Chinese scientists claim to have built a laser rifle, the ZKZM-500, that can fire 1,000 shots on a single charge and is effective up to half a mile (800 meters). According to reports, the weapon is generally nonlethal, but inflicts an unbearable burning sensation and can set fire to hair, clothing, and other flammable targets.
According to ZKZM Laser, the company that built the rifle, its product uses lithium-ion batteries that charge within hours and are man-portable. It creates no sound when fired, and its beam is invisible. At about six and a half pounds (3kg), the ZKZM-500 is about the same weight as an AK-47 assault rifle.
Skeptics have doubted whether the company actually has the technology required to build and mass-produce a weapon with the claimed capabilities.
On July 3, The Drive published an article entitled No, China Hasn’t Built A Laser Assault Rifle That Can ‘Carbonize’ People, responding to ZKZM Laser’s claim about the effects of the two-second-long bursts the rifle fires.
In the article, it was noted that other laser rifles recently put in service with the Chinese military and police have much less impressive — though still potent — capabilities. These range from causing disorientation in the targeted individual or causing temporary blindness. In May, the Pentagon accused the Chinese of using military lasers to blind American pilots as they flew to and from a U.S. base in Djibouti.
To refute the skeptics, ZKZM Laser — which is owned by the state-run Xi’an Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics and is based in the city of Xi’an — released footage of what it said were tests conducted in May.
The video shows a man firing the ZKZM-500 across a rooftop at paper targets and T-shirts. The cameraman walks over to the targets, which are seen to have been burned and smoldering.
ZKZM Laser did concede that the laser beam is affected by weather and air conditions, which could reduce its range and effectiveness.
If the ZKZM-500 performs as advertised, it could be used to equip Chinese special forces and police. The rifle would be useful in crowd control — a common task, given the high incidence of mass demonstrations that occur across China on a daily basis — without as much negative publicity as is caused by beating or shooting protesters.
Special forces could use the weapon’s silence and invisible beam to make surprise attacks on flammable targets or to destroy sensitive equipment. Later versions of the laser may be able to take down drones.
Various laser weapons have been in development by different governments for decades. In the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet militaries had programs to build lasers based on aircraft and satellites that could be used to destroy airborne targets, such as nuclear warheads in flight. But these expensive projects bore little fruit.
And as with legged mecha-style vehicles or powered armor, laser weapons have often run into limitations due to the difficulty of developing a portable and practical power source.
In 2009, the U.S. government built a handheld laser gun that was only powerful enough to affect the bare skin, making it useful only on nudists, according to reports.
But in 2015, the Chinese government announced an investment of 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) into developing compact man-portable lasers.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that according to Wang Zhimin, a researcher in Beijing, recent technological developments made it possible for scientists to miniaturize laser weapons the same way that cell phones had been.
“This is no longer science fiction. They are already a fact of life,” Wang told the SCMP.