Insane Weapons Throughout History

The Bronze Age is when the first weapons that were made to do a specific job were found. Maces, which were basically just rocks on sticks, weren’t very good for hunting, but they were great for breaking the bones and skulls of other people. In the later part of the Bronze Age, the first swords were made. Since then, weapons have been improved to make it easier for the person using them to kill and harder for their opponents to fight back. The armed drone, which is an unmanned aircraft that can stay in the air for hours at a high altitude before firing a missile at its target, may be the peak of this trend. In these situations, the person controlling the drone could be on the other side of the world, and the killing seems as impersonal and fake as a video game (that parallel breaks down when one examines the rates of PTSD among military drone operators, which are comparable to those of ground troops). From rocks to rockets, war weapons have changed over time, but there are a few that stand out for how well they kill.

Maxim machine gun

The technology of guns changed a lot in the 19th century. Gunsmithing became more precise when machine tools were used. The percussion cap and cartridge ammunition made it less likely that a gun would misfire. Smokeless powder burned more cleanly and evenly than black powder, and gunsmiths quickly saw that they could use the recoil of a gun to make it shoot faster. Hiram Maxim was the first to make a weapon that used all these new ideas. The Maxim gun was made around 1884. It was a belt-fed, water-cooled, recoil-operated machine gun that could shoot more than 500 rounds per minute at a range of more than 2,000 yards (1,830 meters). Maxim spoke up for his weapon and did a good job of it. In the years before World War I, armies all over Europe used some version of the Maxim. On the Western Front, many different types of Maxim’s gun were used. Compared to old infantry tactics, their killing power was amazing. In just one day of the First Battle of the Somme, more than 20,000 British soldiers were killed in bloody, ineffective charges against entrenched German defenders armed with MG 08s, the German version of the Maxim.

Nuclear bomb

When people talk about the deadliest weapons in history, nuclear weapons are the one that stands out the most. The spread of nuclear weapons has given people the power to kill themselves in the same way that an asteroid could do before. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, it killed 70,000 people right away. Over the next few months and years, radiation sickness killed tens of thousands more. The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, called Little Boy, had the same explosive power as about 15 kilotons of TNT. The Russian RS-28 Sarmat (which NATO called Satan 2) ICBM was made to carry a payload 2,000 times more powerful than Little Boy. Russian engineers said that a single Satan 2 missile could wipe out an area the size of Texas or France. Even though arms control treaties have cut nuclear arsenals by a lot, there are still about 15,000 nuclear weapons on Earth. The United States and Russia own more than 90% of those weapons.

Stun the cavalry

Shock cavalry was one of the few military innovations that had a big impact on European society. The rise of the mounted knight was due to changes in technology that happened over a long period of time. The war saddle was invented in the sixth century, and the iron stirrup, which many people mistakenly think was the only thing that made heavy-mounted warfare possible, became common in the seventh. The curb bit, which is used to control a warhorse, probably came into use around the same time. Iron horseshoes date back to the end of the 9th century, and spurs started to appear in the 11th. By the 12th century, these factors, along with the growing size and strength of warhorses and the steady improvement of personal armor, put the mounted knight at the top of the battlefield in Europe. The mounted knight and feudalism developed together, and the economic and military systems helped each other grow. The armored knight had no competition for hundreds of years. The Swiss footmen’s use of the pike and the introduction of the Welsh longbow changed things, though. At Morgarten on November 15, 1315, a group of Austrian knights was routed by Swiss eidgenossen, which means “oath brothers.” At Poitiers on September 19, 1356, and at Agincourt on October 25, 1415, skilled English yeoman archers killed most of the best French knights. Highborn armored cavalry was no longer as important as infantry made up of people from lower social classes.

Greek fire/napalm

Stand-up legend George Carlin summed up the idea behind the flame thrower this way: “Wow, I sure would like to set those people on fire over there. But I’m too far away from the job to do it. If only I had something that would set fire to them.” Byzantine Greeks were the first people to use Carlin’s line of thought effectively as a weapon. They made a mixture known as Greek fire. The exact ingredients of Greek fire were such a closely guarded secret that no one knows what they were, but its effectiveness in battle probably helped the Byzantine Empire last longer. Napalm, which is a modern version of Greek fire, was first used in World War II. In the Allied bombing of Dresden (February 13–15, 1945) and the firebombing of Tokyo, napalm-filled incendiary bombs were used (March 9–10, 1945). The first one killed at least 25,000 people and destroyed one of Europe’s most important cultural centers. The second one killed at least 100,000 civilians, which was more than the initial death toll of Hiroshima and destroyed half of the Japanese capital. Some people thought these attacks were war crimes, but Allied planners said they were important to the war effort as a whole.


