A Brief History
On August 26, 1346, at the Battle of Crecy, English archers proved the superiority of the English longbow over the combination of armored knights and crossbowmen fielded by the French. There have been many weapons throughout history that did not need either gunpowder or explosives to be effective. Here 10 such weapons are listed in no particular order.
10. Hands, Feet, Teeth, 1st Use Unknown.
The absolute simplest weapons: hands, feet and teeth can be used to strike, kick or bite an opponent quite effectively, even killing him or it (if an animal). For example, just this year, a Texas lady saved her child from a pitbull by biting the dog’s ear off. Hands make pretty good choking devices as well, as do arms and legs. The downside is that when using body parts, you are also close enough for the other human or animal adversary to use theirs as well. Still, probably millions of people have been killed by other people who used only their own body parts. The author of this text can personally attest to the effectiveness of poking opponents in the eye during a fight, something they just do not expect and are shocked by, giving the “poker” a great advantage over the “pokee.” When facing a truly impressive predator, such as a shark, an alligator or person much bigger and stronger than yourself, an eye poke my be your only hope. Joint manipulation (arm bar, wrist lock, ankle lock, etc.) is also quite effective, as often demonstrated in mixed martial arts (MMA) fights.
9. Spear/Pike/Javelin, 1st Use Unknown.
The first time some caveman picked up a stick and jabbed another person or animal with it, the spear was born. The spear in its simplest form is just a sharpened stick, but even that can be quite effective at penetrating opponents, be they animal or man. Hardening the pointy end with fire makes it even more effective, and putting an extremely sharp stone, bone or metal blade on the end makes it most effective. A nice long pike can keep an enemy from using his knife, sword or club on you. Used either for thrusting (Zulus) or throwing (Greek javelin), spears can be both close-range or long-range weapons. The distance covered by long-range spears is further increased by using an atlatl (spear-throwing tool). The metal center piece of the javelin is designed to bend when it hit an opponent or even if it misses, making it unusable to be thrown back. History and Headlines Fact: The modern plastic-ball-throwing device used for playing fetch with dogs or the plastic device used for throwing clay pigeons during a game of skeet are types of atlatls.
8. Club/Mace/War Hammer, 1st Use Unknown.
The simplest weapons after rocks, pieces of wood used as clubs are pretty effective against unsuspecting or unarmed opponents. Native Americans were enthusiastic “clubbers” as late as the end of 19th century, and many bashed-in heads attest to the effectiveness of clubs. The club and its derivatives, the mace and the war hammer, give their users more reach than they would have with either a rock or a knife; their length gives greater leverage and speed to the striking end of the weapon, making it more effective than a short, handheld device. In medieval times, maces and war hammers made of a wooden shaft and which had a metal striking surface could both penetrate armor or kill/disable an armored foe by means of blunt trauma.
7. Dogs, c. 30,000 B.C.
Man has had a close partnership with dogs, probably the first domesticated animals, for a long, long time. Not only were dogs used as weapons against game animals and predators that threatened humans, they were also employed as weapons againt other humans, both in war and at home. Dogs have even been used against other people, both in war and on the home front where they have been trained to protect homes, businesses and to guard people. The first recorded large-scale use of dogs in war was around 650 B.C. They have also been used to act as mine or bomb detectors or sadly as sacrificial mine-clearing animals. Criminal suspects may well disobey orders from an armed police officer to stop or to submit to arrest, but few can stand up to being “arrested” by a police K-9! Dogs have probably saved millions of people over the years from harm or death by other people or animals, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. One wonderful example is as Dachshund that saved his owner from a bear (Michigan, 2013). History and Headlines Note: The Dachshund, or Wiener Dog, may not be large, but it is perhaps one of the bravest and most ferocious of dogs.
6. Poisons, 1st Use Unknown.
Whether poison from frogs rubbed on arrows or blowgun darts, cyanide derived from peach pits, carbon monoxide, chlorine gas, arsenic, strychnine, mustard gas, belladonna, snake venom, acids or any of a myriad of other poisons and toxins, these compounds have been used to kill animals, insects, plants and people for thousands of years. Used on a limited scale to kill or sicken a single person, plant or animal, or on a large scale to kill thousands, poisons have been especially used by murderers and assassins to surreptitiously kill their victim or prey, often without the need for their own physical presence, making escape or non-detection more probable. The use of herbicides (pesticides used to kill plants) to ruin an enemy’s crops or to deprive him of hiding places (as Agent Orange was used in Viet Nam by the U.S.) can be an effective use of poison without directly killing the enemy. Tear gas, pepper spray and Mace are non-lethal and human versions of this effective weapon.
