A HERF gun, or an otherwise-nicknamed personal electromagnetic device, is the fantasy weapon of anti-government drone-haters and corporate saboteurs. As in William Gibson’s Zero History:
Bigend was telling a story…about someone using something called a “herf” gun, high-energy radio frequency, in Moscow, to erase someone else’s stored data, in a drive in an adjacent building…
The herf gun, he was explaining now, the electromagnetic radiation device, was the size of a backpack, putting out a sixteen megawatt pulse, and she suddenly found herself afraid, boys being boys, of some punch-line involving accidentally baked internal organs.
In the mind of the aspiring perpetrator, a HERF gun would be something like a ghostbuster’s proton pack that emits pulses of electromagnetic waves that can fry electronic devices. Discussion of personal EMP devices are disturbingly common on white supremacist and anti-government militia message boards, members clutching the idea of an off-the-shelf ray gun that could disrupt the workings of federal surveillance or attack drones without detection.
Larger, more extreme Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons are also a common boogeyman among doomsday planners, many of whom are certain a massive version of such a device will zap a nation back into the Stone Age, thereby justifying their unhealthy obsessions with melee weapons and dehydrated food.
Is this kind of thing really out there? Or at the very least, is it something you can wear in a backpack for homespun destruction?
Yes and no.
Electromagnetic radiation can and does fuck up electronic devices. An easy way to test this fact that you absolutely should never do is to simply toss your iPhone into the microwave for a few minutes. An EMP device sounds pretty sci-fi, but really they have been warming up leftovers on countertops since 1967. Electromagnetic radiation exists in all kinds of applications along a wide spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays, and can have varying effects on all sorts of matter, from machinery and biology.
Employing electromagnetic waves, including high-energy radio frequency, as a weapon large or small is more complicated. Probably the most commonly feared and portrayed-in-movies version of such a weapon is the high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) device. This is when a nuclear weapon is detonated at high altitude, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse sends power surges and scrambles electronics below. This is the doomsday scenario. A crude nuclear blast high above the United States sends us back to the Dark Age and we have to defend our families using panic rooms and homemade catapults.
As for personal devices, the so-called HERF gun, this too is based in reality, but the severity of the pulse that smaller versions can generate (at least on a sampling of several YouTube videos) is pretty limited. The idea is similar to an EMP, but the radiation is directed in one location to create a surge of voltage in electronics. In most cases it’s enough at a few yards away to mess up the time on a digital clock. But it is pretty basic, and most makers just turn the parts of an old microwave into a device that directs the microwaves (so not technically HERF) in a certain direction. So while it’s definitely possible a handheld HERF gun could destroy electronics, the power source needs to be very large, and there doesn’t seem to be any documented cases.
When the development leaves the garage, however, things can get pretty serious. For example, in 2010, the United States Air Force put a call out for a device that could, nonviolently, stop a car in its tracks. Canadian company Flight International reportedly created a suitcase-sized, 50-lb device that, from up to 656 meters away, could stop a car by disabling the electronics in the engine. It takes advantage of microprocessors that modern cars need to function, so wouldn’t work on an older car.
Clearly, the home uses are less frightening, but in the hands of those in power, like most things, the threat gets more realistic. For example, weapons manufacturers have experimented with technology that uses high-energy waves on human biology.
For example, Raytheon created a jeep-mounted weapon that fires a beam of energy from long distance, giving the sensation of heat on skin, first just warmth and eventually the feeling of being on fire. It’s not in use, but police departments and military have explored using it for crowd dispersal.
Certain frequencies can also manufacture feelings of confusion, dread, anxiety or intense drowsiness. And, as suggested in Zero History, the burny-nervous-sleepy rays can go right through walls.
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