In the mid to late 1980s, an interesting and seemingly revolutionary less-lethal control device entered the law enforcement scene. It was the Nova Stun XR5000: a compact, lightweight electronic stun gun. And it was touted as being capable of incapacitating violent, resistive suspects by providing a 50,000-volt shock. However, it wasn’t long before word got around that the Nova XR5000 stun gun lacked effectiveness. TASERs, though developed in the 70s, weren’t introduced to law enforcement until the 1990s. There are still a variety of stun guns and TASERs on the market. What are the major differences, and how do you choose which is right for you?

Contact Stun Devices

Any contact stun device, such as the Nova XR5000, passes an electrical current between two electrodes at the end of the device. In order to deliver the current to a resisting suspect, the electrodes have to be in contact with the suspect. According to the original Nova XR5000 instructions, the electrodes had to be held in place against the suspect’s solar plexus for 3 to 5 seconds to cause incapacitation.

But if someone comes at me with a stun gun, I’m not going to just stand still and allow it to be pressed against me without a fight. Neither would criminals trying to avoid jail time. Without additional officers to pin a suspect to the ground, this stun gun couldn’t deliver the necessary electricity to incapacitate. And the required time on target isn’t the only problem in terms of contact stun gun effectiveness.

The distance between the two electrodes on the Nova XR5000 is only 2 inches. That’s the maximum distance the electricity travels when the switch is activated. The visible warning arc travels ¾ of an inch. At best, the current doesn’t penetrate any deeper into the skin than the 1/8 inch of the probes, so muscles aren’t affected. As such, a contact stun gun is only effective to the point the receiver feels enough pain to be compliant.

According to deputies who used the stun gun, it wasn’t incapacitating suspects. What they did see was suspects getting angry and fighting even harder, especially those who were inebriated. After only two years in the field, the NOVAs were withdrawn from service, eventually to be replaced by the far more effective TASER.

Civilian Use

Contact stun devices designed for civilian use still have some merit. In February 2021, I tested the Five Million Volt Night Watchman Flashlight/Stun Baton from Bud K. It has a very high degree of intimidation when you activate it because the electric arc is VERY loud and very bright. Less committed attackers, including most dogs, fear electricity and don’t want to be shocked. The solidly built Night Watchman doubles as an impact weapon and a flashlight, making it a great walking companion. It is priced around $40. Like all contact stun guns, the Night Watchman won’t cause incapacitation. But the extended length increases usability due to being able to keep attackers at a distance. If you select a contact stun device, stay away from tiny products that are disguised as something else.


The primary difference between a TASER and a contact stun gun is the distance at which they can be used. The TASER shoots two darts, or probes, like miniature harpoons. These are connected by thin wire back to the TASER cartridge. The current is transported down the wire and can, in fact, cause incapacitation. But there is a big if.

The effective practical range for civilian devices is between 10 to 12 feet, depending on the device. This gives a probe spread of about 12 to 15 inches for the electricity to course through. The probes deliver the electrical current into the muscles, causing them to lock or twitch. The back, thighs and buttocks are the ideal target area as they have the most muscle mass. And the TASER current actually pulses, which compounds the effect. But if the probes impact too closely together, the incapacitation effect becomes limited.

I’ve deployed TASERs during arrest and control classes over the years on a couple hundred police cadets who volunteered to receive the full five-second law enforcement exposure. Some civilian TASER models run for 30 seconds to allow time for victims to get away. The tests were conducted in a gymnasium under tightly controlled conditions, against cadets wearing gym shorts and T-shirts. Under those conditions, the TASER never failed to incapacitate the cadets for the full five seconds of the exposure. Recovery after exposure was immediate.

Important to keep in mind, the TASER isn’t deployed under those ideal conditions in real life. Just like with any weapon — even firearms — TASER’s effectiveness degrades under real-life conditions, which are far less orderly than those during training.

Even if the probes fail to hit the intended target area, you can still use the TASER as a contact stun gun after firing the probes.

Civilian Use

Today, there are seven different TASER models available for civilian purchase, including a contact stun gun/flashlight. The lower-priced TASERs are single-shot designs but reloadable. Prices range from $129.99 for the rechargeable Strikelight contact stun gun to $1,599.99 for the two-shot TASER 7Q. At $399, the single-shot TASER Pulse is the best option in terms of price, operation and concealability. Read all the info on the TASER website before purchasing.

Stun Guns or TASERs?

I can’t declare one better than the other. Contact stun guns and TASERs are distinctly different in terms of operation, price and potential effectiveness. With the pros and cons laid out, the type that works best for you will likely be the one you can afford and the one that you are most likely to have with you when needed. The most expensive models are quite large and are best suited for home or business defense. But before you make a final decision, make sure that any such electronic self-defense device is legal in your state and local jurisdiction.


Night Watchman: