Phasers are particle beams that usually heat materials they strike. They often start chain reactions of an unknown nature that continue well after the beam stops striking the target. Phasers at full power have been known to make their targets completely disappear, an effect often described as "vaporization", although it is never accompanied by the violent explosion and superheated cloud of vapor one would expect from vaporizing a target such as a human in less than a second.
The operating principle of phasers -- whatever it may be -- makes them more effective against some materials than others. While they can make human tissue disappear in a moment, they are far less effective against denser materials like metals and completely ineffective against some materials, such as "toranium inlay".
From their first appearance in continuity, hand phasers have had variable power settings. A "stun" setting can incapacitate targets for capture without causing serious harm; one incident has shown that even starship phasers have this capability, enabling them to stun large numbers of people from orbit. When fired at point-blank range continuously, the stun setting can still be lethal. . Phasers set to kill have also been used to cut through tree trunks, heat rocks to serve as make-shift campfires, and blast through rock.
Trekkies have claimed that a single shot from a hand phaser can rearrange the landscape by bringing down buildings or mountains. Despite one supporting claim from a deranged character, hand-phasers have never demonstrated firepower of this magnitude, and characters routinely protect themselves from phaser fire by hiding behind ordinary rock formations or even packing crates. Phasers certainly can blast through stone, but Star Trek combatants almost never use such settings in combat, indicating that doing so would have disadvantages, such as rapid depletion of the weapon's power supply.
As noted, phasers on high power settings can make living targets disappear. Trekkies have argued that such targets are "vaporized" and used such incidents to calculate phaser firepower based on the energy required to boil 50-100 kg of water into steam, but phaser "vaporization" incidents never produce the large cloud of super-heated vapor that would inevitably result from actually vaporizing a human being. Consequently, some other effect must be occurring in such incidents, making it impossible to calculate hand-phaser firepower from "vaporization".
Phasers typically produce a narrow beam, but they can be adjusted to produce a cone- or fan-shaped "spray" of energy. These "wide-beam" shots have been shown to be capable of simultaneously stunning multiple people in the affected area at a range of several meters.
Despite the potential to affect many targets and suppress areas of a battlefield with wide-beam phaser fire, Federation troops invariably use only narrow beams in battle. This behavior indicates that wide beams have extremely limited utility in combat situations. One obvious reason is that the power intensity of spreading beams will drop rapidly with increasing range, making them ineffective at typical combat ranges.
Environmental conditions can have surprising effects on phaser performance. Certain kinds of ambient radiation (including "hyperonic" radiation) cause phaser beams to scatter rapidly, making the weapons effectively useless in such adverse conditions. Prolonged exposure to low-level radiation from a shielded nuclear fission reactor (at least several minutes) can also render a hand-phaser inoperative.
"Energy dampening fields" also affect phaser performance, presumably by design, rendering hand-phasers useless. Such fields have only been mentioned, however; specific effects have never been observed.
The Federation has developed "regenerative" phasers that are less sensitive to adverse environments. It's not clear how they are different from standard phasers, unless the phaser modification performed by Data in TNG "Ensigns of Command" is a direct example.
Phasers are classified by "type", a designation system that seems to take into account the size, power consumption and intended use of the phaser. While only five phaser types are explicitly mentioned (1-4 and 8), the remainder of the scale is represented in various secondary materials.
- Type 1: The smallest phaser type, these weapons can be concealed in the palm of the user's hand.
- Type 2: Originally consisting of a Type 1 fitted with a pistol grip and additional power pack, the Type 2 evolved into a standalone weapon, and is the standard Starfleet sidearm.
- Type 3: This type comprises the various incarnations of the phaser rifle, a larger, two-handed version of the phaser pistol.
- Stardestroyer.net Phaser analysis
- Trekkie analysis that estimates 170 to 670 MW of firepower for hand phasers.
- Star Trek: First Contact
- DS9 "The Forsaken"
- ENT "Broken Bow"
- TOS "Piece of the Action"
- "The Undiscovered Country"
- TNG "The Vengeance Factor"
- ENT "Terra Nova"
- TOS "The Enemy Within"
- TNG "Chain of Command
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- TNG "Frame of Mind"
- TNG "Gambit"
- TNG "Too Short a Season"
- VOY "Cathexis"
- TOS: the Devil In the Dark
- TNG: The Outcast
- Star Trek: Generations