Can a Stun Gun Knock Someone Unconscious: The Shocking Truth


It’s practically a cliche. A mysterious stranger emerges from the shadow, applies crackling electrodes to the neck of the protagonist who drops like a stone inert and oblivious, to be carried away for plot advancement. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Total Hollywood nonsense. But, can a stun gun knock someone unconscious?

No. Not when it’s used as intended, and frankly; misusing one is difficult and dangerous. The short space between the probes keeps the direct electrical action of the stun gun localized to a few muscles. It’s those muscles interaction on other nearby muscles and the brief disruption of neural feedback that causes confusion and disorientation.

To understand the reason for that, it only takes a short excursion into the basic physics of electricity and it’s effects of electricity on the human body. The brain is an electrochemical switchboard that monitors the network of nerves throughout the body. It receives input from the body’s sensory network and controls the conscious and unconscious systems of the body.

What are the Effects of Using a Stun Gun on the Attacker?

For example, you reach out and touch a candle. Nerves in your hand send a “PAIN!” sensory signal to the brain, which sends “Get away from that!” response to the muscles. (Actually, response to touching a flame becomes a reflex as soon as you’ve done it once. When it happens again, you’ll snatch your hand back before you even feel the pain.)

So, while a stun gun won’t knock someone out; It’s one of a number of options that will disable an attacker long enough to effect a potential escape. There is a strange and somewhat unintuitive relationship between the high voltage and low current encountered in a typical stun gun and it’s effect on humans. The electrical impulses of the brain are affected by the electrical output of a stun gun. The higher the voltage, the higher the pain experienced, but it’s the current that makes the shock dangerous.

Voltage is analogous to pressure in a system of pipes or a stream where water flows. Current is the flow of electricity, just as current is the flow of water. Consider the weak stream of a water pistol, vs the onslaught of a firehose. Electrical current is measured in amperes, (shortened to “amps,” or “a”.) At 1ma, (that is, “milliamp” one-thousandth of an amp) you can barely feel the flow of current. Over 10 ma, current starts to have effects of paralysis over muscles.

Depending on the path of the electric current, the heart can stop, lungs stop working, or control of the muscles in your hand lost so that you can’t let go. Four ma tends to be the high value (or close to it.) of the output of a stun gun. Situations resulting in death by electrocution usually involve a grounded body, or the path of electricity crossing the heart or lungs, causing paralysis. The electrical path of a stun gun does not ground the body.

Ridiculous claims are often made about the voltage output of a stun gun–Sometimes as high as a million volts or more. It takes just about three thousand volts for electricity to arc across a millimeter of open air, and therefore about thirty thousand for a sustained spark to leap across the centimeter separation of a typical pair of stun gun probes. Manufacturers get away with these claims because most people don’t have the knowledge, equipment, or nerve, to actually test it. It’s actually fairly simple to make the test with a high voltage source and a spark gap made of a pair of screws. But please don’t try this at home kiddies. It’s better to rely on trusted manufacturers and their posted specifications.

Typically, the effect of being struck by a stun gun is confined to the small area between the electrodes. This causes the muscles in that vicinity to spasm, causing pain and loss of muscle control in the immediate area. The contraction due to the spasms of the muscles caused by the disrupting current has a cascading effect on other muscles in the area which is what causes the debilitating effects of the stun gun. Since the area directly affected by electricity is small and not through the brain, it doesn’t have any effect on consciousness.

Likewise, the short distance between the electrodes of a stun gun keeps it from shocking the wielder if they happen to contact the victim. Should the electrical impulse of a stun gun be applied across the heart, it could potentially be dangerous and cause issues such as arrhythmia (erratic heartbeat) that can be life-threatening. But due to the way the electrical probes are applied to a confined area, this is unlikely. Sustained application of the probes could cause burns in the vicinity of the probes and the loss of muscle control has been known to cause involuntary urination. But barring a fall and strike to the head, stun guns don’t knock people unconscious.

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Are Stun Guns Legal?

Stun guns are legal in Puerto Rico and most states. They are illegal in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, New York, Massachusettes, and Rhode Island. They are illegal in the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Baltimore County, Maryland. Also in Chicago Illinois, and Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Some states have ID and licensing requirements so, most certainly check your state and local laws.


Other Options?

There are similar electrical weapons. The cattle probe was invented in the nineteenth century. Its design is similar to the stun gun in that it has a pair of probes to apply an electrical shock to the skin of an animal–In this case a cow. Stun guns are vaguely pistol handle shaped with two short probes. They don’t actually “shoot” anything. Cattle probes are generally one to six feet long and provide a lower voltage shock that shocks animals with a lower voltage to convince the cow to move along. Stun guns, as discussed, temporarily disable an attacker from disruption of muscle control.

The term “stun gun” is something of a misnomer. Stun guns are actually up-close-and-personal weapons for hand to hand combat. They don’t actually “shoot” anything. Which brings up yet another device that shares technology with a stun gun. The taser uses springs or compressed gas, to fire a pair of tethered electrodes with barbed probes. The tethers are a pair of wires about 10 feet long. The barbs help ensure the probes catch on the skin or clothing. Electrictrical shocks of similar characteristics are sent via repeatedly pushing the trigger or a button near the trigger.

If one or both probes fail to catch on the attackers clothing or skin, the electrical circuit is not completed and the taser will not work. However, due to the possibility of the probes catching in distant locations across an assailant’s torso, it’s somewhat more likely for the probes to stick in locations that could potentially send the electrical stream across the assailant’s heart. While not an electrical weapon, pocketable pepper spray dispensers possess arguably more stopping power than a stun gun. The chemicals cause irresistible irritation and pain (that remains) to the eyes and skin that lasts until it’s been washed away.

Final Thoughts

Before deciding on a non-lethal weapon for personal defense, do your research. Prices vary widely, and consumer review sites are full of people just dying to tell you their experiences. Not to mention, laws change all the time. So, all things considered, it’s highly unlikely that a stun gun will knock someone unconscious. This is one of the reasons that stun guns are generally accepted by law enforcement as an acceptable defensive weapon. A stun gun knocking someone out would likely involve the victims head striking some hard object on his way down.

True, the same electrical stimulus applied across the brain, heart, or lungs, would likely have that effect due to the loss of muscle control because of the interruption of the brains’ instructions to keep pumping, or breathing, but stun guns are built to localize the electrical effect and keep that sort of thing from happening.

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