Weapons are rarely accidental. In 2020 alone, the US spent almost one trillion dollars on its military, a large portion of that going toward the development of newer, more efficient weapons.
But even though most weapons are anything but accidental, that’s not the case for all of them. Plenty of devices originally conceived for peaceful or benign purposes have been repurposed into killing machines.
From the explosive discovery of gunpowder to the invention of barbed wire, here are 10 weapons that, at least as far as we can tell, were created almost entirely by accident.
Not only was gunpowder the first explosive to ever be created, but it was also a total accident! Gunpowder was discovered during the Tang Dynasty’s rule of China in the 9th century as the unexpected end result of Chinese alchemists searching for a potion for immortality.
Originally known as huo yao, or flaming medicine, the alchemist who discovered this particular mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal (who is also, as a consequence, nameless) accidentally blew himself and his house up.
Generally, this is what historians think led to the invention of fireworks, and the Chinese used gunpowder as a weapon as early as 904 BCE when they unleashed arrows with tubes of gunpowder attached to them.
Other weapons that utilized this invention were early and crude versions of the flamethrower and grenades.
But let’s be honest here: what we really want to know is if these Chinese alchemists tried to drink their “flaming medicine” before realizing it wasn’t medicine.
9. The Sling
The sling is one of the oldest projectile weapons in existence. No one is certain who invented it, but archaeologists suggest that it dates as far back as 10,000 years ago, well into the stone age. The sling proved an effective weapon, one that could even rival skilled bowmen. Slings have been used to hurtle primitive grenades at unsuspecting enemies and even for an early form of chemical warfare.
So, how was it invented?
Slings are an easy and effective weapon to make and are thought to have been invented by Upper Paleolithic peoples as the throwing spear and bow and arrow were beginning to emerge. Neanderthals are thought to have been very intelligent, using their environments to fashion tools and weapons. Though it isn’t known exactly how the sling was invented, it’s possible that, like some inventions and discoveries in human history, it could have been invented by total accident.
More on that later.
8. Barbed Wire
In the late 1800s as America was expanding west, the US government processed as many as 200 patents for various types of spiked fencing, all designed with one purpose in mind, keeping people off someone’s newly obtained (some might say stolen) 160 acres of land.
It wasn’t until Lucien Smith that we got the first protypes of what would become barbed wire. Originally, these prototypes were called “thorny wire.” The trouble? It was painstakingly made by hand. But this problem would be solved by Joseph Glidden, an Illinois farmer who invented an automated machine that could produce Smith’s “thorny wire” without the need of hours of tedious hand-wrecking labor.
Barbed wire may have been meant as a simple tool to keep cattle and intruders off of a landowner’s property, but it wouldn’t be long before the US and other countries discovered its potential as a weapon of oppression and death.
The first instance of barbed wire as a weapon would happen as early as 1888 and would reach a zenith in World War I as a passive weapon against soldiers who would dare to stumble into a camp on either side of the conflict. Barbed wire was laid out in zigzag patterns or in belts running parallel to trenches, making traversing the battlefield extra perilous.
7. The Bayonet
Though no one is certain who invented the first bayonet, hunters in Spain and France were tying knives to the ends of their guns as early as the 17th century. As with most inventions of this nature, it wouldn’t take long for someone to figure out that there were more effective ways to attach a knife to the end of a gun barrel. It has been speculated that the invention might have been an accident, perhaps by some panicked hunter or soldier caught with their proverbial pants down and faced with a charging animal or assailant.
Even after the invention of the gun, it was common to see pikemen on the battlefield to protect soldiers as they reloaded their weapons. Early muskets were tedious in that department and could take upwards of 20 seconds to reload. While that doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time, it definitely counts. And soldiers were eager to develop a means of protecting themselves against charging enemies while they were attempting to reload.
The practice of strapping a knife to the end of the gun barrel eventually evolved into the first bayonets, coming out of Bayonne, France in the early 17th century. The first bayonets were plug styled knives that prevented weapons from being fired once inserted into the barrel of a soldier’s gun, the second was attached using rings that could fit around the muzzle of a gun, followed by the socket and sleeve and stud designs that allowed for more flexibility in what kind of guns they could be attached to.
6. Sarin Gas
Sarin is one of the world’s deadliest nerve agents, but it was originally developed as a pesticide meant to combat the spread of Germany’s weevil, a small beetle that was ravaging the country’s fields and orchards.
Before conscripting scientists to develop a new, more powerful pesticide, the German government had to rely on imported pesticides to get the job done, something that was extremely expensive. The German government quickly grew tired of paying these prices and turned to a scientist who worked for Bayer (yes, the ones who make that aspirin you’re always hearing about).
Gerhard Schrader messed with various molecules, even adding cyanide to his mixture of chemicals. The goal was to develop a mixture that would be strong enough to kill those pesky weevils yet spare livestock and humans.
As you probably guessed, the result was a particularly deadly concoction that made him so sick, he spent three weeks recovering.
5. The Sai
Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Sai is one of the most famous Asian weapons. But the Okinawan martial arts weapon that was typically brandished by police (and sometimes thrown at legs of fleeing suspects) did not start as a weapon, but a three-pronged farmer’s trident.
It became an improvised weapon used by farmers hoping to protect their land and crops from Feudal Lords looking to invade and take what was theirs.
Sai are particularly effective against swords, being strong enough to withstand blows, and with the proper use of the side prongs (called yoku) a Sai user can trap a sword and even break the blade entirely, disarming the swordsman.
The design of the Sai would evolve into a multitude of variations, each with different configurations for blade and yoku length. Some Sai are designed with yoku pointing up and down the blade. These are known as a ying yang Sai. There are also Sai featuring only one prong, called a Jutte.
While nuclear weapons and dirty bombs were certainly not discovered by accident, their byproduct certainly was. The discovery made by French physicist Henri Becquerel came just months after the discovery of x-rays and not long after the discovery of the atom as well.
In 1883 Henri began studying fluorescence and phosphorescence, something his father had been quite the expert in. Like his father as well, Henri was especially interested in uranium.
Before this, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen found that the cathodes he was studying seemed to emit a new type of ray that was capable of piercing black paper. The discovery of x-rays would reach Henri in January of 1896 and he would jump to looking for a connection between phosphorescence and this newly discovered x-ray.
Henri Becquerel’s hypothesis was that the phosphorescent uranium salts he had been experimenting with might be capable of absorbing sunlight and reemitting them as x-rays.
To test his hypothesis, Henri wrapped photographic plates in black paper so that they wouldn’t be exposed to sunlight, then put crystals of uranium salt on top of them, placing them outside. When Henri saw that he could produce outlines in the shape of the plates, he felt as though his hypothesis had been proven.
He was all set to continue his experiments, hoping to reproduce the findings of his experiment, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Henri placed the plates in a drawer and didn’t check them until the following month. When he opened that drawer again, he expected to have been able to see a weak image, but what he found shocked him. The image produced by the photographic plates was incredibly clear.
Much like the Sai, the Kama is a traditional Japanese farming implement, originally used by Okinawan farmers as a small scythe meant for cutting grass. In 1470, the Feudal Lords and the Japanese military confiscated the traditional weapons kept by peasants, forcing them to use whatever they had on hand to defend their homes.
The Kama was one of those weapons and remains a mainstay of traditional weapons used in various styles of martial arts (such as Kobudo). The Kama itself has evolved as have the techniques implored with them.
Typically, a fighter will use two Kama to trap an opponent’s weapon or for striking and stabbing attacks.
A longer version of the weapon as well as Kama that were attached to chains were later developed.
During World War I, German and US forces used a precursor to Napalm as fuel for their flamethrowers. These flamethrowers were wildly ineffective weapons, as the fuel would end up spraying out as a liquid, dripping right off of enemy targets.
It was also hazardous to the soldiers trying to use the flamethrowers. So, both sides needed to make the fuel thicker and set about to do so.
In Germany, a team led by Dr. Louise F. Fieser created a liquid concoction made of aluminum soap mixed with naphthenic acid from crude oil and palmitic acid from coconut oil. The result was more than just mere fuel for flamethrowers, but an entirely new weapon altogether.
The new weapon was an incredibly sticky liquid that, once lit ablaze, was super volatile to both enemy forces and the environment they inhabit.
1. The Club
The granddaddy of all weapons, the club, has been used for tens of thousands of years. There’s no consensus on who invented the first club, as, you know, we’re talking about a tool that dates back to Neolithic times and possibly even earlier than that.
Neolithic clubs were extremely crude, resembling the general shape of a cricket bat if someone had stopped carving it halfway through the process. These weapons were extremely effective and could kill a person with a single blow.
The invention of the club, however, could have been as simple as early humans discovering how much harder they could hit an animal (or, you know, a rival male) with a large stick, making it simultaneously the world’s first weapon, and the first one discovered by complete accident as well.
Clubs have been used in many cultures across human history, and it’s easy to see why.
As a bit of an aside, it’s been discovered that certain species of monkeys have begun to utilize tools, entering a kind of stone age themselves. Wild macaque monkeys have been observed using rocks as tools to smash open nuts, and capuchin monkeys at Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park have utilized stone tools to process their foods for almost 3,000 years.
But it’s also been observed by scientists that African monkeys have fashioned crude spears to hunt primates known as African Bush Babies.