The Modern World's Strangest Weapons – From Pain Rays To Tractor Beams


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Plenty of these are still in development, and several are utterly bonkers. rogistock/Shutterstock

The saga of the Cuban sonic weapon attacks continues. As of mid-October, the American President has accused the nearby nation’s intelligence agency of masterminding the audio assaults on its diplomats, several of which have been left with hearing problems, debilitating nausea, and, in some cases, permanent brain damage.

Much of the mystery has focused on what possible device could cause such a weapon. At present, it’s unclear what types of sound waves were used in the attacks. This means that the symptoms could have been caused by an infrasound device, a microwave source, or a focused beam of audible sound that’s previously been used on rioting crowds.


In any case, this got us thinking. These Cuba-based incidences involve weapons technology that has either been trialled or has been used in the past – so what other strange types of deterrents exist today? Here’s a collection of some of the oddest.

1 – Pain Ray

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the US military has invented a heat ray that is designed to blast high-frequency waves at crowds of people and cook them a little bit. Officially named the Active Denial System, it’s come to be known as the “Pain Ray” by those it has been tested on.

When fired at an individual, the atoms at the surface of their skin begin to vibrate rapidly, as if they’re in a microwave. There’s no noise or flash of light; instead, they just begin to sizzle, and it’s enough to force people to run a mile.


It’s not technically a microwave gun. Instead, electromagnetic radiation is passed through a magnetic field, whereupon it generates heat in the epidermis of a person. Unlike microwaves, it cannot pass through the skin and damage your internal organs. That’s why, despite their best efforts, the Armed Forces has failed to cook a turkey with it.

One problem, though: It takes about 16 hours to become operational, which means that it can’t be deployed in a hurry.

2 – The Impulse Swimmer Gun

This is somewhat like an aquatic version of the device suspected of being used in the Cuban attacks. Currently under development in the US, it is said to use “pulsed sound waves” to induce auditory impairment and extreme nausea in scuba divers and submarine crews.


It’s not clear what kind of technology this weapon would use, but it's likely infrasound or something far more high frequency, yet again.

3 – The Blinding Laser

Although weapons that blind people are outlawed by the Geneva Convention, the US Military’s Long Range Ocular Interruption Laser is designed to temporarily incapacitate targets up to 3 kilometers (about 1.9 miles) away.

Acting a bit like a concentrated flash grenade, this handheld or weapon-mounted device – which is currently in development – is likely to deter snipers or approaching hostile forces, allowing friendly forces to move past without making much of a fuss.


4 – The Crowd Taser

Although it doesn’t really have a proper name yet, this type of technology – currently being looked into by the Department of Defense (DoD) – emits waves of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation in small, nanosecond bursts. Not enough to do serious, long-term damage, but sufficient to cause involuntary muscle spasms in crowds, which would presumably stop their unwanted advance.

5 – The Tractor Beam

As you’ve probably realized by now, the DoD has an entire platform for testing out incapacitating weaponry. Named the “Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate”, it appears that a document summarizing the latest developments in the field was leaked not too long ago, and there’s some really weird stuff on there.


One, named the Laser Based Flow Modification device, is entirely conceptual right now. It aims to fire laser pulses at the leading edge of another plane’s airfoil, in order to alter the drag and lift forces. This would allow the firing plane to essentially steer the other one however it liked – a tractor beam, of sorts.

The practicalities of this remain unfeasible for the time being, so don’t expect to see this in operation any time soon.

6 – The Ultimate Stink Bomb

Now, with all these lasers and sound beams and electrical shockwaves going around, you may be wondering if the military has ever come up with a non-lethal chemical deterrent. Why yes, yes it has – several times in fact.


Back in the Second World War, a compound designed to be used by the French Resistance was concocted. Going by the moniker of “Who, Me?” this compound smelled of the worst fecal matter imaginable, and was designed to, well, bemuse the German occupying forces. Since the sprayee often ended up smelling much like their target though, this project was quickly deemed a failure.

Nevertheless, after spending much of the 90s and 00s determining what smells people from various cultures hate the most, and after working out some of the precise psychological drivers that cause people to think a smell is inherently “bad”, a revelation occurred: Fecal matter really is quite despised by many.

To date, however, the manufacture of a weapons-grade stink bomb remains a fantasy. Odor warfare is on hold for now.

7 – The Plasma Paralysis Weapon

Plasma rifles in real life? It could happen sooner than you think. UzPhoto/Shutterstock

Technically called the Pulsed Energy Projectile, it’s hard to believe something like this could be real. Currently under development by the US Military, it emits a powerful and invisible infrared laser pulse that impacts a target and creates a small amount of exploding plasma, or highly energized particles.

This micro-blast produces a pressure wave that’s powerful enough to knock a person over. In animal testing experiments from the last decade, the weapon reportedly was demonstrated to trigger an acute sense of pain, and a temporary paralysis, in the targets.

Although designed to be non-lethal, the pulse energy can be upped enough to trigger a deadly plasma explosion at a fairly long distance. When news of this long-range, bullet-less technology emerged back in 2003-2005, it caused quite the uproar.

8 – Blackout Bombs


Only declassified recently, and brought back into the mainstream due to the simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula, these non-lethal weapons were first used in the second Gulf War, back in the early 1990s. They release a cloud of highly conductive carbon filaments, which come to rest over power lines.

When they do, they create several high-energy arcs that burn and short out any uninsulated wiring in the area. These weapons have been so successful in the past – on several occasions, most of a nation’s electricity infrastructure was crippled – that South Korea is developing their own version to potentially use on their aggressive neighbors to the north.

The weapon is dropped by multi-purpose fighter jets. MonoRidz/Shutterstock

Bonus – Operation Acoustic Kitty

This outlier was simply too strange not to include on the list. This utterly unusual program involved the CIA, back in the 1960s, spending $20 million dollars to install listening devices inside cats. Although obviously a surveillance technology, the idea was reportedly designed to induce paranoia in spies that refused to trust cats whenever they saw them – regardless of whether they were employeed by enemy spooks or not.


Appropriately named Operation Acoustic Kitty, the first augmented cat’s inaugural test ended in a – wait for it – catastrophic failure when it wandered away from the target and was subsequently run over by a taxi.

Still, things could be stranger. The US Marine Corps once planned to drop Mexican free-tailed bats armed with incendiary devices over Japanese cities back in the 1940s.

  • tag
  • tractor beam,

  • America,

  • Cuba,

  • laser beams,

  • sonic weapons,

  • diplomats,

  • acoustic attacks,

  • secret weapons,

  • deterrent,

  • plasma guns,

  • microwave guns,

  • pain ray