Brothers Stunned by Their New Success in Taser Trade
Since Sept. 11, the weapons no longer are just obscure law
devices. United Airlines bought 1,300 units for its
By Julie Cart, The New York Times,
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If fear of domestic terrorism threatens to
America into an armed camp, Tom Smith and his brother want
to be the ones
to arm it.
The Smiths run Taser International, the world's leading manufacturer
stun guns. The Taser has in recent days ceased to be an obscure
device and is poised to make it big, selling to
consumers and private security
companies, and now the airline
The brothers, after nearly a decade of financial woes and legal
are ready to cash in. Sales since Sept. 11 have increased
167%. The company
just filled an order for United Airlines for 1,300
Tasers. The carrier
wants to place the stun guns in the cockpits of
its 600 jetliners. Over-the-counter
sales to the public are suddenly
brisk, and the company is planning its
first mass advertising
With few restrictions on their sale, stun guns soon may become for
security-conscious citizens what pepper spray was 20 years
Smith can hardly fathom the company's transformation. "There were
we paid our payroll on credit cards," he said. "And those were
Smith and his brother Rick--both former medical students--picked up
shards of a defunct business in 1993 and began making Tasers
friends were shot to death in a road rage incident. The
murders made them
think about personal safety for the first time.
The more they investigated, the more clear it became that there was a
in the market for those who didn't want to use a firearm for
The answer, they found, was a stun gun, which subdues
its target for as
long as 90 seconds by emitting powerful electrical
shocks that overwhelm
a person's central nervous system.
The Smiths decided to get into the business. The first thing they did
seek out the retired NASA scientist who invented the technology
Taser in the '70s. The scientist, Jack Cover, remembered a
stun gun he
had read about in the Tom Swift fantasy stories of his
youth. He even created
the acronym TASER from "Thomas A. Swift
Rick Smith, newly graduated from Harvard, paired with Cover full time
update and refine the technology. Tom Smith, with an MBA from
Arizona University, held down a day job and at night worked
The first order of business was to change the Taser's triggering
The old model used gunpowder, so it was classified as a
required a license to buy--considered off-putting to
some consumers. To
reach a broader market, the Smiths adopted a new
system using compressed
That accomplished, the brothers hired an electronic engineer and gave
the task of designing a prototype. It took a year.
Looking much like a conventional handgun, the barrel of a Taser is
with a special cartridge. When the trigger is pulled,
propels two metal darts at 100 mph. Once attached
to the target, the probes
send out an electrical charge that the
company says penetrates up to 2
inches of clothing or padding.
The Taser incapacitates a person by emitting pulses of
volts--that override the person's central nervous
system. The shocks are
discharged in extremely short bursts and last
a total of about five seconds.
Someone subdued by a stun gun falls to
the ground, muscles convulsing,
with no body control.
While there are a handful of companies around the world that make
guns, each uses unique technology.
During development of the Taser, money was streaming out of the
and none was coming in. The investors--the Smith brothers,
and his friend--were taking a beating.
"From 1993 to 2001, we only had two months where we had the
payroll covered at the start of the month," said Tom
Smith, 34. "I can
tell you, that's a tough way to live."
Just about the time the company and its new product were ready to
the all-important law enforcement market in 1995, the Smiths
hit a snag.
Taser International and another company, Tasertron, had
with Cover, who holds patents on much of the
The Tasertron company believed it had secured exclusive rights to
its product to law enforcement and the military. Taser
it had an unrestricted license to sell to
Tasertron filed suit. Smith said he didn't have enough money to fight
leading the two companies to agree that Taser International
out of the law enforcement and military market until
"We didn't worry too much because we thought the consumer market
be pretty good," Smith said.
Their early, low-power model, Air Taser, was sold at stores such as
Sharper Image. But Smith discovered that consumers would not buy
until they were used and endorsed by police officers.
Shut out of the market that would give it credibility, the company
To save money, the Smiths moved manufacturing to Mexico,
and cut their
work force from 80 people to 12.
In the midst of that financial morass, the Smiths made what proved to
a disastrous decision: producing the Auto Taser, essentially an
"Club" steering wheel lock.
"No one bought it," Smith said, still mystified. "My brother started
it the Bearded Lady: Everyone wanted to look at it and no one
Three times the company appeared headed into bankruptcy.
Then, as if to confirm the brothers' rotten timing, just as they
to take the company public two years ago, the bottom fell
out of the dot-com
world and venture capital dried up overnight.
"We were meeting with people just as Nasdaq fell. We had to pull
from under desks to talk to us," Smith said.
Still, they prevailed. Taser's stock rose 180% in its first year.
week, it surged 13% after an analyst touted the company in a
Smith said the attention from United's purchase has caused the
to accelerate plans to move strongly into the consumer
market. Now available
in fewer than 100 stores nationwide, the
company expects Tasers to be sold
in an additional 500 stores by the
end of the year.
The consumer model costs about $120; the law enforcement model about $600.
Tasers are standard issue for more than 1,000 police departments
the country, and the Smiths now dominate the market they once
"After Sept. 11, the phones have been ringing off the hook," said
Woodside, owner of the International Spy Shop in San Francisco,
two models of Tasers. "A lot of guys buy them for their
wives before they
go on trips. I've sold a few to jewelry store
owners. For people into self-defense
who are not comfortable killing
people, this is the thing."
>From a nondescript suburban industrial park here, the 1-pound
are shipped to customers in 60 countries. The Smiths' work
up entirely of Serbian war refugees relocated here by
>church groups, each
day turns out about 150 Tasers and thousands of
>rounds of ammunition cartridges.
The company projects record sales of about $12 million this year.
"We knew there was a market out there," Smith said. "There were many
when Rick and I were here, filling orders at midnight and
saying, 'What are we doing?' There were some dark
days. I guess it's all
been worth it."