ray gun n.

a (typically) hand-held device that emits rays, esp. destructive or harmful ones; cf. slightly earlier ray projector n.

Now typically regarded as characteristic of early or unsophisticated science fiction.

SF Encyclopedia


  • [1916 Motion Picture News 8 July 86/2 page image

    Director Frank Lloyd is filming ‘The Intrigue’, which stars Lenore Ulrich, in the role of a government spy. An American inventing an x-ray gun, operated by wireless, whose proposition is turned down by the government, interests another nation in the purchase of his invention. ]

  • 1917 ‘V. Rousseau’ Messiah of the Cylinder in Everybody’s Magazine July 73/2 Victor Rousseau bibliography

    There must have been more than a hundred of them, ranging from tiny scout-planes to huge monsters with glow shields round them and projecting conical ray-guns within.

  • 1917 ‘V. Rousseau’ Messiah of the Cylinder xxv. 292 Victor Rousseau bibliography

    From the conical Ray guns on the enclosing walls swept sheets of blinding flame.

  • 1923 Mansfield (Ohio) News 28 Nov. 17 (caption)

    Artist’s conception of the details of the monster dirigible, equipped with landing deck, ‘ray’ guns, radio room and extensive quarters for the crew.

  • 1930 E. E. Repp Red Dimension in Science Wonder Stories Jan. 701/2 page image Ed Earl Repp bibliography

    Then I saw the upright being lift his ray-gun. The reddish yellow ray seemed to bite into the depths of my eyes.

  • 1930 J. W. Campbell Black Star Passes in Amazing Stories Quarterly Fall 505/2 page image John W. Campbell, Jr. bibliography

    Soon they saw a hand reaching out with a ray gun; then another hand with a different ray gun, from behind the silent engine; a sudden crash of metal, a groan and quiet.

  • 1931 M. W. Wellman Disc-Men of Jupiter in Wonder Stories Sept. 541/2 page image Manly Wade Wellman bibliography

    ‘I wish I had a ray-gun!’ gritted out Duvelskoe, shaking his fist at the uncanny things outside.

  • 1948 A. E. van Vogt Monster in Astounding Science-Fiction Aug. 59/1 page image A. E. van Vogt bibliography

    The two-legged monster dissolved, writhing, in the beam of a ray gun.

  • 1951 M. Gibbs Letter in Marvel Science Stories May 128/1 page image

    Let’s see yarns about vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and other assorted spooks, as well as ray guns, six-headed Martians, galactic wars, and warp drives.

  • 1961 R. G. Brown Of All Possible Worlds in Fantasy and Science Fiction Feb. 51/1 page image Rosel George Brown bibliography

    [A]n explorer can take nothing but his body and mind in a windowless monad. That is the challenge of the job. And, in a way, it makes things easier. You do not find yourself looking at a crystal picturama and longing for home, or strapping on a ray gun and feeling superior to the natives. It is not possible to play God. There is no temptation to offer colored beads. You have nothing to offer but yourself. So you try to make that good.

  • 1969 S. Smith Letter in Fantastic Dec. 143/2 page image

    I can see why most sf magazines wouldn’t want it. No rocketships. No ray guns. No alien menaces.

  • 1987 N. Spinrad Little Heroes (1989) 262 Norman Spinrad

    Like some unseen max metal gunfighter laughing as he fired his rayguns at her feet for the evil pleasure of making her dance.

  • 1994 Science Fiction Age July 37/2

    The Air Force guys never quite figured out the trick of making an effective raygun.

  • 2001 Locus June 70/2

    Worlds are colonized, civilisations fall, rayguns are used—but…Alastair Reynolds is playing a more complex game… He is taking the stuff of space opera and remaking it into something new—something that doesn’t eschew the pulpish romanticism of space opera’s roots, but seeks to transform it into romanticism better suited to modern science fiction.

  • 2017 SFX Magazine (#283) Mar. 62/1 page image

    I liked the ray guns and the robots and the rockets and all of that stuff.

Research requirements

antedating 1917

Earliest cite

Victor Rousseau

Research History
Cory Panshin located a usage in a reprint of E.E. Smith's "Skylark Three"; but Mike Christie discovered that this usage is not in the original 1930 magazine version.
Cory Panshin submitted a cite from a 1947 reprint of Manly Wade Wellman's 1931 "The Disc-Men of Jupiter"; Jesse Sheidlower confirmed it in the original version in Wonder Stories.
Andrew May submitted a 1930 cite from John Campbell's "The Black Star Passes".
Fred Galvin submitted a cite from a 1945 reprint of "The Red Dimension" by Ed Earl Repp: this was originally published earlier in 1930 than the Campbell cite, and Jesse Sheidlower verified it in the first publication (Science Wonder Stories, January, 1930).
The OED found a 1923 example in a newspaper database.
Jesse Sheidlower submitted 1917 cites from Victor Rousseau's "Messiah of the Cylinder", both the (slightly earlier) serialization and the novel itself.
Bill Mullins submitted a 1916 cite for the form "x-ray gun".
Ben Ostrowsky submitted a 1961 cite from Rosel George Brown.

(Earliest cite in the OED: originally 1931; later updated to 1923)

Last modified 2022-08-17 18:48:02
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.