In Real Life, for electric current to flow there must be a difference in electrical potential. There must be negative and positive termini for current to flow between. Not so in fiction. Quite often, it will be possible for some device or some person to simply fire a lightning bolt more or less straight forward toward another presumably electrically neutral object, with no sign of building up charge separation beforehand. It is rare to see lightning weapons or electricity-based Elemental Powers that have electricity behaving the way it does in Real Life.
This trope is primarily about electric weapons or attacks that appear to throw electricity around as if it's a massive object like a bullet, a shell, or an arrow, rather than a system of electrons moving in response to electric potential, and sometimes hitting multiple enemies simultaneously. Aversions are electric weapons or attacks that actually follow the rules of how electricity works.
When this is an actual gun, it can be regarded as a cooler version of the basic Ray Gun or flamethrower.
Science shows like Mythbusters and others have explored the possibility. The general consensus is that it's possible in a couple of ways, but requires so many conditions/complications that the idea of creating a practical one is practically zero.
Recently there have been a few examples of lightning gun technology deployed in real life, though it obviously doesn't function the same as in fiction.
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BleachBount Assault on Soul Society arc, episode #108. During his final battle with Ichigo, Jin Kariya reveals that his doll's control over wind allows it to generate and throw lightning at his opponents. He wears it on his arm and points it at Ichigo while shooting lightning bolts at him.
Misaka Mikoto from A Certain Scientific Railgun. She is an electromaster, which is a nice way of saying "someone who can generate electricity and use it". Her powers revolve around electricity, and magnetism, and her most basic attack is blasting someone with electricity to unconsciousness. And since all espers are low-level reality warpers, she can completely ignore the laws of physics if she focuses on the electricity. In one episode, Mikoto happens to be near a power station, and she accidentally caused a city-wide blackout because her gathering of electricity accidentally caused the power station to overload.
As his name suggests, RaiRyu from GaoGaiGar. He also lends his power to his combinations GekiRyuJin and GenRyuJin.
In Victor Appleton's Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, Tom Swift creates a weapon that fires a concentrated charge of electricity like a bullet. The charge could pass through any material: it took effect at a pre-set range from the rifle.
True Story: The modern day Taser gets its name from an acronym of this example (Thomas A.Swift's Electric Rifle). Apparently the inventor was a fan.
The Wunderland Treatymaker from Known Space is a Kill Sat-scale, double-barreled version of a Disintegrator Ray. It wouldn't fit this trope, except that Known Space Disintegrator Rays work by making all the atoms in the target temporarily positive ions. There is also a variant that makes all the atoms in the target negative ions. The Treatymaker had one barrel of each type. Correspondingly, when it was fired, a mile long bar of lightning flowed between the two points where the beams touched the planetary surface.
The Great Race of Yith from H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time are described using lightning guns. How exactly they work is not described, but apparently they look kind of like old-fashioned cameras.
In the Dale Brown books from Warrior Class on, Tin Man Powered Armor suits mount electrodes that can fire electric blasts over a distance. No attempt is made to explain how it works. Possibly the softest element in the series.
Brian Gragg aka "Loki Stormbringer" from the Daemon books uses the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel weapon (aka "electrolaser" or LIP-C) to kill folk.
Lin Carter's Thongor of Lemuria novel Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus. Thongor's fleet of floaters (air boats) is armed with a weapon that fires lightning bolts, the energy for which is stored in sithurl crystals.
Averted in The Wheel of Time - magic users are capable of creating lightning, but it really does work by moving electrons to build up a large negative charge in one area and then releasing it. As a result, Mat is still vulnerable to Rahvin's lightning at the end of book 5 despite his Anti-Magic medallion.
The Clanker Tesla Cannons from Behemoth, a cluster of Tesla coils tipped with long spines, which makes it look like a radio array (the illustration, however, looks like a square-barreled cannon). It's designed to shoot down airships by simulating a lightning strike and set their hydrogen alight.
The sequel's eponymous Goliath is a supercharged version, designed to sync up with Earth's electromagnetic field, and is powerful enough to set the air on fire.
The Mythbusters, while testing the myth of using water to increase a taser's range, created one of these by firing a large squirt gun from inside a Tesla coil.
