"We had to shoot the suspect because the TASER® didn't work."
"Officers deployed a TASER which was ineffective. Ultimately, an officer had to use deadly force."
"After a prolonged fight, several officers were required to get the suspect under control. Two shots from a TASER proved to be ineffective."
These are headlines and statements that we have all read in newspaper accounts and police reports. Why don't TASERs work?
These examples have something in common: They each greatly oversimplify what occurred. Whenever a particular tool, weapon or technique doesn't have the expected effect, we commonly dismiss it as "not working". But what does that mean? If we're going to spend hundreds of dollars for a weapon, shouldn't we be able to rely on it to function the way it is supposed to?
The issue is rarely that simple. In most cases, a TASER--or another weapon for that matter--works just fine. It just doesn't have the anticipated effect, for whatever reason.
How a TASER Works
When you pull the trigger on your TASER, you are attempting to create an electrical circuit. In that sense, it's very much like any other electrical device. Flip a light switch on your wall, and the ceiling light comes on. By closing the switch, you have completed a circuit, and allowed energy to flow from its source through the switch, to the light bulb. If the circuit is broken for any reason (like a blown fuse, or a burned out bulb), the light goes out because the circuit is no longer complete.
That sounds really simple, and it is. We forget it often, though, under the stress of an encounter.
So, pulling the trigger on a TASER causes electrical energy to flow. Without getting into a lot of the details of what occurs inside the guts of the TASER, just realize that at some point the electrical "flow" will travel outward along its path to the cartridge on the front of the TASER, and that energy will cause the cartridge to deploy its probes.
Let's figure out how this process occurs. Start by making sure your TASER is safe to handle, i.e. remove the cartridge and make sure the switch, or safety, is in the down and unarmed position. Now, look at the front of your TASER (we're using an X26 here, since its more advanced technology, and is in more common use than the M26. However, most of what follows also applies to the M26.). You will see that there are two metal contacts on the front. When you pull the trigger, notice that the electricity "arcs" across from one contact to the other. That completes the circuit. Of course, you know to keep your hands or other body parts away from the front of the TASER when you do that, since the electricity could shock you.
What you are witnessing is the arcing of the electricity as it tries to find a path to complete the circuit. Notice how the arcing moves around in a seemingly random fashion. The distance between the metal contacts is approximately 40 millimeters. You should also note the loud noise that the TASER makes during this arcing.
Now, look at a TASER cartridge (Don't put it on the weapon, just look at it!). At the back of the cartridge you'll see two metal contacts that are situated so as to line up with the contacts on the front of the TASER. These are connected to the electrodes on the front, outer edges of the cartridge.
So, you can see that if the TASER is fired without a cartridge in place, the energy arcs across the front of the weapon, but if a cartridge is loaded, the energy is picked up by the cartridge's contacts, and travels along the electrodes to the front of the cartridge, where it then travels across the front of the cartridge.
Again, without digging too deeply into the technology, the energy that passes through the front of the cartridge causes the cartridge to deploy its probes, which remain connected to the cartridge via thin wires. Now there is energy flowing along the wires, looking to complete a circuit at the far end. If you are fortunate enough to get both probes into your target, that circuit is completed, and energy flows between the probes. In effect, the body of your target suspect functions like a big fuse or switch, closing the circuit.