Once these weapons hit the battlefield, warfare would never be the same.
While humans have been killing each other since we first walked upright, most anthropologists believe the evolution of random violence into the organized group violence we call war probably occurred soon after the advent of agriculture. Groups of hunter-gatherers beset by famine may have turned their crude clubs against the earliest farmers, who defended their crops and livestock using equally rudimentary implements. Thus war was born, and with it the apparently insatiable human desire for better weapons.
The seemingly innate drive to develop increasingly effective ways to kill fellow humans quickly led our forebears to embark upon the arms race in which we remain engaged. And the essence of that martial competition has been to create weapons. In compiling our list, we sought the counsel of soldiers and historians. They offered a range of opinions, yet certain weapons made the collective arsenal. That core group is shown here.
Bow and Arrow
While their origin remains shrouded in the mists of prehistory, the bow and arrow comprise arguably the first guided weapon system. Users could engage targets at longer ranges and with greater accuracy than was possible with stones or spears. Experienced archers could maintain a rate of fire limited only by their physical endurance and the availability of arrows. The rain of projectiles unleashed by massed formations of highly mobile bowmen could devastate ranks of unarmored infantry and cavalry, and this stand-off capability shaped tactical doctrine to the present. The advent of the composite bow—composed of layered wood, sinew and horn—further boosted the weapon’s range and lethality, allowing bowmen to defeat even armored adversaries. The English longbow was the finest example of the weapon, as proven in decisive victories over the French at Crécy in 1346 and Agincourt in 1415. The weapon’s military significance declined only with the advent of repeating firearms.
Dating from at least 3000 BC, the war chariot evolved as a means of introducing combat mobility at a time when horses were too small to carry armed men. Ultimately used by all the major ancient civilizations, chariots usually bore a driver and a warrior, the latter armed with either a bow or javelin. Racing across the battlefield, chariots could quickly provide massed force at a given point, disrupting and overrunning enemy infantry formations in much the same way as tanks later in history. The chariot underwent evolutionary improvements to increase its combat capability—progressively stronger wheels for improved speed and durability; a rear-mounted axle for better stability; and refined harnesses and bits to enhance the driver’s control of his horses. The advent of larger and sturdier horses capable of carrying cavalry spelled the end of the chariot as a combat weapon.
The sword also surfaced during the Bronze Age but did not become an effective military weapon until the Iron Age (roughly from the 13th century BC), as bronze was too brittle for combat and too expensive to issue en masse. Improvements in metallurgy made swords both stronger and easier to mass-produce. The purpose-built combat sword found its most effective expression in the gladius (Latin for “sword”). Between 25 and 32 inches long and weighing about three pounds, the iron gladius was designed primarily for thrusting, and in experienced hands it proved a truly fearsome and effective weapon. So effective, in fact, that Rome was arguably the first state to field the swordsman as its primary offensive weapon. Roman legions adopted the open maniple formation specifically to allow each soldier the room to properly employ his gladius. Legionnaires depended on the sword’s effectiveness well into the first millennium AD.
In the centuries following the advent of organized warfare, walled cities remained extremely difficult to capture if well defended, as attackers could seldom breach their fortifications. Unless seized by guile or torched by a fire arrow, a well-provisioned fortified stronghold could simply outlast its attackers. The invention of the catapult changed all that. First used by Dionysus of Syracuse around 400 BC, early traction catapults fired antipersonnel projectiles. These soon gave way to torsion weapons—reportedly developed around 340 BC by Philip of Macedon’s engineer Polyidus of Thessaly—capable of hurling projectiles and, eventually, stones large enough to batter down walls. This newfound ability to make short work of walled cities significantly altered the way armies waged war, allowing commanders such as Alexander the Great to plan long-range strategic campaigns, knowing they could subdue cities. Catapult-like weapons remained the assault engine of choice until the rise of gunpowder-based artillery.
Initially developed in China in the 11th or 12th century, the gunpowder-based cannon extended the range and penetrating power of stone-hurling siege engines. Cannon rapidly evolved into large, heavy weapons cast from bronze and iron. From Asia the technology spread through the Islamic world into Europe, where the weapons played their first significant combat role at the 1346 Battle of Crécy between the English and French. In 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II used a 20-ton siege gun since dubbed the Great Turkish Bombard to pound Christian forces defending Constantinople. Over the following two centuries, cannon appeared in a variety of sizes and calibers, and by the late 1500s their widespread use had effectively ended the age of castles. Battlefield tactics also evolved, both to improve and diminish the effectiveness of increasingly mobile artillery pieces, while the installation of cannon aboard ships forever altered the nature of war at sea. Though supplanted to an extent by guided missiles and battlefield rocket systems, tube artillery remains one of the most potent weapons of modern combat.
From the moment gunpowder first launched a projectile from a tube, humans have striven to create firearms that fire farther, more accurately and, most important, faster. The machine gun grew out of the latter desire, and early versions of repeating firearms were under development as early as 1718. Most comprised multiple barrels, set either in fixed ranks that fired in turn or in rotating banks hand-cranked through a firing sequence, as in Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling’s eponymous weapon. Manually operated Gatling-type guns saw use during the American Civil War and other 19th century conflicts, but were supplanted by Sir Hiram Maxim’s 1884 invention of the fully automatic, single-barrel machine gun. This weapon, which harnessed the energy of the exploding powder charge to drive the operating mechanism, came into its own during World War I. Its withering rate of fire and ability to scythe down attacking troops forced revolutionary changes in infantry tactics and ended combat use of cavalry. The machine gun proved especially useful mounted on tanks and aircraft and in highly evolved forms remains a standard combat weapon worldwide.
