10 Weapons that changed warfare

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The historical development of civilization has always gone hand-in-hand with the history of warfare.

In fact, the shift in paradigms and institutions have only taken place with the utilisation of weapons of war to behead kings and dethrone emperors. The development of weapons has been critical to the advancement of societies and the fates of peoples and governments.

In this article we will look at ten weapons that changed the way warfare is conducted.

The Bone and the Stone

Anyone that has seen the movie will remember the epic scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey where a tribe of hominids is driven away from their water hole by a rival tribe. They awaken to find a featureless black monolith has appeared before them. Influenced by the monolith, they discover how to use a bone as a weapon and drive their rivals away from the water hole.

Used as a club, the bone could give an attacker the advantage of reach and it could generate far more power than a fist. The stone was probably the first ‘ranged’ weapon. It could be thrown at an opponent and if they were hit in a vulnerable spot such as the head, it could cause serious damage or even kill them.

Then man discovered ‘hafting’, the process of attaching a sharpened stone to a spear. It could be thrown much further than a stone and it was deadly. It could cut down an opponent long before they were in range to use a stone or a club.

Up until recently, it was thought attaching a stone tip to a spear - known as ‘hafting’ - started about 300,000 years ago.

A study carried out in 2012 shows that stone points from the South African archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 shows stoned tipped spears were used 500,000 years ago. This was during the early Middle Pleistocene, a period associated with Homo heidelbergensis, the last common ancestor of Neandertals, and modern humans.

The Gladius

At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched to three continents and five million square kilometres. It ruled an estimated 70 million people which was, at the time, 21% of the world’s entire population.

The reason why Rome was able to conquer such a vast area was mainly due to the Roman Army, especially the Roman Legions. The Legions were made up of professional heavy infantrymen of the Roman Army.

The primary weapon of a Legionary was the gladius, a Latin word that simply means ‘sword’. The gladius was used primarily as a stabbing weapons and it featured a v-shaped tip that was perfect for slipping through the spaces in ribs, or through the cartilage itself. Both edges were sharpened and it could also be used to slash.

The weapon was ideal for the Romans, who used it in formation. All soldiers drew the sword with their right hand while in their left hand they carried the huge rectangular scutum (shield). This gave the formation speed and the ability to withdraw the weapon quickly and defend themselves solely with the shield.

Yet the gladius was not originally a Roman sword. It was in fact Spanish. The Spaniards had two weapons that both impressed and scared the Romans – the falcate, a slashing weapon with a lethal forward curving blade, and the gladius. The Romans were so impressed with the gladius that they quickly adopted it for their own use.

The sword had at least three evolutions, moving from the Gladius Hispaniensis (Spanish Gladius), to the early Roman version of the sword, to the latter ‘Pompeii’ Version. This last version had a length of 65-70 cm, a blade width of 6 cm, and weighed 700 grams.

The gladius is considered by many to be one of the most important swords in history, both due to the impact it had on the Roman troops and to the advancements it represented in sword evolution.

The ‘English’ Longbow

Another crowd that had a large empire at one stage were the British. In fact it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Naturally they tended to appropriate technology from those nations they had colonised or conquered and put the word ‘English’ before it.

Bearing that in mind the ‘English’ longbow should actually be called the ‘Welsh’ longbow. In the early 12th century during a skirmish between the Welsh and the English, the longbow was used against the English. After the word spread of its power, Edward I adopted the weapon for the rest of the English army in its fight against the Welsh. Ironically, a weapon used by the Welsh was used against them to good effect.

Archers, using the longbow, became the cornerstone of the British army. Archers would often outnumber the infantry by as much as 10 to 1. English use of longbows was effective against the French during the Hundred Years’ War, particularly at the start of the war in the battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), and Poitiers (1356), and perhaps most famously at the Battle of Agincourt (1415).

A longbow was able to shoot a 53.6 g arrow 328 m and one weighing 95.9 g arrow a distance of 249.9 m and could penetrate a knight’s armour with relative ease.



Here’s a little formula that will cure all diseases as well as granting you eternal life and eternal youth. It’s a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate (saltpetre). It was invented in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists who were trying to create the elixir of life.

While their invention may not have been very good at giving eternal life, it became very good at taking life. What they had invented was gunpowder, the earliest known chemical explosive.

Also known as black powder, it is classified as a low explosive because it burns at subsonic speeds whereas high explosives detonate, producing a supersonic wave. The Chinese used fire arrows, a bag of incendiary gunpowder attached to the shaft of an arrow, from at least the 10th century. In the following centuries various gunpowder weapons such as bombs, fire lances, and, eventually, the gun appeared in China.

It was probably the Mongols that introduced gunpowder to the West. The earliest Western accounts of gunpowder appear in texts written by English philosopher Roger Bacon in the 13th century. Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241.

