Top 10 Greatest Military Achievements That Changed the Face of War

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There have been a number of military achievements throughout world history that have revolutionized warfare.  Listed here, I have attempted to formulate the top ten military achievements that have most significantly impacted warfare throughout world history.

Although there have been numerous military technological and ideological advancements that have revolutionized warfare from military formations and gunpowder to radio communications and canned foods, this study focuses strictly on weapon systems.  While many may disagree with the particulars on this list, most will agree that all the weapon systems noted have played a significant part in revolutionizing warfare.  In fact, many of these weapon systems have continuously been updated over time and most still play a dominate role in modern warfare today.

10.    The Chariot

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The two-wheeled horse-drawn chariot was one of the most important achievements in history.  It provided humanity its first concept of personal transport and for more than two thousand years it was used as a key military weapon system of war.  Chariots seem to have originated in Mesopotamia in the third millennium or around about 2000 BC.  The highly mobile two-wheeled war chariot carrying a driver and an archer armed with a short composite bow revolutionized military tactics after 1700 BC.  Chariots were expensive, clumsy and prone to breakdowns. Yet these military weapon systems were used for centuries.  They were not replaced by horseback riders until the first millennium BC making these weapon systems the early foundation for the cavalry.

9.    The Sarissa

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The sarissa, also know as a lance or pike, was a gigantic 13-21 foot long double pointed pike used in the Macedonian phalanx infantry formation as early as 3,000 BC.  Its great length was an asset against hoplites and other soldiers bearing smaller weapons, because they had to get past the sarissa to engage the phalangites.  The tight formation of the phalanx created a “wall of pikes”, and the pike was sufficiently long that there were fully five rows of pikes in front of the front rank of men—even if an enemy got past the first row, there were still four more to stop him.  The Macedonian phalanx was considered all but invulnerable from the front, except against another such phalanx; the only way it was ever generally defeated was by breaking its formation or outflanking it.

The invention of the sarissa is credited to Philip, father of the celebrated Macedonian king, Alexander the Great.  However, it was Alexander who successfully employed this new weapons system across Asia, conquering Egypt, Persia and the Pauravas (northwest India), victorious all the way.  The sarissa-wielding phalanxes were vital in every battle to include the pivotal battle of Gaugamela where the Persian king’s brutal scythe chariots were utterly destroyed by the phalanx.  The sarissa remained a primary weapon system for every Hellenistic army until the rise of Rome.

8.  Sailing Ships

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The first sailing ships were likely Egyptian and existed around 3000 BC or earlier.  They were used on the Nile River which was ideal for primitive sailing vessels. The wind on the Nile is usually from the north, so if they wanted to go south they just raised the sail on the double mast.  And if they wanted to go north, they just lowered the sail and drifted with the river.  Through these early sailing ships the navy was born.

Produced from the 8th to the 13th centuries and commonly used in Northern Europe, Viking ships were “clinker built” boats called Knorrs.  These sailing ships were sturdy, long, and slender with a large square sail making them swift and capable of long voyages.  By 1200, these Knorrs were used by militaries throughout northern Europe.

The technology of the sailing warship found relative stability from 1775 to 1862 requiring little expensive research and few new developments.  Sails, ropes, and guns would eventually become the main components of this military weapon system and timber, the most basic and vital component of these wooden sailing warships, was present in abundance to most countries.

7.      The Cannon

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The cannon, first appearing in the early 14th century in Europe, assumed its classic form at the beginning of the 17th century which persisted almost unchanged until the mid-19th century at which time it was superseded by the breech loading rifled gun.

Until the early 17th century, cannons in a battle were immobile and the two-wheeled gun carriage was slow to be developed.  This military weapon system would eventually add a new service branch to the army.  And the Artillery would soon join the Cavalry and Infantry.  It was a shock weapon, most effectively used in mass, and its placement was critical. The battery itself was fixed, but fire could be directed to any point within range very quickly. The battery had to be carefully protected from assault, while its field of fire had to be as open and level as possible.  One good volley across the front of a cavalry or infantry charge would lead to incredible destruction.

