Science fiction isn’t necessarily about conflict, but it often needs conflict to make its stories pop.
Unlike fantasy, where wands and enchanted swords reign supreme, science fiction has a myriad of weapons its characters wield. Zapping an opponent may be closely associated with science fiction, but that doesn’t mean all the weapons of science fiction are guns that do some kind of zapping. In order for a science fiction weapon to endure in the zeitgeist, it has to have the same elusive quality of science fiction itself: The weapon must seem real enough to be feasible, but be outrageous enough to make us excited.
With that in mind, here are seven of the coolest sci-fi weapons, ranked by one honest criteria: they are unique to the genre of science fiction and are well-known enough to be instantly recognizable to almost anyone. When you search your feelings, you know these are the coolest sci-fi weapons of them all.
8. Ripley’s Flamethrower and Rifle in Alien and Aliens
In the original 1979 Alien Ripley had to rig-up a makeshift flamethrower to fight the xenomorphs. But by the time of Aliens, she is given what’s called a Pulse Rifle. It’s a giant gun basically, but it has a flamethrower built into it. Katherine Waterston looks awesome in Alien: Covenant, but it’s going to be tough to top Ripley’s badassery.
7. Buck Roger’s Pistol
Arguably, one of the oldest science fiction heroes also has one of the most iconic weapons. Though Anthony “Buck” Rogers first sprang into existence on the pages of Philip Francis Nowlan’s novella Armageddon 2419 AD in 1928, Buck Rogers’s instantly recognizable “disintegrator pistol” was first marketed as a toy in 1934. After WWII, toy manufacturer Daisy made the space-age weapon into an “atomic pistol” with more than a passing resemblance to a Mauser. Han Solo’s blaster and other Star Wars guns have their origins here. The most famous design for Buck’s pistol was later used on the the Foo Fighters’ 1995 self-titled album, making this original ray gun, immortalized several times over.
6. Identity Disc (Tron)
All the anthropomorphized computer “programs” in the digital world of the Grid get their own Identity Disc. Presumably, this disc is the Tron-verse representation of their soul, which makes it pretty weird that its also a weapon. In both the original movie and Tron: Legacy, programs do battle by throwing dics at each other. In Legacy, Tron the person actually gets two identity discs, which turn him into the evil Rinzler. None of this makes any sense, but it looks completely awesome.
5. Sonic Screwdriver (Doctor Who)
The Time Lord known as the Doctor doesn’t carry a gun, but he does have the most useful science fiction gizmo of them all: the sonic screwdriver. The Doctor claims it’s just a device that is good at “opening doors,” but the way he brandishes it in his later incarnations makes this qualify as a weapon. The War Doctor makes jokes about this in The Day of the Doctor saying “they’re not water pistols!” and yet, the Doctor definitely zaps his opponents with his sonic screwdriver in the Matt Smith era. Plus, because the sonic screwdriver can manipulate sound waves, by design it can be very destructive. Just a screwdriver? The Doctor doth protest too much.
4. Proton Packs (Ghostbusters)
In Ghostbusters II, Ray Stanz says “the proton pack” is not a toy, but that’s probably because every kid in the ‘80s wanted a proton pack toy. Essentially wild laser beams that capture ghosts, the proton pack has one of the best designs of any weapon in science fiction. Though absolutely none of the science behind the proton pack really stacks up at all, the complicated design gives the devices a convincing veneer of realism. There are several steps to catching a ghost and rules for how you deal with the proton streams. Again the rule of “don’t cross the streams” makes no sense, and yet, because there’s a rule, the proton packs seem super real.
3. Deckard’s LAPD 2019 Blaster (Blade Runner)
This is one of those sci-fi weapons that doesn’t really do anything special, but just looks so great that is has to be on any list. It’s not a laser, or a tazer, or something that is made out of space magic. It just looks really realistic, as though the future of Blade Runner has already happened. One of the other fictional names for the gun is the “PKD,” a reference to author Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the literary basis for Blade Runner.
2. Phasers (Star Trek)
In the peaceful futures of the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries in all versions of Star Trek, the Phaser became perhaps the most famous ray gun of them all. Part of the phaser’s appeal is its ability to have a “stun” setting, something which even the blasters of Star Wars would borrow. Phasers come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from canons used onboard huge starships, to the tinniest of hand weapons. The merciful aspect of this weapon is part of its charm, but it endures mostly because of the diversity in its designs. The most popular phasers look more like conventional weapons, but that’s not always the case.
1. The Lightsaber (Star Wars)
Obi-Wan Kenobi called the lightsaber “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” and while we’ve never quite figured out what is civilized about hacking off limbs and stabbing people with energy swords, the lightsaber is without a doubt the greatest science fiction weapon of all time. Though it defies practicality — and probably physics too (how does the laser know when to stop?) — we still can’t get enough of these truly awesome weapons from a faraway galaxy. Now if we can only get George Lucas to stop calling them “laser swords.”