The impact of gunpowder would prove to be immeasurable. Gunpowder replaced siege weapons, giving birth to the cannon. Overcoming castles and fortresses would prove to be far easier with the ability to project missiles towards enemy emplacements with increased damage and accuracy.

The Colt Revolver

It is often referred to as “The gun that won the west” – the Colt Revolver. In 1936 Connecticut-born gun manufacturer Samuel Colt received a US patent for a revolver mechanism that allowed a gun to be fire multiple times without reloading.

He then founded a company to manufacture his revolving-cylinder pistol. Sales were slow and his company was in danger of going bankrupt. Then, in 1946, with the Mexican War under way, the US government ordered 1,000 Colt revolvers and overnight Colt’s future looking a lot brighter.

In 1855 Colt opened what was the world’s largest private armament factory, in which he employed advanced manufacturing techniques such as interchangeable parts and an organised production line. By 1856 the company could produce 150 weapons per day.

The Colt revolver would also prove a major benefit to the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865), as Colt would not sell the weapon to the North. Samuel Colt died a wealthy man in 1862 and the company he founded is still in business today.

The AK-47

It’s probably the most recognised firearm in the world. It is used in 115 countries and manufactured in 33 countries.

Even after nearly seven decades it remains the most popular and widely used  assault rifle in the world. It is simple to maintain, reliable under harsh conditions, costs little to produce and, above all, is easy to use.

The weapon in question is, of course, the Avtomat Kalashnikova - better known as the AK-47 or just AK. Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three quarters of which are AK-47s.

The AK-47 was designed by Russian tank sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov to be a simple, reliable automatic rifle that could be manufactured quickly and cheaply, using mass production methods that were state of the art in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s.

Weighing 3.47 kg and 880 mm in length, it uses a box magazine that holds 30 7.62 x 39 mm rounds.


Chlorine Gas

Fritz Haber discovered and patented the Harber-Bosch process in 1910 for the fixation of nitrogen as ammonia. It earned him the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This process made the manufacture of artificial fertilizers possible and would save millions of farmers and civilians in rural communities.

Yet it also enabled the mass production of nitric acid, source of the explosives that Germany used in World War I. Harber was the head of the chemistry section in the Ministry of War, coordinating the production of ammonia used to fight the war. He was also in charge of chemical warfare.

It was the French, and not the Germans, that first used gas in World War I. In August 1914 the French used tear gas grenades containing xylyl bromide on the Germans. Harber decided that the ideal chemical weapon would be chlorine.

He supervised the installation of the first chlorine gas cylinders in the trenches on the Western front, near Yprese. Along with specialist troops, he waited for the wind to blow from the east towards the Allied trenches and launched the first gas attack on 22 April 1915.

The French troops and their Algerian comrades though that the yellow-green cloud moving towards them was a smokescreen to disguise the movement of a German attack. As such, all troops in the area were ordered into the firing line of their trench. The dense chlorine was heavier than air and poured into the trenches. Of the more than 15,000 casualties, 5,000 were killed.

After Harber’s initial success things didn’t go well for him afterwards. A patriotic German, he returned home on 1 May to celebrate the success of the attack, but that night his wife, Clara, committed suicide after an argument (possibly over the morality of what he was doing). A few years later he developed a system for getting rid of insect pests, using hydrogen cyanide. It became known as the Zyklon system. A derivative pesticide, Zyklon B, was later used to kill millions in Nazi concentration camps. Harber was a German-Jew and many of his close relatives died in the camps.

Chlorine remains the simplest chemical weapons and was used on the battlefield during the Iraq War. In August 2016 it was claimed that Syria dropped barrel bombs full of chlorine on a suburb of Aleppo. Although the Syrian government denied using chlorine gas, a UN-led enquiry proved that it had used the gas on at least two occasions.

Fokker Dr. I Triplane

On 17 December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft. Eight years, in 1991, powered aircraft were first used in war by the Italians against the Turks near Tripoli. But it was not until World War I that their use became widespread.

At first, aircraft were unarmed and employed for reconnaissance. Opposing pilots would often pass each other in the skies and wave or salute. Then someone hit upon the idea of taking a revolver up with them and taking a few shots at the opposition. Soon aircraft were being armed with machine guns and aerial warfare came into its own.

Various aircraft designs and armaments were tested in combat as each side fought for dominance of the skies. In February 1917, the Sopwith Triplane began to appear over the Western Front. Despite its single Vickers machine gun armament, the Sopwith swiftly proved itself superior to the more heavily armed Albatros fighters then in use by the Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force).

In April 1917, Anthony Fokker viewed a captured Sopwith Triplane while visiting Jasta 11 (No 11 Fighter Squadron). Upon his return to the Schwerin factory, Fokker instructed Reinhold Platz to build a triplane, but gave him no further information about the Sopwith design.

The final result was the Fokker Dr. I. The Dr stood for Dreidecker (triplane). It became one of the most icon aircraft of the war.

Despite being slower than a biplane in level flight or in a dive, it had superior manoeuvrability and rate of climb.

