The historical development of civilization cannot be understood without also understanding the history of bloodshed. In fact, the shift in paradigms and institutions have only taken place with the utilization 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.
And while devices like the guillotine have had great symbolic value in their role in the French Revolution, we at Top Tenz are more interested in weapons that changed the historical landscape. Armaments that changed the way battles were fought or change the battlefield all together. Here are 10 weapons that forever changed history.
10. The First Weapon of Man: a Bone
Who can forget that iconic shot in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where man’s earliest ancestors toss a bone, high into the sky? The bone would transition seamlessly into a spaceship, highlighting how man’s first tool would lead to one of his greatest inventions.
(And in case you have forgotten, we’ve provided the clip above)
The use of materials provided by nature would be instrumental in early humans’ ability to expand out of Africa and do battle with competitors like sister species like the Neanderthals. One of the major advantages that early humans had over their competitors was their development of stone arrow tips. Early humans’ technological innovation enabled them to attack wild animals or human foes from a greater distance and with greater success. According to Curtis Marean, project director at Arizona State University, “People who possess light armaments that can be thrown long distances have immediate advantages in hunting prey and killing competitors”
Scientists have determined that the blades were made from a rock called silcrete. Early humans demonstrated similar traits as their descendants, demonstrating patience and thoughtfulness as they heated stone tools in the fire to transform them into their sharp edges. The thin stone flakes were then made into smaller tips which were placed onto bones to make a spear or dart. And of course, it all came from early man’s realization that bones, and soon enough other blunt objects, could give them an advantage in survival.
9. Sword of the Greatest Ancient Empire: the Gladius
When people think of great empires, the first that comes into most people’s mind is Rome. An empire that stretched, at its height under Trajan, to three continents and 5 million square kilometers. It ruled over an estimated 70 million people which was, at the time, 21% of the entire world population. Conquering such great stretches of land and so many groups of people didn’t happen by accident. It happened at the end of a sword; specifically, a glaudius. The gladius sword design was the result of years of evolution and military experience.
The origin of the sword is disputed but many have come to believe that the Romans came upon the design after their excursions in the Iberian peninsula during the Punic Wars. For years, Roman soldiers had similar swords but the benefits of the gladius were hard to deny. Roman scholars argue that the practicality of the gladius was one of its major advantages. In comparison to the earlier sword designs, which were solid weapons but hard to produce, the gladius used only natural materials and thus were easily made.
Previous sword designs like the the xiphos (a leaf blade) and the kopis (a forward curving blade) were complex and time consuming to produce. The gladius was everything they were not. Simple. A straight, double-edged sword that could arm every Roman soldier. The gladius was extremely effective in close combat with stab wounds in the abdominal area proving, more often than not, to be deadly. Just like any weapon, gladius’s utility would wane but its eventual shifts would lead to later era weapons like the arming sword and the long sword.
8. Should it be Named the “English” Longbow?
An ongoing theme on our list is the ability for warring nations to observe and appropriate the technological advancements of their opponents. Like the Romans, the English people have come to be synonymous with empire. The famous phrase that “the sun never sets on the English Empire” accurately describes the breadth of English dominance in the 19th century. However, the history books rarely share what knowledge the ruling nations received from nations they conquered. The English Longbow is a prime example of this misappropriation.
In the early 12th Century, during a skirmish between the Welsh and the English, the Longbow was was used against an English soldier. After word spread in the ranks of its great power, Edward I adopted the weapon for the rest of the English campaign in Wales. Ironically, a weapon used to fend off the British became the cornerstone of their military supremacy and conquest. The English Longbow led to many changes in the nature of medieval warfare. As a result of the longbow, England reshaped its army, utilizing archers in great numbers. During the Hundred Years War with France, longbowmen were the most important part of the English army, with the archers outnumbering the Men-at-Arms by as much as 10:1. It’s hard not to see why. At the time, the armored knight was the most destructive force on the battlefield, but the longbow changed that. Accounts hold that the longbow could be fired at nearly 200 yards out and could penetrate the thickest of trees.
A prime example of the English military superiority with their utilization of the longbow is the Battle of Crecy. In the English’s first major victory over the French in the Hundred Years War, modern estimates put the number of French at around 30,000, while the English had less than half that number. However, it’s believed 5,000 of the English soldiers were longbowmen. The battle ended with the French losing more than 4,000 combatants. The English? Modern estimates put their losses at only around 200-300.
7. Gunpowder: a World-Changing Eastern Innovation
After first coming to great use as a psychological weapon in the Chinese’s war against the Mongols, gunpowder would eventually lead to a revolution in military technology around the world.
In the 9th century, Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder by mixing elemental sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). The end result was a powder that was named “serpentine.” It was an extremely dangerous process that led to many adding water, wine, or other liquids to minimize the threat of fire. Finally, after being mixed with the respective liquid, it could be pushed through a screen to make small pellets. The Taoists who initially formulated gunpowder were unable to find the immortality they craved and would ironically fuel man’s quest to show how truly mortal we are. Initial uses of gunpowder ranged from killing insects to treating skin diseases, but it soon would be channelled for military purposes. Fire arrows were the first real military uses of gunpowder, with the technology quickly transitioning to rocket propelled weapons.
Historians are unsure how exactly it spread to Western Europe, with some arguing that its introduction came during the Mongol invasions. Whatever its origin, its impact would prove to be immeasurable. Gunpowder quickly displaced siege weapons, giving birth to the cannon, including the Chinese “hand cannon” pictured above. Storming an enemy base or stronghold would prove to be far less difficult with the ability to project missiles toward enemy emplacements, with increased damage and accuracy. Gunpowder also made the longbow a relic of the past as the use of the cannon took less skill and had greater destructive power.