This weapon system was most vulnerable to a cavalry attack from the rear, rendering its powerful weapons useless.  However, it was the cannon that made the fortresses and castles obsolete.  In 1494, the Earl of Warwick reduced Bamborough Castle of the revolting Percies to rubble in a week.  In 1523, Philip of Hesse brought the most powerful fortress in the world at Landstuhl, to its knees in a day.  This military weapon system remains today in a modified form as the mortar and a few other smooth-bore weapons.

6.  The Machine Gun


The Gatling gun, named after its inventor Dr. Richard J. Gatling, was the first widely used rapid-fire guns.  Due to their multiple barrels, this weapon system could offer more sustained fire than the first generation of air-cooled, recoil-operated machine guns.  The weight, complexity, and resulting cost of this multibarrel design discouraged its initial success.

The first true machine gun was invented in 1881 by Hiram Maxim.  The “Maxim gun” used the recoil power of the previously fired bullet to reload rather than being hand-powered, enabling a much higher rate of fire than was possible using earlier designs.  Maxim’s other great innovation was the use of water cooling (via a water jacket around the barrel) to reduce overheating.  Maxim’s gun was widely adopted and derivative designs were used on all sides during the First World War.  Most famously this weapon system was employed during the battle of the Somme. The design required fewer crew, was lighter, and more usable than earlier Gatling guns.

It would be another 50 years before Gatling’s concept was again improved to allow extremely high rates of fire as found today in miniguns and other automatic aircraft cannons.  Today, many machine guns are mounted and even disconnected from humans as part of a robotic armament system such as on a tank coaxial or part of an aircraft’s armament.  These weapon systems are usually electronically-fired and have advanced sighting enhancements.

5.      The Submarine

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The “Rotterdam Boat,” designed by a Frenchman named De Son in 1653, was probably the first underwater vessel specifically built to attack enemy ships.  This 72-foot-long semi-submerged ram was supposed to sneak up unobserved and punch a hole in an enemy ship.  The designer boasted that it could cross the English Channel and back in a day, and sink a hundred ships along the way.

Since then, the submarine has revolutionized naval warfare.  This military weapon system has demonstrated significant evolution from the days of the Civil War to its baptism by fire in the first World War to the nuclear subs of today which carry intercontinental missiles and can cruise submerged for several months.

Today some 47 nations operate more than 700 submarines and almost 300 of these ships are nuclear-powered.  A host of countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Japan, are pursuing new designs.  In short, the submarine appears to be weapon system that is here to stay for the major powers of the world.

4. The Paratroopers

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Perhaps no military weapon system has provided more flexibility on the battlefield as the employment of paratroopers.  Certainly, no weapon system has been so spectacular.  Shortly after World War I, General Billy Mitchell proposed that parachuting troops from aircraft into combat could be an effective on the battlefield.  During the demonstration of his concept at Kelly Field at San Antonio, Texas, six soldiers parachuted from a Martin Bomber, safely landed, and in less than three minutes after exiting the aircraft had their weapons assembled and were ready for action.

Although the U.S. military observers dismissed the concept, not all of the observers arrived at the same conclusion. The German observers eagerly grasped the idea and planners worked quickly to develop an effective military parachute organization.

The Germans effectively developed their airborne forces and, at the start of the Second World War, used parachute troops in their spearhead assaults in Holland and Belgium.  Spurred by the successful employment of airborne troops by the Germans in their invasion of the Low Countries, U.S. military branches began an all-out effort to develop this new form of warfare.

From Operation Overlord’s paratroopers who first secured the flanks of Normandy’s landing beaches to the rangers and airborne forces who spearheaded modern operations by jumping into the night to seize airfields, paratroopers provide an obvious tactical edge in modern military warfare.  Inserted onto the battlefield from the air, the paratrooper can drop into areas inaccessible to regular soldiers.  This weapon system is extensively used by modern armies and can evade enemy fortifications and force an army to thin its defenses to protect areas that normally would be safe by virtue of geography.

3. The Airplane

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The history of aerial warfare is a relatively new branch of military history. Hot air balloons were introduced as observation platforms in the late 18th Century.  They were not widely used until the mid-19th Century.  True aerial warfare or air combat operations, is only about a century old.  But the history of aerial warfare is already brimming with stories of great air battles, innovative technology, and the decisive use of strategic airpower.