Before the 19th century, most infantry weapons that were fired from the shoulder were muzzle-loaded smoothbore muskets. These muskets could shoot bullets that could break bones. 75-caliber (19-mm) bullets could go up to 200 yards, but they were not very accurate. So that the bullets could be moved quickly from the muzzle to the breech, they had to fit loosely in the barrel. When the musket ball was fired, it wobbled down the barrel. This made it fly in an unpredictable way after it left the muzzle. Early attempts at rifling, which involves cutting shallow spiral grooves into a gun’s barrel, failed because lead balls had to be forced into the rifled bore. Because the spiral grooves gave the projectile spin, rifles were much more accurate than smoothbore weapons. This problem was first solved by Claude-Étienne Minié, a French army officer. Minié made a bullet with a base that expanded into the musket’s rifling when the gun was fired. This bullet became known as the Minié ball. The range and accuracy of rifled muskets were greatly improved by this idea, but the time it took to load them didn’t change. Some of the huge losses in the battles of the American Civil War were because commanders didn’t realize that their men’s weapons were getting more dangerous. Rifles were made even deadlier by improvements like breech-loading weapons, smokeless powder, and cartridge ammunition. When rifled bores were added to field artillery, their range, accuracy, and power were greatly improved. During World War II, when the assault rifle was invented, it changed the way infantry battles were fought. Now, the effectiveness of small units was measured by how many shots they could put out and how quickly they could move (an evolution that, ironically, minimized the accuracy issues that rifling was supposed to address). The AK-47 might be the most important piece of military equipment of the 20th century. Many guerrilla, militant, and revolutionary groups used the gun, and by the early 21st century, it was thought that as many as 100 million AK-47s were in use.


Early submarines were much more dangerous to their own crews than to the people they were supposed to attack. Before it was able to sink the Union sloop Housatonic with its spar torpedo, the Confederate submarine H.L. But even this “success” needs to be qualified because the attack caused the Hunley to sink (again) and everyone on board to die. By the end of the 19th century, gasoline engines and electric motors had solved the problem of how to move the boat above and below the water, and design improvements had made boats much safer at sea. By the time of World War I, all of the major naval powers had submarines in their fleets, but the German U-boats would have an outsized effect on the outcome of the war. More than 10 million tons of Allied ships were sunk by U-boats, and Germany’s practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, especially the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, helped bring the United States into the war. During World War II, U-boats played a similar role, coming close to cutting Britain’s vital link to the United States. Some modern submarines are made to attack ships, but their destructive power is nothing compared to that of ballistic missile submarines. The U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine could carry up to 24 Trident missiles, but this number was cut by a treaty. Each Trident missile could deliver up to 10 nuclear warheads, and each of these warheads was designed to create a 475-kiloton blast. These ships were like “World War II in a can” because they could do the same amount of damage as nearly 8,000 Hiroshima bombs from over 1,400 miles away.

Biochemical weapons

Throughout the history of war, disease has often killed more people than fighting. Putting infectious agents on the battlefield on purpose is, at best, a risky strategy, because biological weapons are even more unpredictable than chemical weapons. Viruses and bacteria don’t care what you wear or what group you belong to. Genoese defenders at Kaffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine) held out against a Mongol siege for more than a year, starting in 1346. When disease started killing people in the besieging army, the Mongols threw plague-ridden bodies over the city walls. The Genoese brought the Black Death to Europe when they tried to get away from an epidemic that quickly spread through the city. Between 1347 and 1351, 25 million people died from the Black Death. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 said that biological weapons were not allowed, but Japan used them in China and did a lot of experiments that killed more than 3,000 people. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was meant to limit the development and stockpiling of biological agents, but it turned out that the Soviet Union had been running a huge secret program to make biological weapons since it signed the treaty in 1972. Without a strict inspection and enforcement system, the BWC was more of a statement of global rules about weapons of war than a real ban on biological agents.

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