Strange New Worlds Issue 8 - Apr/May 1993
The Energy Weapons of Isher Artifacts
by Tom Beck
A private workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan produces "The Finest Energy Weapons in
the Known Universe," or so claims Tullio and Amy Proni, proud partners in Isher
Artifacts. This husband and wife team builds a variety of truly beautiful rayguns, rifles,
and other toys.
Tullio Proni manufactures "energy" weapons, Star Wars-like
light sabers, and other special orders for collectors, costumers, and hobbyists. It is an
absorbing career that has taken him far from his native Italy and his college degree in
Proni began making weapons in 1976 while studying at Western Michigan University in
Kalamazoo for a masters in Industrial Psychology. He was also working at a foundation that
desperately needed someone to build equipment. Tullio knew something about electronics and
nothing about machining, so he was drafted. By necessity, he taught himself how to machine
acrylic. He noticed how acrylic conducted light in the same way as fiber optics. Attaching
an acrylic rod to a light bulb, he was charmed by how nicely it glowed.
During this period he went to his first science fiction convention. Surprised that no
fans sported rayguns or other neat toys, Tullio was inspired to build a few guns for his
The first gun was a rod with a light bulb at one end and wires for a battery. At the
convention someone offered him $15 for it, and a new career was born. "I decided
maybe I was on to something," he says, "and I began using glue instead of tape.
They were still on the crude side. Still, I sold all I could make and I started getting a
dealers table at conventions. The Model A in our catalog, with some modifications, is the
model I started with in 1977."
At that point the foundations research money ran out and many workers were laid
off. "I worked out a deal so that I could continue to use their machines in return
for maintaining them. I did this for a couple of years until they had to lay off everyone.
By then I was turning out fifty to sixty guns a year and going to eight or so cons every
"I feared Id lose [access to] the equipment, so I bought a house and $3000
of the [foundations's] equipment with two partners. I got into it pretty heavily at that
point, going to sixteen or so conventions every year. I was doing it full time. But it was
barely keeping us alive. I bought some serious equipment over the next year so that I
didnt need the lab anymore. In 1979 I turned out over 1000 guns, the most Ive
ever done, either before or since.
"Today my production goes up and down," continues Tullio. "I average
about 350 major items a year out of the catalog and about twenty to twenty-five custom
orders. The biggest custom order Ive ever done was a machinegun that must have been
over five and a half feet long. It looked like a Browning Automatic Rifle. The most
expensive piece Ive ever done was a replica of a phaser from Star Trek
the only one Ive ever built! It cost $1000. It was a pain in the neck to do.
The customer had to have it perfect. I almost swore off Trek after that. Star
Trek stuff has all these curves, theyre very hard to machine.
"My average custom order is about $300. The fanciest one I ever did was a laser
the size of a submachine gun. It was a 3-milliwatt helium laser, you could hit an exit
sign two miles away from the hotel roof where we went to range it. It had sound effects
and the casing was black anodized. It had a huge scope. It was a precursor of my Model M,
except that I made it before diode lasers were available."
Surprisingly, he has made only about a dozen light-sabers. He began work on the first
one before the original Star Wars movie was released. "I saw a preview at a
Worldcon and began to work on it. Ive made two unique ones that had nothing to do
with Star Wars. They were more like broadswords. Ive also built four like the
ones in Star Wars and six like the one in Return of the Jedi." I told
him I was unaware of any difference between them. He said, "Yes, the design differs.
After Luke Skywalker loses his [lightsaber] in Empire Strikes Back, he builds
another. All of mine are different. I use a three-foot, 3/4-inch acrylic rod that tapers
at the end. The first one I made was hell to do. I had to watch a friends 70mm print
of Star Wars frame by frame, measuring Lukes hand with a caliper!"
Tullio enjoys building futuristic weapons, but regrets that he can keep so little of
what he manufactures. "Ive kept about a half-dozen really good pieces. I tried
to buy back the first gun I made, but the guy wouldnt sell it to me."
The name Isher Artifacts, comes from A. E. Van Vogts science fiction novel Weapon Shops of Isher "When
we first formed our partnership, I had just read the book, so we decided to call our
business Weapon Shop of Isher. But people wrote to us thinking we were a real gun shop, so
we changed the name to Isher Artifacts."
The Isher Artifacts catalog is highly imaginative, describing these high-tech toys as
if they were real weapons. "In the 47th century, back on the planet Earth, some of
the finest plasma weapons ever found were developed. Listed in this catalog are several of
the popular guns. The sales of these weapons once helped keep the tyrannical Isher Empire
in check. Now you, too, can own an authentic replica of a famous energy weapon." It
goes on to list the fanciful materials used in manufacturing these "replicas."
The catalog was written by Amy Proni, Tullios wife. They have known each other
since 1989 and have been married since 1991. Her responsibility is with marketing,
customer service, and bookkeeping. "By sharing the load," she says, "our
business has grown and we are able to introduce new products on a more frequent schedule.
Were very fortunate to live as we do, and grateful that science fiction has made
reality pretty nice."
In addition to the rayguns, Isher Artifacts also offers specialty items such as the
world-famous Sonic Screwdriver from Doctor Who. There are two versions: one with
sound effects, the other without. Ive seen their version and it looks (and sounds)
fantastic. They also sell Doctor Who scarves in both wool ($85) and acrylic yarn
($40). Other specialty items are a Magic Wand that lights up when both halves are touched
simultaneously and the Annoyatron, a small musical instrument that turns light into music.
Of special interest to collectors: Tullio does not sign or initial his work unless
specifically requested. If you want the dimensions to be exact, there will be an extra
charge for the extra labor involved, and you must supply the specifications. "Someone
once asked me to make a replica of a dart gun from a James Bond movie. He managed to
obtain complete engineering drawings and even a photo of the actual item. He wanted it
precise to within 5 one-thousandths of an inch. It even shot a dart!"
For serious collectors and even for fans in search of serious fun, the Isher energy
weapons are the finest I have ever seen. Tullio and Amy Proni have turned a hobby into a
career, a livelihood, and a life. If you are looking for the perfect accessory for your
space costume or role-playing scenario, or simply like really neat toys, send for their
Write to: Isher Artifacts, 530 W. Walnut Street, Kalamazoo MI 49007, please include one
dollar, or visit www.IsherArtifacts.com