Another show set out to recreate sci-fi themes tried to create a lightning gun. While they were able to create a rudimentary one using ionized gas, it was large, clunky, short ranged, and could only be used in a specially conditioned room.
Stargate SG-1 has Zats, snake-shaped handguns that fire stun lightning.
The Green Hornet episode "Invasion from Outer Space". The "alien" Vama can throw lightning at opponents using a battery-filled belt.
The Yithians (Great Race) often had lightning guns. In the Fragments of Fear adventure "Valley of the Four Shrines" one of the Yithians has one.
The Stars Are Right! supplement, adventure "Music of the Spheres". The Mi-Go had an electric rifle that threw a bolt of electricity.
Terror from the Stars supplement. The Mi-Go have a "electric gun" that fires a bluish bolt of sparks that does damage, causes muscle spasms and can cause death.
The Dark Conspiracy supplement Darktek had the "E.T. Stun Gun". It fired a laser to ionize the air, then discharged an electric current that followed the ionization path, much like the real-world electrolaser.
Similarly, BattleTech has the Particle Projection Cannon (PPC) which does an ionized path to fire what is effectively a lightning blast against giant robots. It, and all its derivatives, are considered the heavy tier of the energy weapons category of armaments.
In Dungeons & Dragons, blue dragons have electric breath weapons and shocker lizards shock their prey.
Also weapon enhancements that deal electricity or lightning damage can be applied to ranged weapons that then deal the damage via the ammunition.
Likewise Wands of Lightning, that throw Lightning Bolt spells.
Javelin of Lightning, a classic item that on hit creates a lightning bolt blasting everything behind it.
In the Planescape adventure Doors to the Unknown, the units of the world of Logicus behind the Third Door have lightning guns.
Battlelords of the 23rd Century supplement "Lock N' Load: Weapons and Tactics" had weapons called "Thunderbolt Generators" that fired bolts of lightning.
The Champions supplement Gadgets! had an Electric Gun that fired lightning bolts.
Steve Jackson Games' Toon. The "Mektoon" section of the Tooniversal Tour Guide had a Lightning Cannon as a possible mecha weapon. It's a cannon that fires a Lightning Bolt. It doesn't just damage an enemy Mek but can fry its computer and controls as well.
In Scion, the Level 6 Sky Boon Levin Fury lets a character fire lightning bolts as projectiles. In the canon fiction, there is even a scene with a signature character doing just that.
Rolemaster campaign setting Shadow World. The underground insectoid creatures known as Krylites had devices that could throw lightning.
Members of Task Force VALKYRIE in Hunter: The Vigil can get their hands on the MJOLNIR Cannon, a man-portable electrolaser; a more powerful vehicle-mounted version also exists. It's mentioned that these weapons have a tendency to attract real lightning bolts during thunderstorms.
A standard weapon produced by Nockers in Changeling: The Dreaming. Inserting a metal rod into a ball of pure technology, then poking the ball of technology with a stick causes lightning to shoot out of the rod. A small stick can thus be attached to a trigger of something that looks like a gun, with the metal rod in the barrel.
In Warhammer 40,000, Necron tesla cannons and Staffs of Light function as these. Justified, mainly in that the Necrons are so technologically advanced compared to other civilizations, even after millions of years of hibernation!
Warhammer has the somewhat unstable Skaven Warp Lightning Cannon, which fires magical lightning bolts of massively variable potency. Additionally there is the warp-lightning spell that Skaven warlocks can use, and a number of lightning-based attack spells in the Lore of the Heavens, which can be used to call down bolts of lightning from on high.
Castle Falkenstein. The Steam Age supplement introduced the Lightning Hurler (more formally, the Focussed Electrical Discharge Cannon). It fires a lightning bolt as far as the horizon that can burn its target to ashes. It's even capable of destroying the walls of a fortress.
This is a Standard FPS Gun. As the entry says, it typically functions as an automatic weapon.
In Unreal Tournament 2003, it's an oddly justified sniper rifle. In-game description states that when the trigger is pressed, the weapon emits a proton beam, "painting" the target with a positive charge. Milliseconds later, it emits a huge electric discharge that seeks said charge difference, hitting whatever the gun was pointed at with scary accuracy. In truth, it was put into the game so that no one can camp somewhere and snipe anything that moves without being seen. The sequel compensated for this by reintroducing a proper sniper rifle with old-style non-smokeless gunpowder.
