Why TASERs Don't Work

"We had to shoot the suspect because the TASERĀ® 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.

Okay, that's probably more detail than you need or want, but it's important to understand that without the circuit being completed, the energy cannot flow. In order to get the incapacitating effect of the TASER, you need to have three things: A complete circuit, adequate probe spread and sufficient flowing energy. Otherwise, all you get is pain--and while that might get a reaction from your target, it won't necessarily prevent them from doing whatever harmful act you were trying to prevent.

Probe spread needs to be at least four inches. Since the probes spread out farther as they go downrange (at an eight degree angle), as long as your target is more than three or four feet away from you, you'll get adequate probe spread. If the probes are too close together when they impact the target, there won't be enough body mass completing the circuit for neuromuscular incapacitation to occur. Again, there will be a painful effect, but probably little incapacitation.

Finally, there needs to be sufficient energy moving through the circuit. This is where a lot of people get confused over the whole voltage/amperage thing. TASERs can develop up to 50,000 volts, but that has nothing to do with the energy level moving through the wires. The voltage only serves to "push" the energy, and the 50,000 volts are enough pressure to assure that the electricity can arc across a gap of approximately two inches. This is important, since you can't always count on your probes sticking in the skin of your target. They might get hung up in his clothing. But as long as they are within two inches of his skin surface, the energy can arc across the gap (pushed by the 50,000 volts) and complete the circuit.

If the probes actually do contact the skin, and there is no gap to arc across, the 50,000 volts never develops. Actually, about 1,200 volts contact the target's body.

The amperage is very low--about 2.1 milliamps from the X26. That's enough to incapacitate, but is well below any danger threshold.

The energy from a TASER is delivered in pulses, and the number of pulses has much to do with the incapacitating effect. In the older M26 TASER, if the batteries began to run down, the pulse rate would slow down. If it got slow enough, the target individual would be less likely to be incapacitated. One of the advantages of the X26 TASER is that the pulse rate is digitally controlled at a steady 19 pulses per second.

So--Why Don't TASERs Work?

TASERs do work. However, a TASER deployment can sometimes be rendered ineffective for certain reasons. The most common reason that a TASER deployment might fail is lack of a circuit. If you miss with one or both of the probes, there will be no circuit. If a wire breaks or a probe is pulled loose during a struggle, no circuit. If there is a "clothing disconnect," i.e. one or both probes getting hung up in the target's clothing, more than two inches from the skin surface, no circuit.

You can usually immediately tell when any of these events occur. Your target may be reacting to the pain of the TASER hit, but may still be fighting. Note the sound the TASER makes while it is cycling. If it emits a loud clacking sound, there is an inadequate circuit. When a TASER circuit is complete, and incapacitating energy is being delivered into a target, the cycling sound will be much quieter.

Sometimes there may be a good circuit, but as the subject moves around, his clothing falls away from his body (especially true if he is wearing an unzipped coat or jacket). When that happens, the circuit will be broken, and incapacitation will be lost.

What to do?

If an officer is faced with one of these partial or broken circuit situations, the simplest solution may be to reload with a fresh cartridge, and try again. Absent that, and if the subject is close enough, the officer can push the TASER into contact anywhere on the subject's body. This will create a "three-point" contact, wherein the single probe hit and the TASER itself make up the two contact sites for the incapacitating circuit.

Officers should be reminded that even if they are in contact with the subject during such a maneuver, as long as they are not grasping the individual between the contact sites, they are unlikely to get any effect from the TASER.

Keep in mind that TASERs, just like any other weapon option, are things. They're not magic. They have to be thoughtfully and properly deployed in order to get the desired effect. It's not the fault of the TASER if you miss when you pull the trigger. The TASER can't do its job unless you help it to. In this regard it's just like your firearm or your baton or OC spray. The success of any weapon usage is mainly dependent upon the skill and knowledge of the operator.

Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)