Is there some reason for this constant admonishment to set phasers to the stun setting? Aren't all phasers calibrated to that default setting and have to be manually adjusted to a higher setting? I can understand a 'weapons check' but that is a different function altogether and is typically done by the armorer and demonstrated by the recipient when drawing the weapon, not waiting until they're standing on the transporter pad seconds before beam-down. This seems a bit late for such a function.

So is there some other meaning or rationale to proclaiming, "Set phasers to stun"?

  • Not awfully familiar with the programme. Do they actually physically change the phaser setting while on the pad? Or do they just look at them? If the latter, based only on your question, I might suggest it is just a weapon check.
    – Mac Cooper
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 22:37
  • @MacCooper - Sometimes they work the controls/settings of their phasers after this order is given. Sometimes they just look at it and other times they make no motion to the weapon at all. Their physical reaction to this order varies from person to person, episode to episode.
    – Morgan
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 22:46
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    For the same reason any military may give final orders before entering a potential arena. Their orders may have changed, the default setting may NOT be automatically set to stun. Consider weapons with multiple settings may be defaulted while stored or during emergencies stored quickly without resetting. It is more than likely a safety procedure to ensure no accidents take place that cannot be recovered from. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 22:58
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    This is going to be difficult. All the answers below are good and have solid rationale for both in and out of universe explanations. Thank you. Now to decide which answer is 'most right'...
    – Morgan
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:30
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    Those who fiddle with their weapons' controls might not actually be changing them. I myself sometimes push down on a control that is already at its lowest setting, as a way of making sure it really is at the lowest setting.
    – Brilliand
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:38

8 Answers 8


Because Starfleet is a peaceful armada / military force, they try to go into as many situations as possible with non-lethal intentions.

Phasers are typically stored in lockers (either in the armory or near the transporter pads) and are not personal. This means when you pick up a phaser it might be set to whatever setting it was last used on.

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Saying "set phasers to stun" is like modern police or military says "check the safety on your weapon." It is a precautionary command to make sure everyone starts at the same level of intent.

  • 65
    It's also to remind the audience that Starfleet is not a shoot-to-kill force as its primary mode of operation, both because that's Roddenberry's vision of the fleet and for the same reason that animated shows usually make sure you see the bad guys are still alive after a fight.
    – BESW
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 23:00
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    @BESW: It might also be to remind the audience that these zap-guns have a stun setting, so that we won't be shocked when our heroes open fire on spear-wielding aborigines.
    – Beta
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 3:23
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    +1 For the fact they could have been left on any setting and they aren't personal weapons. Though that doesn't explain other flaws such as why they don't check the moment they pick the phasers up instead of waiting until they get to the transporter pad.
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 10:02
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    The guy in command of the group does not always see people check them when they pick them up, so he does not know whether all have checked their weapon. Some might check them, some might have forgotten, but the commander makes sure that noone enters the planet with a set to kill phaser. This is also an explanation for some people not checking their phasers when the commander says "set phasers to stun" since they already checked for that beforehand. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 12:24
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    I'd expect the setting when in storage would be consistent, probably stun, not just "whatever setting it was last used on". In fact it would make sense for a phaser to automatically go to a stun setting when placed in storage. It's an easy way to avoid tragic accidents, and I can't think of any good reason not to do it. Even so, it always makes sense to double-check; always assume that every gun is loaded, and every phaser is set to kill. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 17:05


"Keep your phasers on stun. And stay calm. I don't want anyone getting nervous and shooting one of us by mistake." – Michael Eddington, 2371 ("The Adversary")

They set phasers to stun, because it's like saying check your gun and make sure you have the safety off or on. They don't want to attack and cause more damage than they are suppose to until the situation is clearly against them. Also, if someone friendly fires and the phaser is set at stun, the most that will happen is that the person will lose a couple of brain cells. I don't know if phasers have a off button, but if they do they are probably saying make sure your gun is ready to go, make sure it is on.


