Phasers of the TNG Era

II.  The Late 2360's and Beyond

Now, compare the older Type II phasers with the model introduced in 2366.  Note the length difference, most noteworthy in the handle, along with the width difference in the forward section:

Significantly shorter, and featuring a boxier but far smaller and tighter design with a small trapezoidal emitter, these weapons featured all the capabilities of the former weapon (possibly including additional settings, judging by the number of green bars available), at a far smaller size.  Several refinements of this design occurred over the next decade as the weapon progressed toward an even less bulky design with a curved grip that debuted in 2372.  By 2379's Nemesis, even the still- boxy forward section had become smaller and more curved:

While all known phasers are capable of rapidly stunning foes into unconsciousness, we do get some specific details on how fast the 2372 version will do so.   In "The Assignment"[DSN5], an O'Brien is once again inhabited by a malevolent being and the O'Brien family is threatened.  This time it's Keiko doing the evil deeds, and the being within her blackmails Chief O'Brien with the following: "All I need is a split-second to cause a massive brain hemorrage and she's gone."   Later, the chief is alone and checks with the computer:

O'Brien: "Computer . . . locate Keiko O'Brien."
Computer: "Keiko O'Brien is in her quarters."
O'Brien:  "Computer . . . initiate full identity scan on Keiko O'Brien and note any inconsistencies with existing medical records."
Computer: "Scan complete. No inconsistencies found. Identity confirmed."
O'Brien: "How long would it take a level-3 stasis field to render Keiko O'Brien unconscious?"
Computer:  "All cognitive reflexes would cease in two-point-one seconds."
O'Brien: "Too long. Calculate the time if anesthetine gas were used."
Computer: "One-point-four seconds."
O'Brien: "What about a phaser set on stun?"
Computer: "Zero-point-nine seconds."
O'Brien:  "Damn."

From the above, then, we establish that a baseline human female will be rendered unconscious in less than a second by a phaser on (an unspecified level of) stun effect, and we would assume the same to be true of a human male.  

Despite what the movies show, this is actually a significantly faster incapacitation of an aggressor than what one might expect from a modern-day firearm in most cases.   With a gun, incapacitation can occur via trauma to or disruption of the central nervous system, a significant loss of blood resulting in unconsciousness, or the production of extreme, debilitating pain.   While bullet damage to the brain or upper spinal cord might cause immediate death or paralysis due to CNS trauma (either of which would serve as incapacitation in the broadest sense), the vast majority of shots do not hit those areas of the body.  According to frequently-referenced work by Dr. Ken Newgard, even assuming optimum conditions and an optimum hit that completely severs the thoracic aorta (a major artery serving the chest organs featuring the largest single amount of bloodflow), it will still take 4.6 seconds to achieve a loss of enough of the body's blood to result in unconsciousness most of the time, and the pain of being shot will usually fail to stop determined aggressors.  Even severing the head and thereby cutting bloodflow to the brain (as in the case of the guillotine) is said to frequently allow consciousness for several seconds, though of course in that situation the head no longer controls the body and thus a quite thorough incapacitation is achieved.

Compared to non-lethal methods of incapacitation, the phaser still compares favorably to modern weapons.   With a stun gun, for instance, it can take a second or two to daze a target via the stun gun's electrical disruption of CNS control, and three seconds or more to leave them unbalanced and disoriented.  Certain police-issue tasers, operating on similar principles to stun-guns but with greater range, can drop a target like a brick if the target is non-aggressive (as various unpleasant tasering videos available online show).  However, the target remains conscious and can theoretically attack as soon as the tasering ends, leading some officers to repeatedly hit the target to ensure submission.   Other weapons such as the near-microwave pain beam heat a thin layer of surface skin to over 50C in less than two seconds without serious burns.  This results in reflexive efforts to escape just like a person touching a hot object, but these sorts of weapons are ineffective against a suitably-clothed opponent.  Then there are the various laser blinding weapons, either of the UN-banned permanent blinding variety or the "dazzlers" like the 'PHASR' rifle.  These only incapacitate the target's ability to see, but leave the target otherwise unaffected and thus capable of continued action, such as firing blind or activating an explosive device.