With the jet engine developed during the end of the Second World War, the major powers of the world began to employ this new technology in its air force.  The United States entered the Korean War using Second World War style propeller-driven aircraft, but by wars end the air force was almost totally based on jet powered aircraft.  During the Korean War U.S. F-80’s and F-86’s battled against the Soviet MiG-15 in the first aerial battles between jet fighters.

Military aviation came into its own during the Second World War.  The increased performance, range, and payload of contemporary aircraft meant that air power could move beyond the novelty applications seen in the First World War becoming a central striking force for all the combatant nations.
Over the course aircraft evolution, modern and distinct roles continue to emerge for the application of air power with stealth technologies, optically guided missile systems, and smart bombs.

2.    The Aircraft Carrier

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The British navy also experimented with the aircraft carrier during the First World War and developed the first true carrier with an unobstructed flight deck, the HMS Argus, built on a converted merchant-ship hull.  The war ended before the Argus could be put into action, but the U.S. and Japanese navies quickly followed this British example.  The first U.S. carrier, a converted collier renamed the USS Langley, joined the fleet in March 1922. A Japanese carrier, named the Hosyo, entered service in December 1922 and was the first carrier designed as such from the keel up.

Today the aircraft carrier has become one of the most advanced weapon systems and represents the hallmark of military superiority on the high seas.  The nuclear aircraft carrier is the epitome of U.S. military superpower status.  And among the modern nuclear super carriers, the Nimitz-class is the newest, largest, and fastest in the world.  At nearly 1,100 feet long, the Chrysler building can be laid upon its deck with fifty feet to spare at each end.

1.    Atomic Bomb.

To date, no other military weapon system has had such a profound influence on revolutionizing warfare as the atomic bomb.  This bomb was the first and only nuclear bomb to have ever been used in warfare.  It was   exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively.

An even more powerful nuclear weapon was developed in the hydrogen bomb, based on destruction through nuclear fusion and was acquired by the USA in 1952; the USSR in 1953; the UK in 1957; China in 1967; and France in 1968.  In 1977 the U.S. developed an even more potent weapon in the enhanced hydrogen bomb which uses a beryl coating to vastly expand its radioactive power.

Since their inception, nuclear weapon systems have multiplied at an alarming rate, leaving everyone from policymakers to concerned citizens wondering what it will take to slow, stop, or even reverse the spread of these technologies.

by David Hurlbert, Ph.D


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22 Comments

  1. I was hoping for Military achievments in the field, not Weapon inventions.

    Example Blitzkrieg, Amphibian landings, Island hopping, and such

  2. Totally disagree on the submarine. It has proven to be one of the most ineffective weapons of all time. Contrary to popular belief, it's impact on WWII was minimal.

    Incidentally, for sailing ships; the key invention was the keel.

    While the airplane had a great impact, a careful reading of military history shows that close air ground support had a revolutionary impact. Far more than bombers.

    • Bombers at the time of WWII were actually incredibly inaccurate (18% of bombs hit their targets), so you can’t really base it on that era.

      However, precision bombing has a profound impact. Being able to take out a bunker, or building, or vehicle from an aerial vehicle is incredible.

      I agree with vx. The only reason the submarine was less effective in World War II was because of it’s impact in the First World War. The U-Boat was so effective in WWI that the Allies basically made the North Sea a gigantic minefield.

  3. You left out one.. the discovery of steel?

    before that is was bronze, horrible metal.

    steel changed ALOT more than we realize, not only in war but in life as well.

      • Steel is arguably not an invention, however that cannot be said of steelsmithing tools and technologies that revolutionized warfare doe to the higher quality and strength offered, before steel/iron smithing became possible the only source of high quality metal for warfare was meteoric iron which, as you can imagine was not economical to oufit an entire army in. Thus without the invention of metal smithing half of this list is not possible, can you think of a plausible way to make cannons out of bronze for example?

  4. The stirrup.

    Interesting…..

    From wikipedia:

    "The stirrup is considered one of the basic tools used to create and spread modern civilization. Some argue it is as important as the wheel or printing press."

  5. Sorry….

    More:

    "The stirrup, which gave greater stability to a rider, has been described as one of the most significant inventions in the history of warfare, prior to gunpowder. As a tool allowing expanded use of horses in warfare, the stirrup is often called the third revolutionary step in equipment, after the chariot and the saddle. The basic tactics of mounted warfare were significantly altered by the stirrup. A rider supported by stirrups was less likely to fall off while fighting, and could deliver a blow with a weapon that more fully employed the weight and momentum of horse and rider."

