Since its introduction in 1999, the Advanced Taser M26 has found its way onto the belts of thousands of officers in North America and around the world. It is one of the most popular less-lethal weapons in the history of law enforcement. But it’s far from perfect.

The M26 is effective, safe, and easy to use, but it’s really big and bulky and less than comfortable on a duty belt, especially on a duty belt already weighed down with pepper spray, an expandable baton, a couple of spare mags, handcuffs, and a radio.

Interestingly enough, the first people to admit that the M26 is too large are the engineers and design team at the weapon’s manufacturer, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International.

They have to admit it because they’ve been hearing about it from their customers. “We are a company that responds to what users ask for,” says Steve Tuttle, Taser’s director of government and law enforcement affairs.

Taser has responded to the complaints about the size of its flagship product with innovation and creativity. And by the time this magazine reaches your mailbox, the company plans to roll out the X26, a much smaller Taser that’s even more effective than its larger predecessor.

The difference between the M26 and the X26 is kind of like the difference between a 10-year-old video camcorder and the latest whizzbang digital camcorder sitting on the shelves at your local Circuit City. The X26 does essentially the same job as the M26, but it is a full 60 percent smaller and lighter, it’s more efficient, and it has many new features that weren’t even imagined when the M26 was in development.

Bigger Isn’t Better

Shrinking a Taser 60 percent and retaining its punch is no easy trick. The M26 is powered by the current from eight alkaline AA batteries. That’s a lot of weight, and it also explains why the gun’s handle is so long. But the eight AAs were a necessary evil because the M26’s circuitry requires that much juice to supply the 26 watts of power it uses to incapacitate targets.

Consequently, in order to reduce the size of the Taser, the engineers had to rethink the voltage requirements of the gun. After months of working the problem, they came up with a radical solution. They concluded that the best way to significantly reduce the power requirements of the Taser and thereby make the weapon substantially smaller was to change the way the Taser does its business.

The result is patent-pending technology that Taser says reduces the power requirement of the new X26 gun to one-fifth that of the M26. “It’s the equivalent of making a car get five times better gas mileage,” says Tuttle. “To an electrical engineer, that’s an enormous leap.”

Shaped Charge

Reducing the power requirements of the Taser is one thing; making it effective is another.

Both the M26 and the X26 incapacitate subjects by electro muscular disruption (EMD), an uncontrollable contraction of muscular tissue that’s been described as a full-body charley horse. Thousands of tests by Taser on SWAT officers, elite warriors, and martial artists have proven that EMD can stop even the most focused and fit subjects. People who’ve experienced both the M26 and the X26 say the new weapon actually put them down faster than the M26. That’s quite remarkable when you consider that the M26 is a 26-watt weapon while the X26 is powered by only 5 watts.

The secret to the X26’s efficiency is what Taser calls a “shaped pulse.” One of the reasons that the M26 needed 26 watts of power was that each of its 18 electrical pulses per second had to break through the resistance of the subject’s clothing and skin. In contrast, the X26 breaks that resistance once, uses a small part of its charge to maintain that opening, and pushes the rest of its energy through with little resistance for 19 pulses per second for the first two seconds and 15 pulses per second for the next three seconds. Taser says the result is a weapon that requires less energy but causes 5 percent more of the EMD effect on the target.

Tuttle explains the difference between the effect of the X26 and the M26 in terms of door-breaching techniques. “One of the best analogies is that the M26 is like a battering ram. To enter the ‘door’ (the resistance of skin and clothing), it comes in hard, it punches hard, and it knocks the door down with its 18 pulses per second,” explains Tuttle. “The shaped pulse of the X26 doesn’t knock the door down, it brings the key. It opens the door and keeps it open for each free flow of electrons.”

The effect of the X26’s shaped pulse is even more debilitating than Taser’s previous models, but the company says it remains perfectly safe. As with the M26, the X26 has been extensively tested on animals, and the studies have shown that the incapacitation is temporary with no permanent effects on the subject.

Power Supply

Because the X26 Taser uses less energy than the M26, the engineers were able to power it with a smaller battery and consequently make the weapon itself smaller.

Unlike the M26, which could be powered by ordinary AA batteries, the X26 requires a proprietary lithium battery pack that’s sold only by Taser. The company admits that the off-the-shelf convenience of the AA system may be preferred by some customers, but argues that there are many advantages to the X26’s proprietary energy cell that outweigh the convenience afforded by AA batteries.

Critically, the proprietary battery pack, which Taser calls a “digital power magazine” is much smaller and lighter than eight AAs. But beyond that, the X26’s battery pack has a longer life. In the weapon, the new energy cell lasts for a minimum of 300 5-second firings. On the shelf, it will stay charged for 10 years.

“The ability to have a lot more activations outweighs any disadvantage to having to buy the batteries from Taser,” says Sgt. Steve Hadley of the Glendale (Ariz.) Police Department. Hadley should know. Not only is he a Taser master instructor, he has also deployed the M26 10 times in the field.

In addition to less bulk and longer life, the new batteries eliminate one of the major causes of Taser failure in the field. You can’t put the batteries in the wrong way.