The Ballistic Weapons mod however introduced a proper lightning gun, the HVC Mk9. This gun has a continuous homing electrical attack as primary fire (it can lift and swing around players and smaller vehicles; that and the gun's shape is a possible shoutout to Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun) and a chargeup red attack which has short range but massive splash damage as secondary fire. Both quickly overheats the gun but can be rectified via the manually operated heatsink.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night features a sub-weapon called the Aguena, a gun-like device that throws out a small projectile which causes powerful electricity to arc across from the weapon to an enemy, unlike most of the time when lightning is created via spell.
The Yithian Energy Weapon in Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth appears to be electrical-based, though its "bolts" don't branch out or zig-zag like other examples of this trope. It has an inexhaustible power supply, and was built for the specific purpose of killing The Flying Polyps. It also has a charge-up function, which will jam the mechanism if not discharged in time.
The Wunderwaffe DG-2 in Call of Duty World at War. It hits an enemy with a bolt of lightning, then reflects off the enemy and hits any other enemies near by with the same one hit kill power, with up to ten enemies being killed with one shot.
The Powder Toy has CRAY, which can fire up to 8 rays of, among other things, lightning. It also causes enough lag to drop the game from 50 fps to 2.
Painkiller features the famous ElectroDriver, a gun that shoots lightning and shuriken. It also has a tertiary fire mode that shoots shurikens which themselves shoot lightning.
Yahtzee: All you really need to know is that there is a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning. I wish I could make something like that up. It shoots shurikens and lightning! It could only possibly more awesome if it had tits and was on fire!
Golden Eye 1997 for N64 has the Awesome, but Impractical taser weapon, which is only accessible through cheating. It resembles a typical stun gun (handheld box with two electrified prods on top), but can hit enemies at any distance. Despite the awesome/hilarious "TaserBoy" design and infinite ammuntion, it has the same effect as a bullet without leaving holes and about half the firing rate of the laser gun (which also has infinite ammo.)
The hero of In FAMOUS, Cole, is a living version of this, able to fire off electrical bolts of varying power and precision.
The R-Gray 2's and Wave Rider 02's secondary attack in Ray Storm and RayCrisis.
Additionally, one area late in the game has a room with quite a lot of Elite Mooks frozen in blocks of ice. If you use any regular gun to fight off the other enemies you're likely to break the ice and have them all on you at once, but the Shocker won't give you that problem.
Dungeon Crawl actually tries to do electricity with a little more realism; airborne monsters resist electric attacks because the electricity can't go to ground (although, the player doesn't then get shocked when hitting them, which would actually be kind of hilarious)
As seen from above picture, Red Faction: Guerrilla has the Arc Welder.
Which is indispensable for hijacking tanks without scratching them.
Not quite a gun, but Tyrian featured a Lightning Cannon as an available weapon for one's ship.
Jak 3 features the Arc Wielder, an upgrade to his machine gun, which does this. It's great for crowds, and really good against machines.
There's another one as a plane-equipped weapon in The Lost Frontier. It arcs between targets, making cheating at target-shooting plane minigames a doddle.
The game Operation Inner Space has a battery weapon that fires batteries that in turn fires lightning. But it does (try to) comply with electric charge rules. It's still devastating.
The Earthsiege games by Sierra/Dynamix had the Electron Flux Weapon (ELF) which the manual called "Lightning bolt on a leash". In the game it acted as a lightning bolt-looking continuous beam weapon.
The Tesla Gun in Wolfenstein produces an electrical discharge that arcs out at any targets that come within range. If nothing or no one is nearby, though, it just kinda throws sparks.
The Spark Shot subweapon in Front Mission Gun Hazard works in a similar manner: it only fires at available targets and stays on them until they die or it runs out of ammo. It's also convenient in that even if you keep the fire button held, it only consumes ammo when it has enemies to lock on to.
The various lightning wave cannons in R-Type generally home in on targets if there are any available, although they do fire outward as a constant beam even if there aren't any. Bonus points for the fact that not a single lightning bolt looks alike, regardless of how they arc into enemies.