  6. "knorr" is a merchant ship, not a generic name for a clinker-built ship. There are multible names for warships in Old Norse- drakkar, snekkja, etc, denoting different types. The later medieval ships wer known as hulks and cogs depending on design.

    O'Brain,

    The stirrup thesis has been around awhile, but isn't really valid. The Romans invented a saddle that would allow the rider to do anything that he needed to do by way of swinging a sword or thrusting with a lance without stirrups. Even using a couched lance – which is where the thesis originated – doesn't require stirrups, or even a saddle.
    http://www.classicalfencing.com/articles/shock.ph

    • the stirrup wasn’t an invention to allow for swinging a sword or striking with a lance it was in invention to allow for balance while mounted and to be able to stay on the mount after the strike

  7. David Hurlbert on

    Thanks for all your valuable comments. Although I do think a list that examines the top ten military doctrines (Amphibious Assault; Spearhead; Wolf Pack; Air land, etc.) would be very interesting, I found it more captivating to examine the specific weapons as it is these systems which tend to proceed and drive military doctrine.

    The stirrup certainly added to the effectiveness of any mounted cavalry in particular and transportation in general. And while this invention may have proven significant in warfare, it would be rather difficult for me to classify the stirrup as a weapon system.

    I have many valid reasons for placing the submarine on my top ten list of weapon systems that forever changed the face of war. (Please see Submarine Warfare: An Illustrated History by Antony Preston and Submarines: An Illustrated History of Their Impact by Paul E. Fontenoy.) In addition, strategic submarines and attack submarines are a vital part of any modern naval force. It was not that long ago when a nuclear submarine was first use in active combat. This engagement took place in 1982 when the British attack submarine Conqueror sank the Argentine ship General Belgrano during the conflict over the Falkland Islands. Finally, I think submarines have revolutionized nuclear strategy as well as black operations and most will likely agree that submarines are expected to remain a vital part of any modern naval system for many years to come. With the demise of the Soviet Union, leading to reduced defense budgets, the U.S. Navy faces the challenge of reducing the cost of nuclear submarines while retaining their effectiveness. With this goal in mind, the New Attack Submarine program was devised in the 1990s, with the goal of replacing large and expensive Seawolf attack submarines with smaller, less expensive, yet equally effective nuclear submarines.

    • I agree with your idea on the submarine. However, is it really true that paratroopers changed warfare that much? Sure, they were an incredible innovation, but Top 10 worthy?

      And the carrier–would you say that that sort of falls along with the airplane? Without the Airplane, carriers are rendered ineffective. The same goes for the cannon–would it not be more useful to just say “Gunpowder”, which would include all guns. If you think that gunpowder is more like the stirrup in that it is not a weapon, consider that gunpowder’s main purpose (not totally sure what else it is used for, other than dynamite used for construction) is to be used in weapons and warfare.

      I love this list, Dr. Hurlbert, but I thought I’d give my frank opinion.

  8. Cool list but whoever said the submarine's impact was minimal it played a huge part as an espionage device in the cold war.

  9. Keith Watabayashi on

    What about Mustard Gas from WWI? Or any chemical warfare, for that matter? How about computer targeting systems? Or satellite targeting? I'd say that's pretty huge, granted also brand new, but far-range accurate targeting has got to be the greatest achievement of the 21st century, and could essentially put all other devices on this list (except for Atomic Bombs) out of business/

  10. What about the tank, helicopter, the rifle, Battleships, Carriers, or something from the Romans who had a lot to do with western civilization. The gladius, ballista or siege catapult. And the long bow or the capital ships from the English. You are writing this in English and most law and medical language is Latin so I would consider those two as pretty important if you look at the big picture.

    • Your last sentence is irrelevant because this is a list of military achievements.

      The helicopter was first used in Vietnam…and we all know how that turned out.

      I’m pretty sure you can throw the rifle in with the cannon, although the author really should just say “Gunpowder” instead….

      Battleships can kind’ve go with sailing (or a combo of sailing and the cannon)

      Carriers is #2.

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