5. Fire, 1st Use Unknown.
Man has used fire for at least a million years, and evidence of food having been cooked dates back an incredible 1.9 million years! Somewhere along the line some early human ancestor figured out that fire protected them against dangerous animals and also that it was an effective hunting tool (Until fairly recently in history, Native Americans of the Plains still used fire to herd animals over a cliff, causing them to fall to their deaths.) It could not have been long after the first person burned himself with a flame that the idea of using fire to burn someone else occurred to him. Since antiquity, fire has been used in warfare to burn down the enemy’s fortifications, force the enemy’s movement out of cover and to burn people. The Greeks are reputed to have used an ancient form of flamethrower which they mounted on their ships. Nowadays, Molotav cocktails are used for the same purpose. Fire is also quite effective at controlling the population of witches and heretics, or so we at History and Headlines have heard.
4. Germ Warfare, 1st Use Unknown.
Outlawed by an agreement signed by 165 countries in 1972, biological or germ warfare has been around since at least 500 B.C. when Assyrians poisoned the wells of their enemies with fungus. Other examples include: launching the dead bodies of people who had died of smallpox or another disease into an enemy’s fort; giving smallpox-contaminated blankets to Native Americans; and sending mail containing Anthrax. Downsides includes risks to oneself and one’s own people and the fact that sometimes the germs need a while to take effect. Conspiracy theorists speculate that AIDS is actually a form of germ warfare used by a mysterious power elite to eliminate minorities, drug addicts and homosexuals. Many people, especially in 3rd world countries, refuse vaccinations as a result of fear of being subjected to germ warfare. Individuals can be assassinated through small amounts of carefully applied naturally-derived toxins such as Ricin or Botulinum (See #6).
3. Katana (Samurai Sword), c. 12th century A.D.
The Katana is designed to be a 2-handed slashing sword, not a fencing or stabbing sword. This famous sword with a 24 to 28 inch blade is painstakingly made by craftsmen using the finest quality steel. Made by welding and pounding different types of steel together and folding the metal over and over while hammering it by hand, construction of a quality sword can take months or even a year. The blade is basically manufactured straight, but careful application of secret clay compounds (each swordsmith has his own) at the cutting edge of the blade causes the unprotected back part of the blade to shrink slightly as it cools between forging sessions, resulting in a slightly curved blade that is softer on the spine, making it flexible and resistant to cracking, and harder on the edge, giving a sharper, harder, more durable cutting surface. The result is a sword that can cut better than any other sword ever made. It can even cut through light armor. The downside is the time it takes to manufacture one, and it is expensive. The swords mass produced during World War II were not of the traditional quality.
2. Mongolian Bow and Mounted Archer, circa 1200 A.D.
A composite bow made of wood, horn and sinew that has been laminated and bound with animal glue, this bow has a recurved design, which allows it to retain the power of a much longer bow despite not having the length. The reason why shortening the bow was important was because the Mongols used them while mounted on horses. When one considers the size of the Mongol Empire at its peak, this must have been pretty effective. Although composite recurve bows were in use long before the Mongols (before 1000 B.C.), the Mongols were superb horsemen as well as archers. This combination brought out the best traits of the recurve bow.
1. English Longbow, c. 2665 B.C.
These 6-foot long Medieval bows were not the only longbows around or even the first, but they came into prominence during the Hundred Years’ War. Also called the Welsh Longbow, these extremely powerful bows were made of Yew or Boxwood and had a draw weight (force in a fully drawn bow) of at least 80 pounds and as much as 185 pounds. This is much more powerful than today’s hunting bows (which have a draw weight of around 50-60 pounds) . Obviously the medieval bows required a strong, well-trained archer. The size and power was necessary so that arrows could be shot that would be big and fast enough to pierce the armor of knights. (Thinner versions of armor, especially those made from mail and iron plate, were susceptible to penetration by arrows, however, thicker steel plate was pretty much arrow proof.) The longbow fired at a much higher rate than crossbows, with about 6 shots per minute, making them the rapid-fire weapon of their day.
Although more accurate and faster to fire the next volley (the simultaneous discharge of firearms), longbows and arrows required so much time and effort to craft, that they were quickly replaced by cheaper muskets that could be used by minimally-trained troops firing cheap, easy-to-produce musket balls.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which weapons would you add to the list? (Slingshot? Air gun? Garrote? There are lots of possibilities here!) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 26, please see the History and Headlines article: “Krakatoa: Most Violent Volcanic Eruption in 1,800 Years after Vesuvius.”
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For more information, please see…
Nicolle, David and Graham Turner. Crécy 1346: Triumph of the longbow (Campaign). Osprey Publishing, 2000.