“I can’t tell you how many times we get back a failed M26 and we inspect it and we find out that the user installed one battery upside down out of the eight,” says Tuttle. “But you can’t do that with the new digital power magazine. It’s like a pistol magazine, it goes in one way only.”[PAGEBREAK]

Status Report

The new battery pack and improved circuitry in the X26 also afforded Taser the opportunity to add a number of new features that law enforcement officers had been requesting since the introduction of the M26. For example, the readout panel on the back of the weapon now provides the user with critical information about battery life and other concerns.

“The X26 has a chip that takes a reading of the internal temperature of the Taser while it’s being activated,” says Tuttle. “It gives you a very, very accurate reading of the percentage of the battery life remaining.”

Another new feature on the X26 is a display that counts down the Taser’s charge from 5 seconds to 1 second and lets the user know how long the subject is incapacitated. The idea, according to Taser, was to give the user exact information on how long the target will be affected, so that he or she can direct support officers in to control the subject.

The X26 even has a feature that will allow the purchaser not to worry so much about paperwork. A chip inside the weapon clocks the warranty and displays the information at the push of a button. The standard warranty is one year, but extended warranties are available and can be programmed into the chip. Tuttle says the built-in warranty clock will be of most benefit to agencies that buy hundreds or even thousands of Tasers and must currently track down the original paperwork to file a warranty claim.

Another new feature of the X26 is that the user has a choice of illumination modes. With the M26 Taser, a laser sight was activated any time the user turned on the weapon. The X26 allows the user to turn off the laser. It also includes two very bright LED lights that can be turned on and off as needed. Each of the illumination modes is controlled by a small button on top of the weapon, and the setting is included in the information on the readout panel.

New Look

The reduction in the overall footprint of the Taser also allowed the company to reimagine the design of the weapon in terms of both ergonomics and aesthetics.

“It’s a much sexier looking product,” says Tuttle. “It doesn’t have that blunt Glock-like shape anymore. It’s much more streamlined and futuristic looking.”

Much of the 60-percent reduction in size and weight between the M26 and the X26 is gained from a smaller handle. The X26 has a very short, almost stubby handle that makes it feel really different in the hand. In fact, the handle is so short that Taser anticipates that some users may want a longer handle, so the company sells an optional cartridge holder that extends the handle and gives the user the ability to quickly reload for a second shot.

Officer Steve Ward of the Seattle Police Department says he doesn’t believe the smaller handle will be a disadvantage for Taser users. “Training will overcome any problem with it,” he says. “Plus, the biggest advantage is the size. I train officers with the M26, and the thing they all want to know is how to carry it because it is so large. There’s a lot more room on your belt when you carry the X26, it’s much less visually obtrusive, and it’s just going to be a lot easier for the officer to deploy.”

In addition to its streamlined shape and smaller size, the X26 has some nice touches of design flair, including a stainless steel insert on the handle with the X26 logo. The result is what Tuttle calls the “Ferarri of all Tasers.”

Of course, like a Ferarri, the X26 doesn’t just look good, it performs. And toward that end, the new design includes some functional aspects as well as just a great look. For example, the trigger on the M26 was essentially a switch covered with rubber so that it had to be activated with a pull instead of a squeeze. The X26 trigger is much more like that of a handgun.

Good to Go

All of this form and function doesn’t come cheap. At $799 per unit, the X26 is expected to sell for about $300 more per unit retail than an M26.

However, Tuttle says the difference in cost is actually a bit misleading. “The price for the X26 includes the Taser, the battery, and the holster,” he explains. “You open up that box, and you’re good to go.” Taser estimates that the cost of a holster and rechargeable batteries, which have to be purchased separately for an M26, raises the price of the weapon by $150 to $200.

Finding the right holsters has historically been a problem for Taser users. The M26, for example, is so much larger than a sidearm that it required officers to give a lot of thought to how to carry it.

Seattle PD’s Ward says officers have tried all sorts of different holsters and positions for the M26. “I’ve seen just about everything you can imagine all over the world. Agencies have used crossdraw holsters, fanny packs, thigh holsters, but now that Taser has reduced the size of the weapon and made the integrated holster part of the package deal, they’ve ended the confusion. That holster is going to be a big problem solver for a lot of agencies.”

But it may take some getting used to. The holster that comes with the X26 is more like what you might find holding a cellphone than a handgun. “It’s an exoskeleton-style holster,” explains Tuttle. “It will actually grab the X26 by means of plastic clips, but it also has a thumb break for retention.”

Taser makes the new holster, which Tuttle admits is a bit ultra-modern for a law enforcement weapon carrier. But he doesn’t foresee any problems with it and Seattle PD’s Ward agrees, adding that once officers train with the new holster they’ll come to love it.

Shooting the Moon

Another reason that Tuttle and Ward believe Taser users will readily embrace the new holster is because the smaller Taser and smaller holster mean less weight and more room on the user’s belt.

And according to Tuttle, on the belt is where the Taser belongs. “We have a mantra here, and that mantra is, ‘It goes on every officer’s belt.’ That’s our total drive. Everything at Taser International is geared toward making the Taser standard equipment and not a boutique weapon.”

Taser has found that the best way to put its product on officers’ belts is to listen to suggestions from the men and women who carry the weapon. “The cops really have a lot of great ideas,” says Tuttle. “They’re asking for the moon in a lot of cases. But I think we actually reached the moon with the X26.”