Though it is unknown if the 2379 (Nemesis) version of the Type II phaser was any faster at producing unconsciousness via the stun setting, we can assume it was at least equal in capability.   Also, while we did not see the 2379 version engaging in widebeam or noticeable off-axis firing, it follows from default phaser capabilities that this would be the case.  The versions leading up to it did indeed show widebeam, even at the kill setting.  Below, we see a lateral widebeam stun shot from "Cathexis"[VOY1].   In the episode, an entity takes over tactical officer Tuvok and uses his knowledge of the ship and its procedures to masquerade as normal-Tuvok for the entire episode.  He demonstrates knowledge of starship procedures, the nerve pinch, and so on.   When attacked by a similar body-snatching entity with an opposing agenda, the entity controlling Tuvok decides to stun the entire bridge crew simultaneously before further attacks can occur.

Later in the episode, the Tuvok entity, its identity revealed, threatens to fire on the bridge crew once again, this time saying:  "this phaser is on wide-beam dispersal and set to kill".   No one contradicted him, and the bridge crew, despite having holstered phasers, didn't even attempt to reach for them.

"Rapture"[DS9-5] proves with certainty that a widebeam kill setting must exist, given the widebeam vaporization of a 2 meter by 4 meter wall of rock in just a hair over six seconds.

The middle "Rapture" image above also suggests that, at least on widebeam settings, the phaser's range can be limited by the user.  This explains the beam's halting on the left of the middle image, and makes sense in the context of the episode . . . Sisko wished to cut through the rock without damaging the priceless archaeological find behind the wall.  We see something similar in "Return of the Archons"[TOS1], in which we would expect at least some parts of the beams below to strike the distant wall:

We've seen a similar range-limited widebeam maneuver employed in "Extreme Risk"[VOY5], in which Torres uses her phaser to erect a forcefield at a set distance from both the weapon and the wall beyond.  (However, since she was also using other devices to make the forcefield, this example is not so certain as the others.)

And, of course, we've seen off-axis firing of the various models, usually thanks to Riker (who evidently cannot aim without it).

One noteworthy difference between the phasers of the late 2360's and the phasers of the early 2360's is that, generally speaking, there is little relevant difference in beam intensity between different shots.  The First Contact image of Riker outside shows an intense, thick beam which served to lightly stun Zephram Cochrane.   The shot against Yuta in the top image above is a heavy stun beam.  In short, there simply isn't any good way to determine beam strength from the beams themselves.  Another example of this appears in the scene below.  Note that Worf's stun-level shot looks no different than the three phasers set to level seven, stated to be sufficient to generate a temperature of 2,314 degrees within the noranium metal being fired upon.  

Incidentally, Data didn't specify that he was using the Celsius scale when referring to noranium's melting point, though given Data's metric habits this is most likely.  It also corresponds well with Kirk's 8,000 degree temperatures generated by his phaser.   Even assuming, however, that he was referring to the Fahrenheit scale, this would still suggest a temperature of 1,267 degrees Celsius, or just a couple of hundred degrees below what is required to melt even the highest-grade steel.  That is on the seventh setting out of sixteen known, and using the smallest degrees available.

And, of course, there's Chain of Command.  In the shots provided in the section below, note the thoroughly miniscule beam.

"Chain of Command"[TNG6]

One of the most often-discussed phaser shots in the Vs. Debate scene has been the setting 16 shot of "Chain of Command".   During a covert mission on a Cardassian planet, Picard, Worf, and Dr. Crusher are attempting to gain access to what is believed to be a Cardassian bioweapon facility by travelling through subterranean passages through what PIcard at one point identifies as granite.  Finding themselves at a dead-end, Picard notes that the craggy rock wall has a lava tube running behind it, extending for some 70 meters until it connects with another larger passageway.   (Note:  some images below have been brightened for clarity.)

Peering into a small opening in the wall and checking his tricorder, Picard notes that the lava tube widens out some distance beyond the small opening, and he has Worf use his phaser to widen the opening further.  Worf explicitly sets the weapon to level 16.

