As long as there have been science fiction movies, directed energy weapons have been a part of popular culture. Call them laser guns, phasers, or blasters, when people imagine the future, they tend to prefer one where guns fire bright lights, rather than good, old-fashioned lead.

In recent years, lasers have made the jump from novelty and industrial use to legitimate weapons platform on massive applications like the U.S. Navy’s surface combatant fleet or in some large aircraft applications. These high-powered lasers are used primarily as an air-defense weapon — locating incoming missiles or aircraft and focusing an intense energy beam on the target until the immense heat causes enough damage to end the engagement. These lasers, while certainly a leap forward in defense technology, still leave a lot to be desired for your average science fiction fan with dreams of slinging up Han Salo’s sidearm (the prop of which recently sold for an astonishing $550,000), but according to new reports out of China, the age of handheld laser weapons may finally be upon us.

Technically speaking, the new ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle, designed and built by China’s Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is classified as a non-lethal weapon, but don’t let that fool you. According to one researcher involved in the program, getting hit with the ZKZM-500 could certainly kill you by setting you and your clothing on fire, and even if it doesn’t, you’ll likely get the point.

“The pain will be beyond endurance,” he told journalists from the South China Morning Post. He went out to point out that the weapon can burn through clothes in “a split second, and “if the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire.”

The weapon system itself weighs in at a paltry 6.6 pounds, just about the same as an AR-15, and according to the researchers tasked with its development, it has an operational range of 800 meters. Although the platform itself was designed to be hand held, Xian Institute researchers point out that it would be well suited for mounting on cars, boats, or planes — likely because a larger external power supply would come in handy when trying to bullseye womp rats from your T-16… though if their claims can be believed, ammo capacity doesn’t seem to be lacking. They claim the ZKZM-500 can fire 1,000 two second shots using its on-board lithium battery pack (the same sort of batteries employed in modern smart phones).

According to the Xian Institute, the weapon is already production ready, and the first platforms will be given to anti-terrorism squads in the Chinese Armed Police. They went on to tout a number of uses for the new laser weapon, including temporarily disabling suspects through windows, or could even be used to burn through gas tanks on vehicles. While there are plenty of weapons that might be better suited for taking down hostage takers or rogue gas tanks, there actually is one significant advantage to this sort of weapons platform… and it’s one that you won’t find in movies.

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Laser guns of this sort produce little to no noise and no visible projectile. In other words, when your hit by the laser produced by a ZKZM-500, there would be no way to know who was firing at you or from where, and with a range that’s creeping up on a claimed half-mile, the shooter could easily avoid detection and leave no traceable ballistic material behind after engaging a target.

As far as “non-lethal” weapons that are being touted for use in crowd control situations, the ZKZM-500 may not really be anyone’s best option. Burns are extremely painful and seeing someone’s clothes instantly set ablaze would likely do more to rouse a crowd’s fury than anything else. Often, there’s a fine line between riot and panic, but if you want to start either, an invisible beam from nowhere that sets people on fire could probably do it. The weapon itself may prove more novelty than practical, but it does represent a significant leap forward in hand-held, direct energy weapons.

The ZKZM-500 may not be the assault rifle of the future… but it certainly could lead to it.

Featured image: Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capablities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. Mullen is on a three-day trip to the country meeting with counterparts and Chinese leaders. | DOD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released