Massive storms of weaponized lightning are the signature attack of the Kamui fighters in Siter Skain's Kamui. However, the ships must build up a charge before releasing it, it can only hit targets beneath the fighter, and it flies out in random directions if no enemies are around (if there are, it instead homes in on them from said random directions).
The Tesla Claw in the original Ratchet & Clank, as well as the Spitting Hydra in the third game (although this does take time to fire, that seems to be more about attaining a target lock than building up a charge). Other guns, such as the third game's Rift Ripper and N90 Hurricane (both fully upgraded versions of more basic weapons) develop the ability to send out arcs of lightning from whoever they hit.
The Electron Mace from Syndicate Wars, described as a "Lightning Whip" and one of the coolest directed energy weapons in a squad based RTS. It's really just the Church's Pulse Laser equivalent that shoots blue bzzt-bzzt rays instead of red pew-pew beams.The reboot will bring it back, but firing purple bolts instead.
Star Wars Battlefront features the ARC Caster, which charges and fires a bolt of lightning towards an enemy. It also has the capacity to arc to 4 additional targets.
The Arc Projector in Mass Effect 2 uses electricity to take down enemies, and is particularly good against shields and synthetics. A good example of Shown Their Work, as the gun works by ionizing targets with a non-visible laser to create a potential difference.
With the release of the Rebellion DLC for multiplayer, the Reegar Carbine is now available in Mass Effect 3. It works on much the same principle as the Arc Projector. Even though it is classified as a shotgun, it is more like a flamethrower, but with an electric current instead of flames.
The Metroid Prime series has a number of electricity-based weapons. Metroid Prime features the Wave Beam, which fires three waves of electricity, has a limited homing capacity and whose charge shot stuns enemies for a short time. Its missile combo, the Wavebuster, fires a constant stream of electricity which automatically homes in on a target, regardless of whether you are locked on to it, at the cost of around 5 missiles per second of use. The beam is also used to activate various power conduits during the game. Metroid Prime Hunters has Kanden's affinity weapon, the Volt Driver, which fires short bursts of electricity. Its charge shot fires a slow-moving ball of lightning, which, when used by Kanden, has homing capabilities and disrupts the target's visor. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption features the Grapple Voltage, which can be used to leech energy from various targets to recover your health, or can be used to activate various terminals or to overload enemies at the detriment to your health.
If nothing else, though, there was some thought put into the Spark Shot. Careful examination reveals that it's basically a heavily modified stun gun, and it does have pitiful range and aiming ability.
Two guns in BioShock have electrical alternate ammunition: the Shotgun, which fires electrified slugs, and the Chemical Thrower, which fires a steady stream of "electric gel". Presumably the latter works somewhat like a flamethrower, with a taser for a pilot light and the "electric gel" being some superconductive fluid.
The Tesla Cannon in the Blood series. The sequel version's primary firing mode shoots self-contained orbs of electricity on full auto, while pushing the secondary fire button drains the capacitors and blasts the target with a huge lightning bolt (complete with deafening thunder) that produces a spherical blue field at the point of impact that continues to expand for a few seconds before dissipating. Anything touching the field gets insta-vaporized by a bolt of energy from its glowing core.
Syphon Filter averts this with its Air Taser (or simply "Taser" in the first game). You need to launch a wire that connects to the enemy before you can shock him. Oh boy you can shock the enemy, usually until he's on fire. Also counts as a "silent" weapon (ignoring the enemy's cries as he is roasted to death). However, the Air Taser suffers from several flaws, some critically: you need to zap an enemy for some time before he dies, you can only zap one at a time, and of course, it doesn't work on enemies using Flak Jackets (unless you're aiming to the head or limb, something hard to do without the lockon on a heated gunfight).
In Fallout 2, the YK 42 B Pulse Rifle is one of the most powerful guns in the game. It does electrical damage but it doesn't have a visible lightning bolt or even a muzzle flash (unlike it's little brother, the YK 32 Pulse Pistol which fires a purple energy bolt). Fallout 3's Tesla Cannon however... is a brutally strong blue-white beam and has some splash damage as well.