Some directed energy weapons did not have a stun yield setting. Some had only two settings, the stun and the kill setting. (ENT: "Broken Bow", "Cease Fire") On phaser weaponry used by Starfleet in the 23rd and 24th centuries, there were several different levels of stun settings. Starfleet regulations stated that phasers were to be locked at the level one stun setting. (TNG: "Aquiel")

From another site.

11. "SET PHASERS TO STUN" It was established early on in Star Trek: The Original Series that the phasers used by the > crew of USS Enterprise had a “stun” setting (as mentioned in “The Man Trap” episode), and both Kirk and Spock often found themselves instructing their crewmates to use the non-lethal capabilities of their standard-issue weapons. However, it wasn't until the second season of Star Trek: The Animated Series that we first heard Kirk issue the command “Set phasers to stun.” The line eventually became an oft-repeated order in subsequent series, turning up in both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as many of the movies (including 2009's reboot).

From the wikia.

The first stun setting was called the "low stun setting", (TNG: "Force of Nature") "setting number one" and the "base cycle stunning force". (TOS: "The Enemy Within") A hit from this most minimal setting only left the target dazed, unable to stand and think straight for a short time. (TOS: "The Man Trap") Two phasers set on setting one fired simultaneously could break large objects into pieces, such as the urns of the second planet of the Taurean system. (TAS: "The Lorelei Signal") In the 2290s, a phaser fired on stun did not set off internal alarms on Starfleet starships. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

Also, stun probably was the main setting. Why would Starfleet have their main setting anything higher, they are suppose to help, protect and do as little damage as possible.Telling people to set their guns at stuns, is also like saying make sure the situation needs higher force before you used the kill setting. And it might have been like someone saying "get your head in the game".

You don't know the situation. The place you go into might have kids or someone else very innocent. And you can still hurt them from the stun.

From here:

To some more vulnerable species, even the stun setting was potentially lethal, for example the Trill symbionts. (DS9: "Invasive Procedures") When used at close range, a phaser set on stun was capable of inducing sufficient trauma to kill a Human, if fired at a vital organ such as the brain. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

About the kill setting.


Out-of-universe answer:
People writing sci-fi series like Star Trek where there is that casual audience to consider often have to assume that the person watching the episode may be uncaring enough to not bother watching the whole series/from the beginning so they have to accomodate for the lowest common denominator. This is why you often get people stating ridiculously obvious things (i.e imagine the main character's brother is introduced in episode 3 and then turns up again in episode 6, the fact the characters are brothers must therefore be mentioned at least two or three times in episode 6 for the sake of the people who didn't bother to watch episode 3).

In this case, the writers of Star Trek had the awful task of reminding the parents "It's ok, nobody is being killed here". If it weren't for that line (and bearing in mind the era Star Trek first aired in) imagine how many parents would have stopped their kids watching it or written in to complain that it was too violent because the 'bad guys' were being killed.

In-universe answer:
It's like when you plan to go on a big trip, and you always go to the toilet before you leave so that you don't have to go half way through the journey.
In this case, they check at the last minute to be absolutely sure. If they land in a hostile area and start firing, and only then does someone realise their phaser is set to kill, that someone could be 'fired' (or the equivalent, probably 'decommissioned') or even face legal action.

So to prevent legal action, they always make a final check before leaving, no matter how many checks they made prior. At least then if the phaser had a faulty mechanism or something they could cover their asses.

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    Great out-of-universe answer. I'd add that it's also an excellent, pithy line to get the viewer excited for a mission that might have some action, in the same way as cocking a pistol slide might in a more violent action movie. Plus if you are a regular viewer, it becomes a kind of catchphrase. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 12:35

Pulling from real world experience, before military personnel begin a action, they often go through a checklist to verify preparation (see also: pilots pre-flight). A review of rules of engagement, objectives, tasks and timing to assigned to individuals is also standard. Set phasers on stun, in my interpretation, is the short hand for 'we've been through the briefing, now lets go do this'.

Also, (again from the real world) you always assume a gun is loaded and the safety is off until otherwise verified. In a sense, this is can be viewed as the same as 'safe your weapons'.