Though some pro-Trek debaters originally mistook Worf's shot as having actually excavated the entire 70 meter tube, this clearly is not the case.  Some pro-Wars debaters, inevitably, have made equally erroneous statements, claiming that the wall was just a loose, paper-thin jumble of a few rocks.  The most reasonable conclusion is that the rock in question was solid granite, given the previous identification of granite by Picard and the fact that the lava tube would be most likely to deposit igneous rock, as opposed to some loose jumble of pebbles that miraculously didn't drop on the floor. 

Worf fires at the hole Picard noted, and cleanly vaporizes an unknown amount of rock.  Is there any way to determine how much rock vanishes?   Well, yes and no.  We know the exterior wall is at least a foot thick or so, given the fact that we're never able to see the lava tube beyond in the shot below or any other.

On the other hand, the shot below makes it look as if the tube wall is super thin, due to the way the yellow glow appears:

But if you look, there is yellow glow extending into the tube on the tube's bottom-left side, as well as an obvious difference in coloration of the tube wall.  This implies that the vaporization did extend into the tube for some distance, though how deep is not known.  Going by the deepest visible yellow glow point, the vaporization may have extended perhaps a meter or two into the rock.  Further, the thin rim of yellow glow is the last bit to be vaporized . . . given that the hole was at least a meter tall, having the outer portion vaporize last suggests that the vaporization "flashpoint" was at least that deep.

In any case, what's most impressive about the shot . . . whether it vaporized just one cubic meter of rock or as much as three or four . . . is that the vaporization was done quite cleanly.   There was no sudden heating of the nearby rock, or any explosion of debris as we saw in "Hide and Q" or in Insurrection:

Thus, as with Sisko's widebeam rock vaporization from "Rapture", the most logical conclusion is that what we saw was the maximum amount of material that can be cleanly vaporized, and we can very roughly estimate it as a couple of cubic meters of granite.  After all, you'd hardly want to go blasting enormous holes as if with dynamite when trying to sneak up on an enemy weapons lab.

So what would the energy requirement be for such an event as seen in "Chain of Command"?  Well, granite is one of the least dense igneous rocks, so this works out rather nicely as a lower limit.   Assuming just one cubic meter of granite were to be melted, not vaporized, then we're looking at raising the temperature of about 2.75 metric tons of granite by about 900 degrees.  This act would require 2.67 gigajoules of energy.   To actually vaporize it, we'd be talking about around 3.8 tons of TNT, or 15.89 gigajoules, as the effective yield.  Of course, this shot was altogether quite friendly to the local environment, given that there was no huge blast of debris or molten goo.  As a result, your mileage may vary.

One is forced to wonder, given the examples noted above, whether setting 16 on a phaser is always a "clean vaporization" shot or whether a lesser vaporization fraction can be employed.   There is evidence that the latter is the case:  Riker, in "Frame of Mind"[TNG6], suggests that setting his phaser to level 16 on a wide field should be sufficient to destroy half of the building he is occupying.   Though we don't know the exact size of the structure, we know based on the multiple wards and corridors that the building is quite substantial.   If one recalls the horror of Oklahoma City, in which a 2 ton truck bomb detonated outside of the multi-story federal building blasting one side into debris, one can imagine what a 3.8 ton phaser shot might be like.

Some have argued that the "Frame of Mind" example should not be allowed, given that the events of the episode were figments of Riker's imagination, produced in response to a mental attack.  However, Riker's knowledge of the Enterprise, its personnel, and its other technologies were completely unaffected, and indeed it was only when oddities appeared that Riker became suspicious and agitated.  Examples include strange behavior by the crew, some chick trying to pretend her spoon was a communicator, and of course Dr. Crusher's dermal regenerator failing to regenerate Riker's dermis as we've seen it do in every other episode in which the pink beam is used.  As Counselor Troi described it, Riker's mind was taking elements of the real world to keep Riker grounded.  In all cases of specific technological knowledge, Riker seemed quite grounded indeed.


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