Fallout: New Vegas' Lonesome Road DLC introduced the Arc Welder, a huge industrial tool-turned-weapon capable of shooting a constant, high-voltage stream of lightning. In Old World Blue DLC, there is also the LAER (Laser Assisted Electrical Rifle), implying that it's a electrolaser weapon which use lasers to create a conductive plasma conduit in the air and then discharge electricity.
Alien Swarm has a Tesla Cannon; originally designed for repairs, it was quickly weaponised and deployed. A version also featured in a custom campaign for the Unreal Tournament mod. Unlike most Lightning Guns, however, it does not do a whole lot of damage by itself, making it a poor primary weapon. The real draw is how it slows down targets and "jumps" between them.
Escape Velocity Nova's Auroran Triphammer, a super-heavy weapon that first fires a thin stream of conducive material at a target (because vacuum is notoriously non-conducive) and then channels obscene amounts of electricity down it. Slow to fire and slower to reload, but it packed huge firepower.
Dungeon Siege I had these drop from Goblins, the settings Steampunk inventors. Short ranged, though effective, but not as powerful as the gatling guns.
In the web game Raze, one of the ten weapons is a PIERCING LIGHTNING GUN. Say good-bye to your sanity after getting this.
Both Jurassic Park games for SNES use a variety of lightning gun. In the first, an overhead (usually) shooter, it's your most basic weapon with unlimited ammo and requires charging for maximum effectiveness. In the second, a platform shooter, it's the weakest non-lethal weapon, again with unlimited ammo, and sees quite a bit of use since you're only allowed to use lethal force on raptors, the t-rex, and humans.
The default weapon in Destroy All Humans! fires electricity straight ahead and zaps whatever's in your way (and goes through people, meaning you can hit two or three at the same time). Upgrades can produce a Chain Lightning effect, very useful against crowds. In one game, he also gets a gun that shoots ball lightning.
MechWarrior 4 brings back the PPC class of weapons, a mainstay of the games since the beginning. Where early games had it as an energy beam or plasma ball, the PPC in 4 comes out as a screeching electrical blast that burns big black patches in enemy 'Mechs and leaves electricity crackling along their frames. Taking a hit from one also results in an electrical overload in your HUD.
The trailer for MechWarrior 5 promised some very lightning-like PPC shots in its trailer, during the fight scene where a Warhammer tangles with an Atlas, with several bright, jagged bolts resembling blue-white lightning being prominently demonstrated in the course of the trailer.
This basically describes the entire premise of the free indie-game Thunder Gun. Your character shoots Chain Lightning at the endless horde of robots (and mutant cyborgs). Every shot from your gun is potentially a Herd Hitting Attack if you charged the gun long enough. The only exception is when the rain comes and you are forced to put away the big gun in place of a pistol.
The Plasma Laser in Raiden series. Although it might not look like one at first, it is obvious enough to still count as one Lightning Gun from the way it creates patterns similar to lightning while locking on multiple targets.
While there are no guns in the Zelda series, in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword's final boss fight the Skyward Strike electrifies your sword, allowing you to attack the boss with a beam of electricity.
While it's described as a "cattle prod", the Hammer in Parasite Eve 2 is an attachment for the M 4 A 1 that fires a lightning-like archs of electricity. Its primary purpose is to stun enemies and knock them down, though it can kill enemies with low HP.
Emitter weapons in Sword of the Stars. They can arc to hit a second enemy ship (making them very useful against armadas). They also make fantastic point defense weapons.
Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project features an unlockable Lightning Gun as the most powerful weapon in the game. It actually seems to draw lightning down from the sky, and hitting it once will instantly reduce any enemy on screen into bloody chunks.
Total Annihilation, but it's a rather rare weapon, only used by two units (the Zeus and Panther).
Used by Creonite construction units in Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, described as a 'taser'. Lightning is also used by the other sides as a weapon, but there it's magical in origin.
"Shock" magic tends to work like this in The Elder Scrolls. In Morrowind, though, the graphics look more like your spell causes lightning to strike the target from thin air, rather than shooting lightning.
The Plasma Gun weapons of Mega Man Star Force work this way, as does the Thunder Zerker form's paralysing charged shot.