The Dr.I saw widespread service in the spring of 1918. It became famous as the aircraft in which Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, gained his last 19 victories, and in which he was killed on 21 April 1918.

The Drone

Imagine having the ability to carry out reconnaissance on an enemy thousands of kilometres away, receiving live High Definition video feed of exactly what the enemy is up to. Then imagine you could fire a missile at the target. Finally, imagine that you could do all this without any threat to the lives of your own forces. This is exactly the abilities that the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator can provide.

The remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), better known as a drone, was conceived in the early 1990s for aerial reconnaissance and forward observation roles. They carry cameras and other sensors and have been modified and upgraded to carry two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. In use since 1995, they have seen combat in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the NATO intervention in Bosnia, Serbia, the Iraq War, Yemen, 2011 Libyan Civil War, the 2014 intervention in Syria and Somalia.

Powered by a Rotax engine and driven by a propeller, the air vehicle can fly up to 740 km to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, and then return to its base.

In the early 1990s the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) became interested in the ‘Amber’, a drone developed by Leading Systems Inc. Abraham Karem, the former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force, owned the company. He had immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s. His company went bankrupt and had been bought up by a US defence contractor. On request by the CIA, Karem agreed to produce a quiet engine for the vehicle, which until then had been noisy. It was said to have sounded like “a lawnmower in the sky”. The new development became known as the Predator.

The Predator air vehicle and sensors are controlled from the ground station via a C-band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-band satellite data link for beyond-line-of-sight operations. During flight operations the crew in the ground control station is a pilot and two sensor operators. The aircraft is equipped with the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System, a colon nose camera (generally used by the pilot for flight control), a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture thermographic camera (for low light/night).

Previously, Predators were equipped with a synthetic aperture radar for looking through smoke, clouds or haze, but lack of use validated its removal to reduce weight and conserve fuel. The cameras produce full motion video and the synthetic aperture radar produced still frame radar images. There is sufficient bandwidth on the datalink for two video sources to be used at one time, but only one video source from the sensor ball can be used at any time due to design limitations. Either the daylight variable aperture or the infrared electro-optical sensor may be operated simultaneously with the synthetic aperture radar, if equipped.

All later Predators are equipped with a laser designator that allows the pilot to identify targets for other aircraft and even provide the laser guidance for manned aircraft. This laser is also the designator for the AGM-114 Hellfire that are carried on the MQ-1.

The Nuke

While all the weapons previously mentioned in this article changed the face of war, only one weapon has the ability to wipe out the entire human race – nuclear weapons.

During 1939 there was concern that scientists in Nazi Germany had discovered the secret to splitting the uranium atom. That same year the United States launched the Manhattan Project.

A team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, which included many exiles from Europe, were tasked with the goal of producing fission-based explosive devices before Germany could.

Britain and the U.S. agreed to pool their resources and information for the project, but the other Allied power, the Soviet Union (USSR), was not informed.

After D-Day, General Groves ordered a team of scientists to follow eastward-moving victorious Allied troops into Europe to assess the status of the German nuclear program (and to prevent the westward-moving Soviets from gaining any materials or scientific manpower). They concluded that, while Germany had an atomic bomb program headed by Werner Heisenberg, the government had not made a significant investment in the project, and it had been nowhere near success.

On April 12, after Roosevelt’s death, Vice-President Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency. At the time of the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, the Manhattan Project was still months away from producing a working weapon.

Because of the difficulties in making a working plutonium bomb, it was decided that there should be a test of the weapon. On July 16, 1945, in the desert north of Alamogordo, New Mexico, the first nuclear test took place, code-named “Trinity”, using a device nicknamed “the gadget.”

The test, a plutonium implosion type device, released energy equivalent to 19 kilotons of TNT, far more powerful than any weapon ever used before. The news of the test’s success was rushed to Truman at the Potsdam Conference, where Churchill was briefed and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was informed of the new weapon.

On July 26, the Potsdam Declaration was issued containing an ultimatum for Japan: either surrender or suffer “complete and utter destruction”, although nuclear weapons were not mentioned.

On August 6, 1945, a uranium-based weapon, Little Boy, was detonated above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and three days later, a plutonium-based weapon, Fat Man, was detonated above the Japanese city of Nagasaki. To date, Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only two instances of nuclear weapons being used in combat.

The atomic raids killed at least one hundred thousand Japanese civilians and military personnel outright, with the heat, radiation, and blast effects.

Many tens of thousands would later die of radiation sickness and related cancers. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender.

Since then even more powerful nuclear weapons have been developed such as the hydrogen bomb. Delivery methods such as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) means that they can be deployed on targets thousands of kilometres away.

A multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) is a ballistic missile payload containing several thermonuclear warheads, each capable of being aimed to hit a different target.

Currently nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons. At one stage South Africa had six nuclear bombs with one under construction.

DEADLY MUSHROOM: A nuclear weapon is tested at a remote site in the desert..

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