While historians dispute just when humans first slipped beneath the waves in purpose-built submersibles, they agree that the first combat use of an underwater craft occurred in the predawn hours of Sept. 7, 1776, in Upper New York Bay. Operating inventor David Bushnell’s egg-shaped Turtle, Continental Army Sergeant Ezra Lee attempted to sink the blockading British warship Eagle. That attack failed, but 88 years later the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the Union screw sloop Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, conclusively demonstrating the military value of the stealthy undersea warship and sparking submarine development worldwide, most notably in the designs of Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland. By the 1914 outbreak of World War I, most of the major belligerents’ fleets included submarines, which proved so effective they threw into question the value of surface ships and forever changed the nature of naval warfare. During World War II, Allied and Axis subs—particularly Germany’s Type VII U-boats—proved grimly efficient in operations against both warships and merchant vessels. The postwar advent of nuclear power and ballistic missiles helped ensure the submarine’s rank among the most potent weapon systems on earth.
From the time men first took to the air for military purposes, in a hot-air observation balloon during the 1794 Franco-Austrian Battle of Fleurus, commanders have realized that battlefield awareness increases with altitude. Virtually every type of airborne craft has since been used for reconnaissance and, from World War I, to bombard the enemy and attack his flying machines. Aircraft such as Germany’s Fokker Dr.I dominated the skies over the Western Front, forcing armies to think in three dimensions and teaching nations that borders had lost their meaning. Technological innovation ensured that the flying machines of World War II were ever more advanced, capable and deadly than their predecessors, a trend that continued through the “small wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Yet despite stealth technologies, advanced computer systems and the ability to engage enemies well beyond visual range, the missions of military aircraft remain remarkably unchanged.
The theory and conduct of land warfare irrevocably changed in mid-September 1916 when a British Mark I tank crawled ponderously toward German trench lines near the French village of Courcelette during the Battle of the Somme. Though that particular vehicle failed to spearhead the widespread advance Allied planners hoped would spell an end to trench warfare, its potential was not lost on observers from both sides. By war’s end, tanks were smaller, faster and more reliable—and they got even better in the years leading to the outbreak of World War II. Several nations developed doctrines of armored warfare that sought to use the tank’s speed and firepower to rapidly overcome or outmaneuver enemy forces—as had chariots five millennia earlier—but it was Nazi Germany that first put doctrine into practice with its blitzkrieg tactics. While tactical aircraft, shoulder-fired antitank weapons and other technological advances have periodically hampered the tank’s effectiveness, comparable evolution in armored warfare tactics and technology have ensured the tank’s continuing importance on modern-day battlefields.
As the military value of heavier-than-air observation and attack aircraft became obvious, it was only a matter of time before navies developed ways to take aircraft to sea. The deployment of float-equipped seaplanes aboard conventional warships was one early method, but the August 1917 landing of a Sopwith Pup fighter on a rudimentary flight deck installed aboard HMS Furious marked the birth of the modern aircraft carrier. By the 1930s, fast and capable carriers were operating in the American, British and Japanese navies, and tactical doctrine for the vessels’ employment in attack, reconnaissance and antisubmarine roles was well advanced by the 1939 outbreak of World War II. That conflict saw several seminal carrier engagements— including the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea, the first exclusively carrier vs. carrier clash—and decisively demonstrated the aircraft carrier’s importance as a power-projection platform. The carrier’s ascendancy virtually assured the disappearance of large-gun capital warships, and the aircraft carrier remains both a military weapon and an unmistakable symbol of naval might and national resolve.
Though the advent of bomber aircraft vastly improved an attacker’s ability to strike an adversary’s defenses and infrastructure, the loss of aircraft also usually meant the loss of crews. In the years between the world wars, this unavoidable reality of air combat led the United States, the Soviet Union and several other nations to experiment with guided, unmanned, explosives-laden aircraft. By the outbreak of World War II, the development of compact jet and rocket engines, coupled with improvements in both explosives and gyro-stabilization systems, enabled the construction of increasingly capable aircraft. The first of these to see combat—and arguably the most successful—was Nazi Germany’s pulse-jet powered V-1 (see P. 23), which after the war served as the basis for derivative American, Russian and French systems. The Cold War saw the deployment on land and at sea of several large, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, including America’s Matador and Regulus. Fortunately, such weapons were never used in combat, but their air-, land- and sea-launched successors—small, highly sophisticated, precision-guided weapons such as the American Tomahawk and Chinese Silkworm—have seen service in recent conflicts.
Though used only twice in anger—at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—the atomic bomb has had more profound effect on modern military doctrine than any other weapon in history. Both bombs —Little Boy and Fat Man—were primitive by modern standards, yet their destructive power shocked the world into the realization that no conflict could be allowed to “go nuclear,” given the very real possibility that once initiated, a nuclear conflict could engulf the entire planet. Of course, this didn’t stop the world’s leading nations from developing guidelines for the use of both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, or from producing large numbers of increasingly sophisticated and destructive warheads. The legacy of the Atomic Age is one of almost universal anxiety that some technical glitch or inadvertent miscommunication would result in Armageddon. Worldwide opposition to nuclear proliferation, coupled with the end of the Cold War, led many nations to reduce their nuclear arsenals in the latter years of the 20th century. Any collective sigh of relief is premature, however, given the increasing possibility that a rogue nation or terrorist organization might choose to employ the nuclear option.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.