothers Tom and Rick Smith. They got in contact with the then 73 year old Jack Cover about redesigning his Taser as a nonlethal self-protection device that could legally be sold to civilians as an initial business stratagem. In 1994, the Smiths' company launched the Air Taser, based on Cover's proposal to alter the propelling system from gunpowder to compressed air. At this point it must be mentioned that among projectile stun guns, the Smiths' devices were (and still are) the most widely sold in the world. Police and military agencies in 207 countries use them with distribution of over 600,000. In addition, more than 180,000 Tasers have been sold to private individuals according to Taser International statistics. In 1998 Smiths’ company changed their name to Taser international (as they are still known today) and started gearing their device towards the police departments across the globe. In 2001 they developed their “Advanced Taser Electro-Muscular Disruption” system. This system allows the Taser to override the body’ s own nervous control of muscular activity thereby causing a “stunned” state inducing uncontrollable muscle contraction (more about this in next article). This is a very effective method of disempowering the most uncontrollable opponent, as stated by Taser International. In May 2001 Taser international floated their company on to the US stock market and began trading under TASR.

In May 2003 the company released their X26 Taser model. This model fires two needle tipped darts at a maximum range of 6.4m that trail electric cable back to the handset running off eight batteries. The darts deliver a five second 50,000-volt charge causing the opponents muscles to contract involuntarily. In April of the same year the UK began their first trials of the Taser weapons produced by Taser International. The trials began in the following five police forces:

  • Lincolnshire
  • Metropolitan
  • Northamptonshire
  • North Wales
  • Thames Valley

In the next article I will explore the use and the scenarios under which Tasers are used on the streets of South London.