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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 Psychology.

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 next convention.

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 foundation’s 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 year.

"I feared I’d 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 didn’t need the lab anymore. In 1979 I turned out over 1000 guns, the most I’ve 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 I’ve 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 I’ve ever done was a replica of a phaser from ‘Star Trek’ — the only one I’ve 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, they’re 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. I’ve made two unique ones that had nothing to do with Star Wars. They were more like broadswords. I’ve 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 friend’s 70mm print of Star Wars frame by frame, measuring Luke’s hand with a caliper!"

Tullio enjoys building futuristic weapons, but regrets that he can keep so little of what he manufactures. "I’ve kept about a half-dozen really good pieces. I tried to buy back the first gun I made, but the guy wouldn’t sell it to me."

The name Isher Artifacts, come’s from A. E. Van Vogt’s 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, Tullio’s 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. We’re 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. I’ve 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 catalog.

Write to: Isher Artifacts, 530 W. Walnut Street, Kalamazoo MI 49007, please include one dollar, or visit


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