The Ion Disruptor from the X-Universe. The Flavor Text justifies it by having it first fire a stream of ions at the target, then firing the main blast. What's left unexplained is how it can jump from its initial target to any other nearby object. This includes shrapnel from the otherwise near-useless Cluster Flak Array point-defense gun; ionized flak is a decent loadout, though heavily prone to friendly fire.
Netstorm has Thunder Cannons, which fire discrete "chunks" of lightning, and Vander Towers which zap any airborne units that get too close.
In Toaplan's Shoot Em UpsTruxton and Batsugun, the weapon selections include a lightning laser cannon.
Arcanum lets you upgrade your Shocking Staff into ball-lightning shooting Tesla Rod. Which can then be mashed together with a sniper rifle to produce even more powerful Tesla Gun. For those who favor magic, there's Force school, which allows you to shoot classical lightning bolts and ball lightnings that can desintegrate pretty much anything in the game.
After completing a colossal amount of research while playing as Eden in Outpost 2, you eventually unlock the Thor's Hammer turret, a slow-firing, artificial lightning cannon available on both static defensive structures and the almighty, twin-linked Tiger vehicle chassis.
In Star Wars: The Old Republic, Republic Troopers (especially the Vanguard sub-class) can use several lightning attacks from their all-purpose guns.
Gilgamesh Wulfenbach in Girl Genius has one, and it's been a Chekhov's Gun. And he has used it (in conjunction with other devices) to call down lightning. It does need to generate static electricity to work, so it's not quite a straight example.
This scene is more like a variant of Kill Sat than a Lightning Gun - calling down lightning from an existing storm by building a massive positive charge at the desired target sites, using a remote control for massive machines built into the city. Awesome, though. The later use of his hand-held scepter is closer to the "classic" Lightning Gun.
In TaleSpin's Five-Episode Pilot, it's noted that the Air Pirates have been recently raiding cargo planes for bizarre things like fishbowls and other assorted items while leaving behind valuables; one of these is the red crystal that the pilot's plotline revolves around, a seemingly worthless stone that turns out to actually be a tiny electrical generator. Eventually, someone puts together all the clues and realizes that Don Karnage is using the stolen supplies to build a Lightning Gun, but it's too late to stop the Iron Vulture from attacking Cape Suzette with it.
"Superboy's Strangest Foe". Two aliens use lightning pistols to destroy a railroad trestle.
Master firebenders in Avatar: The Last Airbender , such as Iroh, Azula, and Firelord Ozai don't use actual guns, but fire off lightning bolts in a very similar fashion. Zuko, Aang, and Iroh can also catch lightning and redirect it. The "physics" behind it - separating negative and positive ki - is very reminiscent of polarizing the air or targets as several above weapons do.
Cartoon Network Groovies episode "Jabberjaw". At one point the villain slithers toward the heroes firing a weapon that shoots bolts of electricity.
The electrolaser design has the potential to scale right up. Making an ionised beam of air a significant length just by blasting away with a laser is possible, but currently impractical due to power requirements. On the other hand, the world of nonlinear optics brings up the phenomenon of 'light filamentation', a high intensity pulse of light that generates a long, thin trail of plasma. Possible applications suggested by the discoverers include triggering lightning discharges.
An electron beam that could be considered close to a lightning gun — which would make every functioning vacuum tube in existence a little lightning factory.
It can generate a lightning on shutdown, if the transferred charge cracks back through a path of conveniently ionized air.
Relativistic electron beams self focus in air. This means that if combined with an electrolaser type system to aim them, you could make a long range and highly accurate lightning weapon that would also produce a hazardous amount of beta radiation (so you wouldn't want to hold one if you weren't very well armoured).
Doesn't exactly shoot lightning but the word Taser is actually an acronym for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.
Close contact tasers will arc electricity across the electrodes, so it's kind of like a lightning gun. A ridiculously short range lightning gun.
Steve Ward has an excellent showpiece of lightning gun technology on his Flikr account, which can be found by googling his name.note Due to legal requests on his Flickr, please do not use his photographs or link without permission.
Staci Elaan also has a portable lightning gun built on the chassis of an 18V Ryobi circular saw, using 18V/250W of input power she can discharge the weapon approximately 2 Feet; it can also be plasma modulated to play chip tunes.