Sonic Stunner

"Well, it projects two parallel unidirectional, high-amplitude VHF audio streams, with slightly differing frequencies. When those streams intersect a target, a high amplitude difference-tone is generated in the body of the target. This low-frequency tone interferes with the target's synaptic refresh, effectively jamming the nervous system and rendering the target instantly unconscious. (Beat) It's a magic sleep gun."

A nonlethal technological counterpart of Make Me Wanna Shout, this is one of the stock weapons of genre SF literature. A subtrope of Stun Gun, it has very consistent traits:

  • It's a small, quiet, low-power weapon, used like a pistol and readily concealable.
  • Fires focused infrasound or ultrasound
  • Usually does no damage to inanimate objects, but if plot-convenient may shatter crystal or damage delicate electronics.
  • It is nonlethal, but it knocks you unconscious. A near miss may induce partial paralysis or a pins-and-needles sensation.
  • When you wake up hours later, you will probably have one or more of: pins-and-needles, a violent headache, nausea, muscle aches. This side effect is commonly called stun shock or stun sickness.
  • It's a short range weapon, with the effect blocked by walls and heavy furniture.
  • Stunners are often available even in societies with hard controls on lethal weapons.

In genre SF after the mid-1950s, anything called a stunner or stun gun without qualification probably has the performance traits and role of a sonic stunner. Earlier stunners in genre SF were Static Stun Guns. One functional difference is that sonic stunners are more likely to have stunner-sickness aftereffects.

In theory a device that works using beams of focused sound ought to allow for bank shots off any sufficiently hard, flat surface, including accidental self-stunning if the reflection hits the shooter. The problem is worsened by the fact that a right-angled reflector (like the corner of a room) will always reflect the beam back the way it came. In practice this never seems to happen.

This trope isn't as common in visual media, which favors more lethal and flashier weapons (and thus the visually more interesting Static Stun Gun). When you do see a sonic stunner in film or TV, it tends to be something of a subtle Shout-Out by writers making a point of their genre-SF roots.

Not to be confused with the sonic screwdriver, which is a tool rather than a weapon.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Naruto several ninja from the Sound Village use abilities with these effects such as Dosu's Melody Arm and Kin's bells. Kabuto has a jutsu that combines this with a bright shining light blinding and disorienting enemies at the same time.
  • Sailor Moon: A less used secondary power, Sailor Moon can cry to the point where it becomes ultrasonic waves, shattering glass, stunning enemies and rendering weaker ones unconscious. Since her odango barrettes glow when she does this, its ambiguous whether the power is a function of her Hair Decorations, or inherently hers.

  • "Police Operation", H. Beam Piper, 1948: "ultrasonic paralyzers", described as 18-inch wands with bulbous ends. The effect is unreliable and it is implied there is no stun shock.
  • "Null ABC", H. Beam Piper and John Joseph McGuire, 1953: describes a "sono-gun"; the victims will wake up with headaches.
  • In Randall Garret's 1954 story "The Hunting Lodge", the weapon has a "supersonic whistle" in its barrel and the protagonist describes stun shock. This is probably the Trope Codifier,
  • Sonic stunners feature in Larry Niven's Known Space universe, from 1964 onwards. The stories include several references to "dueling stunners", and in one the stun sound is amplified through speakers to knock out everyone on a space station.
  • And in Frank Herbert's Dune and sequels, from 1965 onwards
  • And in Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories, from 1986 onwards. Bujold's characters joke about "stunner tag" in a way that suggests it has become an almost ritualized substitute for more lethal confrontations. Stun shock is definite with these.
  • In The League of Peoples Verse, sonic stunners are the standard weapon carried by Explorers, as lethal weapons are prohibited by the League. They are supposed to cause six hours of unconsciousness, but in practice their effects vary wildly from species to species.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe features sonic weapons capable of both stunning (by deafening and disrupting equilibrium) and killing (by making things shatter).
    • Choices of One has Mara Jade use a "sonic", a disk that she presses against the throat of a stormtrooper to knock him out.
  • In the Steam Punk world of Boneshaker, Dr. Minnerichtís Doozy Dazer can stun rotters for about three minutes.

  • Iron Man has Stane using a small device twice. It emits a high-pitched sound that paralyzes anyone not wearing special ear protection. He specifically states that it has many uses despite Tony refusing to sell it to the military.

    Live Action TV 
  • Sonic stunners are standard-issue Alliance subdual weapons in Firefly. You can see them in action in "Ariel" (though they do nothing to blast open a locked door, to Jayne's dismay) and in "Trash".
  • The Tekwar Made For TV Movies and short-lived TV series had non-lethal "pulse guns" - these were the only weapons the ex-con protagonist was legally permitted to carry. Notably, they used the same cheap special effect as Babylon 5 - the "pulses" fired heat shimmer-like distortions.
  • JAG: The other method used by the UFO in "Sightings" to subdue and intimidate people.
  • Quinn builds an unreliable sonic stun bomb in Zoey 101.

    Tabletop Game 
  • Stutter weapons are used in Alternity's Star*Drive setting. They deal very high subdual damage but have poor performance against armor. (They also presumably don't work in a vacuum.)


    Real Life 
  • In real life, the term "stun gun" is used for Taser-like electric-shock weapons. SF use of the term predates these by decades, and almost certainly influenced the marketing of these devices.
  • Infrasound (sound waves below 20Hz in frequency) genuinely produces some odd physiological effects. According to That Other Wiki, it may trigger feelings of awe or fear in humans, and it has been observed to cause difficulties in breathing and digestion in humans and animals.
    • The nausea and headaches associated with this trope are real physiological side-effects of exposure to intense infrasound.
  • The Flashbang grenade, which as the name suggests, works by simultaneously creating a blinding flash and a deafening bang upon explosion to stun unprotected people within the area.
  • The pistol shrimp utilizes a large asymmetrical claw as one of these. Snapped faster then a man can blink, the resulting cavitation produces a pressure wave measured in dozens of atmospheres, capable of killing small fish, and stunning larger ones. It's also handy for long distance communication.
  • The Sperm Whale can stun a Giant Squid with its echolocation, which is released not by its mouth, but the large forehead area. No wonder those things were so huge.