  • That's how I interpreted it as well, basically never assume it's set to a safe setting, treat every weapon as if it would provide leathal force regardless of percieved or known condition.
    – Monty129
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:23

Well, no one has mentioned that when the Phasers are stored and carried about the ship they are probably set to off. I don't think it is a command to turn down the power, but more likely as a command to turn them on in case of immediate trouble. They are going down to planets

"like nothing we've ever seen before"

after all.

  • It's pretty clear that phasers on the ship aren't set to "off" when they aren't being used.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:01
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    This actually makes sense. When modern weapons are stored or in armories, they're unloaded. Because fully charged phasers are in effect 'loaded', it's reasonable to assume there's some sort of 'off' or safety switch to preclude/prevent any negligent discharges. With no trigger guards it would actually be quite easy to accidently discharge those weapons.
    – Morgan
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:15
  • @Morgan I think there's actually a contact point in the palm of the handle that needs to be activated in addition to the trigger in order to fire them (although I'm not sure how this works with the type II style used in TNG)
    – Monty129
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:24
  • @Monty129 it still prevent accidental discharge when one safety failed (sensor in palm for example). Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 21:49
  • There's no off or standby button on a type-2 phaser; en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Type_2_phaser
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 8:42

Short answer: Chain of command.

This procedure ensures that everyone has an explicit order from the person leading the away team regarding the phasers. This way, no one can be blamed afterwards for using an inappropriate setting, because everyone had orders to use this setting and only this setting.

The mission fails because the bad guy was only stunned and escaped later? "I can not be blamed, I had my order."

Someone from the away team kills someone with his phasers? Now he can not excuse this with "I was not ordered not to use the kill setting. I assumed we were to defend ourselves by any means necessary."

So this both acts as a reminder and as an explicit order for which there may not be time later, when in actual conflict.

  • 1
    While this sort of makes sense, law enforcement and to a certain extent military units use what's called the Use of Force Continuum, which gives explicit instructions on what level of force can be used in what situations, so there's no need to give an order like this every time. Starfleet being a peackeeping armada, I'm guessing they would use something similar. Also it's usually understood that deadly force can only be used when life/limb is threatened.
    – Monty129
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 19:26

I tend to agree with the turned "OFF" situation. When placed in the holder, surely they are being charged. If not off, then maybe a "Stand By" mode where it actually does not have use any power and then must be switch to other settings when directed by the away team lead. And, I also agree that in directing everyone to use the same setting, you reduce liability. And yes, everyone in military or law enforcement or just anyone carrying a weapon does know that the level of force can be changed depending on life threatening situations. But they always must have a standard order for what setting to start with so all are on the same page.

  • The TNG Technical Manual indicates that they recharge themselves constantly. They charge in the holster or out of it.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 8:39
  • @Richard: They recharge... themselves?! Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 18:28
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit - Over time, the power replenishes (presumably as a result of a chemical reaction). You can also recharge them much more quickly from "power taps" or "bulk krellium units".
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 18:34
  • @Richard: That violates several physical laws of our reality. Perhaps a component of the phaser recharges itself from another component of the phaser (after all, my tablet+dock combination does this), but as a unit the phaser cannot create power out of thin air. Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 18:35
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit - The schematic shows something called a "recharging coil". Perhaps it works wirelessly?
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 18:36

Away teams are formed Ad-Hoc and are intended to present the minimum personnel required to evaluate a situation. Because there are no default away team configurations, human error exists, and Starfleet crew members rarely use phasers (they dont even have a practice range,) and members of a previous away team may have encountered hostile enemy contact, it is safer to ensure that all team members have their phasers set to the lowest setting and everyone can escalate if present hostilities demand.

The mission of Starfleet command and it's vessels is a peaceful scientific journey and not to interfere wherever possible. Accidentally killing a specimen is unacceptable

  • 1
    They regularly practice on the holodeck. We also seen them practicing in the loading bay on at least one occasion
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 23:01
  • To paraphrase an old Martial Arts movie, "Holodecks don't fight back." It's different to go to a shooting range than being in a war.
    – Engineer
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 17:57

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