6. The Gun of the Wild West: the Colt Revolver
America’s inventiveness in weaponry would not take long, and the Colt Revolver proved to be symbolic of American Wild West. As Americans pushed to settle West, they encountered all sorts of obstacles and the Colt’s simplicity and multi-shot capacity made it an invaluable weapon for soldiers and civilians alike. The Colt revolver has become revered as “the gun that won the West.”
The Colt pistol was invented in 1836, by Samuel Colt, who founded a company to manufacture the revolving cylinder pistol. However, the business struggled for years until the Mexican-American War led to the army ordering 1,000 Colt revolvers. The military contract gave Colt the ability to expand his business, creating the world’s largest private armament factory. The Colt pistol would also serve as a major benefit to the Union Army during the Civil War – as Samuel Colt would only sell to the North.
5. The AK-47: the Weapon That Leveled the Battlefield
Who knew that a gun that was sneered at by U.S intelligence officers would be a weapon that would allow Davids to fight Goliaths? Its inception came during the the 1950s, when Soviet weapon designer Mikhail Kalashnikov decided to mix the best attributes of the American M1 and the German StG44. After some initial production difficulties, in 1949, the Avtomat Kalashnikova was officially accepted by the Soviet Armed forces and became the weapon of choice for the majority of states in the Warsaw Pact.
With the Cold War looming, the Kremlin urged Eastern Bloc states to mass produce the AK-47 and the oversupply led to the weapon being obtained by revolutionary movements around the world.
The AK-47’s appeal was its reliability in adverse conditions, readily available parts and ammunition, along with a cheap price based on its overproduction. Even today the AK-47 is probably the most recognizable assault rifle in the world and has come to arm soldiers, guerilla fighters, child soldiers, and the like.
4. Chlorine Gas: a Weapon Used by the Most Barbaric
One of the most shocking moments of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria was the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Bodies of women and children, left dead indiscriminately in their homes. The use of chemical weapons has been determined as a war crime, but that has not stopped its use.
During World War I, the Nobel-prize winning scientist Fritz Haber helped develop the first chemical weapon, chlorine gas. Initially Haber had discovered the Haber-Bosch process, which made the manufacture of artificial fertilizers possible, an invention that has saved the lives of farmers and millions of people in rural communities. His work would also take lives as Haber, a patriotic German Jew, would be placed in charge of chemical warfare department. He would oversee the the installation of the first chlorine gas cylinders in the trenches on the Western front. Under his direction, a group of specialist troops waited for the wind to blow from the east towards the Allied trenches and then launched the first gas attack in combat history in April 1915. More than 5,000 soldiers were killed by the chemical agent.
Haber’s work would have unintended consequences as his wife would go on to commit suicide, presumably after an argument about his work. And, perhaps most tragically, Haber, a German Jew, would witness the rise of Nazi Germany and gassing of Jews by the very agent he helped weaponize.
3. Fokker Triplane: Helped Lead to a War of the Sky
While we have been primarily focused on warfare on land, the Fokker Triplane began the battle of the skies. Despite losing the war, the Germans developed one of the greatest innovations of the war: the Fokker. The Fokker Triplane was an adapted copy of the British Sopwith Triplane. After a pilot crashed behind German lines, German scientists studied the plane and were able to create an improved version. Hey, we told you that technological innovation often comes from appropriation.
Despite being slower than a biplane in level flight or a dive, it had superior maneuverability and rate of climb. One of the reasons for the plane’s great legacy is its connection to its famous pilot: Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the “Red Baron.” He scored 19 of his final 21 kills in the Fokker, before being shot down and killed in April, 1918.
2. The Drone Changed Warfare Forever
One of the only silver linings in war is that human beings are made to understand the preciousness of life, and forced to confront our willingness to engage in such carnage. Drone warfare has completely changed that perspective. Soldiers thousands of miles away, sitting at computer screens, now have the power to end lives. And while proponents of the technology claim that the weapon is extremely precise, in reality, drones have accounted for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians.
The Predator drone was invented by Abraham Karem, an aerospace engineer, who was raised in Israel. After moving to the United States, Karem founded Leading Systems Inc. in his home garage, where he he manufactured first drone: Albatross. His first effort would be improved, resulting in the more sophisticated Amber – the precursor to the Predator drone.
The Economist has called Karem the man who “created the robotic plane that transformed the way modern warfare is waged and continues to pioneer other airborne innovations.”
1. The Most Destructive Weapon Ever Created: the Nuke
While all the weapons on our list have proved to have devastating effects, only atomic and hydrogen bombs have the capacity to completely annihilate the human race. The atomic bomb was developed by a collaboration of scientists who were provided refuge in the United States.
The development of a nuclear bomb began out of fear. In 1939, a rumor was circulating among the world’s scientific community that German physicists had discovered the secret to splitting the uranium atom. Notable scientists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, who had both escaped Axis powers, were now living in the United States, and both men urged American leadership to take note of the dangers to the world if the Axis nations harnessed the power of the atom. With their insistence, in late 1941 an American effort to design and build an atomic bomb began. It was named the Manhattan Project… and we all know the end result.
On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the United States dropped two bombs: one on Hiroshima, and the other on Nagasaki. The blasts killed at least 129,000 people, mostly civilians. It remains the only use of nuclear weapons in the history of warfare… though plenty of nations, unfortunately, have their fingers poised above the button.